More than sixty-five years ago, Pallas Athena founded the Just City on an island in the eastern Mediterranean, placing it centuries before the Trojan War, populating it with teachers and children from throughout human history, and committing it to building a society based on the principles of Plato’s Republic. Among the City’s children was Pytheas, secretly the god Apollo in human form.
Sixty years ago, the Just City schismed into five cities, each devoted to a different version of the original vision. Forty years ago, the five cities managed to bring their squabbles to a close. But in consequence of their struggle, their existence finally came to the attention of Zeus, who couldn’t allow them to remain in deep antiquity, changing the course of human history. Convinced by Apollo to spare the Cities, Zeus instead moved everything on the island to the planet Plato, circling its own distant sun.
Now, more than a generation has passed. The Cities are flourishing on Plato, and even trading with multiple alien species. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Pytheas dies as a human, returning immediately as Apollo in his full glory. And there’s suddenly a human ship in orbit around Plato—a ship from Earth.
Jo Walton’s Necessity—the sequel to The Just City and The Philosopher Kings—is available July 12th from Tor Books!
I have lived for a very long time however you measure it, but I never grew old before. I aged from birth to adulthood and stayed there, poised in the full power of glorious immortality. The mortal body I had taken up to experience and understand the joys and sorrows of human life aged as other mortal bodies age. My son Phaedrus, like my older son Asklepios, had healing powers. Our City had begun with a generation of ten-year-olds, and as our bodies aged he was kept permanently busy. Even with all he could do for us, aging was an undignified and uncomfortable process. Souls grow and flower and do not decline, so each mortal life inevitably ends with soaring souls enclosed in withered failing bodies. While death is necessary for rebirth, I could find neither necessity nor benefit in this slow ebbing of vitality.
I died on the day the first human spaceship contacted Plato. After that, I did all the things I’d been promising myself I’d do once I was back to my proper self. I established the laurel wreath as a symbol of poetic victory, in memory of Daphne. Then I spent a little while assembling the chronicles of the City—weaving together Maia’s journals with Simmea’s and Arete’s, and composing a memoir of my own brief but intense period of mortality. Then I settled down to study sun formation, beginning with my own suns, naturally. Once I’d started looking into it, I became fascinated with the whole process. The song of suns, the dance of gravity and hydrogen, the interplay of radiation and magnetism and heat, the excitement of the symphonic moment when it all comes together and fusion begins—I never tire of it.
I can’t say how long I spent alone studying the birth of suns. I was outside time, and when I went into time, it was a time aeons before the evolution of life. It’s normal for me to live outside time, and step into it as and where I choose. The years I spent incarnate in the Just City were the exception. Then days and years unfolded in inevitable and unchangeable sequence. My more usual experience is personally sequential, but entirely separate from time, human time, history. I could go off and study stellar nurseries in the early days of the universe for as long as I liked without neglecting any duties. I could pay attention to my duties afterwards, they’d still be there. I could be aware of a prayer, watch the entire sequence of a sun being formed, and then respond to that prayer in the same moment it was uttered. (Not that I pay any more attention to the constant dinning of prayer than any other god. That’s only an example.) I can’t be in time in the same moment twice, but that’s not much of a hardship, usually, because time splits up into extremely small increments. Despite being the god of prophecy, I don’t know my own personal future any more than anyone else. I know what happens in time, more or less, depending on how much attention I’ve paid to it, exactly the same as you might know what happens in history—some of it sharp, some of it fuzzy.
Studying sunbirth was good for me. It was a relief to be on my own and not have to worry about other people and their significance. It was good to be able to focus completely on a fascinating and abstract subject and forget about Plato for a while—both the philosopher and the planet. I loved my children, and I loved Plato and the society we had built struggling to implement his ideas. But Homer calls the gods “untiring” as well as “deathless.” Taking on mortality, and living through that slow physical process of aging, had made me understand for the first time what weariness meant. The study was a form of rest, renewal, and rebirth. It was fun, too. I like learning things, and suns are very close to my heart.
After a timeless while, I was interrupted by the sudden appearance of my little brother Hermes. He draped himself over the accretion disk of a sun forming from a particularly fascinating dust cloud, one full of ancient iron. For some reason, probably simply to irritate me, he chose to make himself so large that the disk looked like a couch he was lounging on. He looked like a youth on the cusp of manhood, an object of desire but filled with implicit power. “Playtime’s over,” he said.
I shot up to the same size and balanced poised in the same orientation against the glowing dust of the nebula. “What are you doing so far from civilization and everything you love?” I asked.
“Running Father’s errands, as usual,” he said, pursing his lips. “You know nothing less would get me so far away from people. What are you doing out here in the bleak emptiness?”
I thought it was beautiful, in its own way. “I’m fulfilling my primary function and working on how suns begin,” I said. “For a god of travel, you do seem to hate going places.”
