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Novellas & Novelettes

Zeus and His Things: Part 2/4

“Zeus and His Things” is a humorous speculative novelette inspired by (a) my decades-long love of Greek mythology, and (b) the question: What if things don’t really behave systematically, as we expect them to? This novelette published in four parts in Bewildering Stories Volumes 911 & 912 is a lighthearted engagement with the philosophy of science.

[Image: Archimedes. One of the scientists whose indoorsy vocation is seriously interfering with the chief god’s love-life.]

This is Part Two of a novelette published in four parts by Bewildering Stories. Parts One and Two were published in Issue 911; parts Three and Four in Issue 912. I am republishing it here over the course of this week. “Zeus and His Things” is a humorous speculative story inspired by (a) my decades-long love of Greek mythology, and (b) the question: What if things don’t really behave systematically, as we expect them to?

***

Part One


“Whether I would sink. And I did,” replied Bar of Iron, who was struggling to look serious; Trumpet, derisive of Bar’s sufferings, was producing guffaws of laughter that recalled inescapably sounds that a Thing must never make before a God. Bar wished for god’s sake he could explain his tortures more imposingly, but really that’s all there was to it. He’d sunk.

Zeus stared. “Archimedes discovered that a bar of iron would sink in a tub of water?”

“And that I,” sang Piece of Cork, “would not.” And I didn’t, and that’s what he’d predicted, and he was right, so he was excited, so he ran out naked.”

“Wow, he must’ve really been excited.” Zeus considered asking about the exact nature of these “experiments.” Had boundaries been breached? He feared he’d wound sensitive feelings. He hemmed and hawed. “Was he… ahem, are you sure sinking things and floating things was all that he was doing in that bathtub?”

“Oh, yes,” chirped Cork, “you see, he knew that cork floats and iron sinks, but he wanted to know why. So he thought and thought and figured it was because Bar of Iron suffers from motion-sickness. That old man with his granny underarms made a lot of waves on the surface of Tub of Water. It was like a dance floor heaving in three dimensions. And somebody heavy, like old Barrie here, might get so he had to hurl. So Archimedes theorised that Bar likes the bottom of the tub ’coz it’s more quiet-like.”

“It took him a week in the tub to think of that? Well, was he right? Why do you float, and why does Bar sink? I’ve never wondered. But now it’s gonna drive me mad; I’m never gonna be able to take a bath again.”

“‘Again’?” muttered Wayside Seat, cursing the sadistic stonecutter who had cut him a nose but no fingers to pinch it.

“Piece of Cork, I command you to tell me why you float.”

“I’d rather not, sire, my lord. Me… oh, you know me, the water won’t let me down to the bottom, no sir.”

“Why not?”

“Well, Archimedes had been sitting in that bathtub a really long time, putting me on the surface and watching me float and wishing I’d just sink like Bar of Iron or at least go to hell. But just at that moment I felt like staying up, because, you see, I had no wish to go down and see Archimedes under the water.

“So there I was, floating along but a guy’s gotta go, you know? I mean, for all I know he was going right there, right under me and above Barrie, but Things’ve got more manners than men, you know? I wasn’t gonna go right before an old man like that. So I waited till he looked away to make a great dirty sneeze, then I popped down and did my thing. And when Archimedes had finished his sneeze, there I was again, floating infallibly.

“But Tub of Water didn’t like it at all. So next time I had to go, she just wouldn’t let me down, and she knew I was too polite to go on the surface under his watery eyes. So I stayed up there, and how I held it in, I don’t know.”

“Oh,” said Zeus. It made perfect sense. He’d like to see anyone try to go within forty aeons of himself. “What about Bar of Iron: why did you sink, actually?”

“I’ve got this thing for a Block of Wood,” Bar confessed, blushing. “I was trying to get a tan — iron oxide is Pantone’s hot colour this autumn — so I hung out at the bottom of the tub to make sure I was done evenly: tummy and shoulders.”

Zeus passed his hand over his mighty brow. “I think what Athena told me was: Archimedes wanted to formulate a law?”

“Yes, sire, the law of buy-’n’-see,” said Atom. “And I’m part of the laws that matter.”

