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These are the Myard DELUXE Imitated Human Skull Logs for use...

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These are the Myard DELUXE Imitated Human Skull Logs for use in natural gas or liquid propane fireplaces/pits.  Each skull is made from heat-tolerant ceramic and lava granules, layered over a steel structure.

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PhaChayFy
4 days ago
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Australia
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Password Rules Are Bullshit

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Of the many, many, many bad things about passwords, you know what the worst is? Password rules.

Let this pledge be duly noted on the permanent record of the Internet. I don't know if there's an afterlife, but I'll be finding out soon enough, and I plan to go out mad as hell.

The world is absolutely awash in terrible password rules:

But I don't need to tell you this. The more likely you are to use a truly random password generation tool, like us über-geeks are supposed to, the more likely you have suffered mightily – and daily – under this regime.

Have you seen the classic XKCD about passwords?

To anyone who understands information theory and security and is in an infuriating argument with someone who does not (possibly involving mixed case), I sincerely apologize.

We can certainly debate whether "correct horse battery staple" is a viable password strategy or not, but the argument here is mostly that length matters.

That's What She Said

No, seriously, it does. I'll go so far as to say your password is too damn short. These days, given the state of cloud computing and GPU password hash cracking, any password of 8 characters or less is perilously close to no password at all.

So then perhaps we have one rule, that passwords must not be short. A long password is much more likely to be secure than a short one … right?

What about this four character password?

✅🐎🔋🖇️

What about this eight character password?

正确马电池订书钉

Or this (hypothetical, but all too real) seven character password?

You may also be surprised, if you paste the above four Unicode emojis into your favorite login dialog (go ahead – try it), to discover that it … isn't in fact four characters.

Oh dear.

"💩".length === 2

Our old pal Unicode strikes again.

As it turns out, even the simple rule that "your password must be of reasonable length" … ain't necessarily so. Particularly if we stop thinking like Ugly ASCII Americans.

And what of those nice, long passwords? Are they always secure?

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
0123456789012345689
passwordpassword
usernamepassword

Of course not, because have you met any users lately?

I changed all my passwords to

They consistently ruin every piece of software I've ever written. Yes, yes, I know you, Mr. or Ms. über-geek, know all about the concept of entropy. But expressing your love of entropy as terrible, idiosyncratic password rules …

  • must contain uppercase
  • must contain lowercase
  • must contain a number
  • must contain a special character

… is a spectacular failure of imagination in a world of Unicode and Emoji.

As we built Discourse, I discovered that the login dialog was a remarkably complex piece of software, despite its surface simplicity. The primary password rule we used was also the simplest one: length. Since I wrote that, we've already increased our minimum password default length from 8 to 10 characters. And if you happen to be an admin or moderator, we decided the minimum has to be even more, 15 characters.

I also advocated checking passwords against the 100,000 most common passwords. If you look at 10 million passwords from data breaches in 2016, you'll find the top 25 most used passwords are:

123456
123456789
qwerty
12345678
111111
1234567890
1234567
password
123123
987654321
qwertyuiop
mynoob
123321
666666
18atcskd2w
7777777
1q2w3e4r
654321
555555
3rjs1la7qe
google
1q2w3e4r5t
123qwe
zxcvbnm
1q2w3e

Even this data betrays some ASCII-centrism. The numbers are the same in any culture I suppose, but I find it hard to believe the average Chinese person will ever choose the passwords "password", "quertyuiop", or "mynoob". So this list has to be customizable, localizable.

(One interesting idea is to search for common shorter password matches inside longer passwords, but I think this would cause too many false positives.)

If you examine the data, this also turns into an argument in favor of password length. Note that only 5 of the top 25 passwords are 10 characters, so if we require 10 character passwords, we've already reduced our exposure to the most common passwords by 80%. I saw this originally when I gathered millions and millions of leaked passwords for Discourse research, then filtered the list down to just those passwords reflecting our new minimum requirement of 10 characters or more.

It suddenly became a tiny list. (If you've done similar common password research, please do share your results in the comments.)

I'd like to offer the following common sense advice to my fellow developers:

1. Password rules are bullshit

  • They don't work.
  • They heavily penalize your ideal audience, people that use real random password generators. Hey guess what, that password randomly didn't have a number or symbol in it. I just double checked my math textbook, and yep, it's possible. I'm pretty sure.
  • They frustrate average users, who then become uncooperative and use "creative" workarounds that make their passwords less secure.
  • They are often wrong, in the sense that the rules chosen are grossly incomplete and/or insane, per the many shaming links I've shared above.
  • Seriously, for the love of God, stop with this arbitrary password rule nonsense already. If you won't take my word for it, read this 2016 NIST password rules recommendation. It's right there, "no composition rules". However, I do see one error, it should have said "no bullshit composition rules".

2. Enforce a minimum Unicode password length

One rule is at least easy to remember, understand, and enforce. This is the proverbial one rule to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

  • It's simple. Users can count. Most of them, anyway.
  • It works. The data shows us it works; just download any common password list of your choice and group by password length.
  • The math doesn't lie. All other things being equal, a longer password will be more random – and thus more secure – than a short password.
  • Accept that even this one rule isn't inviolate. A minimum password length of 6 on a Chinese site might be perfectly reasonable. A 20 character password can be ridiculously insecure.
  • If you don't allow (almost) every single unicode character in the password input field, you are probably doing it wrong.
  • It's a bit of an implementation detail, but make sure maximum password length is reasonable as well.

3. Check for common passwords

As I've already noted, the definition of "common" depends on your audience, and language, but it is a terrible disservice to users when you let them choose passwords that exist in the list of 10k, 100k, or million most common known passwords from data breaches. There's no question that a hacker will submit these common passwords in a hack attempt – and it's shocking how far you can get, even with aggressive password attempt rate limiting, using just the 1,000 most common passwords.

  • 1.6% have a password from the top 10 passwords
  • 4.4% have a password from the top 100 passwords
  • 9.7% have a password from the top 500 passwords
  • 13.2% have a password from the top 1,000 passwords
  • 30% have a password from the top 10,000 passwords

Lucky you, there are millions and millions of real breached password lists out there to sift through. It is sort of fun to do data forensics, because these aren't hypothetical synthetic Jack the Ripper password rules some bored programmer dreamed up, these are real passwords used by real users.

Do the research. Collect the data. Protect your users from themselves.

4. Check for basic entropy

No need to get fancy here; pick the measure of entropy that satisfies you deep in the truthiness of your gut. But remember you have to be able to explain it to users when they fail the check, too.

entropy visualized

I had a bit of a sad when I realized that we were perfectly fine with users selecting a 10 character password that was literally "aaaaaaaaaa". In my opinion, the simplest way to do this is to ensure that there are at least (x) unique characters out of (y) total characters. And that's what we do as of the current beta version of Discourse. But I'd love your ideas in the comments, too. The simpler and clearer the better!

5. Check for special case passwords

I'm embarrassed to admit that when building the Discourse login, as I discussed in The God Login, we missed two common cases that you really have to block:

  • password equal to username
  • password equal to email address

🤦 If you are using Discourse versions earlier than 1.4, I'm so sorry and please upgrade immediately.

Similarly, you might also want to block other special cases like

  • password equal to URL or domain of website
  • password equal to app name

In short, try to think outside the password input box, like a user would.

🔔 Clarification

A few people have interpeted this post as "all the other password rules are bullshit, except these four I will now list." That's not what I'm trying to say here.

The idea is to focus on the one understandable, simple, practical, works-in-real-life-in-every-situation rule: length. Users can enter (almost) anything, in proper Unicode, provided it's long enough. That's the one rule to bind them all that we need to teach users: length!

Items #3 through #5 are more like genie-special-exception checks, a you can't wish for infinite wishes kind of thing. It doesn't need to be discussed up front because it should be really rare. You must stop users from having passwords that equal their username, or aaaaaaaaaaa or 0123456789, but only as post-entry checks, not as rules that need to be explained in advance.

So TL;DR: one rule. Length. Enter whatever you want, just make sure it's long enough to be a reasonable password.

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PhaChayFy
6 days ago
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Australia
popular
13 days ago
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GreenChange
8 days ago
At my previous employer, they used to give you a prize (just a lolly) when you first started, if you could pick a password that passed the stupid rules restrictions on the first try. Hardly anyone ever did it, even though the rules were listed clearly!
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3 public comments
chrisminett
12 days ago
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We need to check the last points (username, app name)
Milton Keynes, UK
wmorrell
13 days ago
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True story: work wants to roll out Microsoft Office 365, and I was one of the first trial users. I got a post-it with an 8 character password from the IT grunt tapped to be the AD admin. As is my habit, I immediately changed the password with a random one created by a password manager. The password was 20 characters. The change password form accepts the new password and prints a happy "password changed!" message. I log out, then try to log back in; the login page then informs me that the maximum … *maximum* password length is 16 characters and rejects my login. Okay … truncate it to 16, maybe the change form cut it off. Login fails. Go back to IT grunt to get a password reset, get a new 8-character password. Login fails. Reset again. Be very careful copying down password, very careful entering it back in. Login fails.
So, it turns out that there is no length validation on Office 365 password change forms, and going over the 16-character minimum mentioned nowhere on the page will *permanently* lock your account. 👍
expatpaul
13 days ago
Why is there even an upper limit? If the password is properly salted and hashed then only the hash should matter.
wmorrell
13 days ago
From what I found, it is some backward-compatible dependency thing with Active Directory syncing, which Microsoft has not cared enough about to fix. Possibly something with early Windows versions storing passwords as reversible hashes, and definitions of the protocols for remote logins defining a now-too-short field for passwords. The limitation could have made sense in the early 1990s, but then got carried forward far too long, and we are still stuck with it 25 years later.
expatpaul
13 days ago
Ah, I can see how that would happen. In my experience, many of the problems with Windows can be traced to poor early implementation that was never (or becomes increasingly difficult to) fix.
expatpaul
14 days ago
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Possibly the worst password rule is the one that demands you change your password on a regular basis. Either people will start writing down their passwords, or come up with a pattern that ensures their passwords are always easy to guess.
Belgium
wffurr
14 days ago
What's wrong with writing down passwords? A written copy is extremely useful, if you secure it the same way you do your money and credit cards, i.e. carry it in your pocket.
expatpaul
14 days ago
Point taken, wffurr. I was thinking more about the corporate environment which is where I usually see mad password rules like these. The number of times I have seen passwords on post-it notes, whichg are stuck somewhere convenient, is quite frightening.
expatpaul
14 days ago
That said, the best approach is to use a password manager to store randomly generated passwords. Of course, my current employer bans the use of password mangers.
HarlandCorbin
13 days ago
Must change password every 21 days. Cannot reuse last 50 passwords. **These** rules make my passwords less secure than they could be. I have given up generating passwords that I can reasonably type that follow the rules. I mean, 21 days?!?
expatpaul
13 days ago
21 days? Ouch! The worst I saw was every 30 days, and I know a number of people using a combination on month and year for their password.
HarlandCorbin
13 days ago
And the new password can only have (IIRC) one point of similarity with the previous one.
expatpaul
13 days ago
That's just painful. It's rules like that which are just asking everyone to write their password on the nearest available post-it note.
Aatch
13 days ago
That's weirdly strict. We have a change every 90 days and you can't use your last 2 passwords. That's it. Simple enough to rotate a handful of passwords 4 times a year.
chrisrosa
13 days ago
this one drives me crazy. the damn auditors eat password expiry up and are always pushing for less time. total bs.
mareino
13 days ago
There is a government personnel website I've used where (1) the average user logs in about 2x/year, (2) the password resets monthly.
WorldMaker
9 days ago
The NIST guidelines link in the post also strongly recommend against arbitrary password expiration. I sent the NIST document to my corporate IT when they changed password expiration rules just recently. It hasn't impacted any change, but at least I tried to talk sense to power.
expatpaul
8 days ago
@WorldMaker: I'm impressed that you tried to talk sense, but the main problem with large corporations is that they tend to adopt a checkbox approach to these things. People have to prove that they are doing _something_ about security; no-one ever asks whether what they are doing is actually useful.
WorldMaker
7 days ago
@expatpaul: Arguably as a software developer a part of my role is to evaluate and better the company's software. Even if that just means writing a ticket every few weeks to try to argue true industry best practices against fads and security theater. Of course, without a CTO title they don't have to listen to me, but I can hope they might at least read it. Even if they are hearing stupid crap from outside security consultants and terrible software vendors that should be destroyed for the betterment of the corporate world like Oracle. The only way we might see change is to keep talking sense to power and hope someone listens or promotes us until they have to listen.
chrisrosa
6 days ago
As long as companies want to do business with companies the require SOC2, HIPPA, SOX, etc. (not to mention their own compliance BS), it doesn't really matter. At least NIST is on board.

