God From the Machine

May 9, 2013
in Category: Blog, Writing
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Just click the icon, his son had told him. As if that was supposed to explain everything. He looked at his mouse with reservation as if it might scurry away if he startled it. He knew it wouldn’t, it just sat there on the polished white-marble tabletop transfixed on the small plate of cheese he had left for it. Perhaps they weren’t allowed to eat on the job. Still, it hadn’t moved in twenty minutes and he was beginning to worry.

To say that he had been a compassionate man back in his day would have been completely off base. He had been cold, brutal, vengeful, philanderous, perverse and an all-around dick. More importantly though, he was in no way a man. Without some measure of ichor in their veins, no man could live this high up Mt. Olympus without an oxygen tank and a death wish.

Zeus stared down at the little plastic mouse. It didn’t look quite right, a little too flat and missing some key rodent features but that’s the way the Fates saw fit to birth him. Things never really turn out like you expect them too, he thought, just look at my children. He accepted it with a sigh and shrug of his shoulders.

Perhaps the years had mellowed him like a fine wine. The sour bite of his anger had left him along with some of his favorite teeth. Being king of the known universe was a high-pressure job and can bring out the worst in any deity . Everyone wants something from you: your followers want your advice, your enemies want your throne, and your victims (who are also your followers) want you to stop razing their crops with your lightning bolts.

It had taken a long time for him to get to where he was today. There is no greater shock, no more horrible insult, no more pressing need for drastic existential introspection than being told that no one believes in you anymore. It happens to all deities eventually; its very much like a colonoscopy: painful and humiliatingly emasculating but you know you’re going to have to get one at some point. He passed through the five basic stages of retirement with a modicum of dignity, surprising given pantslessness is one of them.

At first, Zeus was in denial of his own improbability. Sure, science may have cost him a job but for the first time he was thankful for mankind’s inability to distribute wealth or knowledge equally. He had told himself it was nothing to be ashamed of, but still made sure no one else knew where he was going when he packed a small duffel bag full of Majesty and headed for the Amazon.

Deep within the jungle there still live isolated tribes who don’t know about their own impending destruction, let alone the beautiful complexities or the natural world. What they lacked in incredulousness, however, they made up for in squalor. After a cushy lifetime of marble statues, Zeus tried to convince himself that being enshrined as a frightening totem of mud and boar feces would be just as good. “It’s the thought that counts” didn’t work when young Hercules gave him a bag of Hydra’s heads for Father’s Day and it certainly wasn’t going to work now. But he was desperate. He found a group of about a dozen and a half hunters crouching around a campfire in a grassy clearing. With a pop and a flash he was among them.

“I am Zeus, Lord of Olympus” his voice roared throughout the canopies. It scared off a few warblers and enticed the macaws.

“Awk! Lord of pus! Awk!” the birds echoed the birds in the distance.

Zeus coughed his thunderclap cough and hoped no one had heard the lies being spread about him.

One man stood up hesitantly, carefully adjusted his thin, blood-red loincloth and asked, “Are you with King Hercules?”

“Did you say Hercules?!” the god coughed violently.

The man pointed across the clearing and a hundred yards away Zeus made out…something. He approached it with uncharacteristic apprehension. It was as if he were in a dream and his life’s cast of characters and scenes had been randomized on a spinning wheel of chance. As he approached his the dream faded and his heart sank. There, covered in ceremonial flowers and so wrapped in vines and moss and grasses that nature itself was taking it back, was a third of a C-130 Hercules cargo plane. It wasn’t much to look at, fitting since there wasn’t much of it to look at either. Where it wasn’t green with encroaching jungle it was brown with rust. The model number was just discernible on the one wing, which sat leaning against a half-pipe of fuselage.

“Accursed cargo cults!” Zeus spat and kicked the dirt. He couldn’t stomach the idea of being jealous of the bones or a downed airplane with a few boxes of cigarettes and weapons, but he couldn’t help it. A pile of cold rusted steel was somehow more charismatic than himself. He chose not to dwell in the shadow of the hulking scrapyard of his defeat. With a lamentable whimper and a faint crackle he fizzled away.

– – – –

Google, the screen displayed with a flamboyant splash of color. He had no idea what a “Google” was but it sounded vaguely sexual and this endeared it to him. The cursor blinked in the search bar impatiently. There was something inherently threatening to Zeus about the way the computer seemed to stare back at him, judging and waiting for him to lower his guard. He didn’t trust it and for an interminable moment he was scared to look away.

He remembered when computing was done on abacuses. Those were happier days. Try as he might there was some underlying concept he couldn’t grasp about today’s computers. Abacuses. They had worked so well. You could pick it up and get right to work. How do you improve on that? Certainly not with a machine that can’t be used without getting a degree in it first. He just didn’t understand.

But it wasn’t only the computer humming tunelessly that bothered him, it was the society that thought it would be a good idea. So much had changed, Zeus thought. The world had been a great drama. He had looked away for an instant; closed his great eyes for a blissful moment of self-reflection and when he looked back the world was unrecognizable. He couldn’t follow the plot anymore.

