Orpheus, Dionysus, Muriatic Acid and the Strange Whirring Thing
There were twenty one bottles of muriatic acid stacked in the corner of Orpheus’ bedroom. The melancholic troubadour had been stockpiling them over the past few weeks, one by one, visiting twenty one different hardware stores across the City. At first he’d told the owners he needed the acid for steel etching, his flamboyant, artistic appearance adding some credibility. But after a while he’d got tired and started telling them he needed it to clean blood stains off a brick wall, just to see their expressions. They hadn’t seemed too concerned. It struck our protagonist as ironic that this explanation was considered relatively humdrum compared to what he was really going to do with it.
For Orpheus craved oblivion – at least, a deeper and longer lasting oblivion than that which the Lotus gave him. By now he was needing to take an almost lethal dose of the drug to give the desired effect. It was still just about working, though. That morning he’d woken dazed from a haunting Lotus dream of fields and trees bathed in a strange golden light. They looked like the ones on Dionysus’ wall hangings, but somehow softer, realer and tinged with a terrible poignancy. But that was the last of his stash, and he lacked the credits to buy more. He didn’t much feel like earning any either. Eurydice was dead – there wasn’t really much point in carrying on.
No, Orpheus had an inkling that what he needed to do was die. But he was damned if he was going to let his precious brain end up in that godforsaken hell hole, the Acheron. That was what the acid was for. Sitting in the corner, waiting for the most apt moment to dissolve his brain. Of course, he knew nobody had ever succeeded before. He also knew that, if even one tiny fragment of his brain remained recoverable, the ferrymen would sniff it out and plug it into the network along with all the other toiling minds, more for punishment than for any useful processing power. But Orpheus was willing to take that risk. He wasn’t like the others – he was special, set above all the workaday drudges of the City. He would succeed, because he deserved to die.
Orpheus cast his mind back to his first memories of the Acheron. They’d always wanted to get their hands on his brain, ever since he was at school. As soon as his intelligence had become apparent, they’d bombarded him with trite propaganda: “Donate your brain early to the Acheron!” the leaflets and posters cried. “Why wait to serve your City?” and the most macabre: “Don’t spend your eternity in senility”. The literature all spouted the same mendacious claptrap: “Early volunteers experience a range of benefits including increased consciousness, the ability to communicate with other volunteers and a free reign to perform vital tasks only a human being can do. Ever imagined becoming a spy? Well now you can, if you enlist to our lip reading and facial recognition departments. We’ll send your mind on exciting missions to track dangerous criminals and dissenters within the City. Or, transcend the physical world and unlock your brain’s potential, solving vital problems and contributing to ground breaking innovations, unfettered by the limits of the body.”
It was usually around that point that Orpheus screwed the paper into a ball and flung it over his shoulder in disgust. “unfettered by the limits of the body”, indeed. As soon as they’d taken you out of your skull you’d lost he last degree of autonomy you had – without a body, you were completely helpless. Your life was quite literally in their hands. And he and his big brother Linus knew that at that point they could do what they liked with you.
Linus had experienced even greater harassment from the Acheron. Taking after his mother, the wildly successful cabaret crooner Calliope, he was even cleverer and more technically musically adept than his sibling (although Orpheus liked to think that what he lacked in skill he made up for in soul). Linus was the one who’d first taught Orpheus the lyre in a desperate attempt to calm the wayward infant’s tantrums. His endeavours proved so successful that he took up instruction as a job, tutoring bored Olympian brats and society beauties with too much time on their hands. Orpheus hadn’t wanted to go down that route, though. He didn’t fancy pandering to seedy guttersnipes trying too late to lend themselves a bit of class by learning the arts. His talent was too precious to pass on to others – it was his and his alone. The adolescent Orpheus had gone the other way, rebelling against the pleas of the Acheron and the comfortable respectability of his home life, forgetting the grim reality of the City in a bohemian haze of hedonism and Lotus. He became fascinated by the dreams the drug gave him – vivid, colour-saturated vignettes that only made sense a few days later when their events were recounted in the headlines of the news.
