Pagan Passions

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Chapter 6

The room into which they stepped seemed even larger than the one they had left. The distances were just as hard to measure, and why Forrester had the feeling, he couldn't have said, but it did feel larger. The sense of enormous space hung over it.

The wall colors were just the same, however, dripping and changing in a continuous flow of patterns, with the little sunbursts and rainbows appearing here and there without any visible reason.

But the room itself was comparatively unimportant, Forrester knew. It was what went on in the room that sent shivers up his spine, and instructed one knee to start knocking against other one. He had heard of the Court of the Gods, though as far as he knew no mortal had ever seen it. There were certainly no photographs of it, even in the most exhaustive travel books.

Forrester knew without question that he was standing in that Courtroom. The knowledge did not make him calm. And the beings sitting and reclining on couches along the shimmering walls made him feel even worse. He recognized every one of them, and every one sent a new shock of awe running through his nerves. His stomach felt like a hard rubber handball.

There was Zeus All-Father, with his great, silvery, ringleted beard. His hands were combing through it and he was frowning majestically into the distance. Next to him was the imperious Hera, Mother of the Gods. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, as if she were waiting for the end of the world to be announced. There was Mars, tough and hairy-chested, scratching his side with one hand and scowling horribly. His fierce, bearded face looked somehow out of place without the battle helmet that usually topped it. The horned and goat-legged Pan was there, and Vulcan, crippled and ugly with his squat body and giant arms, reclining like an ape on a couch all alone, and motherly looking Ceres using one hand to pat her hair as if she, not Forrester, were the nervous one.

Athena was there, too, lovely and gray-eyed. She seemed to be smiling at him with special favor, and Forrester felt grateful.

He needed all the help he could get.

But the other Gods were absent. Where were they? Pluto and Phoebus Apollo were missing, and so were Mercury, Neptune, Dionysus and Diana.

And …

"Ah," the great voice of Zeus boomed, as Forrester and Venus stepped through the Veil. Forrester heard the voice and shuddered. "The mortal is here," Zeus went on in his awe-inspiring roar. "Welcome, Mortal!"

Forrester opened his mouth, but Hera got in ahead of him.

She leaned over to her divine husband and hissed, in a tone audible to everyone in the room: "Don't belabor the obvious, dear. Enough's enough."

"It is?" Zeus said. The roar was exactly the same. "I'm not at all sure. No! Of course not. Naturally not, my dear. Naturally not." He looked around slowly, nodding his great head. "Now, now. Let's see. Do we have a quorum? I don't see Morpheus. Where's Morpheus?"

"Asleep, as usual," Mars growled. He finished scratching his side and began on his beard. "Where else would the old fool be? He's nothing but a bore anyway and I say to Hades with him. Let's get on."

"Now, Ares," Pallas Athena said mildly. "Don't be crude."

"Crude?" Mars bellowed. "All I said was that the old bore's not here. It's true, isn't it? What in Hades is so crude about it?"

"Hah!" Vulcan growled, in a bass voice that seemed to come from the bottom of a large barrel. "Look who mentions being a bore."

"Why, you—" Mars started.

"Children!" Hera snapped at once.

There was quiet, and Forrester had time to get dizzy. Maybe, he thought, he had been traveling too much. After all, he had started in New York, and then he had found himself on what he suspected was Mount Olympus, in Greece. And now he was somewhere else.

He wasn't entirely sure where. The Court of the Gods existed; he knew that. But he had never heard just where it existed, and it was entirely possible that no mortal knew. In which case, Forrester thought confusedly, I don't even know where I am.

For the first time, he began to think seriously that, perhaps, he was sane after all. Maybe everything he was seeing and hearing was true. It was certainly beginning to look that way. And, in that case, maybe the dizziness he felt was just airsickness, or spacesickness, or whatever kind of sickness came from traveling through those blue Veils.

At least, he told himself, thinking of the old man he had met on the way downtown, at least it beat the subway.

He looked behind him. He and Venus were standing in the center of the room. There was no blue veil behind them. It had, apparently, done its duty and gone away.

The subway, Forrester told himself solemnly, didn't do that.