So what if he didn’t get out much anymore? Who would want to go out and spend time in the world of mortal madness anyway? As far as Zeus was concerned, the world beneath him had been flung into chaos and he held down the last safe bastion. At first he had felt some minor boredom, but in time the walls seemed to close in around him, constricting him as tightly and uncomfortably as his shimmering purple robes that had grown tight with a life of leisure. Now his palace was a luxurious prison with its columns as impenetrable as iron bars. His cell mates were not tattooed, muscled degenerates but memories, and they were just as violent.

After his failed voyage he had been inconsolably distant. He had plunged into the second stage of retirement, depression. He sulked around his empty house; his children didn’t need him, humanity didn’t need him, nobody needed him. The next stage was pastries. After his robes tightened, hallways lengthened and stairs grew taller, Zeus found himself in the fourth stage, which was depression again. The days seemed to blur together. The only significant marker of time was when his children came to visit for his birthday. He seemed to be getting very old lately. And yet at other times, time seemed to stand still. He wasn’t sure if he would ever see his next birthday, which is a much less common concern for immortals.

But his birthday did come, as it had 6682 times before. Zeus remembered his first birthday. It was a small family gathering and his father ate all the cake. And the guests. Some birthday traditions had lived on, not that one obviously, but a small family party had remained a comfortable norm. Even in a family of misbehaved brats, back-stabbers and thugs, it was nice to have everyone together under one roof every once in a while.

And yet when they did all visit, it was clear to him that his guests were strangers, pretenders wearing the masks of his sons and daughters. The difference was subtle but painfully obvious. They wore their ceremonial togas awkwardly, irritatedly shifting them across their shoulders like they did when they were children. The garments were strange and inelegant to them, an anachronistic fashion like frilled collars and Hypercolor shirts. They used strange new words and talked of places he had never heard of. They were kings of a world he had no power over. He felt cold.

– – – –

The big day had finally arrived and he was less than completely surprised at the sight on his doorstep.

“I could have sworn I had more children than this” he said grimly.

“Well they say the mind’s the first thing to go” Athena said, brushing past him and into the house.

“Its nice to see you too” he sighed.

“Maybe he’s being ironic” posed Apollo, who appeared moments after his sister. “Dad, were you being ironic?” Apollo the doctor, trained to observe. His mother was taking to the wine pretty heavily during that pregnancy.

“Where are your other brothers and sisters?” Zeus asked his daughter.

“Am I their keeper?”

“You’ve always managed to keep tabs on your siblings better than I ever could. Maybe if they called every once in a while I−”

“As it happens I do know where they are.” Zeus’ cheek stung from the verbal slap in the face he had just received. Never let it be said that practicing civil law will make you civil, or that a higher education based in logic and reason will make you any less irrational. There was something about Athena that Zeus found frightening. She was like Electra and Oedipus rolled into one and most of the time he wasn’t sure if she wanted to kill him or sleep with him. Or both.

“You know,” she continued, “keep your friends close, enemies closer and all that.”

“And what about family?”

She smiled and showed too many teeth. “I think I covered that. All I can tell you is that Ares is at the Hague, Dionysus is back in rehab, thankfully, and Artemis is still at Augusta for another week. That’s in Georgia. In America. In the New World.”

He nodded knowingly. Within a half hour, more guests had arrived. Poseidon, in his trademark yellow rain slicker, shook his hand heartily. Demeter distractedly wished him well, scratching her stretch pants and asking about the cake. Hermes stopped in to say hello but after a few minutes told his father that he was sorry and had to run. No one else heard his cell phone ring, or even believed you could get service on top of Mount Olympus, but that was his story and he stuck to it.

Zeus overcame his cynicism and was genuinely happy so many of his children had been able to come. Some he knew would not be coming, those bridges had been burned long ago, but he was disappointed and confused that Hephaestus wasn’t there. Hephaestus was an odd case: he was the first to go live among the mortals and perhaps the only one to enjoy it. But he always maintained a dutiful, Cordelian devotion to his father, never an unkind word or attempted poisoning to speak of. Zeus did his best to turn his attention back to the party but his son stuck stubbornly in his mind. Suddenly there was a haphazard knock on the door. There was no rhythm to it, no language conveyed in the thuds and echoes. It was impatient and fickle and guileless. It was human. It was Hephaestus. When Zeus answered, he saw his son patchy with damp splotches of sweat on his polo shirt. He was hunched over a large purble box wrapped with a gold bow, taking short shallow breaths.

“I got,” he wheezed, then held up a finger while he took in a few lung-fulls of air. “I got you a present. Phew. You’ll like it, it’s heavy. I forgot how long a walk it is up here. And all of it uphill. Wow. You mind if I sit down for a moment?”

“What’s in the box, Hephaestus?” Zeus asked.

“Number one, I told you to stop calling me Hephaestus. I go by ‘Heff’ now. And second, it’s a surprise. You’ll have to open it to find out.”

“I don’t like surprises, and I definitely don’t open boxes when I don’t know what’s in them. It’s not pretty.”

Hephaestus dragged the present over to a couch in the sitting room that was covered with coats and sat on a brown women’s down jacket. “You’re really going to make me tell you what’s inside?”

“Unless the box is a big paperweight, which wouldn’t be such a bad gift…I have some scrolls that would fit it.”

“I got you a computer” Hephaestus said defeatedly.

“Oh, thank you,” Zeus smiled at him warmly. “What’s a computer?”