Ethics and Existentialism

Jason mentally groped for something, anything, he might think about to take his mind off the truck driver, and his aching feet. Soon he found his thoughts coming to rest on Thorm. At least he didn't have to feel guilty for killing him. Or, then again… now that he thought of it, Jason realized that neither Thorm nor Gol had been very hostile towards him and his friends. Although they had kidnapped the party and seemed little concerned for its welfare, neither of the monsters had expressed the least homicidal tendencies until Roland had threatened Thorm. And even then, Thorm had really just been acting in self-defense.

Still, Thorm couldn't be considered innocent after he'd followed up on his promise to kill the driver. Actually killing her had done nothing for him. Obviously, he'd cared far less for her life than Jason had. But the thing that got Jason was the fact that the original goal of Gol and Thorm's reagent-spoiling mission—that of hampering the Droydanian army—wasn't necessarily a bad one. War was sure to break out at any minute now, what with the world plunged into chaos by monsters; hindering soldiers' efforts to kill each other could only help matters. The key question was what motive Thorm and Gol had to take on this task in the first place.

"And to think," said Roland, with no apparent provocation, "when I visited this swamp last year, the mosquitoes were my chief concern. Now I must endure far worse monsters. But I suppose I should count my blessings. I'm glad you've given up your television delusion, at least."

Jason stared at Roland. "What made you think I did?"

Roland stared at Jason. "You mean you still believe that? You've seemed to take our circumstances seriously—somewhat seriously, at least."

"Well… I admit that although I'm convinced of my theory, I'm not sure how to act on it. I've just been playing it by ear so far."

"Just as well, I suppose. Only, please, ask your scriptwriters to include an episode wherein you develop a moral faculty."

"I resent―" Suddenly he caught whiff of two familiar smells. "Curtis? Simon?"

"Hi, Pup!" said Curtis.

"We're over here." said Simon.

They found one another readily enough. Gol was nowhere to be seen, and Curtis and Simon were no worse for wear.

"So you escaped from your captor, as we did from ours?" Simon asked.

"Well, it's… a long story." said Jason. "For now, suffice it to say that… ding-dong, Thorm is dead! And we aren't. How's Gol?"

"Captured!" said Curtis, grinning. "One of the truck drivers was a good mage. Gol had no idea. She got close and before she got 'im with her tentacles, he zapped her with a stunning-spell. Then he threw her in his truck."

"We took the opportunity to flee." said Simon. "The driver didn't pursue us. We were then going to retrieve our reagents from the tent and try to find you, but you found us first."

"Man, you guys were lucky." said Jason. "We barely got away. But we should definitely get the two of you some reagents before we do anything else."

After that, the party had a meeting. They sat in a circle on a piece of forest floor half a mile away from the tent, partly to get away from the wetness and the insects of the swamp and partly to ensure that Gol didn't find them if she somehow escaped.

Jason recounted his and Roland's recent misadventures. He opted not to hide most of the details of the confrontations between them; the only points of note he left out were "To hell with the eunuch." and "I don't love you anymore.". Roland was somewhat disturbed by Jason's openness, though he did chime in here and there with a detail that Jason had forgotten.

"Jay," said Curtis, "I don't get you."

"How so?" Jason asked. He was at least glad that Curtis was more attentive than usual.

"Usually, you don't mind danger. Why did you so not want to rescue the driver?"

"'Don't mind danger'? I mind danger!"

"But you do stuff anyway. Most of the time."

"Well… I'm willing to face adversity if I have to. My point was that there was nothing forcing us to return to Thorm."

"Nor did anything force us to steal Ursamor's bracelet." said Simon. "Curtis's point, I believe, is that it's strange you feel that finding my mother is a sufficiently worthy end for which to endanger yourself, but saving someone's life isn't."

"Well…" said Jason "I…"

For the first time, all three of the mages were looking at him critically.

"Here's the thing." Jason said defensively. "Finding Leela isn't just a matter of satisfying my curiosity. It's a matter of… wait a minute. The original idea was to find out the answers to all my questions. But I already figured out the answer." He stared blankly at nothing for a moment. "Should I still seek her out? What am I doing? Where am I going?"

No one seemed able to answer that.

"I remain ignorant of how best to deal with the fact that I exist only in a television show." said Jason. "I guess… well, I suppose if I should take up any goal, it should be Pinocchio's. To become a Real Boy. But my, although this is all fiction, the outside world is as real and nonmagical as ever. There's no way an imaginary being can become real!"

"Come to think of it," said Roland, "I recall how you said we have plot immunity. Given that, why do you fear anything?"

