A Single Step

Both of the pair were eager to find out more, but the trail more or less ran cold at that point. The man's name was actually Kevin Arbate, and the article didn't fail to comment on the irony of a GSD member getting killed, but nobody had identified the killers or even gotten the license-plate number of their vehicle.

Jason reflected that this was the third death he'd indirectly brought about. ("I rub shoulders with the Grim Reaper on a monthly basis," he commented dryly, "and somehow, he always gets someone else.") He suspected Jake was behind it. Apparently, the alchemist hadn't wasted any time in taking Kevin out, as soon as he'd heard from Roland that Kevin had leaked the lab's location. Jason and Roland would have to be very careful in order to avoid a similar fate.

Roland bought the potion, and for the next few days both man and boy slipped from place to place invisibly. They were nearly completely invisible when they drank the potion—only a subtle distortion of light marked their presence, so long as they didn't make any sudden movements. They were cautious in other ways, too. Each day, they furtively glanced under and inside their desks, searching for hidden bombs, and they made sure to verify that any meal served to them wasn't poisoned by feeding crumbs to pigeons and watching the effects.

Both Jason and Roland managed to avoid arousing the curiosity or suspicion of their colleagues, and neither encountered any attempt at his life. After about two weeks, they ran out of the potion. They decided not to buy any more, and they let their guard down somewhat, though they continued to be a little more circumspect than they were in days past.

Meanwhile, Roland thought of a way to spy on the Gyeedian Society of Death without putting himself or Jason into further danger. Arguing that the Raincatcher massacre made it necessary, he convinced a judge to allow bugging of the GSD headquarters. He and Jason listened in to the society's meetings closely, but they were disappointed to find that it didn't seem to know any more than they did. The group's members didn't know who killed Kevin or why, and they never spoke of Jake or the Piercers. It appeared that Kevin had been the only one in the know.

Several uneventful weeks passed. Jason barely noticed when 2004 arrived, even as thousands cheered to the drop of the ball in Times Square. Winter came to Gyeeds, just as it did in Earth's northern hemisphere. Jason worried about what would become of the Piercers, not to mention the burning question of why he wasn't dead yet.

One Iron in late January there was an unexpected heavy snow in part of the city. Many Gyeedians were free from work, transportation being much more difficult due to the inclement weather. Regardless, the IDC met rain, shine, or blizzard, so Jason suited up for the storm and went on his way. As always, Roland accompanied him.

The pair's boots made satisfying crunching sounds as they waded through the great solid white lake that the streets and sidewalks of Gyeeds were now submerged in. Huge, gleaming icicles hung from awnings and windows, and what few parked cars there were in such a city of mass transit looked like curiously shaped hills of snow. Jason was in a good mood for the first time since… well, he'd be danged if he could remember the last time. He whistled merrily as he trudged through the whirling flakes.

At one point, they came to one of the neighborhood's busier intersections. Here the pavement of the street was visible, for snowplows had pushed the stuff aside to form two little walls of snow. When the traffic light indicated it was the pedestrians' turn to cross, Jason and Roland set off across the street. They climbed onto (or rather, into) the snowy barrier, and Roland stepped neatly off onto the street. As Jason tried to do the same, one of his boots got stuck in a particularly well-packed chunk of snow. He huffed and he puffed and he tugged his leg hard, but it wouldn't come loose. Roland was halfway across the street by now.

Jason glanced to his left. Several of the street's lanes were filled with cars patiently waiting for their turn to move, but the one he occupied was clear. No, not completely clear—here came a sports car, barreling towards him. It was going at a fair clip, much too fast to be safe in such weather, and it sure didn't look like it was going to slow down.

In an instant Jason was in fight-or-flight mode. He braced himself, gathered his meager strength, and leapt forward. His foot popped out of his boot; the latter was left behind. As he stumbled forward, the car zoomed by behind him. He glanced over his shoulder as he ran across the street to see his boot sail through the air and fall through a sewer grate into the gutter, never to be seen again. The car just continued on its course as if nothing had happened. Soon it, too, was out of sight. Jason shouted a rude word as he climbed past the other wall of snow and onto the sidewalk, this time, thankfully, without incident. The traffic light changed and the other cars went about their business.

