This one appeared in Science Fiction Age in July 1994. I think it's funny. I mean, how does Apollo have all that free time on his hands?
A Minor Odyssey
By Daniel Hood
Odysseus was drinking in his hall with two old friends, Jason and Herakles, when the question of the sun came up.
"What a beautiful sunset!" Jason exclaimed, looking up from his couch and out the window. "Isn't it beautiful, Herakles?"
"Duh...uh-huh." Herakles was momentarily the worse for several amphorae of choice Boeotian red and three roast oxen, though his response when sober would not have been much more enlightening.
"Isn't it a beautiful sunset, Oddy?"
"Hmmm," Odysseus said thoughtfully. "I suppose. Why don't we go out on the balcony and get a better view? I have a question to ask you about the sun."
Goblets in hand, they left their couches and walked out onto a nearby balcony, leaving Herakles to his enormous meal. Ithaca clung to the rocky shores beneath them, and beyond the town's red-tiled roofs spread the sea, behind which the sun was sinking in crimson and purple glory.
"Fantastic," Jason said, gesturing with his cup. "Though the sea could be a little darker. It doesn't quite match the wine."
"The Boeotians are getting darker every year," Odysseus commented, though it was clear his mind wasn't on wine. "They're starting to claim that Homer was talking about rosˇs when he wrote that, or even whites."
Jason heard the distraction in his friend's tone, and turned from the sunset.
"Did you say you had a question for me?"
The King of Ithaca paused for a long moment, gazing out at the sun as it touched the horizon.
"Yes," he said at last, "I do. What do you know about the sun?"
"The sun? Why just what everyone knows -- that Apollo drives it across the sky every day. Oh, and that awful story about his son, the one who drove it too near the earth. What was his name?"
"Phaethon," Odysseus supplied, still staring at the fiery globe.
"Yes, Phaethon. But why do you ask?"
"I've been thinking about the sun a great deal, recently, and I've decided there's something wrong with it."
He shifted his solemn gaze to his friend as he spoke, and for a moment Jason thought he was serious. Then he laughed loudly.
"Something wrong with it! Of course there is! That's why Apollo takes it home at night -- to try to fix it! Oh, that's a good one, Oddy; I should have seen it coming! To try to fix it! Ha! That's rich!"
"Jason," Odysseus said quietly, taking the other man firmly by the arm. "I'm serious. I really think there's something wrong with the sun -- and it involves Apollo."
"Well, then," Jason countered, still laughing, "you ought to go up Mount Olympus one night and check it after Apollo puts it away!"
"That's just what I mean to do."
The sun crept perceptibly further below the horizon in the silence that followed. The old Argonaut stopped laughing and stared, open-mouthed, at the aging trickster.
"Oddy, I think you're serious."
"I am. Never more so. I'm going to Mount Olympus to check on the sun, and I want you to go with me."
"Are you and Penny having problems again?"
Odysseus shook his head. "No, no, it's nothing like that. Let me tell you what I've been thinking about. Apollo drives the Chariot of the Sun all day, correct? From east to west for the course of the day?"
"Yes," Jason said slowly.
"So he's stuck in that Chariot all day, guiding it across the sky?"
"Yes, just like Helios before him."
Odysseus suddenly grinned, as if he had scored a point. "Exactly. And what do we know of Helios, except that he guided the sun across the sky?"
Jason thought hard. "He kept cattle, didn't he? The ones you and your crew ate?"
"Yes," Odysseus agreed, "but not very well -- because he was off driving the Chariot of the Sun all the time! That was why we were able to steal the cattle!"
"Oddy, are you sure you and Penny are alright?"
"Couldn't be happier."
"Then, is there a point to all this?"
"Of course there is, and this is it: driving the Chariot of the Sun is so time-consuming -- it takes all day, after all -- and so difficult, as we know from Phaethon's failure, that one couldn't possibly take care of the sun and do anything else!"
