Today you could just about leap out of your skin and fly through the Verses on excitement alone, because on this day you’re leading your own team on the second ever Para Initiative Portal Exploration Survey. These PIPES missions are high risk operations offering no certainty about where the portal will open into, or if it will be a one way trip.
Nonetheless, you fought for this chance because you believe in the work of the Para Initiative. Now you, Akio, and Eliza are being transported to the portal site, your fingers brushing over your lucky coin, while your mind wanders from the casual conversation around you to linger in the memory of saying goodbye to your family.
Packing up your last items, a young boy cautiously enters your office clutching his favorite stuffed dragon and looks morosely at your desk. The surface is littered with a mix of high tech devices for data collection and low tech back ups like a pocket spyglass, compass, and mini sewing kit. He picks up a magnifying glass and looks up at you through it with his big, beautiful, brown eyes, giggling, in spite of the tears that are so near erupting.
You reach down, enfold him in your arms, and in one smooth movement sit in your chair with him on your lap still smiling. “What’s up, Little Man?” you ask. “You ready to come with me?” You guide the magnifier to the desk before he drops it.
“Yeah!” he cries out, “I’m ready for anything!” He’s making his arms dance like a superhero from a cartoon for extra emphasis.
“Oh, Keon”, you say as you hug him close and lay your cheek on top of his tight black curly hair, breathing in the scent of your child, “I wish you could, but this is grown-up stuff. Besides, you’ve got school, and someone’s gotta keep your Daddy in line.”
Keon snuggles in close mumbling, “I know,” in a way that says he’s heard it before, “don’t forget me, mama”.
“Ooo child!”, you pull back to look into his eyes, “you know I can’t forget you! You’ll be right here all the time,” as you touch your heart he puts his hand on yours. You give him a little tickle just to hear him laugh one more time. Jayden comes in then, holding your toddler in his arms.
“Your ride’s here,” he says, “Let’s go, Keon. Time to get ready for school.” When you finally did make it out the door, you shared a long embrace with Jayden, who offered a final encouragement, “I love you, and I got this. Just be safe and come home.”
You shake your head and get back into the present. You’ve arrived at the landing area, and you’ll have to hike the rest of the way. This portal is either so small and remote that it stayed hidden for thousands of years, or it’s new. Extensive analysis has already been done to be sure that it won’t open out into space, a toxic atmosphere, or many other terrible environments, but no one can be sure exactly which verse it connects to until someone goes in.
There was always the possibility that the Initiative missed something critical in the analysis, so everyone is loaded with survival gear as well as scientific equipment. Every pocket of your tactical suit is bursting and your packs are similarly full. After hours of hiking and climbing through a narrow cave passage, you arrive at the secured area where a 1.5 meter diameter portal sits like a still pool of water on the floor of the cave.
“We go in single file, just like we planned.” You direct the team, “Take a breather and let’s get to it.”
You’re the first one through, folding your arms across your chest, jumping feet first into the portal, and letting it carry you. The sensation feels like floating in water without the wet. Everything goes dark, then you’re moving unbelievably fast through currents of light. In shock, you realize that your clothes are tangling around you and that you’re shrinking!
You fumble with the clasps and snaps trying to free yourself, but you keep getting smaller until you can’t reach anything as you slide through a pant leg. In the next moment you fall out of the air from what feels like two stories up. Scrambling to your feet you run for cover as a torrent of items, once held in your pockets, come crashing down around you.
The clattering of metal and plastic on stone sounds all around you, and you realize that you’re in a cave with the acoustics of a cathedral. It’s comfortably warm, and you see the orange glow of possible firelight ahead. Your clothes and pack never make an appearance through the portal, but your teammates soon do.
That’s when you realize that everyone is naked as the day they were born.
“Shit!” Your expletive joins the others in a chorus of shock. “We’re not only naked, but we’ve been - shrunk!” you point to a personal data pad that normally fits in the palm of your hand now as big as a large baking sheet.
Eliza points up to where the portal hangs in shadow near a cluster of bioluminescent mushrooms with broad caps, “That portal isn’t much bigger than these mushrooms.”
Akio adds, “Do you think the portal will reverse this effect when we go back? If we can go back?”
“Let’s get our things and try to find the opening to this cave,” you suggest. “You two start collecting this mess and take stock of what made it through. I’m going to scout ahead towards that light and see what’s there.”
You move stealthily out of this large chamber and around the bend where the orange glow dances on the stone. The corridor opens into an even larger cavern filled on one side with glowing hot coals and delicate flames. Very near you a glint of metal catches your eye and you see your lucky coin resting like a platter on a large chunk of ember. It must’ve rolled and bounced here from the force of the fall.
