"Perhaps," muttered Zeus, staring down at the screen. He propped his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist. "Perhaps we need a fresh look."
"I'm doing my best," protested Hera. She was dressed in an elegant—and very short—Chanel sheath, accessorized with five-inch sequined heels. To give credit where credit was due, she didn't even look a hundredth of her real age, which was somewhat short of three millennia.
Zeus did not glance her way, not even when she sat down, ostentatiously crossing her long, lean legs. He had lost interest in those legs more than twenty-nine hundred years earlier. She sighed, and at that oh-so-familiar sound he did look, just barely in time to determine whether or not she was wearing panties.
"I mean, look at your outfit," he said. She bristled and he hurried on, "I mean it's nice and all . . . " He broke off and finally looked at her. "VERY nice," he admitted with a raised eyebrow and Hera—who, even after so long, still desired his admiration—arched her back and preened. "But it's straight out of Gatsby. Way too expensive, and nearly a hundred years old."
She tossed her head, sending armloads of dark curls tumbling. "I prefer to think of it as classic." She paused and bit her lip. "Okay, maybe a little retro. But classy retro. And expensive is always good."
Instead of answering, he looked back down at his iPad, chewing his lip thoughtfully. She came over behind him and looked down at the screen. A Japanese cartoon was playing, featuring a boy with long white hair and pointy ears wearing a baggy red jumpsuit. "Please tell me you don't want me to wear something like that."
He slapped the cover closed and spun around in his chair to look up at her. "No, of course not. We already know we can't compete with Shinto."
"Been there, tried that, changed our minds," agreed Hera, with a slightly bewildered look. "That guy in the horrible red thing was a Shinto god?"
"No, that's Inuyasha. Well, come to think of it, maybe he is. Sort of," said Zeus. He shook his head. His curls tossed, too, but only at shoulder length. "That's the problem with Shinto. Everything's on a 'sort of' basis."
"Because he's on TV. He's a major star. The manga ran twelve years. The first TV series ran 167 episodes, and the fans—the MILLIONS of fans—were furious when the series got canceled without finishing the story. So they made a second series to finish the story. Also four movies. The reruns are still running."
"And we care because . . ."
"When did we ever get that kind of copy?"
She sighed, and sank into a chair beside him. "Not since the Old Days."
"It's not fair. If some stupid Shinto spirit can pick up that kind of entourage, why can't we? I'm the god of justice, damn it! I'm entitled to equal time!"
She laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "But he's not real, Honey."
He sighed. "Most people would say the same about us." He bit his lip, and shared a sad, and strangely vulnerable look with her. "Are we real, Hera?"
She opened her mouth, but her breath caught. She couldn't think of anything to say. He watched her fail to find an answer for nearly an entire minute. And then he laughed. He surged to his feet, strength and confidence flowing visibly back into him. "Real? Sure, we're real! A lot realer than a cartoon, right? Time for a summit meeting! Call everybody. Get us a private room at the best restaurant in Athens—no, make that London. No, make it New York." He frowned. "Or Tokyo? No. New York."
"Summit meeting?" Nobody argued with Zeus when he was in strong mode, least of all Hera. But she did risk sounding surprised. "They're going to want to know what's on the agenda."
He grinned ferociously. "TV. And tell them to come in disguise."
"What, Echo's here already? I said, 'disguise'." His grin got even more dangerous. "They should come as their favorite TV character."
Actually, they ended up at the Grecian Isles in Chicago, because five of them (five!) had insisted it was the best Greek restaurant in the USA, which was the closest they'd come to consensus on anything in centuries. And if it really was good, Zeus wouldn't care if it wasn't in New York, as long as it wasn't LA. He really hated LA, which pissed off Poseidon no end.
The first to swagger in was Ares, dressed as Iron Man. Hera contemplated mentioning that Zeus had called for TV characters, not movie characters, but decided not to argue with Ares. Lots of people chose not to argue with Ares. Instead she pretended to be surprised he hadn't come as the Hulk. He got a big laugh out of that.
Hades had come as a movie character, too, or rather as several. He was Dracula. Sometimes he was the Bela Lugosi Dracula, but if you looked away for a second, he turned out to be the Frank Langella Dracula. Or the Gary Oldman Dracula. Because, he said, Dracula is Death and Death is in everybody. Creepy, but he pulled it off.
The women had mostly stuck to TV, as instructed. (Except for Aphrodite who came as—of course—Lust from the 1967 'Bedazzled'.) Athena was perfect as Xena, Warrior Princess. Even Demeter, who didn't have a TV set, had worked out a TV costume; she was Mother Nature, from an old-time commercial for margarine.