A Modern Myth

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1. Eris

A middle-aged man, James, had come on stage believing it was an audition for American Idol. It wasn’t. Out ran his ex-lover, Terri. “You said you loved me!” she said. “And then when I got pregnant, you disappeared! Twenty years, and you never even sent me a letter!”

The crowd booed.

As James tried to sputter a response, his wife ran onto the stage. “You cheating jerk!” she shouted at James. “You lying, cheating jerk! Twenty-five years we’ve been married, and I never…” She picked up a folding chair, tried to swing it at James.

“Stop!” cried James’ teenage daughter Katie, joining in the fray. “Mom, Dad, stop it!”

“You stay out of this!” shouted James’ wife. “Maybe if you’d had a good male role model, you wouldn’t have become a lesbian.”

The crowd gasped.

Katie’s girlfriend Lisa came out of a side door. “You take that back!” she yelled. Then she saw Terri. “Wait? Mom? What are you doing here?”

“That’s right,” said Alice DiScorria, sidling onto the stage, effortlessly drawing the audience’s attention from the brawl taking shape in front of them. “Katie’s girlfriend is the daughter of the man her father cheated with, so many years ago. And we’ve got the paternity test right here.” She theatrically opened a manilla envelope. “And…James! James is the father!”

“I’VE BEEN LESBIAN LOVERS WITH MY HALF-SISTER!” shrieked Katie.

“This is all your fault!” everyone shouted at everyone else in unison. Then the punching started.

In short, it had been another successful episode of The Alice Show.

Now Ms. DiScorria was in her dressing room, wiping off the night’s makeup, trying to decide where to go to dinner. Knock, knock. She opened the door wide.

There stood Katie and Lisa. Katie was holding a shotgun.

“Why would you do this to us?” screamed Katie. “We were a happy family!”

“I loved her!” added Lisa.

“Why?” Katie screamed at her, waving the gun. “WHY?”

“Oh, put it away,” said Alice. “We both know you’re not going to shoot me. And it wouldn’t hurt me if you did. I do this because I’m Eris, the Greek Goddess of Discord. I destroy peace. I set people against each other. Then, when their petty fights destroy everything they’ve worked for, I stand over the ruins and laugh. It’s my thing. Here. Have a golden apple.”

It appeared in Alice’s hand, shining with beauty that defied description. “FOR THE FAIREST” was writ on the front in letters of liquid light. Katie dropped her gun and stared. Lisa rubbed her eyes to see if she was dreaming. For a brief moment, no one moved.

Finally, Katie asked, “You’re…giving it to me?”

“Absolutely. To you and your girlfriend. Traditionally, I think it would go to whichever of you is prettier.”

Gently, she placed the golden apple on her dressing table, winked at the girls, and left the room. She closed the door behind her, so nobody would hear the screams.

2. Ares

“Look,” Tom told Ari, “you always seem to come out of this kind of thing okay. So if I don’t make it tomorrow, I want you to give this to my wife.” It was an envelope. There was no address, just ‘TO BE OPENED IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH’.

“Stop talking like that, Tom,” said Ari, taking the envelope and putting it into his backpack. “You’ll make it. The Taliban’s gonna fold like a wet rag tomorrow, I promise.”

“Easy for you to say. In Helmand, half your squad dies, you just walk out with a big grin on your face. Kandahar, outnumbered eight to one, and not only do you win, you end up with two Medals of Honor. I didn’t even know you could get more than one Medal of Honor for a single battle. Yeah, sure, you’ll be fine tomorrow. The rest of us, we’re only mortal.”

“Yeah,” said Ari. “I can see how that would suck.”

“Look, you’re doing me a big favor, taking that envelope,” said Tom. “Anything I can do for you? You know, in case the worst happens?”

“Nah, don’t worry about it.”

“There’s nobody back home you care about? Wife? Girlfriend? Family?”

“Fuck all. No wife, no girlfriend, and a family dysfunctional like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Where are you even from, Ari? You never talk about it.”

“Who cares?”

“I care. Heck, half the squad thinks you’re some kind of government supersoldier, the other half thinks you should be in a loony bin. You’re interesting, Ari.”

“Well, fine. I’m Ares, Greek god of war. I’m the son of Zeus and his sister Hera, and let me tell you, marrying your sister works about as well as you’d expect. I used to be a big deal, shape the destiny of whole nations, rise of Rome and all that. Then my power crashed along with everyone else’s. Man, I don’t even remember the Dark Ages. The whole medieval era is a blur. By the time I start feeling like myself again, it’s the Renaissance and everybody’s fighting with muskets. Nowadays…man. I can fight better than you mortals, you gotta give me that. But in terms of god stuff…I remember when I could make all of fucking Persia flee in abject surrender. Now I’m stuck taking pot shots at Taliban assholes. Meanwhile, they’re all shouting about Allah, and you guys are all shouting about Jesus, and nobody even fucking believes in me anymore.”

“I believe you,” said Tom.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” said Tom. “In Kandahar, I saw a bullet pass right through you. How would a government super-soldier manage that? Sure. You’re Ares, god of war. I’ll worship you, if you want.”

“What fucking good would that be?”

“Think about it! You said that you and all the other gods lost your power back in Roman days. What happened in Roman days? Constantine! The start of Christianity! That must have been what did it! Gods’ power comes from people believing in them!”

“Why does every mortal always figure that gods’ power comes from people believing in them? Like you’re all some kind of god power experts? Do they teach that to baby mortals in their little mortal schools? Stupidest thing I ever heard. You think we ruled the world for a thousand years and didn’t check where our power came from? We figured that out a long time ago. Divine power comes from meat.”

“Meat?”

“Yeah. Like, you know, sacrifice a ram to Ares, pray for victory, then eat it in a big communal feast in the barracks. The more meat sacrificed in a god’s name, the stronger he got.”

“But then it’s still about belief. People stopped believing in you, so they stopped sacrificing rams to you.”

“You’ve got it ass-backwards. We were at the height of our power. People were sacrificing rams to us right and left. Then it stopped working. One year the meat started having a little less effect. The next year it was a little less than that. Eventually it was gone. And then when the gods became powerless, the cults collapsed, and then the Christians and Muslims and all the rest stepped in to fill the gap.”

“So what can I do? There’s some meat in the mess hall, I can sacrifice that for you if you want.”

“I’m telling you, it won’t work. The power’s gone. It’s been gone for two thousand years. Me – and all the rest – we’re stuck like this. Some kind of natural floor to our power, still more than mortal but forever less than divine. It’s fucking awful and I hate it. I hate not being able to smite whole nations when I’m angry. I hate having to take commands from ‘superior officers’ because I’m ‘just a grunt’. And most of all, I hate that people have forgotten about us. We used to be big, Tom!”

“People haven’t forgotten. They love you guys. There’s still, you know, Hermes handbags, and Athena mineral water, and, you know, Mars bars….”

“I am the lord over war, the manslaughtering one, the bloodstained one, he of many devices, bringer of much weeping, destroyer of men. I AM NOT A FUCKING CHOCOLATE BAR.”

“Sorry, man. I was just saying…”

“I know. You wanted to make me feel better. That’s what I’ve come to. Having to be consoled by mortals. You know what’s going to make me feel better, Tom? Killing some fucking Taliban tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to…”

“It’s not that. But, uh, Ari. We’ve got a big battle coming up tomorrow. And I know this probably sounds really crazy to you, but humans – praying makes us feel better. That’s why we do it all the time. To Jesus or Allah or whoever. And we don’t really expect it to work, so…um…”

“Out with it, Tom.”

“…is it okay if I pray to you tomorrow?”

“Knock yourself out, Tom.”

3. Apollo

Ianthe had always liked magic squares. They were one of the oldest forms of magic. A Sator square had been found scrawled on one of the walls of Pompeii. Since then the art had advanced, and she was its master. She would fill the word square with words relating to the sun, and Apollo would appear before her. Working with gold ink, she traced the letters carefully:

C I R C L E
I C A R U S
R A R E S T
C R E A T E
L U S T R E
E S T E E M

Apollo appeared before her, devilishly handsome, impeccably well-dressed, unfailingly polite. He’d told her once that in his other identity, he was a professor at some college somewhere. She could believe it.

“Ianthe, my daughter,” he said, his voice smooth and golden. He always called her that, even when he was doing very un-fatherly things to her. Though come to think of it, in his family that might not be such a jarring contradiction. She wondered if he’d known Oedipus.

“Lord Apollo,” she said. “I have called you here to request a boon.”

His face fell. He had explained the first time he met her that his powers were weak. That he couldn’t help her the way she might have wished. Couldn’t grant her wealth or wisdom or prophecy the way he might have in days of old. Since then she had never asked him for anything but himself.

“It’s…nothing too difficult,” she assured him. “Just…actually, I wanted to say good-bye.”

“Good-bye?” asked Apollo.

“There’s…someone’s hunting us. The neopagan community. I told you about Megan, right? The girl who used to run a traditionalist group up in Santa Cruz? They found her dead two weeks ago. There’s a Wiccan circle over in Oakland that deals with Greek themes sometimes; two of their leaders have been missing since January. And then Aristopsychus the Wise…that’s what he calls himself, seriously, one of the crazy sorts who attacks people drinking Athena Mineral Water and says they’re profaning the name of a goddess…I just got a call. His head was bashed in last night. I’m really afraid, Lord Apollo.”

He looked at her, his face infinitely wise and sorrowful, and she knew he could do nothing.

“That’s why I’m leaving here,” she said. “I haven’t told anybody, nobody else in the neopagan community, not even that weird girl Emily who thinks she’s my ‘acolyte’. I’m shutting down the temple and going somewhere really far away where nobody can find me, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to summon you again.”

“I understand,” said Apollo. “May good fortune go with you.”

“But I was asking you for a boon. I need you to take something from me.” She took out a paper bag and produced an apple, brilliant gold, shining with an unearthly radiance. Apollo stepped back as if someone had struck him, his calm manner broken for the first time Ianthe had seen.

“Where did you get that…that thing?” asked Apollo.

“A detective gave it to me! He was investigating a crime scene. These two girls murdered each other in a Hollywood studio dressing room…it was all over the news. And this guy was called in to investigate the crime scene, and all he could find was this golden apple that said “for the fairest”. And after all the legal things were closed he didn’t want to throw it out, because it looked so pretty, and he heard about our temple here, and he figured it looked like something a Greek pagan revivalist movement should own, so he gave it to me. And as soon as I saw it…this sounds so bad, but I didn’t tell any of the others, not even Emily. I brought it home and never told anyone about it. But I’m scared, Apollo. I’m scared it has something to do with the reason all this is happening. I don’t want to leave it here and I don’t want to take it with me, so…please, just take the apple. Before it makes me change my mind!” She wasn’t looking at it; she was carefully avoiding looking at it.

“I can’t,” said Apollo.

“You have to!” said Ianthe.

“No, I mean, literally, I can’t,” said Apollo. “The apple has to belong to a woman. Any woman who sees the apple, she wants it more than she’s ever wanted anything else. Any man who sees it, no effect. Even if a man gets it, he feels compelled to give it to a woman. That must have been what happened to your detective. I really, really do not want that apple. You have no idea how bad things get around one of these.”

With a grunt and an effort of will, Ianthe threw the golden apple at Apollo’s face. He caught it in his hand reflexively, involuntarily. “Take it!” she said, as he stared at his unwanted prize. “You’re a god! I’m sure you can think of a woman who can keep it safe for you!”