"Which means that Apollo can't be doing it! Think about it: he's forever being seen in other places during the day -- which he couldn't be if he were driving the sun! Take Delphi now. I've been there, and the current priestess is deaf, which means that whatever inspiration he gives her, he has to give at close range, or she wouldn't hear it. And he's got a dozen oracles just like that in Ionia. They've even opened one in Egypt, of all places, which means he has to go there once in a while. And then there's all the nymphs and young maidens he seduces, and the pipe players and harpers he challenges to contests -- not to mention all the things he did during the War. I'll grant you that he wasn't around as much as Athena or Ares, but I can swear to seeing him at least twice over the plains of Ilium. And when do you think he poses for all those statues? Not at night, I'll bet. And last, but certainly not least, Penelope swears that at least twice during the twenty years I was gone, she saw him among the suitors here."
"Aha! So that's what this is all about! You're jealous because he courted your wife while everyone thought you were dead!"
Odysseus frowned for a moment. "Well, he of all all gods should have know better." Then he dismissed the unworthy thought. "But that's not it. I know that Penelope was faithful. What's important is that she saw him during the day, when he should have been driving the sun!"
"Alright. I'll grant you that he's been seen during the day, and I'll grant that that means he wasn't driving the sun, and I'll grant that this weird obsession isn't the result of marital problems. But why do you need to pursue it?"
"Why not? It would be a grand adventure!"
"Sort of a last fling, eh?" Jason was beginning to share his friend's enthusiasm, but he held out just a little longer.
"Yes! We're getting old, Jase. We need one last journey to hold in our memories down in the Elysian Fields. One last epic, to warm our hearts throughout all of boring eternity."
The old Argonaut's face lit at the idea, then he scowled.
"What about the gods?"
"What about them?"
"Well, it doesn't pay to trouble them. I mean, look at all the trouble you've had with Poseidon, just for blinding one stupid cyclops."
"Oh, he's long since forgotten that."
"Of course he has. Still, I don't notice you proposing a long sea voyage."
"Well, maybe he hasn't forgotten about Polyphemus," Odysseus admitted, "but we won't have to trouble the gods at all. We'll just sneak into Mount Olympus at night, while the sun is put away, scout it out, and come back. No problem."
"In that case, I suppose -- with some reservations -- that you can count me in."
"Good old Jason," Odysseus cried, clapping his friend on the back. "I knew I could count on you!"
"What about Herakles? Is he coming?"
"I haven't asked him yet, but I'm sure he'll come. He's too stupid to do object. Now, let's go back and call out the dancing girls."
* * *
The next morning the three great heroes -- Jason and Odysseus greatly the worse for a long night drinking -- took sail from sea-girt Ithaca for the mainland and Mount Olympus.
"Look at him," Jason said bitterly, his face a deeply disturbing green, "as fresh as a young maid, and he drank more than the two of us together." He was standing next to Odysseus at the rail, darting jealous glances at Herakles, who occupied the entire bow of the ship and laughed delightedly at the porpoises who raced alongside.
"He is partially divine," Odysseus reminded his friend. "He doesn't grow old like us." Running a hand through his thinning hair, he turned his gaze thoughtfully down into the depths of the sea.
His sudden frown made Jason think he was going to be seasick, and then, after a few moments during which nothing happened, he began to wonder if his friend was worried that Poseidon would pursue his old grudge, and cause trouble during the short voyage.
"Oddy? Are you alright? Are you going to be sick?"
"No," Odysseus murmured, still staring into the wine-dark depths of the channel that separated Ithaca from the main of Greece.
"Are you worried that Poseidon will waylay us?"
"No," the King of Ithaca murmured.
"Then what are you looking so damned thoughtful about?" Jason demanded.
"Growing old," was the simple answer.
"Oh." The former Argonaut frowned a bit himself, considering the idea, then dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "I'll tell you what, Oddy, it just doesn't pay to think about it. Not one single drachma. Give it up, that's my advice."
* * *
Poseidon had either given up his hatred of Odysseus or missed his chance; the boat from Ithaca deposited them safely on Grecian soil with mishap. Odysseus chose a path that led directly to Mount Olympus. It avoided major cities and shrines, as well as the more dangerous roads that might have provided adventures along the way.
"No lions to wrestle?" Herakles asked with a long face, caressing the massive club that rested against one thickly-muscled shoulder.
"No stop at Mycenae?" Jason wanted to know.
"No hydras to chop and burn?"
"No night in Thebes?"
"No swamps to drain?"
"No visit to Corinth?"
"No stables to clean?"
"Not even a brief stay in Argos? I know a troupe of dancing girls there...."
