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Authors: Jo Walton

Necessity

BOOK: Necessity
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This is for Ada, who is not only wonderful but also real.

 

What leaf-fringed legends haunt about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe or the dales of Arkady?

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

—K
EATS
, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Socrates: Tell me then, oh tell me—what is the great and splendid work which the gods achieve with the help of our devotions?

Euthyphro: Many and fair are the works of the gods.

—P
LATO
,
Euthyphro

Answer me, answer me

Somebody answer me.

Oldest of questions and

Deepest of needs. Our

Mystery, mystery,

Teach us our history.

Lost all again

To the dark of the grave.

—A
DA
P
ALMER
, “A New World”

And now the work is done that cannot be erased by Jupiter's anger, fire and sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let the day, that has power only over my body, end when it will my uncertain span of years. The best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars.

—O
VID
, envoi to
Metamorphoses

 

1

APOLLO

I have lived for a very long time however you measure it, but I never grew old before. I aged from birth to adulthood and stayed there, poised in the full power of glorious immortality. The mortal body I had taken up to experience and understand the joys and sorrows of human life aged as other mortal bodies age. My son Phaedrus, like my older son Asklepios, had healing powers. Our City had begun with a generation of ten-year-olds, and as our bodies aged he was kept permanently busy. Even with all he could do for us, aging was an undignified and uncomfortable process. Souls grow and flower and do not decline, so each mortal life inevitably ends with soaring souls enclosed in withered failing bodies. While death is necessary for rebirth, I could find neither necessity nor benefit in this slow ebbing of vitality.

I died on the day the first human spaceship contacted Plato. After that, I did all the things I'd been promising myself I'd do once I was back to my proper self. I established the laurel wreath as a symbol of poetic victory, in memory of Daphne. Then I spent a little while assembling the chronicles of the City—weaving together Maia's journals with Simmea's and Arete's, and composing a memoir of my own brief but intense period of mortality. Then I settled down to study sun formation, beginning with my own suns, naturally. Once I'd started looking into it, I became fascinated with the whole process. The song of suns, the dance of gravity and hydrogen, the interplay of radiation and magnetism and heat, the excitement of the symphonic moment when it all comes together and fusion begins—I never tire of it.

I can't say how long I spent alone studying the birth of suns. I was outside time, and when I went into time, it was a time aeons before the evolution of life. It's normal for me to live outside time, and step into it as and where I choose. The years I spent incarnate in the Just City were the exception. Then days and years unfolded in inevitable and unchangeable sequence. My more usual experience is personally sequential, but entirely separate from time, human time, history. I could go off and study stellar nurseries in the early days of the universe for as long as I liked without neglecting any duties. I could pay attention to my duties afterwards, they'd still be there. I could be aware of a prayer, watch the entire sequence of a sun being formed, and then respond to that prayer in the same moment it was uttered. (Not that I pay any more attention to the constant dinning of prayer than any other god. That's only an example.) I can't be in time in the same moment twice, but that's not much of a hardship, usually, because time splits up into extremely small increments. Despite being the god of prophecy, I don't know my own personal future any more than anyone else. I know what happens in time, more or less, depending on how much attention I've paid to it, exactly the same as you might know what happens in history—some of it sharp, some of it fuzzy.

Studying sunbirth was good for me. It was a relief to be on my own and not have to worry about other people and their significance. It was good to be able to focus completely on a fascinating and abstract subject and forget about Plato for a while—both the philosopher and the planet. I loved my children, and I loved Plato and the society we had built struggling to implement his ideas. But Homer calls the gods “untiring” as well as “deathless.” Taking on mortality, and living through that slow physical process of aging, had made me understand for the first time what weariness meant. The study was a form of rest, renewal, and rebirth. It was fun, too. I like learning things, and suns are very close to my heart.