“Ohhhhh….this is not good,” Apollo said, through clenched teeth. “I hate these things, I hate these things, I hate these things, I hate these things…”

Ianthe erased a letter from the middle of the magic square, and Apollo disappeared. Then she picked up her suitcase, got in her car, and started driving, intent on putting as much distance as possible between herself and anywhere people would be looking for her.

4. Aphrodite

She stays by the sea shore. Shining shells and soft surf sounds surround her shelter. Cythera simmers with summer, and seals swim in the sun. Songbirds circle in the sapphire sky, and sea stars sit semi-submerged in the sand.

Ares wades out to the cliff where he knows he’ll find her, a cliff of soft pink rock that looks like any other on this side of the island. On a little depression in the rock which only he can see, he traces letters with his fingers:

M O A N
O N C E
A C M E
N E E D

The cliff opens around him, and he is in the bower of Aphrodite.

She is naked. Her body glistens with sea-foam. She is behind a glass shelf filled with seashells, and from where Ares is standing, two of them perfectly cover her breasts. On the near wall are pictures of her family: her husband, Hephaestus; her son, Eros; her parents, the sea and the blood of Cronus; her nth-great-grandson, Julius Caesar. On the far wall is a banner reading “UNDEFEATED GOLDEN APPLE WINNER, 1200 BC – PRESENT”, and several oak barrels overflowing with golden apples that cast an unearthly glow all over the room.

“Hello, sexy,” she says.

He tries to play it cool, act natural. “Hey Aph,” he says. “Just dropping by.”

There is no sign of her husband.

“Come on, Ares. You never ‘drop by’. What is it really?”

“Um,” says Ares. He is acutely aware of the god-sized erection he probably has right now. He keeps his eyes fixed on the barrels of golden apples, so as not to stare. “Um,” he says again.

“I heard about what happened in Kandahar,” she said. “That was very heroic of you.” She gently brushed her arm against his.

“Um,” said Ares. “That’s…kind of…look. This soldier guy I knew. He asked me if…if there was anyone back home I cared for. And I said no. Fuck everyone. You know. Mom, Dad, fuck them all. But then I started thinking. We had something good. A long time ago. And I was thinking, maybe…”

“But Ares,” she said, biting her lip, “you know I’m married.”

“You were married the last five times too,” Ares said, forcefully now. “It’s kind of a big part of having an affair.”

“But,” she said, running a hand through her golden hair, “what if people found out?”

“People found out the last five times too,” he said. “Nobody thought anything of it. You’re the goddess of love. Of lust. Love and lust. Of course you have affairs.”

“What if my parents knew? It would break their heart.”

“Your parents are the sea, and the blood that came out of a Titan’s scrotum when my father castrated him. I think they’ll be fine.”

“Oh, Ares. You know so much about me.”

She pulled him closer. She closed her eyes. His lips touched hers. Then –

“We can’t do this, Ares. We’re just too different, you and I. Love. War. It wouldn’t work.”

“We are not different. All’s fair in both of us, for one thing. We’re both, uh, relationships between two parties. Often involving fighting. More fun when you’re high testosterone. And when you’ve got a big spear.”

“I love it when you talk dirty to me, Ares,” said Aphrodite, and put her hand around his waist. He tried to kiss her a second time.

“No,” she said suddenly. “I can’t. What about the children?”

“Your child is Eros!” protested Ares. “How is that a problem?!”

“Show me you care,” said Aphrodite.

“I care!” said Ares. “I promise you, I care. Tom – this soldier I know – he was telling me all about his wife, and how much he loved her, and I was thinking, I need something like that, and then I remembered – I’ve got that. You’re the one for me. You’re the only one I want. I promise.”

“Show me,” said Aphrodite.

“How?” asked Ares. “What can I do to show you that I care?”

Aphrodite let her hand linger on his shoulder, then walked to the other side of the room. She picked up a golden apple.

“There’s another golden apple in the world now,” she said. “I can feel it, Ares. That apple is mine by right.” For a second, all the softness disappeared from her face, and he knew why one of her epithets was ‘the warlike one’. “I want that apple, Ares. Bring it to me.”

“But baby, you already have like a million golden apples. Look, you’ve got barrels full of them. You’re not even using – ” He picked up a golden apple that had fallen behind one the barrels.

“It’s the principle of the thing, Ares. It says ‘for the fairest’. Am I not the fairest? Have I not been the most beautiful of goddess and women since before Paris was a glimpse in his mother’s eye? Somebody else has my magic apple, Ares, and I am literally shaking here. You are my protector, the hero of Kandahar, the man who got two Medals of Honor in the same battle. Can you rescue me?” She knelt before him. There were tears coming out of her eyes. She hugged his leg.

“I’ll…I’ll get you your apple, Aph. I’ll find whoever’s got your golden apple, and if they don’t give it back, I’ll…” He took out his sword and swung it above him, so fast that it whistled in the air like the note of a lute.

“I’ll be waiting for you…” whispered Aphrodite.

Ares turned to go. The cliff face opened in front of him. The birds were still singing, and dolphins leapt for joy in the melodious waves. He was kind of a chump, but he knew this was the way of things, and it would never change.

“…I won’t be wearing any clothes.” Aphrodite called after him.

5. Hermes

He is called Herman. He runs a hedge fund. He lives in Manhattan. He wears nice suits.

Today he is in a nice suit, but he is not in Manhattan. He is in Memphis, Tennessee. Not even the nice part of Memphis, Tennessee. He’s in a poor, crime-ridden ghetto in Memphis Tennessee, and it has a bridge, and he is underneath it.

He spots a big man sleeping underneath the bridge, wrapped in a ratty blanket. His beard is unkempt, and even from far away, he smells like alcohol.

“Hi Dad”, said Hermes.

“Whaddyawant?” mumbled Zeus.

“It’s me, Dad,” said Hermes. “Hermes.”

With some effort, Zeus brought himself into a sitting position, brushed some of the more egregious twigs out of his beard. He rubbed his eyes.

“Yeah, so? Whaddyawant?”

Hermes inspected the King of Gods and Men. He was streaked with dirt. He was dressed in a fading white wife-beater, with reddish stains that Hermes hoped were wine.

“I’ve been looking all over for you, Dad. You look terrible. What happened to you?”

“Whaddyoucare?”

“You used to be King, Dad!”

“I’m still king. Iduncarewhatchy’all think.”

“But what happened to you? I talked to Ares the other day. He won two Medals of Honor, did you hear? Apollo’s got tenure at Oxford. I’m the god of commerce and crime, so of course I’ve got a hedge fund. But you? What happened to you?”

“Fucking child support payments!” said Zeus. “I was doin’ just fine for myself until cops from forty-seven different states came my front door calling me a deadbeat dad!”

“Oh dear,” said Hermes. “Forty-seven women?”

“Forty-seven states,” said Zeus. “Hundred ninety women. Two hundred five kids. Fucking mess.”

“A hundred ninety women,” mused Hermes. “Please tell me you didn’t turn all of them into animals.”

“Are you fucking kink-shaming me?” said Zeus. “If I get off on having kids with women and then turning ’em into animals, that’s my private business. Ain’t no weirder than Ganymede being gay or your kid who’s a futa or…BLAAAAAARGH”. He turned and vomited the morning’s meal into the river. “Besides, I don’t got power anymore. Can’t even turn a pretty girl into an ape these days, forgeddabout a cow or a bear.”

“Look, sorry for bringing up your fetish,” said Hermes. “I didn’t know it was a sore point. I wanted to talk about something important. Dad, I’ve figured it all out.”

“You figgered what out?”

“All of it. What happened to us. Why we lost our power. And how we’re going to get it back.”

“Yeah?” said Zeus. He sounded skeptical. “I’m listenin'”

“Look,” said Hermes. “How did we used to get power? Animal sacrifice. And which animal? Rams. What astrological age was it? The Age of Aries, the sign of The ram. 2000 BC to 1 AD, or thereabouts. Then the age changes. The sun is in Pisces. Sign of the fish. Boom. Sacrificing rams no longer works. Who comes out on top? Some Israeli whose followers are all fishermen. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.”

“So yer saying, we need to get the mortals to sacrifice fish to us now, and then we’re back in business?”

“No. Because the Age of Pisces ended last century. Now it’s the Age of Aquarius. The Water Bearer.”

“So sacrifice water?”

“Well, this is where we start to have a problem. I know you have trouble remembering all your children, but perhaps you recall that a few thousand years ago, you had a daughter who happened to become the Goddess Of Wisdom, Intelligence, and Cleverness?”

“Never gonna forget that one,” said Zeus, rubbing his head.

“It would seem that my lovely and not-at-all-incredibly-annoying sister Athena figured all of this out about ten years before I did,” said Hermes. He reached into his pocket and took out a bottle of Athena Mineral Water. “Behold! 91% market share. Aquafina? Bankrupt. Dasani? Out of business. And here’s the best part.” He held the label up very close, so Zeus could read it. “Athena Mineral Water Customer Reward Program,” it said in small font. “Every time you drink a refreshing bottle of Athena Mineral Water, say ‘Thanks, Athena!’ in front of a registered associate, and they’ll punch your card. Collect ten punches and get a liter bottle of Athena Mineral Water absolutely free.”

“Whaddya sayin’?” asked Zeus.

“I’m saying that every day, about a million mortals are going into supermarkets, drinking water, and saying ‘Thanks, Athena!’, and each one of them is giving my beloved-and-not-at-all-aneurysm-inducing sister an amount of divine power equal to an entire animal sacrifice. I had some of my quants crunch the numbers, and right now I’m guessing she’s about twenty times more powerful than you were at your prime. At your prime, Dad. She pretty much has a monopoly on divinity right now. We’re really really really screwed.”

“So you gonna take all that cash you got and open up your own water business?”

“I tried. They wouldn’t even let me register it. Said it was a trademark conflict with Hermes Handbags. I got my lawyers to look up who owns Hermes Handbags, and it’s a shell corporation belonging to a consortium belonging to a Chinese group belonging to a company registered in the Cayman Islands which was set up using money from…Athena Mineral Water. Mars Bars, same thing. Zeus Cameras, likewise. And it’s worse than that. I try to find some neopagan groups, see if maybe I can get them to sacrifice a few bottles of water to me just until I can think of a solution that scales. She murdered all of them. In cold blood. Every priest or priestess who ever worshipped another Olympian. She’s boxed us in, Dad.”

“And that’s why yer comin’ to me. You want….the power of lighning!

Zeus tried to stand in an imposing pose, but only succeeded in tripping on his blanket and crumpling back onto the ground.

“Dad, you can’t summon lightning anymore. You haven’t had that kind of strength for two millennia. And with the power Athena’s collected, it wouldn’t help. But there is something you can give me.”

“What?”

“I need to talk to Prometheus.”

Zeus managed to bring himself into an approximation of standing. “Now listen here, sonny. Maybe I ain’t much of a king of the gods anymore. I ain’t got the lightning and the thunder and all that. But lockin’ that bastard up was the best thing I ever did, and you know it, and yer not gonna take that away from me. You think yer so smart with your hedge fund, and yer money, and yer fancy East Coast suit, but I’m tellin’ you, Prometheus would eat you for breakfast and he wouldn’t even break out a sweat.”

“Right, Dad. That’s the thing. He’s the only one who’s smart enough to outmanuever Athena. I’m proud of my brains, but she’s the Goddess Of Wisdom, Intelligence, and Cleverness, plus now she’s stronger than us, and I’m not sure how to get one up on the Goddess of Wisdom, Intelligence, and Cleverness without help from someone who’s…uh…very very smart.”