"That was a close one." said Roland, standing nearby.

"You bet! What was their problem? They nearly killed me!" A pause. "Did you get their number?" Roland shook his head. Jason sighed. "What a life. Well, all we can do now is hope that that wasn't a conscious attempt on it. And now I need a new boot. Let's go get one after the meeting."

After all that excitement, Jason expected the IDC meeting to be dull: surely, it'd be business as usual, the only significant difference being that some of his colleagues would snicker at his exposed sock. How very wrong he was.

The first topic on the Council's agenda was something that had just come to the attention of Andrea Tilpaset, the representative of Colloyus, a small but prosperous verse. Through verseviewers, she said, the Colloyuns had noticed something very odd in the kingdom of Dojum, in the Starving Sea.

Before I recount Andrea's story, let me tell you a bit about the Starving Sea. This was one of the less Earth-like verses man could travel to, featuring a planet with a plethora of small island continents scattered throughout one enormous ocean. The ocean, the verse's namesake, was itself named for its peculiar property of magnetism. Any solid or liquid that left the safety of land and touched or flew over the sea was instantly pulled down with tremendous force, plunged into the water and towards the center of the planet. Thus, the only way one could travel over the Starving Sea was in a ship whose bottom was reinforced with a thick layer of cibium, a metal found only in that verse, which was uniquely able to resist and block the attractive force. (Geologists theorized that the continents only existed because cibium was very abundant deep beneath their surface.) This substance was too heavy to allow for any aircraft, and anybody who tried to teleport across the Sea was affected just as if they'd flown over it; consequently, the verse was anything but a global village.

Interaction with the Starving Sea was further made difficult by its great dimensional distance from Gyeeds and its neighbors. The Sea was so far away that personal verseportation couldn't reach it—great dimensional gates powered by enormous amounts of electricity plus magic were necessary to let anyone cross the distance. Several verses had gates powerful enough to warp to one of the Sea's; Gyeeds, of course, was one of them. Recently, though—on Silver, 24, 5624, or September 25th, 2003, just four days after Jason had been captured by the dragon—the portal in Dojum had been shut down, and the King of Dojum, Akolos, had ruled that anyone who crossed directly onto his island from a nearby verse would be sentenced to death. There was thus no way to reach the kingdom but to verseport to somewhere else in the Sea and go there by ship. As of yet, no one had done this, and Akolos had refused to respond to other verses' attempts to communicate. Those of his subjects who could be contacted had no better idea of what was going on than anybody else.

Jason and his fellow councilmen knew all of this already. What Andrea reported was a clue as to Akolos's motives. A few weeks ago, a Colloyun spy had seen a technician in the Dojese military testing weapons. The technician had seemed to fire ordinary bullets from an ordinary rifle, but his shots had been able to punch through Projectile Shields in a matter of seconds. (At this point, Jason's blood ran cold, and Stanley Ironbone seemed especially troubled.) Ordered to watch for such testing more closely, other Colloyuns observed shield-piercing shots several more times. Making a connection with the Raincatcher massacre, and deeply affected, the President of Colloyus had told all of this to Andrea and allowed her to report it to the IDC.

There was much speculation as to what this meant on all sides. As much as the various hypotheses contrasted, all the Councilmen saw Akolos's behavior as decidedly aggressive. Someone had to find out what was going on, or at least talk to him. Yet no one was eager to fund a voyage to Dojum. Such a voyage would be both expensive and difficult, as the sea-road to Dojum had seen little traffic for many years, ever since the Dojese gate had been built. In the interim, pirates and the navies of the barbaric, warlike nations that were as abundant in the Sea as fleas in a mongrel's fur had taken it over. A whole crew of hardened battle-mages, sorcerers trained for war, would be necessary to grant a ship a reasonable chance of safe passage.

