A while ago, in late May, the party had finally settled on a makeshift home, or a permanent camp, depending on how one looked at it. The site was a cave in the side of a mountain which consisted of a single chamber about ten feet high and thirty feet in diameter. Outside was a wide ridge of level ground hemmed in by a steep drop, affording a gorgeous view of endless acres of hills and forests below. A clean albeit foul-tasting stream was an easy ten-minute hike away.

Inside the cave, the party kept their few possessions: some extra clothes for Jason and Curtis and socks and underwear of all sizes, a heap of miscellaneous reagents, some pencils and paper, a cooking pot and tableware, some handmade preserved food, an electric shaver (which Roland had obtained with considerable difficulty, though he was the only one capable of growing facial hair), and four large piles of hay. With care, our heroes had managed to live for some time without recourse to civilization, if not in luxury.

As Simon carefully placed the limp body of Roland on the hay, Jason noticed that he was sopping wet—Simon, I mean. His suit was magically dry, but his skin was soaked. None of the four had a good haircut, so the singer looked odd without bits of his hair pointing out at random angles.

"What happened, Simon?" said Jason, looking alternately between the two men.

"I stunned him." said Curtis.

"I'll explain." said Simon. "While we were fighting the castle's guards, one of them fell out of a window and into the moat. I'm not sure what the cause was, but I believe one of Roland's spells knocked him over. Once in the water, the guard didn't rise to the surface, and I saw a shark swimming towards him rapidly: left alone, he would've been killed and eaten. I decided to try to rescue him.

"I immediately teleported to the moat and dove in. Underwater, I saw that he couldn't swim, so I took him in my arms and carried him onto the land. In the meantime, the guards above kept shooting at me and nearly killed me, and I stunned the shark a moment before it could bite me. After I'd teleported back behind our shields, I was horrified to find Roland shooting at the man I'd just saved. He looked furious; I couldn't imagine at what. I was going to plead with him to stop, but then Curtis stunned him. I myself was angry at that initially, but I figured there was no point in complaining about it then, so I returned to fighting without saying anything else."

Jason didn't say anything, either, as he puzzled over the affair.

"Now that I think about it, I believe Curtis may have done right." said Simon. "Since Roland always ignores me, there probably hadn't been any other way to stop him."

Jason nodded. "Did anything else happen to the guy you rescued?"

"After about a minute, he stood up and teleported away. I don't know where he went; we didn't see him again. I'm only thankful he was fairly light, since I can't lift much. Castration has left me with weaker muscles than most young men's."

"Well, I'm glad to see that you and Curtis live up to your own moral principles." said Jason. "Simon, in particular… it was rather, well, heroic of you to risk your life saving your enemy."

"Thank you kindly." said Simon, smiling for the first time in ages.

"Were there any deaths?"

"None that I know of."

"I didn't see any." said Curtis.

"Neat." said Jason. "Roland's gonna be ticked off, of course. When will he wake up?"

"Soon." said Curtis. "I used a weak stun."

"He's waking up right now." said Simon.

"Television timing." Jason grumbled.

Roland's eyes slowly opened. For a moment he looked clueless and perplexed. Once he realized where he was, he got to his feet in a jiffy. "Did you stun me, Curtis?" he said angrily.

"I did." said the prince, staring up at the adventurer unflinchingly.

"How we have fallen!" Roland cried out in despair. "I expected to come to loggerheads with you, Curtis, least of all. Simon's influence has poisoned all of us by now."

Simon sighed quietly.

"Let me guess:" said Jason: "you were angry that Simon was 'aiding the enemy', right?"

"Of course!" said Roland. "He was lucky that the gentleman he rescued didn't take the opportunity to kill him!"

"Yet you didn't attack that guard out of concern for Simon's safety, I imagine."

"I attacked him out of concern for the safety of all of us."

"Did you really think he'd attack you after Simon had saved his life?"

"Not just then, perhaps, but he'd been attacking us before, and I had every reason to think he'd attack again before we left. I shot at him while he was vulnerable." Roland stared at Curtis furiously. After a few seconds, he cast his eyes down and began pacing. "How'd the burglary go, Jason?"

"Fine." said Jason. He recounted how he'd avoided the guards, solved the riddle, and gave the coin to the other Jason.

"So you don't have the coin." said Curtis.

"No, but I will very soon. It's guaranteed. Some method of time travel will make itself available to me in the near future."

"Jason," said Simon, "I don't think the person you met was actually your future self."

"Nonsense!" Jason declared. "No impostor could mimic me so perfectly. Just my unique scent would be physically impossible to emulate."

"My guess" said Simon "is that the impostor had a way of magically assuming your shape."