“I’m not in charge of exploration of the wilderness,” he said, bending to adjust his elegant winged sandals. They and his hat were all he wore—not only at that moment, but practically all the time. He enjoyed displaying his exquisite body and being admired. “I like travel and trade and markets and the way people arrange systems of communication. I like going to places. This isn’t a place. I think this is the furthest from being a place of anywhere I’ve ever been. There’s nothing out here for me, no civilization, no offerings, no possibilities for negotiation. Nothing but atoms and emptiness.”
“Did you know people have equal significance?” I asked, suddenly reminded by what he had been saying. I’d promised Simmea I’d tell the gods. Putting together the chronicle was only the first part of that.
“To us? How could they have?” A frown briefly creased his golden brow. “They’re mayflies.”
“To each other. And their choices ought to count to us. They live long enough to achieve wonderful things, sometimes. And besides, a human lifetime is subjectively longer than you think. You should try incarnating yourself.”
“Was it fun?”
I hesitated. He laughed.
“It was illuminating,” I said, with as much dignity as I could manage. “I learned things I couldn’t have learned any other way. I think we all ought to do it for what we can learn. We’ll be better for it.”
“I’ll think about it. I have a number of projects I’m busy with right now. And instead I’m wasting my time coming all the way out here to the ass-end of nowhere to tell you that Father wants you to attend to your planet.”
I looked at the accretion disk, poised at the moment of spinning up. “Now? Why now? He wants me to go to Plato in my personal now?”
“Does Father ever explain these things to you? He never does to me.” He sounded bitter.
“It’s a Mystery,” I acknowledged.
“You haven’t told anyone you have a planet. I must check it out.”
“It’s new,” I said, reflexively defensive. “It’s all Athene’s fault, really. It’s called Plato. It has people. And aliens. They’re highly civilized. They worship us, well, most of them do. You have a lovely temple there with a statue by Praxiteles that Athene and Ficino rescued from the sack of Constantinople. Haven’t you noticed people there praying to you? You’d be welcome to come and visit.” I gestured in its general direction. “Drop in any time.”
He ignored my jab as easily as he ignored prayers. “How did you get a whole planet?”
I sighed, seeing he wouldn’t leave me alone until I explained. “Athene was setting up Plato’s Republic, on Thera, before the Trojan War, before the Thera eruption. She had three hundred classicists and philosophers from across all of time, all people who had read Plato and prayed to her to help make the Republic real. She helped— that is, she used granting their prayers as a gateway. Really, she wanted to do it, so she did. As well as those people, the Masters, they bought ten thousand Greek-speaking slave children, and a set of big construction robots. The robots turned out to be sentient, only to start with nobody knew that. I incarnated there as one of the children. I learned a lot, from Sokrates and the others, and from the experience. I had friends, and children. When Father found out, he transported the whole lot of us to another planet four thousand years forward—and we were twelve cities by that time, all doing Plato’s Republic in different and competing ways.”
“And you’re responsible for them?”
“Until my children are ready to be their pantheon, which shouldn’t be long now. Why? Did you think Athene would end up getting stuck with it, after she tired of the project and moved on?”
He grinned. “It’s hard to imagine. She always squeaks out of things. Well, you’d better get on and take care of them for her.”
“For Father,” I said. I was puzzled. I wondered why Father had sent this message. He must have known that I wouldn’t neglect Plato. I didn’t understand why there was any urgency about it. But I’d do it, of course. Nobody understood how Father knew anything, or how he prioritizes. Nor, for that matter, did we have any idea how he experiences time. He was there before it, after all. Mortals find it difficult to understand how we understand time, living outside it, but that’s simple, compared to how it is for Father.
We’re bound by our own actions, and, naturally, whether we’re in or out of time, by Fate and Necessity. There’s no getting around them. They make changing time extremely hard, and harder when we get away from our core concerns. And we’re limited by Father’s edicts, but only in so far as we respect them. They don’t have the same inevitable force. If I got caught up with Fate or Necessity it wouldn’t really be a matter of choice—resisting a force like that is almost impossible, even for me. But I could simply ignore Father’s message if I wanted to. It was usually a terrible idea to ignore such things, because Father does know more than the rest of us and generally means well, and also because he could have made my life a misery if I went against him. There was this one time at Troy— but that’s a different story. But it’s not like being caught up with Necessity, which is a compulsion on the soul.
“What’s this I hear about you playing my gift upside-down to beat somebody playing Athene’s syrinx?” Hermes asked.
Hermes had invented the lyre when he was three days old, as a way to win my friendship after stealing some of my cows. He’d given it to me. He’d also promised never again to steal anything else of mine, a promise I didn’t quite trust him to keep. He was much too fond of playing tricks.