Zeus cleared his throat ponderously. "I count eight of us," he said. "Eight, all told. Of course, that's eight without the mortal." He paused, and then added: "If you count the mortal in, there are nine."

Pan stirred. "That's a quorum," he announced in a hoarse voice that had a heavy vibrato in it. It reminded Forrester, oddly, of the bleating of a goat. Pan crossed his legs and his hooves clashed, striking sparks. "Pluto and Poseidon said they'd accept our judgment."

"Why the absence?" Vulcan said shortly.

"A storm, I think," Pan said. "Out in the North Atlantic, if memory serves—and it does. As far as I recall, there are four ships sunk so far. Quite an affair."

Vulcan said: "Ah," and reclined again.

Hera leaned forward. "Where's Apollo? He said he might come."

"Sure he did," Mars said heavily. "Old Sunshine Boy never misses a bit of excitement. Only he probably found something even more exciting. He's in California, all dressed up as a mortal."

"California?" Ceres said. "My goodness, what would that boy be doing in California?"

Mars guffawed. "Probably showing off—how Sunshine Boy loves to show off! Displaying that gorgeous body to the girls on Muscle Beach, I'll bet."

"Eight to five," Pan said at once.

Mars turned to him and nodded shortly. "Done."

"Now, if I were a betting man," Vulcan began in a thoughtful bass, "I'd—"

"We all know what you'd do, Gimpy," Mars roared. "But you won't do it, so shut up about it."

"Please," Hera said. "Order." Her voice was like chilled steel. The others settled back. "I think we're ready. Shall we begin, dear?" She looked at Zeus, who got ready to start. But before he could get a word out, there was a flicker of blue energy in the room, a couple of yards away from Forrester and Venus. The flicker expanded to a Veil, and a man stepped out of it.

He was a short, fat individual wearing a chiton as if he had slept in it for three or four weeks. His face was puffy and his golden hair was ruffled. His eyelids seemed to have acquired a permanent half-mast, and beneath them the eyes were bleary and disinterested.

Forrester needed no introductions to Morpheus, the God of Sleep.

The God looked around at the assembled company with a kindly little smile on his tired face. Then, slowly and luxuriously, he yawned. When his mouth closed again, after a view of caverns measureless to man, he rubbed at his eyes with his knuckles, and then heaved a great sigh and, apparently, resigned himself to the terrible effort of speech.

"I'm late," he said. "But it's really not my fault."

"Oh?" Hera said in a nasty tone of voice.

Morpheus shook his head slowly from side to side. "It really isn't." His voice was terribly calm. It was obvious, Forrester thought, that he did not give a damn. "The alarm just didn't seem to go off again. Or else I didn't hear it."

"Now, Morpheus," Hera said. "I should think you'd get some kind of alarm that really worked, after all this time."

"Why bother?" Morpheus said, and shrugged ponderously. "Anyhow, I'm here." He yawned again. "The thing's tiresome, but I did say I'd be here, and here I am. Now, does that satisfy everybody? Because if it doesn't, I do have some sleep to catch up on."

"It satisfies us all," Hera said with some asperity. "Go sit down."

Morpheus shambled quietly over to a couch near Mars. He lowered himself onto it, and slowly slipped from a sitting position to a reclining one.

"Well," Hera said to Zeus, "we're ready, dear."

"Oh," Zeus said. "Oh. Certainly. I declare this meeting—I declare this meeting fully met." He cleared his throat with a rumble that shook the air. "We're here, as I suppose you all know, to consider the problem of William Forrester. But first, I am reminded of a little story I picked up on Earth, and in the hopes that some of you here might not have heard it, I—"

"We've heard it," Hera said, "and, anyhow, this is neither the time nor the place."

Zeus turned to look at her. He shrugged. "Very well," he said equably. "Let us return to William Forrester, as a possible substitute for Dionysus. The first consideration ought to be the psychological records, wouldn't you say?"

"I would," Hera said through her teeth.

"I believe Athena is in charge of that department, and if she is ready to report—"

"Of course she's ready," Hera said, "dear."

Zeus nodded. "Well, then, what are we waiting for?"

