A Domestic Disturbance

by Bernie Mojzes

 

“We’ve got to tell Dad.”

The response wasn’t a unanimous “No!” but it was a resounding one, echoing off the marble floor, off the polished granite ceiling, filling the Great Hall.

“Oh, come on,” Eris said with a mischievous smile. “Do tell Dad. That should be fun.” She elbowed Dionysus hard in the ribs. “Tell them.”

The handsome, olive-skinned god opened his eyes and rubbed his side. He looked around the room, burped delicately, then lowered his chin to his chest and resumed snoring.

Hephaestus grumbled through his copious beard. “You don’t get a vote.”

Eris batted her eyelashes. Aphrodite rolled her eyes, and kissed her husband softly on the neck.

Hephaestus cleared his throat.

“You don’t get a vote,” he repeated. “You or that drunken sot sitting beside you.”

“Hear, hear,” said a striking, severe woman with a longbow draped over her shoulder. “About time someone put you in your place.”

An older man rose from his aqueous seat in the corner, approaching the woman who had just spoken. “This is your fault.” He poked her with a dripping finger, hard enough that she stepped back. Briny water splashed. “Giving her ideas.”

“Ideas?” Artemis reached for her bow, but checked herself. “Pray, Uncle, what manner of ‘ideas’ do you speak of?”

“Just look at you! Running around dressed like a man. Riding a horse like a man. Running wild in the woods. It’s not proper.”

Artemis dropped her gaze to the seaweed draped strategically around Poseidon’s loins and raised her eyebrows. “And that is?”

“I think,” Eris said before Poseidon could formulate a retort, “what she’s trying to say is showing off works better if you have something to show off.”

Poseidon seized her throat, dangling her from his thick fist. She giggled and clapped her hands, even as her face grew red and mottled.

“We are forgetting why we are here.”

The voice was soft, but commanding. Athena laid a cooling hand on Poseidon’s wrist. Cursing, he released his grip, letting Eris drop, gasping, to the floor.

Athena crouched next to her sister. “This is why you don’t get invited to parties, dear.”

Athena stood. She glowed softly. Elegantly.

“We’re here to solve a problem. Preferably without involving Father. He’ll be angry enough as it is, even if we manage to solve everything without his help. If he has to intervene, heads will roll, and it won’t just be Demeter’s.”

Athena’s twin brother spoke up. “We have to find her. And if she won’t listen to reason, we must force her to take up her duties.”

Athena narrowed her eyes. “You can’t force someone to do something she doesn’t want to.”

Persephone bit her lip, turning her face away.

Apollo banged his fist on the wall. “Well, we can’t just go on without a Goddess of Fertility, now, can we? Who here wants us to be the Gods of the Desert? Leave that for Yahweh, and see where it gets him, a couple thousand years from now. I hate to say this, but we need her.”

“Perhaps someone else could do it?” Athena looked around the room at the assembled Olympians. None would meet her gaze. The room filled with the sound of nervous throat-clearing. “Just for a while, until she comes back.”

Apollo looked at his sister. “Brilliant idea. You should volunteer.”

“Hello? What part of Virgin Goddess don’t you understand?”

“That,” said the quicksilver boy in the shadows, “is a curable malady.” Hermes elbowed the blind boy sitting next to him. “C’mon, back me up here. Maybe your mom can help.”

“No.” Athena’s tone held indisputable finality.

She turned to Apollo. “Brother, who was it that suggested that Demeter would come back to us on her own?”

Apollo looked at his shoes.

“What’s that? I can’t hear you. Who was it that said it was just a phase she was going through? That she didn’t know how lucky she had it, and this was just the thing to teach her to be happy with her lot? That ‘women just get this way sometimes, and you just have to wait it out until they come to their senses’?”

Apollo bit his lip. “I didn’t…”

“You did. No, Brother. You let her go. You take her job.”

Apollo glared. “Harvest? Fertility? Marriage?

Athena nodded, an odd smile on her face.

“You tread on dangerous ground, Sister.”

“Do I?”

“You’d have me do women’s work? I am both god and man, and—”

“That’s also curable.” Hermes grinned and shrugged. “Just sayin’.”

Eris shook Dionysus. “Wake up, you’re missing all the fun!”

“I’ll not do women’s work, and I’ll not be made a mockery of by the likes of you!”

“Bit too late for that.” Eris’ eyes glittered.

Apollo’s fists clenched. “The answer is no. If one of us has to do it, it should be Persephone. After all, it’s her mother that caused this mess.”

“Oh, right. Pick on the girl who won’t defend herself.” Hermes leaned back in his chair, tipping it back on two legs. “C’mon, Athena, be my fertility goddess.”

Athena rolled her eyes.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, babe. My rod has wings.”

“I think Persephone is the perfect choice.” Poseidon’s words crashed like the surf against rocks. “Let Demeter’s daughter suffer for her crimes.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Artemis said, but before she could continue, Hades stood.

“I will not allow this.”

“But think about it,” Apollo said. “She’s already got the fertility goddess genes, and she’s already married, at least half the time. It’s a perfectly logical choice.”

“I find myself in reluctant agreement with my brother,” Athena said. “She is a good choice. With her consent, of course.” Athena turned to Persephone. “You do see how this is really for the best, don’t you, dear?”

“Absolutely not.”

“It’s not your choice, Hades,” Athena said.

“I think you’re outvoted.” Ares’ mocking sneer reflected in his voice.

“There is no vote.” Hades took a step toward the God of War. “She’s my wife, and that’s it.”

“Only for half the year.” Ares leered. “The other half…”

Hades’ fist connected squarely with Ares’ jaw, knocking him backward. Ares came back with sword drawn. Eris leaned against the wall, smiling contentedly. At least, until Ares’ sword vanished mid-swing.

“Looking for this?” Hermes dangled the great blade between two fingers.

With a roar, Ares launched himself at the God of Thieves. Had he reached where Hermes stood, he would have found himself clutching empty air, but he never made it that far. Hades and Hephaestus tackled the God of War to the ground. Coming to Ares’ rescue, Poseidon grabbed the two gods by the scruff of their necks, but his hands were slick with algae, and they slid free.

Scrambling, Hephaestus lost his footing in the puddle that accompanied Poseidon wherever he went. He grasped Hades and Ares for support, and all three tumbled against Poseidon’s legs, spilling him to the slippery-when-wet marble floor. Poseidon’s flailing arms caught Apollo and Athena, who went down with an offended shriek.

Artemis, reliving her tomboy youth, waded into the fray, punching anything that moved.

Eris grinned and clapped. This was more fun than Troy.

Aphrodite frowned as she watched the melee, then jumped when she realized someone stood uncomfortably close behind her.

“Hey, babe,” Hermes said softly in her ear. “Let’s blow this joint. If you ask nicely, I’ll even let you play with my sword.”

Aphrodite pursed her lips. “That’s not your sword. It’s Ares’, and it’s the one he uses for sticking boys. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not a boy.”

She ran soft, electric fingers up Hermes’ spine, and knotted them in his curly brown hair. Hermes’ breath caught. The wings on his feet curled with pleasure.

“You’ll have to get your hands on his other sword,” she whispered in his ear. Her breath upon his ear brought goosebumps to his flesh. “It’s in there somewhere.”

With her fingers still twined in Hermes’ hair, Aphrodite pulled sharply and pitched him into the middle of the scuffle, where gods wrestled and slipped and beat each other bloody.

Aphrodite smiled and leaned back against a wall, safely out of harm’s way.

“Oh, Aphrodite,” Eris called sweetly from off to the side where Dionysus still snored.

“What now?” Aphrodite turned to face Eris, and found herself blinking through a thick, creamy foam. She wiped sticky meringue from her eyes.

“Oh look!” cried Eris with delight. “An anachronism! Eep!”