“Prometheus ain’t just smart,” spat Zeus. “It’s not just that he has book-larning. He’s the God of Foresight. He sees every possible future laid out in fronna him as easily as you or I see that there blanket.” He pointed to the blanket, which was actually so dirt-covered that it was getting hard to see against the dirt below. “It took all of us together, and all the Giants, and all the Cyclopses to bring him down, and we wouldn’ta succeeded if the Fates themselves hadn’t gotten pissed with him for ruining their weaving and given us a hand. And it was Athena herself who told us that we had to bind him somewhere far away, couldn’t talk to him, couldn’t even go near him, or else he’d figure out some way to screw up all our futures just by sayin’ a couple a’ sentences to us. And all a’ you, and all the Giants, and all the Cyclopses, you all agreed, and you all gave me the key that lets you reach him, and I ain’t given that key to anyone in the past two thousand years and I ain’t givin’ it to you now and that’s final, you hear me, boy?”

“Then,” said Hermes, “I fear we are all doomed.”

“We’re fucking gods,” said Zeus. “We can’t die. We can’t even be contained, for long. Only gods we ever managed to lock up were the Titans in Tartarus and Prometheus in Elbrus, and that was only by all of us workin’ together, and by my power as King of Gods, and if you think I’m signin’ off to any of this, yer crazy.”

“Then we will wane,” said Hermes, “and become little better than bugs skittering beneath Athena’s feet.”

“I ain’t got much,” said Zeus, “but I beat Prometheus and no one ain’t ever going to take that away from me. Now get going, sonny boy.”

“If I do not beat Athena,” said Hermes, “you’ll never be able to turn any women into animals, ever again.”

Zeus paused, just a second, then spat. “I made my choice,” he told Hermes. “Now git!”

6. Pandora

He remembered the first time he had come here to see her. It had taken him months just to find the place. An Orthodox convent. Our Lady Of Sorrows, just outside Kiev.

He had knocked on her door. “Come in,” she’d said. She hadn’t opened the door. At the time, he hadn’t realized that was significant.

She was wearing a veil. “Dory?” he asked. She nodded slightly. “Dory, it’s Apollo.”

“You didn’t forget about me.” He couldn’t see her eyes, but she was smiling.

“Forget about you? Dory, I’ve been sending you care packages every month!”

“Oh.” A frown. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…I don’t open things.”

“Oh.”

“You understand, don’t you?”

“I can see how it would be traumatic. But…you didn’t get any of my letters?”

“They were in envelopes, Apollo. I told you, I don’t open things.”

“Oh,” he said. He lifted her veil, saw her face for the first time in years. “What, not even your eyes?”

Pandora nodded.

“The church is beautiful. It looks like a wedding cake. You haven’t even been a little curious what the convent you’re living in looks like?”

“I don’t do curiosity anymore, Apollo. Curiosity leads me to bad, bad places.”

“Dory.” It was worse than he’d thought. He was the god of healing, or had been. His powers were weak, but maybe he could at least do some therapy? “Dory, you did one bad thing.”

“I did all the bad things, Apollo. Literally. Every single one of them.”

“Okay. Be that as it may. You were tricked. Zeus played a horrible joke on you. Or he used you as a pawn to play a horrible joke on everybody. It doesn’t mean opening things is always bad, or that curiosity always gets punished. It means one stupid god played one stupid joke. Look, he could have put all the world’s evils in, I don’t know, his basement, and released them if and only if you didn’t open a box. Then the lesson would have been to always open things. Do you see how that makes just as much sense as what actually happened.”

“I’m sorry, Apollo,” said Pandora. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. But it won’t help.”

“It might!” said Apollo. “Keep an open mind!”

I don’t do open.”

“Ah. Right.”

He sat down on the little cot. She sat down beside him.

“So now you’re a nun.”

“I just live here. I wandered by one day, and the sisters took me in. Said I looked like I needed help, which I guess I did. I’ve stayed here ever since. They say that I’m good luck to have around. Can you believe that? Me? Good luck?

“They like you,” said Apollo. “Anyone would.”

“It’s because I don’t age,” said Pandora. “And because I never leave my room. They assume I’m a saint or something. Praying all the time. I’m even starting to get pilgrims, if you can believe it.” She waved her hand towards a table full of little knickknacks. “Gifts. The pilgrims give me gifts.” She sighed.

Apollo went over to the table. A rosary. An icon, covered in gold leaf. Jesus, he assumed. A vial of holy water. “This is lovely,” he said, looking more closely at the icon. “Who gave it to you?”

“I didn’t ask,” said Pandora. “I don’t do curiosity.”

“Ah,” said Apollo. He took her hand again. “Come outside with me. I won’t make you open your eyes. I’ll lead the way. Just for a minute?”

They walked through the courtyard. A few nuns looked askance at them, but Apollo looked too poised to be anywhere other than where he was supposed to be, and they assumed he was a visiting priest or somebody and let him pass. They came to a meadow. Apollo gingerly guided Pandora to sit down on a rock, and sat beside her.

“We used to have a good thing going,” he told her.

“And now I’m like this,” she said.

“You might get better. With time.”

“I might not.”

“There’s always hope.”

“Yes, they say I closed the box just in time for that one. Strange how little I’ve gotten from it myself.”

“Kiss me,” said Apollo, on impulse.

“We had a good thing going once,” Pandora said. “That’s not me anymore.”

“It could be,” said Apollo. “Hope, and all that.”

“I don’t open things,” said Pandora. “Not even my heart.”

How many centuries ago had that been? Three? Four? They all blended together. The convent was no help either. Most places had the decency to change a little since the Renaissance. The convent looked exactly the same. Same meadow. Same courtyard. Same door. Apollo knocked. “It’s me, Dory.”

“Come in,” she said, without opening the door.

He came in, sat down on the cot. She looked the same, too. She was in a strange middle state; a human created before mortality, given all the divine gifts, to be the wife of a god. She wasn’t divine, not quite. But she wasn’t fully mortal either. A demigod, maybe.

“It’s been a while,” he said. “Five, ten years?”

“It’s been a while,” agreed Pandora.

The room hadn’t changed either, except for a few more pilgrim gifts. The rosary and Jesus-icon had been joined by enough little saints and angels to fill a heavenly choir, plus a good-sized marble statue of an woman in armor. He tried to remember if there was some female warrior-saint, but his mind came up blank. He wished he could ask Pandora, but he knew what she thought of curiosity.

“I brought you a present,” he said. “It’s a smartphone. Flip phones are on their way out. This one works without being opened.”

Pandora ran her hands along it. “It’s so smooth,” she said. “Now you can call me any time?”

“Yeah,” said Apollo. “You can call people too. If you ever feel, you know, the need to connect.”

Pandora gave him a little peck on the cheek, then slipped the phone under her bed.

“I wish I could say this was entirely a social call,” said the god, “but I’m here on business.”

There was a pause in the conversation before he realized she wasn’t going to ask what the business was.

“A friend gave me something dangerous. And I have to give it to a woman. But if the woman saw it, bad things would happen. Really, really bad things. And I asked myself, where can I find a woman who will listen when I warn her not to look at something? And, uh. I thought of you.”

“Sure,” said Pandora. “I’m happy to take your thing. Where shall I put it?”

“Uh,” said Apollo. “Somewhere where the pilgrims won’t see it. That’s important. Nobody can see it.”

“I’ll put it under my bed,” said Pandora.

Apollo handed it to her. It was heavy, and cold to the touch, and round, about the size of a baseball. She slipped it under the little cot.

“Thanks,” said Apollo.

“I’m glad I could help you with something,” said Pandora. “You’ve been so nice to me.”

“I haven’t been! I never visit!”

“You visit sometimes. The others never visit. They wish they could forget about me.”

“Um,” said Apollo. “I’m sure they meant to drop by and tell you how they’re doing.”

“It’s okay,” said Pandora. “It doesn’t matter whether I know how they’re doing or not.”

Apollo frowned. “Listen. I know you have your position in the pantheon, as Cautionary Tale Against The Dangers Of Excessive Curiosity. But I have my place too. Well, lots of places. The Sun. Healing. Music. Poetry. Being Very Handsome. But along with all those things, I’m the God Of Reason And Science. And maybe a long time ago, curiosity caused all the world’s problems. But now it’s the other way around. Curiosity’s solving problems, Pandora. All over the world, curiosity is solving famine, it’s solving poverty, it’s solving disease. They put smallpox back in the box, Pandora!”

“Wait,” said Pandora. “I never heard about that! They found a way to…?”

For a brief moment, Apollo thought Pandora was going to ask a question, but she caught herself. He answered anyway.

“Yes,” he said. “There’s a way to put things back in the box. Maybe. A little. Sometimes. It’s really hard. So hard I wouldn’t have been able to do it myself, and I’m the God of Healing. But they did it. Once. Maybe they’ll be able to do it again. And they did it because of curiosity. They wondered whether they could do it, and then they wondered how they could do it, and then they did it.”

“That’s…really interesting,” said Pandora.

“You’ll think about that?” asked Apollo.

“I will,” said Pandora.

“And maybe…call somebody sometime? Me? Someone else? Anybody? I know Artemis has been wanting to hear from you.”

“Um,” said Pandora. “Maybe? I don’t know.”

“That’s fine. Just…keep the option open.”

“Apollo, I don’t do open.

“Just keep it in mind.”

“Goodbye, Apollo.”

“Goodbye, Dory.”

7. Athena

“Hi. My name is Ari…Smith…and I’m here to see Ms…I don’t know, she probably goes by Tina or Minnie or something like that. Really smart and mysterious and probably in charge of everything?”

The security guard at the entrance to the Athena Mineral Water Tower looked at him skeptically. “Do you have an appointment?”

Ares reached into his pocket.

“I got my fucking appointment right here! Two Medals of Honor! While you guys were selling water to yuppies, I was risking my life for your freedom over in Afghanistan. Come on, man. Can’t a vet get any respect around here?”

The guard shook his head. “Can’t get in without an appointment,” he said.

“So,” said Ares, “it has come to this. Same as always.” A bronze spear appeared in his hand, and he rammed it right through the security guard. Didn’t even bother extracting it, there was more where that came from. Somebody screamed. An alarm sounded. Whistling, Ares walked through the lobby and into the elevator, pressed the button for the top floor. That was where important people had their offices, right?

Apparently it wasn’t. “Excuse me,” Ares asked some kind of secretary sitting at a desk. “Can you direct me to Ms…I don’t know, she probably goes by Tina or Minnie or something like that? Really smart and mysterious and probably in charge of everything?”

A few policemen ran up behind him and started to open fire. Without even looking at them, Ares chucked a spear backwards and somehow managed to impale all three of them at once. The secretary stared at him, eyes wide with horror.

“Damn. I didn’t mean to get you all frazzled. Uh, look. Two Medals of Honor! I’m a vet! Patriotic, trustworthy! Ms. Tina or Minnie or something? Really smart and important? Please?”

“Uh…” The secretary looked terrified, but at least it was the sort of terror that scared her into talking. “Uh, you mean the CEO? Ms. Athena?”

Really? She’s the fucking Goddess of Wisdom And Intelligence And Cleverness and she couldn’t get a better pseudonym than ‘Ms. Athena’? Whatever. Where is she?”

Another elevator ride and a few more cops later, Ares found himself breaking down the door of the CEO’s office.

“Hey,” said Ares. “Long time, no see.”

“Can’t imagine why,” said Athena.

“Look, I’ll be blunt,” said Ares. “I came here to get the golden apple. Give me that and we’re square. I’ll go away. I’ll even pay for the doors. And, uh…everything.”

“What golden apple?”

“Oh, come on. I talked to Aphrodite the other day. She said there’s a new golden apple about. She doesn’t have it. And I talked to Hera. She doesn’t have it. And I thought…who’s been gunning for a golden apple ever since that whole mess with Troy? Who’s the Goddess Of Wisdom And Intelligence And Cleverness and always gets everything she wants? And then I remembered my wonderful older sister who I definitely don’t think is the most annoying person ever, and who seems to be doing pretty well for herself. And I thought maybe I should come pay you a visit. Great water, by the way. I tried some on my way here.”

“Fact is,” said Athena, “I don’t have any golden apples.”

“Oh, lay off it, we both know you’ve got the damn apple. Give it to me or else I’ll smash this place up however much it takes to find it.”

About a dozen SWAT officers burst into the office. “Ms. Athena! There’s an intruder in the building!”

“It’s taken care of,” said Athena. “Go off and have a nice day.”

The SWAT team left.