And Artemis—bless her—had come as Leela, wearing the 4th Doctor's hat and scarf, just as she'd appeared in 'The Invisible Enemy'. "Actually," she'd confided to Hera, who—as Captain Janeway—found herself receiving an uncommon amount of confidences, "I only wore the hat and scarf to make sure HE recognizes I'm a real TV character, and not just a generic jungle girl. I don't need another of his hissy fits." Hera had to agree. Nobody wanted Zeus unhappy. It was even worse than Ares, pissed off.
When Apollo strolled in, she had to roll her eyes. Had he really come as himself? She closed her eyes, hoping it was just an hallucination, but when she looked again, yes, he'd really come as himself. And yet, annoying, hair-splitting truth teller that he was, he'd still taken pains to come as a TV character: Apollo as he'd appeared in the Star Trek episode 'Who Mourns for Adonais?' It occurred to Hera that, with Hephaestus decked out as Lt. Data, and boring little Hestia as Counselor Troi, that made four Star Trek costumes—almost 25% of the pantheon. Popular show.
And all the while, as she greeted her friends and got them seated, and assured them she had NO IDEA what Zeus was up to, she watched for Zeus and worried. Usually she could make a fair guess where he was headed and what would set him off, but today she couldn't. Anything might set him off.
Like—oh, shit—there was Poseidon at the door and he'd decided today was the day to challenge the boss. He wasn't in a costume. He wasn't even dressed. He was wearing a clingy pair of Hawaiian surfer shorts and flip-flops. She started his way, but even as she planned an epic scolding, she had to admit he looked really great undressed. She'd wondered more than once what might have happened if she hadn't hooked up with Zeus back in the day.
"Like my costume?" he purred, spinning around. Man, he had a nice butt.
"Er, I love it," she answered. "So who are you?"
"You don't recognize me?" He looked genuinely hurt and surprised. "I'm Heath!" A long pause. "From 'Blue Water High'!" Another pause. "You did say it was supposed to be my favorite TV show, right?"
Of course Poseidon's favorite show was something she'd never heard of that involved bathing suits. "I did. Thanks for cooperating. SOME . . ." She eyed Ares darkly. ". . .did not."
Poseidon nodded sagely. "You know Ares. Always got to yank on Zeus' chain." His eyes drifted toward the door. "Is THAT a TV costume?" Hera turned. Hermes was at the door, dressed as the Flash. And then he wasn't—he was standing right next to them.
He leaned in to peck Hera's cheek, and vanished again, with the words, "Catch you later, Doll," drifting behind him. He reappeared instantly next to Dionysus who was done up as some kind of a Chinese martial artist, but carrying a wine jug so large he had to hold it up over his head to take a drink. Which he did often. No matter how much he drank or spilled, the jug was never empty and he was never wet.
Once everyone was assembled, Zeus made his grand entrance. The lights all went out, even the little line of light under the door to the kitchen. Utter blackness. Thunder rumbled, or rather roared—so close it was earsplitting. Lightning stabbed through the dark, striking the chair at the head of the table. And there was Zeus, as the lights came up.
Hera groaned. He was Jean Luc Picard. Zeus didn't usually present himself as bald, but apparently he thought the Patrick Stewart look was attractive enough to get away with it. Plus, Zeus was wearing the exact same uniform she was. They looked like a matched set.
He tapped on the table with a finger, just as Captain Picard did when he wanted his staff's attention. And he got the same result: dead silence and all eyes on him. He scanned the room slowly, his face vaguely stern and otherwise expressionless.
Then he heaved a deep sigh. "Well, at least some of you got the point." He crooked a finger at Hera. "I knew you'd understand, my darling," he crooned, taking her hand. "You and I have always shared a vision." When we're not trying to cut each others' hearts out, she reflected. But she said nothing, just smiled as beautifully as she knew how. "And you—Athena, Artemis, Ares—you're very close. All A's." The boss had made a little joke. A dutiful chuckle went around the room. "The rest of you . . ."
He shook his head and snapped his fingers. Suddenly he was Captain Kirk (Hera knew he'd never be able to stick it out with bald) and almost everybody else was wearing a Star Trek uniform, no matter what they'd originally been wearing. Even Aphrodite became Seven of Nine.
But not quite everybody. Hades was still Dracula. Zeus looked annoyed and snapped his fingers again. He had to snap several times before Hades transformed into Mr. Spock, who crossed his arms and glared coldly at his captain. Everybody else looked at each other. Dionysus, who had been transformed into Engineer Scott, blinked owlishly at the bottle of something green he was now holding. He shrugged and took a hit off the bottle. "I don't get it. So what's your point?"