A picture forms in your mind that becomes language and you feel rather than hear, A fine offering - I accept! You’re still confused, and reaching toward the coin, when a red lizard that was curled up nearby stands, stretches all four legs like a cat, walks onto the coin flapping its wings, and lays down again, perfectly centered on the metal disc. It curls its tail and looks at you with smug satisfaction.
Relative to your new diminutive stature, the lizard is more like a Corgi in size. Its eyes narrow, another message forms in your mind, You are the right size for dinner, and its mouth seems to curve up into a smile. Maybe two can play this game. You try to send a message of your own, Greetings, I mean no harm, what shall I call you? Just then you notice how much it reminds you of Keon’s dragon.
Dragon, of course, you get in return as streamers of smoke emerge from its nostrils, my pledge name is not yet revealed, although “Corgi” is right out.
You ask, Is this your cave? Its wings shake and tail flicks back and forth, maybe in mirth, as you feel the answer, Oh yes! As the youngest here I’m obviously the most important! You look around more carefully, are there more of them? The giant coals are dotted with eggs patterned to blend in seamlessly, and there are many other draconian shapes of various sizes lounging about among them. You bow low in exaggerated deference think speaking, I’m humbled to be in such grand company!
The energy changes in the nursery as a small group of humanoids enter carrying small bundles and obviously checking on the well being of the dragons here. One approaches you without surprise and communicates using the same telepathic style. Welcome, stranger. We must skip the usual formalities due to this unusual circumstance. Please accept this gift of simple clothing and be at ease.
She continues while you dress, In making an offering of such wealth to this juvenile, you’ve made a pledge to them which must not be broken. Once the psychic link is formed it can create terrible trauma if rejected. She pauses and beckons another forward with two more bundles, These are for your friends. In our culture we - merge - with the dragons as a way of life that creates harmony in our story. Please join us and honor your gift pledge to this youngling. There is so much more to tell!
You’re stunned. You call your team forward and they take their gifts with gratitude. Looking at the woman you send, We must discuss this among our group first. We came here to study and then return home. I have a family. She nods, They’re welcome here, too. This youngling has chosen you for family, which must include your human one.
Keon would love a dragon sibling, but what of Jayden and Taraji? The dragon’s golden eyes shine on you as it says, They will be as impressed with my magnificence as you! I know you can think of nothing but the new stories we shall write together and the heights we shall fly to.
Hold to your scientific impartiality and keep your distance from the dragons as you stay only long enough to collect some data, map the area, and leave at the soonest opportunity. It may harm the dragon if you go home, but you hope a quick departure will minimize it. You're here for knowledge, not to become a dragon's companion.
Divide your time between your Synthex home, this new world, and your work for Para as you try to fulfill your obligation to this young dragon, and your family. Dividing your time between these two homes will be hard, but you won’t choose between these two worlds.
Nurture the relationship with the dragon, but it must come with you when you return to Synthex. Surely you can make many more lengthy trips to this place over the years, but you can’t give up on the life you’ve already built.
Of course you’ll stay! There was always a risk of not returning home, but now you can share this adventure with your loved ones. Jayden regularly goes away on archeological digs and this is not your first long term mission. Para will need permanent ambassadorial personnel here, which you’re well suited to becoming, even if it means uprooting your life.
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[Archivist's Note: 8 supported staying and uprooting your old life, 4 preferred scientific objectivity, and 1 each thought to try to straddle worlds.]
The next few weeks throw you headlong into learning about this new place, new culture, and new responsibility even before you can decide how to best handle the situation. Akio and Eliza avoid getting too close to the dragons and do an excellent job securing your pile of supplies to avoid any further misunderstandings. They respect your decision to stay, but would rather not be put in the same position.
You theorize that you’re now living somewhere in the Commedia verse. This community has chosen isolation high up in the remote mountains as a way to create a kind of sanctuary from the chaos that can be the way of things here. They’ve devoted generations to studying the nature of their world and the art of storytelling as an element of nature with as much impact as biology.
You can’t help but feel like a renowned author or accomplished songwriter would make a much better ambassador than yourself, but you’re the one who landed in the role, and now you have to overcome the learning curve. The way people here talk about “seeing” the stories all around them feels like a bee trying to explain the obviousness of the ultraviolet spectrum to someone who just lacks the same physiological capabilities. You wonder if you’ll ever be able to truly share in this experience.
“Your arc was predictable and lacking in lift” is one of your new dragon companion’s many technical responses to such thoughts. ”Your need is great, which makes you easier to direct with the right application of adjectives. You’re lucky to have earned me as your guide in these matters!”
“Yes, it’s incredible that my underdeveloped brain can manage the basics of language”, you offer wryly.
“Like a non sequitur seeking a premise,” and you thought you were good at language.
“Everyone loves a cute little know it all,” you retort as smoke puffs out of its nostrils. “Joking aside, why do you all use thoughts to communicate rather than just using your voices?” you ask.