Hades hath no fury like a goddess pied; Aphrodite tackled Eris like a born wrestler. They rolled over Eros, who groped blindly at anything he could reach, and broke Dionysus’ chair, nearly spilling his wine. Bits of lemon meringue flew everywhere. Dionysus found another chair, pulled it away from the bulk of the fighting to the corner where Persephone sat biting her nails, and promptly fell back asleep.

Only to be woken abruptly by a fierce thunderclap. Spots floated in front of his eyes. “I was in Sparta!” he cried. “I’ve got witnesses who’ll back me up!”

Eris sat up, wiping blood and pie from her lips. “Hi, Pops,” she said with a gap-toothed grin.

Zeus towered over the Olympians. “What is the meaning of this?” Each word was tinged with lightning.

Everyone answered at once.

“SILENCE!”

Eris rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, making cricket chirping sounds until Aphrodite slapped her hands. Zeus scowled at the assembly. “Athena? What’s going on?”

“It’s all Demeter’s fault. You see, she…”

“Demeter isn’t here.”

“Exactly. That’s why it’s her fault. You see…”

“If she’s not here, it can’t possibly be her fault.”

“But…”

“No. You’re the oldest. You should know better. You’re responsible. Whatever the problem is, you take care of it.”

Athena’s spine stiffened. “There’s nothing in my job description…”

“YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION IS ANYTHING I SAY IT IS!”

“But…”

“And that’s the last I want to hear about it. If you say another word, you’re going to be so sorry you’ll wish you were back in my head.”

Athena opened her mouth, then shut it.

Zeus nodded his head in dismissal. He turned away, grumbling into his beard. “Why did I ever let Edith talk me into writing job descriptions? Nothing good can ever come from job descriptions.” He took a deep breath, and turned to face the older Gods. “Hades. Poseidon. My dear brothers… If you are ever involved in anything like this again, we will have a brief lesson about why I’m in charge, and you’re… well, we won’t go there in front of the children. Let’s just say that a very hungry eagle has hatched some very hungry chicks.”

And then Zeus was gone in a haze of ozone, leaving the assembled gods and goddesses in stunned silence.

Athena straightened her helm and adjusted her clothing.

“Don’t worry,” Hermes said, the quicksilver boy sidling a little closer to Athena. “It’s a quick and easy fix, and I’m really good at quick. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, I know, but we all must do our parts for the greater good, and I’m here for you in your time of need.”

“You’re right,” Athena said, after a moment’s concentration. She stepped back to assess the quicksilver girl, Goddess of Thieves and Messengers, and now of a few other things. “That was quick and easy.”

Hermes’ hands moved in hesitant self-discovery, tracing unexpected curves. “Oh. Well. I suppose this could work, too.”

 

Recycled

Babe

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Patrick Thomas

 

My eyes just about popped out of my head when the babes came into the bar and I wasn’t the only one. Jaws were scraping floor all around the room as we stared at the pair. Even Father Mike was picking up some dirt on his chin. This was weird, even for Bulfinche’s Pub and we know weird. Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll see a group photo. I’m the one in the back row sticking his tongue out by the name of Murphy.

You don’t see babes like these in a bar very often. For starters, the shorter one was bald and I’d seen more fuzz on a peach than on the taller babe. Fortunately, we didn’t adhere to the traditional no shirt, no service motto, otherwise one of them wouldn’t have been allowed in. The shorter one wasn’t wearing a shirt or even pants for that matter. Naked as a babe, except for the diapers and baby shoes.

The taller one was sporting a jumper and was toddling, barely able to push the smaller one’s stroller. It looked like he was using his hand grips to stay upright. I’d put his age at less than two years old. The little one was barely a year and couldn’t walk well. The toddler had to help him climb out of the buggy and he wasn’t exactly gentle. The toddler grabbed the infant by the diaper and yanked, dropping him on the floor. Unhurt, the infant crawled over to the bar.

“That’s a switch,” I said, breaking the silence.

“What do you mean?” asked my boss, Paddy Moran. He didn’t take an eye off the little ones.

“Usually folks crawl away from a bar.”

The initial stunned silence having been broken and thrown away, made others more willing to speak up. Fred put down a tray of glasses and walked over to our tiny visitors.

“Look at the babies,” said our resident satyr busboy in that baby voice adults get around babies and dogs. Even in the bar Fred hides his physical differences. Special shoes covered his hooves and a baseball cap with our trademark shot o’ gold concealed his small goat-like horns. “Where’s your mommies?”

The toddler answered in a strong Brooklyn accent, obviously annoyed with the sweet tone he was being addressed with. “None of your damn business. You always this nosy?”

Fred contemplated before answering. “Usually.”

“Goody for you. Now do me a favor.” The toddler motioned to Fred to bend down and come nearer. Once the satyr was close enough, the toddler grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled Fred down onto all fours. With this living bridge in place, the infant tried to climb up on Fred’s shoulders. The toddler had to push on the infant’s butt to get him all the way up. The toddler scaled Mt. Fred and helped the infant climb onto a bar stool before mounting one himself.

“Thanks,” said the infant, looking down at Fred. “I appreciate the help.”

“Yeah, what he said,” muttered the toddler.

Despite being sixty something, which is actually considered adolescence for a satyr, Fred was sometimes a little clueless. Occasionally, he was a lot clueless. In fairness, it’s probably because he’s only lived in New York for a couple of years. As Fred puts it, he hasn’t been in this country a long distance, but even he knew eloquently talking babies were out of the ordinary.

“How come you can talk so well and B.G. can’t?” asked Fred.

“Maybe he’s stupid,” said the toddler.

“Hey! B.G. isn’t dumb! She’s precious,” said Fred. B.G. was short for Beatrice Gerald, our waitress Toni’s kid. She’ll be two next Christmas. B.G., not Toni. B.G.’s age was about halfway between these two. The satyr adored B.G., maybe even more than he adored her mama. Sadly for him, Toni reciprocated his affections in every way but the romantic. In my opinion, it was only a matter of time. Unfortunately, my opinions don’t usually carry a lot of weight. I’ve been meaning to have them exercise more to help correct that, but it’s rough finding the time. “Besides, you can’t be that smart or you’d know B.G. is a she, not a he.”

“Whatever,” said the toddler with disinterest. “At least I didn’t name my kid after a disco group.”

“Russ, be nice,” chided the infant.

“Yeah, right, Steven. I’ll be nice. As nice as my parents were when they named me Russell.”

Personally, I thought the name was fine, but I had let their appearance distract me from my bartending duties. Maybe in other bars talking babies would justify dereliction in duty, but not in Bulfinche’s. To rectify my lapse in manners, I moved to take their order, but the boss beat me to it.

“Russ’s not such a bad name,” said Paddy, as he walked down his runway on the inside of the bar. Paddy’s a tad on the untall size. Comes with being a leprechaun. He’s sensitive about the height issue, so he built the runway to make himself look of average height. If Paddy was the least bit phased by the two talking babies, it didn’t show. No reason why it should. It was far from the strangest thing we’ve ever seen. I’d only give it the number two spot for the month.

“Uh huh. What name are you saddled with?” asked Russ the toddler.

“Padriac Moran,” Paddy said in his brogue.

“Padriac? You’re right. Compared to that, Russ’s not half bad. You shorten that to Paddy?”

“Yes.”

“That works. Do you have anything to drink in this place?”

“Nope. We’re really a Laundromat. The pub thing is just a gimmick to make sure there isn’t a long line for the dryers,” I said.

“Ignore Murphy. The rest of us do. We have anything your heart desires,” said Paddy. I would have said little heart, but Paddy won’t make short jokes about those of lesser stature, although he likes to stand next to them in pictures. Thinks it makes him look taller.

“Anything? You aren’t worried about losing your liquor license?” asked Russ.