The youth had lost touch with his brother years ago and hadn’t heard of his exploits for some time. Orpheus sometimes wondered where he’d got to. This was probably something he should have asked Teiresias, but at the time he’d had other things on his mind.
Teiresias was a funny one, and no mistake. One of the first and highest-ranking volunteers for the Acheron, this dignified gent acted as the interface between the computer and the world of the living. From beyond the grave, he’d established the Oracle database and its associated news journals, gathering information from the memories and observations of every single brain in the network. It was said that his knowledge was so extensive he would sometimes leak tomorrow’s news headlines before they even happened. Know enough about the events leading up to a situation, and you’ll know exactly what will happen next. So much for free will.
Orpheus had also heard recently of a new consultant based at Delphi (a strange re-bodied job by the sound of it) who would give good “moral” advice to assuage the guilt of atrocity wreakers: everything was excusable as long as the ends justified the means. He also provided fascinating glimpses of future technology, which were always useful for investors.
But Orpheus didn’t need a prophet – his Lotus dreams were disconcerting enough. What he needed was facts.
The young man shuddered as he recalled the sensation of walking into that great vaulted room – the tingling atmosphere of thousands of thoughts flitting through the air around him, and the overwhelming feeling of being watched from every angle. As he approached the TEIRESIAS information point, however, he felt a little more at ease. Despite the cold green glow of the monitor screen, he could still sense the irrepressibly jovial old chap Teiresias had been.
“Hello there, sonny!” the speaker chuckled. “Long time no see! What brings you to this old bone yard, then? I thought you were still delighting the masses with your jolly little ditties!”
The old scholar’s levity should have jarred against Orpheus’ grief, but in truth he felt reassured. It was comforting to know that some warmth and brightness still existed in a city of bare concrete and brushed steel.
“Hello, Teiresias.” sighed Orpheus. “How are you?”
“Oh, can’t complain, can’t complain. No, I mean I actually CAN’T complain, otherwise I might LOSE MY HEAD! HAHAHA!”
Orpheus couldn’t help but groan. Only Teiresias could get away with such an appalling joke. But he wanted to get straight to the point.
“Teiresias, I… I need you to find someone. I need to find out if you have Eurydice.”
Another guffaw echoed out. “Well, I should blooming well hope so, sonny! She’s dead, isn’t she? And none of my little grey cells go walkabout without my permission. No, what YOU need to know is where my new charge is.”
The monitor dimmed for a few seconds as Teiresias cast out his dendrites, searching for Eurydice’s mind. The seconds felt like aeons. Then:
“Ah yes, here we have it. A healthy young mind plugged into the processing department of the network on the fourth.”
For the first time in days, Orpheus felt something breaking through the fog of misery and pain.
“Yes, healthy… and whole.”
A faint glimmer of hope pierced the youth’s soul. It wasn’t unheard of for a brain, healthy and whole, to be extracted and re-bodied.
“I know what you’re thinking.” rang out Teiresias’ voice, and Orpheus suspected he meant this quite literally. “But I don’t deal with that side of things. For that, you’d have to go straight to the top. Or, in this case, straight to the bottom.”
“I will. I will do that. But first, please, Teiresias, can you pass on a message, can you tell Eurydice that I’m here?”
“I’m afraid I’m not authorised to do that. Non-volunteers are not permitted to receive messages from other brains, let alone from the living.”
Orpheus felt hot tears sting his eyes as he imagined Eurydice isolated, bewildered and alone. Even if his brain was in there too, they would never be reunited in that semi-conscious hell. “Teiresias, my old friend, please, please let me talk to her.”
Teiresias faltered a little. He was a sucker for sentimentality. “I just can’t do that, my boy. Eurydice’s brain… it’s not conscious. It’s sleeping. I doubt it’d even hear you.”
Orpheus started sobbing. “No! I need to say something. I can’t cope on my own, I’m nothing. Please, just pass on the message: ‘I’ll get you out’.”
“It’s not that easy, young man. Look – I’m going to be honest with you, and I’m only going to tell you this once. Imagine if all the brains in the Acheron could consciously communicate, willy-nilly. What a palaver that would be! Imagine the infinitesimal intelligence that could be created by thousands of minds combined. Their power would be great enough to cause terrible damage, to overthrow everything the City’s worked so hard for. And that’s certainly not happening on my watch. It took a long, hard death to get this post, and I want to blooming well keep it, thank you very much!”
