Jason and Farrah sat on the balcony of his cloud house in the morning sun. As Taika and Travis came from inside, chairs made of cloud stuff rose from the floor.
“It’s time for the long version of how you two arrived here,” Jason told them as they sat.
“No worries, bro. It started with that big standing-stone thing you two made on the footy field in that abandoned town. No one was stupid enough to go near it while you were still around, although I’m pretty sure every country with a satellite was pointing it your way. There were also people on the ground watching you from kilometres away.”
“We were aware of them,” Farrah said.
“Things changed when you left,” Travis said, picking up the explanation. “You went through one of Jason’s archways and then what we’re pretty sure was a dig dimensional rift opened up. It looked like a portal, except that it covered the whole area of your standing stones, with only the outermost ones containing it.”
“It was stable?” Jason asked.
“Once it popped up, it was solid as a rock, bro.”
“And all the factions got curious,” Jason said.
“They were hesitant at first,” Travis said. “Once they were pretty sure you weren’t coming back out, though, they all swarmed the place like they used to do with Transformation zones.”
“The yanks were first,” Taika said. “They started throwing stuff in to see what happened. Even threw in some people.”
“They didn’t come back out,” Travis added.
“You wouldn’t catch me volunteering for that, bro.”
“And so you shouldn’t,” Farrah said. “If they didn’t go through at the same time as the rest of you, I doubt they survived. Unless they got caught up in whatever brought you here safely, those people are dead. Only someone like Jason could normally survive that passage, and even he had a limited window of viability.”
“Until I complete the bridge,” Jason said, “anything that tries to travel it will get dumped into the deep astral. Farrah and I got here riding the initial backwash from cutting off the magic pipeline to our world and riding that wave back as it triggered the monster surge here.”
“Then how did we survive?” Travis asked.
“We’ll get to that later,” Jason said. “You were talking about the Americans and their early testing?”
“Nothing anyone put in there came back,” Taika said, “so they stopped chucking stuff in and settled in to study it.”
“Earth doesn’t have any astral magic specialists,” Farrah said. “The grasp of magic theory there is quite limited and focused on magitech. They wouldn’t learn much from the rift.”
“Don’t underestimate the scientific method,” Travis said. “It might take years, even decades of careful study, but the potential gains from having access to it could accelerate our understanding of dimensional magic far beyond what it would otherwise reach. I don’t think they were wrong to study it. Knowledge for its own sake is a noble endeavour.”
“I know a goddess who will love you,” Jason said.
“A goddess?” Travis said.
“Oh yeah,” Taika said. “They turn up in person here, right?”
“Yep,” Jason said. “In fact, I’ll take Travis to the temple of Knowledge today. We need to know if she’s going to be wary of you introducing knowledge from our world. She was sketchy about me doing it, but I think now that was mostly an excuse for her to do other things. Plus, you actually know things instead of having just heard of them.”
“You're talking like there's no way of going home,” Taika said. “You did. Can't we?”
“Not interested,” Travis said. “My family cut me off after I helped you steal that nuke and well… I never had a lot of friends.”
“There won’t be another chance to go back for a long time,” Jason said. “I am going to open a path, but it will be years before it’s ready to use. I’m sorry, Taika. I know you didn’t want to leave your family.”
“My mum will probably think I’m dead,” the big man said sadly. “Can’t Dawn take us back? She can move between universes, right?”
“Earth is too fragile for a dimensional vessel to enter without causing damage,” Farrah said. “The Dawn you met on Earth was just a projection, like a living phone call from another dimension.”
“It’s just one little flying cottage,” Taika said. “That won’t break a whole world, will it?”
“The tip of a needle is also very small,” Jason said. “It’s still very bad news for a balloon. Maybe – maybe – she can get word back to the families of the people who wound up here. We’ll have to ask her after we get a handle on who arrived here.”
“Which brings us back to the question of what happened to bring you all here,” Farrah said.
“With all the people poking around your big magic thing,” Taika said, “Jason’s grandmother decided to send some people from Clan Asano to check it out.”
