George and Harold's Thin Ice

Three whole days of red tape later, the trio was officially granted permission to visit 0-3-14-62-39, the town where Simon lived, for a span of twenty-four hours maximum.

("Lovely name." Jason remarked. "Very picturesque, like an industrial mining complex; rolls right off the tongue, too. Who thought of it, Shin-Ra?"

"Who's Shin-Ra?" said Curtis.

"Never mind." said Jason. "It was a bad joke.")

They verseported directly from Roland's apartment to the threshold of Simon's house. Jason looked around to find himself in a suburb that would have been pretty much at home right in the heart of the good-ol' US of A. Each side of the wide paved road that ran through here was lined with expansive houses and garages spaced far apart. The main difference was that here, in place of acres of neatly-manicured lawns, the empty space was filled with evergreen trees, which provided welcome shade from the noonday summer sun.

Simon's house, an unusually small one, was painted dark blue. Jason picked up the knocker and rapped against the door. "Jason and friends!" he called.

"Coming!" a voice replied. It was high, about halfway between Curtis's alto and Jason's soprano. (While I'm on the subject of voices, I might as well add that Roland was a tenor.)

Jason smelled a young boy approaching. <Simon's son, maybe? Or maybe Simon's a kid. I just assumed he was an adult.>

The door opened to reveal a man in his twenties, a bit taller and skinnier than Beatrix. He wore the standard suit, and his skin was a dark shade. His features were soft, and his face seemed greatly subdued; he was happy to see the group, but his smile was slight, and his gray eyes crinkled only subtly. The effect was not one of feigned or suppressed emotion, but of very mild feeling, as if this face, and also this person, was little impressed by stimuli of all sorts. Nigh-total calm seemed to be his natural state.

"Simon Aranin Tycho Baria," said the high voice, coming from the man's throat, "at your service."

Jason did not entirely succeed at hiding his surprise. Simon smelled distinctly like a boy, too, which actually affected Jason more, as he was used to thinking of his olfaction as infallible. "Uh, hello." he said. There was no reason to believe that this man knew much about any of the party, so introductions were called for. "I'm Jason. This man" (he gestured at Roland) "is Roland Moralheart, Adventurer of Gyeeds. He's my foster father." Roland looked more surprised than Jason. "This" (he pointed to Curtis) "is Curtis Debyeamo. He's my, uh, foster brother." Curtis, too, was puzzled.

"I see you're surprised by my voice." said Simon. "Don't worry, everyone is. I'm a eunuch."

"A… did you just say what I thought you said?" said Jason.

"Yes, 'eunuch'. I was castrated when I was nine to keep my singing voice from changing. But won't you come in?"

"Sh—sure." Jason mumbled.

Simon turned and walked inside. Jason followed him, with Curtis close behind. Noticing that Roland was absent, Jason glanced behind to see him apparently rooted to the spot. His expression was a mixture of fear, pity, and anger. Then he noticed Jason looking at him, and trotted forward. "My God." Jason heard him mutter.

Simon lead them to a small, cozy living room with large windows, affording excellent views of the veritable forest behind the house. Curtis, Jason, and Roland sat down on a couch in that order, and Simon lightly settled into an armchair facing them.

"I can see you're still wondering at that." said Simon. "You're welcome to ask any questions."

"Ah… well…" said Jason.

"You poor—what have they done to you?" Roland cried. "I—I've heard they do castrate boys here, sometimes, but… I thought it was only voluntary."

"It is." said Simon. "I chose to be castrated."

"What—why in the world would you do that to yourself? Didn't you want to be a man?"

"As I said, to preserve my singing voice. I sang in a choir as a child, and now I'm a professional singer for a wedding band."

Roland sat there looking disgusted for a few moments, then abruptly stood up and walked out of the house.

"Sheesh." said Jason. "I, uh, I'm sorry… sir."

"It's all right." said Simon. "Eunuchism is difficult for some people to accept at first. By now, I'm well acquainted with the social stigma of it outside of Droydania, so such negative reactions don't disturb me much anymore. Still, they're the worst part of being a eunuch." And indeed, his eyes communicated a certain amount of pain.

"Well," said Jason, regaining his composure somewhat, "are there any good parts?"

"Yes, certainly. Castrati can become much more experienced male singers in the upper ranges than prepubescent boys. And in many cases, castration leaves one calmer, less affected by strong emotions like anger and anxiety. I was relatively cool-headed even as a young boy, but I believe that I wouldn't be quite as mild as I am today if I'd been allowed to develop normally. Some people see this effect as a handicap; I see it as an asset."

No one spoke for a few moments. While Jason was by no means as disturbed as Roland by this… this thing, he still didn't know what to make of it. On the one hand, Simon's reason for his decision sounded reasonable enough; on the other, an instinctual fear of mutilation made the idea seem pretty disgusting when he thought about it. He wondered how Simon had overcome that disgust. He remembered how often he'd heard words like "emasculate" and "neuter" used metaphorically to mean "enfeeble" or "cripple" or "take the spirit out of", in English and Common alike. Castration was widely reviled, whatever the reason.