“License?” asked Paddy with a sarcastic smile. “I need a license?”

Russ smiled back and slapped the bar top with his open palm. “About time we found an open-minded bar. Give me a whiskey. Three fingers.”

“Yours or mine?” asked Paddy.

Russ looked at Paddy’s hands. “Yours. Mine would barely manage to wet my whistle.”

“How about ye, Steven? Are ye drinking?” asked Paddy.

“Beer,” said the infant.

I pulled Paddy aside. “Boss, I know we usually ignore drinking age laws, but isn’t this a little extreme?”

“Murphy, ye know the rules. If a patron can order it and give a good enough reason for needing the drink, we give it to them,” Paddy said as he put down the drinks. The little ones grabbed for the glasses, but they were just out of reach, even with Russ standing up on tiptoes against the bar. “They’re yours lads, provided ye got a good enough reason.”

“How about we just pay double?” asked Steven.

“Nope,” said Paddy. “First drink’s free.”

“Forget it. We’re out of here,” said Russ, standing and walking to the edge of the stool. “Hey busboy, get over here and drop to your knees. We need to leave.”

A tiny hand reached over, barely touching Russ. “Wait. I want to stay.”

“I don’t want to talk to these yahoos,” said Russ with a pout.

“I do. Maybe they’ll listen to us. Nobody else will,” said Steven. “Especially at the Center.”

“I don’t know,” said Russ, teetering, both on the stool and the subject.

“Please?” pleaded Steven.

“Fine, you know I haven’t been able to deny you anything since we were married,” said Russ.

“Married?” I said. “Aren’t you a little young?”

“Shut up and listen to what Steven has to say. Maybe you’ll learn something,” said Russ, as he started to reach in his diaper and fiddle about. He pulled out a brown cylindrical object in his tiny hands. “Got a light?”

“What is that?” I asked, trying not to gag as I spoke.

Russ laughed, having picked up on my thoughts. “Don’t worry. It’s a cigar. My parents don’t like me smoking, so I gotta smuggle ’em out. They only look in my diapers when they have to. Who can blame them? I only have five teeth, so I can’t bite off the tip. Think you could help me?”

“Sure,” I said, tearing off a small stub and tossing it in a garbage pail behind the bar. I lit it with the lighter we keep behind the bar, and handed it back to him. Like Paddy said, we try not to make judgement calls. Wisecracks are another matter. “Aren’t you afraid it’ll stunt your growth?”

“That’s an old wives’ tale. Thanks for the light,” said Russ, stopping a moment before the cigar reached his mouth. He turned to the other patrons, every one of which was watching him intently. New York City’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants must have crossed his mind because he actually appeared nervous. “Anyone mind if I smoke?”

Hercules, made famous by his legendary deeds of old and employed in the present with the job of bouncer at Bulfinche’s, came over. “Isn’t it a bit late to ask now?”

“Wow,” said Russ, looking over Herc’s massive physique. It took his little eyes a moment to take everything in. “You getting enough steroids there, big guy?”

“Never touch the stuff. Don’t need to,” replied Herc. It was the truth. Being the son of Zeus had certain advantages. Herc didn’t even have to work out if he didn’t want to. It would be enough to make you sick, if he wasn’t such a nice guy.

“Right and I’m the Queen of Sheba,” said Russ.

“Welcome, your highness. I hadn’t realized we had royalty with us tonight,” said Paddy. “Also your highness shouldn’t worry about the smoke. It’s taken care of.” Paddy pointed at round devices attached to the ceiling.

“What? The smoke detectors? The sprinklers aren’t going to wet me are they? I can do a good enough job of that myself. I haven’t mastered potty training yet.”

“Not sprinklers, air cleaners. Blow some smoke and watch,” I suggested.

The diaper-clad toddler did as I suggested, and took a puff. He blew a pair of smoke rings that looked to be the result of a well practiced skill. A light on the air cleaner nearest to Russ blinked on and the device silently came to life. It drew the smoke all the way up to the ceiling and sucked it in. I was standing within three feet of the little guy and couldn’t smell a whiff of the cigar.

“Now that’s impressive,” said Russ, blowing more smoke just to watch it disappear into the ceiling. “Much more interesting than the mobile in my crib.”

“Even does a great job on the New York City smog,” I said. We had the best air in the city limits. Yuppies had been know to leave their oxygen bars just to inhale in our barroom.

While we had been speaking, the front door opened again and two more babes walked in. These were definitely of the adult female variety. The sight of Ryth and Toni was enough to draw attention away from the talking babies. It was due more to first than the latter, no offense to Toni. She’s an attractive woman, but Ryth is a dream come true, of the moist male variety. The lady is a succubus, a demon seductress. The sight of her would make any centerfold instantly feel inadequate and homely. Before Toni took the job, Ryth worked here as a waitress. That might seem an odd job for someone with her resumé, but it really wasn’t any odder than the one her husband still has. Mathew is our dishwasher. Not that there’s anything wrong with washing dishes. It’s good, honest work. You just don’t see many angels doing it. Mathew was no slouch in the looks department either. Women swooned at the sight of him. Sadly, the only way I can get ladies to swoon over me is to give up bathing for a month.

Other than being gorgeous, they looked like normal people. Looks can be deceiving, which is why you should always check their references. Neither of the pair’s former employers would give the couple a positive endorsement. In fact, Heaven and Hell are hunting the couple because they ran off together after we had helped them avert the Apocalypse. Love will make people, even the non-human kind, do the craziest things. They’ve managed to stay ahead of the demons and angels still hunting them thanks largely to cloaking amulets made by our chef, Demeter. They let the pair hide in plain sight. Ryth even makes a handsome living running a phone sex service, using her skills learned in the Pit. She raised the capital in just five months from her waitress tips here. The thing I find even more impressive than that is Ryth doesn’t so much as bat an eyelash at anyone besides Mathew.

Mathew had followed the ladies in, carrying B.G. The quartet were returning from a picnic in Central Park. As soon as B.G. saw Fred she started fidgeting so much Mathew had to put her down. Her tiny legs immediately ran her over to the satyr.

“Freddy!” she exclaimed, as she toddled over with her arms up. Fred lifted her off the floor in a huge hug.

“Hello, sweetpea. I missed you. Did you have a good time?” asked Fred.

B.G. nodded her head. “Uh huh.”

“Cute kid. You must be proud,” said Russ.

“Why yes, I am,” said Toni as she turned and saw the two babies on bar stools. “What’s the gag, Murphy? You learn ventriloquism?”

“Nope,” I said. “I’d never use a dummy that ugly.”

“Nice one,” said Russ. “I think I’m beginning to like you.”

“Be still my heart,” I said.

“You’re really talking?” asked Toni.

“It’s not that unusual,” chimed in Steven.

“There’s two of you?” asked Toni in disbelief.

“Why? You see more?” asked Russ, turning his head side to side and scanning the room. “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“No, I don’t see more of you,” Toni said with attitude.

“Then it was a stupid question. Listen, sweetheart, let me ask you a personal question,” said Russ, motioning her down so he could whisper in her ear.

“What?” asked Toni, bending in close.

“Are you breast feeding?” As Russ was speaking, he was staring directly into Toni’s cleavage.

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, its been a while since my last meal. I’m getting hungry, and being a growing boy and all, I was wondering if…”

“No! Absolutely not,” exclaimed Toni, pulling back, her face dark.

“But the guy behind the bar said anything. Paddy, is it too late to change my order?” asked Russ.

“’Fraid so. By drink, I meant anything that could fit in a glass,” said Paddy.

“That’s out then. Need a pitcher each to fit those,” said Russ.

“Excuse me!?” said Toni, looking like she was about to deck the baby. Had he been an adult, Russ would have already been knocked on the floor.

