||The Masque of Agamemnon
Sean Williams and Simon Brown
Part 3 of 4
"AlterEgo!" Bernal struggled wildly, but Helen's grip was too strong. Her open mouth loomed and for a moment he was irrationally afraid she might devour him whole. Then her lips met his with a crushing impact, and he wasn't sure which would have been worse.
I have identified the ship you have entered, AlterEgo said. It is the Apollo, the vessel piloted by Groenig on her last voyage.
"Another Greek reference?"
Unintentional, this time. The vessel was named after an ancient series of flights from ancient Earth to its satellite.
Bernal felt something slip into his mouth and he doubted it was a coded message.
There is nothing I can do to assist you at this moment, Paris. I suggest you at least try to enjoy it. Would that not be the proper response?
With a surge of strength inspired by panic Bernal managed to pull away from the woman. But only for an instant. She grinned playfully and grasped at his shoulders with both hands. He tried to escape, tripped over a wisp of dress that had wound around his ankles and fell backwards through the door into the corridor. Helen followed with a playful shriek.
They collapsed in the hallway, entangled in each others' limbs, she poised on top of him like a predatory cat. Before she could kiss him again, Bernal rolled over and looked up straight into the eyes of an armed Achaean.
They stared at each other for a moment and it was hard to tell who was the most startled.
"Paris?" gasped the Achaean.
Helen sat up with a start. The sudden movement of her hips forced Bernal back down. Her mask had been dislodged in the fall and her guilty look was painfully obvious.
A shocked expression spread across the guard's dull features. "My lady!"
"No, Diomedes, wait-"
The guard backed away as she attempted to disentangle herself from Bernal. As she clambered to her feet, Diomedes turned tail and fled. Maybe, Bernal thought, he was afraid Helen might attack him, too.
She cursed under her breath and followed, calling out his name as she went: "Diomedes! Come back here at once!"
Suddenly Bernal was alone. He tore off his mask and threw it into a corner, then put his head in his hands and tried not to think about what he had done. The expedition had been a disaster from the start. So much for not creating a diplomatic incident. But it hadn't been his fault! He felt battered and abused, very much the victim of the piece. Still, he doubted Menelaus, Helen's husband, would see it that way. He had to get away, now, before anything really bad happened to him. He was sure that just one of those creatures could snap him in half without any effort.
He only got that far. Something moved nearby; a slight scuff of fabric, a footstep.
He clambered to his feet. "Who's there?"
Another of the enormous Achaeans stepped into the light with a chuckle, his mask a black starscape. "You seem distraught, Paris. Or should I call you Bernal, seeing we're alone for the moment?" He removed his mask, revealing a most satisfied expression.
"Odysseus?" Bernal backed away. Something about the Captain's look made him even more nervous than the giant bronze sword hanging at Odysseus' waist. "What do you mean?"
"I know who you are and where you're from. Does that surprise you?"
"Yes, well, I was beginning to wonder if any of you were even halfway sane. Is this some sort of game?"
"No, Bernal. It is deadly serious, as all wars should be."
"War? No, listen, this is all just a misunderstanding, honestly; it's not what you thin-"
"What I think doesn't matter. It's what Menelaus thinks, and what Agamemnon will think when Menelaus tells him. How will it look when an honoured guest seduces the wife of one our most honoured captains? The sister-in-law of the Over-captain, no less! Surely she would have played no active role in such a betrayal? Better to believe that all Trojans are treacherous liars. Better to attack before you attack us."
"But we can't attack you! We don't have the ships. We turned our back on space exploration once we finished mining the asteroids. Cirrus is a peaceful, harmonious world with only a handful of vessels remaining, to clean up space-junk. Any one of your ships would be equal to all of ours."
"There are many more of you than us and you have greater resources," Odysseus said reassuringly. "It will be an interesting battle between two unmatched equals. There will be glory enough for both sides."
"That's what I'm worried about!" Bernal felt fear for his people like a white-hot thread down his spine. "We don't want glory at all. It's too dangerous!"
"Existence itself is dangerous, Paris, and whether or not you seek glory, it is coming your way. Achaea and Troy will go to war over the love of a woman named Helen. The goddess Athena wills it, and so I, Athena s servant, am bound to pursue it. It is our purpose. We all have roles to play and you, Paris, just like Helen, will play yours.
"I must go now to assist Agamemnon. His judgment will be swift, I am sure." The Achaean stalked off along the hallway.
Bernal sagged against the bulkhead. "They're following the story. They're trying to make the Iliad come true, here and now. They think it's history!"