The poet was barely listening. “Please. Please, just pass on the message: ‘I love you’”.
Teiresias let out a lungless sigh. “Very well. But that’s as far as I’ll go. You know who to see next.”
“Oh thank you, Teiresias, thank you so much!” Orpheus gushed, tearing from the room.
“Wait, you hot-headed buffoon! It’s not going to be cheap, you know. And you’re going to have to do something really impressive to melt that stony heart. Almost everyone gets turned down. You know what they say – never get your hopes up with Hades! Or have I just invented that?”
But Orpheus ignored the warnings. That wasn’t going to happen to him. He was different. He was special.
● ● ●
It had been six weeks now since his long coveted, heart-wrenching interview with Hades: six long weeks since the song he’d sung and the deal they’d struck. And in all that time he hadn’t heard another word. Maybe the heist they’d hired him for had fallen through. Maybe the big boss of the criminal underworld had found someone else with skills more suited to this nebulous “Ulysses job” – his blasted brother Linus, perhaps. One thing was for sure: he wasn’t needed any more.
But still, recalling that feeling of thousands of watching eyes made his skin prickle, and he decided that perhaps he would not use the muriatic acid quite yet. He didn’t like the idea of scores of specially trained volunteer brains spotting his illicit purchases and reporting him, condemning him to Tartarus Gaol and early service in the Acheron. Worse, his pristine, still-healthy body could be put to work as a Somnambulist. Maybe he’d do it another time. Maybe he’d wait until he’d amassed twenty seven bottles, one for each year of his life. Yes, that sounded like a nice poetic number. Symbolic, somehow.
Our pallid minstrel was no stranger to Tartarus Gaol, having dodged such a fate by the skin of his teeth nine years ago. Back then, life for the eighteen year old was about cutting loose at any cost, escaping the grit and grey ash of reality. After taking to turning tricks for Lotus credits, the pretty youth had been beaten up by the cops for free and dragged down into the squalid overnight cells. But a stranger had come to bail him out: an opulent-looking gent in exotic clothing, his olive skin and gold-streaked curls very expensively maintained, his physical appearance having been halted at that of a twenty three year old. Orpheus had only glimpsed him once or twice in the VIP areas of a chain of high-class speakeasies, but everyone recognised Dionysus.
Our young protagonist strongly suspected he knew what the liquor mogul wanted him for. Beneath the bruises Orpheus was still beautiful – the Lotus hadn’t yet robbed him of his rosy complexion, glowing skin and shining eyes. And he wasn’t stupid. But he was wrong: Dionysus offered him a job. As he explained on the way out (in an enthralling accent from the furthest flung districts of the City), Dionysus hadn’t had such an easy upbringing himself. Orpheus bit his tongue, ashamed at the well educated, affluent childhood he’d actually had, and had thrown away so dismissively. But he didn’t correct his new employer.
“It’s not easy,” he said, gesturing flamboyantly with a henna tattooed hand, “growing up not knowing your father. Money occasionally coming in from some unknown source, my dear mother too busy trying to hold down a job to give a boy a proper explanation. One lacks a certain… sense of identity. Who, pray, am I?”
Dionysus glared enquiringly at the youth. Orpheus shrugged.
“Who?” he dutifully replied. He could tell his new boss had told this story many times before.
“Ah! Would that I had never found out.” He sighed dramatically. “Picture the scene: I’m held back at school one evening, in detention with that crazy tutor… Silenus, that was his name. Anyway, I’m sitting there listening to his amusing musings when a suitcase arrives, delivered to me. I open it to find a book of twenty thousand credits and a note reading: ‘Hera found out. Take this and run. Don’t go home. Get out of here and get as far away as you can.’ Of course, I didn’t obey, did I? Rushed home to find the whole apartment block burned to a crisp, and the ferrymen already circling like vultures in the distance. What could I do but flee and use the credits to start up a liquor racket in Little Phrygia?”