“They believe you?” asked Ares, who was about seven feet tall, dressed in Trojan War vintage armor, carrying a huge bronze spear still covered in blood, and clearly visible.

“I’ve…put a glamour upon myself,” said Athena. “It helps a lot, working with mortals. As long as I’m around, nobody notices anything unusual.”

“And you didn’t even want their help?” asked Ares. “Even though you’re alone, with your younger brother, who happens to be unbeatable in combat?”

Athena laughed. “Unbeatable? Ares, you have no idea what you’ve just walked into. I understand Hermes has figured it out, which means I’ll have to take care of him sooner rather than later. But you? You waltz in here, expecting me to be a pushover? Let me show you the tiniest taste of what I can do.”

She opened the window. She stretched out her hand. A bolt of lightning arced from her fingers, struck the street below.

“Lightning?” asked Ares. “But…only Dad could call lightning!”

“Not anymore,” said Athena. “Come on, Ares. You want to fight? Let’s fight.”

Ares threw his spear. It stopped in midair, like it had hit an invisible wall. Then it turned, flew back at him, coiled around like a snake, tied him down. “Hey!” he protested. “Hey! That’s not fair!”

“I’m so glad you came,” said Athena. “I needed a test subject. To see if my powers were really as strong as I hoped. What’s the hardest thing in the world, Ares? Binding a god. Only ever accomplished twice in history. The Titans. Prometheus. Both times, by the power of Zeus and all the other gods combined. Do I dare attempt such a thing alone? I believe I do.”

The lights darkened. The air began to stir. Lightning arced back and forth across the room. A secretary opened the door, saw the chaos, said “Oh, looks like you’re busy,” closed the door, and walked out. Time seemed to stop.

There was a rush, a whistle, and a thud, and then Ares wasn’t in the world anymore.

8. Prometheus

“Are we there yet?” asked Heracles.

“When we are there,” said Hermes, “I promise I will tell you.”

“It’s just that I was wondering,” said Heracles, “whether we were there.”

“There are,” said Hermes, “certain games mortals play, in which a necessary prerequisite is to create your own hero character. And in some of those games, you get a certain amount of points, which you are allowed to allocate either to intelligence or to strength, so that the smarter you are, the weaker you must be, and vice versa. And I notice, Heracles, that you are the strongest man who has ever existed. Do you know what that implies?”

“It implies that I’m very strong,” said Heracles. “But also, I was wondering – are we there yet?”

Hermes sighed. They were in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia driving down a dirt road in a narrow Caucasus mountain pass. It would have been unpleasant for several reasons even without his companion’s endless whining. Still, he was feeling just a little bit euphoric.

One week ago, Ares had attacked Athena, raving about golden apples, and then…nothing. He had disappeared. He’d asked his girlfriend Tyche to find him. Tyche was the goddess of luck – a nice catch, if you ran a hedge fund. She could find anything. But she couldn’t find Ares. He wasn’t in the world. There was only one other place he could be.

Tartarus. The Pit. The Abyss. The place beyond space where those removed from the world languished in darkness for eternity.

He’d gotten on the first flight to Memphis, shaken his father awake. Drunk as he was, Zeus had understood immediately. If Athena had gained enough power to open Tartarus, any one of them could be next. Their very souls were in danger.

And after a lot of arguing and screaming, Hermes had changed tactics and brought out some wine, and he had gotten Zeus very, very drunk. And whether it was one of those things, or another, or the combination of all of them, Zeus had divulged the key to Mt. Elbrus, the one that accessed the secret prison of Prometheus.

“We’re here,” Hermes told Heracles. He parked the car in a bed of gravel by the side of the road. They were in a narrow defile. Mt. Elbrus – the mortal one, the one visible to humans – loomed in front of them. In the rock face to their left, there was an opening just narrow enough to fit a single person at at time.

“Now remember,” he said, as he turned on his flashlight and squeezed into the cave, “You’re going to be wearing these ear plugs. You’ll stare straight ahead, at my back, nowhere else. You’ve got the bottle of magic water in your pocket, and…”

“Why do I have to wear the earplugs?” asked Heracles.

“We’ve gone over this a thousand times,” said Hermes. “You have to wear the earplugs because Prometheus knows literally everything. He knows what he has to say to scare you, or turn you against me, or make you kill yourself. So you’re just going to wear earplugs and not listen to him.”

“And why do I have to stare at your back?”

“Because if you stare at Prometheus, maybe he can influence you with some kind of facial expression or hand signal, and then you’ll still end up killing yourself. Or killing me. Or dethroning Zeus and returning the universe to primaeval chaos. Or something too horrible to even think about.”

“Hermes?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t think there’s any hand signal that would make me dethrone Zeus and restore the universe to primaeval chaos.”

Hermes sighed.

“Heracles, do you remember when I told you to meet me in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, and I specifically said former Soviet Republic of, and I specifically made you repeat back to me ‘former Soviet Republic of’, and a few hours later I got a call from Atlanta International Airport asking me where I was?”

“Yeah.”

“So consider the possibility, however remote, that Prometheus might be smarter than you.”

“Oh,” said Heracles. “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.”

They pushed on through the cave, winding around huge stalagmites, stepping over pools with pale eyeless fish.

“That’s why,” Hermes continued, “when we open the secret gate, I am going to talk to Prometheus, and you are going to wear the earplugs and stare at my back.”

“But,” asked Heracles, “what if Prometheus tells you to dethrone primaeval chaos or whatever?”

“Excellent question,” said Hermes, “That’s why I brought you. I am going to go forth and talk to Prometheus. I have here a cell phone which is programmed to accept exactly one hundred characters of input. When Prometheus tells me how to defeat Athena, I will enter it into the cell phone. When I give you the signal, you will usher me back into this cave, away from Prometheus. And once we are in the cave, you will give me this vial of water from the River Lethe, which will cause me to forget everything that happened in the past eight hours.”

“So I’m just here to…give you the water?” asked Heracles, confused.

“It’s more complicated than that. If I show the slightest sign of not wanting to drink that vial of water, then it’s your job to overpower me and force it down my throat, all without allowing me to communicate with you in any way. I trust that you will be able to manage that?”

“I’m very strong,” said Heracles.

“And that,” said Hermes, “is why we love you. There is one more thing I’m going to ask of you. After I’ve drunk the water from Lethe, but before I wake up, you need to read the message on the cell phone yourself and confirm that it looks like a strategy for defeating Athena and not like some other kind of message from Prometheus to the outside world, and certainly not like any other terms Prometheus has added to our bargain. If you see something that looks like a message from Prometheus or an extra term, I need you to smash the cell phone and drink this second vial of water from the River Lethe.”

“Oh good,” said Heracles. “I like smashing things and I like water.”

“The only problem,” said Hermes, “is that you are a couple of filaments short of a light bulb. So what I’m going to do is ask you to swear on the River Styx that you’ll comply. You’re half-god; that kind of oath is self-enforcing. As long as even the tiniest part of you remembers what you’ve sworn to do, it will be literally impossible to do otherwise.”

“All right. I swear by river sticks that I’ll do what you say.”

“By the RIVER STYX!”

“I swear by the River Styx that I’ll do what you say.”

The cave briefly darkened, and there was a gust of icy wind that seemed to come from nowhere.

“Good. Now, put the earplugs in, and be quiet for just a second. I need to concentrate here.”

He searched for a part of the cave wall that was just a little too smooth.

“Hermes?” asked Heracles.

“Yes?” asked Hermes.

Heracles said nothing.

“YES?” asked Hermes.

Heracles still said nothing. Hermes saw that he was wearing the earplugs.

“Hermes, if I have the earplugs in, how will I know if I’m being quiet?”

Hermes gave what he hoped was a reassuring-looking shrug, then went back to scanning the cave wall.

There.

A little too smooth, a little too pale. Hermes served part-time as God Of Magic, and he could sense something off about that part of the cave. He put his hand on it. Unnatural warmth. The key went here.

With a harpy-feather quill, in ink of ichor, Hermes wrote:

D E T E R
E X I L E
T I T A N
E L A T E
R E N E W

The wall opened, and sunlight shown through.

They climbed out onto a rock promontory. The scene before them both was and wasn’t Mount Elbrus. The snow shone just a little bit brighter. The sunlight glittered just a little more. The shadows were a little bit darker.

And from under the mountain poked out a gigantic head, four titanic limbs, and bits of a huge torso. A giant, lying supine, pinned down by the peak. On the right half of the torso sat a great eagle, taking occasional bites of liver.

“Hello, Hermes,” said Prometheus.

Well, no turning back now, thought the god.

“Hello, Prometheus,” said Hermes. “With all due respect, I’m trying to minimize information flow with you, so I’d like you not to speak until I’ve finished explaining.” He paused, waiting for an objection, staring at Prometheus even though he knew he shouldn’t. He tried to read the Titan’s great bearded face. He looked surprisingly cheerful for a man pinned underneath a mountain having his liver eternally pecked out.

Finally, Prometheus nodded.

“We’ve got a problem, back in the world. Two thousand years ago, the animal sacrifices stopped working. Eventually we figured out it had to do with the precession of the zodiac. The source of power went from rams to fish and now to water. Athena figured it out first, and now she’s got a monopoly on the water industry. She’s taken all of the divine power and become strong enough to send gods to Tartarus. The rest of us have some residual abilities, but otherwise we’re barely beyond mortal level. We’re at a loss, and we were hoping that, um, your special abilities might be able to help us. So we’d like to offer you a deal. In exchange for information that helps us defeat Athena, we’ll, um, remove the eagle. There’s a key…I don’t have it here, but it can be used remotely. We’ll do that. And say we’re sorry about it. Really sorry.”

That they would never free Prometheus went without saying, so Hermes didn’t say it.

The Titan still looked alarmingly cheerful.

“You can, uh, talk now, if you want,” said Hermes. “Though, maybe try to keep it short.”

“I appreciate the apology,” said Prometheus. “Really, I do. And I think we can deal with each other. Removing the eagle would be great, of course. But there’s one more thing I’ve got to ask.”

This was what he’d been afraid of. He’d hoped the Titan wouldn’t realize how desperate he was, but of course he’d realized how desperate he was, he knew everything. So now came the additional terms, terms that Zeus had in no way authorized him to accept, term upon term, and each one a malignant seed that could grow into anything at all.

“Alas,” said Hermes, “We predicted that you might say that, so we’ve taken some measures to precommit not to change any of our terms. In particular, I have sworn by the River Styx – an oath which it is literally impossible for gods to break – that I will not accept any terms other than the ones I just mentioned. Also, once you give me your strategic advice, I will be writing down a very short hundred-character summary on this phone, which is programmed to accept no more than a hundred characters and will physically melt if any attempt is made to interfere with that programming. Then I will give a pre-determined hand signal to Heracles, who will escort myself and the phone back into the cave and the ordinary world and force-feed me a vial of water from the River Lethe so that any memory of our conversation beyond those hundred characters will be lost forever. Heracles will then read the cell phone and confirm that no extra terms have been added to the bargain. If he sees any, he will smash the cell phone and drink water from Lethe himself. Heracles has himself sworn by the River Styx to comply with all of this.”

Prometheus looked thoughtful – and oh god, were there any three words in the English language scarier than those – and finally he said: “Let’s discuss my terms. After you agree to them, I’ll tell you how you are going to get around your oath, Heracles, Heracles’ oath, and the water of Lethe.”

Hermes sighed.

“My terms are: you’ll remove the eagle. And you’ll donate $1503.15 to a charity called ‘Against Malaria Foundation’.”

“Oh no,” said Hermes. “Oh no oh no oh no. That is exactly the kind of thing I’m not going to do. You want me to take an action in the world? A specific action? With multiple bits of information? Oh no oh no oh no oh no there is no way you are going to get me to do that.”

Prometheus still looked cheerful. “Well then, Hermes, it was nice to chat. I guess you’ll be on your way.”