“Yes, I played the lyre upside-down,” I acknowledged. “Won the contest that way, too.” The whole messy business seemed long ago and almost unimportant. I do enjoy being an Olympian and having a proper perspective.
“It sounds like something I’d do.”
“Feel free to teach yourself to play it that way,” I said, and grinned at him.
“Well, joy to you with all of it,” wing-footed Hermes said, smiling as he departed.
So, with no foresight or warnings, and with one last longing look at the glowing disk (which would after all still be there and about to form into a sun whenever I wanted to come back into time at this moment to watch), I left too.
I was going to Plato, of course I was. I accepted Father’s message that playtime was over, whether I liked it or not. But I wasn’t quite ready. Another little while—another long subjective time—watching suns would have been exactly what I needed, but I wasn’t going to disobey Father to that extent. I didn’t want to mess up whatever mysterious plan he had, which presumably needed me to be still a little off balance. But I did have something to do first, something that would hardly take any personal time and couldn’t possibly make any difference, and which would make a good transition. I had a date with Athene.
The date in question was 1564, the day in the spring of that year when the orange tree in the courtyard of the Medici Laurentian Library bloomed. Athene had arranged it herself, the last time I had seen her, on Olympos, at the time of the Relocation, when Zeus moved the Cities from Bronze Age Greece to Plato. It had been a peace offering, after everything that had happened. “When you get back,” she had said. This would mark me being back. We could meet on neutral territory, in an extraordinary year, and after we’d talked I might feel better equipped for taking care of Plato. I wanted to see her. There were several things I wanted her to explain, and other things I wanted to explain to her. Parts of it I knew she’d never understand, but other parts of it she was the only person who ever could understand.
I hadn’t talked to her in decades, and while decades might often pass without our talking, these years had been full of things I wanted to share with her. Her experiment in setting up Plato’s Republic had had unexpected results, and had produced something genuinely new and of interest to both of us. The culture on Plato wasn’t the ideal Republic Plato had described. As I’d said to Maia long ago, we all live on somebody’s dunghill. But it was a completely different kind of human culture, one steeped in Platonism and philosophy and the dream of the classical world. And it was out there in the twenty-sixth century, vibrating with philosophical passion and full of people at least trying to lead the Good Life. I wanted to know what she thought about that, and share my thoughts. Creating Plato’s Republic had been Athene’s idea, after all, and lately I’d been wondering if there had been more to it than simply to see what happened and have somewhere to take Ikaros. Pico. I wanted to see him again too. I wanted to see his face when I told him what the Ikarians had made of his New Concordance since his apotheosis.
So I left that distant forming sun and stepped into time in Florence, in 1564, on the steps in front of the unfinished façade of the church of San Lorenzo. They were still waiting for Michelangelo to come and finish it, though he’d been dead for several months already. I remembered the inside of the church as a perfect Neoclassical space, but the outside now was rough and unfinished, jagged raw stone waiting for a facing it wouldn’t get for another eight hundred years. The Florentines, having so much of it, weren’t prepared to compromise on beauty. They’d wait for another Florentine artist of comparable skill to be born and finish it. An admirable perspective, if rare. I stepped inside for a moment to admire it—strangely, moving into the space always felt like going outside. The streets around San Lorenzo are narrow and crowded. Inside was full of light. The proportions were perfect, the pillars, the windows, the porphyry memorial set in the floor to celebrate the soul of Cosimo de Medici. I spared a fond thought for it, wherever it was, no doubt busily engaged in its new concerns. I felt perfectly at home in there. You’d hardly have known it was a Christian church.
I stepped back out of the church and walked around to the courtyard that led to the library. I didn’t need to interact with anyone so I hadn’t bothered to take a plausible disguise or find an excuse for visiting the library. I simply let the light ow around me and so became invisible. There were a few monks in the cloister. I sat down on the wall by the foot of the stairs that went up to Michelangelo’s intimidating entranceway—one of the projects he had managed to finish. The sun was coming down into the courtyard, my own familiar golden sunlight. The scent of blossom from the tree was heady. Here too the pillars and proportions were perfectly right. But although the library was open, there was no sign of Athene. I sat there for a while enjoying the sunlight and the scent and thinking. It was quiet in the cloister, with distant muted street sounds, and close by only the humming of bees and the occasional swish of a monk’s robe to disturb me. I didn’t disturb them at all. If anything, I’d have looked like a brighter patch of sunlight.
After an hour of waiting, I stepped outside time, and checked the courtyard at other times throughout the day. When I still couldn’t find Athene I tried the day before, in case, but the orange blossom wasn’t quite out, and she wasn’t there anyway.