"Because… to be honest, I have no idea what to do. Look, guys, I think, in the end, the most we can do is play along. It's not as if we have any real free will, anyway. If we try to avoid the MacGuffins the writers have set up for us, we'll just fall into another plotline. If I were to act unrealistically and, say, throw myself off a cliff, either my life would be miraculously saved or I'd die, and that would be the avant-garde end to an avant-garde TV show."

"'Avant-garde'?" Roland asked.

"It must be an avant-garde show if most of the dialog's in a fictional language and I break the fourth wall so much and the show isn't a comedy." He paused. "I hope this isn't a comedy. Just because we can't hear a laugh track doesn't mean there isn't one.

"So, although I can use the fact that this is a TV show to make predictions of sorts, I'm not about to behave as if I'm invincible. There's always a chance that I could die in the final episode. Even if some bit of danger doesn't kill me, it could injure me, or cause me great pain. Fictional pain, I've found, is… well, I want to say 'just as painful as the real thing', except, of course, I have no basis for comparison. Let's put it this way: it hurts.

"I think what I'm going to do, from here on, is just keep pursuing Leela. It'll be interesting to hear the in-universe—er, in-multiverse explanation of the Supernals. Speaking of Supernals, I have something else to tell you all." He told them about the dream he'd had just a few hours ago.

Roland fingered his mustache thoughtfully. "Jason, that may have been among the stupidest things you've ever done."

"I think you made essentially the right decision." said Simon. "It sounds to me that if you'd become the Supernal's avatar, it would've gained complete control over your actions. It might've had good intentions, and I doubt the Devil or anything like it exists, but you were right not to trust it that far. It's terrible that the fox broke your bracelet, of course; you had no reason to expect that."

"You passed up a lot." said Curtis, shaking his head. "I'd kill for that kinda power."

"I'm pretty sure that fox really was the Devil." said Jason. "The whole encounter was distinctly Faustian."

"But what are we to do now?" said Roland.

"Hard to say, without the bracelet." said Jason. "Could you tell me, Roland, why you chose to 'random verseport' before?"

"Controlled verseportation is traceable; uncontrolled verseportation is not. The idea was to escape from the police as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And so we've escaped, though if we perform any controlled verseports anywhere near Gyeeds, dimensionally speaking, we'll quickly be caught." He sighed deeply. "God only knows what evidence they finally scared up. Regardless, my career, my home, and my possessions are all gone. The only comfort I have is that the whole fiasco will ruin Stanley's PR."

"Clearly," said Jason, "the writers have left us no choice but to find Leela. Even without the bracelet, there must of course be some way. Ideas, anyone?"


"Okay, then, here's an idea: let's get some clothes. I've have quite enough of tramping around in my soaking-wet underwear. How about you, Curtis?"

"I'd like more clothes."

"I'd like some shoes." said Roland.

"I'm the only shod one among the four of us," said Simon, "and I can tell you that in Droydania—I believe we're in Droydania—no barefoot person will be allowed in a shop. Shall I go buy clothes?"

"If you're brave enough." said Jason. "Remember that we're still wanted for stealing the Emperor's bracelet. You'll wanna be reeeal careful."

"Don't worry: I'm always careful, or at least I try to be. The problem is that I'm not carrying any money."

Everyone looked at Roland. Roland removed a wallet from his suit, counted up a moderately large sum in interdimensional paper money, and handed it to Simon without a word, just a sigh—his twenty-seventh that day.

Jason had decided to spend the time during which Simon was away to plan ahead, but as soon as he put himself in a slightly comfortable reclining position, he fell asleep. No wonder, as he'd been rudely awakened in the middle of the Gyeedian night just a few hours before.

He was awakened less rudely this time, by Simon's boyish voice. He and Curtis thanked the singer and used nearby shrubbery for privacy as they changed into their new clothes. (Jason was careful to transfer the Antimnemonic to his pants pocket.) Then the party turned its attention to something else Simon had brought: a newspaper.

Simon had bought the paper because of the cover article, which was both interesting and pertinent. The headline was "Gyeedian Army Aids Droydania in Fight Against Common Enemies / Stanley Calls for New Interdimensional Cooperation". Amazingly enough, Stanley, in a sudden break from his usual policy of complete antagonism towards anybody who disagreed with him, had sent soldiers to help Droydania fight off the monsters attacking its cities. Not long after, he'd made a speech begging all nations to help each other overcome the threat.

"Gentlemen," Stanley Ironbone had said, "I know many of you aren't inclined to believe me, but the honest truth is, I don't have any more of an idea where all these creatures came from than anyone else. The monsters just popped out of nowhere and started wreaking havoc. I know we're all compelled to point fingers and take up arms against our neighbors, but I ask you to consider the consequences.

"Politically speaking, the world has been in an especially fragile state for many weeks now. None, I'm sure, will disagree. The Schism is wider than ever. Given just a little more provocation, every nation will take sides and the great bloodletting will begin. The biggest, bloodiest war in human history, one which threatens to destroy us all, is in its embryonic stages. Gentlemen, never before has an abortion been so necessary.