“Now hold on. You don’t want to take an option, presented at zero cost to you, that will get that eagle out of your liver forever and ever?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s that bargaining is a game of give-and-take. We both have things we want out of this interaction. The question is how far we’re going to go to get them. It’s a game of bluffing and counterbluffing. And unfortunately for you, I am the God Of Foresight, and happen to be omniscient. You are going to walk out of here in fifty-one minutes having agreed to my terms. All I am doing is speaking the complicated dance of words that inevitably gets you to that point.”

“I hate everything about this place so much,” said Hermes.

“And I am deeply sorry,” said Prometheus, and he sounded sorry, “but I do insist.”

“Why?” asked Hermes. “What are you plotting?

“You know that I like humans. You remember, I gave them fire, so long ago. I still have a fond place in my heart for them, and malaria is a terrible disease, and I thought…”

“You’re omniscient, so you know I don’t believe that for a second. Try again! What are you doing? What’s next on your little list of plans? The humans live on Mount Olympus, and we have to worship them? The Fates accidentally snip their own fingers off and die of blood loss? I know you’re up to some kind of unspeakable horror, the only question is which one?”

“Hermes,” asked Prometheus, “has it ever occurred to you that I was out, in the world, for countless aeons before you imprisoned me here? If you’re so afraid of what I can do or say with a single sentence, what do you think happened when I had millennia to tailor everything just the way I wanted it? Things are going well for me, aren’t they? The gods have been brought low. Humans have never been doing better. Zeus thought he was so clever, giving them a box full of evils, but I selected every one of those evils eons beforehand. You know what was in that box, Hermes? Things to made humanity stronger. I gave them famine so they would invent agriculture. I gave them disease so they would invent medicine. I gave them war so they would smelt iron. And I left them hope, so that even in their darkest moments they would pull through and keep dreaming. Dream of putting all of those evils back in the box they came from and closing it forever. And they will. Do you know how many sentient species in the multiverse developed an industrial base, liberal democracy, and human rights without killing themselves or collapsing into barbarism, Hermes? The number is one. One sentient species. Mine.”

“Don’t tell me that getting stuck under Mt. Elbrus with an eagle eating your liver was all part of the plan.”

“You don’t think so? Hermes, I am vast. I comprise universes. In my mind is every branch of possibility-space that ever will be or could have been. What’s the point of going outside, when the outside is all inside of me? I set up the world how I wanted it, ensured it would go the right direction, and then retired somewhere quiet, somewhere with space to think.”

“But the eagle?

“Okay, I admit I kind of dropped the ball on that one. The Fates are petty little bitches.”

“So now what?”

“So now you remove the eagle, and I’m happy, and you’re happy.”

“Except for this malaria thing.”

“Think of that as my little joke.”

“Your joke. You expect me to believe that?”

“I expect you to realize you have no other option, accept my proposal, and leave this place in another forty-six minutes.”

“Fuck you.”

“Then I expect you to go back, defeat Athena, and restore the power of the gods. Except that you will find it doesn’t go quite as far as it used to. Lightning is a cheap trick compared to nuclear weapons. Flying chariots are a little underwhelming when they share the skies with supersonic jets. You will find that your accustomed roles within human society work well for you. You will find yourself using your power not to dominate human society, but to shepherd it along its path. They are entering a very dangerous time now. Very dangerous. They need divine intervention, but not from above. They need gods who live disguised among them, and need them as much as they need you, and shepherd them. Athena cannot do it alone, not properly, so I will give you what you need to stop her. I have foreseen your path, and I know you rise to the occasion. So go, with my blessing, and serve Man.”

“Fuck you, just tell me what message I’m sending.”

“A hundred characters? Hmmm. ATH CAN’T HOLD POWER IN BODY. NEEDS FOCUS, PROBABLY IDOL. DONATE $1503.15 TO AMF, THEN DESTROY IDOL.”

Hermes typed it onto his cell phone. “And how are we going to get around all of the oaths and precautions?

“Tell me, Hermes, when did you swear your oath by the River Styx?”

“Three days ago.”

“Good. If you don’t remember swearing the oath, you can’t be bound by it. So you need to overdose on Lethe-water, enough to erase three days from your mind. I imagine you’ve been planning this escapade for a while, so when you wake up in a cave in the Caucasus with a cell phone bearing a message, you’ll be able to piece together what happened. The message is framed such that the donation looks like part of the plan, so Heracles won’t notice anything amiss. You’ll probably figure it out, but you’re an honorable god and you’ll feel compelled to stick to the bargain that you must have made with me. None of this breaks your current oath, which only says you must not carry out any of my terms, not that you must not mention them in your message. Overdosing on Lethe-water is only a suggestion of mine, not itself a term necessary to procure my agreement, so it should not be prohibited.”

Hermes sighed with relief. “Your plan isn’t going to work, Prometheus. Heracles is going to force-feed me the Lethe water before taking out his earplugs, so I can’t communicate with him and ask him to change the dose. And even if I could, I only brought eight hours’ worth of Lethe water anyway. Sixteen if you count Heracles’ vial.”

“There are two ways to increase the effect of a drug,” said Prometheus. “You can increase the dose. Or you can decrease the rate at which metabolism eliminates it from the body. Since our dose of Lethe water is limited, we’re going to go with the second. Heracles will give you exactly the amount of Lethe water you told him, but your body will fail to process it as usual, and it will have ten times the expected effect, causing you to forget your oath and be able to accept my amended terms when you find them on your phone.”

“How are you going to change my metabolism?”

“Most drugs are metabolized by the liver. By manipulating liver size, we can tailor the metabolic rate to any level that we want.”

Manipulating liver size?” Hermes didn’t like the sound of this.

“Yes. Hepatectomy is a very safe, commonplace surgery. But even if it weren’t, you would have nothing to fear. Surgeons’ success rates correlate with their number of hours of experience. And we have the most experienced liver removal specialist in the multiverse right here on Mt. Elbrus.”

“Oh no,” said Hermes. “You’re not…oh no oh no oh no.”

The eagle gave a voracious shriek.

9. Everybody

The pantheon met in the Pantheon, as was tradition. Hermes and his girlfriend Tyche came first; the God Of Commerce took a seat in the center just below the oculus, as the Goddess Of Fortune ushered away confused tourists. Gradually the rest trickled in. Poseidon, tracking water wherever he stepped. Apollo, dapper as ever in a tweed coat and bowtie, and Artemis, dressed in camo. Nike, dressed like she had just come from the gym. And Dionysus, in his stained Sigma Alpha Epsilon sweatshirt. He caught Hermes’ eye. “HEEEEEEY, BRO!” he said. “HOW’S IT HANGING?” Hermes just ignored him.

Hades was over near the entrance, talking to Aphrodite. “Hey Aph,” he said affably. “Want a pomegranate?”

Aphrodite’s eyes narrowed. “Is it one of your magical pomegranates that makes anyone who eats it obligated to become your wife?”

“Uh…” said Hades, shifting his eyes back and forth. “It…might not be?”

“I’ll pass,” said Aphrodite.

The missing stood out by their absence. Ares was not with them, for obvious reasons. Athena had obviously not been invited to the conspiracy against her. And Zeus, King Of The Gods, was nowhere to be seen. Hermes had begged and cajoled, but to no effect; he was still angry at having given up Prometheus’ key when drunk. “This is our last chance,” said Hermes, “the most important thing you’ll ever do.” But Zeus was having none of it. He had (he said in a half-drunken stupor) just met with a Hollywood talent scout, who had told him that he was perfect to star in a movie about the Trojan War. He was going to strike it big and become a celebrity and then open up his own water company, and Athena would never know what hit her. That was his plan and he was sticking to it.

Well, he would work with what he had.

“My fellow gods!” he announced, and everyone turned to look at him.

“By now you’ve heard the news. Athena has used her bottled-water monopoly to seize divine power for herself. She has opened the gates to Tartarus; none of us are safe. If we ever want to be more than the second-rate has-beens we are now, we need to stop her. I know how we’re going to do it.”

Some gasps. Apollo looked thoughtful. “WOOOOOOOOOO!” shouted Dionysus. “YOU GO, HERMES!”

“Athena’s collected so much power that she can’t hold it all herself,” he said. He’d gone over all this with Apollo, a few days after waking up in the cave with a terrible headache; the two of them had managed to expand Prometheus’ cryptic message into an actionable plan. He was very suspicious that a seemingly unrelated order to donate a very specific sum of money was a command of Prometheus’ that had slipped past his security, but he wasn’t sure how, and he wasn’t going to take the risk. He’d made the donation – now the rest was up to them.

“She can’t hold it all herself,” he continued, “so she needs some kind of supplementary focus. Sympathetic magic. Like calls out to like. She needs an idol. And not just any idol. It would have to be something really special, an idol of Athena that generations of mortals have identified with the deepest secrets of her power. The history books list two such idols. One, the giant statue in the Parthenon. That’s destroyed. Two, the Palladium. It was there in Troy. It was there in Rome. Now we think it’s in the Athena Mineral Water headquarters. Why? Because that kind of power would stand out like a sore thumb unless it was outshone by the presence of another immortal. Athena sure wouldn’t trust anyone else with it, so she’s got it herself. It must be hollow. The divine energy must be stored inside of it. If we can find and destroy it, then Athena loses her power and it flows into alternate conduits. Like us. In other words, we get our magic back.”

“WOOOOOOOO!” shouted Dionysus.

“Please refrain from cheering until the entire speech is over,” said Hermes. “Anyway, here’s my plan. We’re going to split in two. One group is going to be the powerhouses. Apollo, Artemis, Hades, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Dionysius. You’re all strong, skilled with weapons, or both. You’re going to smash things, create a distraction. You’re going to avoid confronting Athena directly, because Ares already showed us how that turns out. While my sister is chasing after you, the second group slips in. That’s me and Tyche. Hades has given me his helm of invisibility, which should be enough power to hide both of us from view. Tyche’s the Goddess Of Fortune. She can find anything. And I’m the God Of Thieves. I can break into anywhere. She’ll lead me straight to the Palladium, I’ll nab it, break the thing in two, and then we’re home free. Any questions? Comments?”

“It’s a good plan,” said Apollo, nodding his head.

“WOOOOOOOOOO!” shouted Dionysus.

“Just do it!” agreed Nike.

And before they could change their mind, Hermes teleported the lot of them to the lobby of Athena Mineral Water.

They appeared in a flash of light. People stepped back, shocked. The teleportation was strange enough. But Poseidon was still holding his golden trident. Hades was surrounded by some kind of miasma. And Aphrodite was buck naked. They didn’t exactly blend in.

Distraction!” whispered Hermes, just before taking Tyche’s hand and vanishing from view.

“Uh,” said Dionysus. “IS EVERYONE HERE READY TO PAAAAAAAAARTY?”

“It’ll do,” muttered Hermes.

He and Tyche made their way up side staircases. Athena’s aura wouldn’t be able to hide the Palladium at any kind of a distance. It had to be really close to her office. They came to the CEO suite by a back entrance, then pressed themselves against a wall as they saw “Ms. Athena” walk by, talking on a cell phone. “Yeah,” she was saying unconvincingly, “that does sound weird. No, no idea what’s going on. I’ll be down to investigate. Thanks for the tip.”

When she was out of view, they snuck into her office. It looked very normal. A few potted plants. A Bosses’ Day card. Some gold-plated “Female Entrepreneur Visionary Leadership” awards. A wall full of framed news articles “ATHENA MINERAL WATER BOASTS GODLIKE PROFITS”, “BEHIND THE STARTUP CHANGING HOW THE WORLD DRINKS”. A bottle of product on her desk, either for display or hydration. No idols.

“Cold,” said Tyche.

“Cold?” asked Hermes.

“If it were here, I would know. It’s not here.”

“Well, let’s check nearby.”

They checked Athena’s secretary’s office. They checked Athena’s closet. They checked the office of the Assistant To The CEO, the Director Of The Office Of The CEO. They checked the executive bathroom. No idols.

“Super cold,” said Tyche. “Hermes, it’s nowhere near here.”

“Fuck,” said Hermes. “We’ve got to go. Find the others and tell them to disengage, before it’s too late.”

They ran down the stairs until they reached the lobby. It was in a state of disarray. Chairs and potted plants overturned. Three parallel lines on the the big LCD screen that looked like they had been scratched by a trident. There was a magic silver arrow sticking out of one wall. No gods.