"No," Odysseus said firmly. "No stops, no adventures on the way. I'm sorry, Herakles, but you won't be able to brain any animals or alter the landscape as we go. I do promise you, however, that there will be at least one deed worthy of you, somewhere on our trip. As for you, Jason, you're far too old to be debauching yourself in every city we pass by. This is an odyssey, not a sex tour of Greece."
Herakles' face grew long as he put aside his giant club and resigned himself to what promised to be a very dull journey. Jason, however, managed to splutter out an objection.
"But, Oddy, surely you're going to go to Delphi! I mean, everyone does, before a great quest. It's just not done."
"That is precisely where I'm not going to go. It's a shrine to Apollo, you old fool -- anything I say is going to go straight from my mouth to the god's ear. I'm not giving him any chance to cover up the secret of the sun before I find it out. Now come, let's get moving. We've a long way to go."
With that he started down the quiet road to Mount Olympus. The other two followed, but it was a very depressed demigod and a very disappointed former Argonaut who fell in behind the King of Ithaca that day.
Odysseus was as good as his word -- it was an entirely uneventful journey. They stayed in sober, respectable inns, drank very little wine, and went to bed early. Jason at first grumbled, but he was not as young as he had been when he sailed to Colchis, and the strain of walking all day soon had him going to bed earlier than the other two. Herakles, of course, thought nothing of the exercise, but the boredom numbed his limited brain, and he sought his couch early, too.
It was Odysseus who stayed up late, nursing a cup of wine and thinking. Who drives the sun is of no concern to me, he thought one night. Why do I care?
None of the cups of wine revealed why he cared, but his determination to reach Mount Olympus and find the truth never flagged.
Once I know, he thought, I can go back to Ithaca. For good.
* * *
They reached the foot of Mount Olympus some months later, Jason and Odysseus fitter for their long journey, and Herakles much the same as ever. They had all become so used to the completely peaceful life of travelling that it was with some misgivings that they eyed the towering spire of the home of the gods.
"Still set on this, Oddy?"
"Yes," he answered after a moment, "I am. We're going to find out the secret of the chariot of the sun if it's the last thing we do."
"Which it may be," Jason warned, but his friend did not hear. He was examining a quaint little taverna that was nestled in a grove in the shadow of the famous mountain.
"I think we'll have dinner there," he announced, and the three companions gratefully entered.
The taverna lived up to its exterior, and their beaming host served them up a meal which, though not quite nectar and ambrosia, was certainly of Olympian proportions. Even Herakles grunted in astonishment at the size of the meals.
"Yes, yes, they are quite big," the innkeeper agreed when Odysseus asked, "but then, they have to be. Located where we are," he went on, with a significant glance in the general direction of the gods' mountain, "we get quite a lot of that sort of traffic, if you take my meaning. And they're real trenchermen, let me tell you."
"The gods, you mean? I thought they only ate --" Jason began, before the innkeeper cut him off.
"Of course they do, when they're at home. But they couldn't possibly carry enough of it to make even a single meal. So when they're among us mortals, they eat as we do.
"Now take that fellow over there," the innkeeper said, pitching his voice low and indicating a youth at the far side of the common room. "I'm sure he's a god, or at least a demigod. He's been in this bar for as long as I've been alive, and as long before that, so my father used to say. And all he ever does is drink wine."
"You mean the sunny boy?" Jason asked.
Sunny was an understatement. The youth's hair gleamed like gold, and his skin fairly shone, despite the fact that his face was puckered in a permanent expression of woe.
"Just so. What's more, he drinks all the time, and never gets drunk. Only more glum and sullen. He's been getting glummer and more solemn for all my lifetime. I don't understand why he doesn't turn black and sink into the earth."
"Well," Odysseus said as he stood up, "let's go ask him." He had been following the innkeeper's story with keen interest, and the last words had decided him. He marched over to the golden youth, leaving his friends and the innkeeper in shocked silence.
Up close the boy's radiance was almost painful, so that Odysseus had to squint and hold his hand up to shade his eyes.
"What?" The youth looked up quickly, then down. "No. Never heard of him."
"You are Phaethon, aren't you?
"Unh-uh," the youth said, shaking his head firmly. "No sir. You have me mistaken with someone else."
Odysseus smiled and beckoned his friends over.
"No, I'm sure you're Phaethon. Apollo's boy, right? The one who drove the chariot of the sun and nearly scorched the whole world?"
