For the most part, the Underworld ran itself without much need of intervention. Sure, I signed a lot of requisitions for weird things...just last week, for example, one of the inmates of Tartarus had a giant vat of lime gelatin ordered as part of his punishment. Enough to submerge him in. I kid you not. Most of the day-to-day operation of the Underworld was handled long before anything made it to my office.
But I still liked to make the rounds every couple of weeks and check up on certain staff members.
Like Daedalus. Yes, the Daedalus, father of Icarus, builder of the Cretan Maze, and so on. Most souls are content to relax into the soothing inactivity of the Fields of Asphodel, or receive their rewards in Elysium. A fair percentage petition to be accepted for reincarnation, to give life another go.
But not Daedalus. As I understood it, he’d started making recommendations for improvements almost as soon as he arrived, and rather than send him back or ignore him, Hades put him to work. Now he was responsible for maintaining the Tartarus Menagerie, which was a combination open-air zoo and prison facility, housing some of the rarest and most fascinating creatures (and monsters) in the world. He also took care of a lot of my more exotic gear and ammunition.
He was a bit of an oddball, but what great inventor wasn’t. He tended to be oblivious to what was going on around him, focusing on his work to the exclusion of all else. I’m not saying he couldn’t - or, really, even needed to - take care of himself, but I’d grown very fond of him and enjoyed his company. So I made a point of visiting as often as I could.
Besides, it was always very interesting to see what bit of mad science he was tinkering with. I’d found him trying to build everything from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter designs to a twenty-foot-tall, self-winding and self-propelled Dreidel.
I’d asked about the last one as I watched it spin and spin without stopping. Why, I’d asked, build such a thing?
“To see if I could!” he said cheerfully, and went on to show me schematics for a torture device Hades had asked him to design.
He was, in the very finest and most delightful of ways, a mad scientist.
As I approached the big warehouse-like building that housed his workshop at the outermost edge of the Menagerie, I felt a faint vibration in the ground beneath my boots and wondered what I’d be walking into this time. On a whim, I diverted to the animal pen closest to Daedalus’s workshop and walked up to the glass-like wall that surrounded it.
Inside was an impressively life-like artificial environment. In this case, veldt-like grasslands with a few trees for shade. I still had no idea how the artificial sunlight was generated - it was just there.
As I approached, the grass near the wall rippled and parted to reveal a beautiful lioness-like feline with golden fur. She glided gracefully forward, revealing eagle-like wings folded neatly against her flanks and the face of a lovely human woman. The Sphinxes were some of my favorite residents of the Menagerie, especially since they were there voluntarily.
There weren’t many places left in the world where they could live safely. Here, they thrived.
“Good day to you, Pluto,” she purred. “Have you come to try a riddle?”
If the almost-unbreakable transparent barrier hadn’t been between us, I would’ve said no and walked away. Her riddles were usually tricky, difficult to solve or - frequently - the subject of many possible answers. But I’d grown to be on friendly terms with the Menagerie’s pride, and this one in particular, and I enjoyed the challenge.
“Good day to you as well, Danette.” I bowed politely. “I would very much enjoy a riddle.”
She returned the gesture, a decidedly odd-looking bending of her forelimbs and a nod of her head. Then she licked her lips, reminding me that in the wild, a wrong answer would’ve ended with me being devoured.
“I have a literary classic for you this time; a play on words, a puzzle for the ages, one with no correct answer, but many right answers.” She purred. “I would hear your wisdom on this puzzle.”
I nodded. “Please, let me hear your riddle.”
She smiled smugly. “The great Lewis Carroll gave us this gem during his lifetime: Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Oh, bloody hell. I’d heard dozens of answers for this one, ranging from silly to profound. I didn’t want to give her too silly an answer. Sphinxes took their riddling very, very seriously. Nor did I want to give her one of the many nonsense answers meant to point out how absurd the question was, which might insult her for having asked it. I considered my answer for a long moment before replying slowly, “Because as a group, both have been named either for or as a source of hurt feelings?”
