I hope readers enjoyed my novella Resvrgam. I’ve now stickied the whole story at the top of the blog. I wrote it for a “Secret Santa” challenge up at SFF Chrons Headquarters : a challenge whereby everybody posts their wish for a story (for example, I might ask for a story about two estranged sisters set in a cloud-based city, or whatever), and then an administrator randomly allocates these wishes back among the wishes, who then go away and write a story with the brief given. The completed stories are then secretly given back to the people who requested them as their “present”. There would follow a quick guessing-game of who write who before all was revealed. The whole thing would take four to five months, and it was a great writing exercise! I was given the brief “I’d like a little story about fire,” and so obviously I wrote a 17,000 word novella about a secretive pyromanic cult shaping the course of London’s history.
I got a taste for writing novellas during these challenges. The next time I entered the Chrons Secret Santa challenge I was given the brief, “I’d like a story about a hole in the ground. And any mentions of Greek myths would be a bonus.” Thankfully the Greek criteria helped me eschew any thoughts of hobbits, and I considered a sinkhole instead. Generally, these Secret Santa entries tend to be somewhere between 1000-5000 words, flash-to-short fiction range. My entry, The Gigantomachy Of Antonios Costas, weighed in at around 24,000 words. I’m not sure how well the recipient took it; he was probably expecting a neat little flash piece to devour during his lunch break. Ho hum.
Anyway, I really like this piece. It’s ostensibly set in the same universe as Resvrgam, although there is not really anything to connect the events of the two novellas, apart from the fact that they (and the third novella, The Rings Of Saturn) take place in major cities of the world and focus on dark, strange secrets that these places may hold: London in Resvrgam, Athens for this one, and Madrid for Saturn. Moreover, I just like the idea of a shared universe for these strange urban fantasy stories.
In Chapter 1, Antonios Costas, a professor of Greek philology and classic at the University of Athens, is grappling with the aftermath of a catastrophic sinkhole that has appeared in the heart of the city. As he ponders the wreckage, his colleague Medas comes to him with a strange and unique opportunity that the sinkhole presents.
With tiresome predictability, the immediate and global reaction to the swallowing of half of Athens by a gargantuan sinkhole was typified by the vicarious caterwauling of, inter alia, the vacuous, the narcissistic, the ostentatious, the stupid, the gormless and, naturally, the eschatologically frenzied. And all of them were fomented and encouraged by the influential and faux-intellectual media class for whom the main oxygenating nourishment is hysteria, distraction and diversion from the truth.
In all honesty, it pained me to my soul the way the media reported as a blasé statistic that the number of the dead was greater than a hundred thousand. All those individuals, all those families, gone, subsumed, lost forever, replaced only by a great hole, both literally and figuratively. For many, it was easy to succumb to several stages that made up the meretricious carnival that followed the earthquake: firstly of grief (a great thrum of simultaneous outpouring of digitised solidarity, but of course not so much for those who were lost or died, but to those who remained, the wretched reliquae who had to actually process what was happening to them); then of anger (at those powerful bodies who should have prevented this Act of God); then finally of hatred and mob-handed persecution (towards anybody who did not publicly partake in the former two outpourings). But I was not in possession of these apparent virtues. Or, more to the point, I was not in possession of the desire to ensure that I was seen to possess them. I was disappointed but unsurprised that many of my colleagues, staff and students chose to spend those grieving days (and they were days to grieve, to be sure) in a virtual echo chamber filled with the acrid stench of mutual congratulation and the corpse of nonconformism. The angry froth and fleck by which these people had been seduced made me question the very validity of what we are supposed to be achieving as students of the humanities. At least, it made me question the effectiveness of it. In any case, this competitive publicity declaration of solidarity with the true victims of this dire catastrophe was not an act I had any desire to undertake.
Dear reader, I did, in all honesty, grieve for those wretched souls, so do not think me a monster. But I did it in my own, unfashionable manner: a private prayer. A donation. The offer here and there of a helping hand to the grieving (and of those there were many). This was not enough to allay the aspersions cast my way by many of my colleagues and, particularly, students at the University of Athens, for whom my reluctance to emote was at best aloof and at worst iniquitous. More fool them. They should have known that, as a Stoic, it behooved me to keep my peace and to consider the catastrophe in my own, internal way. It was certainly ironic that in the birthplace of Zeno, the father of that branch of philosophy, such emotive ejaculations should typify the national mood, but time changes all things. And yet it changes nothing!
No matter. I have, as you shall see, my own manner of honouring the dead.
Situated, as I was, in the University when disaster struck, and thus two or three kilometres east of the epicentre of the sinkhole, I was spared the fate of that doomed multitude who disappeared into that gaping hole in the city. I declined to take compassionate leave, deciding to continue working, for the sake of my students and, of course, for the sake of knowledge itself, which we cannot allow to falter. It was at one such morning, some number of weeks after the sinkhole’s appearance, that my protégé Medas, a postdoctoral researcher in archaeology and classical Greece, burst into my University office without notice, as was her wont. By that point I knew what the expression on her face would be without having to look up from my computer: the permanent frown, the crossed arms, finger tapping, eyes half-closed by the endless anger this episode had stirred within her.