They’d reached the club by now – a white, stuccoed building with an interior of exotic wall hangings depicting the trees and animals of ancient times. At Dionysus’ signal, a member of staff brought over two glasses of Nectar: the finest brand of whiskey you could buy. Orpheus downed his in one, and, for the first time since his ordeal, finally relaxed as the warmth spread outwards across his body, dulling the pain.
“I still haven’t the faintest idea why he saved me,” continued the effeminate foreigner. “I’m no romantic. I’m fully aware that old Don Zeus is usually far too eager to dispatch his bastard wastrels. But I do like to think my mother was special to him. And I like to think I am, in a way, too.”
Dionysus drew out a paisley handkerchief and daintily unfolded it, revealing a translucent cube of Lotus. Orpheus couldn’t keep his eyes off it, hypnotised by its amber glow.
“Of course, nobody believes me.” Dionysus confided. “Especially not my stuck up, stuffy politician cousin, Pentheus. Far too sensible for his own good if you ask me. It’s so dreary – do you know, he’s just put forward a bill that’s going to tax me into oblivion? He’s really got it in for me, you know. Such a drag. I’ll be ruined, simply ruined! Or, at least, I would be if I didn’t have other places to ‘invest’ my profits.” He winked conspiratorially.
Orpheus nodded his sympathy, but deep down he could understand Pentheus’ scepticism. It did seem a pretty tall tale. He suspected Dionysus’ childhood might actually have been rather more similar to his own. Besides, the man didn’t even seem that sad about it all: he seemed more preoccupied with his own grief than with his mother’s actual death. Orpheus hoped he would never end up like that.
The youth’s attention was gripped again by an all too familiar sound: the droplets of melting Lotus falling through a metal grille into the liquid below. Dionysus must have noticed his eyes light up.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of pleasure.” he proclaimed breezily, gazing about the room. “That’s what this is all about. I think the only thing you can do in a world like this is to try to forget all this hideous dreariness and devote yourself to a life of delectable debauchery and sensory delight. Don’t you think?”
Orpheus wanted to throw himself across the table and grab the glass of Lotus that sat so tantalisingly out of reach. But he thought it wouldn’t make a very good impression on his first day.
“I know that look in your eyes, darling, and temptation is there to be yielded to. But first… I’d like you to repeat to me everything I’ve just told you.”
Confused, Orpheus racked his brain for every last detail, going right back to the point when they first met. By the end of the conversation, Dionysus was looking impressed.
“Not bad, not bad at all. Now, I don’t suppose I need to ask which parts of that would make the juiciest gossip?”
Orpheus shook his head.
“Good, good. Now, if a customer here had just told you all that, to whom would you divulge this juicy gossip?”
Orpheus was beginning to catch on by now.
“Nobody. No… just you.”
“Splendid! We’ll make a nymph of you yet, my delightful tousled friend.”
Dionysus always threw the very best parties. Just on the exciting side of disreputable, his soirées were the place to be and definitely the place to get noticed. Coffee shop by day, cocktail bar by night, customers were plied with the richest foods, the finest wines and the purest Lotus until, reclining on their chaise longues, they felt so beautifully relaxed and at ease that they would divulge their deepest secrets to the world. The staff would always make them feel special. The nymphs mingled amongst the customers, serving drinks and tending the bar, always listening, always keeping an ear open for anything that their proprietor might find interesting. They were trained to be very nice to the customers – sometimes, very, very nice. Orpheus was often sent to “entertain” important investors and businesswomen, and was always very obliging. But he didn’t mind too much. He shared something of his mentor’s reckless abandon and passion for life. It may not have been the most respectable employment, but he was allowed to enjoy it, right?
As for what Dionysus did with the sensational gossip, Orpheus did always wonder who penned the “Loose Lips” column in the Oracle journal. But the big secrets, the ones that fine, upstanding citizens would want to keep under wraps, were used as far more valuable currency.
It all seemed a very long time ago now, as Orpheus lay staring at the cracked ceiling and peeling paint of his filthy garret. He sighed in annoyance. If he wasn’t going to die today, that meant he actually had to get up. What a drag.