“Chill out. It’s a compliment. It’s not like I said shot glass. I was just hungry.”

B.G. had been listening, and toddled over to the stools. “Baby hungry?”

“Yeah, kid. I’m hungry,” said Russ.

“Want baba?” asked B.G., holding up her bottle.

“Thanks kid,” Russ said, laying on his belly so he could reach it without getting off the stool. The little guy had it in his mouth and was drinking before Toni could stop him. “Mmm, good stuff even if it’s not straight from the pump.” Russ gave Toni a lecherous wink.

“I can’t believe you took my daughter’s bottle,” said Toni. The expression on her face was not a happy one.

“Toni, you’re always telling her to share,” I said.

“Shut up, Murphy,” spat Toni.

“Russ, give the kid back her bottle,” said Steven.

“Stuff’s vintage. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s about your feeding time. Try a little nip,” said Russ, holding out the bottle. Steven took it and tilted his head quizzically.

“All right, what the heck. I am hungry,” said Steven, putting bottle to lips. He sucked on it and finished half of what remained.

“Wait a minute!” shouted Toni. “I am not a soft drink machine!” Russ began to open his mouth. “Don’t say a word,” warned Toni. Russ chose to listen, but raised his eyebrows up and down, somehow managing to look lewd and cute at the same time.

“Thank you,” said Steven with a more innocent smile as he handed the bottle back. “It was very kind of your daughter to share. You’ve raised her well.”

“B.G. good,” said B.G. proudly, puffing up her chest.

“Yes, you are, sweetheart,” said Toni, picking up her daughter. “But you’re not getting your baba back until I disinfect it.”

“Babies nice?” asked B.G.

“That’s debatable,” said Toni. In an attempt to minimize her daughter’s exposure to the obvious bad influence of these odd babies, she carried her daughter across the room so she could play with Fred.

“Uh oh,” said Steven, holding his stomach with stubby arms. “I’ve got gas. I need burping.”

Hercules was still standing nearby.

“Hey, steroid boy. Do me a favor. Push our stools next to each other,” said Russ.

“Sure, bottle breath,” replied Herc with a smile. Russ put his arms around Steven in a baby bear hug and hit his back a few times. Steven let out a small belch.

“Ah, that’s the stuff,” said Steven, with a grin of relief.

“I think it’s my turn,” said Russ, hand over his belly. “Steven’s too small to burp me.”

“Want me to help?” asked Herc.

“No way. With those arms, you’d tap me and I’d end up a pancake. I was thinking about that lovely lady over there.”

“Me?” asked Ryth, who had been watching the babies with amused interest.

“Yep,” said Russ, again making with the eyebrows.

“What the heck. I need to learn anyway,” said Ryth with a wink at Mathew. She picked up Russ and put him over her left shoulder. Ryth rocked him gently as she patted his back. Russ let out a burp that would have made a frat boy proud.

“Thanks. I needed that,” said Russ. “Sorry about the mess on your shoulder.”

I handed Ryth a bar rag. She switched Russ to her other arm and wiped up the baby burp. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You wouldn’t happen to be breast feeding, would you?” asked Russ hopefully.

“That’s my wife, little one,” warned Mathew.

“Oh good. Then you would know. Is she?”

“No,” said Mathew, strangely beaming.

Russ looked wistfully down at Ryth’s cleavage and tried to make a grab under the guise of holding himself up. An amused Ryth caught his hand before it could reach the mountains of the promised land. Ryth gave him a raised eyebrow. Russ gave an innocent shrug that fooled nobody.

“A pity,” he said.

Ryth chuckled and shook her head as she put the talking toddler back on the stool.

“At least not yet,” announced Ryth.

“Not yet?” asked Paddy, a sly smile perking up the corners of his mouth. “When then?”

“In about eight months. We’re pregnant!” said Ryth, taking Mathew’s hand in hers. As they stared into each other’s eyes, you could almost hear violin music in the background. Love is a wonderful thing.

“Congratulations!” shouted Paddy, running around the bar to hug the happy couple. “A round of drinks on the house. Non-alcoholic for the mother-to-be, of course.”

“Of course,” said Ryth, glowing. I think if we had turned out the lights, she would have still been beaming.

The rest of us lined up to add our congratulations. While we were so engaged, Russ managed to climb up on the bar and was walking across it to where Paddy had slid the drinks. A second before Russ could grab the whiskey, Paddy put his hand over it.

Russ looked up at him like the cat that had swallowed the Thanksgiving turkey.

“Get off my bar,” said Paddy, all traces of humor gone from his face.

“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” said Russ.

“Get off my bar or you will get the spanking of a lifetime,” said Paddy through clenched teeth.

“Sounds like fun,” Russ said. Paddy only glared back. “All right, I’m getting down.”

Safely back on his stool, Russ asked, “What’s the big deal?”

“You don’t mess with the boss’ bar,” I said. “It’s one of the few things that makes him mad.”

“Why?” asked Russ. “What’s the big deal about a bar?”

“It was made by me late wife, Bulfinche,” said Paddy.

“Oh.” Russ was looking in the boss’ eyes and could see there a love that still burned brighter than a supernova. “Then I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” promised Russ, extending his little hand. “Please accept my apology.”

Paddy took the hand. “Apology accepted. Ye both can have the drinks once ye explain why such young lads need them.”

“The pressure of being a child prodigy is hard to deal with,” said Russ. “I first spoke at ten months. Not some nonsense like ‘dada’ or ‘mama’. It was the entire second act of Hamlet. Hardly my best performance, but it got rave reviews.”

“Russ, the truth,” chastised Steven.

“It was Hamlet.

“That’s not the part I meant.”

Russ stared at Steven, then shrugged and threw up his hands. “Fine. You do it. It’s your funeral.”

“Wouldn’t be the first,” said Steven. “I drink because I need to forget.”

“What does a lad as young as yourself need to forget?” asked Paddy.

“Oh, I don’t know,” intoned Steven sarcastically. “Maybe lifetimes of pain followed by more deaths than even I can count. Then knowing that death isn’t the end, only a twisted beginning of pain and suffering. Leaving this life is a cakewalk compared to what comes after.”

“Which is?”

“The harvesting.”

“Harvesting?” I asked.

Before the infant could answer, Hermes broke into the conversation. His accomplice for the verbal break-in was a look of guilt on his face. The legendary messenger of the Olympians was also on the boss’ payroll these days. In all the time I’ve known him, guilt was one emotion I’ve never seen Hermes express.

“You’re avadars?” Hermes asked.

“Yep,” said Russ, puffing his cigar and giving Hermes the once-over like he was seeing him for the first time. Russ didn’t seem pleased with the sight.

“They’re gods in human form?” I asked.

“No, that’s an avatar,” said Steven. “An avadar has never been divine. Not that it can’t happen, but usually we are just food for the gods.”

“Food? As in chow?” I asked.

“Not exactly. An avadar is a soul trapped in the cycle of life, born and reborn into new bodies, ad infinitum.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“I wish,” said Steven.

“Do you guys remember everything?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Steven.

“So you’re basically immortal? Doesn’t sound that bad,” chimed in Toni. She has obviously ignored Joseph’s speeches on the subject. The Wandering Jew is not exactly thrilled with everlasting life and has spent several lifetimes attempting suicide. Fortunately, he hasn’t tried it since he’s been able to hang his hat here.

“Death and rebirth aren’t so bad. It’s what happens in between that tears us apart,” said Steven bitterly.

“Tell us,” said Paddy, laying a gentle hand on Steven’s shoulder.

“Ask your friend in the baseball hat with the curly hair,” suggested Russ, venom in his voice.

“Hermes?” asked Paddy.

“Hermes!?” blurted Steven, almost falling off his stool. Russ nodded, giving Hermes a dark look.