"Let it go, would you," the boy snapped suddenly "Don't you people ever forget? Let me guess -- you had relatives in Arabia. Well I'm sorry I burned them up, and if there were any way I could bring them back, I would. But there isn't, and I can't. So can we get over it, please?"
"It's nothing like that," Odysseus said, and offered a reassuring smile. Phaethon didn't notice.
"As if there were anything wrong with deserts. Have you ever seen a sunset in the Gobi? Or the rock formations in the Mojave?"
"The Gobi?" echoed Jason, who had just come over.
"The Mojave?" echoed Herakles, who was right behind him.
"They're beautiful," Phaethon insisted, tears brimming in his eyes, "just beautiful, and if it weren't for me -- weren't for me...." His words trailed off into quiet little sobs, and he hunched himself over his wine to have a cry.
With a soothing sound, Odysseus settled himself into the seat next to the young demigod and began comforting him.
"Of course they are. Everyone knows that. Deserts are fine things. Where would the Egyptians put their pyramids, if they didn't have deserts? And what would the Sumerians have to irrigate? We just love deserts. And it wasn't your fault in any case, was it? Not your fault at all."
"It wasn't?" Jason asked incredulously. Then, catching Odysseus' angry glance, he amended: "Of course it wasn't."
"No, it wasn't," Phaeton said, looking up and wiping his shining eyes. "It wasn't. It was Apollo's."
"Sure it was," Odysseus agreed, barely able to contain his excitement. "Why don't you tell us about it?"
"Well," the demigod sniffled, "I was in Olympus for my birthday, and Apollo threw a party for me that lasted all night, and then, just before dawn, he told me he would have to go, because someone had to drive the chariot of the sun. And I said that I thought that would be neat, and he got this strange look in his eyes and said would I like to do it, just once. As a sort of favor to him, because he was sick and tired of having to spend the whole day every day driving the chariot, even when it was cloudy or cold or whatever, and he would give just about anything to get away from it for a day."
Odysseus threw a triumphant glance at his companions from over Phaethon's shoulder.
"He had just given me this wonderful party and all, and I felt bad for him, so I said I'd take over for him that day. He said it would be easy." The boy began to sob again. "And then those stupid horses just went out of control and I couldn't stop them and Zeus threw one of his stupid thunderbolts at me but it only nicked me because the chariot was going so wild but it still nicked me and it hurt -- I have a big scar -- and then Apollo comes back and he and Zeus cooked up this story about my hubris and carelessness and all that and told me I had to pretend to be dead because it would look bad for all the gods if people ever found out how irresponsible they really are.
"And now they won't even let me into Olympus, and all the gods who come by here won't talk to me and there's nothing to do and I can't even go out during the day because I hate the sun and people everywhere think it's my fault we have deserts, when it's not my fault at all."
Here he broke down again into sobbing, and the three companions discreetly left him to his wine and his sorrow.
"So I was right," Odysseus whispered when they were back at their table. "Apollo has tried to get out of driving the sun before."
"Yes," Jason countered, "but just that one time. Do you really think he'd try again after what happened?"
"Of course he would," Odysseus said. "You heard Phaethon -- the gods are totally irresponsible! If he could find a safe way, he'd give up that chariot job in an instant. And I'm sure he has. So come on."
"Where are we going?"
"Up Mount Olympus to look at that chariot."
"But it's nighttime," Jason protested.
Odysseus paused and stared at his friend. "Sometimes, Jason, you make me wonder about how you managed to leave Argo at all, let alone reach Colchis. We have to go at night, because during the day, the chariot is out lighting up the whole world."
"Ah. Yes. Right."
* * *
As usual, Odysseus chose the most convenient way up Mount Olympus, avoiding all the obvious pitfalls and difficulties. The path was gentle and easy, passing through orchards for much of its length, so that the smell of ripening olives wafted along with them through the night.
Twice footsteps approaching from higher up warned them of others using the path, allowing them to avoid encounters. A third time, however, as they were crossing a wide clearing, they did not hear the approaching footsteps, and suddenly found themselves face to face with a towering, armored woman gliding noiselessly down the side of the mountain. The moonlight peeping over Olympus' shoulder showed their faces to her first.
"Hey!" she bellowed. "Odysseus, is that you?"