I went up to the library—directly, stepping into that wonderful room from outside time, to avoid the effect of Michelangelo’s deliberately daunting staircase. I looked around. I was accustomed now to the library in the City, with its controlled temperature, electric lights, and all the books of the ancient world rescued from the Library of Alexandria in multiple neatly printed copies. But this was more moving—the high windows giving light to work, the patterned tiles on the floor, the wooden benches with the books chained to them and scholars sitting reading and working. The books themselves were mostly hand-copied texts, preserved through time, saved from the ruins, written out painstakingly. They lost Homer for a time, but they got him back. Ficino had worked here. They had the oldest and most complete copy of the Aeneid. These books were here because people had cared about them, individually, cared enough to copy them and pass them forward across centuries and civilizations, hand stretching out to human hand through time, with no surety that any future hand would be waiting to receive the offering. All the texts from antiquity that had survived the time between were in this room. But Athene wasn’t.
It was inexplicable. I had the day right, but she wasn’t here. She couldn’t have forgotten! Perhaps I had. It had been forty years for me, and perhaps I had confused the year. If so, there was no use guessing. I’d have to go and nd her, in her own library, or wherever she was. I patted the sloping wood of the nearest bench, putting a little of my power into it so that those who worked there would see more clearly. It was such a beautiful room, about as close to perfect as any mortal thing can be. I stepped out of time.
Once outside time, I felt for Athene. It’s difficult to describe. Usually when I do it, I get a sensation like an itch that leads me towards whoever I’m looking for, like a compass, if one were the needle. This time, I got nothing at all.
Of course, the first thing I thought was that this was a power I hadn’t tested since I had taken up my godhood again, and that I’d lost the ability, or forgotten how to do it. It was distressing. No, that’s not strong enough. Even in my proper self, it felt horrible to think that I might have damaged myself, made myself limited, permanently lost parts of my abilities. I stepped back into time and sat in the courtyard until my sun warmed away the chill that thought brought. I wanted to change, but I wanted to grow more excellent, always: better, not worse. Experiencing the physical decay that went with old age had been bad enough. But with those losses I could tell myself not only that it was temporary, but that I was understanding humanity better by learning about what they went through. There would be no advantage to this.
I stepped out of time again and felt for Athene once more. Still nothing. I tried Artemis. To my intense relief, I sensed her immediately. She was on the moon, at a time when people lived there and had built temples to her. I tried Athene again, and again felt nothing. Aphrodite was on Olympos. Hera was in classical Argos. Dionysos was in Hellenistic Baktria. Hephaistos was in his forge. Hades was in the Underworld. Hermes was in the marketplace in Alexandria. But no matter how many times I tried, Athene was nowhere to be found.
Strange as it was that I couldn’t locate her, it was stranger still that she hadn’t shown up when she was supposed to meet me. That wasn’t like her at all. I was worried. I couldn’t imagine what could have happened to prevent her. Fate and Necessity might tangle us up, but we’re still there. I reached for her again. Where could she possibly be? She didn’t seem to be anywhere in or out of time. Could she be dead? How? It didn’t bear thinking of.
I’m only a Silver, so don’t expect too much. My name is Jason, of the Hall of Samos and the Tribe of Hermes. I was born in the Year Forty-two of the City, eleven years after the Relocation. I work on a fishing boat. I haven’t written anything long since I qualified as a citizen thirteen years ago. These two days I’m going to tell you about changed my life completely. Since Fate caught me up in great events, I’ll do my best to set things down clearly, in case it can do anyone good to read about what happened and what we all said and did.
Amphitrite had been kind, and we’d had a good haul that day, lots of ribbers and a few red gloaters, big ones. They were all heading north with the winter currents, so we simply had to stay in place and use the fine nets to scoop them out. We joked about sticking our hands into the water and pulling out a fish, the kind of day that redeems all the other days where we came home with thin hauls or none. Plato’s a hard planet for humans, and we depend on the catch to have enough protein.
It was chilly and grey out on the ocean, spitting with rain. As we headed homewards around Dawn Point the east wind caught us. I fastened my jerkin up to my throat. The other boats coming in made positive signals. Everyone seemed to have had a good day. It was the kind of thing to cheer your liver. We passed a flatboat gathering surface kelp, which the Saeli like to eat, and even they signalled that they had a good haul.
Our boat was called Phaenarete after a girl Dion had known who was killed in the Battle of Lucia. Dion had been the first one to sail her, so he’d had the choice of naming her. He had taught me everything I knew about handling boats, and fishing too, and a lot about how to live. We were as close as father and son, and closer than many such because we’d chosen each other. Dion was too old to go out regularly now, and Leonidas and Aelia were dead, so I was in charge of Phaenarete, and I had a crew of lunatics. Well, that’s not a kind way to put it, but that’s how I thought of them.