Zeus rolled his eyes. "And you call yourself a god of theater?"
Dionysus shrugged. "Sorry, I handed all that stuff off to the muses ages ago."
"Theater?" wailed Demeter "You mean TV? No fair! How'm I supposed to know about TV? I don't even have a TV." Zeus ignored her so she grabbed the bottle of something green from Dionysus, and took a slug. "Calls himself a god of justice," she muttered.
Suddenly Hera got it. "You may not have a TV, but I'll bet you've heard of Star Trek." She looked around. "You've ALL heard of Star Trek, right? And that's the point. Star Trek isn't just a TV show. It goes way past that. Like that Inuyasha guy. Everybody in Japan loves him. They riot over him—just like Dio's maenads."
"Yeah!" Dionysus reclaimed his bottle of something green and rose majestically to his feet. "Theater is religion, and religion, theater," he intoned dramatically, and with an impressive appearance of sobriety. "What starts as a ritual presentation of sacred truths is transformed into the concretization of those sacred truths by their invocation into the archetypes used to represent them. Hence the transcendent is rendered immanent." He looked around the table, smiling beatifically. "So let's get some maenads in here, and start this party swinging!"
"NO!" wailed Zeus, tearing at his hair in frustration. This didn't do him any harm because his hair, like the hydra, grew back twice as fast as it was torn out. After a few hearty tugs, his hair had become so thick, wild and wavy that (combined with his scowl) his outfit adjusted to a Beethoven costume. For an instant, Hera thought he was protesting Dionysus' call for maenads and the orgiastic havoc that would accompany them. But he wasn't looking at Dionysus. He was looking around the circle of Star Trek uniforms. "This isn't what I wanted at all!"
"Well, if you're not happy with Star Trek, I'm going back to Dracula," announced Hades. He snapped his fingers and, not only did he transform into Christopher Lee, all the others reverted to their original costumes, too, except for Hestia—who'd decided that if Star Trek was now passé, she'd go with Ann Boleyn instead—and Dionysus—who was too focused on his drinking to transform into anything. "I love Dracula," said Hades, twirling his cape and smiling dangerously at Zeus.
Hephaestus, who was still dressed as Mr. Data, never having been anything else, looked back and forth between Zeus to Hades, moving only his yellow eyes. Android or not, his white skin gave the impression of having paled with fear. He extracted himself from the situation by walking backwards to the buffet, and pirouetting to consider the baklava.
Aphrodite followed him, nibbling his ear. She was oblivious to the rising hostility, but she was always horny, and her husband was the only man she was allowed to fondle in public. Ares followed her, since she was pretty much the only god that was currently speaking to him, and even she was only speaking to him because he was her brother. In fact, most of the pantheon chose to visit the buffet for one reason or another, where they sampled the spanakopita while not talking to Ares.
Hera intervened, or tried to intervene, before the conflict escalated past angry looks. "You mean this isn't about TV turning into mythology?"
She'd been talking to Zeus, of course, but Hades answered. "Sure, it was," he smirked. "But it didn't work, did it, Boss? Dressing up in Star Trek costumes didn't endow you with any of the Star Trek glamour. Or the Star Trek audience. It just highlighted the fact that now you're up against yet another cosmology you can't compete with." Hera sucked in her breath.
Zeus glared. His fingers twitched slightly "I was not trying to steal Star Trek glamour," he snarled. "We're gods, not copycats. The costumes were just an example."
"Sure, they were."
Zeus rose slowly to his feet, with a lighting bolt forming in his hand. Hades rose, too. Somehow there ceased to be a long banquet table between them, and they were face to face. Zeus stroked the lighting bolt gently, almost meditatively. "I do believe you are picking a quarrel with me," he murmured. "Are you sure you want to do this? I know you don't like taking orders, and you're a serious player, so I usually try to let you do your own thing, but come on. Do you REALLY think you can take me?"
Hades smiled. He was holding a skull, which he tossed from one hand to another. "You LET me do my own thing? You pretend I need your permission for anything? I have my own realm, a realm that will inevitably consume yours in the end." His smile faded, and he shook his head. "Look around you, Brother. There are so few of you left. Even gods die."
"All true, Brother," whispered Zeus. "Our numbers have grown few. But that doesn't answer my question, does it? Can you take me, here and now, and not in the sweet by and by? By your own hand, without waiting for that world you don't so much rule as skate over to suck me in? Please tell me, Brother, if even gods die, does that include you? Will your ever-hungry realm consume you one day?