Jason glanced for a moment at Curtis, vaguely hoping he might find some reassurance in the younger boy's face. Curtis looked back at him questioningly, as if he didn't understand what was the matter. Eventually, the Argonaut, grinning sheepishly, said to Simon "So, let's get down to business. Could you tell me how to reach Leela?"

Simon paused to draw the shades before giving his answer. "The problem is, I don't know how. She didn't even tell me where she went. I haven't seen her since. She was convinced that whatever forces she was investigating posed a threat to her.

"I could try to find her: I know more than Cade told you. The problem is, please excuse me for this discourtesy, but I don't know if I can trust you. What Cade told you is already far more than I would've told a stranger. Leela was no doubt careful to impress upon him that that information was not to be spread freely, especially not within potential sight of an observer looking down from the sky. I know what I'm saying sounds cryptic, but the details must be kept as secret as possible.

"What I ask is, please take me into your confidence and tell me what paranormal phenomena you're looking into. If it's similar to anything I know of—and I do know some of what Leela was investigating—I'll tell you more, because you might be able to help my mother. As part of her work, she interviewed people who said they'd had a paranormal encounter, and she asked me to look out for more such people."

Well, Jason thought, he was certainly up to his neck in conspiracy theory now. "An observer looking down from the sky"? At least Simon wasn't wearing a tinfoil hat. Yes, to be truthful, it all sounded pretty ridiculous. But the events that befell Jason were themselves ridiculous, so if he wanted to find their root causes, which were no doubt equally ridiculous, chances were that he'd have to take the plunge. What else was new?

And so Jason told Simon part of the truth. He honestly explained the encounter with Thanatos and what he'd found on Zadoc's PDA. He said that he (along with Roland and Curtis) had gotten his nose into all this just because that email had looked suspicious—he left out why he'd already had an interest in Thanatos. He also omitted mention of the "phoenix-feelings", if you will.

"It's interesting that you ran across that cult," said Simon, nodding, "because Leela did, too. She had one of its members report on its activities."

"Whoa," said Jason, "it's a small world."

"I think it's definitely worth telling you more. Let's see, where should I begin?"

"I'm sorry, but could you hold on? I think Roland should hear this."

"Of course."

Jason walked outside and glanced around. He didn't see Roland anywhere. He sniffed; he nose led his eyes to near the top of a nearby tree. There he saw the adventurer leaning comfortably against the trunk, his legs spread out along a branch.

"Get down from there." Jason called to him.

Roland scampered down the tree and walked up to Jason. He absentmindedly moved a hand along his suit as if to brush off dirt, though it was as magically spotless as ever. "I can't hide from your nose, can I?"

"I told Simon about our Thanatos adventure," said Jason, "and he said his mother knew about the cult. He's going to say more. Come on in and listen."

Roland made an annoyed sound. "How can you stand to converse with such an abomination? Castration is a cruel mockery of the male form, an insult to masculinity itself."

In spite of his own ambivalence about the issue, Jason's irritation at Roland's behavior suddenly flared up. "Oh, for God's sake, are you still sour about that? Get over it, and leave your stupid machismo at the goozack. He's a eunuch, and I for one can't understand why anybody would want to be one, but there's no use making a fuss over it."

"'Machismo'." said Roland, pronouncing the word slowly. "Leave it to the Terran West to spin masculinity into a point of shame. And the irony is that 'machismo' has its roots in Spanish, the native tongue of a people that isn't generally prone to such tomfoolery."

"Look, we can talk about gender identity all you want as soon as we're through with this. Until then, please be a gentleman, and come in."

"Ha! a gentleman. Fine, I'll listen to the wretch."

The pair returned to the living room.

"So I help him out." Curtis was saying. "It's fun."

Simon glanced at Roland. Apparently noting the adventurer's antagonistic glare, Simon didn't greet him, choosing instead to begin his story without further ado.

"As you already know, my mother, Leela, was a biologist by profession. Her most fruitful work was her research into transposons, a type of DNA sequence, but she was most interested in the physiology of dragons. As all scientists have been for decades, she was mystified by how the dragon apparently flouts basic laws of biology on a routine basis. The general consensus is that this mystery is simply the result of biological mechanisms that have thus far evaded understanding, since they've been found in no other life-form. Leela was among the few who suspected supernatural influence. She began a long investigation into all kinds of paranormal phenomena in the hopes of finding an explanation for the dragon.