Now, fishing is essential, everyone knows that, and it’s also reasonably dangerous—even if you know what you’re doing you can get caught out by a squall or an underwater eruption—or the usual kind of eruption, come to that. That’s what happened to Aelia and Leonidas five years back. Their luck ran out.
It’s not really all that dangerous. Most days most of us come back. And we need the catch, we rely on it. There are no land animals on Plato, only what we brought with us, and the sheep and goats don’t thrive here the way they did in Greece, where they could graze on plants growing wild everywhere. Dion remembers Greece and talks about it sometimes, but it sounds strange to me, the idea of plants sprawling all over, plants nobody planted and nobody tends to. There’s none of that on Plato. Our plants take a lot of attention. We have to nurse them along. Keeping them alive is hard work for a lot of people, human and Workers. And we like eating them! But we want protein too, so we encourage the sheep and goats to give lots of milk and we don’t often eat them, only at special festivals. And so fish are very important, and fishing is important, and worth the risk.
It’s not only our City, the Remnant, that relies on the fish. We salt and smoke and freeze them and send them to the inland cities. Back in Greece, before Zeus brought them here, all the cities had been on islands in a warm sea, a deep blue sea with coasts close all around. (It’s hard to imagine a warm sea, though I’ve seen enough pictures of it to have a good idea of the color.) Now we and the Amazons are on the coast of a cold ocean, which has islands and other continents that we’ve only partly explored. The other cities, still in the same positions relative to us and to each other, are scattered about inland on a volcanic plain. Fortunately the Workers have built the electric rail, so we can move goods and people relatively easily. And fish are an important part of that, and only we and the Amazons can fish, so we do. And because fishing is both important and somewhat dangerous, naturally it’s classified as Silver.
Now, being properly Platonic, which we do try to be most of the time here in the Original City, that ought to mean everyone who works on a fishing boat is Silver. And most of the time that’s true. But for fishing, you need a minimum of two people, and three or four is better. And at that time I had two crazy crew members who weren’t Silvers at all. Hilfa is Saeli, which wouldn’t stop him being a citizen and having a metal; plenty of Saeli have taken their oaths. But Hilfa was young, not that I had any idea what that meant for a Saeli. And at that time, he wasn’t yet part of a pod the way most grown Saeli are. He had only been here for two years. He told me he was still studying—though whether he was studying us or fish or what, I didn’t know. And I say “he” but that’s not clear at all either. The Saeli need three genders to reproduce, but most of the time they don’t take any notice of gender at all, and while they have a bunch of pronouns for different things, gender isn’t one of them. Hilfa said “he” feels most comfortable for him in Greek, so that’s what I used. What he has between his legs seemed to be a sort of scrunched-up green walnut shell. I saw it often enough, because on the boat he mostly wore a red webbing vest and nothing else, being as Saeli are pretty much comfortable naked in temperatures that make humans want to huddle up. Dion says in Greece we were comfortable naked, and what that says to me is that we should have stayed there and let the Saeli have Plato. Not that they’re native here either; far from it. They showed up in a spaceship about twenty years ago, meaning twenty years after our Relocation. They first came here when I was ten. And weren’t we pleased to see them after trying to deal with the weird Amarathi! Before we met the Saeli, dealing with the Amarathi was almost a full-time job for Arete, being as their language is so odd that she was the only one who could speak to them at all and have any hope of getting through.
So I had Hilfa on the boat every day, and he’s maybe not as strong as a human, and sometimes he does things that make no sense, but he’s better adapted to the temperatures, and he’s keen, always at work on time and ready to stay on late if needed. It was Dion’s decision to take him on, a year and a half ago, when Dion was still going out most of the time, before he broke his leg slipping on the icy deck last winter. (I told you it was dangerous.) Dion’s lucky it was his leg and not his neck, and lucky Hilfa caught him before he slid off the side and into the water. I’d not been sure about Hilfa at first, but I’d come to appreciate him even before that. After that, of course, green hide or not, he might as well have been my brother.
My other crew member was even stranger, in her way. Marsilia’s not an alien, but she’s aristocracy. Not only that she’s a Gold, which ought to mean she spends her time on politics and philosophy, not fishing; but her father’s Neleus, and his stepfather is Pytheas. I wasn’t going to refuse her when she came asking, was I? But truthfully, it wasn’t so much because her dad had been consul umpty-ump times or her step-grandfather was a god in mortal form, or that she’d recently been elected consul herself. It was because I’d been in love with her sister Thetis since we were both fifteen and in the same shake-up class coming up to qualifications. Not that Thee had ever looked at me. I’d always been too shy to say anything to her about how I felt.
