On to the Past

Three weeks later, the foursome ate lunch in the shade of a huge boulder as they surveyed their next target: a great hilltop castle, ringed by a wide moat. Though the look of the castle made Jason immediately think of the Middle Ages, the structure itself wasn't much older than him. It was the dwelling of a very eccentric and very rich man by the name of Dr. Hayms Nepa, who'd had it built to serve as his home and his office. Hayms was a physician who had achieved great fame through his strange talent for certainty: when he said you had a disease, you had it; when he said you didn't have one, you didn't. Similarly, he could predict whether a particular treatment would help a patient with uncanny accuracy. Hayms charged fees many times greater than the norm, but so much was his service in demand that no one could get an appointment later than five weeks in advance, and cars were constantly driving in either direction along the long, narrow road that connected his castle to a big city nearby.

When asked as to how he'd acquired his remarkable ability, the good doctor always replied, half-jokingly, that God whispered the answers in his ears. Some felt he was hiding something. Jason and friends were sure Hayms was hiding something—in fact, they knew what the something was. For some days, they'd been looking for a particular magical object, a coin that, when asked a yes-or-no question and flipped, unerringly landed on the correct side. They'd heard that Hayms had crossed paths with the person last known to possess the coin, so chances were that it was now his secret helper.

At the moment, the doctor was away from home, relaxing on a beach on a faraway tropical island. This was a good thing, as it meant that the castle's defenses would be weaker than usual. The large company of guards that Hayms always kept at the castle, ostensibly to protect him from assassination by those who were jealous of him, was reduced while he was abroad. Alas, the large, hungry freshwater sharks in the moat were always present in the same frightening number, not that Jason was in the mood to learn how to swim. As for the coin, Jason had heard of a large vault that was hidden somewhere within the castle's twisting hallways; it was a fair guess that Hayms kept the coin there while he didn't need it. This was fortunate, as Jason figured that with his seven-yard boots, it would be easier to steal something out of a vault than off of Hayms's person.

Jason had made good use of the boots several times since he'd bought them from the nameless thief. Though its range was short, the boots' power had several advantages over the conventional teleportation spell: it could be activated much more quickly, it was absolutely precise, it needed no reagents and consumed no mage's energy, and, perhaps most usefully, it could be used to reach locations Jason hadn't yet seen. That last feature was in contrast to how a mage could only teleport somewhere if they could picture their destination in their mind.

Yet the boots hadn't nearly been worth the real price Jason had paid for them. I speak, of course, of the loss of his left hand. Losing his right hand would have been bad enough: with only one hand, Jason had found, all kinds of formerly trivial day-to-day tasks became very difficult. Without his left hand, Jason was truly crippled. All kinds of fine manual tasks—writing in particular—became next to impossible. Jason wasn't going to get an artificial replacement any time soon, so there was nothing to do but begin the slow, painstaking process of acclimating himself to using his right hand. He remembered reading about what neurological havoc ensued when left-handed children were forced to use their right hand, and experienced the pain for himself as he struggled to grip pens and throw balls properly. Twice already, since he'd lost his left hand, his clumsiness had nearly cost him his life. It was, he decided, absolutely a miracle that he'd managed to hit the green man.

Besides the purely physical trauma of his mutilation, Jason was shaken by the experience. I don't need to tell you how frightening it was for him to discover so suddenly that he didn't have nearly as much plot immunity as he'd thought he'd had. Even now, he wasn't sure how he ought to interpret the fact that such an event could happen, and had happened.

Inexplicably, he began to get a sense that an exceptionally nasty surprise awaited him at Leela's hideout—though other than Leela's being Beatrix, which seemed just a little too ridiculous, he couldn't imagine what.

"So, do you have a plan for this?" Curtis asked Jason, after he'd finished eating.

"Mm-hm." said Jason. "I'll use my boots to enter the castle inconspicuously, from that far corner. My nose should help me stay clear of the guards, but I'll have a lot less of them, or none, to deal with if you guys keep them busy by attacking up front. Just be careful to stay a good distance away from the castle and keep your shields up and they shouldn't be able to hurt you. You don't need to hurt them, of course; just distract them. If they chase you, run. I'll fetch the coin from the vault, exit the castle—from the way I entered, if possible—and circle back to rejoin you. Then we can teleport away."

"I suppose we should be able to stand against the guards." said Roland. "Certainly, we have plenty of experience defending ourselves by now." A couple of sparks spontaneously shot from his hands. Roland, like everyone else, was not happy. "Shall we start now?"

"I guess so." said Jason. "We might as well get it over with."