So it would seem, AlterEgo said.
Bernal was exhausted with fear and worry. "You'd better start working on a way to get me out of here."
Would that it were that simple. The airlock leading to our ship is sealed. You will need one of the Achaeans to open it.
"I'd rather attempt to chew a way out of Mycenae with my teeth than trust one of those insane play-actors."
You could ask Helen to help you, AlterEgo suggested.
"No! If she follows the story she'll only want to come with me, and that would well and truly seal the fate of Cirrus. There must be another way. Can I fly Groenig's ship out of here?"
Unlikely, but I will examine the Apollo more closely to see how thoroughly it has been incorporated into Mycenae's structure. I should be able to access the Apollo's onboard computer through Mycenae's navigation link, assuming the computer's still functioning.
"See to it," Bernal commanded, and headed for the door, imagining hoards of brush-topped Greeks barrelling down the corridor toward him, brandishing their leaf-shaped swords.
One thing puzzles me, Bernal. Why this charade? It is an enormous expenditure of energy for what seems to be an utterly trivial goal. And then there are the details. Ancient Greeks never waltzed. They were as human-like as anyone and were, on average, slighter in stature than present examples of the race. And I'm pretty certain they didn't pilot warships across the gulfs of interstellar space. Why go to so much trouble only to get it so wrong?
"Maybe we should try to find the goddess Odysseus spoke of," Bernal suggested. "This Athena would know if anyone did."
It's at times like these, AlterEgo said, that I regret being an atheist.
Helen halted at the entrance to the hall. The sound of festivities had ceased. She inched a perfect nose around the edge of the door and watched in dismay as Diomedes related what he had seen to her husband, Menelaus.
She closed her eyes and thought fast.
Achilles smirked as the bedraggled damsel staggered through the entrance and fell at her husband's feet, begging his mercy. She had been attacked, she said. The Trojan was a monster, and stronger than he looked, it seemed: she had barely been able to fend him off. Had not Diomedes distracted the beast, she might never have escaped a fate worse than death itself.
A cry of outrage rose from the assembly. Achilles was disappointed by the eruption. He knew all of the Achaeans were aware Helen distributed her favours liberally, and had little time for smug hypocrisy. Menelaus, as always, seemed to be the last to find out-and who would tell him? His renowned anger was in full swing as he picked his wife off the floor and brushed away her tears.
"We must avenge this wrong-doing!" Menelaus cried.
"Aye!" agreed Agamemnon. "Troy would steal our women right from under our very noses!"
"Starting with the fairest!" Menelaus said, adding "Bar one" after a sharp look from Clytemnestra.
"If the Trojans steal our women first, what will be next?" Agamemnon rose onto a chair and waved his clenched fists. "I say we send this dog back to his people on the vanguard of our war fleet!"
Cheers answered the call to arms. Achilles looked on impassively, annoyed that Agamemnon would allow his brother's petty jealousies to interrupt such a fine occasion. But he knew it was all a set-up-that no matter what the Trojan had done that day, it would somehow have led to this. Agamemnon had been itching for a fight for weeks, and finding the Trojans had given him his best chance.
Achilles didn't join the bloodthirsty throng as it roared out of the hall for the last known location of the Trojan. Instead he slipped out of another doorway, intent on mounting his own search. There was no glory in being part of a mob and glory, in the end, was all.
Bernal tiptoed along the corridor as quietly as he could.
"Any luck yet?" he whispered.
Not yet, AlterEgo replied. Most of the hard storage has been fried by cosmic radiation. I have established that the ship was recovered some 63 years ago. It had been drifting away from Cirrus prior to that after shorting its power core. Groenig's remains were discovered on board. I dread to think what happened to her after that. I can tell you a little more about her background. She had an abiding interest in the classics. The Apollo's manifesto mentions replicas of several ancient books. You can probably guess one of them.
"The Iliad ?"
Precisely. I don't see how that helps us now, but it is interesting. As for flying Groenig's ship out of here, I am hampered by certain technical difficulties, the chief one being that the Apollo appears to have been largely dismantled.
Bernal flattened against a wall as footsteps approached. A lone figure rounded the corner ahead of him: a soldier wearing a silver helmet.
Bernal recognised him as Achilles-which gave him an idea. Of all the Achaeans there was one who might be convinced to act against the Over-captain's wishes-one who was jealous and petty enough in the original Iliad to put his own desires ahead of those of his fellows.
"Over here!" Bernal hissed. The silver-helmeted figure turned in a crouch to face the sound. Bernal raised his hands. "I'm unarmed!"