"It was with that in mind that I chose to send Gyeedian troops to Droydania, as a show of good faith. I have no illusions that this will heal the Schism; I have no doubt that negotiations between Gyeeds and Droydania will continue to be as tense and unproductive as ever. And certainly, I won't be giving up my role as the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the IDC. But I refuse to go down in history as the man who let such a colossal war erupt on his watch."

An editorial in the paper agreed that Stanley Ironbone had prevented the war. All across the multiverse, people were feeling a little more friendly towards Stanley, and, by extension, Gyeeds. There was one place in which Stanley's reputation had just worsened: Gyeeds itself.

Gyeedians in general weren't happy with Stanley's decision. They felt that he needed to take a stand against Droydania, especially with regard to its relationship to Dojum.

"Why's that fool still in office?" the paper quoted an older man as saying. "His one redeeming quality was his uncompromising foreign policy. Now he's sending our children to die ignoble deaths protecting our enemies!"

Of course, it didn't help matters for Stanley that his own adventurer was wanted for murder, and had evaded arrest. This event, quickly reported by the press, cast the whole Stanley administration in a unflattering light.

"And in a few weeks," Roland muttered, "Lloyd Waverunner will be laughing all the way to the mayor's mansion, for better or for worse."

"For better, no?" said Jason. "You aren't fond of Stanley."

"True, but over time, I've been getting the impression that part of Lloyd's platform is, or will be, a more hostile attitude towards Droydania."

"Really? Don't the kind of people who like him detest war?"

"Perhaps in principle, but in Gyeeds, pacifism tends to go hand-in-hand with a strong belief in civil rights, and thus a hatred of Droydania and friends. Most of the nations of the Droydanian camp are dictatorships or oligarchies of one kind or another. Lloyd fans would see war against them as a chance to free their citizens from oppression. And indeed, perhaps it would be. Anyway, so far as I'm concerned, the top priority is to have as few deaths occur as possible."

"War is best avoided." said Simon.

"And it has been avoided, at least for the time being." said Jason. "Let's be thankful for that. But what are we going to do now?"

"I have one idea." said Simon. "As it turns out, the city nearest us, where I bought your clothes and the newspaper, contains the well-known Museum of Genetics and Evolutionary Biology. My mother sometimes went there to meet and work with scientists employed by the museum. There might be something of interest there, some clue to her location—especially if she's been there since she feigned suicide. I believe she's kept in contact with other scientists as part of her research."

"Okay, I know a plot hook when I see one. Off we—no, wait, we're all fugitives of interdimensional law. I suppose we'll have to break into the museum at night. Can we do that?"

"Easy." said Curtis.

There was a new moon in Droydania that night. The darkness ensured that the party was not noticed as it snuck into town, but it did make choosing the best window through which to enter the museum difficult. The small amount of magical light the mages were willing to conjure didn't help much.

Jason was reminded strongly of his and Roland's adventure at the Piercer lab. He wondered whether there'd be many guards in the museum at night. The odd thing about Droydania, actually, was that it didn't seem nearly as Orwellian as it might have been, given that it was an unabashedly oppressive dictatorship. There were no security cameras and thought policemen on every corner. And the Droydanian newspaper that Simon had bought an issue of was obviously uncensored. Still, a government that kept every citizen's handprint and interdimensional-travel history on file, and that filtered telecommunications for "un-Droydanian" discussion, was no democracy.

"This window would probably be best," said Simon, pointing to one high above his head (they all were), "since this tree in front of it could help to hide our entrance."

"All right." said Roland. "Do it, Curtis."

With magic, Curtis created two great black-feathered buzzards, each not much smaller than the prince himself. At his instruction, they carefully picked up Roland in their talons and carried him to the window. There was no sill on the outside, so Roland had to make a hole in the window, using the same method he'd employed at 256 Pulliard Street, in mid-air. He made a much larger hole this time. Once he was finished, the buzzards helped him through the hole and (Jason imagined) set him down on the floor. Then they came back for the rest of the party.

Jason was last. As he hung from the birds' talons, remembering hanging from the dragon's claws, he looked at a giant sculpture of a chromosome in the center of this high-ceilinged room. He could see only vague shadows of all other kinds of interesting things; he couldn't make out much detail in the faint starlight. The room's walls and ceiling were black, meaning that there was practically no diffuse reflection to help illuminate the place.

As the buzzards placed him on the floor, Jason suddenly smelled someone familiar. He cried out a warning. Too late—a moment before he spoke, the mages were spontaneously thrown to the floor and then magically shackled against it.

A flashlight turned on, and Jason saw the spellcaster. It was Beatrix.