Where Only Fools Dare Tread

Jason cried and felt sorry for himself for a long time. All he could think of was how close he'd gotten to returning to Earth, in two different ways, and to reaching Leela. Eventually, he calmed down and regained some control over his thoughts.

How often he'd cried in the past few months, ever since he'd left Earth. He hadn't cried so often when he was younger, but then, he hadn't had nearly as much to cry about. Life had been simpler back then: less dangerous and less emotional. Less exciting, too; Jason was coming to like excitement itself less and less as he experienced more of it.

He had already reflected manyatimes on how life in Gyeeds and the rest of the extraterrestrial multiverse seemed unduly action-packed. Now, for the first time, it occurred to him how episodic his life was. That is, the excitement tended to come in short, concentrated bursts. There was plenty of suspense, but all of the really noteworthy events tended to happen quickly. He would spend a few weeks or months going about his day-to-day life, and then, bam! either spontaneously, or because of his own actions, he'd get caught up in some wacky adventure. And then it would end, having set him a step further on his literal or metaphysical journey towards some goal, but otherwise having few consequences of its own. And although each of these adventures greatly endangered his life, he walked away from every one of them with nothing worse than a few black-and-blues.

Was there no explanation for all this nonsense? Wasn't there any reason for all of it—some dirty little secret that was the root cause of all this insanity? There simply had to be—the combined probability of all those events occurring in that particular picture-perfect way had to be infinitesimal.

Jason racked his brains. Everything that had happened to him swirled through his mind; everything strange and bizarre that he'd encountered flashed before his eyes. He found himself groping for an adjective to describe it all, to sum the whole monstrous lot of it up into a single word, that he might focus his consciousness on the whole forest of madness, rather than any individual trees. It was all… it was all so… so…


His life was fantastic. It followed that it was, in fact, a fantasy. A dream? A hallucination? No, that's what he'd thought while still hanging by the dragon's claws. There was only one good explanation: an explanation that was in and of itself fantastic, to be sure, one he barely dared to think about too much for fear of its implications, but it worked. He had no doubt that it was the explanation.

Jason tried to say it, but he seemed unable to speak. All that escaped from his throat was a faint wheeze. He tried to move his limbs; he was paralyzed. Panicking, he struggled, and with a great effort he managed to heave himself out of his bed. He paused for a moment, thinking, then ran into the living room and shouted "Guys! Guys! Come quick!"

Curtis, who was sleeping on the couch a few yards away, woke up with a start. He swore and looked at Jason. "What's going on?"

"I need to talk to all of you about something." said Jason. "It's really important."

There was a tentative knock on the front door, and Jason opened it to reveal a tired-looking but concerned Simon, just as a very groggy Roland stumbled in from his bedroom, still wearing his suit. (Yes, he slept in it. "It's comfortable enough." he'd once said. "Why would I wear anything else, really?")

"Jason, this is an ungodly hour to get up." Roland said in Common. English wasn't his native language; although he made speaking it look easy, he needed to maintain some degree of focus in order to get it right, and sleep inertia made that difficult. "What―"

"I think I've discovered the secret." said Jason. "Guys, you know all the crazy things that've been happening to us? The inexplicably eccentric turns of events?"

"Yes…" said Simon, closing the door and turning on the lights.

"I know why things are so strange." said Jason. "We're living in a TV show."

"What do you mean?" Roland asked impatiently.

"Just that!" said Jason. "None of this is real—somehow, we're all in an American prime-time television series. A really weird television series, with dragons and magic spells and stuff. Because those things don't exist in real life, you know."

"Yes, they do!" said Curtis.

"Oh, please, Jason." said Roland. "Go back to sleep."

"I'm a-hundred-percent serious!" Jason protested. "Just think about it for half a second! Dragons and wizards and giant ants? They're imaginary. Fairy-tale stuff. You can't explain their existence—they have no place in science, or logic. They make no sense."

Roland magically created a large blob of water just over Jason's head. In an instant, the boy was soaked from head to toe.

"I assure you" said Roland "that the water you are now covered with is very much real. You won't disagree, I hope."

"No, man," said Jason "you don't g-g-get it!" (The water was rather cold; it caused him to shiver once.) "We're living in a full-scale illusion, an alternate world. Magic does exist here. But it doesn't in the world of the people who are watching us now, nor do Gyeeds or Droydania or all that nonsense. There isn't a multiverse, just one universe, and the only humans in it live on Earth."

"That's ridiculous!" Curtis cried. "What makes you think your verse is the only one?"

"I don't even understand your, ah, hypothesis." said Roland. "Do you mean that our world is just a construction that exists on Earth, made to give the illusion of greater size? Or are you implying that we're all lunatics whom television executives have taken advantage of?"

"It's complicated." said Jason, shaking himself dry a bit. "The real situation isn't so clear-cut as either of those. This definitely isn't just a constructed world; modern technology isn't nearly good enough to imitate magic convincingly. I guess we could be insane, but that's a last resort.

"Here's how I envision it. Think of it this way: when you watch a TV show, you're actually looking at actors on a stage who are pretending to be made-up characters in some made-up world. Whether or not that world has fantastic elements, it's separate from the real world. And that's the thing—we inhabit one of these imaginary worlds. There are actors who play us, but we're not the actors; we're the fictional characters."

"And in what possible way could this explain anything?" said Roland.

"In the way that the events that befall us and the specific ways in which they befall us precisely follow the logic of television." said Jason. "The last few months of my life, if not the whole of it, were the work of scriptwriters."