Belatedly noticing the owl on the woman's shoulder, he dropped to his knees, and motioned his companions to copy him.
"Yes, O Athena, it is I," he said humbly.
"Go on! Really?" She bent down and stared at his face for a moment. "Well I'll be! It is! But you've gotten so old!"
"It has been quite some time since we met, O Grey-Eyed One."
She frowned and scratched at the top of her helm, distractedly upsetting the owl on her shoulder.
"I guess it has, at that. I kept meaning to visit you in -- where do you live again? Wait, never mind, I've got it, it's Ithaca isn't it? -- I kept meaning to visit you, but I just never found the time."
Odysseus raised his head and shrugged. "I understand. You must be very busy, O Pallas."
"I'll say I'm busy! In fact, I've gotta go right now. Some folks in Attica want to name their city after me, and I have to fight Poseidon it. They want to call it Athens -- isn't that great? Not Athenopolis, or Pallasville or anything like that. Just Athens. Short and sweet. You watch those Atticans -- they're going places. Take it from me. Anyway, I've gotta go. See you later, Odysseus. Give my best to the wife and kid."
"I will, O Athena," he answered, but she was already gone in long strides down the mountain. The three companions stood and watched until she disappeared from view.
"I don't usually go for tall ones-" Jason began at last, but Odysseus started up the mountain again, and the sentence was left unfinished.
* * *
The three heroes snuck into the home of the gods on top of Mount Olympus an hour or so before dawn. They crept through the empty streets in a tight little bunch, keeping close to the walls of magnificent buildings hewn out of marble and silver and gold.
"Hey," Jason whispered nervously as they halted at an intersection, "I'll bet this reminds you of sneaking into Troy, eh Oddy?"
"Not at all," Odysseus said, checking all the streets that met where they stood, and trying to decide among them. "We were in a horse. The Trojans just hauled us in."
"No, no, I meant the first time -- when you went in and stole the statue of their civic god."
"Oh, that," Odysseus said, trying desperately to pick a street. "I was drunk. Now will you be quiet so I can think?"
"Think? About what?"
"About where we're going."
"Don't you know?"
"Of course not! They don't sell maps to Mount Olympus with guides to the gods' homes!"
"Then how in Hades do you propose to find this stupid stable? We've only got an hour till dawn!"
Their argument, which was rapidly growing heated, was suddenly interrupted by the mighty sound of Herakles' sniffing, which also produced enough breeze to ruffle their hair.
"Duh....that way," the giant hero said at last, pointing down one of the streets.
Jason turned on him. "And just how do you know that, you cretin?"
"He smelled it," Odysseus said, breaking out in a broad smile.
"What? What did he smell? A chariot? How do you smell a chariot?"
"He didn't smell a chariot, Jason, he smelled horses." Odysseus turned to Herakles. "Or probably something else, right?"
The huge man nodded. "Horseshit."
"Right. If you'd worked in the Augean Stables, Jace, I doubt if you'd ever forget that smell either. Now come on."
They set off at a trot down the road Herakles had chosen, and soon enough the stable of the chariot of the sun came into view at the end of it.
It was a huge building, one of the biggest they had seen in Olympus, made almost entirely of gold, with bas-relief panels inset into the metal showing the progress of the sun around the world. They paused only a moment to admire the workmanship, and then set themselves to finding a way in. The double doors were almost as tall as a cyclops, and set in huge valves.
"Herakles?" Odysseus and Jason stepped aside and let the demi-god approach the doors. He studied briefly, and then grabbed the head of one of the figures in the inset panels. The muscles of his back and arms and legs bunched and corded, the veins popping out in a relief of their own as he pulled, but the door refused to budge.
He pulled still harder, so that sweat began to bead on his forehead, but the door remained shut.
With a convulsive heave, he crushed all his muscles into one bone-cracking effort, and threw himself backward.
The door went with him, allowing just enough room for a man to slip through.
Odysseus dashed in immediately, leaving Jason to help Herakles up from where he had fallen in recoil.
"That's a heavy door," Jason said.
Herakles nodded, smiling hugely, and patted one quivering bicep.
Then they followed Odysseus in.
* * *
The chariot of the sun looked out of place in its huge stable. While the walls soared upward to the cloud-distant ceiling, the chariot squatted, lonely and low, in the middle of the vast space, hugging the floor.