“What is it, Medas?” I asked.
“I have been invited to attend a dig,” she called between chews of gum.
That didn’t seem to warrant bursting into my office like a dervish. Then again, she had burst into my office for much less significant things in the past. I peered at my laptop for effect. “Which one? Thasos? The Valley of the Kings? Qumran?”
She snorted. “Try looking closer to home.”
I looked up. She had a kind of wild look in her eyes.
“Here,” she said, pulling up a chair beside me. “Right here, in Athens.”
It took a second for me to understand the implication, and a bolt of resistance lodged itself firmly within my constitution. “No, surely not. The sinkhole? You cannot be serious.”
“A person from one of my reading groups works in Sofokleous Street for some investment bank or some such thing. He has a client who has an interest in classical Greek treasures, and who has expressed an interest in examining the sinkhole. My friend passed along my details, and I was sent an invitation to join this expedition. I don’t know much about the guy just now – he is a private individual, bankrolling the dig from his own pocket. Now he has looked into my own work, and my affections towards the antiquities of our country, and, well, there you are. What do you think of that, then?”
I pulled my glasses down my nose to look over them at her. It was hard to tell whether she was excited or angered by the invitation. My best guess was both. Her reading groups were often filled with the more exotic ends of the intellectual spectrum. “It seems rather soon. What are your thoughts, my dear?”
I was the only person Medas would tolerate calling her ‘my dear’. Anybody else, male or female, would have received the full fury of her wrath. I’d seen others chewed out by Medas for less, ashamed and amused by my own apparent immunity. So far as I could see, just as I forgave her the ostentatious fire of her own emotional and political vanities for the sake of her intellectual zeal and amorem Graecia, in turn my old-fashioned mannerisms – which I had no inclination to dilute for the sake of compliance with modern sensibilities – was also forgiven owing to my admiration and whole-hearted support and defence of her. When she admonished me, I sensed it was in the same way a daughter might do so with her embarrassing father, which happily nullified any sense of admonishment in lieu of the fondness I felt it really indicated.
“Perhaps you had better read what they say.” She sat at my desk and showed me the email on her tablet. Grumbling, I pushed my glasses back up my nose and read it.
Thank you for responding to our initial correspondence. I write representing my employer, who is extremely impressed with your zeal for all things Grecian, and the quality of your academic investigations.
We are quite aware that, though the tragedy that befell our beautiful city was many weeks ago now, the wounds are still raw, and we do not approach this endeavour lightly. However, we believe that there is singular and unique opportunity to delve into the archaeological, geological and cultural history of Athens. Your work seems to be in line with the current direction of our hypothesis.
My client wishes to assemble a team of experts possessing very singular skills and knowledge of Athens and its history. This team will descend into the sinkhole in the shadow of the Acropolis and uncover what arcane treasures may be revealed by this event. Naturally, your name appears high on our wish list.
You may think that it will be impossible – logistically, politically, financially – to penetrate and descend Ground Zero, but my employer has sufficient clout to overcome such trifling hurdles. Indeed, initial excavations have already begun, and a team of structural engineers have conducted initial surveys and inspections the site for stability and safety. My boss has provided the Government with significant donations to assist with the ongoing disaster relief, and so in return they have granted him special status to conduct his activities.
I am merely an administrator, helping to look after the logistical efforts of this undertaking, but I can assure you that my employer is extremely excited by this, and would dearly love to have you aboard our ship as we sail into unknown waters.
If this expedition is of interest to you – and, given the corpus of your work, we know that it is – you will meet me at the coffee shop at the northern end of Ippokratous at the date and time below.
My initial reaction was one of bemusement. “It is clear,” I said, rather haughtily, “that this letter is from a crank.”
“I don’t think so,” said Medas. “We know that the Government has sent people into the hole already, just as he says. Structural engineers.”
“The people who have been sent in are sanitation workers, to clear away the bodies, prevent disease.”
Medas laughed and waved away my apparently naive hypothesis. “Did the hole swallow your inquisitiveness along with your sense of solidarity?” I rolled my eyes at the mention of that dire, meaningless word, but she continued undeterred. “There have been more than mere sanitation people entering the hole. Don’t you read the news? Lots of people have been going down there. Government people, they say. Company people. Helicopters have been down there already! I’m telling you this is real. And if it is not, then what do we lose? We get stood up in a café in Ippokratous. So what?”
“We?” I said, startled. “What is this talk of ‘we’? Do you really think I am going to be led on this hideous charade? Away with you. And no more of this talk.”
“No,” she said, jabbing a forefinger onto my desk. “I am going on this expedition.”
