What's That Smell?

And lo, there was much jubilation among the people of Hoon. The villagers invited the Argonauts to stay awhile and celebrate, but the sailors, who'd gotten pretty antsy by now, were eager to resume their mission. The "Argo" had set off from Pewpik on January 25th, and now, thanks to the long delay, it was February 4th. Stanley, knowing that his city was paying the Argonauts by the day, urged them to move on. (He was, however, quite pleased at how the dragon problem had been resolved.)

The morning before they left, Winlo took Jason and Roland aside. "From the bottom of my heart," he said, "I thank you for your help. There were deaths, it is true, but far less than there would have been without you. Jason," he added, turning to the boy, "I also… I am very sorry for how I spoke to you so harshly before. I feel true empathy for my people, so you can understand how distraught I was by our loss."

<Not enough empathy to include yourself in the sacrifice lottery, I bet.>

"In Hoon, we do not generally allow children to act as adults, seeing as they are not adults; still, extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures."

<Yeah, it's not like you'd actually discard your prejudices in the face of fact. That would make too much sense.>

"Anyway, I believe that for your cunning" (he nodded at Jason) "and for your gallantry" (he turned to Roland) "each of you deserve a reward."

<Oooh, now I'm interested!>

"I can reward you in either of two ways. If you desire wealth, I can give you a chest of pure Hoonian gold. Or, if you prefer magic, I can bestow upon you a brew, made by our own potion-maker, that will grant you permanent mystical power."

"I would love the gold, if you please." said Roland.

"'Permanent mystical power'?" said Jason. "Could it let me cast spells?"

"No, there is no known way to grant spellcasting ability to one who does not have it." said Winlo. "What I can give you is a supernatural ability."

"Oh boy, super powers!" Jason squealed. "Sign me up!"

Winlo took Jason into a building that was obviously an alchemy lab specializing in potions. The sleek, modern equipment clashed visibly with the crude stone structure of the building. Jason saw shelves lined with glassware and bottles marked with incomprehensible abbreviations, and also a few mixing vats, each the size of a golden retriever.

The alchemist himself was watching the contents of one of the vats intently, out of which magenta smoke billowed in prodigious amounts. "Hey, what's up?" he said in perfectly fluent albeit slangy Common, without looking at his visitors. Winlo cleared his throat loudly. "Your Majesty." the young man added, still without sparing the pair a glance.

"Young Jason here" said the king "would like a permanent ability-granting potion, as a reward for his services."

"Oh, sure, anything for Plan Guy." (Jason's earlier comment to Winlo had been overheard by a sailor, and become something of a running joke among the hybrid Hoonian-Argonaut community that had spontaneously formed over the last few days.) "Lessee… the best I've got right now is the Sensory Enhancer. Look for the eighth bottle from the left on shelf five."

Winlo found the mentioned bottle. "Is it labeled 'NARF-21'?" (Not that the Common alphabet had letters exactly corresponding to those, but you know, it's an idiomatic translation.)

"Oooh, no, no, Your Majesty, that's the Cerebral Degeneration Drug. I'm sorry, you want the one just to the right of that."


"Yeah, that's the stuff." Winlo took the squat container from off the shelf and handed it to Jason. "Jason, that'll improve any one of your five senses by a lot." the alchemist continued. "Just pick one—drop a bit in your eyes or on one of your earlobes, and the rest will be absorbed. It's great; I did my hearing and now I can practically use echolocation." He imitated the squeak of a bat. "I knew it was you without looking 'cause your footsteps sound like a kid's, and Hoonian kids avoid this place like the plague. Their mommies are real careful to tell 'em to stay away from all those daaangerous cheeemicals, wooo!" (He spoke the last three words as if telling a ghost story.)

As Jason and Winlo walked away from the lab, the king remarked "It is a shame how the most talented wizards and scientists are always the most eccentric. One cannot have everything, I suppose."

The "Argo" was called back to Hoon. It sailed its entire hull into the river, now that there were no swimmers in the way. Some brave soul went underwater and repaired the wheel, finally, and the Argonauts climbed on board. A few good-byes and thank-yous later, the "Argo" was back on track, skimming merrily across the vast sheet of a sea towards its distant destination.