He felt shivery and odd and he couldn’t remember why his leg hurt. Then is eye fell upon the ancient chair in the corner of his room, which time and decrepitude had finally demoted to a tripod. Where was he going to sit now? He might as well just go back to bed. He had the vague idea that he ought to eat something, but the lack of Lotus was causing his hands to shake and his stomach to churn. Besides, his clock confirmed the sneaking suspicion that he’d woken up far too early again. This had always been a problem. In a city lacking natural sunlight, it was very hard to tell when the morning had come. He was sure the Olympians saw it often enough, up there in their astronomically high-rent penthouses, but for the City’s lesser mortals sleep was mainly a case of guesswork or simply passing out when exhaustion kicked in.
Orpheus had seen the sun once, though. After a night of revelry, Dionysus had driven a select group of investors and their allotted nymphs to his own private penthouse. Our delicate protagonist knew who his boss was trying to impress. Orpheus and his workmate Narcissus had been escorting a pair of very important distillery owners, the Maenad Sisters. They’d seemed very taken with him, in their imperious manner, chuckling at his every quip and urging him to do more with his “mellifluous way with words”. As they ascended in the filigree elevator, Orpheus could feel the air around him becoming lighter and clearer. His vision gained clarity too: gradually, everything was looking realer and more colourful. He could make out the powder on the Maenads’ faces; their lipstick and pencilled eyebrows looked harsh and jarring in this strange new light.
The soft orange glow pervaded the whole of the rooftop patio as they stepped, blinking, out of the lift. Orpheus felt dizzy and disorientated as his vision expanded hundred fold, unblinkered by the usual encroaching walls and towering skyscrapers. Instead, he beheld below him a spectral, misty view of the City, half veiled in swirling smog. Above him was a cloudy white expanse of nothingness, stretching like a blank canvas as far as the eye could see. Orpheus dropped his guard completely, forgetting his wry, charismatic veneer and rushing ahead onto the terrace, gaping about in wonder. Then suddenly a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and everything was golden.
Orpheus was so enthralled he broke into song spontaneously, right then and there. It was completely out of context, utterly deranged, the kind of thing that you’d only see in some corny picture show at the flicks. But it seemed to work for Orpheus. Dionysus was so impressed that he hired him on the spot as chief publicity man and promoter of his decadent empire. The Maenads were delighted, congratulating him and offering themselves as patrons. Orpheus almost couldn’t take it in. He was still astonished that they wanted him for that rather than the other thing.
After that, it was easy. With such high up patronage, he could finally spend his time doing what he truly loved. Weaving eloquent words into haunting melodies, he entranced audiences and lured them into a world of hedonistic bacchanal. It was said that Orpheus’ music was the only thing powerful enough to drown out the sirens of the City, if only for a few moments. Our silver-tongued minstrel had no idea why he hadn’t thought to put this talent to such use before. Perhaps it was all too easy to be swept away by the pleasure-hazed debauchery of life as a nymph. Perhaps he’d baulked at the idea of sharing his precious gift with others, as if it would be diminished somehow. Or perhaps some tiny part of him feared baring his innermost thoughts and feelings, making himself vulnerable, putting his heart, his soul and his only talent on the line and somehow being found wanting. And trying to make it in the City was hard: like struggling upstream against a torrent of everything that was louder, stronger and tougher. A hopeless trial of “no”s and banging doors. But Orpheus realised now that such reservations were foolish. He was always bound to have his big break at some point: it was what he was made for. And being the main press officer for Dionysus brought him a lot of publicity and renown, not to mention impressive wages. But he never managed to hold onto the money, somehow.
They say you’re at your most attractive when spending your life doing what you love, and that was indeed when Orpheus met Eurydice. At that point, our talented wordsmith was still handsome, in an edgy, contemporary way: his pallid, lotus-ravaged countenance had attained the hollowed out, chiselled aspect of a bona fide rock star, and his ethereal form added to the delicate “tortured genius” kind of look.