“Even if it is not the work of a crank, it would be dangerous, Medas. Besides, such a venture doesn’t seem to be aligned with your sensibilities,” I ventured.
She raised her eyebrows, as though I’d crossed a line, and gesticulated as she spoke, all prodding fingers and curled lips. “You mean because some rich asshole feels he’s entitled to desecrate the communal grave of a hundred thousand Athenians for kicks just because he can afford it? I mean, we don’t even know if the guy is Greek. Yeah, it pisses me off.”
“Then why the interest?”
Medas calmed herself down. “We have a duty to the preservation and the growth of knowledge. Doubtless this mysterious ‘employer’ would exploit whatever they find for commercial purposes rather than for the benefit of all Greece, of all academia. Antonios! Think of the treasures down there!”
“So you think you may be able to keep him on the straight and narrow? I doubt that. Say this person is no crank, and say you meet him, and you agree to the dig and descend into the sinkhole: would there not be undoubtedly some contractual agreement in place in which all findings – scientific, historical, geological – become the property of this mysterious benefactor? All us poor academics are ever left with is the knowledge of the event.”
“That’s enough for me.”
“Knowledge of what?”
She shifted in her seat, sitting back. “You have not guessed?”
“Enlighten me, my dear.”
“Máches… gígantes… kalytera… na gínei… to myaló… peristáseis.” She inched forwards, her frustrations now replaced by excitement. “Ibycus.”
I sighed at the mention of her pet project and rubbed my eyes with thumb and forefinger. “And what, pray, might an Athenian sinkhole have to do with Ibycus and the Giants?”
“The Giants were buried deep underground. The fragments of Ibycus’s poetry I’ve recovered suggest a great catacomb lies deep beneath the Acropolis, where the Giants were buried after they were slain during the Gigantomachia.”
I let out a little laugh. “Nevertheless, Athens has never been associated with the burial place of Giants: Enceladus was supposedly buried beneath Mount Etna; Alcyonius – who according to Apollodorus was slain by Heracles not in the Gigantomachy but as he worked tending his livestock – was laid to rest beneath Mount Vesuvius, along with many of his race; and Mimas, of whose death there is no definitive authority, supposedly lays beneath Procida. Athens has nothing to do with them.”
“Mimas was killed by the great father, Zeus, as told by Euripides. That still leaves many dozens of Giants unaccounted for, and the scraps of poems do indicate something approaching a communal grave beneath the city.”
I pushed out a little laugh. “Medas, if there is truly a monument for the Giants beneath the city, it would be among the greatest archaeological finds in history–”
“Not a monument, Antonios. A graveyard.”
I thinned my eyes. Was she now being ironic? In my willingness to believe so, I let out a little laugh of deprecation. I proceeded. “In any case, it is unlikely anything has survived this hellish disaster. You should not do it.”
“You do not tell me what to do! I will do it!”
I grumbled under my breath, and bit my lip to refrain from insulting her intelligence, which would have been spiteful and false, for in reality she was certainly in the throes of some sort of intellectual rapture; a chance to uncover evidence of one of the treasures she had obsessed over for many years had presented itself to her; who in such a position could turn down the chance? But I did not want to see her disappointed and hurt – or, worse, conned – by some charlatan. The whole thing was folly. So, I elected to protect her in the only way I saw fit.
“In that case, I should like to attend the dig with you.”
That evidently caught her by surprise, as she let her mouth hang open in an incredulous smile. “You? You, Antonios? I think such an operation is not really your style.”
“All the more reason to do it, then. It is your project, and you will need a support worker and researcher to help effectively record your findings. Besides,” I said, feeling my way through this act of persuasion, “the Gigantomachy has been the basis of many years’ worth of work for you. I would be delighted to be with you as you see it through.”
“No!” she said. “You cannot come. You were not invited.”
That took me aback. Why would she be so against my coming? A certain possessiveness over her work, perhaps? I very gently echoed her own words back at her. “You do not tell me what to do. I will do it.”
She looked down at her navel like a spoiled child for a second, and shook her head in exasperation. “Fine. Come with me to the meeting with this Alexis.” She paused, before letting out a contemptuous laugh. “Hey, who knows, perhaps a gesture such as this on your part, for the sake of the treasures of old Greece may restore some of your academic and personal currency in the University.”
I frowned. “My academic credentials have nothing to do with my personal responses to the tragedy. As well you know.”
“Et facti sunt antiquitati,” she responded, somewhat cruelly, for she implied I had become one of the antiquities I studied. “The age is turning, Antonios. You must be seen to care, to care.”
“So cynical, for one so young.”
“Was not Cynicism the predecessor to Stoicism?”
I shook my head in defeat. When Medas was taken by the enthusiasm for her obsessive subject of Ibycus and the Giants, there was no debating her. Her mind was already set.
Chapter 2 will drop next Friday!