I used to wonder sometimes how it was that Thetis and Marsilia were sisters. Thetis looks like a goddess—tall, but slight of frame, so her breasts look like every boy’s dream of breasts, or maybe only mine, I don’t know. She has a broad brow, hair the color of obsidian owing down her back, soft brown eyes—well, I suppose to be fair Marsilia has the same eyes. But you don’t notice them as much because Marsilia’s face is flat, and she has jutting teeth. Their skin is the same velvety brown. But Marsilia’s squat, with broad hips, which is good for the boat. She keeps her hair short, like most people. Thee looks fragile, but Marsilia can pull a full net out of the water. Marsilia definitely takes after Neleus, and so I’d think Thetis takes after their mother, but Erinna is the Captain of the Excellence, and anyone less fragile you have never seen. Even now, when she must be sixty, Erinna has muscles on her muscles, as they say.
It’s funny when you think about it.
The way we interpret Plato’s intentions here now, we have regular Festivals of Hera, where people get paired up and married for the day, and hopefully babies are born as a result. We also allow long-term marriage, and participation in our Festivals of Hera is voluntary, which it isn’t in Athenia and Psyche. It wasn’t here to start with. There was a while when we didn’t have any Festivals of Hera, because of that, but we voted to reintroduce them on a voluntary basis years ago, I’m not quite sure when. It was after the Relocation, but before I was born. If you volunteer, you get matched up with a partner by lot, and you spend a day in bed together. All the children born from that festival are considered to be your children. When a woman has a baby, she can either choose to bring it up herself or give it to the nurseries to be brought up there, whatever she prefers. It’s her choice, some do one and some do the other. Probably about half of us grow up in nurseries and sleeping houses, and the rest in families. I was festival-born myself. I don’t have any idea who my parents were, and not much curiosity about it either. When I took my oath at sixteen, along with all the other sixteen-year-olds, everyone who had participated in that festival seventeen years before and was still alive came along to the procession and the feast afterwards.
So with the marriages at the Festivals of Hera, all the pairings are arranged within the same metal, always, because they say that’s what leads to the best children. When it comes to other kinds of marriage, people are supposed to choose people of their own kind too, to keep the metals from mixing more than they’re mixed already. But we’re human, and the metals in our souls are already mixed up, the way metals are under the ground, and so although everyone tries to discourage you, it’s not forbidden to marry someone of a different class. (Here, anyway. It is forbidden in some of the Lucian cities. In Athenia and Psyche they don’t have marriage except for the Festivals of Hera, in Sokratea they don’t have classes, and in Amazonia they have lots of orgies and hope for the best, or that’s what I’ve heard, though I didn’t see anything like that the one time I was there.) Even if you do have parents of the same metal, you can’t tell how the kids will come out.
So anyway, Erinna and Neleus got married, way back, even though she’s Silver and he’s Gold. And they did mix up the metals, and Marsilia is Gold, as I said, and she works on my boat what time she’s not too busy with Chamber a airs. But her sister Thetis is Iron, and she works with little children.
Looking at it that way, even though she’s from a family with a god in it, I should feel Thetis is below me. I always felt the opposite, though, that she’s infinitely above me. It’s not that she’s the most beautiful woman on the planet. But she’s extremely beautiful, and— she’s Thee. Every time I see her my blood pounds in my veins, and that has been the case since we were both fifteen and I first met her in Arete’s communication class. I thought she didn’t care about me at all. I figured she knew who I was—Jason who took his oath the same time she did and worked on the same boat her sister works on. I doubted she thought about me once a month. I didn’t see her all that often. But when I did, even if I only caught sight of her in the agora, I was happy for days afterwards. I didn’t want anything from her, simply for her to exist and for me to see her sometimes. Maybe this is the kind of love Plato talks about in the Phaedrus, I don’t know. No, because I always knew I’d be only too delighted to make it carnal, if that could be an option. But I thought it couldn’t, and there it was. What I thought is that it didn’t do her any harm for me to feel this way about her, and it did me a lot of good, because it gave me something in my life that was special, that lifted it above the everyday.
Marsilia pulled one of the gloaters out of the tub as Hilfa and I set our tack. Once that was done there was nothing to do for the moment but glide smoothly into the harbor. “It’s so big, and it looks so delicious. I could almost eat it right now, raw!” She mimed taking a bite.
I laughed. “I hope some of these get to the tables while they’re still fresh and they don’t decide to salt them all down. How about you? Do you fancy it, Hilfa?”
Hilfa laughed his slightly forced laugh. He’d learned it the way he’d learned Greek. A laugh was a word to him, a part of human communication. I didn’t know whether the Saeli really laughed or not. I’d learned to read Hilfa’s expressions, a little, working with him for so long, and I thought one of them meant amusement, but I wasn’t sure. He knew I was joking about him eating a fish, but I didn’t know if he really understood what a joke was, or why I might think it was funny to make one. “I don’t eat fish,” he said, seriously.
“Silly Hilfa. Why do you work on a fishing boat if you don’t eat fish?” I teased.