Ares had materialized beside them at the whiff of ozone in the air. He cocked his head, listening, trying to follow a discussion that did not conform to his concept of a battle challenge. But he knew the aroma of adrenaline and testosterone well. "You two gonna fight? Awesome! Can I fight the winner?"
There was a long, hideous silence while Zeus and Hades turned as one to stare at Ares. The entire room held their breath, waiting for the two lords to blast the punk with all the power they owned between them, obliterating him so completely that there would not even be a speck of ash to tumble into the hole after him, and on down all the way to Hades' world, where the lowliest of the servants would grumble at having to sweep it into the cesspool.
And then Zeus laughed. It was a huge, glorious laugh that probably shook Chicago to its foundations. Hera sighed a deep, heartfelt sigh of thanks, as soon as she could breathe again. That's why he's the boss, she realized. Because he can laugh so loud he rocks the world. It's that laugh that keeps us all alive, even when nobody believes in us anymore. I've never even seen Hades smile, not a real smile.
Even humorless Hades looked pleased by Zeus' good humor. "You should have drowned that one at birth," he said, flicking his fingers at Ares, so that Ares suddenly found himself sitting in the tureen of avgolemono.
"I probably should have drowned them all at birth," said Zeus. "But I kept remembering Dad."
"You can't go by that." Hades flung a fraternal arm around Zeus, who punched him affectionately in the side. "He got careless was all. If he'd just checked the bodies, he'd still be king of the universe, and you and I wouldn't be squabbling about bullshit."
That set Zeus laughing again, and again the world laughed with him. "Man, you're dark," said Zeus, sounding just a little bit envious. "I could never pull that line off."
"No," replied Hades. "You couldn't. You're a daylight god." But he didn't sound smug. He sounded thoughtful. "And yet they flee from me. Perhaps we are too polarized. Perhaps success in the mortal realm requires both darkness and light."
"You need followers, too," pointed out Zeus. "Maybe we should work together on this?"
The crowd hushed when the houselights dimmed and the whole arena went utterly black. Then a flash of lightning struck the stage and suddenly an ordinary man was spot-lighted, seeming almost to float in the blackness. Or maybe not so ordinary—Mr. H was tall and dark and superbly handsome—but he was dressed in a suit, and holding a microphone as if he couldn't shout loud enough to reach the back rows. The Jumbo-tron screen didn't even pick him up.
"Thank you, everybody! Thank you for coming! We KNOW you'll enjoy the show, the very last show of our tour. And because you're such a great audience, and we're so very glad to have you here, we're going to tell you a secret! Would you like to know WHY this is the very last show of the tour? How come we're going to stop when everybody's having so much fun?"
His voice carried just fine—maybe he didn't need the mike. He paused to let the audience catch their breath in wonder. "Because . . ." Another pause, accompanied by a dangerous smile which was somehow visible to everyone, even without the Jumbo-tron. "Beeecauuuuse . . . Tomorrow we start work on our new TV show, 'The Shiny Space Pirates at Large!' Be sure to watch—if you dare! And now, here they are: the Shiny Space Pirates!"
He disappeared as if by magic, with an audible pop. The audience roared their approval as the stage lights came up, and the Jumbo-tron came alive to reveal an unusually big rock band—if you could call what they played rock—with twelve performers. (Hephaestus had begged to remain backstage as equipment manager.) Zeus played keyboard. He'd wanted lead guitar, because it was the star slot, but in the end had to admit that Apollo had invented the guitar. Ares took drums, since he wouldn't agree to play anything he couldn't bang on.
Aphrodite was the lead singer, of course, crooning an unearthly siren song that made most male fans come in their pants, while Demeter harmonized with an earthy alto that made the female fans weep. Hestia and Artemis sang back up. Poseidon pulled the crash of the sea out of a tuba, while Athena countered with a celestial harp and Dionysus erupted at intervals into a heart-stopping sax solo. Hera overlaid them all with the trill of a piccolo.
Their costumes were as motley as their instruments, ranging from sparkly uniforms to nearly nude. No two were alike, and yet, somehow, they were all kin. And all magnificent. There was no one on the earth (except maybe in North Korea) who didn't adore at least one of them. Even angry Ares had a fan club (with neo-Nazi overtones) and there were also those who yearned for the dark, dangerous beauty of their announcer, who made no music but was always with them.
And every time they played, Zeus grew a little younger and his crew got a little more joyful. It felt so good, being back on top at last.