Danette pondered my answer for a long moment, then smiled a decidedly feline smile. “Oh, that’s a lovely answer. An Unkindness of ravens, and the unkindness committed by many critics at their writing desks.” She bowed deeply. “A clever and well-considered answer, Pluto. May I offer you another riddle?”
I breathed out a relieved little sigh and smiled. “Another time, my friend. I’m here to visit Daedalus.”
Danette made a face. “The Inventor has been doing something very odd today. Whatever he is experimenting with is making many of us uneasy. The wyverns were screeching all morning, and I myself could have sworn we were about to have an earthquake.” She hissed. “Which is, of course, an absurdity here.”
“Indeed. I’ll have a word with him about it.”
She bowed once more. “My thanks, Pluto. Good day to you.” She turned and disappeared back into the tall grass, leaving almost no trace of her presence in her wake.
I turned back to Daedalus’s workshop and went to the front door. I considered the doorbell for a moment, decided it would be a waste of time, and dug out the key he’d given me. As I slid the key into the lock, the whole building seemed to blur in front of my eyes, and the key actually began to buzz in my fingers. I looked up just in time to see one of the second story windows shatter and drop shards of glass on the ground barely ten feet to my right.
“What the hell?” I asked nobody in particular, then quickly unlocked the door and slipped inside.
I made my way through Daedalus’s living area, which was always an exciting and fascinating mess, with huge schematics and arcane looking books of mathematics spread open on every available flat surface. There were bits and pieces of miniature models of some of da Vinci’s more famous inventions, what appeared to be a half-assembled scale model of an early atomic bomb (at least, I assumed it was just a model), and a mechanical dog that he’d been trying to make work since before I’d met him.
I had to stop halfway through the room as the whole building seemed to vibrate again, and my equilibrium decided to sway wildly off to the left. For a moment I felt incredibly dizzy, then it - and the vibrations - faded, and I heard Daedalus’s voice emerge from the main workshop beyond, “No, that’s not quite right...”
I hurried the rest of the way into his workshop and found him tinkering with a small device attached to one of the columns around the edge of the large space. It looked like a piston attached to some sort of motorized device, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it might be for. Usually I could at least take a guess based on appearance, but this just looked...like parts thrown together.
As I watched, the old man straightened and flipped a switch on the side of the device. Immediately I began to feel the vibration beneath my feet again, though this time there was no accompanying loss of equilibrium, thank goodness.
“Daedalus,” I called over the thump and hum of the thing, “what are you doing? It’s irritating the inhabitants of the Menagerie and -”
From somewhere above us came the immense sound of shattering glass. A lot of it. A moment later, fine sandy powder with tiny shards of glass in it rained down on us, causing us to both duck and cover our heads with our arms. When I carefully looked up again, it appeared that every second story window in the building had exploded inward.
“Oh my!” Daedalus blurted out, “I wasn’t expecting that!” He quickly flipped off the device, whatever it was, and left us in silence. “Hello, Talia! Have you come to see my latest project?”
“I think I’ve come to stop you from working on it!” I said, brushing powdered glass off of my shoulders and out of my hair. “What is it?”
“Something Nikola was working on before he died,” Daedalus said happily. “I think I’ve almost got it working the way he intended. It’s a machine to create localized earthquakes!”
“I guessed that when the building started vibrating and the windows shattered on our heads. You know you’re driving the animals in the Menagerie out of their minds, right?”
He put one hand over his mouth, his eyes almost comically wide in surprise. “Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. It hadn’t occurred to me that the oscillations might upset them.”
Evidently he hadn’t given it much thought beyond ‘will it work’ and had been working on it for some time. His white hair, usually neatly brushed, was frizzed out in every direction, and it looked like he hadn’t changed his clothes in a couple of days.