Athena got up and faced the company. "In general," she began at once, "I think we can pass the candidate completely on the psychological records. The Index of Subordination is low, but we don't want one too high for this post. Too, the Beta curve shows a good deal of variation, a Dionysian characteristic. There is, perhaps, a stronger sense of responsibility than is recorded in the Dionysian index, but this may not be a handicap."

"By no means," Hera said. "Responsibility is something we could all do with more of, around here." She shot a poisonous glance at Morpheus, whose eyes were now completely closed.

Forrester, busily wondering what his Beta curve was, and why it varied, and what he would do if he lost it and had to get another one, missed the next few words of Athena's report. The word that did impinge on his consciousness did so with a shock.

"Sex," Athena said. "But, after all, that is not quite in my department." She looked as if she were very glad of the fact. "In general, as I say, the psychological tests present no insuperable barriers."

"Fine," Hera said. She dug Zeus in the ribs again.

"Oh," Zeus said. "Yes. Fine."

"Next," Hera said.

"Yes," Zeus said. "By all means. Next."

Mars got up. He was now scratching the hair on his chest. He looked around at the others with a definitely unfriendly expression.

"The physical department is mine," he said. "The candidate can handle himself, all right. There isn't much doubt of it." He burped, wiped his mouth with the back of one hand, and went on: "Of course, he's let himself run to fat a little here and there, but it isn't really serious. Mainly a matter of glandular balance or something like that, as far as I understand Hermes' report."

Forrester began to feel like a prize chicken.

"And physical training," Mars said. "Well, there hasn't been any training, that's all. And that's bad."

"He is not being considered for your position," Vulcan said. "One muscular brainless imbecile is enough."

Mars took a deep breath.

"Please," Hera said. "Continue the report."

The breath came out in an explosion. "All right," Mars said. "Discounting the training end of things, and assuming that Hermes can fix up the glandular mess, I think he can pass the physical."

Forrester wasn't sure that he liked being referred to as a glandular mess. On the other hand, he asked himself, what could he do about it? He stood quietly, wondering what was coming next.

His worst fears were fulfilled.

Venus stepped forward and gave her report. Basically, it was a codicil, of a rather specialized nature, to the physical report. While it was going on, Forrester glanced at Athena. She looked every bit as embarrassed as he felt, and her face wore a look of sheer pain. Once he thought she was going to leave the room, but she remained grimly seated until it was all over.

Forrester couldn't figure out, when he thought about it, how the Gods had managed to give him all these tests without his knowing anything about it. But, then, they were supernatural, weren't they? And they had their own methods. A mortal didn't have to understand them.

Forrester wasn't sure he was happy with that idea, but he clung to it. It was the only one he had.

When Venus finished her report, there was a little silence.

"Any other comments?" Hera whispered to her husband.

"Ah, yes," Zeus said. "Other comments. If anyone has any other comments to make, please make them now. Now is the time to make them."

He sat back. Morpheus stirred slightly and spoke without opening his eyes or sitting up. "Sleep," he said.

Hera said: "Sleep?"

"Very important," Morpheus said slowly, "the candidate sleeps pretty well—soundly, as a matter of fact. The only trouble is that he doesn't get enough sleep. But then, no one on this entire crazy world ever does." He yawned and added: "Not even me."

Forrester passed a hand over his forehead. He realized, very suddenly, that he had come to a conclusion somewhere during the meeting. He was, he told himself, definitely sane.

That left another conclusion. He was not dreaming anything that was happening. It was all perfectly real.

And he was about to become a demi-God.

That in itself didn't sound so bad. But he began to wonder, in a quiet sort of way, just what was going to happen to William Forrester, acolyte and history professor, when Forrester/Bacchus had became a reality. With a blunt shock he knew that there was only one answer.

William Forrester was going to die.

It didn't matter what the verdict of the Gods was. There were more tests coming, he knew, and if he failed them the Gods would kill him quite literally and quite completely.

But, he went on, suppose he passed the tests.

In that case he was going to become Forrester/Bacchus, a substitute God. Plain old Bill Forrester would cease to exist entirely.