After a timeless while, I was interrupted by the sudden appearance of my little brother Hermes. He draped himself over the accretion disk of a sun forming from a particularly fascinating dust cloud, one full of ancient iron. For some reason, probably simply to irritate me, he chose to make himself so large that the disk looked like a couch he was lounging on. He looked like a youth on the cusp of manhood, an object of desire but filled with implicit power. “Playtime's over,” he said.

I shot up to the same size and balanced poised in the same orientation against the glowing dust of the nebula. “What are you doing so far from civilization and everything you love?” I asked.

“Running Father's errands, as usual,” he said, pursing his lips. “You know nothing less would get me so far away from people. What are you doing out here in the bleak emptiness?”

I thought it was beautiful, in its own way. “I'm fulfilling my primary function and working on how suns begin,” I said. “For a god of travel, you do seem to hate going places.”

“I'm not in charge of exploration of the wilderness,” he said, bending to adjust his elegant winged sandals. They and his hat were all he wore—not only at that moment, but practically all the time. He enjoyed displaying his exquisite body and being admired. “I like travel and trade and markets and the way people arrange systems of communication. I like going to
places.
This isn't a
place.
I think this is the furthest from being a place of anywhere I've ever been. There's nothing out here for me, no civilization, no offerings, no possibilities for negotiation. Nothing but atoms and emptiness.”

“Did you know people have equal significance?” I asked, suddenly reminded by what he had been saying. I'd promised Simmea I'd tell the gods. Putting together the chronicle was only the first part of that.

“To us? How could they have?” A frown briefly creased his golden brow. “They're mayflies.”

“To each other. And their choices ought to count to us. They live long enough to achieve wonderful things, sometimes. And besides, a human lifetime is subjectively longer than you think. You should try incarnating yourself.”

“Was it fun?”

I hesitated. He laughed.

“It was illuminating,” I said, with as much dignity as I could manage. “I learned things I couldn't have learned any other way. I think we all ought to do it for what we can learn. We'll be better for it.”

“I'll think about it. I have a number of projects I'm busy with right now. And instead I'm wasting my time coming all the way out here to the ass-end of nowhere to tell you that Father wants you to attend to your planet.”

I looked at the accretion disk, poised at the moment of spinning up. “Now? Why now? He wants me to go to Plato in my personal now?”

“Does Father ever explain these things to you? He never does to me.” He sounded bitter.

“It's a Mystery,” I acknowledged.

“You haven't told anyone you have a planet. I must check it out.”

“It's new,” I said, reflexively defensive. “It's all Athene's fault, really. It's called Plato. It has people. And aliens. They're highly civilized. They worship us, well, most of them do. You have a lovely temple there with a statue by Praxiteles that Athene and Ficino rescued from the sack of Constantinople. Haven't you noticed people there praying to you? You'd be welcome to come and visit.” I gestured in its general direction. “Drop in any time.”

He ignored my jab as easily as he ignored prayers. “How did you get a whole planet?”

I sighed, seeing he wouldn't leave me alone until I explained. “Athene was setting up Plato's Republic, on Thera, before the Trojan War, before the Thera eruption. She had three hundred classicists and philosophers from across all of time, all people who had read Plato and prayed to her to help make the Republic real. She helped—that is, she used granting their prayers as a gateway. Really, she wanted to do it, so she did. As well as those people, the Masters, they bought ten thousand Greek-speaking slave children, and a set of big construction robots. The robots turned out to be sentient, only to start with nobody knew that. I incarnated there as one of the children. I learned a lot, from Sokrates and the others, and from the experience. I had friends, and children. When Father found out, he transported the whole lot of us to another planet four thousand years forward—and we were twelve cities by that time, all doing Plato's Republic in different and competing ways.”

“And you're responsible for them?”

“Until my children are ready to be their pantheon, which shouldn't be long now. Why? Did you think Athene would end up getting stuck with it, after she tired of the project and moved on?”

He grinned. “It's hard to imagine. She always squeaks out of things. Well, you'd better get on and take care of them for her.”

BOOK: Necessity
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ads

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