There was a reason why so many people automatically associate the word ‘mad’ with ‘scientist’. Daedalus was practically the prototype.
I gave him an amused, tolerant smile, and gently brushed glass-dust off his shoulder. “Just...don’t turn it back on, and I think they’ll be all right.”
“Oh my goodness, no, I won’t!” He mopped his forehead with a fold of his toga, then smiled at me. “Always lovely to see you. What brings you today? Oh! I know!”
And just like that he was gone, scurrying away across the floor to a workbench covered in weird mechanical bits and bobs, calling over his shoulder, “Hephaestus finally worked out that upgrade you wanted for Cerberus. He sent it to me yesterday.”
“The bipod?” I asked hopefully, hurrying after him.
“Yes indeed!” He picked up a package and began opening it. “Do you have it with you? I can install this now, in a matter of moments.”
I smiled lopsidedly. “Do I ever not have it with me?” I drew the compact foot-long cylinder from the back of my belt and gave it a little flick. With a soft rustling sound, it expanded into its rifle form. I made sure it wasn’t loaded - it wasn’t, but I’d been taught that you always check, no matter what - and that its power was turned off.
It’s not that I didn’t trust Daedalus with an armed multipurpose weapon. I just didn’t want him shooting himself in the foot by accident. True, it wouldn’t do any lasting harm - I didn’t think it would, anyway - but still. It’s the principle of the thing.
He took Cerberus from me, turned back to his workbench, and began doing something to it that my eyes couldn’t adequately take in.
Mother nicknamed my weapon Cerberus because it has three primary shapes. Originally, it came in the form of a leaf-bladed sword that rather reminded me of a certain prop from the remake of The Mummy. I quickly learned that it could transform into a spear, and into a rifle. Furthermore, its rifle form changed shape to adapt to whatever type of ammunition I fed it; without ammo, it fired blasts of magical energy.
Later, I discovered that it had a fourth shape - its storage form, that of a foot-long cylinder - which sort of ruined the three-headed motif of its name, but I decided it didn’t count. It wasn’t really a weapon in that form, after all. In any case, like my helmet and shield it seemed to totally ignore conservation of mass when transforming. The magic of the gods is a wonderful thing.
Daedalus turned back to me and held Cerberus out to me. “Done! Try it out! You’ll find a new button under your thumb, near the mode selector. Press it once to deploy the bipod, then a second time to retract it.”
I took the rifle from him and examined it curiously. “I don’t see any difference.”
“Of course not! We wouldn’t want to disrupt its aesthetics or balance, would we?”
“Not at all,” I nodded. Turning away from him, I lifted it to my shoulder, aimed at the far wall, and pressed the new little button under my thumb. With a soft clack and snick sound a bipod emerged from the rifle just ahead of where I was balancing it with my left hand. The legs swung down and out at an angle in either direction, then shot out with surprising force and drove their spiked ends into the stone floor.
I jumped a little. “Holy crap!”
“Rather startling!” Daedalus agreed. “But it should absorb most of the recoil.”
I leaned forward a little, pressing a bit of weight against the bipod now anchored in the floor. When it didn’t move much I put all of my weight on it. It bowed forward slightly, but again, not much. “Wow.”
“As I said, it should absorb most of the recoil.” He smiled. “I remembered what you said about the first couple of times you fired it.”
“Almost blew me off my feet.” I pressed the button and the bipod retracted smoothly into the rifle, leaving two holes in the floor. “Sorry about that.”
He waved it off. “I do worse to that floor every day.”
I gave Cerberus a twist and watched as its shaft quickly thinned and straightened, the grip and shoulder stock shifting and blending into it as the blade - folded up on either side of the barrel - unfolded and came together. A moment later I was holding a spear that was a little taller than I was.
I stepped and turned, twirling the spear around me. “Its balance feels exactly the same to me.”
“It should! This is Hephaestus’s work, after all.”