“And I,” bleated a half-decayed half-mangled Corpse of a Gymnast, “Was dug up from my grave and carved up to see how many tendons I have.”

“This is really too much!” cried Zeus. “Digging up corpses!”

“That’s nothing, sire,” said north wind Boreas, huffing indignant. “Some fellow called Hypocrite-Ass wants to know the effect of the winds on the… humours, he calls them. There’s red stuff and yellow stuff, and the stuff does some business, but only if it’s in balance and suchlike gobbledygook. He’s been running around Hell-Ass—”

“Hellas,” corrected Zeus. “Just say ‘Greece.’”

“Greece, reverse-engineering from their effect on these humours the personality of the water and the soil and the winds. So he can formulate laws and connect them into a theory and tell people how the elements affect their health.”

“What does all that mean?”

“It means he wants to determine cause and effect, and explain Why.”

“I wasn’t aware,” said Zeus, fuming, “that I gave you permission to have any effect on people’s health. That is to depend on their pious punctiliousness and on my moods only!”

“Yes, sire. I never have had any effect on anything, milord. I just capsize a few ships now and then, when their owner has pissed off Poseidon. Or I hasten the Brown Leaves to their autumn graves, when the Four Sisters decide it’s time to winter. That apart, I behave just like any other Thing or God. I just do whatever the hell I want.”

“So, this Hypocrite-Ass, has he got his theory?”

“Yes, Majesty. You see, men believe Things follow laws. So Hypocrite-Ass thought he only had to be observant enough, and a bit imaginative, and the laws would become manifest. Now, that’s where we’ve all been staring at a minder-bender. When Your Majesties created the world, you didn’t tell us how we were to behave, at least not to the best of present recollection.”

“It never occurred to me. I assumed you’d just stay in your places and out of my women.”

“Exactly,” Atom took up, “But, you see, Highness, men are full of strife, and among them it is not as it is among you: that one can just enlist the Cyclopes to forge him a lightning bolt with which to zap everyone else tongue-tied. Men are weak, and so men evolved laws. And naturally they expected that the world, created by one so mighty as you, would also follow laws.”

“That’s the worst logic east of my father’s castration,” swore Zeus. “Even if there were laws, what business have men to try and figure them out instead of performing continuous sacrifice to Me?”

“Men worship you because you have power to do them good, to keep them from harm,” squeaked Piece of Cork, sneaking back from the little break he’d sneaked out on, zipping up his tunic. “Cause and effect. You, sire, represent to those excitable old fools one degree of simplification of an unknown universe.”

“And unknowable!” thundered Zeus, slamming his fist down on Wayside Seat. “How dare men make laws and understand Things? I don’t! There’s nothing to understand!”

“Because your lordship in his wisdom understands there’s nothing to understand. As I started to say,” said Boreas, “we’ve all been behaving lawfully just when men were looking at us. We didn’t know if we should; but all these men have the common trait of… er, not being your most fervent believers, and we were afraid that by behaving just as we liked, as we normally do, we’d substantiate these fellows’ claim that Order — ergo, God — doesn’t exist.”

Start of Zeus’s light-bulb flash

Zeus’s eyes opened wider and wider until they threatened to rend Sky from Earth, whereupon Sky fled to the other hemisphere, and Night dropped two hours prematurely upon that day. Now the great Convention of all Things was lit only by the smoulder of Zeus’s eyes.

In the suspense, Brown Leaf trembled so badly he was sure he’d wet himself again. He couldn’t afford to; Autumn Tree, on which Leaf hung, was shading Zeus’s head. If he wet himself, Leaf would trickle-down-economics right onto Zeus. Leaf struggled to get Wayside Seat’s attention, to get Seat to scoot Zeus over a bit, for Leaf wasn’t scooting anywhere until he went to the Ground.

End of Zeus’s light-bulb flash (at 5h50, the new Olympian World Record)

Said Zeus: “Do you mean that men believe that if there’re no laws, there’s no… Me?”