Jason looked at each of his companions in turn. Each looked incredulous in his own way. "I know I sound crazy. The idea still sounds crazy to me. But this theory was born out of many months of reflection, and it's well-founded. Listen closely, and I think you'll begin to agree that I might be right.

"Nothing of much note happened to me before I turned ten. Those years were entirely off-camera, if you will. The show began the day everything changed, the day the dragon came to get me. Now, think of this: why me? Why do you suppose the dragon just happened to pick a suburban American male? While my age makes me an unlikely hero, just the fact that the dragon happened to take an American is telling. The probability of the dragon taking an American or an Englishman or perhaps an Australian was tiny, and whoever heard of a fantasy TV show starring a character from South Africa or Chile or Russia or China?" He paused for a moment. ""Captain Planet" doesn't count. National diversity was the point there. Besides, it was no coincidence that the white Brooklynite got the most intuitively appealing power.

"So, anyway, I do know from what you told me" (Jason looked at Roland) "that there was nothing improbable about how you found me. On the other hand, there's no good reason I know of that Ernest Seadweller chose to use me, the very same kid who'd had a crazy adventure shortly beforehand, for his life-extension ritual. I was a particularly poor choice, I think, since I'm hardly athletic. He was a scholar of Earth, true, but not for any particular reason. It was hardly an excuse. Anyway, that adventure, like the others, was exciting and ostensibly life-threatening; at the same time, it had few real long-term consequences. That's the kind of unrealistic semi-continuity that American television usually employs.

"Need I go into all the improbabilities involved in the events leading up to our voyage on the "Argo"? The missing boot, anyone? That was a red flag! I should've known something fishy was going on… 'Truth is stranger than fiction.', ha! This, my friends, is the kind of improbability that only shows up in fiction. The thing is, this world doesn't follow the laws of probability; it follows the laws of drama. The likelihood of something happening here is directly proportional to its thematic appropriateness. So reliable is this surreal principle and so potent is its effect that with it alone, I guessed who Jake's wife was out of all the women in the world.

"During the voyage, as always, we had short, concentrated bursts of excitement separated by long stints of mostly ordinary life. These bursts of excitement, you see, are the episodes. The big events—the ones that actually change my situation, like the beginning and the end of our voyage—are the season finales. So, yeah, my experience of being kidnapped by the dragon was the pilot.

"Since then, it's just been adventure after adventure. So many people have died, but we—I and the immediate group that's formed around me―" (he nodded at the three of them) "never get more than a few broken bones. We have plot immunity. The Stormtrooper effect keeps us safe from hordes of enemies. So long as the Nielsen Ratings stay high, we're going to keep adventuring, and only when we're just about to go off the air will we come to some conclusion, and perhaps some explanation. (But not real answers, of course. I'm telling you the real answers right now.) And then, unless the Americans make a spin-off, the rest of our lives, not to mention the remainder of extraterrestrial history, will be totally uneventful.

"Guys, I don't think one can reasonably believe that this world is an entirely natural one. There aren't any satisfactory explanations for all those supernatural phenomena—dragons, wizards, etcetera—nor for all the improbably dramatically appropriate events. In light of all these things, which are highly characteristic of American television but ridiculously unlikely in real life, one is forced to conclude that, on a grand scale, something is not right. Something is quite wrong. I do believe I've shown the secret is likely to be that we're in a TV show."

Once he was finished, Jason smiled tightly.

There was a pause of epic proportions.

"Man…" said Curtis. "I—I dunno. My head hurts. It's so crazy."

"It's rather pompous of you" Roland said slowly "to make yourself the protagonist, and your world the only real one."

"I didn't write the script!" Jason said, throwing his hands up. "Look, Roland, if you can believe in God, this can't be a stretch for you, can it?"

"I'll ignore the implication about my beliefs." said Roland. "As for your hypothesis… well… I see your point. I have one great problem with it, though: it's silly."

Jason blinked. "Well, of course it's silly. What did you expect? The improbable things are silly."

Roland shrugged.

"Simon," said Jason, "what do you think? You've been awfully quiet."

"Roland had essentially the same questions that I had," said Simon, "so I let him ask them. I think your idea might have some truth to it; I'll need to consider it more in order to render full judgment. At the moment, though, one major problem occurs to me: do you suppose that what's happening right now is part of an episode?"

"Well," said Jason, "I assume so. This is certainly a noteworthy event, isn't it?"

"If that's the case," said Simon, "you're breaking the fourth wall. I don't know anything about American television in particular, but the characters of most fictional works never suspect their fictitiousness, much less openly discuss it."

Jason was so surprised that for a few moments, he was rendered speechless.

"Why," said the boy, "that never crossed my mind. To think! I'm breaking the fourth wall right now!" He waved at nothing. "Hello, audience!"

And what do you know—at that very moment, somebody rapped on the door. "Police!" he called.

"Sounds like it's time for a commercial break." said Jason.

Roland glanced at the others apprehensively, then walked to the door and opened it. Three sturdy uniformed policemen stood there, visibly surprised at how quickly Roland had answered the door at this hour. "Can I help―" Roland began.

"You're under arrest for the murder of Jacob Triskin." said one of the men.

Before the policeman could take any action to restrain him, Roland slammed the door shut and bolted it in one smooth movement. "Random verseport, now." he whispered loudly.

"Oh, dear." Jason mumbled.

Curtis grabbed his reagent pouch from an end table. "I'll do it." he said.

Roland and Simon both grabbed hold of Curtis's left hand. Jason hesitated for a moment, then joined in. Curtis threw some familiar-looking green dust into the air and recited a spell, and off they went.