Another flick and twist, and Cerberus shrank. The shaft of the spear shifted into the two-handed grip of a sword as the blade lengthened and changed shape subtly. I gave the sword a twirl, thrust and tossed it from hand to hand for a moment before shaking my head in amazement. “I’m impressed. I mean, I know how good Hephaestus is, but I didn’t think even he could make this kind of change without disrupting its balance.”
One last flick and twist, and Cerberus folded up into its storage form and I slid it back into the sheath on the back of my belt. “Thank you, Daedalus. I’ll have to find the time to stop and thank Hephaestus in person.”
Daedalus beamed. “I’m sure he’d like that, and I’m glad I could help. He also gave me these for you, with his apologies for the delay.” He opened a case, revealing additional pieces of armor to protect my thighs.
“Thank goodness!” I picked one up and examined it, then put it on, wrapping it around my leg and buckling it in place. It fit perfectly, so I put on the other one too. “Just right. I really do need to swing by and thank him.”
Daedalus nodded, then lifted a finger. “I have one more thing for you! A new type of ammunition I think you’ll find useful.”
He scurried off across the room again, this time making a beeline for a tall metal cabinet set against one wall. I followed him over as he opened it up, revealing racks and shelves of rifle ammunition ranging in size from little .22 caliber ammo all the way to anti-tank rounds longer than my hand, including a variety of shotgun shells. He rummaged around in it for a moment before holding up a magazine in triumph. “Here they are!”
I took the proffered magazine and looked at the shotgun shell on the top. It was the same size as a standard 12 gauge shell, but in place of plastic there was a white, waxy casing. “What’s this?”
He gave me a smug, obviously self-satisfied smile. “That is birdshot cast from Macedonian silver, mixed with sanctified beeswax reclaimed from the drippings of temple candles. Those will shred anything undead or unholy without punching through walls. Or people. At least, not beyond point blank range.”
I gave him a dubious look. “Wax shotgun shells?”
“Just don’t fire them into the sun or anything like that and they’ll work just fine.”
I blinked. Did he seriously just make a joke about Icarus? His son had been a bit of a sore point with him ever since I’d met him.
He smiled a little. “Someone told me it was important for me to try to move past old pain.”
I returned his smile. “Giving my words back to me now, huh? Fair enough.” I slid the magazine into one of the small ammo pouches on my belt, watching as the little opening somehow swallowed the larger magazine. “Is that all there are?”
“Not at all,” he assured me. “I’ll have the rest delivered to Melinoë, so you’ll have them in your ammo locker when you need them.”
“Thank you, Daedalus.” I gave him a hug, and after a moment felt him return it.
“Thank you, Talia.”
I stepped back and gave him a quizzical look. “What for?”
He waved off the question. “For being yourself! Now, unless there’s anything else...I’d better dismantle that earthquake machine before I get any more crazy ideas into my head.”
I laughed. “What’ll you work on next?”
“I have a hankering to try building one of Leonardo’s gliders.” He smiled. “After I made that helicopter work a few years ago, I haven’t heard the end of his grumbling excuses about why he was never able to make it work. It might be fun to twist the knife a little deeper.”
I laughed again, shaking my head. I’d been invited to one of their get-togethers, but the idea of sitting at a table with people like Daedalus, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, and Pythagoras...well, I found it a bit intimidating.
Josh is a life-long native of Western Massachusetts. He spends his daylight hours disguised as a mild-mannered IT specialist, trying to get inanimate objects to talk to him and work the way he tells them to. He spends his nights trying to keep all of the animated characters in his imagination from saying too much…and work the way he tells them to.
For the past couple of decades, Josh has been creating worlds for his characters to inhabit, and dreaming up ways to push at the practical implications of a wide variety of Science Fiction and Fantasy tropes. He loves telling stories, entertaining his readers, and sparking fun debates about how to make the implausible plausible. He has a degree in Folklore & Mythology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.