That evening, the Argonauts gathered in the now pleasantly well-lit mess to swap stories of life with the Hoonians and sitting in the middle of the ocean. Jason told the Argonauts of his altercation with Winlo, which got mixed reactions, and Roland recounted his brief encounter with Thorm, which was widely applauded. Actually, on the whole, the sailors had warmed up to Jason. They were impressed by how well his plan had worked out.

"So," said Jason to Talbot, as the trio sat down to a bland supper together, "I'm not that stupid, right?"

"Yes, yes, your plan was a clever one, I admit it." said Talbot. "You handled Thorm's suspicion well, although you might've better anticipated it."

"Let's not forget who belled the cat, hm?" said Roland.

"Oh, you did excellently, Roland;" said Talbot; "you don't need me to tell you that."

"Definitely." Jason threw in.

"I didn't vote for you," the admiral continued, "but I've since realized my mistake." There was a pause. "And while we're all fishing for compliments, I like to think I commanded our little defense against Thorm admirably." (That didn't work as a pun in Common. Talbot did not make puns.)

Jason and Roland voiced their agreement, and ate silently for a while. Then, Jason said in English "It's amazing how your suit is still pristine, after all that."

"Amazing? Of course it's still pristine."

"Would do you mean, 'of course'?"

"Oh, so you don't know. Well, surely you've noticed how I, as well as many other people, wear only one suit all the time and hardly ever change clothes."

"Yeah, what's up with that?"

"The modern suit is the product of powerful alchemy—one of the few practical products of alchemy, actually. All kinds of detritus roll right off of it, any sweat or spills that touch it evaporate instantly, and it never wrinkles. What's more, it stretches and shrinks to allow free movement while still appearing constricting."

"Wow. It must cost… a lot."

"It does. In fact, it's something of a status symbol. Politicians are expected to wear one, so long as they can afford it. I could, barely. Some people, especially women, find the idea of only wearing one article of clothing, without ever varying their dress, distasteful. So, it's not obligatory."

"I see."

"Speaking of alchemy, though, have you chosen a sense to augment?"

Jason looked at the potion, which was sitting on his cafeteria tray next to his plate. "I've been mulling over it all day, actually. Obviously, I should choose between sight and hearing, but I'm not really sure which. Being able to hear what you can't see sounds pretty cool; it'd be like an even better Hearing Charm. On the other hand, you can't go wrong with super sight. Yeah, sight's the way to go."

Jason picked up the bottle and struggled with the child-safety cap for a bit, then read the tiny letters on the side and opened it up according to its instructions. Inside was a dark violet liquid, with bright green patches floating about on its surface. Squinting, Jason could see a tiny, intricate pattern traced in darker hues on top of the purple and green. He brought the bottle closer to his face to get a better look.

"Be careful." said Roland.

It was too late. Jason got so close to the bottle that he accidentally touched the liquid with the tip of his nose. Everyone in the mess turned to look as a blinding flash of orange light shone from Jason's nose. In a moment, the light disappeared, and the bottle was empty.

The room was rendered absolutely silent. Jason put the bottle down. All of a sudden, he smelled—he could smell so much! There were several odors, each quite strong and easily distinguishable, rising out of the food on his plate, one for each kind of edible. He could smell Roland's breath, and he could smell Talbot's breath, and he could smell the difference between them as easily as he could hear the difference between a violin and a cello. He could even pinpoint their origins. As for the other Argonauts—well, now it was crystal-clear who had and who hadn't showered and brushed their teeth this morning.

"Apollo's laurel!" Jason gasped. "You guys stink!"

Whereupon almost everyone in the room burst into loud, uproarious gales of laughter. Roland tried to keep from joining in for a split-second, but resistance was futile; he immediately guffawed with the rest of them. Talbot laughed loudest of all. Jason, for his part, blushed deeply and declared "It's not funny!", which only increased the general mirth.

And to top it all off, now that he could really smell his food, it tasted ten times worse.

Jason spent that night tossing and turning in bed, cursing himself for his carelessness. He could've had an eagle's eye, or a rabbit's ear. But no! Thanks to his lack of wisdom, he'd been robbed of the chance to become a superhero, and gotten but a dog's nose in return. Of all the stupid super powers… Still, Jason believed in making do with what he had. He would, he decided, make as much of this silly olfactory prowess as he could.