The dragon sits up attentively and swishes its tail thoughtfully before answering, “The grander the stage,” spreading its wings wide for emphasis, “the bigger the audience,” striking a pose as if on stage, “or the louder the performance,” letting loose a single note that briefly fills the cavern, “then the more effective the words.” Finally sitting again the dragon muses a little more, “Composition matters, too, but even a single word can have a profound impact at the right moment. Thought speech is like a whisper at the back of the stage with an audience of one.”
“So, no screaming matches in the town square”, you respond with a grin.
“What ever will you do for entertainment?” the dragon drops onto the coin as if in abject boredom, “It’s all studying and quiet contemplation from here on out*”, and finishing with a wink.
Yet the place was not always quiet.
Every morning most members of the Sanctuary, as you’ve come to call it, gather together in an amphitheater to participate in the telling of their stories. They have an impressive library filled with manuscripts recording stories, histories, esoteric treatise on language, and much more. They have a methodology for determining when it is most auspicious to speak a story or put on a performance for even greater effect.
Often these tell of a place where outside prying eyes lose interest and the people within are adept at avoiding attention. Yet other stories tell of fortuitous discovery offering mutual benefit. Clearly they wanted to stay hard to find, yet they seemed to be using the art of storytelling to impact or create many probable outcomes.
This prompts another question for the youngest and most magnificent dragon of your acquaintance, “Why do the people here tell so many different stories with different possibilities?”
“Perhaps you do need to read more”, it suggests, “We can’t let the narrative arc go flat or become so predictable that we become vulnerable to a climactic crisis. If we lose our sense of the possible we can no longer impact what’s probable.” You would swear the dragon’s scales shimmer when it expounds on this subject.
“Okay,” you say, “but that story about keeping hidden comes up a lot. What makes that probability so important?”
“Yes! It is of paramount importance that we stay out of the way of the most chaotic and fragmented stories so often unleashed by careless humans. We dragons are especially wise in the ways of storytelling, and once were sought after to fix epics wreaking havoc in human lands.” The dragon takes flight and performs this story as much as thinks it, “Humans once knew the value of our counsel, and made great offerings in trade. Then their plot twisted and they expected all in exchange for nothing. We were blamed for the failures of others to manage their own scope when we refused to risk our own stories to intervene.” As the dragon alights back down on the cozy metal coin it finishes, “So, we built this place to teach the worthy and learn more, never again to be sought to fix what others broke.” Those blazing golden yellow eyes turn to look directly into yours, “You’re a very lucky human.”
“You know, you’re lounging on my lucky coin.”
“As I said, a fine offer. You proved your worth!*”.
While you’re working on studying the local culture, some Sanctuary residents spend a lot of time with Eliza and Akio discussing the nature of the tools neatly arranged in the cave; asking for exhaustive details about how they’re operated and the nature of the relationship they have with the user. Expert storytellers craft a series of tales about several of them and the use they serve. They engage the outlanders in telling these stories together day after day for weeks.
The items do transform, seemingly in response to the stories of their changing, and their size returns closer to something usefully proportioned. Data can finally be collected and your team is now able to attempt the portal home. Much to everyone’s relief this is a bidirectional portal, which returns your team to their original form upon arrival.
You can’t be separated from the dragon while your stories are still freshly developing together, making them unstable and vulnerable to chaotic expressions. You have to negotiate with Jayden about your future through messages carried back and forth by others. Meanwhile, a formal ceremony takes place, during which you and the dragon get your pledge names representing your mutual vision of your joined stories.
You become known as New Transitions Bring Joy and your companion becomes Strong Wings Carry Abundant Forms. It takes months to convince Jayden to visit, and more to decide to bring the kids. A padded net is built under the portal to catch people and items that come through, and miniaturized components for building an outpost also eventually arrive. Traffic is kept to a bare minimum on a strict schedule to avoid too much disruption in the dragon nursery.
Learning about this Verse is not as easy as learning a new piece of technology, but it’s worth every minute of effort. Your story is really just beginning.
Our story, the tiny dragon reminds you, it is good you didn’t say that aloud, or I might have disappeared in a puff of smoke! What would you do without me? Hmm? Oh, no, don’t thank me, you’re welcome.
[SHK-E Assessment: Staying with the dragon allowed the Para Initiative to incrementally improve its KNOWLEDGE and slowly win the HEARTs of the dragons and the people of Sanctuary over time. The risks of this realm of Commedia are not to be understated, and the staff from SAFETY Ethics Assurance spent many late nights worrying about how to best protect agents in a reality shaped by the spoken word.
KNOWLEDGE: Very Good
Para Initiative Reputations: Interventionist
Para Initiative Inventory:
Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People