"I'm sorry," said Simon, "but I wasn't paying attention while you explained your plan. Would you please repeat it for me?"

Jason, surprised, reiterated the plan as Roland stared at him. Then, Jason borrowed Roland's flashlight, since he figured it'd be dark in the vault, and the mages set off for the castle. Jason muttered "Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away…" as he watched them walk across the rolling fields and up the hill. The day was indeed sunny, for one in early autumn; the endless meadows of knee-high grass surrounding the castle appeared a strongly yellowish shade of green in the light, and the deep lake behind the structure seemed to absolutely glow. Jason was thankful for the boulder; apart from the castle, it provided the only shade in sight. He fanned his face with his hand in a vain effort to stave off the heat.

Presently, he made out that the mages, now too distant to identify individually, were trading magical blasts with figures in the castle's high windows. Jason rose to his feet, spoke the magic word, and ran. Actually, he didn't literally run; his physical stride was more of a very short, quick waddle. The reason was that while the boots' magic was active, every step he took covered exactly seven yards, no more and no less. To travel as fast as possible, he needed to set one foot in front of the other as often as possible—the length of each step didn't matter. And so he could dash across the countryside at over forty miles an hour, twice as fast as the average speed of Earth's best hundred-meter sprinters, just by waddling quickly.

Jason speed-waddled in a wide arc so that he reached a far side of the castle, just by the lake and the little dock where Hayms kept his pleasure-boats, without being noticed. He then made an unpleasant discovery: the moat was about ten yards wide. He didn't have a tape measure, but he had, over time, learned to judge exactly where a step would land him, and in this case it would certainly plop him in the water. He needed something solid to walk on in order to teleport.

<Although I can't swim,> Jason thought, <I might be able to dog-paddle the last three yards, or something.> Then he scrapped that idea, as he smelled a welcoming committee approaching him. Soon a long, fat shark with spotted brown skin and three eyes was circling around in the water just in front of Jason. Although it looked like something out of a B movie, Jason had heard of it before and knew it to be a soil shark, a normal Droydanian animal. All Droydanian fish had three eyes, one on each side and one up front. At any rate, monster or no monster, this thing gave every impression it wanted Jason for lunch. <If Hayms keeps them hungry enough to eat humans,> Jason found himself thinking, <why don't they eat each other? Well, nobody said they didn't.>

Jason cast about for an object he might float in the water and use as a sort of stepping-stone. Nothing even vaguely serviceable was in sight. The boats, even the smallest, were hardly portable, and the wooden dock was in too good a condition for Jason to break off a piece. If the environment here had been more foresty, he might've used a fallen log or the like. Then again, he couldn't lift anything of appreciable weight with just one hand and his left arm.

Realizing he had no choice, Jason positioned himself carefully and watched the soil shark, waiting. When it was near the surface of the water and located in just the right spot, Jason took two quick steps forward. Immediately he appeared on the other side of the moat, having only felt the shark beneath his feet for a fraction of a second. He sighed with relief. The shark didn't have the slightest idea what had just happened.

Bracing himself, Jason stepped into the castle. He found himself in a large, fancy kitchen, full of expensive-hardwood cabinets, marble countertops, and gleaming stainless-steel appliances. For a moment, he paused to breathe deeply of the heavenly aromas emanating from the hundred different spices stored in the cupboards. Then, his heart sank as he saw a burly man wearing a suit run through the open door from the hallway outside.

"How'd you get in here?" the man demanded, coming to a stop some ten yards away. (It was a big kitchen.)

Jason was caught completely off-guard. "Well… it's a funny story…"

The man did a double-take. "Wait a minute, you're Jason Blue!"

"That I am." said Jason. He still wasn't sure what to do, so he just stayed where he was and watched the guard carefully.

"Trespassing's the least of your crimes! I'm going to have to turn you in."

After a moment's thought, Jason stepped backwards, appearing outside. He took a few steps parallel to the wall and then teleported inside once more. Now he was in a carpeted library with many narrow alleys walled in by towering bookcases. He sniffed and for a moment gave olfaction his whole attention. Mostly, he smelled the old books here and the spices from the kitchen; the only living creatures he could detect, aside from a handful of vermin, were himself and the guard he'd already met.

Quickly, Jason walked to the door and tried to judge the guard's distance by smell. He was moving away from Jason, probably back the way he'd come. Jason tentatively stepped into the hallway. Alas, the guard had not turned a corner, as Jason had hoped; they were now in the same hall. Some impulse or intuition, goodness knows what, made the guard glance behind—and there he saw Jason. "Stop!" he cried out.

