Last week we met Antonios Costas, a Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Athens, and a student of Zeno’s Stoicism. After a gigantic sinkhole caused untold devastation in the centre of Athens, Antonios and his golden student, Medas, a Hellenist student of Greek antiquities, received an unexpected and somewhat distasteful invitation to explore the hole. This week they meet somebody representing the person who sent the invitation.
Driving in the city had become even more useless than before. Walking to Ippokratous was our only option, and the passing of time since the appearance of the sinkhole had not dimmed the fervour of the crazed masses who had gathered near its epicentre. The city had become more riotous and colourful than usual, with the disaster attracting a woeful menagerie of humanitarians and nihilists in equal measure; politicians of all stripes trying to figure out how to manipulate events for political capital, but at every turn heckled by placard-waving protestors and idiots; apocalyptic preachers from every branch of Abrahamic worship, mourners both genuine and insincere, celebrities desperate to broadcast their influence and empty worthiness; the leeching, vacuous hangers-on that the former group seem to drag along: the paparazzi, selfie-hunters, groupies, and assorted entourage; print and TV journalists from the world over, along with their crews of cameramen; all underpinned by the wave of pickpockets, beggars, fraudulent charity workers who would accost their quarry with heartfelt requests for bank details, and muggers who at least had the courtesy to be open about their felonious intentions. A shabby advert for the fetishisation of human disaster, the lot of them, and it suddenly seemed a partially attractive option to exchange terrestrial civilisation for a subterranean one, however shattered, if only for a short while.
In the immediate aftermath of the sinkhole’s appearance the city authorities had implemented evacuation procedures. However, in stark contrast to those American disaster movies showing tailbacks many miles in length comprised of stricken citizens trying to make their way from the site of the catastrophe, here the flux of traffic was jamming the route into the city! Apocalypse is big business, it seems, and the bigger the corpse, the greater the number of vultures who joylessly pick at the carrion.
In any case, our meeting with the mysterious Alexis required no diversion. Our journey around the eastern feet of Lofos Likavitou prevented the great stain on the city assailing our eyes, a great mercy. It had been three days since Alexis’s email had landed in our inboxes, enough time for me to formulate a list of questions that I would need to have satisfied before committing to any aspect of this strange venture. Medas seemed to have abandoned any such healthy academic scepticism, willing to throw herself into the episode with gusto, and trusting to goodness that everything about the expedition would be both benign and not to worry about. It was truly a strange and maddening sight, and only my Stoicism kept my true feelings of the matter in check. Perhaps her gaiety was a ploy to engage my sense of scepticism (Pah! She knew me too well!) and have me renege upon my initial offer to accompany her on this adventure. But in all honesty, I could not allow her to undertake the descent alone when in the grip of such an intellectually foggy vapour.
We sat down at the coffee shop our correspondent had mentioned and ordered two espressos from a little table. The waiter seemed pleased to serve two locals and provided us with a prompt service. I brought out a cigarette and my lighter, an old stubby petrol lighter inscribed with the letter ‘∑’ but the waiter politely forbade me to light up.
“No smoking, sir. Bad for tourists,” he said apologetically. “Not my rule. Boss’s rule.”
I sighed, closing off the little avenue of pleasure by pocketing my lighter, and reflected upon how disaster had a knack for ushering in petty tyranny.
“How will we recognise this Alexis, then?” I asked Medas as she held her coffee, as though I’d have the answer.
“You won’t have to,” came a voice from behind our table. I turned to see the back of a bald man’s head buried in a newspaper. The man carried on talking without facing us. “You’re very recognisable, Professor. You both have profiles on the University website. Don’t turn around, please.”
There was a strange period of silence as he apparently carried on reading. Medas made a face, as if to ask what happened next. I was about to shrug, when the man spoke again.
“You are interested, then, Medas? Good. No, don’t reply. You are interested, otherwise you would not be here, is that not correct? But you have questions you need to have answered before you can fully commit. Again, don’t ask them. Your benefactor and sponsor for this expedition? You will meet him in due course. Suffice to say he has a great interest in the potential lost treasures buried beneath Athens, and he has the utmost respect for the city and its history. In fact he is a latter-day Hellenist.”
At that I ruffled my brows at Medas in disapproval, to which she simply rolled her eyes and tutted. The Hellenists were Hellenistic religious followers, otherwise known as Ethnikoi Hellenes. The Government had in 2017 recognised the worship of the ancient Greek Gods as a religion in its own right. God spare us! I had noticed Medas’s increasing infatuation with this practice over the last few months, and we had had a good few robust conversations about it. The Ethnikoi Hellenes absolutely require nothing of their followers, except for a total and unwavering belief in the Twelve, and Zeus. As ever, my disapprovals meant nothing.
“Ignore Professor Costas, Alexis,” said Medas. “He has no time for Hellenism.”