Yet over the next few days, as the boy explored his newfound ability, he began to have a change of heart. A whole world of scent—a world mostly invisible to humans, and poorly understood by them—had opened its doors to him. To be sure, he'd been able to smell before. But a normal human's sense of smell, he found, was as feeble compared to a dog's as a dog's powers of intelligence were compared to a human's. Amazing grace, how sweet the scent!

The first major use of enhanced olfaction that Jason found was identification. Whereas before he'd used the potion, similar substances had smelled the same, now he could detect the unique scents of different things. All living creatures, no matter how much they'd been cleaned, smelled, and no two living creatures, no matter how similar they were, had an identical scent. This allowed him to tell who was who with only his nose. The tricky part was that a single person could smell radically different from time to time, depending on their hygienic habits and even what they'd eaten. In order to reliably identify a person by scent, Jason had to learn to compensate for these variables.

Jason could even guess how old a person was with his sense of smell. Talbot the fiftysomething had a component to his scent that stood out, compared to everyone else's, beyond the normal variations. So did Roland the thirtysomething, while the twentysomethings and teenagers that constituted the other Argonauts smelled similar. Apparently, the scents that a body gave off varied with age. The most noticeable instance of this was Jason himself, whose difference with the fourteen-year-olds was even greater than theirs with Talbot. This, he realized, was due to the fact that he was yet to develop a manly BO.

The second use of super smell that Jason discovered was detection. If he walked into a room with his eyes closed and took a deep sniff, he could count the number of people in the room and sense the direction of each relative to himself, so long as it wasn't too crowded and there were few other major scents. If only he'd had this ability during his encounter with Jake, he would've been far from helpless even while blinded and with his Hearing Charm drained of its power.

Thirdly, there was that use of olfaction that excited Jason the most, but turned out to be the most difficult to employ: tracking. As people went about their business, they carelessly left scent molecules behind wherever they'd been. These traces of scent hung about in the air for a while, allowing Jason to follow very fresh trails (those made within the last few minutes) by simply following his nose. By an hour after their release, the scent molecules would all fall to the ground, requiring Jason to get down-n'-dirty if he wanted to do any serious tracking. With sufficient time, he could find and follow any trail that had lain cold for up to three hours, and with luck, he could do the same for trails as old as six hours, the difficulty increasing linearly with age.

For Jason, scent tracking was further complicated by bipedalism. Dogs, being quadrupeds, could get their noses close to the ground by simply craning their heads downwards; Jason was forced to walk about on his hands and knees. Crawling through the corridors of the "Argo" while continually sniffing the floor, Jason made for quite a sight, providing a bit of comic relief for his shipmates. He quickly acquired the affectionately derisive nickname "Bloodhound", which soon changed to "Bloodpup", in reference to his age, which was itself shortened to "Pup", and as Pup the boy stayed. Actually, the "Argo" was a poor place to practice tracking because of its crowds; it was hard to pick out the odor of one teenage boy when it was mingled with that of twelve others, in the same way that background noise makes it harder to hear one's neighbor.

The final and strangest use of smell was as, of all things, an aid to memory. In the first day or so after that fateful night in the mess, Jason kept experiencing deja vu as he smelled scents he had never before perceived. Occasionally, a new aroma even triggered some long-buried memory, and Jason found himself thinking of his hometown, his parents, his sister, and even his earliest days, at the very limits of his recall. The reason for all of this, he figured after perusing the scientific literature a bit and meditating on it, was the intimate connection between the area of the human brain related to memory and the one responsible for processing smells. These new sensations caught his brain by surprise and set off a lot of false alarms.

After a few days, the deja vu and the spontaneous nostalgia ceased. Still, Jason found that he could remember things best when he connected them to a smell. In fact, after a while, he found himself recalling the scent of a person whenever their name was mentioned, a development which even frightened him a little with its strangeness. Yet he also found a way to put this property of memorable smells to good use. Whenever he wanted to remember something, he took a few smelly items from the ship's kitchen and concocted a little potpourri for himself, then smelled of it deeply while committing the thing to memory. When he wanted to recall the thing, he smelled the potpourri again, and voila! He was annoyed to discover that this technique worked much better with scenes and general impressions than straightforward facts, but hey! It was something.