<So much for stealth.> Jason thought. He teleported through another wall and ended up in, of all places, a billiards room, or something analogous to it anyway. And there were two guards playing a game; one was executing a very elaborate move, involving the struck ball ricocheting against the cushions six times before pocketing itself and three other balls, when Jason arrived. As Jason's sense of smell couldn't generally penetrate walls, both parties were equally surprised at the other's presence.

Jason swore and stepped elsewhere. For the next twenty minutes, he ran all around the castle looking for the vault as the guards chased him. They weren't about to catch him anytime soon, since he could move somewhat faster and much more freely than they, but their constant pursuit made a proper, thorough search very difficult indeed. Soon a grand total of six different guards were after him, four that Jason had encountered accidentally and two that had been alerted by their colleagues. So many pursued him that Jason wondered if some had been fighting the mages earlier, but had now turned their attention to him because—well, he preferred not to continue that train of thought.

The guards quickly caught on to Jason's peculiar kind of teleportation. It didn't take much longer for them to learn his movement patterns. And in just a few minutes more they hatched a plan to take advantage of both. Jason was racing down a hallway when he saw a guard just over seven yards ahead of him; he looked behind and he saw another, the same distance away. He remembered noticing how at least two of the other four had recently gone into rooms adjacent to this hallway. Then he realized the guards had trapped him just as wolves had trapped the nameless thief. The guards had formed a carefully sized ring around him, so that if he took one step in any direction, he'd end up within range for someone to hit him with a stunning-spell.

Jason froze, thinking. The guards he could see didn't move. <Well,> he thought, <I can't go backwards or forwards, left or right… how about up?> He placed his left foot on a nearby wall. And lo, he arrived at a spot seven yards higher than where he'd been before, three feet above the floor of the third story; he landed without injury. He escaped the trap that way, but given that the castle was only three stories tall, he was lucky he'd been on the first floor. If he'd been higher up, he would've had to face a much longer, possibly lethal fall onto the roof.

Twenty minutes felt like an eternity in these circumstances, but Jason was still only ten years old when he found the vault. It wasn't hidden very well, thank goodness; it was just in one of the last spots Jason got to in that gigantic home. In the castle's foyer, which took up all three stories of its area, there were staircases and balconies that led to the second and third floors. Projecting from the upper balcony was the head of a long-dead emperor of Droydania carved out of a twelve-foot stone cube. A conspicuous reinforced door, like that of a bank vault, was on the back of the head, accessible from the balcony.

When Jason saw the door, he didn't even bother to check how it opened, nor did he pause to wonder how that immense head supported itself. He teleported inside right away. It was pitch-black; the door was closed so tightly that not a sliver of light leaked in. He clicked on Roland's flashlight and found that the vault was mostly empty, merely a large hollow cube with a few full sacks of paper money scattered carelessly about. The one thing in the vault that was of interest to Jason was a small iron chest, not much bigger than a microwave oven, that was lying on the floor. Jason tried opening the chest. It was locked. He lay down on his knees to look at it.

The chest didn't have a keyhole. Instead, it had a row of wheels like those of an odometer, which Jason found he could spin with a strong push. Each wheel had ten faces, each marked with a seemingly random letter of the Common alphabet. The wheels were independent of each other, in the sense that spinning one didn't affect the others. On the front of the chest just below the wheels, a quatrain of verse was engraved:

The twin extremes at either end
Of any spectrum; though opposed,
They are alike in how they tend
To freeze all those who are exposed.

Jason supposed that the inscription was meant as to be interpreted as a riddle, whose answer, spelled out with the odometer wheels, would unlock the chest. No possible answer immediately occurred to him, so he figured he'd just cart the chest away and solve the riddle elsewhere, with the mages' help. Failing that, they could probably bust the box open with brute force.

Jason hugged the chest to his own chest with both arms and pulled upwards. Unfortunately, it was too heavy to lift that awkward way with his puny muscles. If he'd had his left hand (Jason thought or said a sentence beginning like that at least four times a day), he probably could've managed to heave it up, with difficulty. But given his disability and the chest's inconvenient placement on the floor, rather than on some raised surface, the only thing he could do was open the chest and extract the coin. The only way to open the chest that he could think of was to solve the riddle, so he set his mind to that at once.

He struggled for some minutes. Since the answer was "the twin extremes / Of any spectrum", Jason figured it had to be some kind of synonym for "extremes"—the difficult thing was, Common had few perfect synonyms. Furthermore, Jason didn't see what the riddle's author meant by how the extremes could "freeze all those who are exposed". He turned his attention to that phrase. The key words, "freeze" and "exposed", were both ambiguous. "Freeze", like its English equivalent, was a word for the transformation of water to ice that was also idiomatically used to describe any sort of stiffening. The use of "exposed" meant that anyone who was made vulnerable to one of the "extremes" would likely "freeze", though it was unclear how one could become vulnerable. So, the answer was the plural form of a kind of "extreme" that could stiffen you, if you were made vulnerable.