“I see,” Alexis continued. “Of course, there is a commercial element to this venture. My boss has made a substantial donation to the city and national Government for the privilege of descending this crater, which the Government is contractually obliged to use exclusively for the humanitarian aid, victim support and rebuilding efforts. You will be part of a small but specialist team who will be able to advise, understand and interpret the findings from this venture.”
“I would like to attend the expedition as well,” I said at last.
Alexis finally turned around and eyed me with what I might describe as a corporate lack of expression. “I see.”
“He does not really want to come,” interjected Medas, irritably. “He thinks it is all a sham.”
“On the contrary, I think it will be most interesting indeed.”
Alexis eyed me some more. “You are a professor of Classical Philosophy, according to the university website.”
“Correct. I am a Stoic, in the true sense of the word. And in which case, I believe I can add some depth to Medas’s work.”
“I see. Well, I’m merely an administrator. But I can check with my boss to see whether he would permit you to attend.”
“You’re not serious?” asked Medas.
Alexis continued as if Medas had made no admonishment at all. “You would, of course, be paid fairly for your time, and you can expect all your academic studies to be funded at 100%, without prejudice. For the next ten years.” He looked at me. “And if you are included, Professor Costas, I should expect roughly the same level of recompense for yourself.”
I tried to hide a deep laugh that was welling up from my belly. In the end, I disguised my grin by scratching my beard theatrically. Alexis surreptitiously revealed the corner of an envelope from his inside jacket pocket.
“Here’s Medas’s contract. I’ll go and place a call to discuss your situation, Professor, while you read through it.”
In a flash the man was up and standing by our table, looking at us both with a charming smile. He was a plain-faced, slim, bald-headed chap, middling in years and dressed immaculately, from the tailored suit to the pocket square and designer spectacles perched on his nose. He tossed the envelope onto our table casually. “Don’t take too long; I have other places to be.”
With that, the man strolled to the door and we watched as he began a telephone conversation.
“Ok, I’m convinced that he’s not a crank,” I said. “Or, in any case, he’s a wealthy enough crank that we can be assured that this is no hoax.” I then adopted a more Inquisitorial tone. “So he’s a Hellenist? That’s why he approached you? Are you sure you’ve never been in touch with this guy? Really?”
“I told you. Through my reading group. I never heard of this benefactor before. But I am quite plain in my advocacy for Hellenism. It makes sense that he would be attracted to my work if we have the same outlook.”
“Yes, of that there can be no doubt,” I said, rather more sarcastically than I’d intended. Medas’s fully professed adoration and devotion towards the Twelve Ancient Gods was exactly the sort of romantic infatuation with lost civilisations about which I held deep reservations. History is to be learned from, not repeated. And the parts we are repeating, we are doing so because they have survived the process of natural selection. Nevertheless, the desire for intellectual necromancy is strong in societies whose greatest days are arguably behind them. Alas, Greece!
I opened the envelope gingerly, as though there lay some nasty surprise within. Yet no. Within it lay two contracts: the thought skirted across my mind that they had miraculously foreseen my bogus offer to dive into the sinkhole and had called my bluff by including a contract for me also – but no, of course it was a copy for Medas, and a carbon copy for Alexis. My name was nowhere to be seen. The contract was short and succinct, laying out what Medas was expected to provide, what she was and was not permitted to, as a result of the operation; what was and was not permissible to say to others not engaged with the project (we were permitted to say that we were entering into a dig into the sinkhole, but not of any other details. This, I suppose, was easy, since there were as yet no further details we knew of to divulge). It certainly looked clear and legally binding, and I had signed my fair share of contracts for academic funding over the years. Surprisingly, there were no demons in the detail I could make out.
“You see?” whispered Medas. “Nothing to it.”
“Nothing?!” I spluttered. “You don’t think this is just a bit odd?”
“Of course,” she said with a shrug. She pulled out a pen from the breast pocket of her shirt and signed her contract before giving me a glare. “I like odd.”
“And despite all you are prepared to put me through, I like you, my dear. And so you force me to keep an eye on you.”
At that moment Alexis emerged, striding to our table. He smiled when he saw the signed contracts, countersigned them all, and whipped away his own copy. “A good decision, Medas. And I have further good news. You will receive a near identical contract via email this afternoon, Professor. I look forward to receiving the signed copies forthwith. Well, I’m glad we have made arrangements. My boss would have been disappointed had he been forced to settle for second best. We’ll be in touch.”
“My dear fellow,” I said, as he motioned to depart. “May we know at least the general area of academia which this expedition purports to understand?”
Alexis stopped, pondered this for a few moments, and said, “Our Sponsor is very interested in the fate of mankind.”
Medas closed her eyes and inclined her head in a gesture that accepted this treaty as perfectly acceptable.
And then Alexis left, leaving me to ponder what the hell we had just signed up to.