“Okay,” said Tyche. “They’ve been here. They must be retreating.”

They ran outside. A trail of water on the sidewalk suggested the route taken by Poseidon. The parking garage. He could see flashes of lightning on the lower levels. He wouldn’t be able to get through that way. He channeled all his power into his winged sandals, and he and Tyche lurched into the air, coming to rest on the top floor of the structure. He ran down and almost bumped into Aphrodite.

“Hey, sexy,” she said. “What’s going on?”

He could see the others now. Hades and Poseidon were defending the road leading to the lower level. Athena was below, hurling lightning at them. They were in retreat. Artemis stood on the bed of a pickup truck, taking shots with her magic arrows. Nike was with her, pointing out targets. Dioynsus seemed to be passed out on the concrete, and Aphrodite and Apollo were holding up the rear.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Hermes told the two of them. “I was wrong. The Palladium’s not in the building.”

A lightning bolt shattered one of the big concrete pillars. “You dare stand against me?” shouted Athena. “For too long, I’ve played second-fiddle to lesser deities like yourselves! When I awoke a few centuries ago, it removed the last doubt from my mind. Everything I predicted was true. Nowadays, who cares about agriculture? Who cares about the sea? Who even believes in the Underworld? The sun is a giant ball of gas. The moon is a giant ball of rock. There’s only one thing that matters today, and that’s intellect! And how better to enshrine the triumph of intellect over human affairs, then to have the Goddess Of Wisdom destroy the lesser gods and become a pantheon unto herself? People these days want monotheism, and I’m going to give it to them!”

“You’re wrong!” Apollo stepped into the fray. “Intellect is important, yes! You deserve to be honored, and nobody will take that away from you! But without Reason to guide it, intellect becomes monstrous. Without Art, and Music, and Poetry, intellect becomes sterile. And without Healing, intellect becomes divorced from compassion.”

“AND THE SEA IS REALLY GREAT TOO,” added Poseidon.

Athena rose into the air, crackling with energy. “For now,” she said. “For now, intellect runs on puny mortal minds that will get all sad if they don’t have their music and their beachfront houses. But that was a mistake, Apollo. We didn’t want humans. We wanted apes just barely smart enough to sacrifice some rams to us and be properly grateful. Then Prometheus got involved, and everything went wrong. I’m going to fix his mistake. Genetic engineering, robotics, so many different options. Create minds that don’t need art, that don’t waste their time with music or lolling at the beach.” She looked at Artemis. “Destroy the forests and pave them over with factories.” She looked at Dionysus. “Replace partying with study and productive work.” She looked at Aphrodite. “Replace the vagaries of love with rational breeding based on genetic potential.” She looked at Hades. “Machines, that were never alive and so can never die.” She looked at Poseidon. “Tame the sea for tidal power – ”

“YOU’RE TOUCHING THE SEA OVER MY DEAD BODY!” Poseidon shouted, and rushed at her with his trident.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Hermes whispered to Apollo. “Get together as many as you can. We’re going to make a run for it.”

“She’s blocking the only exit,” Apollo said. “Where do we go?”

“To the roof! I can carry some of you with my wings. The rest will have to jump.”

A few other gods had gotten the gist of the conversation, started running to the top of the parking garage. There was a loud thud, then the sound of sparks. It didn’t sound good.

“I don’t understand,” said Apollo. “How could the Palladium not be in the tower?”

“I don’t know!” Hermes protested. “If it wasn’t disguised by a god’s aura…”

“Then ipso facto it must be with some other god,” said Apollo. “Who are we missing? Demeter?”

“Demeter? She hates Athena, thinks her bottled water is destroying the environment.”

There was another crash. Apollo, Tyche, and Hermes made it onto the roof of the parking structure. They couldn’t tell how many other gods were still following.

“Okay then, Hera?”

“I checked. There’s a court record of all of her property, after the divorce with Zeus. Nothing about any idols. And she doesn’t like Athena either, something something Trojan something. Nobody likes Athena. And seriously, who’s going to take a magic idol and just say ‘sure, I’ll hold on to this, no further questions’.”

“Wait,” said Apollo.

Hermes waited.

“Does it have to be a god god? What about a demigod? An immortal human?”

“Um. In theory it could work. But it would be such a small effect. They’d have to stay right by the idol, day in, day out, or it wouldn’t be disguised at all.”

Apollo was already taking out his cell phone. “Dory, Dory, please pick up.”

Nike ran onto the roof of the parking garage. There was a big gash down one of her arms. “She’s right behind us!” she told them. “We’ve got to go!”

“Wait,” said Apollo. “Dory, pick up the phone.”

There was another crash. The parking structure started to wobble.

Apollo heard a noise from the other side of the phone, but no greeting. Right. She wouldn’t open the conversation.

“Pandora?” he asked. “Are you there?”

“Hi Apollo,” came her voice.

“Dory,” said Apollo. “That statue on your desk, the one of the woman in armor. I need you to take it and smash it, really hard.”

“Okay,” said Pandora. There was a brief pause. “Done.”

“Done? Did you break the statue?”

“No, it’s very hard, it doesn’t seem to have broken.”

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” said Apollo.

Of all people, Dionysus managed to crawl his way to the top of the structure. “It’s getting really gnarly down there,” he announced before collapsing back into unconsciousness.

“Okay. I need you to feel along the sides of the statue. Is there any kind of switch, anything that’s going to get it to release the power that it’s stored?”

A brief pause. “There’s…a knob and a hinge.”

“Okay, Pandora. I need you to turn the knob and open the statue.”

“Apollo, I don’t open things.”

“Look, Dory, I don’t ask you for much. I’ve known you for I can’t even remember how many centuries, and I know things are hard for you, I’ve respected that. But Dory, you need to open that statue.”

“You know I don’t open things!”

The last few gods ran onto the top of the parking structure. Just behind them floated Athena, her eyes jet black, her whole body crackling with electricity. “There’s nowhere left to run,” she taunted them. “You’re all going to Tartarus now. Any last words?”

“Uh,” said Hades, “want a pomegranate?”

Athena held her hands forth. The sky darkened. The air seemed to stir.

“Dory, you made a mistake once, and it was really bad, I’m not denying that, but you told me yourself, the one thing you did right was keep Hope. I need you to be hopeful now. I need you to hope that someday, somebody, us, humans, somebody we’re not even considering, might be able to reverse what you did. Might be able to put those evils back in the box. I need you to think that that’s possible. But not going to happen without our help. Please, Pandora, trust me on this. And what I need you to do right now is open that statue.”

Lightning arced back and forth across the heavens. Time seemed to stop.

Then there was a loud pop.

10. Zeus

Zeus had come onto stage believing it was an audition for a big-budget film about the Trojan War. It wasn’t. Out ran a young woman, her face streaked with tears. “You said you loved me!” she said. “We had a child together! And then you…you disappeared!”

“Hey now,” said Zeus. “What’s this now? Who are you? Whaddyatalkinabout?”

“Don’t you recognize me?” sobbed the woman. “I’m Sara! From Biloxi! We met in ’98! Oh god! You don’t even remember me. You’ve probably abandoned with so many women that you don’t even remember them! How many were there after me? Ten? A hundred?”

“Hang on now,” said Zeus. “I ain’t the kind of guy who hooks up with no hundred women.”

“In fact,” said Alice DiScorria, walking on to stage. “He is precisely that kind of guy. If you don’t believe me, believe Amy. And Bethany. And Billy Rae. And Caroline. And Connie.”

As she said each name, each woman came on to the stage.

“Dana. Daria. Dina…”

Some of them were crying. Some of them looked lost. Some of them had steely determination in their eyes.

“…Jackie. Jessica. Jennifer. Jun-Li…”

“Nah, yer just messin’ with me now. What is this, some kinda trap? I want a lawyer, lady. I got my rights!”

“…Samantha. Sara. Sarah. Shaniqua. Susan…”

The stage was almost full now.

“You sayin’ I slept with all these women? I didn’t sleep with none of em. I want my lawyer, right now.”

“Actually,” said Alice, “we’re not saying these are the women you slept with. We’re saying these are the women you slept with, had children with, and then abandoned without paying child support.

“That’s a goddanged lie,” said Zeus. “I ain’t even got no children.”

“Zeus is telling us that he ‘ain’t even got no children’,” Alice told her viewers. “Alas, we have two hundred and five people in our studio audience today who think otherwise. Would you please stand up? Aaron. Adam. Althea. Ava. Bethany Junior. Berenice.” She realized she was starting to lose her audience’s attention. “And all the rest.”

Two hundred five members of the studio audience, ranging fron toddlers to adults, stood up. They were all unusually large, and many of the men had big, flowing beards.

“This is goddanged lies, is what it is!” shouted Zeus. “None of these people ain’t my children, and that’s the truth!”

“Zeus says that none of these people are his children,” said Alice. “We ran paternity tests for every single one of them before the show. Let’s see what they say.” She took out a big stack of manila envelopes, opened the first one. “Aaron…Zeus is the father! Adam…Zeus is the father! Althea…Zeus is the father!”

One of the women on stage finally lost it, grabbed a folding chair, and swung at Zeus. He deflected the blow easily, then pushed her back, just a little too rough. Suddenly the stage had become a brawl, one hundred ninety enraged women against one underpowered god.

“Ava…Zeus is the father! Bethany Junior…Zeus is the father! Berenice…Zeus is the father! Chou-yang…Zeus is the father! Cleo…Zeus is the father!”

The brawl on stage was getting really bad now. A few women were down for the count. Zeus was bleeding all over his face. Some of the staff started to wonder whether they should override Alice and call security.

“Demetrius…Zeus is the father! Delia…Zeus is the father! Darragh…Zeus is the father! Dominique…Zeus is the father!”

One of the women had gotten hold of Zeus hair and was holding him, pinned, while another was slapping his face. Zeus tried to kick, but ended up losing his balance. Security guards were pushing through the crowd of women, who were resisting their efforts.

“Edna…Zeus is the father! Elena…Zeus is…”

Then there was a loud popping sound that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. And then Zeus effortlessly pushed the crowd of women away from him. For a second, he looked confused by his own strength. He stared at his newly-rippling muscles, looked down at the ground as if he couldn’t quite believe how tall he was. Nobody moved.

Then he shouted, “DAMN RIGHT I’M YOUR FATHER! I’M ALL YER FATHERS. I AM ZEUS OLYMPIOS, KING OF THE GODS, CLOUD-GATHERER, THUNDERER, MIGHTIEST OF IMMORTALS! AND IIIIII’M BAAAAAAAAAAAAACK.”

The crackle of lightning filled the halls, knocked over the security guards. The audience stampeded to the exits. Women started to run off the stage.

“I AM ZEUS, KING OF GODS AND MEN. AND I’M TURNING YOU ALL INTO ANIMALS!”

Amy became an anteater. Bethany became a duck. Billy Rae became a tree shrew. Caroline became an otter. He turned Connie into a rattlesnake and Dana into a panther, Daria into a Komodo dragon and Dina into a bat. It was over in minutes. Everyone had either escaped or been transformed, besides Zeus and the hostess.

“Yer still here,” said Zeus, surprised.

“I am everywhere,” said Eris Discordia.

“What happened?” asked Zeus.

“The same thing that happens everywhere, all the time” said Eris. “People had conflicting aims. They struggled for power. Some won, others lost. The winners will celebrate, thinking their victory irreversible, and the losers will mourn, plotting their vengeance. And around them, the world changes irreversibly, in ways none of them predicted.”

“Huh,” said Zeus.

“In a few hours, news will come that a sudden electrical storm struck the set of my show, unfortunately causing the cameras to stop recording. Some people will be missing, casualties of the disaster. Others will say all sorts of strange things and be ignored. There will be lots of fights about it, and they’ll all call each other things like ‘sheeple’ and ‘denialist’ and ‘moron’. It will be wonderful.”

“Huh,” said Zeus.

“In the meantime, the studio is ruined. I suppose I will have to find a new job. Can you believe it, Zeus? In the old days, I was barred from every city and temple, driven out into the wilderness as an enemy of mankind. Now they pay me to cause discord. What a world!”