There were a few drawbacks to supernatural smell. For one thing, there was the food, as I mentioned before; for another, going to or even being near the ship's bathroom (Roland called it the "head") was always a trial. And, heck, Jason wouldn'tve minded being ignorant of how long it had been since each person on the ship had bathed. On the whole, though, he was quite pleased with his newfound power—to the point that, given the chance to exchange it for the powerful eyes he'd wanted, he would've kept his mighty nose.

One afternoon, Jason was standing on the deck of the "Argo", leaning on (not over!) the railing while watching the sea and sky. The sky was a bit of a relief from the blank, featureless sea; without its clouds, sun, moon, and stars, the scenery surrounding the ship would've made for a depressing view indeed. At the same time, the perfect, uninterrupted smoothness of the ocean had its own alien kind of beauty. These two behemoths, so far apart in fact and yet so apparently close at the edge of the horizon, worked as a kind of aesthetic study of opposites, their contrast so great, their only similarity their extreme size and flatness…

Suddenly, the Adventurer of Gyeeds's scent intruded on Jason's thoughts. "Hey, Roland." he said.

"Did you smell me coming?" asked the man, leaning on the railing next to him. Jason nodded and smiled. "Of course." He looked at the water, than up at the clouds. "I just wanted to say, don't you have any questions for me? You usually have so many things to ask, right after you—or we—have an adventure of some kind."

"Not this time." said Jason. "None that you can answer, anyway. We still don't know where Jake is, or how he's involved with… uh, whatshisface, the king of Dojum."

"His name is Akolos."

"Yeah, Akolos, that's it. I mean, dang! Jake must have so little foresight to want to sell Piercers to the Droydanians. If he did, there soon wouldn't be a multiverse left to enjoy his riches in."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Droydania versus Gyeeds is pretty much the apocalypse, right?"

"Thanks to the chains of alliances such a conflict would set off, it would be the largest war in recorded history, to be sure. But the known multiverse is enormous; there are plenty of verses that wouldn't see a whit of fighting, just as there are isolated countries on Earth that escaped the wrath of both World Wars."

"Oh, yeah, I guess you're right." He thought for a moment. "And the Raincatcher massacre is still a big question mark. But the Gyeedian Society of Death couldn'tve been responsible, right?"

"No, those people are nothing more than a band of delusional death-worshipers. They wouldn't harm a flea." Both of the pair were silent for a while, looking at the scenery. "Jason," Roland spoke up at length, "would you mind if I asked you some questions, for a change?"

"Not at all; let 'er rip."

Roland blinked. "First, tell me about your name."

"Well," said the boy, "as for my last name, your guess is as good as mine. My dad liked—likes—to joke that his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a jazz musician, but nobody knows, really. We don't have a pedigree; both of my parents only know their ancestors to a couple of generations back. They gave me my first name pretty much on a whim. Liked the sound of it. And as for my middle name… well, my mom likes Mozart. There is no evidence to suggest that any gods are especially fond of me, however, and I certainly haven't ever shown any great musical talent. Say, what's your middle name?"

"I don't have one. My mother saw no reason for one. But, uh… Jason, if you don't mind—if you're comfortable with it, I mean—tell me about your sister."

"Oh, don't worry, I've gotten over the separation, pretty much—as much as I ever can, anyway." He smiled to himself. "My sister's name is Joan. She's thirteen now—she'll be going to high school this September. Man, Joan's going to high school! It makes me feel so old. I'd be going into middle school myself, if I were still on Earth. Still on Earth! I haven't been on Earth for months and I'll probably never set foot on it again. That never ceases to amaze me, honestly.

"Anyway, Joan is kinda the high achiever in the family. She's more of an achiever than me, anyway. I'm not that bad at academics, really; I've just never been inclined to try hard. I got pretty mediocre grades back on Earth. I've only done as well as I have in Gyeedian school because there's more emphasis on learning and less on toil. I'm pretty good at the former, not so great at the latter. Joan, on the other hand, believes—hey, wait a minute!" He stared at Roland. "This is starting to sound just like your Beatrix story!"

Roland looked at the water. "I can see the similarity." he said hesitantly. "I—I believe there's a major difference, though."

"Oh, sure, Joan's my sister and Beatrix was your wife."