"Although my mother thus already believed in the supernatural to a degree, she was also skeptical, in the interests of good science. In several cases, she only scratched the surface of a whole field of the paranormal—alien abduction, for instance—before she decided that all of it was pure fiction and never gave it a second thought. She tried a number of such ideas until she finally found one she believed might have merit: the motif of possession by extradimensional beings. She thought this was worth looking into because the accounts of possession that she obtained from several interviews were alike, despite how the different subjects had never apparently met each other.

"At this point, most of Leela's work had been public knowledge. That changed when a man who'd heard of her investigation came to her with his own story and asked her to keep it secret. That man was Reynold Marcus, whom you may remember as a member of Thanatos."

"'Reynold'…" said Jason. "Doesn't sound familiar."

"I remember it." said Curtis. "Jay, remember the time when Zadoc listed all the spellcasters in Thanatos in his journal?"

"Oh, yeah! You're right, 'Reynold Marcus' was among the names. He was probably killed by the phoenix." Now Jason knew Simon really had heard of Thanatos before. So far so good.

Simon continued "Reynold met my mother near the end of 5622" (in early 2002 CE) "and told her about the supposed intervention of the death-god Thanatos into the affairs of the cult. He hoped she might be able to confirm whether or not the god actually existed: he had his doubts. Shortly thereafter, Leela went into hiding."

"Because she was afraid the cult had it out for her?" asked Jason.

"No, she was afraid of something else. She said that the knowledge of what Reynold had told her, along with another discovery she made later whose nature she would not reveal to me, put her in terrible danger. She told me only this: there exists in the multiverse a small number of supernatural entities, which she called the Supernals. Although the Supernals are all very powerful, they keep each other in check because they're enemies: they work for opposed ends. Currently, they're occupied looking for ordinary people to recruit for their individual causes. At the same time, they're trying to keep their existence a secret at all costs, so they'll kill anyone who they feel knows too much about them.

"Leela said the Supernals posed a great threat to humankind, and so she had to find out more about them. She could only do so safely, however, while she was hidden, because any Supernal could kill her easily so long as it knew her location. Her hiding-place had to be kept especially secret because the Supernals had the power to look down and listen from any point in any sky, and were very observant. So she pretended to commit suicide, to throw them off her trail, and then disappeared, telling no one her location for fear the knowledge might somehow make its way to these beings.

"Before she left, Leela said I should keep my eyes open for anyone who might know more about the Supernals or their activities. She added that if I stumbled upon anything truly noteworthy, I should try to find her and tell her about it. In that case, she thought I should take the informant into my confidence, that we might learn more by sharing our knowledge." He looked at Jason. "I think the vampire and the phoenix definitely count as noteworthy."

"So…" said Jason, the details of the whole hypothesis and their implications still spinning in his head, "these Supernals had something to do with both monsters?"

"I believe so." said Simon. "I admit that I can't be sure the Supernals exist, but I trust my mother's judgment. She said the being that called itself Thanatos was actually a Supernal who'd taken advantage of the group."

So now Jason had another hypothesis—one somewhat similar to Curtis's, though a little more believable. Or was it? Whatever evidence Leela had concluded all this from, Jason wasn't going to see it unless he could find her. Did he want to find her? The possibility of finally getting some real answers—that is, the hope—certainly appealed to him, but he was wary of falling in with this eccentric stranger and his possibly yet-more-eccentric mother. Yes, he'd take the plunge again, though he suspected the end of this adventure would simply lead to the beginning of another. Would this awful cycle ever end? Jason didn't know what he'd do if it didn't.

"What do you guys think?" said Jason, turning to Roland and Curtis.

Roland glanced at Simon out of the corner of his eye. To Jason, he gave a quick frown signifying he'd rather answer the question privately. "It's an… interesting theory."

Curtis spoke to Simon. "Are Supernals gods?"

"I don't think so." said Simon. "Supernals are godlike, but they aren't completely omnipotent, so far as I understand."

"Gods don't have to be omnipotent." said Curtis.

"That's true. It's mostly a matter of defining the word 'god'."

"Simon," said Jason, "I'd like to meet Leela, but if she covered her tracks so thoroughly, how can I find her?"

"She tried to cover her tracks thoroughly," said Simon, "but she knew she wouldn't be able to do so perfectly. In fact, she relied on that imperfection to give me a chance of being able to find her, should the need arise.

"Now that Reynold is dead, I know of only a single lead that might help us find Leela. I caught the name of one other person she interviewed: Caleb Vespinus. I know nothing about him other than his name and his address, which I looked up in anticipation of this very situation."

"And where does he live?"

"Only an hour's drive east of here." said Simon. "Would the three of you like to go there with me now? I'd take you in my car."

"Sure." said Jason.

"No, don't bother to consult the rest of the group." Roland grumbled, only loudly enough for Jason and Curtis to hear. "Well," he continued at a more audible volume, "let's get this over with."

With that, he stood up and strode rapidly to the door. He was about to open it when his day was suddenly ruined by an exceptionally nasty surprise.