“Why yes, my lord,” said Fatty Neurotic Human Organ, “Fatty” for short, “That’s exactly how I work. When that cunning craftsman Hephaestus fashioned me in his forge on Lemnos, he seems to have made a tiny mistake. In all other ways he fashioned men to behave just as you do. They eat and make love and sleep and make love and make war and make love—”

“Nonsense,” said Zeus, interrupting Fatty’s version of the theory of What is the Essential Difference Between Men and Gods or Other Animals. “Nonsense. No one makes love as much as that. Not even I.”

“But in one thing men are different.”

“Men die,” gasped Brown Leaf. Despite Leaf’s best efforts to commandeer his bladder a great drop was falling in stop-motion towards Zeus’s head. Squeezing his eyes shut, Leaf counted his last seconds.

“Precisely, and because they die they think there’s Meaning. So they look for it.”

“Meaning… in laws?” Zeus asked.

“Yes,” said Corpse of a Gymnast, “And so we’ve all got to behave in some sort of a systematic way, so that men don’t realise it’s all just—”

“Random?” suggested Fatty. “That events fall out along the normal probability curve, with the modal event most likely and the extreme events least likely, by a factor corresponding to standard deviation and kurtosis?”

“Er, no,” said Boreas. “That it’s all just like… whatever. Like, Piece of Cork stayed on the surface, not because he was in a deadlocked wrestling-match with Tub of Water, but because he wasn’t curious about Archimedes’ anatomy. If he had gone up and down obeying nature’s calls, Cork and Bar and Archimedes would’ve been in that tub, him working out his theory, till Tub got so tart with pee it dissolved all three.”

“Whew, my luck huh?” Cork wiped his brow.

“And, like me,” boasted Atom. “An Atom isn’t just a Globe Jr., like this. That’s just lame. I’m… I don’t claim to have a Shapeshifter Certificate. That sexist, goddist Proteus has all these little loopholes like height requirements to make sure only Titans are eligible for his off-campus Shapeshifting postgraduate diploma. But I mean, I am whatever shape I need to be, to fit the edges. Like, if I’m on the tip of Athena’s nose on the Argo’s figurehead, then I’m all woody and pointy. But if I’m in the pillow of that honest labourer who should’ve bought me from the carpenter in the shape of his bed—”

“You said dining-table,” Mute Pig Morse-coded, Fatty subtitling.

“Whatever. If I’m in the pillow, oh, then I’m a flabby, puffy, sinky little atom. I’m whatever I need to be! But now I’ve got to act all normal, and lawful, and be Mr. Globe Jr. all the time. Really, if I were a real, useful piece of furniture, instead of a dumb model, I’d be having a hell of a time keeping up with all that shapeshifting.”

“That’s exactly our problem,” said Boreas with a sigh so mighty it chilled Corpse of a Gymnast to his bones, which meant it didn’t have far to go. “What with acting all orderly when I’m under observation, following whatever law the Men peering at us are about to discover — and doing my own thing at other times — I’m losing it.

“There I was the other week, hanging around a stable where lives the most ravishing mare you ever saw, tabulating the grooms’ and stable-boys’ schedule so I could, you know, pop in and do my thing when in flies brother Zephyr bringing news that Hypocrite-Ass is at it again, now in Sparta. Wants to know what the Elements have got to do with the Spartans’ friend-flogging and board-sleeping and other alternative lifestyle choices.”

“What have the Elements to do with it? If Ares was his roommate, he’d soon be sleepwalking in chain-link tighty-whities and foraging weevils for Sunday pot-roast.”

“Yeah, right?” said Boreas. “I mean I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. There we are, all four of us Winds, in a council-of-war with the local water-bodies. We don’t even know we’re supposed to be ‘Elements,’ like what’re we supposed to do?”

“So, what did you do?”

“We went and killed some people. I jumped down a man’s oesophagus and sucked up his lungs, and a Hamadryad opened up her walnut tree and swallowed a woodcutter as he was jaunting home whistling, and a Satyr nudged a boulder off a crag and flattened a couple of sailors. We figured that would distract the old dork.”

“That way,” said Zephyr, “we figured we couldn’t be far wrong. My theory is: all this Theory business is just Men trying to be immortal. Like with Forest, and scavenging her herbs. So if people started dying unexpectedly, the dorks would know their theory was incomplete.”