"I'm not talking about that." The man looked straight at Jason. "You miss your entire family, correct?"

"Of—of course I do! I love them! Joan included!"

"Well," said Roland, "to put it mildly, I don't particularly miss Beatrix." His face darkened. "Let me put it this way: the divorce was by no means a one-sided affair, and afterwards, we certainly didn't just be friends…" He lightened up again. "But I sidetracked you; please continue."

Jason blinked several times. "Well, Joan believes in doing well in school. I once asked her why she poured as much effort as she did into that silly institution. She told me that for one thing, it was nice to have her options open, so she could go to the schools that she liked, but primarily, it was a matter of pride. She felt that the kind of work school assigned was simplistic and beneath her, and she liked to make that clear to the world. I never understood it myself, but there you are. Also, she has both a head and a taste for mathematics. My dad does, too, and whenever the two of them started railing on about exponential growth or negative numbers, my mother and I would look at each other and roll our eyes." He chuckled. "And yet I'll never know the way they smell. Is that enough for you?"

"Yes, thank you." said Roland. "I only have, ah, one more question. You… feel free to answer however you like; I can handle the truth." He took a deep breath. "Jason… do you love me?"

Well, now, this was an eyebrow-raising question. Jason was speechless. The answer was, of course, yes—despite all of Roland's funny little quirks, his somewhat unpredictable anger, and his ambiguous references to a troubled past, he was Jason's savior. He had rescued the boy from that wasteland verse, clothed, fed and sheltered him, answered all his questions, and asked for absolutely nothing in return, not even a bit of affection. He could be rather excitable, it was true, but Jason admired his strength and his boldness. Towards Jason, actually, he was sometimes timid, as he was now. It hadn't helped that Jason had at first suspected him of pedophilia. Now, it was clear that Roland had nothing but paternal love for the boy he had adopted as a son.

Still, Jason was hesitant to tell the truth. He recalled what he'd thought about his love for Roland when he'd been considering whether or not to try to rescue him from 256 Pulliard Street. All other things being equal, he wouldn't sacrifice his life for the man. But what did that have to do with this? Roland was only asking a simple question. There was nothing wrong with telling the truth. <But he goes to prostitutes!> Jason thought. Again, that had no real relevance. Jason wasn't even sure he ought to condemn prostitution. Then what was making him hesitate, really? For perhaps the first time in his life, Jason was puzzled by his own behavior.

Then it hit him. The mystery, that was it. Jason was a very curious and somewhat suspicious little boy. There were a bunch of things he didn't know about Roland—not just straightforward facts like what had led to his and Beatrix's divorce, but also the root causes of some of his strange behaviors. Why had he gotten so angry when Jason had told him of Ernest's evil deeds? Had it been paternal protectiveness, or guilt, or something else entirely? Why had he been so ardent about saving the Hoonians from Thorm? Was it simply a strong desire to do good? He hadn't been nearly so enthusiastic about investigating the Piercer lab, even though the Piercers were, all in all, capable of much more harm to humankind than a big old dragon.

The truth was, although Jason's heart loved Roland despite all these little mysteries, his mind was more cautious to condone that love. To profess his love for Roland would be to officially approve of the entire man, and this Jason could not do so long as he did not know the entire man. The devil was in the details! What could he say, then? A lie? No, he couldn't tell Roland that he didn't love him; that would be a cruel way to treat a man whose feelings he cared for. Then how the hell was he supposed to get out of this mess?

"Ah… er… uh…" said Jason. For a while he simply hung his mouth open, paralyzed, like a deer in headlights.

"No, no," said Roland, now very agitated, "I, I see what I've done. You don't have to answer. Forgive me for putting you on the stand like that; it was very insensitive of me." He put his elbows on the railing, cradled his head in his hands, and stared out to sea. Even in profile, it was easy to tell from his face that he was crushed. Jason had never seen Roland look so sad before. "Excuse me." said the adventurer, then hurriedly got up and walked away.

<Oh, great!> Jason thought sourly. <Now look what you've done. Ah, well, it's not like there's much I can do. He thinks I don't love him, the poor sap. It's a sad situation, it's a pitiful situation, it's a pathetic situation, but nothing can be done! I can't condone what I don't understand.>