“The clan doesn’t have a lot of people with strong magical theory knowledge,” Travis said. “Mostly Hiro and Emi, who were both taught by you, Farrah. Matriarch Yumi wouldn't let either of them within a thousand kilometres of that place, though. Wouldn't even let them go back to Australia and kept them in Jason's cities. That left me, and Taika came along to help keep me safe.”
“I’m not up to facing some of those Network people,” Taika admitted, “but with you two gone, the clan’s silver-rankers were halved with just Akari and her old man left.”
“We weren’t getting too close to the rift or in anyone’s way,” Travis said. “We just wanted a general sense of what the factions were up to.”
“Didn’t matter,” Taika said. “One day, out of nowhere, the thing suddenly expands outwards. Sweeps over the camp. I know there were some gold-rakers I sensed moving out of the way, and I think the silvers that weren’t too close got away as well.”
“But we’re category two,” Travis said. “Taika is fast and maybe could have gotten away, because we were in the outer areas, but he was slowed down carrying me and didn’t get clear.”
“The rift swept over us, and that’s where things get funny,” Taika said. “I don't really remember stuff after that until I woke up in a crater. Except that I kind of do remember stuff. It’s weird.”
“Like you remember emotions, but not when or why you felt them,” Jason said.
“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” Taika said, pointing.
“That’s because your soul experienced things that your body didn’t,” Jason said. “It’s happened to me enough times that I’ve become familiar.”
“What happened to our bodies?” Travis asked.
“They were annihilated,” Jason said. “You died and came back; welcome to the resurrection club. I’m the president, but it’s largely a ceremonial position.”
Jason went on to explain the concept of outworlders to Travis and Taika. As he did, Clive wandered out from inside, he and Farrah helping clarify things as Jason’s explanation wandered into tangents and confusingly elaborate analogies based around action-adventure television.
“…and that show was going to be called Viper, but there was another show coming out called Viper that had a Dodge Viper in it, so the car company sued the non-car show and they changed the name to Cobra. And that’s kind of how a human turns onto an outworlder.”
“The first thing you need to do,” Clive said, “is ignore everything Jason just said because it was nonsense.”
“That's good advice in general,” Farrah added.
“Hey…” Jason complained.
“I liked Viper,” Taika said.
“Of course you did,” Jason told him. “It was crap Knight Rider again.”
“I suppose you preferred Cobra,” Taika said. “It didn’t even have a science-fiction car.”
“It had Michael Dudikoff,” Jason said. “He was the American Ninja!”
“Bro, that movie sucked.”
“Will you both please stop?” Farrah said. “I hate to break it to you, boys, but all of that stuff was terrible. All of it.”
“Coming from someone who thinks Beyond Thunderdome was the best Mad Max movie.”
“It was! Aunty Entity is an iconic character.”
Clive and Travis watched the three arguing and Clive shuffled closer, his cloud chair shifting with him.
“Did this kind of thing happen a lot over there?”
“Yep,” Travis said. “For someone who claims to not like television, Farrah borrowed DVDs from Jason’s dad a lot.”
“What are DVDs?”
Eventually, the conversation got back on track. Clive postulated an early hypothesis of what had triggered the rift expansion on Earth.
“Random dimensional events connecting worlds are a normal, if extremely rare thing,” Clive said. “Because there is a link between your world and ours, though, that frequency is increased. Even so, the right conditions for such an event to move someone from your world to ours are extremely rare. Jason, you were brought here because such an event just so happened to coincide with Landemere Vane trying to summon a clockwork king to this world.”
“That’s what he was doing in that basement?” Jason asked. “No wonder it went wrong. He didn’t have the power to stage that kind of ritual.”
“He had support,” Clive said. “The more we learn, the more we understand just how much more advanced than ours the Builder’s astral magic is. After we came back from the astral space – where you died, Jason – the old Vane estate was completely excavated. We’d discovered the cult was living underground in the cave system there.”
“Weren’t we right on top of that at one point?” Jason asked.
“We were,” Clive said.
“I should have had Shade go scout it out when Henrietta didn’t want us to go down there. I’d just gotten him as a familiar and I wasn’t thinking about all the awesome ways he could help me yet.”
“I should have suggested it,” Shade said from Jason’s shadow. “As you said, it was the start of our relationship and I did not want to overstep. I was yet to learn that sometimes you need to be pushed, Mr Asano. And that sometimes, you need to be thrown.”