“So? What did Hypocrite-Ass conclude?”

“That men of sanguine humours unbalanced by melancholy proclivities experience blockage of the vital cavities in regions of thin air and heavy water.”

“Oh you should’ve seen us act,” said Boreas. “We were like adolescent chimps at a Vogue photoshoot. We were scratching our pits, drooling all over his notebook and there he was, Hypocrite-Ass, scribbling copious notes. I mean I barely made it back in time for my little mare. By the way, if anyone’s into gambling — any horse out of the Augean stables, in 1200 years’ time at the Circus Maximus — sure bet. Sons and daughters of the wind, they’ll be. My great-great-great-great—”

Zeus’s head whirled. He shuffled and fidgeted into the thinking pose, leaning head on hand, the position he associated with optimal cortical arousal, by the theory of Postural Feedback. He was getting mighty distracted by the Things’ tirades, losing sight of why he’d assembled them to start with.

“So we have a problem,” he concluded. “Most of you are useful Things” — trying not to catch the eye of Atom, who stood pouting — “meaning you have a life; and all this observation and measurement is seriously interfering with your activities, sexual or otherwise.”

“Damn right,” said Boreas.

“But you said it yourself: the reason men study you and theorise about you is because they look for Order, i.e. for proof of Me. Oho, they want proof, I’ll give them proof!” Smoke oozed from his pores in sudden wrath. “No,” he said, restraining himself with an inhalation which vacuumed into his mighty nostrils Brown Leaf and seven dozen other trivia. “No, I already tried punishing Man with the Flood, and that wasn’t any good, just a bother with Deucalion’s Ark and a transfer of property from me to Poseidon. Besides, the Fates have decreed that the very next time I destroy the world, it’ll be for good. So: so long as a few thousand Men do their duty, continue to offer up to me hymns and fragrant entrails, humanity shall be spared my wrath.”

“Fragrant?” said Leaf. “The smoke from burning fat-and-bones, wafting up at me the livelong night? God-sized must be your imagination, incense-addled, to find that fragrant.”

“You’re suggesting we keep doing this?” cried Corpse of a Gymnast. “You don’t know what it’s like! As if it wasn’t bad enough being dug out of my grave, I had to make stuff up! I who have the imagination of a… clothes horse. I had to draw in tendons and nerves and stuff, so when the grave-robbing doctor peered at me, he’d find what he wanted.

“And I don’t even know what he wanted! I just drew some stuff in the places I’d got hurt in my training days, where I’d realised I had stuff, like my toes that time throwing disc. Every morning, when that body-snatcher left me to visit his patients, I’d go back to being just me and, in the evening, when I heard his footsteps, I had to draw Me all over again! And I didn’t remember what I’d drawn! I have the memory of a—”

“Clothes horse,” Atom supplied. “That’d be something useful for me to be!”

“I tell you,” said Corpse, “The stress is killing me. I crapped myself thinking: now he’s gonna see it’s all different from yesterday, a joint is inside out, or there’s a tendon where there’s supposed to be a pop-up apoptosis workshop. Finally, the smell of putrefaction got so bad he chucked me out.”

“If you had no idea what to draw where, you must’ve made a mistake somewhere,” said Zeus.

“Oh, I did. His reaction? He thought he was nuts. I mean yes, but — he thought his memory was horsing around, or he’d come to the wrong conclusion — the wrong conclusion about whether a metatarsal was a foot bone or that chink in the bathroom tiles! He never even thought it could be anything else, that when he isn’t looking, there’s nothing there.”

“So why don’t you all just stop pretending there is something, pretending there’re laws?” said Zeus. “They’d stop looking soon enough.”

The Things stared. That hadn’t occurred to them. Men had come to measure Things, predict Things with so much deference, so much worship of the unknown, that no Thing had thought of saying: “Too bad, pal. Nothing here.” The Things had just dropped whatever they were doing and put on a little show for men’s benefit.

Why not stop pretending? Then men would stop theorising soon enough. Sounds good.

The Convention dispersed.

* * *

Part Three

Part Four

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

One reply on “Zeus and His Things: Part 2/4”

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