"I've never seen shapeshifting magic, have you? I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist."

"It's true that I've never heard of an actual instance of shapeshifting before, but I believe that given these two possibilities—that the person you encountered was using magical mimicry, or that he was your future self—the former is far more likely."

"And what makes you believe that?"

"Two details" said Simon "seem to me evidence that the other Jason was deceiving you. The first is simply that his boots didn't function. He was hurrying, so he had every reason to use them. My explanation as to why he never teleported is that the magic he used to mimic your boots couldn't mimic the boots' magic. The second detail is that he showed no sign of comprehending your English. I'd think that if he had been your future self, he would've spoken to you in English exclusively. I remember how you put an English postscript for yourself on the note you wrote in anticipation of our Antimnemonic-induced amnesia. The purpose of that postscript was to confirm that you were the writer, wasn't it?"


"Then given the opportunity to speak to a past self, wouldn't you do so in English?"

"You're right!" said Jason suddenly. "You're right, Simon! I screwed up massively and now I've got a perfect clone on the loose with a magic item I can barely hope to retrieve!" He slapped himself on the forehead violently. "Gah, look at this stupid bracelet!" he said, extending his hand. The broken bracelet was still hanging on his right wrist. "Why do I still wear this thing? It's a reminder of defeat, no better than Gawain's girdle. Every little bit of progress I make is eventually undone, if not immediately thwarted. And now… now I see I can't trust anyone, not even myself. There's too much magic, that's the problem! I can never be sure what kinds of magic are possible and what kinds aren't, 'cause there's more and more magic pouring into the world all the time from those Supernals. How am I supposed to play the game if the rules keep changing? I hate this stupid TV show!"

"I don't know what to tell you, Jason." said Roland. He looked caught between sympathy and annoyance.

"Whatever. I'll be pining away for my left hand, if anybody needs me." With that, Jason sat down on his pile of hay and sulked.

A couple of hours later, Simon was sketching a landscape, Curtis was differentiating a rational function, and Jason and Roland were absorbed in a discussion of "The Scarlet Letter" ("The bit with the comet was just forced, though.") when a suited man spontaneously teleported right at the mouth of the cave—just, Jason thought, as Roland had appeared before him so many months ago. This time, Roland of all those present was the most disturbed. He jumped to his feet and held out his hands in readiness for casting a violent spell. "Who goes there?" he demanded.

"Careful, now." said the stranger, resisting an impulse to recoil. He was a large, muscular fellow with an odd weasel-like face and a gravelly voice. "I'd be the last to try to kill you. Even if I wanted to, I know—we know—that the four of you together are very powerful."

Roland dropped his hands to his sides, though he remained wary. "What, then, if I may ask, are you here to do?"

"To invite you—all of you—to a dinner we're having tonight, in Beetle City. We respect you, and we think your membership in our ranks would be mutually beneficial."

"And if I may ask," said Jason, "how in the name of Ganesh did you find us here?"

"We have many sources of information." replied the stranger. "Here's the location." He tossed a piece of paper onto the ground before him. "Show up at fifteen-o'-clock." (By that he meant nine PM—remember that the IDC day began at dawn, not midnight.) He then teleported away.

"But who's 'we'?" Jason asked the air.

"Gangsters, apparently." said Roland. "'Beetle City' is their slang for a metropolis a few hundred miles east of the imperial city."

"What's its actual name?"

"Well, it must start with '0-0-0'; the next field would be… mm…"

"It's '0-0-0-8-2'." said Simon to Jason. Roland fell silent.

"Can't blame 'em for using a slang name." said Jason. He picked up the piece of paper the visitor had left them, shook off the dust, and inspected it. "It's a photograph of a big, tasteless mansion. It's got a swimming pool that doesn't look much smaller than Hayms's lake." The others gathered 'round to look.

"We've spoken with a gangster, indeed." said Roland. "I hardly dare to imagine what horrors these criminals hope to lead us into. However they found us, we should move ourselves and all of our possessions out of this cave before nightfall."

"Do they think we're dumb enough to go to their dinner?" said Curtis.

"Well…" said Jason "are you sure we should rule it out?"

"Please tell me you're joking." said Roland.

"I'm not." said Jason. "I can't imagine what 'source of information' they used to find us, but that was no small feat. If they can find us, then perhaps they can find Leela."

"But it's a trap!" said Curtis. "Duh!"

"If they were really hostilely disposed towards us," Jason countered, "a bunch of them would've teleported here together and instantly killed us. Taken by surprise so effectually, we wouldn't have stood a chance. So they don't just want to kill us."

"They likely do want to use us in some way we wouldn't like." said Simon. "Whatever their exact purpose, our chance of somehow benefiting from the encounter is slim, and our chance of somehow being harmed is great."