“Gods want to know about the human experience, but few want to get down in the dirt and check it out for themselves. Avadars provide another option. Their newly dead spirits are ripe with memories of life. The gods can harvest them and experience the mortal condition secondhand, without all the mess,” explained Hermes, his face pale and drawn.

“Why don’t you tell your friends here exactly what that entails?” asked Russ.

Hermes sighed. “The god captures the soul and rips the experiences from the avadar. I understand it’s quite painful.”

“You understand it’s quite painful!?” screamed Russ. “Like it ain’t nothing to rip into someone’s essence and steal it? Imagine being submerged in red hot lava while someone yanks out your intestines with a hook. That doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

“It takes most of the gestation time in the womb to soothe the agony,” added Steven. “And the thing with being an avadar is you never forget the pain. You never forget anything. It’s part of the package. Sure, you don’t always remember, but that isn’t the same as forgetting.”

“How horrible,” said Father Mike. Everyone in the bar nodded their heads in agreement. “How could anyone do such a thing?”

“You want to answer that one, Pyschopompous?” spat Russ to Hermes. Pyschopompous is Hermes’ title as the god guide who helps lead the faithful dead to Hades.

Hermes swallowed hard. “No, but it’s best I do. Some do it for a thrill, others for knowledge or power. I did it out of curiosity.”

“You?” asked Paddy, disappointment coloring his voice.

“I’m not proud of it.”

“Why…?” asked Paddy.

“As I said, I was curious. I had seen Zeus, Hera, Ares and so many others partake. They claimed it surpassed even Dionysus’ ambrosia. I wanted to see what it was like.”

“You’re blaming it on peer pressure?” I said.

“Yes. I only did it once,” said Hermes.

“Only once? Is that supposed to make me feel any better?” asked Russ bitterly.

“So it was you,” said Hermes.

“Yes, it was. Even with hundreds of languages at my disposal, I cannot begin to curse you for what you did,” said Russ.

“You’re right. I offer my deepest apologies,” said Hermes, head bowed and humble, probably for the first time in his existence.

“Words are pretty empty and meaningless,” said Russ.

“Then I offer you one wish. Anything within my power to grant is yours, so long as it does no harm to another, directly or indirectly.”

“Like you’d keep your word.”

“Hermes will keep his word,” said Paddy, frowning. This revelation had upset him, but Paddy protects his own first and foremost. Hermes was family and nodded his thanks.

Russ looked doubtful. “Okay, swear it on the Styx and maybe I’ll believe you.”

“I so swear,” said Hermes.

“Swear it on Bulfinche’s taps,” added Paddy.

“I swear it,” promised Hermes. “What is your wish?”

Russ put his cigar in an ashtray and stroked his chin. “This works much better with a beard,” said the toddler. “Honestly, I can’t think of anything. I think I’ll save it, let it hang over your head for awhile.”

“That’s your prerogative,” said Hermes. Russ nodded and motioned to Paddy. The boss slid him his three fingers of whiskey. The toddler sipped it triumphantly. I did my best not to mention that a good portion of it was dribbling down the sides of his mouth. Paddy slid Steven his beer.

“This reminiscing has got me remembering. I’ll need something stronger. Make mine a whiskey too,” said Steven, motioning for Hermes to hand him his baby bottle from the stroller. It was buried under baby clothes. He probably had been dressed earlier in the day, but I guess the summer heat had been too much for him. Hermes passed the bottle on to Paddy. “Mix it with the baby formula, will you? Makes it easier to stomach.”

“Sure,” said Paddy, handing it back. Steven began sucking on the nipple.

Paddy looked around at Herc and Dionysus, god of wine and our other bartender. “Anyone else have anything to confess?”

Hermes butted in. “Harvesting is not an option for demigods. They are already half mortal and have no need to experience the human condition vicariously. And, as far as I know, Demeter never partook.”

Paddy nodded with mute approval.

“I can’t believe you couldn’t come up with anything,” said Steven to Russ.

“Why? What would you wish for?” asked Russ.

“To stop being an avadar,” said Steven.

Russ turned to Hermes. “Can you do that?”

“No,” answered Hermes.

“So much for that,” said Russ.

“Don’t give up so easy,” said Steven. “Can you make us forget everything? Start over from scratch? Because, I gotta be honest, whiskey and baby formula just ain’t cutting it any more.”

Hermes thought about it. “Yes, I could make you forget.”

“Really!?” said the youngsters in unison.

“Yes.”

“I don’t know,” said Russ.

“Please,” begged Steven. Russ looked down into the infants eyes, then up into Hermes’.

“Okay, do it,” said Russ.

“I need to get something. Paddy?” said Hermes. As if reading his mind, Paddy handed him a large beer stein, the type with the closing top. “I’ll be gone awhile but when I come back, I’ll have what you need.”

Before Russ could say a word, Hermes had left the bar by way of the door that led to the parking garage, the lower levels of which is a nexus into other realms.

“I’m still confused,” I said.

“You’ll get used to it,” said Russ.

“Already am. What I want to know is why gods need to harvest you guys,” I said.

“There is a war going on that encompasses all of creation. What they get from us gives them an edge,” explained Russ. Ryth and Mathew looked at each other and nodded knowingly. “You know all about it?”

Mathew nodded. “We do.”

“Then you tell me the participants,” said Russ.

“Heaven and Hell.” As deserters, it was a war they knew about intimately.

“Two sides? What a pleasure that would be,” said Steven. “We might manage to get away every so often. The truth is, sometimes we do get missed in all the astral hoopla and get recycled before they find us. Happens maybe once every two or three hundred lives. The life that follows can be almost pleasant. The rest of them tend to suck. When we bite the big one, everyone is after us. Divinities, angels, and demons.” Ryth and Mathew looked at each other. Apparently this was news to them. Or maybe I was misreading guilt. “Most of the powers that be join in the fun. With hundreds of sides fighting with us as the prize, getting away is rarely an option. Occasionally, there are ways.”

“Sid?” said Russ.

“Yep,” said Steven.

“Now there’s a guy who got away good,” said Russ, nodding his head in admiration.

“Sid?” asked Father Mike.

“Siddhatha Gautama,” said Steven.

“The Buddha,” said Father Mike.

“Very good Father,” said Russ, mildly impressed. “Not many priests would know that one. Sid managed to get himself promoted to godhood while nobody was looking. Started a religion where people acknowledged gods, but didn’t worship them or bother asking for divine intervention. A beautiful way to even the score a little.”

“Guerilla warfare,” added Steven.

“Gotta fight your battles where you can. When he died, none of the other divinities could touch him. Sid’s still locked in the death-rebirth cycle thing, but he made arrangements to have his followers go out and find him after each birth as an infant. Takes some of the edge off. Sid even set up some of his friends as holy men to get the same treatment. I was one for a few lifetimes, but it got old. I’m not cut out to be a religious leader. Not that other religions haven’t been founded by others doing what we do,” said Russ.

“Such as?” asked Father Mike.

“Christianity for one,” said Russ. Father Mike raised an eyebrow. “I mean no disrespect, Father, but look at it from my perspective. The Son of God comes down and experiences life as a human firsthand. Then when he dies, does he get harvested? Nope, goes bodily up to Heaven. Everyone makes a big deal out of something I’ve been doing for a little shorter than there’s been people. Breeds a hell of a lot of resentment. Probably why I never stay Christian for long.”

“Just out of curiosity, aren’t your parents going to be worried about you?” asked Toni.

“Nah. They think we’re at the Nova Center For The Gifted over on Park Avenue. Place our parents shipped us off to when they found out we were geniuses,” said Steven. “Right now we are in self-directed study. We have the video monitor that’s supposed to be babysitting us on a constant feedback loop. They don’t even know we’re gone.”

“So you’re geniuses?” I asked.