The warrior approached cautiously.
"I need your help," Bernal said. Achilles didn't stab him immediately or laugh in his face, so he went on: "Agamemnon wants to start a war between your people and mine and he's set me up as a scapegoat to take the blame. But we both know lies don't make a hero, don't we? It's about time the others knew the truth! But first-" He took a chance and reached out for the warrior's massive arm. The bulging biceps felt like iron. "But first you have to help me get away. The airlock to my ship is sealed and I need you to get me through it."
Bernal held his breath as the warrior considered. For an eternity, nothing happened, and Bernal began to fear that he had lost his only chance, that Achilles would strike him down then and there and drag him like a trussed pheasant for the giants to play with.
Then, just as he had given up hope, the silver helmet nodded once.
Bernal couldn't help sighing with relief. He grasped the warrior's free hand in both of his and shook it. "I presume you know the way?"
Again, the nod.
"I'll be right behind you."
Silently, the powerful warrior led Bernal along the hallway and towards the airlock bay.
Odysseus watched in annoyance as the hunting party returned to the hall empty-handed. The Trojan had clearly moved from the cabin of the wrecked space vessel; any fool could have anticipated that, but not this bunch of drunken dimwits. The masque had addled their minds.
"Search the ship!" he cried. "Paris cannot escape us while he remains aboard!"
Horns sounded. There was more cheering. Agamemnon himself joined the throng this time, throwing his goblet into a brazier and hollering for blood. Clytemnestra rolled her eyes but let him go. Helen glanced up as Odysseus passed and her eyes registered confusion and fear in equal parts. Perhaps Athena's influence was wearing off, Odysseus thought. What did she think, now, of her exotic paramour? Did she still yearn to escape with him? Did she regret Diomedes' interruption? Did she wonder what had come over her?
There was no way of knowing. Odysseus called on Athena for strength as he let the mob fall ahead of him. They were too noisy, too easily evaded. The hunter knew that the best way to entrap prey was in silence and with cunning. Where would the Trojan be going? That was the question, rather than where he was now. It wouldn't be difficult to guide him into the path of the mob.
With a flip of his cape that sounded like the flap of wings, Odysseus stalked off through the corridors in search of his quarry.
I have been considering the origins of the Achean fleet-ship, and I believe I may have an explanation, said AlterEgo, making Bernal jump.
"What is it?" he whispered, concentrating mainly on Achilles' back. They were skirting a large hall that lay not far from the airlock and the entrance to his ship.
The Von Neumann probes were sent out several thousand years ago to explore and seed the galaxy, reproducing themselves along the way. They must have crossed the galaxy from end to end by now, considering that, since they carried no living matter, they could use supra-light jump technology. There must be millions and millions of them, one for every star in the sky. But what do they do now that every star has been explored and seeded? They are programmed to reproduce and spread. Some may have headed towards the nearest galaxies, but many more would become wanderers, adrift in the empty gulfs of space, seeking places of stellar evolution to await new stars to form, or just lost, aimless. Maybe some of these probes met and joined forces, pooling their resources while they waited out the lonely years.
"They weren't that intelligent, were they?" Bernal recalled that the earliest models had barely enough mind-power to decide whether to mine or to fertilise a new-found world-a far cry from his own artificial companion, whose voice he had no difficulty imagining as human.
Not individually, no. Perhaps intelligence is one resource the probes learned to share, or maybe the collective AIs, simple as they were individually, reached some critical mass necessary for original, creative thought.
"Why did they save Groenig's ship, though? It must have been dead for decades. They should have recycled it for its metal and organics."
Maybe they found something in it worth preserving, AlterEgo mused. Although that doesn't explain the present situation.
Achilles came to a halt and Bernal almost walked into him. The warrior turned and put a finger to his lips.
Bernal scanned the territory ahead. He recognised it as a corridor leading to the airlock bay itself a natural bottleneck for an ambush. They were so close, yet still far away.
Achilles' head was cocked, listening. Bernal couldn't tell what he heard, but suddenly the warrior scurried forward, sword at the ready. Bernal did his best to follow, and almost jumped out his skin at the voice that bellowed from behind him.
Bernal heard footsteps and doubled his own speed. Ahead he saw the airlock bay and Achilles placing a palm upon the exit leading to his ship. Locks clunked, lights flashed. The silver helmet rose in satisfaction, then the eyes behind it narrowed as Achilles looked at Bernal-and beyond, to what followed.