"But it's all we have!" Jason cried in desperation.

"Suppose the man who spoke to us was telling the truth, then." said Simon. "He said the criminals he represented wanted us to join them. Do you want to be a gangster, Jason? I certainly don't. Organized criminals destroy the lives and fortunes of others for mere personal gain. They regularly defy the most basic principles of ethics."

"Not to mention morals." Roland growled at Simon. To Jason, he added "Even the freak realizes it's not good to associate with these people."

"Majority rules." said Curtis.

Jason was caught somewhere between rage and despair. What was he to do? This was one of the precious few opportunities for escape that the world extended to them—escape from the madness of constant adventure. Of course it was a long shot, but everything was a long shot. If the party didn't follow the leads they were given by the script, how could they ever expect to find what they sought? It hardly mattered what consequences they could realistically expect. If something went wrong, then something went wrong; all was inevitable, for all was scripted. That didn't mean Jason ought to really tempt fate—that's what he'd done three weeks ago, and look how he'd paid!—but given the choice between trying their luck and staying the course of fruitless wandering and waiting, between a bit of hope and almost none, Jason thought it best to take the gamble.

"Guys," said Jason, "there's no way we'll just bump into my clone again. If we don't go to this dinner, what will we do? I don't trust these criminals, either. But in truth, I do trust the scriptwriters."

"Forget it, Jason." said Roland. "Let's start packing."

"No, wait!" Jason cried. He racked his brains for some way to convince his friends to come, but he could find nothing else to say. He stood there with his arms upraised, his mouth open, and his chin trembling.

"Why?" said Roland simply, after waiting for Jason to continue for some time.

<C'mon, why would Roland want to… yes, perhaps that might work!> "Roland! These are nasty criminals, aren't they? Slaughterers of innocents and everything? Doesn't their very existence make your blood boil?"


"Well, you've just been pointed to a whole nest of 'em! What are you gonna do, just let 'em slide by? They'll keep on killing people if something isn't done about them."

"I don't see how―"

"All I'm saying is, seems to me that we've got a way to identify a whole lot of mass murderers. If we don't somehow bring them to justice on the scene, we can certainly give a few anonymous tips to the Droydanian police." Roland was greatly unsettled, and surprised enough not to respond when Jason gave him the chance. "What I'm saying goes for you two, as well." Jason added. "Believe it or not, this adventure gives us significant opportunity to do real and lasting good."

"So we wouldn't really join the crooks." said Curtis.

"Well, that's the other thing." said Jason. "Suppose we do join the crooks. That would give us access to all kinds of resources and protection otherwise entirely unavailable to us. And rather than helping them, we could secretly sabotage all their attempts to do harm." By some miracle, none of the mages were reminded of Beatrix's second marriage. "Once they'd brought us into their confidence, we could blow the whistle on a lot more people, and we'd probably be able to direct the police to evidence that would ensure speedy conviction."

"All right," said Simon, "you've convinced me, at least, that if the criminals are honest, we could help both ourselves and the citizens of Droydania by attending this dinner. Since they make their livings through dishonesty and treachery, though, we can't expect gangsters to be honest."

"Yes, there's a good chance they're lying." said Jason. "But there's a decent chance they aren't. From what they and the rest of the public have heard of our exploits, they have every reason to think we're as rotten as they are. And by surviving so many exploits, we've shown how strong we are—strong enough to be a formidable asset during any dangerous heist. They might well really want to make us one—uh, four of them.

"Perhaps they're lying, and they plan to betray us. Well, what of it? We won't go into that mansion unprepared, and we're by no means unable to defend ourselves. Curtis is a legendary mage, Roland's nothing to sneeze at, and you, Simon, have significant skill, as well." (This last bit, the implication that Simon was an above-average sorcerer, wasn't necessarily quite accurate, but Jason was in no mood to be gentle with the truth.) "We can stand up against those mooks—this is television. We can be heroes!"

That final word particularly impressed Roland and Simon; both stared at Jason with a kind of dumb reverence. That, then, thought Jason, was one thing these two disparate men had in common—a sort of yearning for heroism. Perhaps it was an expression of the particular moral outlook each of them had. Or, perhaps their particular ideas of right and wrong had in fact evolved from a deeper wish to be a hero. Thinking this, Jason felt closer to a true understanding of the relationship between Roland and Simon, the macho man and the eunuch, the violent and the placid, the choleric and the phlegmatic. Never could they show the least warmth toward each other, since Roland had thoroughly convinced Simon that all attempts at reconciliation would be in vain, yet Jason was sure that in some strange way he still had not fully realized, they were the same.