Oh, a few traces might remain—his Beta curve, for instance, whatever that was. But Bill Forrester would be gone. Somehow, the idea of a revenant Beta curve didn't make up for the basic loss.

On the other hand, he reminded himself again, what choice did he have?

None.

He forced himself to listen to what the Gods were saying.

Zeus cleared his throat. "Well, I think that closes the subject. Am I right, dear?"

"You are," Hera said.

"Very well," Zeus said. "Then the subject is closed, isn't it?"

Hera nodded wearily.

"In that case, we can proceed with the investiture. Hephaestus, will you please take charge of the candidate?"

Hephaestus/Vulcan sighed softly. "I suppose I must." He swung off the couch and stood half-crouched for a second. Forrester looked at him blankly. "Well," Vulcan said, "come on." He jerked his head toward Forrester. "Over here."

With one last backward glance at Venus, Forrester walked across the room. Vulcan turned and hobbled ahead of him toward the wall. Forrester followed until, almost at the wall, a Veil of Heaven appeared. Feeling almost used to the thing by now, Forrester followed Vulcan through, and he didn't even look behind him to see if the Veil had vanished after they'd come through. He knew perfectly well it had. It always did.

The room they had entered was similar to the others he had seen, but there was no change of colors. The walls glowed evenly and with a subdued light that filled the room evenly. And, for the first time, the walls weren't simply blanks that became things only when approached. The strangest-looking objects Forrester had ever seen filled benches, tables, chairs and the floor, and some were even tacked to the glowing walls. He stared at them for a long time.

No two were alike. They seemed to be all sizes, shapes and materials. The only thing they really had in common was that they were unrecognizable. They looked, Forrester thought, as if a truckload of non-objective twentieth-century sculpture had collided with another truck full of old television-set innards. Then, in some way, the two trucks had fallen in love and had children.

The scrambled horrors scattered throughout the room were, Forrester told himself bleakly, the children.

Vulcan sat down on the only empty chair with a sigh. "This is my workshop," he announced gravely. "It is not arranged for visitors, nor for the curious. I must advise you to touch nothing, if you wish to save your hands, your sanity, and very possibly your life."

Forrester nodded dumbly. Vulcan's tone hadn't been unfriendly; he had merely been warning a stranger, in the shortest and clearest manner possible, against the dangers of feeling the merchandise. Not, Forrester thought, that the warning was necessary. He would as soon have thought of trying to fly as he would of touching one of the mixed-up looking things.

"Now," Vulcan said, "if you'll—" He stopped. "Pardon me," he said, and levered himself upright. He went to a chair, swept a few constructions from it and put them carefully on a table. "Sit down," he said, motioning to the chair.

Gingerly, Forrester sat down.

Vulcan returned to his own chair and climbed onto it. "Now let us get to business."

"Business?" Forrester said.

"Oh, yes," Vulcan said. "I imagine you were pretty well bewildered for a while. No more than natural. But I think you've figured it out by now. You know you are going to be given the powers of a demi-God, don't you?"

"Yes. But—"

"Do not worry about it," Vulcan said. "The powers are—simply powers. They are not burdens. At any rate, they will not be burdensome to you. We know that—we have researched you to a fine point, as you may have gathered from the fol-de-rol back there." He gestured toward his right, evidently indicating the Court of the Gods.

"But," Forrester said, "suppose I'm not what your tests say. I mean, suppose I—"

"There is no need for supposition. Beyond any shadow of doubt, we know how you, as a mortal, will react to any conceivable set of circumstances."

"Oh," Forrester said. "But—"

"Precisely. You have realized what yet needs to be done. We know what your abilities and limitations are—as a mortal. The tests you have yet to pass are concerned with your actions and reactions as a demi-God."

Forrester swallowed hard. He felt as if he were on a moving roller-coaster. No matter how badly he wanted to get off, it was impossible to do so. He had to remain while the car hurtled on.

And where was he going?

The Gods, he told himself with more than ordinary meaning, knew.

"The power which is to be infused into you," Vulcan said, "if you don't mind the loose terminology—"

"I don't mind in the least," Forrester assured him earnestly. "Not in the least."