At first the contrast worked to the chariot's disadvantage; it looked toadlike and dwarfish. But when Odysseus went closer and his eyes adjusted to the light, he thought differently. The chariot was beautiful in a strange way, built along lines and with a set of aesthetics he had not encountered before. It was low, true, but up close it was also sleek, and gave off an impression of speed he had never noticed in a chariot before. The chassis was gold, as he had expected, but its luster was different from the metal he knew -- deeper, its depths like still water.
The sides of the chassis were thicker than those of a normal chariot, and when he walked around behind it he saw why: there were thousands of ornamental jewels and several large plates of smoky obsidian set into it. He imagined them lit up with the light of the sun, and caught his breath at the idea. It would be an unbelievably beautiful sight.
Jason and Herakles edged around to join him at the back of the chariot, and both gasped.
"What a trove!" Jason exclaimed, while Herakles whistled in admiration.
They stood in awe for an eternity, drinking in the sight of the chariot of the sun, and then Odysseus drew a deep breath. "I'm getting in it."
He set one foot on the driver's platform, and froze at the sound of Apollo's voice.
"Hey!" the Sun God boomed. "What are you doing with my chariot?"
Ever so slowly Odysseus removed his foot from the platform and turned, with his friends, to offer apprehensive looks at the god.
"We were just looking," Odysseus stammered. "We didn't touch anything. Please, O Apollo, do not be angry with us. We have come far to see your magnificent chariot."
The stern expression left Apollo's glowing face. "Say, aren't you Odysseus?"
"Uh, yes, yes, I am."
"I remember you from that Trojan thing." Suddenly his face split in a huge smile, and he let loose a laugh that set even Herakles' knees shaking. "That horse idea was great! I laughed for hours over that one, let me tell you."
"I am happy to have amused you, O Sun God," Odysseus said, bowing his head. "It was a clever idea, but not so clever as your chariot."
"My chariot? Well, yeah, now that you mention it," Apollo said, "it is pretty clever. Just about the cleverest thing ever, I think."
Odysseus caught the hint of smugness in the Sun God's tone, and nodded solemnly at his companions.
"I am accounted clever among men, O god, but even I must bow before the chariot, and confess myself beaten. I am sure I do not understand its complexities."
Apollo began buffing his fingernails on the front of his tunic, and affected regret. "Well, I'd love to explain them to you, but there are some things men were not made to know."
"Of course not."
"But since you ask --" Before Odysseus could speak, the god had leapt onto the platform, dragging all three men along with him. "It's really a pretty simple idea, but brilliant at the same time."
His fingers danced gracefully over the jewels, and to the men's astonishment they began to light up, and glowing figures of jade danced over the plates of obsidian. Beneath them the floor started throbbing like a drum.
"Now I'm telling you this," Apollo said, with a knowing wink in Odysseus' direction, "because I know your the sort of guy who'll appreciate a good trick. You see, I had a problem."
"Yes, me. Hard to believe, isn't it? But there I was, Apollo, the Sun God, with a problem. And the problem? That I was the Sun God! I had to drive this stupid chariot all around the world every single day, fighting those damned horses and sweating like a pig because the sun was so hot. But I had to do it -- I'm the Sun God, aren't I? Sounds like a serious problem, eh?"
"Desperate," Odysseus said. "I'd have been at a complete loss."
"Of course you would," Apollo agreed good-naturedly. "You're just a man. But I'm a god, so I said to myself, 'Apollo, you've got to find a way not to have to drive this chariot anymore.' At first I tried having someone else do it, but after that halfwit Phaethon scorched half the earth, I gave that one up. You would have given up then, wouldn't you, and resigned yourself to driving this damned chariot forever?"
Odysseus admitted that he would have.
"You're right you would have. But not me -- I'm Apollo. So I sat down and had myself a good think. And then I went to see the Oracle at Delphi."
With growing comprehension, Odysseus listened to the Sun God describe his attempts to wriggle out of his responsibilities. He had gone to the Oracle, and asked her if he would ever not have to drive the chariot of the sun.