“No, but when you can complete a high school education by the age of four or five, that’s what they’ve labeled us lately. Guy who runs the place, Dr. Martin, is a quack. He has published five papers on child prodigies. Every one of them was crap, but it’s enough to convince the folks that he knows what he’s doing,” said Russ.

“Still genius is better than what they used to call us,” said Steven.

“Very true,” agreed Russ.

“Which was?” I asked.

“Imagine the Dark Ages, if you will. You have not experienced dying until you have been an infant burned at the stake,” said Steven.

“That’s horrible,” said Fred.

“I agree, but in those days a talking baby was viewed as a demon or the Devil himself. Total nonsense. Lucifer doesn’t bother with personal possession any more than Odin does. Lesser demons, sure. Sadly, the righteous were ignorant of this and doomed themselves to the very Hell they were fighting against by committing infanticide,” said Steven.

“Before that it was worse,” said Russ. “We were treated as gods. It was how the Pharaohs first got their ‘divinity’. Problem was, the real gods got pissed off and came for us themselves. Early no less. Very messy.”

“The Dark Ages are over, at least for now, but they lasted longer than most historians would admit. Much darker than the womb,” said Steven.

“Is the womb really dark?” asked Ryth, rubbing her stomach gently and imagining the child within.

“No,” said Russ. “The optic nerve is one of the first to develop and the fetus gets quite a light show. The closest thing I can compare it to is the effect of hallucinogenic drugs. Part of the lure of addiction is that the high is like a flashback to simpler times in the womb.”

“So do drugs help you?” asked Fred.

“Not really. A pale imitation of the real thing. I rarely bother with drugs. I remember the original too vividly to bother. Besides, I will be back there soon enough. The womb is one of the greatest places to be. Except for the two times I was aborted. Being sucked down that vacuum tube…” Russ shuddered. “Those were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time it’s great. Unlimited food, warmth, happiness and love. You can actually feel love in the womb. It’s almost tangible. Truth be told, it’s my favorite part of the life cycle, the part where I can rest and recover.” Russ looked up at Ryth’s face and gave her a wink. “Don’t worry. Your little one will be quite happy in there. I would be.”

“Thank you,” said Ryth, as she kissed Russ on the top of his head. It was hard to see through the puff of cigar smoke he exhaled, but I swear he blushed.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Can’t anything be done to stop this?” asked Mathew.

“Not as far as we know. No one wants to buck the system, not even gods. The funny part is, the harvesters aren’t even getting what they think they are. Our experiences are too tainted by the awareness of what we are. It dulls and numbs them somehow,” said Russ, taking a swig and emptying his glass. “How about another round, since they’re on the house?”

“Only the first one’s free,” said Paddy. “And you missed the celebration round.”

“You’d take money from a baby?”

“Unless you were planning to pay in candy?”

Russ chuckled and pulled some crumpled bills out of his diaper. Paddy poured another glass, only about a finger and a half this time.

The babies were beginning to get melancholy. Herc made an attempt to cheer them up with a story. The only thing greater than Hercules’ strength, is his skill at weaving a tale.

“You think your childhood was rough? I had the queen of the gods gunning for me. I was barely two months old when she sent a pair of vipers into my crib to kill my brother and I. One felt like it was tickling my feet and I managed to grab it by the tail and crack it like a whip. It’s head flew right off with its mouth open. The fangs sunk into the neck of the second snake and it dropped dead. When my parents came in I was playing with the body of the snake like it was a scarf.”

“You may have a good baby story, but the story of my birth has you beat,” boasted Dionysus. “My and Herc’s dad fooled around on his wife big time, and she was the jealous kind. She found out my mother was pregnant with me and conned her into demanding a wish from my father. Zeus was no match for a pretty face so he caved, and promised her a wish swearing on the Styx. She wanted to see Zeus in all his splendor. He was beyond kinky and had a tendency of showing up in animal forms, so I guess she expected a man. What she got was lightning, thunder and dead. I was almost to term and because I was five-eighths god…”

“Five-eighths?” I asked. “Not half?”

“Poseidon was my mother’s great grandfather. Anyway, because I was part divine and it had been his power that killed me, Zeus was able to restore me to life. Hera thought I was dead and to make sure she kept thinking that Zeus had Hermes hid me in Nysa among the nymphs and satyrs.” Nysa was also Fred’s home town.

Herc spoke up. “Speaking of Hermes, on the day he was born he stole a herd of cattle and invented a musical instrument…”

“What I did isn’t important. What I have here is,” said Hermes, as he walked in the door from the garage.

“What is it?” asked Steven, staring hopefully at the beer stein.

“Water from the Lethe,” said Hermes, wearily putting the stein on the bar.

“So? What good is that going to do us?” asked Russ.

“The Lethe is the river of forgetfulness that runs through Hades’ realm. The newly dead drink from it when they want to forget their lives before their deaths.”

“So if we drank it, we’d forget everything?” asked Steven.

“Yes,” said Hermes.

“And we’d never remember again?” said Steven hopefully.

“Never. A complete tabula rasa, a blank slate.”

“Wow,” said Steven.

“Any trouble with Hades?” asked Paddy.

“Nada. He never even knew I was there,” bragged Hermes.

“You have enough for us both?” asked Steven.

“More than enough. All you’ll need is a few mouthfuls,” explained Hermes.

“Excellent. Set ’em up bartender and we’ll knock ’em down,” said Steven.

“We could use the water to make you coffee,” I said.

“Why?” asked Russ.

“Haven’t you ever heard of a Café Lethe?” I asked.

“Now you see why we ignore Murphy,” said Paddy. He filled a shotglass and put it in front of Russ then took Steven’s bottle. It got a shot of it’s own. Paddy replaced the top and handed it back to the infant.

Steven raised his bottle, feverishly happy. “Bottoms up.”

Russ stared at his shot with a look reminiscent of a deer caught in the headlights of a semi.

“No,” said Russ, pushing the glass away.

“What do you mean, no?” asked Steven. “This is our chance at a normal life.”

“But just one life. It won’t make us normal. After that one it starts all over again, only we won’t know what’s going on. Think back to your first harvest and the absolute terror and agony. It takes half a dozen harvests before any of us even figure out what’s happening. I don’t want to live though that a second time. The first time was enough to drive me quite mad,” confessed Russ.

“But the chance for one normal life is worth the pain,” said Steven.

“I disagree,” replied Russ.

“Anything I can do to convince you?” asked Steven. Russ nodded no. “So, I guess this is goodbye, huh?”

“I guess,” said Russ. Both little guys were crying. So were some of we spectators. It was almost like watching someone getting ready to die.

“You won’t try to stop me?”

“You’re old enough to know what you’re doing,” said Russ. It seemed a strange statement for a toddler to be telling an infant. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” said Steven, hugging Russ.

“No, you won’t,” said Hermes. “All your memories, all that makes you you will be erased. Who you are will cease to be. Before you drink, make sure that’s what you want because there is no second chance, no turning back.”

“Shouldn’t you take some time to think about it?” I asked.

“I’ve done nothing but think about it for centuries. I’m sure,” said Steven, picking up his bottle. “Cheers.”

Russ rejected the shot glass with the water and picked up his whiskey glass instead. The rest of us picked up what we were drinking and raised our glasses. Paddy spoke for us all.

“Slainte.”

Steven threw back his head and sucked on the nipple of that bottle like a newborn calf on his mother’s udder. Within seconds, his eyes glazed over and he would have fallen head first onto the floor if Hermes hadn’t caught him and put him gently into his stroller.

“He’ll sleep for a few hours, then he’ll be like any other infant his age,” said Hermes.

“For a god, you ain’t half bad,” said Russ, climbing down by sliding to the edge of his stool and dropping down.

“Do I have your forgiveness?” asked Hermes.