Bernal looked over his shoulder. Odysseus' hand snatched at his shoulder. The mighty hunter was barely two metres behind! Bernal leapt forward, letting himself fall away from the clutching fingers. They grasped only air, and the giant grunted in annoyance. Bernal felt calves like tree-trunks miss him by bare centimetres as he collapsed under Odysseus' feet. Odysseus barely had time to catch his balance before Achilles confronted him, sword at the ready.
"Fool!" Odysseus drew his own weapon and brandished it with abandon. Metal flashed in the airlock bay as Bernal crawled for safety. Sparks danced as the blades met, ringing like bells. Feet thudded heavily on the ground and deep voices grunted oaths. The air was full of noise and the smell of fighting beasts.
Behind the two combatants, the airlock hung invitingly open. Bernal put his head down and crawled for his life. Barely had he placed a hand across the threshold, however, when a hideous creature appeared before him: a dragon, he thought at first, all talons and teeth and snapping wings. It howled a challenge. He retreated with his hands over his eyes, only then realising what it was: an owl. Its beak was as sharp as a dagger Its eyes were wide and quite mad.
Got it! AlterEgo exclaimed. The combined intelligence of the Von Neumann probes is the goddess!
"Athena?" Bernal echoed in disbelief.
The monstrous owl shrieked, and the fighting faltered. Bernal turned to see what had happened. Odysseus had missed a beat. Achilles had forced him down onto one knee and had raised his sword in triumph.
Odysseus' recovery was swift and unexpected. He rolled to one side as Achilles' blade descended, stabbing upwards with his own with a strength and speed that defied comprehension. Achilles hardly saw it coming. The force of the blow was so great that the stricken warrior was lifted a foot off the ground. His silver helmet continued upward as his body fell, and clattered to the ground with a ring more musical than the thud of dead flesh.
Odysseus backed away with a gasp, staring in horror at the face of the former comrade he had struck down. His sword fell from his grasp.
But instead of blood, the sword dripped only dust. And in the centre of the fallen man's chest was a hole the size of a baby's head-a hole that revealed all too vividly the truth of what lay beneath. The Achaean was hollow.
The dust fallen from the sword moved with a life of its own. Bernal realised with shock that he was seeing nanomachines. The Achaeans were completely artificial. Beneath a narrow crust comprised solely of nanomachines, there was nothing at all.
The fact didn't seem to bother them, though.
"If Athena is the pooled intelligence of the Von Neumann probes," Bernal said to AlterEgo, "and the Achaeans are just robots created and programmed by Athena, then why are they fighting among themselves?"
Such an intelligence could act as a single being, but would not have been designed to function that way. It might therefore retain many autonomous parts. Perhaps what we are seeing here is a dispute between some of these parts, or perhaps they've been programmed to behave like their literary namesakes.
There came a clatter of booted feet in the entrance-way. "Odysseus!" cried a voice. "What have you done?"
A group of warriors burst into the airlock bay. They clattered to a halt and stared at the body of the warrior and Odysseus kneeling beside it. Bernal huddled by the airlock, trying to remain inconspicuous.
There was a commotion from behind and another warrior pushed his way forward. "What is it? Have you found the-?"
The new arrival stopped short. He removed a helmet identical to the one Achilles' had won.
"Patroclus!" wailed the new arrival in despair, flinging himself on the body of the fallen man.
A chill went down Bernal's spine as he guessed what had happened: a tragic case of mistaken identity-another echo of the Iliad. Had the goddess planned this, too? Was Odysseus' murder of Achilles' lover part of the damned script?
Achilles looked up from the body of his friend and stared with naked hatred at Odysseus.
"Hold, Achilles!" said Odysseus. "He was helping the Trojan escape. I was merely attempting to ensure that Agamemnon's orders were carried out."
"To hell with Agamemnon," Achilles snarled. "You murdered Patroclus! I will kill you myself for this!"
The grief-stricken warrior rose to his feet and drew his sword. Odysseus reached for his own and warily backed away.
A hoot of alarm from behind Bernal warned him to duck. The incarnation of the goddess Athena flew over his head, aimed squarely at Achilles. The grieving warrior roared in anger and swung his sword in self-defence. His companions scattered in fear.
Meanwhile, the airlock was unguarded. Bernal took his chance and scurried for his life. His last glance through the gap as he closed the door behind him would be engraved forever on his mind: two ancient heroes, swords locked, doing battle in an airlock while the holographic manifestation of the goddess Athena swooped down upon them from above.
Foreigners, he thought.
This story was originally published online at
Eidolon: SF Online December 1997.
©1997 Sean Williams and Simon Brown
Artwork ©1997 R&D Studios