Sometimes I Wonder

One day, several councilmen joined forces to squeeze a conference on the death penalty into the IDC's schedule. Ostensibly, it was just to generally discuss the issue; in reality, everybody knew it was about Gyeeds.

Jason, happy that he knew what was going on for once, decided to make a speech himself. He took the floor and explained to his fellow councilmen why he generally believed in capital punishment. He said more or less the same things that he'd said to Roland earlier, especially emphasizing how executing a criminal was fundamentally different from murder. (Many other speakers had compared the two.)

Once the meeting was over, Jason realized that nobody other than Stanley Ironbone and himself had argued in favor of execution. Everybody else who'd said anything at all had spoken out against it. This was rather curious, considering that Gyeeds was hardly the only verse to kill its criminals. Perhaps those who'd kept quiet had done so simply because they hadn't wanted to take sides.

As Jason was walking through the lobby of the IDC HQ, towards the exit—it was the end of the day's session, and he intended to leave—an unfamiliar man dressed in black walked toward him. Jason didn't feel particularly distressed, as there were security guards all over the room, and the crowds weren't nearly thick enough to hide anything. Plus, Roland was waiting just outside to pick Jason up—he was out of sight, but within earshot.

The stranger was a young man with curly hair and brown eyes that continually bounced from side to side, searching for hidden foes. "Hello, Jason." he said in a highish voice. "I have an urgent matter to discuss with you. May I speak to you privately?"

"Er, no, sorry, I'm very busy." Jason lied. "But maybe later. When can I see you?"

"How about same time next Carbon, over there?" said the man, pointing beyond the glass exit doors. He was indicating a secluded place behind a large pillar on the building's expansive portico. It was Iron today; next Carbon was the next time Jason would attend a meeting of the IDC.

It was a well-known fact that Jason was almost always accompanied by Roland when he wasn't in a high-security area. After his second kidnapping, nobody blamed him for it. Yet this fellow was making it clear that he wanted to speak to Jason without Roland overhearing. Very suspicious.

"Fine." said Jason quickly. "See you then."

They clasped hands briefly, the Gyeedian equivalent of a handshake, and Jason walked out of the building.

It was a cold, sunny December afternoon. At this time of year, Jason instinctively expected the spirit of Christmas to be nearly tangible as it exuded from every storefront in sight. But Gyeeds was not the Home of the Brave. It didn't even have any late-autumn holidays—not any very popular ones, anyway.

"So, how was it?" said Roland, after they'd met and exchanged greetings. They still spoke to each other in English, though they were equally fluent in Common by now. It was partly because they loved the language, partly because they wanted to stay bilingual, and partly because they'd always done it that way and didn't see why they ought to change it.

Jason filled Roland in on the meeting, plus his encounter with the stranger.

"Don't you realize how dangerous that could be?" said Roland, perplexed as to why Jason would agree to such a thing.

"Oh, if it's a trap of some sort, I intend to be prepared." said Jason. "Meaning, I need you to be prepared. Just come a little earlier than normal and hide in a spot where he won't see you, and you'll be able to see him. If he makes a move, you'll be there to stop him. With a spell, I guess."

"Sounds like a plan." said Roland, nodding. "I could do it. But why do you really want to meet this fellow, anyway?"

"Curiosity, plain and simple." said Jason. "There's not much of a risk of him wanting to kidnap me or something, right?"

"I suppose not. Still, if I were you, I'd be very careful. I wouldn't put it past him to attempt what Ernest failed at, or something worse."

"Aren't I being careful enough?"

"I suppose so."

They walked along in silence for a while, until Jason said "I wonder why that guy wants to talk to me in the first place."

Roland shrugged.

Soon enough, it was Carbon, and Jason was walking out of the same building. He went behind the designated column and there was the man, eagerly awaiting him.

"Good, good." said the stranger. "I was afraid you'd change your mind."

"No, I didn't think of it." Jason assured him, trying not to look for Roland out of the corner of his eye. "May I ask your name?"

The man's eyes darted about. "Kevin. Kevin… Treegate." Jason got the distinct impression that he was lying.

"All right then, Kevin, what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Well, you see," said Kevin, if that was his name, "my superiors saw you speak for capital punishment last Iron. It was very brave of you, to go against popular opinion."

"Uh, thank you." said Jason, wondering where this conversation was headed. "I don't really have anything to lose in the political arena, though. I don't have any power, y'see."

