The Fall

One day in early September, Jason arrived to his history class exceedingly early. The room was empty. He settled down in a chair in the second row from the front, left of center, and stared at the whiteboard. Having just finished "Dracula" earlier that day and little on his mind, he quickly grew bored. After searching the bookshelves for something that could hold his interest for a few minutes, he returned to his seat with a heavy color atlas of the verse of Gyeeds. He flipped through it, admiring the funny-shaped countries and the barely pronounceable names. Of course, Jason knew that pronounceability was only a matter of experience. Many words that he now used regularly in everyday conversation had sounded like tongue-twisters back when he'd still been monolingual.

Jason was largely unfamiliar with the geography of Gyeeds the verse outside of Gyeeds the city, so everything was new to him. One place in particular caught his eye: Koliporoth. This was Gyeeds's southernmost continent, a mammoth slab of permanently iced-over rock that surrounded Gyeeds's south pole. In short, it was the Gyeedian equivalent of Antarctica. The funny thing was, it looked an awful lot like the real Antarctica.

"Hmmm." said Jason.

After class, Jason asked and was given permission to borrow the atlas overnight. Somehow he hauled it to the apartment. Once home, the first thing he did was go to the dedicated Terran bookshelf and pull out "An Atlas of Earth". (At the moment, there were only two other books on the shelf—"The Ecology of Earth's Oceans" and ""Et Tu, Brute?": A Brief History of Terran Politics"—but over time, Jason and Roland planned to fill it with all sorts of books written about Earth or by Terrans.) Jason opened the Terran atlas to Antarctica and the Gyeedian atlas to Koliporoth and put them side-by-side on a table. Yes, the resemblance was real. Certainly the two continents were distinguishable, but they did share the same general shape, down to the peninsula like a rat's tail. Browsing the huge lists of features, Jason noticed that the name of the most populous research station in Koliporoth was pronounced not entirely unlike "McMurdo", the name of the most populous Antarctic station. Significantly more noteworthy were the summits called Pillow Knob, which appeared in exactly the same place in each verse and had been called the same thing by their respective discoverers.

"Hmmm." said Jason.

A glance through verseviewers confirmed what Jason had suspected: both Pillow Knobs were identical, even though the geography surrounding them wasn't. Jason, licking his lips and pulling out the coin, asked "Is there any connection between the Gyeedian and the Terran Pillow Knobs?" He was afraid the coin would land on its edge, but it came down eagle-up. He felt a surge of hope: he was on to something now; the question was, what was the nature of the link? After thinking it over for a few minutes, he hazarded "Is there a way one can travel between the Pillow Knobs specifically, a way that doesn't work for other arbitrary routes?" Yes. "Does that way require casting a spell?" No. "Does it involve a particular sub-feature of the Pillow Knobs?" Yes. And so Jason found the coordinates of the sub-feature and looked, and there, on both Earth and Gyeeds, was a small cave-mouth in the side of the mountains, kept from being covered with snow by a large overhang of rock.

"So we're going into another mountain cave." Jason said to the mages once they'd all returned home and Jason had explained how he'd found the Pillow Knobs. "There's something in there that should take us to Earth, and then we can teleport to Leela. 'Bout time, huh?"

"'Bout time." Roland acknowledged. "Not that I anticipate our actually finding Leela, given our rotten luck so far."

"Yeah, neither do I." said Jason. "But I'm not giving up."

"It'll be cold there." said Curtis. "I think we need really thick coats."

"Indeed." said Roland. "I'll buy some. Jason, one question occurs to me. Suppose we do reach Earth without verseporting conventionally. Regardless of whether or not we reach Leela, will you want to visit your family?"

"I thought of that a while ago." said Jason. "The answer is, I'd like to see them more than anything, but I'm scared to death to do so. I'm afraid that if the Supernals discovered I cared for them, they might attack them, or threaten to attack them so as to blackmail me. My parents and my sister are defenseless: they don't have three mages to protect them, as I do. If we brought them into our fold, they'd be a liability to us, and their lives as they knew them would be destroyed. I will reunite with them someday, I swear—as soon this Supernal nonsense is over with."