“I like the waves and the wind,” Hilfa said, seriously. I wondered whether he would stay and take oath or leave for another planet on some Saeli ship. I hoped he’d stay. I liked him. And he might. He liked the waves and the wind, after all.
“We’re glad to have you working with us,” Marsilia said, as the jib came around a final time.
“Also I can study the Platonic fish,” Hilfa said, entirely serious, as usual. “The radial symmetry of fish on this planet is fascinating. Everything in this ocean is symmetrical. I keep hoping we will one day pull something out that isn’t, but we never do.”
“We’re never going to,” I said, thinking of mosaics of Greek fish and their strange stretched shapes. Then I saw Marsilia stiffen, staring at the quay.
“Trouble,” she said, then shook her head at me as she saw me twitch. “Only for me. Probably some kind of political disruption. We’re signing a new foreign relations treaty, and maybe some of our negotiations came unstuck.” She let the gloater slide back into the tub. “It looks as if I’m going to have to rush off. Can you two manage unloading without me?”
“Of course,” I said, without even a sigh. Knowing that she’d have to dash off to a crisis, or have one prevent her from showing up now and then, was all part of having Marsilia working for me. I wondered sometimes whether part of the attraction of working on the boat for her was the fact she couldn’t be interrupted while we were out at sea. But I knew a lot of it was that the sea was in her blood, from her mother—she too liked the waves and the wind.
I was easing Phaenarete into dock, so I didn’t see who had come to interrupt Marsilia this time until we were ready to tie up. I got ready to toss the line, and saw to my astonishment Crocus standing ready to catch it. And behind him, wrapped in a silvery-grey cloak that rippled in the wind, stood Thetis. My breath caught, as always. I wished somebody would paint her like that, in that cloak, on a cloudy day, standing on the little grey triangular cobblestones of the quay, with the black stone warehouses with their slit windows all along behind her. If they did, I’d want them to put the painting in Samos, my eating hall, where I could stare at it whenever I ate. Thetis had a grace and poise like the nymphs in Botticelli’s Summer, but a far lovelier face.
Crocus caught the rope with the attachments at the end of one of his great arms. I saw the golden bee painted on it ash as it caught the light. I said Marsilia was an aristocrat, and she is, but compared to Crocus she was little better than me. Crocus was a Worker, a machine, huge and metallic, one of our two original Workers. He had huge arms, no head, and great treads instead of legs. He and Sixty-One were the only people who had been here for the entire history of the City. He had been a friend of Sokrates. He was a Gold, one of our philosopher kings. He was probably the most famous person on the planet who wasn’t a god. I had friends among the younger Workers, but I had never even spoken to Crocus.
He tied the line rapidly and deftly around the bollard. “I can’t imagine what use he could ever have had for that skill,” Marsilia said in my ear.
I was staring past him at Thetis, who was crying. It made her look lovelier than ever, beautiful and vulnerable and sad, in need of protection. “Do you know what’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“Thee? It could be anything. She cries really easily.” She sounded much more irritated than sympathetic.
“Why are you so unkind to her?” I asked.
“Is that unkind?” Marsilia asked. “I try not to be. I love her. She’s my sister. But she’s all emotion and no thought, and I’m the opposite. It’s hard to be sisters. Everything seems to come so easily to her. Do you think if I looked like that, people would look at me the way you’re looking at her? Do you think I’d want them to?”
“It’s hard to imagine you wanting them to,” I said.
Marsilia snorted. The quay was near enough for her to spring ashore, and she did.
“We can manage if you have a family emergency,” Hilfa said. I don’t know where he got expressions like that from.
“Trouble?” she asked Crocus, ignoring Thetis.
“News, and a complication,” he replied, in his slightly odd mechanical voice. Before either of them could say anything more, Thetis ran towards Marsilia, who braced herself and clutched her barely in time to prevent both of them falling over the edge of the quay into the icy water. “Grandfather’s dead,” Thetis said.
That was news. Old Pytheas, Apollo himself. He was one of the Children, and so he must have been eighty or thereabouts, but he’d seemed well enough when I’d seen him singing at the Festival of Artemis a few days before. What did it mean for an incarnate god to die?
Marsilia patted Thee’s back and made soothing noises. Hilfa went to fetch the cart to get the fish into the warehouse. I began to swing the heavy tubs of fish onto the hoist, to be ready when he came back with it.
“Is this the news or the complication?” Marsilia asked Crocus. She sounded taken off balance. It must be strange to have a grandfather who’s a god. I wondered what she felt about him.