"The power infused into you will make some changes. These will not only be physical changes. Mental changes must be expected."

"Oh," Forrester said. "Mental changes."

"Correct. Physically, you see, you will become what no mortal can ever quite be: a perfectly functioning biological engine. Every sinew, nerve and muscle, every organ and gland, every tissue in your body will be in perfect harmonic balance with every other. Metabolically speaking, your catabolism and anabolism will be in such perfect balance that aging will not be possible."

Forrester thought that over. "I'll be immortal," he said.

"In that sense of the word," Vulcan said, "you will. You will be, as a matter of fact, quite a good deal tougher, stronger and harder than any animal now existing on the face of the Earth. I must except, of course, a few of the really big ones, like the elephant and the killer whale."

"Oh," Forrester said. "Sure."

"But make no mistake. You can still be killed. A bullet through the heart will not do the job; it will merely incapacitate you for a few hours. But if you were to have your head blown off by a grenade, you would be quite dead. Remember that."

"I don't see how I could forget it."

"You will heal with incredible rapidity, but there are limitations. Anything that pushes the balance too far will be fatal. You can lose a hand or even an arm without serious harm; the missing member will be regrown. But if you were to fall into a large meat-grinder—"

"I get the idea," Forrester said, feeling pale green.

"Good," Vulcan said. "However, there is more."

"More?"

"There are certain other powers to be given you in addition. You will learn of these later."

Forrester nodded blankly.

"Now," Vulcan said, "all these physical changes will have a definite effect upon your psychological outlook, as I imagine you can plainly see."

Forrester thought about it. "Well—"

"Let us suppose that you are a coward who has avoided fights all his life. Now you are given these powers. What will happen?"

"I'll be strong."

"Exactly. You will be strong. And because you are strong, and almost indestructible, you suddenly decide that you can now get your revenge on the people who have pushed you around."

"Well," Forrester said, "I—"

"You begin to look for fights," Vulcan said. "You go around beating up everyone you can find, simply because you now know you can get away with it. Do you understand me?"

"I guess so."

"A man with a vicious streak in him would be intolerable in this position. Can you see that? Take an example: Ares. Mars is a tough God, hard and at times brutal. But he is not vicious."

Forrester was a little surprised to hear Vulcan say anything nice about Mars. He knew, as everyone did, the long history of ill-will and positive hatred the two had built up between them. It had begun soon after Vulcan's marriage to Aphrodite/Venus.

He hadn't been a cripple then, of course. For a while, he and Venus had had a fine time. But Venus, apparently, just wasn't satisfied with the dull normal routine of married life. None of the Gods seemed to be, as a matter of fact. Either they were altogether too married, like Zeus, or else they weren't married enough, like Venus. Or else they were like Diana and Athena, indifferent to marriage.

At any rate, Venus had begun looking around for fresh talent. And the fresh talent had been right there ready to sign up for a long contract on a strictly extra-legal basis.

One day Vulcan caught them at it, his wife and Mars. Vulcan was angry, but Mars didn't exactly like to be interrupted, either, and he was a little faster on the draw. He tossed Vulcan over a nearby cliff, crippling him for good.

And as for Aphrodite—who knew? It was entirely possible that, by this time, the Goddess of Love had run through the entire list of Gods and was now at work on the mortals.

Forrester wasn't entirely sure he disliked the idea, on a simple physical level. But there was more than that to it, of course; there was Vulcan. Forrester found himself liking the solemn, positive workman. He didn't want to hurt him.

And a liaison with Venus was certain to do just that.

He came back to the present to hear Vulcan still discoursing. "Also," the God said, "changes in glandular balance must be made. These changes have a necessary effect on the brain. The personality changes subtly, though I can assure you that the change is not a marked one." He paused. "For all these reasons," he finished, "I am sure that you can see why we must subject you to further tests."

"I understand," Forrester said vaguely.

"Good. Now, you will not know whether a given incident—any given incident—is a perfectly natural occurrence or a test imposed on you by the Pantheon. Can you understand that?"

Forrester nodded.