Orpheus began to realise that he was onto something with this “love” thing: it might possibly be the most staggering, monumental thing that had ever happened in his life. That such a stunning magic could be created by something as simple as two minds uniting was one of the most remarkable things in the world, a gem of lucidity and freedom amidst the rust and cinders of the City. Not to mention, it formed excellent song writing material. But it wasn’t all a bed of roses: Orpheus was frequently hired out to freelance contractors, his eloquence and tact often desperately needed for diplomatic missions. Some were more successful than others: nobody ever talked about the Fleece job. Orpheus still had “obligations” to certain high up investors and partners of the company, too, but Eurydice didn’t mind. They had an understanding. Their bodies may be otherwise employed, but they knew their hearts belonged together no matter what.
It wasn’t until after Eurydice’s death that the disgust started creeping in. Just the touch of another human being’s hands against his skin would send a frisson of revulsion shuddering down his spine, in some ways reminding him of his beloved Eurydice, in others so jarringly, hideously different. His refusal to liaise with the Maenads was his final faux pas. A despondent, withdrawn press man was of absolutely no use to Dionysus, so Orpheus was unceremoniously cast out onto the street. They’d soon promoted one of the nymphs to fill his place though: a bizarre prancing, whirring thing that would frolic and cavort for the clients’ amusement, flaunting an incongruously innocent joie de vivre. Some said it had stolen the voice of an angel, but Orpheus thought it sounded pretty human to him. It looked like another bizarre re-bodying job, although apparently it had been bought at a knockdown price from one of Dionysus’ business partners, Parsiphäe Minos, after the genius automaton designer had found it in her basement a while back. Rumour had it this was the only one of her creations she hadn’t utilised to her own debauched ends: she’d taken a disliking to it when she realised she couldn’t remember when, or indeed why, she’d made the damn thing in the first place. Seriously, that dame was getting crazier by the minute.
But Dionysus could keep his ridiculous painted machine of frivolity. Orpheus didn’t care. One more betrayal could hardly drag him down further. Besides, since his last desperate song that had melted the heart of Hades he hadn’t been able to compose a single thing. This was the final blow for Orpheus. Music had been his only solace, and losing himself in its comforting immersion was the only thing preventing him from ending up transfixed and incarcerated in Medea asylum like poor Narcissus. What if he never wrote again? It was a frightening prospect. He would be nothing, nothing at all. Maybe he ought to try out the old muriatic acid after all.
Gazing down onto the street, his eye was caught by the serene but purposeful movements of a Somnambulist trudging towards the building, and for the first time Orpheus actually envied its kind. With its cerebrum replaced by sparking wire and circuitry, its mind truly was on other things: cogitating some cushy monotony in the Acheron while its body served its masters without question, obediently fulfilling whatever mundane task was asked of it, free from any tiresome need to think. It bore the winged heels of a messenger, and Orpheus watched in interest as it lifted the augmented hand which acted as a universal pass key to enter his building. The sound of footsteps pounded mechanically upon the stairs and came to rest right outside his door. The regulation cheerful knock sounded seconds later, followed by the regulation gleaming smile when he opened the door.
“Hello Sir and/or Madam. Here is your lovely telegram. Please take your lovely telegram. Hello! Please take it. Take the telegram. Thank you. Goodbye!”
As he unfolded the envelope a vial of Lotus solution fell out and nearly smashed on the floor. He scrabbled for it in desperation and necked the whole lot with trembling hands. Then he picked up the paper and froze. He stared in disbelief at the message in his hands.
They needed him!
His skills as a wordsmith were required as part of the Ulysses job after all. It took him a while to process the fact that he was employed again, that he was needed, and, most importantly, that he stood to earn enough money to bring Eurydice back to him. Then suddenly he jumped up and started frantically pulling on his sharpest suit, a dapper pinstriped number to show he meant business. None of the other dunderheads would think of that. He caught sight of himself in the cracked, fly-spotted mirror in the corner of the room. His eyes looked huge and limpid in his gaunt face. His collar bones jutted out and his hair was a matted haystack of despair. But nothing could mar his fiery, determined expression and really quite excellent jawline. He was still attractive, damn it.
As he stumbled out onto the street the angry, bruised blanket of smog started disgorging a torrent of fat black raindrops. Orpheus went over the wording of the message again in his mind: trial by song.
Oh, damn. He’d have to compose something now.