"Yes, I know," Kevin insisted, "but still, we're glad you spoke up. People seem to be afraid of contradicting Stanley or those who oppose him, so they often don't say anything."

"True." said Jason. "Tell me, who are the superiors you mentioned?"

"That's what I want to talk to you about." said Kevin enthusiastically. "Or, no, wait. You… you're a Yankee, right?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Well… you know that 'culture of life' thing? The religious right's obsession with promoting and preserving human life, from conception to natural death?" Jason nodded. "Don't you agree it's ridiculous?"

"Yes. I mean, not killing people is great and all. But refusing them abortion or the right to die ain't so great."

"Yes, yes!" said Kevin, his head bobbing up and down. "You see, that's why we formed our organization: to oppose the necrophobic agenda that so pervades society."

<"Necrophobic agenda"? This is gettin' weirder and weirder.> "Not Gyeedian society, right?"

"No, not Gyeeds, really. Not as it is now. But necrophobia is rampant in a host of other verses:" and he proceeded to list off a number of them on his fingers. "And so, the GSD—the Gyeedian Society of Death—has as its mission to promote sensible policies regarding death, and to fight necrophobia, across the multiverse."

Jason just barely stopped himself from doing a double-take. "So, your organization is this… society?"

"That's right. The question is, would you like to join it?"

Jason furrowed his brow in thought. What the heck? No matter how un-"necrophobic" Gyeedians might be, in Gyeeds, the Common word for "death" held just as much weight and negative connotations as its English equivalent did in the Terran West. It was hard to imagine why any group would want to directly associate itself with death at all, never mind do so without benefit of euphemism.

As for joining it… well, needless to say, the answer that would come most readily to his lips was a hearty "no". But Jason didn't believe in making decisions hastily when he had the chance to take his sweet time. And making this decision would be a lot easier if he knew what he'd be getting into.

"Well… I'm not sure." he said. "How does your organization go about promoting and fighting these things, anyway?"

"Any way we have to." said Kevin firmly. "Whatever it takes, we're willing to do it. Otherwise, how would we get anything done?"

Jason paused, hoping the man would continue. He didn't. "So, uh, can you give me some examples of things you've done in the past? So I'd get a better idea of how your organization operates?"

"Well, a lot of it is classified." said Kevin, his eyes bouncing to and fro more than ever. "So, no, I can't."

<Oh, great!> thought Jason. <He can't tell me anything. That means that this is either (a) a top-secret government thingie, (b) a terrorist ring, or (c) a club for especially delusional Goths.> Logic suggested that it was something akin to the latter, as the former two were clearly far-fetched. Then again, the truth had tended to be far-fetched more often than not over the past two months. So, he wouldn't just dismiss the less plausible possibilities out of hand this time.

"Can you at least tell me what being a member of this organization entails?" said Jason, not without a note of pleading in his voice.

"Not really." Kevin replied, somewhat apologetically. "I can only say that you'd attend meetings. Meetings in which we discuss issues, and figure out how to deal with them." He paused. "We have them very late at night, so they don't conflict with anything else on our schedules."

And not for some other, less innocent reason? Somehow, Jason doubted that. But dang! How was he supposed to make a decision when he had no idea what he'd be getting into? Well, this fellow might not be very forthcoming on the details, but Roland might know something. And surely the Gyeedian internet would have a word or two to say on the subject.

"I really can't decide." said Jason. "Could you give me a week to think it over a bit?"

"Uh, all right." said Kevin. "Same time, same place?"

"Sure. See you then."


Kevin turned. As he walked away, he took a notepad out of his pocket, opened it up, and scribbled something on it. A small piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the ground. He didn't seem to notice.

Jason looked at the piece of paper, then at Kevin, then back at the piece of paper. Courteous little boy that he was, he felt compelled to say "Excuse me, sir, you dropped something." But he restrained himself. Who knows?—this could be the chance he'd been waiting for to find out something about the GSD.

Once Kevin was out of sight, Jason walked over to the piece of paper and picked it up. It was an ordinary sheet of lined notebook paper, blank on both sides save one string of Common text: "Piercer lab—Room 3C, 256 Pulliard Street, Ampersand". Jason happened to know that Ampersand was the name of one of Gyeeds's several thousand neighborhoods. (Its moniker was based on the shape of its borders, a near match to the Common equivalent of the Terran Western ampersand.) He'd never heard of Pulliard Street, nor a laboratory or a scientist named Piercer. He shrugged and stuffed the paper into a pocket of his coat.