Jason was puzzled that Stanley didn't volunteer. Didn't he want to get to the bottom of this? Gyeeds was one of the richest nations in the world, and its army already had several cibium-bottomed warships in Starving Sea ports. Nevertheless, Stanley didn't deign to raise the possibility of his city's intervention.

Jason spent the rest of the day cogitating over what he'd heard. How had Akolos gotten ahold of Piercers? Was he responsible for the Raincatcher massacre? Was he in cahoots with the Droydanians? Had he known Kevin? Did he know where Jake was now? <The whole problem with this world> thought Jason <is that there's far too many questions and not nearly enough answers.>

Once he had reported the events of the day to Roland, he asked a different question. "As Adventurer of Gyeeds, you've got a right to request the things you need to accomplish a mission, correct?"


"Now, why d'ya think Stanley doesn't wanna send a ship?"

"To be honest, I don't know. He's determined to figure out the whos, hows, and whys of the Raincatcher massacre—he's told me that directly, and he's sent me on plenty of errands that prove it. He was quite pleased when he heard I was listening to the GSD's meetings."

"Well… suppose you asked him for a ship and a crew."

"He'd probably accept, and if he denied the request, he'd be forced to explain himself." Roland smiled faintly. "Sounds like a plan, except I'm not sure I want to command such an expedition."

"But you wouldn't." said Jason, his eyes sparkling. "I would."

Roland gave Jason a look. "Don't you remember what happened to me the last time I played along with one of your schemes?"

"Yes, you discovered a whole lot about the Piercers and their creator, and you escaped unscathed."

"By the skin of my teeth!"

"Well, this time, you'll have the support of a small army, and you won't be anywhere near the front lines. Besides, I doubt Piercers are that abundant."

"Tell you what: I'll think about it. Give me a few days to do so."

In the meantime, the IDC moved on to other issues, while Jason continued with his usual pursuits. One of them was reading. Although I realize I haven't mentioned it until now, Jason had been an avid reader ever since he'd first attained literacy. Gyeeds, along with plenty of other verses, had its own literature, of course, but Jason still preferred to read Terran books. This was made possible through verseviewing: by reading over a Terran's shoulder and copying each page as it went by, one could assemble a virtual copy of a book. (The IDC didn't recognize Terran copyrights, since Earth wasn't a member.) With modern optical-character-recognition software, one could automate the process. A handful of such books, the only ones significantly in demand, were printed; the rest were freely available on the Internet. Thus, Jason spent many happy hours catching up on the works he hadn't had a chance to read during his brief stay on Earth.

When Jason had been even younger, he'd had a picture book about Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and his encounters with several frost giants. Jason had loved it, and he'd went on to read about all the gods and giants of Scandinavian folklore. It had recently occurred to him that, if he liked mythology so much, he ought to look into the Greek kind. And so he read about mighty Zeus and vengeful Hera, of wise Athena and cowardly Ares, and all the mortals that pantheon mocked, slew, and occasionally helped.

Late into his labor of love, while Roland was still mulling over his plan, Jason ran across a name that made him do a double-take: Jason. On second thought, he vaguely recalled that there was some mythological Jason or another. Hadn't they made a movie about him with dancing skeletons in it, or something like that? Well, here he was.

Jason read along merrily, but, early on in the mythological Jason's story, he found a passage in the story that made him feel similarly to when he'd heard of the Dojese technician testing Piercers:

…Midway through his journey, Jason encountered the river Anauros. He was about to cross when an old crone standing on the bank called out to him. "Excuse me, young man." she said. "I have business to attend to on the other side of this river, but I am far too weak to cross. Would you be willing to carry me upon your strong shoulders?"

"Certainly, my lady." said Jason, lifting her up and stepping into the flood. The first few steps were easy; then, the water grew deep, up to his waist, and the river-bed became treacherous—Jason had to be careful not to stumble amidst the rocks and mud. And all the while, the old woman shifted her weight this way and that way, threatening to send both of them sprawling; she seemed to grow heavier and heavier with each passing moment. Jason was sorely tempted to hurl her into the water and leave her to her own devices, but, remembering the principles of kindness and charity Chiron had taught him, he persevered.