It being winter in the southern hemisphere, Koliporoth (like Antarctica) had just begun its several-month-long night. The stars were out and it was a brisk -80 °F, far colder than it had been during the party's adventure in the Droydanian south pole; the party was kept from freezing to death by thick coats that magically kept themselves heated. At least it wasn't snowing at the moment. They looked out over the vast, icy world, an excellent view of which would've been afforded by their position on a flattish part of a mountain if it weren't for the distinct lack of sunlight and the thick, glittering fog. Decent illumination was provided by the full moon and a strong lantern Roland carried. Yet Jason felt partly blind, as the several layers of cloth that covered his face completely blocked his sense of smell.

"God, it's freezing!" Roland wailed, and the others moaned their agreement. "Where's the cave, Jason?"

"Can't tell easily." came the reply. "I'm not oriented. I need to get my―"

Then the breath was knocked out of him as Simon bowled him, Roland, and Curtis over. Before Jason could even exclaim his surprise, a fearsome plume of fire sailed over his head. It was the breath of a twenty-foot-tall lime-green dragon that certainly hadn't been there just a moment ago, and had it not been for Simon's timely intervention, Jason would now be well-done. As they all struggled against their heavy clothing to regain their footing, Jason gazed upon the frighteningly large claws, the eyeballs the size of his head, and the powerful muscles beneath the scales, and hoped that after this, he would never have to see another dragon again.

Jason ran until he felt he was a reasonably safe distance away and then watched his comrades defend themselves against the monster. The dragon didn't hold back. It swung its claws wildly, nearly tossing Curtis off the mountain, and followed up with a breath of fire that sent the mages scattering again. Roland somehow tore off his heavy clothing in just over a second, so that he stood there in the deadly cold in nothing but his suit, and screamed to the heavens. He shimmered with energy. With a whine so loud and high-pitched it made Jason dizzy, thick yellow beams of light sprouted from Roland's hands and struck the dragon in the chest. The dragon roared with pain; the attack had clearly been one of the strongest of which Roland was capable; yet all the harm that had been done was a bleeding wound that looked small on the monster's enormous body.

Roland, greatly drained from the one spell, had to catch his breath before he could move or attack again. The dragon, literally seizing the opportunity, sped towards the adventurer, flapping its wings to quicken its gait, and grabbed him in its claws. Just as it was about to throw him to his death, Simon cast a spell, and a small spot on the monster's arm glowed red. Though apparently unharmed, the dragon shrieked, and involuntarily loosened its grip, enough for Roland to squeeze his hands free. He used a spell that charged his whole body with electricity, forcing the dragon to immediately let him go.

At that point, some more monsters joined the fray: four deinonychus-like dinosaurs courtesy of Curtis. They leapt upon the dragon and began tearing at its flesh, even as they shivered intensely from the cold. The dragon tried shaking them off, but they sprang upon it again in the wink of an eye. So then the dragon jumped up and flew off the edge, over the icy wasteland hundreds of feet below. Two barrel rolls in quick succession sent all the dinosaurs plummeting. On the return trip, the dragon breathed fire again and just managed to ignite Curtis's coat; Curtis was able to quickly smother the flames on the snow.

The battle continued in this fashion for four minutes. Though the mages had superior firepower, the dragon was extremely tenacious, and the snow was painted with several coats of its blood before it began to show signs of weakening. Clearly, it would fight to the bitter end. And there was a reasonable chance it would bring at least one of the mages down with it, since they couldn't hope to evade every one of its attacks. Two of the dragon's swipes that just missed hitting home made conspicuous gashes in Simon's and Curtis's coats, and Roland somehow got part of his hair burnt off without his scalp being singed.

Soon, it became clear to all combatants that the dragon's end was nigh. It was injured far past the point of any possibility of survival, and was now in its death throes. Having previously grown sluggish as the blood drained from its body, it redoubled its efforts to bring down at least one of its enemies. It threw itself at Simon, heedless of the powerful energy bolt Curtis had just shot at it. Simon jumped backwards to avoid bisection, and so he escaped immediate harm, but he lost his footing and tripped over the edge. By some miracle, he managed to grab a hold on the icy, snow-covered cliff, and there he hung over a frosty oblivion by one hand. Then Curtis's spell struck the dragon. It wailed one last time, collapsed, rolled over, and died, with its head hanging over the precipice just a stone's throw from Simon.