“Neither,” he responded. “Though I should give you my condolences. The news and the complication are the same thing.” Because he didn’t have eyes, I had no way to tell where he was looking. I couldn’t tell whether he was paying any attention to me at all. I looked away from Marsilia and poor Thetis and saw Hilfa coming back with the cart. Dion was helping him push it over the cobblestones, and little Camilla came skipping along beside them. I was looking at them, and moving the tubs on their swivel along the sloping deck, and I almost didn’t take it in when Crocus said: “A human spaceship is in orbit.”
“That changes everything,” Marsilia said, suddenly all practical, the way she was when we were out with the nets. “Thee, stop crying, it’s un-Platonic. I have to go.”
“Marsilia! You can’t go off and worry about spaceships right after Grandfather has died,” Thetis said, outraged.
“Oh yes I can,” Marsilia said. “And Dad will do the same.”
“Neleus is already in the Chamber,” Crocus confirmed. “I came to fetch you for the sake of speed.”
“Hilfa says you have a good haul!” Dion said, as he came up. “Joy to you, Marsilia, Thetis, Crocus.”
Camilla ran to me and put her arms up to be swung onto the boat. I heaved her aboard and hugged her. “Gloaters!” she exclaimed. A human spaceship, I was thinking, recontact with the mainstream of human civilization at last. And Pytheas dead. Everything had changed and nothing had. Hilfa came aboard beside me. I swung the first tub up so that the fish that filled it cascaded down into the cool boxes on the cart in a swirl of red and black.
Marsilia looked up. “Dion, how lovely to see you. I have a crisis. If I borrow Jason, could you and Hilfa manage the unloading?”
“Borrow me?” I asked, jumping ashore, leaving Hilfa and Camilla aboard. “What for?” I couldn’t imagine how she might need me in dealing with a strange human culture, but of course I was prepared to do my best.
Marsilia detached Thetis from her shoulder and gave her a gentle push towards me. “Can you take Thee home?” Ah, of course. She didn’t need help with the big problem, but with the immediate human problem. Well, that was more to my scale.
“To Thessaly,” Crocus interjected.
“You should come too, Marsilia,” Thetis said. I put my arm around her. Hilfa was already tipping the next tub of fish into the cart.
“I will come, and so will Dad, as soon as we’ve dealt with this crisis,” Marsilia said.
“But I’m sure there’s a plan for dealing with it, and what does it matter anyway?” Thetis asked. “You can’t put politics ahead of family.”
“There has been a plan for this meeting since the consulship of Maia and Klio, but the question is whether people will follow the plan in the face of events,” Marsilia said. “This is one of the most important things that has ever happened, Thee. Oh, it’ll be so wonderful to talk to them.”
“Perhaps,” Crocus said, cautiously.
“You don’t think so?” Marsilia asked, sounding surprised.
“I knew the Masters longer and better than you did,” Crocus said. “I have apprehensions about what recontact could mean. I have watched the generations maturing in the Cities, and seen how each one is more Platonic than the last as we grow further from other human cultures. Plato was wrong to want to start with ten year-olds. They should have started with babies. The Children remembered their original cultures too well. Your father’s generation, the Young Ones, were the first generation to know nothing but the City. And your generation are in an even better position. These days we take the pursuit of excellence for granted, and go on from there. Each new generation so far has been better. Perhaps recontact with the human cultures that have developed from the ones the Masters came from will indeed be wonderful. I hope so. But I have reservations.”
“But we’ll have so much to share with them,” Marsilia said. “We’ve developed so much. And we have the works of classical civilization that were lost to them. We have everything we’ve learned about applying Platonism and reconciling it to other systems. The aliens didn’t know anything about Plato until we explained to them. But the humans are bound to be excited.”
“This is a whole new civilization,” Crocus said. “We know less about them than we do about the aliens. In some ways they will seem more familiar, yes, and we will share some cultural referents. In other ways they might surprise us more. They might have very different priorities. Many of the Masters came from times that did not value the classical world as it should be valued. I remember Klio and Lysias talking about what misfits they had been in their own times. And Lysias, who came from the mid-twenty-first century, was the last Master. Nobody from any time later than that had read the Republic in Greek and prayed to Athene to help set it up, or they would have been here. No Workers ever did. That isn’t a good sign. Besides, there were other human civilizations, on other continents of Earth, which had their own philosophical traditions and might not know or care anything about Platonism.”
“I don’t care about Platonism either, or the aliens. And whatever they’re like, they’ll still be there tomorrow, and going off to a debate on the day when Grandfather has died is heartless,” Thetis said.
“I’m consul. I think Grandfather would agree I should be there. And I really do have to go,” Marsilia said, climbing up onto Crocus’s back and taking hold of the braided blue and black web of harness that hung there. “Dion, Jason, thank you.”
I wanted to thank her as she and Crocus disappeared up the hill. This was the closest I had ever been to Thetis, and I was going to go with her all the way to Thessaly.
Excerpted from Necessity © Jo Walton, 2016