At last, Jason arrived at the opposite bank of the river. He gently set the old woman down on the ground and was about to continue on his way when she suddenly transformed. Where once there was a crooked old crone, now there was a radiant goddess, tall and majestic. Jason instantly fell to his knees.

"Behold, mortal!" said she. "I am no mere hag but the goddess Hera, Queen of the Olympians. You have found favor in my eyes, and for that I shall help you reclaim your father's throne from your wicked uncle Pelias. Call upon me in your hour of need, and I shall come to your aid." With that, the goddess disappeared in a flash of light.

As Jason rose, he noticed that he had lost one of his sandals in the flood…

Needless to say, our Jason—Jason Blue—hadn't crossed any rivers recently, and he'd never carried an old woman on his shoulders, and he was a little less than half the mythological Jason's age. But Jason Blue thought the loss of the young man's sandal was eerily similar to the loss of his own boot. <Truth is stranger than fiction, eh?>

Things got even weirder a little later on in the story. The high point of the myth-Jason's heroic career was his Quest for the Golden Fleece, in which he led a crew of heroes in a voyage across dangerous seas. That sounded rather like what Jason Blue was planning to do. And to top it all off, the myth-Jason had been assigned this quest while wearing only his one sandal, just as Jason Blue had been single-booted that fateful day in the IDC.

All the boy could hope for was that he didn't meet his mythological counterpart's fate. In the story, Jason eventually lost Hera's favor after breaking his promise to a woman he'd sworn to love forever, and he died a broken, friendless man.

When Jason told all of this to Roland, the adventurer said simply "Truth is stranger than fiction."

"That's what I thought!" said Jason. "No mortal mind could dream up something weird as this."

Eventually, Roland relented to Jason's request. Stanley, he reported, was more than happy to provide the necessary ship, men, and gear. The mayor had been a bit perturbed at hearing that Jason would be the leader, but he'd agreed to it eventually, so long as an admiral could do the actual commanding of soldiers in combat and share power with the boy outside of it. Roland would be expected to be the mayor's liaison, and although he would generally leave decisions to Jason and the admiral, Stanley demanded the final say in all matters.

The ship, by the way, was new and nameless as of yet. Stanley allowed Jason to name it. Jason christened it "the "Argo"".

Reactions to the news varied. Some people scoffed that a boy who knew even less about the Starving Sea, watercraft, and magical ship-to-ship combat than the average person should head such an expedition. Others applauded his courage in doing a thing no one wanted to do but everyone agreed had to be done. Scholars of Earth were amused by all the parallels with Greek mythology.

As the days counted down to the journey's scheduled beginning, Jason reflected on all that had happened to him since that fateful September day. He had long gotten use to the idea of magic, and he'd even come to accept the fact that dragons existed, albeit much stupider ones than those he'd previously been familiar with. Yet the feeling that both these things were bizarre and inexplicable had never left his mind; perhaps it never would.

And at the same time, he'd somehow reconciled the fact that for him, life was definitely an adventure. First, he'd nearly been a dragon's dinner, or at least that would've been possible if Roland hadn't been watching. Weeks later, he'd been kidnapped by a crazy old wizard who'd wanted to use his body to live forever. Another few weeks later, he (and Roland) had barely escaped death at the hands of a mad alchemist who planned to start a world war. And now he was about to go on a quest worthy of an ancient Greek hero. What a drama was his life! What danger, what excitement, what maddening thrills and spills! And so many impossibly improbable coincidences were required to make it all work out. It was as if he lived in a movie.

Thus, the foremost question in his mind, the greatest uncertainty about the near future that rattled about in his head, as he and his fellow Argonauts stepped through the mighty dimensional gate that would transport them to the Starving Sea, was:

<What'll the multiverse think of next?>