Simon shouted, perhaps unnecessarily, "Help!"

Jason and Curtis rushed over to him without delay. But Roland got there first, and he didn't stoop to grab Simon's hand: instead, he stomped on it. Simon immediately lost his grip and fell.

The boys stopped in their tracks. Jason's heart fell along with Simon's body as Roland slowly turned to meet his eyes. After hesitating a few more seconds, Curtis rushed to the edge and looked down. Jason followed shortly. Peering downwards, they could see no sign of Simon—not that it made a difference. The drop was sheer; there was nothing Simon could've possibly grabbed onto, nothing he could've used to break his fall.

"He's dead." Jason forced himself to say. It came out very quietly and weakly, so he repeated himself more audibly. He turned to Roland, whose face was as expressionless as possible. He looked calm, peaceful, perhaps even satisfied.

"Someday, you'll understand this." said Roland.

"How could you?" Curtis shrieked. "You imbecile, he never did anything wrong, why'd you do this to him, he didn't deserve it, he didn't deserve to die, why'd you always hate him, why―"

Then they heard Simon's voice: he was casting a spell. Roland gagged. His feet were lifted off the ground, he hung in the air, and his hands were involuntarily clasped together behind his back. There were visible indentations on his throat: he was being telekinetically strangled. They all looked to one side and there was Simon, no worse for wear, his gloved right hand raised and clenched in a fist. He looked coldly at Roland, who of all three was the most surprised to see him.

"Don't worry; this won't do any lasting harm." said Simon. "I'm only hurting you now to help make my point: namely, that I can defend myself against you. Hate me if you wish, but do me no harm. In particular, don't try to kill me. I warn you that if you do so again, you'll fail again, and I'll kill you—not for the sake of vengeance, but to avoid death myself. Do you agree not to threaten me again?" He relaxed the pressure on Roland's throat so the adventurer could speak.

"Forget it, abomination of nature!" Roland growled. "Kill him!" The command was apparently directed towards Jason and Curtis. They weren't inclined to obey.

Simon sighed and choked Roland again with twice the original strength. Roland grew pale; now that he was no longer casting spells, the cold was returning to him. He would freeze to death if he didn't put his outer layers back on very soon. "Roland," said Simon, "swear to me that you will not threaten me again or I'll keep you restrained for the remainder of our travels together. You'd help me restrain him, wouldn't you?" he asked, turning to Jason and Curtis. After a few moments' hesitation, they nodded. "Notice that Jason and Curtis will not help you in this struggle. Do you swear, Roland?"

"I swear." said Roland. His face flushed red with shame.

"Thank you." said Simon. He stopped choking Roland, gently placed him on the ground, and released his hands. Roland lost no time getting into his warm clothes again.

"Simon," said Jason, "it's a miracle that you managed to survive that fall. How did you do it?"

"I teleported back here in midair."

"How?" said Curtis. "You need to be on a surface and at rest relative to the surface for vulgar teleportation to work."

"I managed." said Simon. "Jason, I think we should try to find the special geographic feature you discovered with the coin before the Supernals attack us again."

"Yeah." said Jason. "Did the Supernals make that dragon? I suppose so, though it was unlike their other monsters." He removed from his pocket the satellite-navigation–system receiver he had thoughtfully brought with him. "We're very close. Okay, this way…"

The receiver led them into the cave and down a narrow tunnel. Roland and Simon walked alongside the boys, ignoring each other as if nothing had happened. After about a minute of carefully picking their way over the icy ground, they arrived at a dead end, and Jason announced, "We should be within a few feet of it now."