Jason sighed. He wondered if Leela, being the Woman Who Knew All the Answers, would know the answer to this riddle. He wondered what it was like living in mortal terror of supernatural beings inside an underground shelter in what Cade Uffet, the shelter's constructor, had called "a frozen wasteland".

Hm… "frozen". Might, perhaps… Jason recalled that Cade had guessed, from the look of the environment, that the place he'd built the house in had been near a planetary pole.

"Eureka!" Jason whispered. One letter at a time, he spelled out "poles" with the chest's wheels. There was a quiet click, and Jason eagerly threw the chest's lid open. The only thing inside was a large, shiny copper hendecagonal (i.e. eleven-sided) coin, which he pocketed along with the flashlight. Now, to escape. There was only one direction by which he could leave, the way he'd come, since stepping in any other would risk a twenty-foot drop. So, the guards could have, and probably had, positioned themselves that they might stun him the moment he left.

With this in mind, Jason walked to a corner of the vault with his boots deactivated before stepping outside, setting his line of movement at a sharp angle. In this way, he avoided a guard who would've caught him had he exited more straightforwardly. A quick glance at the stairs down from the balcony revealed guards waiting on them, and Jason didn't dare to climb or descend stairs with his boots active, so he ran off in another direction, towards another staircase. (By now, he was passably familiar with the layout of the castle.)

Jason's destination was some distance away, with many winding corridors in between, so he soon had the guards about a minute behind him. Then, as he was traveling, he caught whiff of someone ahead—apparently, a man been left to guard this staircase. Though Jason cursed his misfortune, he didn't turn or slacken his pace, thinking there might be a way to easily get by. As he continued, and came closer to the scent's source, he was surprised to discover that the person he was smelling was no guard, but a young boy. Then he quickly identified the boy, though he could barely believe it, and thought his nose was deceiving him. It wasn't. Jason turned a corner and there, rushing down a hall to meet him, was himself.

Yes, this was another Jason Blue, down to the last detail—and not just any Jason Blue, but the current Jason Blue. Which is to say, not only did he have Jason's face and Jason's body type and Jason's unique identifying odor, he was wearing exactly the same clothes, with exactly the same tears and stains in exactly the same places. He was wearing identical boots (though his steps didn't teleport him, so Jason figured they were inactive), and the unsightly wrinkles and discolorations of the bare stump at the end of his left arm were just like Jason's. He even had the same intensity of foul funk from not having bathed with soap more recently than a week ago and from not having brushed his teeth in eons. In fact, the only visible difference between these two Jasons was that our Jason's face expressed extreme shock, while the new Jason seemed to have been expecting this.

After a moment, the clone said "I'm your future self." He had the voice exactly, of course. He spoke in Common, for no apparent reason.

"And what…" Jason #1 wasn't sure what question to ask first. Quickly, he decided on "Time travel exists?"

"Yeah, that's how I'm here." said Jason #2. "We don't have time for questions, of course—you'll find out soon! Just, quickly, hand me the coin."

"Uh… but… wait… can't you tell me―"

"C'mon, hurry! The guards are catching up!"

"Okay, okay." said Jason #1. He came face-to-face with Jason #2 in two steps and handed him the coin. Jason #2 pocketed it quickly. "Let's escape together. Turn your boots on and follow me."

"No, I can't! I have to leave you now."

"Do you mean… am I gonna die?"

"No, no! You'll figure it all out later. Trust me. Now go!" He ran off in a direction different from the one Jason #1 would take to get to the staircase, his steps still nonmagical.

"Uh… be you later!" Jason #1 called out in English. Jason #2 glanced back quickly, but he didn't respond. Soon he was out of sight. Jason #1, shrugging, resumed his journey.

In time, he stepped through one of the castle's walls. He crossed the moat with the same dangerous trick as before, though he had to seek out a shark himself this time. As he speed-waddled around the castle again, he saw the mages continuing to fight guards inside the castle. Except, one of the mages was lying prone, giving Jason a bit of a sinking feeling. He ran towards the group until he was behind their shields, and then he saw the fallen mage was Roland.

"He's stunned." Curtis explained, launching a bright basketball of green light at one of the windows.

"Oh, good." said Jason. "Okay, let's go."

At that, they all teleported several hundred miles away from the scene.