Vulcan levered himself upright, his ugly face smiling just a little. "And remember what I have told you. No worrying. You don't even know just what any given test is supposed to accomplish, so you can't know whether the action you choose is right or wrong. Therefore, worrying will do nothing for you. You will be at your best if you simply behave naturally."

"I'll try."

"Remember, also, that you were picked not merely for your physical resemblance to Dionysus, but your psychological resemblance as well. Therefore, playing his part should be comparatively simple for you. Right?"

"I guess so," Forrester said, feeling both expectant and a little hopeless about it all.

"Fine," Vulcan said. "Now wait one moment." He turned and limped over to a structure that looked like a sort of worktable. When he came back, he was carrying several objects in his big hands. He selected one, an ovoid about the size of a marble, colored a dull orange, and handed it to Forrester. "Swallow that."

Forrester took it cautiously. As soon as he found out what he was supposed to do with the thing, its dimensions seemed to grow. It looked about the size of a golf ball in his shaking hands.

"Swallow it?" he said tentatively.

"Correct," Vulcan said.

"But—"

"This object is a—well, call it a talisman. It will not dissolve, and it is recoverable, but for the Investiture it must be inside you."

"But—"

"You will find it so easy to swallow that you will need no water. Go ahead."

Forrester put the thing in his mouth and swallowed once, just to test Vulcan's statement. The effect was surprising. He could barely feel it leave his tongue, and he couldn't feel it go down at all. He swallowed again, experimentally, and explored the inside of his mouth with his tongue.

"It is gone," Vulcan said. "Good."

"It's gone, all right," Forrester said wonderingly.

"The sandals are next." Vulcan selected a pair of sandals with rather thick soles and handed them over. They were apparently made of gold. Forrester obediently strapped them on, and Vulcan next handed him a pair of golden cylinders indented to fit his curved fingers.

"You hold these very tightly," Vulcan said. "During the Investiture, you must grip them as hard as you can." He peered closely at them and pointed to one. "This one goes in the left hand. The other goes in the right. Squeeze them as if—as if you were trying to crush them. All right?"

"All right," Forrester said.

Vulcan nodded. "Good. From this moment on, do exactly as you are told. Answer questions truthfully. Keep nothing secret. Remember my instructions."

"Right," Forrester said doubtfully.

"Come on," Vulcan said, heading for the wall. The inevitable Veil of Heaven appeared, and Forrester followed through it as before.

The room they entered was not, he thought, the same one they had been in before. Or, if it was, it had changed a great deal. It was difficult to tell anything for sure; the shifting walls looked the same, but they also looked like the shifting walls in Venus' apartments.

At any rate, there were now no couches on the floor. The room seemed even bigger than before, and when the walls settled down to a steady golden glow, Forrester felt lost in the immensity of the place. In the center of the room was a raised golden dais. It was about five feet across and nearly three feet high.

The Gods were ranged around it in a semicircle, facing him. Vulcan slipped into an empty space in the line, and Forrester stood perfectly alone, holding the cylinders.

Zeus cleared his throat. "Step up on the dais," he said.

Stumbling slightly, Forrester managed to do so without losing his grip on the cylinders.

In the center of the raised platform, with the Gods staring at him, he felt like something under a microscope.

"William Forrester," Zeus said, and he shuddered. The All-Father's voice had never been more powerful. "William Forrester, from this moment onward you will renounce your present name. You will be known as Dionysus the Lesser until and unless it shall please us to confer another name on you. Henceforth, you will be, in part, a recipient of the worship due to Dionysus, and you will hold the rank of demi-God. Do you accept these judgments and this honor?"

Forrester gulped. A long time seemed to pass. At last he found his voice. "I do," he said.

"Very well," Zeus said.

The Gods joined hands and closed the circle around Forrester, surrounding him completely. The golden auras that shone about their bodies grew more and more bright. Forrester clutched the golden cylinders tightly.

Then, very suddenly, there was an explosion of light. Forrester thought he had staggered, but he was never sure. Everything was too bright to see. Dizziness began, and grew.

The room whirled and tipped. Somewhere a great organlike note began, and went on and on.

Forrester convulsed with the force of a single great burst of energy that crashed through his nervous system.

And then, in a timeless instant, everything went black.

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