“Maybe. I’ll get back to you on it. But you did right by Steven and kept your promise, so I’ve gotta say thanks.” Russ reached up his hand. Hermes reached down and shook it.

“Russ, one question,” I said.

“Shoot.”

“Why’d you guys pick this bar?”

“The shot glass with the rainbow in the front window. It caught my eye.” Makes sense. Paddy bought the place with his pot of gold. Now rainbows lead troubled souls to our door. Instead of gold, they get us. The value of the trade off is open to debate, but in my opinion it’s a better deal. “What can I say? At this age I have a weakness for bright and shiny objects.”

“How are ye going to explain this to his parents?” asked Paddy. Russ stepped up behind the stroller and pushed it toward the door with Steven still asleep inside.

“I ain’t. I’m going blame it on Dr. Martin. He’s been exploiting us long enough. Time for some payback,” said Russ with a cherub’s grin.

“Ye are always welcome here, Russ,” said Paddy. “Remember that.”

“I will. Best whiskey I’ve ever had and that’s saying something.”

“Thanks,” said Paddy with pride. He brewed the whiskey himself and I have never heard of its equal.

“Before I go, I have one more favor to ask,” said Russ.

“What?” asked Paddy.

“I need to be changed,” he said. Paddy looked over at me.

“Not a chance,” I said.

 

The Machinations of All My Futures Past

by Michael Penncavage

 

The hot water from the bath felt good against Agamemnon’s aching muscles. Steam drifted up, collecting into a thick, comforting mist in the small chamber. He pressed his back against the stone wall of the tub and settled further down into the water until his beard was bobbing gently on the surface. So comforting. He forced himself to stay awake, at least until he had removed himself. To survive the Trojan War, only to drown in my own bath. His thoughts drifted back to the war from which he had returned just days prior, and to those who would never be returning. The death of Patroclus by Priam and subsequent killing of Achilles by the scoundrel Paris felt as if his own brothers had been slain.

So much death.

He had seen enough to last a lifetime.

A sandal scraped against the marble floor behind, rousing him from slumber. He was supposed to be alone. Before he could reach for his sword that lay on the bench alongside the bath, a coarse net of bulls-hide, dropped into the water around him. He flailed his arms in an attempt to free himself and reach his weapon, but his struggles only entangled him further as the intercrossed ropes wrapped around his body like a snake, pinning his arms and legs.

Realizing if he continued to resist, the ropes would constrict further and drag him under, Agamemnon relaxed and steadied himself.

At the far end of the bath a tall, slender woman stepped into view. Her golden hair tumbled carelessly atop her shoulders as she stepped through the doorway. “Very wise, dear Agamemnon. I was expecting the snare to have finished you.”

“What is the meaning of this, Clytemnestra?” he said, glaring at her. “Release me from these bindings immediately!”

Clytemnestra looked at her husband with amusement. “Oh, such a sour look, Agamemnon. I suppose you wish you were back on the battlefield, vanquishing the Trojans and taking their women!”

“How dare you!” he roared. “It was because of your letters that I rushed back so soon after the war’s end!”

Clytemnestra chuckled briefly as she walked up to the edge of the bath. “Yes. The letters. Quite convincing, weren’t they? You cannot fathom how many nights I stayed up writing and rewriting my slates until I was assured that the words were so precise, so perfect, my tales of sorrow so compelling, that your only reaction would be to come racing back as quickly as possible!”

“But why? For what purpose?”

The smile blew away from Clytemnestra’s face as quickly as it had appeared. “So your return would be on my own terms! You have been gone quite a while, dear husband. Did you think I have been spending my time simply pining for your return? No, I have grown quite accustomed to my freedom—to be able to do what I please, when I please, and, most importantly, with whom I please.” She paused for a moment to regain her composure. “So, to ensure your return would serve my needs, I released the letters.”

Never taking his eyes off his wife, Agamemnon managed to free one of his hands beneath the water. Moving slowly, he began to unbind his other hand. Suddenly an ivory-hilted knife came into view. He managed to grab his attacker’s wrist with his free hand, but his opponent had leverage and Agamemnon watched as the knife slowly slipped between his ribs.

Looking up at his assailant, he recognized the man. It was Aegisthus, one of the local businessmen in town. A malicious grin was on Aegisthus’ face and before Agamemnon could prevent it, he was shoved into the middle of the bath.

Agamemnon watched as the clear water quickly turned red. His breathing became painful and laborious. The water was only as deep as his chest, but between the bindings and loss of blood, it was deep enough.

Clytemnestra walked over to Aegisthus. “Do not fight it, dear husband.”

“Treacherous bitch,” he growled. “You will pay for this!”

“Not in this lifetime.”

The bath’s floor was smooth and slippery. Agamemnon tried to shuffle forward to reach the bath’s stairs, but lost his footing, careened forward, and passed below the surface.

He looked up to see the image of his traitorous wife and her lover grow faint and distant through the crimson water, as if they were in another world, another time, away.

Vengeance was in his heart and on his lips.

But it would not be so.

A moment later a black tide washed in, and he was enveloped by its darkness.

* * * * *

Boooooop.

The electronic buzz of the doorbell made Gruxal glance up from his computer. Though the faulty monitor made her skin appear avocado and her lips far too red, he immediately recognized the face in the view-screen. “Enter,” he said, and his pod door slid open with a whoosh.

In stepped a slender, shapely brunette with azure eyes and pale skin. She folded her arms and shook her head in dismay. “Why am I not surprised to find you here?”

Gruxal bookmarked the site he was reading and ordered the machine off. “Have you forgotten that this is my domicile, Liandra?”

“But… it’s your birthday!” she said, sitting herself down onto his lap.

“Oh, which you have been reminding me endlessly over the past several days.”

“Well, it doesn’t appear to have done much good!”

“Liandra—if my species does not recognize the birthing process as a significant event, how do you expect me to react any differently to my birthday?”

She began playing with his hair. “We were supposed to meet at The Fuselage after your shift ended.”

“Robson dismissed me early,” answered Gruxal. “For exactly the same reason.”

“Which doesn’t give you an excuse to sit around wasting the day away!”

“I was reading something that you should find interesting.”

“I find that doubtful.” Liandra glanced at the dark computer screen. “Let me guess—would it be the Genealogy of the Medids or the Horticulture of Dramene?”

“Actually it was on Mythology. Earth Greek Mythology to be exact.” Gruxal said. “What fanciful imaginations your ancestors had.”

“I’ll have to remind you to tell me all about it,” said Liandra. “The first night I am suffering from insomnia.”

“I take it you still want to go to The Fuselage?”

Turning slightly, she straddled his lap and pressed herself up against him. “In a moment. Considering that you stood me up at the bar and made me walk all the way back to your pod, I think you need to make it up to me,” she said as she began to slowly unzip her top.

* * * * *

“Now, the proper way to continue this birthday celebration is with a toast,” commented Liandra as she fastened her belt.

Gruxal motioned to a corner in his pod. “I still have half a bottle of Terruvian Brandy.”

“I was thinking of something that didn’t taste like bath water.”

“You would rather spend two-hours wages on a single drink?”

“Gruxal, we have already saved enough to get us off the ship. Surely we can spend some credits on some frivolity. Think of it as a farewell to the Elsivar. In five days time we will be on a shuttle headed for Volpos.”

Gruxal uttered a command and the cabin door slid open. They walked out into a dingy, poorly lit corridor.

Looking down at the filth that covered the floor, Gruxal said, “We can not be leaving soon enough.”

Taking the lift, they descended three decks to the bar.

The Fuselage was constructed far after the Varipos had been constructed. The vessel’s architect had designed the ship with the intention that whatever war it served in would last no longer than a few weeks—brief enough for its crew to go without needing recreational facilities. No one ever thought the Cilurian War would last over sixty years.