"And she said there would be a time, but that it was far away. So I told her to show me that time. Now here's something most people don't know about the Oracle -- not only can she tell people the future, she can show it to them. She only does it for special people -- people like me, you know, great gods and that sort of thing. So I told her to show me the place. It was called Twentyfirst Century. I don't know where it was, and I've never seen it when I cross the sky, but it was filled with marvelous inventions. One of them was called the 'internal combustion engine' (which you couldn't understand, being only humans), and another was called 'cruise control' (which would baffle you even more than the 'internal combustion engine')."
Apollo had looked up at the sun in the Oracle's vision, and saw that it was still making its daily voyage across the sky, and understood the meaning of the vision.
"So I went to Hephaestus and told him what I had seen of the 'internal combustion engine' and 'cruise control,' and that got him thinking."
Jason burst out: "And he built this beautiful chariot!"
"No," Apollo said, frowning briefly, "actually the first three or four chariots he built were ugly little things of steel, and they couldn't do what I wanted. They could haul the sun without horses, which made the trip easier, and once he got 'cruise control' down I didn't have to worry about controlling the speed, but I still had to go. And no matter how easy the trip was, it still took all day.
"So I explained to him again what the 'cruise control' of Twentyfirst Century was like, and he finally understood what I wanted. That was when he built this."
He stroked the jewels and plates of obsidian lovingly, smiling again.
"And this 'cruise control,'" Odysseus asked after a pause, "it means you don't have to drive the chariot? That the chariot drives itself?"
"Exactly! You are quick! No horses or driver -- nothing. I keep the horses out back now. But I'm afraid we must get off, because it's almost sunrise."
He herded them off, pressed a few more jewels on the chariot, and then got off himself. With a wave of his hand he opened the ponderous doors of the stable, and a moment later the chariot shuddered and began to roll forward on its own.
The three men watched with wide eyes as it drove itself out of the stable and then, in a burst of flame, shot away from the street, glowing brighter and brighter.
"You don't get the full effect of the sun warming up from here," Apollo apologized. "Zeus has a patio with a great view -- I should have taken you there."
"That's alright," Odysseus said. "This was most impressive. We thank you very much. That chariot is certainly the cleverest thing ever."
Apollo beamed. "Yes, it is, isn't it?"
Then Jason burst out again: "But what do you do? I mean, what do you do now that you have nothing to do?"
"What do I do? Why, whatever I want, whenever I want. I only have to be here in the morning, to fire the chariot up." Then, with a wink and a leer and an elbow in the ribs that left Jason breathless, Apollo added: "And believe me, there are a lot of nymphs who wish I didn't even have to do that. Now, you three had better get out of here. Humans aren't allowed in Olympus without a god to accompany them, and there's a certain river girl who needs my accompaniment right now."
* * *
They stole out of Olympus as quickly as they could, and only discussed their adventure once they were well down the slopes of the mountain.
"I have to admit," Jason said, "you were right, Oddy. There was something wrong with the sun."
Odysseus only grunted. He had been sunk in thought ever since Apollo left them in the stable.
"Hard to believe," Jason went on. "No one driving the sun. Next thing you know, Poseidon will find some way to make the waves roll on their own, and Mars will retire and start calling himself an old veteran, and then Zeus will set up a lightning machine...who knows where it will all end?"
"It will end when we find this place called Twentyfirst Century. Probably even before. And the gods will have nothing to do with it."
Both Jason and Herakles stopped in their tracks, shocked both by Odysseus' tone and the implied heresy. He whirled and faced them, his face grim.
"It'll end because the gods will die, and they will die because no one will believe in them. And no one will believe in them because they're a bunch of vain, selfish, irresponsible children. Just look at Apollo! He tries to shirk the very thing that makes him a god, first by trying to blame poor Phaethon, then by perverting the Oracle -- his own mouthpiece! All to dally with a few moonstruck nymphs! He didn't even recognize Herakles, and he's a demigod! All he had eyes and thoughts for was how clever he was, and how easily he'd weaseled out of his job!"
Jason grimaced. "Come now, Oddy, isn't that a bit strong?"
"No! If anything, it's not strong enough! I'm through with gods -- and you know what else? I'm through with these stupid adventures, too. I'm too old for this. Now let's go home -- I left Telemachus and Penelope in charge, and if I know them they've got the house full of suitors already."
Then, without waiting for them, he shook his grey-haired head angrily and set off at a quick pace down the slopes of Olympus. Jason and Herakles shared a look of disbelief, and then hurried after him.