Jason strolled onto the sidewalk and looked around, expecting Roland to silently emerge from a dark corner once nobody else was looking. Instead, a car that was parked right in front of Jason honked its horn. Surprised, he glanced at it, and there was Roland in the driver's seat, beckoning him forward.

He rode shotgun as Roland set off down the street. The first thing he said (after buckling up for safety, of course) was "You call that a hiding-place?"

"Sure I do." said Roland, not taking his eyes off the road. "I was sitting in the back seat. The windows there are tinted." Jason looked, and indeed they were. "Beats hiding in the underbrush or something, don't you think?"

"Yeah, yeah, you win." said Jason. "Did you hear the conversation?"

"Sure I did."

"A penny for your thoughts."

"The Gyeedian Society of Death is just another bizarre little special-interest group. (We have altogether too many such groups, to be honest.) Or that's we thought it was. You see, we suspect that the GSD might've had in a hand in the Raincatcher massacre."

Jason's eyes widened. He'd heard of the Raincatcher massacre—it would've been hard not to hear of it. One day in early August this year, a band of five men had burst into Raincatcher Hospital, a Gyeedian infirmary, with machine guns blazing. They'd killed or wounded any security guards who got in their way, slew eleven terminally ill people who'd been on life support, and teleported out. Nobody knew who the killers were, nor their motives. The strangest thing about them, actually, was that their guns had been so effective. All of the guards had been trained wizards who could cast Projectile Shield in their sleep. But somehow, the men's bullets had been able to wear away at the shields twenty times faster than normal. The guards, flustered, hadn't managed to cobble together a better defense in time. Later examination of the bullets revealed them to completely normal, leaving ballistics experts and sorcerers alike clueless.

"Why would…" Jason began. "Oh, I get it. They would have a motive for wanting to kill people who were already destined to die, right?"


"Couldn't you say the same about half-a-dozen other groups?"

"More than half a dozen, but yes, and we suspect them as well."

"So, what, d'ya suppose they all collaborated?"

"Possibly. We doubt it."

"So how could you suspect them all?"

Roland sighed. "We don't believe they were all involved. Maybe one, maybe none. I don't know!" he went on angrily.

"Hey, I'm sorry, man. I was just wondering."

"It's all right. It's just frustrating, that's all."

After some time, Jason asked "But who do you mean by 'we'?"

"The Gyeedian government. This is all top-secret, of course, and it's highly illegal for me to tell you any it. I assume you won't go around gossiping about it."

"No, don't worry about that." Jason assured him.

Once the adventurer and the councilman were safely at home, Jason showed Roland the mysterious piece of paper.

"Oh, my." said Roland. "Oh, my."

"Does that mean you know what's at the address?" said Jason, reading over his foster father's shoulder.

"Not until now." He put the paper down and stared at Jason intently. "There's something else we know that I didn't tell you. Careful analysis of those bullets that the Raincatcher-massacre terrorists fired revealed that they were not completely ordinary. They were of mundane construction and design, but we noticed that they were faintly—very faintly—enchanted. They were the work of alchemists, Jason. And do you know what name we gave them?" Jason shook his head. "Piercers!"

"So, then… do you suppose that this is the lab where they were created?"

"Yes. And there's a good chance that they still are being created. That this lab is supplying terrorists, or maybe even armies, with these bullets. That's no good. No good at all."

Jason scratched his head. "How are these bullets so dangerous, if people can cast spells and stuff? You've got conventional explosives, too."

"Well," said Roland, "you know how magic has drastically changed modern combat. Before sorcery, scuffles tended to be brief. One shot to the head and you were dead. Magical battles, on the other hand, tend to be drawn-out, because mages, unlike gunners, have a level of defense that's actually comparable to their offensive power. Now, imagine if one person could kill a trained and ready mage from a hundred yards away with just the pull of a trigger. They'd have quite an advantage."

"I see." said Jason. "So, we'd want to tell the police about this, wouldn't we?"

"The police! Are you mad? This is dangerous stuff, forbidden knowledge!" Roland was quite agitated. "We can't take the slightest risk that this information might fall into the wrong hands."

"Don't you at least want to tell Stanley and the rest of your department?"

"Oh, no." said Roland. "You've seen what Gyeeds's foreign policy is like. We've never been imperialistic, but we've never been afraid to obliterate any small country that happens to rub us the wrong way, either. With this kind of technology, I wouldn't put it past Stanley to start a world war."

"You're not crazy about him, huh?"

"He's a megalomaniacal psycho."

"Guess not."