On the Varipos one of the ship’s stores had been converted into a bar. Like the rest of the Varipos, it was makeshift and cramped, but the Fuselage had a charm of its own and was a welcome escape from the twelve-hour workday.

Its tender was Allister Reynolds, a short, plump man with bad skin and frosty, untended white hair. He was wiping the bar down with a towel that was far too dirty when Gruxal and Liandra passed through the doorway.

“Slow day still, Allister?” asked Liandra, noting the barren room.

“Nah,” he answered, glancing over to the wall clock. “Another thirty minutes and the next shift will be getting off. Better grab a seat now while you still can.”

“Two glasses of Molotox,” said Liandra.

Allister’s eyebrows rose up. “Celebrating the end of the war in fashion?”

Gruxal nodded. “As well as an arcane human tradition.”

“It’s his birthday,” said Liandra as she sat onto one of the barstools.

Allister pulled out a skinny azure bottle from underneath the bar. “In that case we’ll have to make it a double, with the double being on me.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

The old bartender nodded. “My pleasure.” Allister looked around the bar lovingly. “Might as well drink it up. Not much longer until all of this is decommissioned. Who knows if these bottles will make it to Xibxis 3 without shattering?”

“It’s almost impossible to comprehend that with the Oxcof treaty signed, the war is over. After so much fighting and so much death, I thought neither the Alliance nor the Unified Front would ever lay down their arms,” remarked Gruxal.

“And unemployed,” added Liandra. “Destined for placement on Xibxis 3, working the mines.”

Allister recorked the bottle. “We’re all like old goats. The government doesn’t know what to do with us. Too expensive to settle us onto any suitable planet. Might as well be plopped off onto a barren rock like Xibxis 3 to finish out our days. I figure the only way anyone is going to get off the rock is if they strike a sizable enough claim.” He laid his callused hands on to the bar-top. “And the chances of that happening are the same as someone having saved enough credits to buy his way off this rust bucket.”

Liandra and Gruxal cast each other a sideways glance.

“But that’s the government for you,” continued Allister, who seemed to be on the verge of a very familiar tangent. “We’re drafted into service aboard these ships, barely paid a pittance, and once the war is done, we’re cast aside.”

Gruxal took a sip from his drink. “At least you’ll have an established clientele when you reopen the bar,” he said matter-of-factly.

“The eternal optimist,” Allister replied. “It must be from all those books you’ve read.”

“Tell Allister about the current one.” Liandra said, sitting up. “I bet the next round that he never heard of it.”

“What’s it about, son?”

“Allister, why do you insist on calling me, son. I’m twice as old as you.”

“Ah—but you still appear half my age, and that’s what matters,” the bartender answered.

“The Trojan War,” said Liandra impatiently.

Allister rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Trojan War… Trojan War. Sure. I’ve heard of it.”

“You have not!” protested Liandra. “You just want to see me pay! What was it about?”

“The Trojan War… that was the war… involving the Trojans.”

Liandra balled up a napkin and threw it at Allister.

“A war that purportedly took place between the Greeks and the Trojans around 1250 BC…” said Gruxal.

“Greek?” interrupted Allister. “This is some sort of Earth war?”

“Have you ever heard the story of the Trojan Horse?”

He shook his head.

“The wealth of knowledge humans possess concerning their heritage never fails to amaze me. The Trojan Horse was a large wooden vessel used by the Greeks to win the war. The Trojans, mistaking the horse as an offering from the gods, wheeled the gift into their fortress. Little did they know that the Greeks were lurking within the beast. That night the Greeks poured forth from the belly of the animal, massacred the Trojans, enslaved their women, and burned the city to the ground.”

“Wow. Real happy ending you got there,” said Allister.

“Many of the stories from that time period follow that particular theme. Rape. Murder. Betrayal. Revenge. More rape. More murder. Not too many happy endings.”

Liandra finished her drink. “We should get going.”

“What about the second round?” asked Allister.

She glanced at her wristwatch. “Not today. We are on a tight schedule.”

The bartender nodded. “I trust you will both stop by for a farewell drink before the bar closes?”

“A farewell drink?” repeated Liandra. “How can I say no?”

* * * * *

“This is an unauthorized part of the station, Liandra. If security finds us here, we can get a fine.” Gruxal looked around hesitantly at the surroundings. From the busy Fridsok Deck, Liandra had led him down into the belly of the ship, where he had never been before.

“Relax, Gruxal. There’s no one on the sanitation level at this hour. No, wait—I take that back. No one except the rats and the Razirians. And the Razirians are more interested in the rats than anything else.”

Gruxal dodged a plume of steam that shot out from a worn piston. “I don’t see what is so important that we had to come here.”

A rat scurried across the grate in front of them.

Walking to the end of the corridor, Liandra turned to him. The grin was still on her face. “Well, here we are.”

Gruxal looked around. “Liandra, the only thing here is the expulsion chamber.”

“Yes. Where all unwanted garbage is sent into space.”

A large hulk of a man with a shaved head, beard, and tattoos that littered his body suddenly emerged from the darkness. One of the overhead maintenance lanterns caught the glint of the knife in his hand.

Before Gruxal could raise his arms to defend himself, the knife was embedded into his chest. Blue blood poured from the wound, running in torrents down his chest and onto the floor. Gruxal yanked the dagger out and stared at the blood-soaked weapon in horror. He looked to Liandra. The grin was still on her face.

Falling to his knees, Gruxal tried to speak, but found himself unable to breathe a word. All he could do was watch as Liandra walked up and knelt down before him.

“How do you like your birthday surprise, my darling?” She whispered, looking down at his wound. “Does it hurt? Not to worry—the pain won’t last long. Lynceus ran his dagger deep. Deep enough to ensure something vital was severed. Judging from the blood I would say he succeeded. Take consolation that your savings will be spent wisely,” she said as Gruxal heard one of the hatches leading into the expulsion chamber open with a soft hiss. “Lynceus and I are booked on the first shuttle to Volpos.”

A pair of strong arms heaved Gruxal from the floor as if he were a sack of grain. Lynceus heaved Gruxal inside the nearby airlock.

Gruxal would have struck the floor hard if not for the collected heaps of refuse that buffered his fall. He was in the waste expulsion chamber that the station’s various garbage chutes fed into.

Turning over in the filth, Gruxal saw Liandra standing in the doorway. “By my estimates, you have an hour before the purge occurs. Plenty of time for you to wallow in the muck.” Lynceus grabbed the door’s handle and closed it, plunging Gruxal into darkness. “If I were the betting type, my money would be on you bleeding to death before then.”

Liandra chuckled as she grabbed Lynceus by the arm and began walking away. “Our days here are numbered, my dear.”

Back in the chamber, Gruxal lay amidst the refuse, taking in generous amounts of polluted air. Lynceus had been true with his blow, severing a major artery. However, both he and Liandra were unaware that a pair of veins fed his alien heart. It took several minutes for his body to shut down the destroyed vessel and reroute the blood. It took another half-hour for a scab to form over the wound.

Besides underestimating his resiliency, Liandra also underestimated his strength. Though Gruxal’s arms were thin and wiry, they were incredibly strong. The lock that held the door gave way after several minutes of Gruxal banging against its frame.

The garbage hatch opened slowly. From within the darkness a hand caked in dried blood appeared. Covered in sweat and grime, he reached over and gripped the dagger from the floor.

Sitting alone in the darkness, deep within the ship, Gruxal fought to control his breathing and regain his energy.

He had been a fool to fall for Liandra’s trickery. He had been a fool to confide in her about his savings and where he had it hidden.

But that was the past.

Right now all he could do was wait.

Until he had regained his strength.

Until they would not be suspecting.

Then, and only then, would he show himself…

And he would burn the city to the ground.