Roland walked forth, holding up the lantern. There, sitting on the floor at the end of the tunnel, was a bizarre sort of sculpture. It was the outline of a pentagon made of a carefully chiseled six-inch-thick tube of stone, seven feet high, standing on its side. On its surface, a great many heavily weathered, regularly sized dots were engraved, arranged in seemingly arbitrary patterns. Somehow, the sculpture was rooted to the floor of the cave, and wasn't in danger of falling over.

"So my guess is that Antarctica is through this, uh, portal." said Jason.

"No, look." said Curtis. "The part of the cave you can see through it matches the part you can see outside."

"The teleportation happens after you step through it." Jason insisted. "Watch." He stepped through the frame. Nothing appeared to happen. "Uh-oh. Why haven't I verseported?"

Simon walked around behind the sculpture. "Actually, you may have." said Simon. "I could see you through the frame, but I went around it, and you're not here. Looking back, I can see the part of Curtis that's to the side of the frame, but looking through the window, it seems he's not there at all."

Jason ran around the sculpture. "Yeah, Roland and Curtis aren't here." And in the window, he could see Simon standing where he thought he'd just been. They waved, and Simon stepped through. "C'mon, guys, just go through." said Jason.

Roland and Curtis soon found their way to the others. "So this actually is a different cave." said Roland. "It looks identical."

"Right, it's the same ol' geographical symmetry." said Jason. "Come along."

They traveled up a tunnel just like the one they'd descended. Jason's receiver soon lost the signals of the Gyeedian satellites. When they exited the tunnel, they looked up to see a very different night sky.

"I recognize those stars." Roland said in an awed voice. "We're on Earth!"

Jason was no astronomer, but he could see one definite proof that he was no longer on Gyeeds: the moon, full in the sky above Koliporoth, was a sliver of a crescent here in Antarctica. Besides, the surrounding landscape was for the most part completely different. He had returned to the third rock from Sol, the most famous planet in the Virgo Supercluster, the birthplace of everyone from Alexander the Great to Alexander Pushkin to Alexander Graham Bell.

From there, they teleported directly to the Greenland ice sheet. So there they were in another frozen wasteland, but it was a summer day here, and about sixty degrees warmer: still inhumanly frigid by any reasonable standards, but nothing compared to the Antarctic winter. The foursome enjoyed being vastly overheated for a minute or so, then stripped off some of their outer layers, leaving them lying on the snow for the time being.

"I can feel my arms!" Curtis exalted. "And I can move them!"

"We're not going anywhere just yet." said Jason. "I don't have a GPS receiver, of course, and I didn't see any landmarks at the spot where Leela's hidden, so I'll need to use the coin."

As he zeroed in on Leela, first calculating the direction and then the distance, Jason's excitement grew. In spite of innumerable, nearly insurmountable obstacles, he was now extremely close to the one person in the multiverse who might be able to tell him the truth. As several confused reflections spun through his brain and he drew closer, there was suddenly a small explosion of snow. A hatch in the ice sheet had popped open, dislodging its snow-cover. Inside was a ladder, leading down to an electrically illuminated room with a smooth floor.

"That's a good sign." said Jason. His heart beat faster. "Okay, guys, this is it."

They retrieved their coats and then descended down the hatch, Jason first, Simon second, Curtis third, and Roland last. There they found themselves in a little nook like a coat-closet, with hooks for hanging up clothes and a mat for wiping the snow off one's boots. The nook opened into a small library, packed tightly with bookcases, that didn't fail to remind Jason of Earnest's house. (The builder was the same, after all.) In the library was a desk, and at the desk, looking up from an exceptionally weighty tome, was a gray-haired woman. She wore a heavy coat—sensibly enough, as the little house was weakly heated—and thick-lensed reading glasses, which she exchanged for another pair sitting on the desk as she examined the party. Her temple was wrinkled with knowledge, and her wide, dark eyes were uncompromisingly serious, but she had a smile of mixed relief and triumph, a sign of audacious longing that what had so long remained opaque would be made clear, that the mysterious predators who prowled through the dark would be suddenly thrust into the harsh light of day, which matched Jason's exactly.

"I'm sorry that was so difficult," said Leela Aranin, "but if you could find me, and they couldn't, then there is hope."