“It’s…somethin’,” said Zeus

“And it’s all thanks to people like you,” said Eris. “So before we part ways again, before the poets end their songs and the next myth begins, please accept a token of appreciation. From me, to you.”

In her hand appeared a shining golden apple.

Epilogue: Trump

“Yeah,” real estate mogul Donald Trump said into the phone. “Look, I gotta go, Carl. I gotta be at a gala tonight – yeah, the one for the American Eagle Museum. Terrible stuff, Carl, just terrible. Gotta go.”

He hung up. It really was terrible stuff. Just a year ago, an anti-malaria charity had funded a grant that happened to precisely match its yearly budget surplus. The research had borne fruit – a new insecticide, kind of a super-DDT without the environmental damages. DDT, of course, was famous for killing endangered birds, but they thought they’d tested it properly this time, dozens of different bird species, no problems at all. So they’d deployed it worldwide, and malaria rates had plummeted. Only they hadn’t tested the environmental consequences as well as they’d thought. 99% of bird species escaped unscathed – but every eagle in the world had died an unimaginably agonizing death. The whole situation was so strange that the FBI launched an investigation – then closed it a few weeks later for absence of motive. Who could possibly hate eagles that much?

He put on his suit and tie, and was just about ready to head out when a beam of radiant light appeared in the middle of his room and coalesced into three women.

“Greetings to you, Mr. Trump,” said the oldest. “I am Hera, Queen of the Gods. These are my colleagues Aphrodite and Athena. You are the man who runs the Miss Universe beauty contest, yes?”

He took a step back, dazzled by her radiance. “Um…yes.”

“Zeus, God of Thunder, recently came into possession of a golden apple. Then a second golden apple, found when searching a convent in Ukraine that had become a center of, ah, certain recent events. There are three of us and only two apples, so we petitioned Zeus to determine how they might be divied up. He replied that traditionally they go to the fairest, and so urged us to seek the foremost mortal judge of female beauty and implore his assistance. If you truly run beauty pageants for the entire universe, then you are the judge that we seek.”

Then she spoke differently, directly into his mind. And as an added incentive, if you choose me, I swear by the River Styx that I will make you the most powerful man in the world.

He’d barely had time to process the thought when Aphrodite stared at him, and a voice like music touched his consciousness, saying Pick me, and I swear by the River Styx that I will give you any woman you desire. Models, supermodels, they can all be yours.

Then a third voice, lower, more dispassionate, and he heard Athena say Select me as most beautiful, and I swear by the River Styx that I will grant you wisdom, prudence, and the intelligence to make the right decision under any circumstance.

Donald Trump just stared.

“Well?” asked Hera.

“He’s not answering!” said Athena.

“Waaaaait a second,” said Aphrodite. “Athena, did you ever turn off that glamour you had, that made mortals around you unable to process the presence of gods?”

“How was I supposed to turn that off?” asked Athena. “It took the whole divine power of the universe to create that, and then you took that away from me. Now I’m just a goddess like anyone else, doing – ” she spat “community service to make up for past misdeeds. And it’s not even like I didn’t help you guys bring Ares back.”

“So what you’re saying,” interrupted Hera, “is that he can’t even see us?”

“He can see us,” said Athena. “He just can’t comprehend that anything unusual might be going on,” said Athena.

Finally, Donald Trump rubbed his eyes, and said “I got no idea who any of you are, or why you’re in my apartment, but – ” he pointed at Aphrodite and Hera “you and you are smokin’. You,” he said, pointing to Athena and frowning, “look like a dyke in that armor. Seriously, get a makeover.”

Then he walked out the door.

“Huh,” said Hera.

“Too bad,” Aphrodite told Athena. “Just goes to show that brains aren’t everything.”

“Yes, well,” said the Goddess of Wisdom, a little too haughtily to be anything but compensation, “I’m just glad we finally made it through one of those without causing any unfortunate side effects for world history.”

“Yes,” said Hera. “I suppose we did. There’s a first time for everything.”

[Acknowledgments: the idea of Zeus on a trashy TV show comes from this Tumblr post. Ideas for the Prometheus character came from AI boxing and The Wise Man’s Fear. The first two word squares come from here and here.]

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PhaChayFy
6 days ago
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#305561

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<xved> proteins are the most important thing that lets complex cellular things work
<xved> and there are so many and they all can do different interesting things...
<@Rorschach> Can they dance?
<xved> certainly
<xved> some of them can zip DNA too
<xved> where would DNA be without proteins? its fly would be undone!
<@Rorschach> Yes, one needs to keep one's genes zipped
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Loving this gracious offer in the ladies’ room at...

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Loving this gracious offer in the ladies’ room at @the_blacksheeppubandrestaurant. Bars: this is what y'all can and should do. (xpost @thegraciousbook) (at The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant)

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PhaChayFy
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Discomfort as a Tool for Change

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by Dave Gladfelter (SETI, Google Drive)

Introduction

The SETI (Software Engineer, Tools and Infrastructure) role at Google is a strange one in that there's no obvious reason why it should exist. The SWEs (Software Engineers) on a project understand its problems best, and understanding a problem is most of the way to fixing it. How can SETIs bring unique value to a project when SWEs have more on-the-ground experience with their impediments?

The answer is scope. A SWE is rewarded for being an expert in their particular area and domain and is highly motivated to make optimizations to their carved-out space. SETIs (and Test Engineers and EngProdin general) identify and solve product-wide problems.

Product-wide problems frequently arise because local optimizations don't necessarily add up to product-wide optimizations. The reason may be the limits of attention, blind spots, or mis-aligned incentives, but a group of SWEs each optimizing for their own sub-projects will not achieve product-wide maxima.

Often SETIs and Test Engineers (TEs) know what behavior they'd like to see, such as more integration tests. We may even have management's ear and convince them to mandate such tests. However, in the absence of incentives, it's unlikely that the decisions SWEs make in response to such mandates will add up to the behavior we desire. Mandates around methods/practices are often ineffective. For example, a mandate of documentation for each public method on an interface often results in "method foo does foo."

The best way to create product-wide efficiencies is to change the way the team or process works in ways that will (initially) be uncomfortable for the engineering team, but that pays dividends that can't be achieved any other way. SETIs and TEs must work to identify the blind spots and negative interactions between engineering teams and change the environment in ways that align engineering teams' incentives. When properly incentivized, SWEs will make optimal decisions enhanced by product-wide vision rather than micro-management.

Common Product-Wide Problems

Hard-to-use APIs

One common example of local optimizations resulting in cross-team de-optimization is documentation and ease-of-use of internal APIs. The team that implements an internal API is not rewarded for making it easy to use except in the most oblique ways. Clients are compelled to use the internal APIs provided to them, so the API owner has a monopoly and will set the price of using it at "you must read all the code and debug it yourself" in the absence of incentives or (rare) heroes.

Big, slow releases

Another example is large and slow releases. Without EngProd help or external pressure, teams will gravitate to the slowest, biggest release possible.

This makes sense from the position of any individual SWE: releases are painful, you have to ensure that there are no UI and API regressions, watch traffic and error rates for some time, and re-learn and use tools and processes that are complex and specific to releases.

Multiple teams will naturally gravitate to having one big release so that all of these costs can be bundled into one operation for "efficiency." The result is that engineers don't get feedback on features for weeks and versioning of APIs and data stores is ignored (since all the parts of the system are bundled together into one big release). This greatly slows down developer and feature velocity and greatly increases risks of cascading failures when the release fails.

How EngProd fixes product-wide problems

SETIs can nibble around the edges of these kinds of problems by writing tools and automation. TEs can create easy-to-use test environments that facilitate isolating and debugging faults in integration and ambiguities in APIs. We can use fancy technologies to sample live traffic and ensure that new versions of systems behave the same as previous versions. We can review design docs to ensure that they have an appropriate test plan. Often these actions do have real value. However, these are not the best way to align incentives to create a product-wide solution. Facilitating engineering teams' fruitful collaboration (and dis-incentivizing negative interactions) gives EngProd a multiplier that is hard to achieve with only tooling and automation.

Heroes are few and far between so we must turn to incentives, which is where discomfort comes in. Continuity is comfortable and change is painful. EngProd looks at how to change the problem so that teams are incentivized to work together fruitfully and disincentivized (discomforted) to pursue local optimizations exclusively.

So how does EngProd align incentives? Certainly there is a place for optimizing for optimal behaviors, such as easy-to-use integration environments. However, incentivizing optimal behaviors via negative feedback should not be overlooked. Each problem is different, so let's look at how to address the two examples above:

Incentivizing easy-to-use APIs

Engineers will make the things they're incentivized to make. For APIs, make teams incentivized to provide integration help in the form of fakes. EngProd works with team leads to ensure there are explicit objectives to provide Fakes for their APIs as part of the rollout.

Fakesare as-simple-as-possible implementations of a service that still can be used to do pre-submit testing of client interactions with the system. They don't replace integration tests, but they reduce the likelihood of finding errors in subsequent integration test runs by an order of magnitude.
Furthermore, have some subset of the same client-owned and server-owned tests run against the fakes (for quick presubmit testing) as well as the real implementation (for continuous integration testing) and work with management to make it the responsibility of the Fake owner to debug any discrepancies for either the client- or the server-owned tests.

This reverses the pain! API owners, who are in a position to make APIs better, are now the ones experiencing negative incentives when APIs are not easy to use. Previously, when clients felt the pain, they had no recourse other than to file easily-ignored bugs ("Closed: working as intended") or contribute changes to the API owners' codebase, hurting their own performance with distractions.

This will incentivize API owners to design APIs to be as simple as possible with as few side-effects as possible, and to provide high-quality fakes that make it easy for clients to integrate with the API. Some teams will certainly not like this change at first, but I have seen API teams come to the realization that this is the best choice for the larger effort and implement these practices despite their cost to the team in the short run.

Helping management set engineering team objectives may not seem like a typical SETI responsibility, but although management is responsible for setting performance incentives and objectives, they are not well-positioned to understand how the low-level decisions of different teams create harmful interactions and lower cross-team performance, so they need SETI and TE guidance to create an environment that encourages optimal behaviors.

Fast, small releases

Being forced to release more frequently than is required by feature deployment requirements has many beneficial side-effects that make release velocity a goal unto itself. SETIs and TEs faced with big, slow releases work with management to mandate a move to a set of smaller, more frequent releases. As release velocity is ratcheted up, negative behaviours such as too much manual testing or too much internal coupling become more painful, and many optimal behaviors are incentivized.

Less coupling between systems

When software is released together, it is easy to treat the seams between different components as implementation details. Resulting systems becoming so intertwined (coupled) that responsibilities between them are completely and randomly mixed and their interactions are too complex for any one person to understand. When two components are released separately and at different times, different versions of them must be compatible with one another. Engineers who were previously complacent about this fragility will become fearful of failed releases due to implicit contract changes. They will change their behavior in beneficial ways such as defining the contract between components explicitly and creating regression testing for it. The result is a system composed of robust, self-contained, more easily understood components.

Better/More automated testing

Manual testing becomes more painful as release velocity is ramped up. This will incentivize automated regression, UI and performance tests. This makes the team more agile and able to catch defects sooner and more cheaply.

Faster feedback

When incremental feature changes can be released to dogfood or other beta channels more frequently, user interaction designers and product managers get much faster feedback about what paths lead to better user engagement and experience than in big, slow releases where an entire feature is deployed simultaneously. This results in a better product.

Conclusion

The SETIs and TEs optimize interactions between teams and create fixes for product-wide, cross-team problems in order to improve engineering productivity and velocity. There are many worthwhile projects that EngProd can do using broad knowledge of the system and expertise in refactoring, automation and testing, such as creating test fixtures that enable continuous integration testing or identifying and combining duplicative tests or tools.

That said, the biggest problem that EngProd is positioned to solve is to break the chain of local optimizations resulting in cross-team de-optimizations. To that end, discomfort is a tool that can incentivize engineers to find solutions that are optimal for the entire product. We should look for and advocate for these transformative changes.
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