Jason pondered for a while, turning over he'd heard in his mind. Eventually, he said "Once again, I'm feeling skeptical."

"Surprise, surprise." said Roland, but not aggressively. "What doesn't sound right to you this time?"

"Well, let's review the situation. I talk to this guy, and as he walks away, he just happens to drop a piece of notebook paper without noticing, which just happens to have an extremely dangerous secret on it and not a word else. And he just happens to use the same word that the government does to describe these bullets. And he didn't even attempt to hide it. Couldn't he just have written the address and the initials for 'Piercer lab', or something? I can believe that Kevin is stupid, sure, but that stupid? It all sounds like a trap to me." Roland was silent. "I mean, c'mon, we live in a real world!" He thought about that for a moment. "Then again, what with all these alternate dimensions and fire-breathing dragons and magical spells, sometimes I wonder."

"I… I don't know." said Roland. "I guess it's possible. For once, I don't have an explanation to the contrary."

"What do you think we should do, then?"

"I… I guess you're right, actually. I may have overreacted. Yes, now that I think about it, I doubt that this is really where those bullets were made." He indicated the paper. "How stupid of me." He put his face in his hands.

"It's all right." said Jason, trying to comfort Roland even as he felt the strangeness of it. "Anybody could've made that mistake."

"I wouldn't think it was a trap, though." said Roland, resuming a more dignified position. "That's far-fetched. Maybe it was a practical joke."

"Maybe. Still, wouldn't it be worth checking this place out? You know, we could just walk by it one day. Take a look. If that's actually the address of a junkyard or something, then we'll see it, and that'll clear things up."

"Probably a good idea." said Roland, nodding. "Yes, it's not too far away. Let's go now."

They went by car again, so they wouldn't be easily spotted. Jason sat in the back seat for his own safety.

256 Pulliard Street turned out to be a generously-sized research complex, situated in a busy industrial district. The building was of bland architectural design, three stories tall and not very wide. A sign over the entrance said "Pulliard Independent Alchemical Research Group".

"So much for a quick answer." Roland sighed.

"Indeed. I'd have trouble imagining a building that looked more like it could make Piercers. Maybe it is a trap."

"In a part of town as busy as this, it would be a trap that would quickly backfire on the trapper. And I can't think of a motive, can you?"

"Uh… political somethinerother? Gettin' the adventurer's adopted son?"

"But no one really has a grudge on me, and Stanley wouldn't care."

"But what if they hope you'll investigate?"

"Again, I don't see why anybody would want to take me out." He looked the building up and down through his ever-present silver-framed glasses. (Contact lenses, he'd once told Jason, were for people who didn't mind putting pieces of plastic on their eyeballs.) "Perhaps my first guess was right, after all."

"Well, what it all boils down to is, what are we gonna do?"

"Nothing, I suppose. As a public servant, and an able-bodied man, I'm obliged to help those in need. But it's not my prerogative to be a vigilante, or otherwise get my nose into unnecessary trouble." His face fell. "Unless Stanley says otherwise, of course."

Jason stared at the building through the car's tinted window. He recalled that Kevin's note had said that the lab was in room 3C, which was most probably on the third floor. A tall, gnarled tree grew next to the building. One of its thick branches allowed easy access to one of the building's third-floor windows.

"I know this is going to sound crazy," said Jason, "but if you're not willing to investigate it, I will."

"You?" said Roland, flabbergasted. "Why in the world so?"

"Because I want to get to the bottom of this. Curiosity killed the cat, I know, but I'm dying of it already. Look, if this is a trap, they're probably expecting you to send the Gyeedian equivalent of a SWAT team storming through the front door, right? But suppose a ten-year-old boy were to climb up that there tree, open that there window, and sneak over to room 3C, all in the middle of the night."

"That… well, goodness, it would be dangerous! I hope you realize that."

"Yes, I do. But" he continued, raising his eyebrows, "I think the danger would be much less if a certain thirtysomething of a politician would be willing to accompany said ten-year-old. I beseech you, O Adventurer of Gyeeds, could you find it within that great, Moralheart of yours to assist me? I shouldn't want to lose help for want of asking for."

"Oh, I guess I could." said Roland, grinning. "I just turned thirty-four last November the twentieth, by the way."

"You bothered to figure out your Gregorian birthday?"

"Yes, I thought it'd be amusing to see what my sign of the Western zodiac is, even if I wasn't actually born under it. I'm a Scorpio."

"Just as well." said Jason. "That venomous sting might come in handy tonight."