“It was for the best,” Clive said. “There was a small army of them. If we found them, they would have killed us and decamped before anyone came looking. We should count ourselves lucky they didn’t want to be revealed and come after us.”
“What did they find when they excavated the place?” Farrah asked.
“Powerful Builder magic tools. Broken, after the failed summoning attempt, but very powerful.”
“There was a ritual circle set into the floor,” Jason said. “I remember that.”
“We think that was a device to hide the real tools from Landemere's family,” Clive said. “You may remember that while he was a Builder cultist, the rest of his family belonged to a blood cult called the Red Table.”
“Oh, we remember,” Farrah said.
“Are they related to a great astral being as well?” Jason asked.
“No,” Farrah said. “They're just a group that likes to explore the kinds of blood and death magic that get you hunted down by the Adventure Society.”
“Anyway,” Clive continued, “the point is that Landemere's summoning went wrong. Maybe because he was trying to go beyond his ability, or maybe it was impacted by the dimensional event. Whatever the case, the result was that the summoning ritual was like a beacon, yanking Jason’s soul to the Vane estate.”
“And you think this grand summoning event in Vitesse did the same thing,” Farrah surmised.
“Yes,” Clive said, “but on a much larger scale. Instead of a natural dimensional event, we have this bridge you and Jason established using the link between worlds.”
“The bridge isn’t complete,” Jason said.
“Which is why anything that followed it would get annihilated,” Clive said. “But you can’t annihilate a soul. I think that your bridge and the massive summoning event might have converged after our team disrupted the summoning. It caused the right conditions on your world to expand the rift and draw people in, and the summoning was the beacon that pulled the loose souls into our world, turning them into outworlders. Essentially, the same thing that happened to you, Jason, but on a massive scale.”
“And now there’s a hundred and something outworlders from Earth,” Jason said, running a hand over his face. “Do we know anything about who they are?”
“They’re a mix of factions,” Taika said. “Everyone but the vampires, because they're kill-on-sight now. The handful that came over to team let's-not-have-a-blood-apocalypse have to be careful about showing themselves because of friendly fire. After you left, they made their move.”
“Great,” Jason said. “Vampire war.”
“They aren’t stupid enough to touch your domains,” Travis said. “The clan and the transformation zones refugees they took in are hunkered down and safe. The reason the silver-rankers didn't come to Australia with us was that we keep them on standby for anyone who needs to leave the domains and we were going out for too long to have them tied up.”
“Domains?” Clive asked.
“I’ll explain later,” Jason said. “And no one talks about them outside of this building, is that clear?”
“Why not?” Travis asked.
“Because I’m fairly confident we can’t be overheard here,” Jason said, “but out there is different. I have more than enough trouble to be going on with and I’m not looking for any more.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” Clive said.
“I learn slow and it usually needs to get beaten into me a few times,” Jason told him, “but I do learn.”
“That sounds more like you,” Clive said.
“Tell me about the outworlder group,” Jason said to Taika and Travis. “Anyone else I know?”
“I’m pretty sure, yeah,” Taika confirmed. “I don’t think they told anyone they know you, though, which is why Travis and I were picked out from the bunch. The others are all scared of you now they don’t have their organisations to back them. A lot of groups didn’t treat you so well when they had all the power and thought they could get away with it.”
“And now they aren’t the hegemons anymore,” Jason said, resting a hand on the pommel of his sword. “I’ve even got the hegemonic hegemon sword of hegemony.”
“The what?” Clive asked.
Jason invited the group to his party and brought up the description of his sword for them to see.
“Oh yeah, that’s the stuff,” Clive said happily as a system box appeared in front of him.
“I somehow feel dirty,” Jason said. “Just read it. Without licking it, for preference.”
“This seems good,” Clive said, glancing over the description. “It’s very heavily reliant on aura strength. I know your aura’s strong, but is it strong enough to sustain this kind of weapon?”
“I think he’ll be fine,” Farrah said.
“What’s a hegemony?” Taika asked as he peered at the item description. “It’s like every fourth word, bro. Is it something to do with hedges?”
“Hedges?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, bro. I remember you telling us a story about a magic trowel. Is this a gardening sword?”