The Masque of Agamemnon

Sean Williams and Simon Brown

Part 1 of 4

Not long after the Achaean fleet arrived at the periphery of the Ilium system, its area sensors noted a phenomenon its sentient matrix could neither accept nor explain. An owl appeared in the middle of the fleet, circled around it three times-its wings eclipsing the distant point of light that was Ilium's sun-then headed straight for the Over-captain's own ship, Mycenae. Just as it was about to smash into the ship's hull, there was an intense flash of blue light and the owl disappeared.
Internal sensors picked it up next: a bird the size of a human child, dipping and soaring within Mycenae's vast internal halls and corridors. Before any alarm could be given, the sensor matrices received a supersede command; the owl was a messenger from the goddess Athena, and it was not to be interfered with.
Seconds later, the owl reached its destination, the chamber of Agamemnon, Over-captain of the entire Achaean fleet. What happened therein is not recorded, but an hour later Agamemnon announced to his crew he was going to hold a grand ball.
His wife, Clytemnestra, attributed the idea to his love of games and his penchant for petulant, almost childlike whims. She thought the idea a foolish notion, but she did not argue against it; she loved her husband and indulged him in all things.
Arrangements were quickly made and maser beams carried messages to all the other ships of the fleet, demanding their captains attend the Great Masque of Agamemnon.

"Your brother should spend more time worrying about the Trojans," Helen told her husband, Menelaus.
The Captain of Sparta grimaced. He disliked anyone criticising his older brother, but in this instance he had to agree with his wife. Agamemnon was spending a large amount of the fleet's energy and time to throw his ball; energy and time that could have been better spent prosecuting an attack against the Trojans' home on Ilium.
"Nevertheless, he has commanded the presence of all his captains and their wives, so we must go."
"But why a masque? He loves his games too much. And I suppose we will end up spending the whole time with Nestor."
"Nestor is the oldest among us and his words the wisest."
"The most boring, you mean. Oh, Menelaus," she pouted. "I wish we didn't have to go."
Although Menelaus agreed with Helen's sentiment, he would not allow himself to say so.

Achilles had made a silver helmet for his friend Patroclus to wear to the ball. When Patroclus saw it he could not find the words to thank Achilles; it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Then Achilles showed him the helmet he himself would be wearing, and to Patroclus' surprise it was exactly the same as the one he had been given.
"I don't understand, Achilles. Are we going as brothers?"
Achilles laughed. "As lovers, dear Patroclus. But there is more to it than symbolism."
Patroclus looked blankly at his friend, which made Achilles laugh even harder. "We are the same size and shape. With these helmets, and wearing the livery of my ship, no one will be able to tell us apart."
"A game?"
Achilles shrugged, gently placed one of the helmets on Patroclus' head. He leaned forward quickly and kissed his friend on the lips, then closed the helmet's faceplate, hiding his friend's face entirely except for his eyes and mouth.
"A game of sorts, I suppose, to match Agamemnon's own." Achilles put on his own helmet, closed the faceplate. "We are, behind these disguises, nothing but shadows of ourselves, and as shadows at the Over-captain's masque, who knows what secrets we will learn?"
"I have heard rumours that Agamemnon has invited a surprise guest."
"A surprise guest?"
"A Trojan," Achilles said.

His real name was Bernal, but AlterEgo insisted on calling him Paris.
"Get used to it. Our hosts insist on you adopting the name for this occasion."
"If they explained why, it would be easier," Bernal complained. Strapped into the gravity couch of the small ship in which he was travelling, he had little to do except complain. AlterEgo took care of all the ship's functions; Bernal was nothing but baggage.
"Presumably, it has something to do with the fact that all the messages we've received from our visitors come in the name of Agamemnon."
"Over-captain of the Achaean fleet, for pity's sake."
"You can snort all you want, Paris, but we know very little else about them, and it will probably be in your best interests to take them seriously."
"Not to mention the best interests of the whole of Cirrus."
Bernal aligned the external telescope, the only instrument the ship carried that used visible light and installed specifically for Bernal's use. He could not see his planet-now more than forty billion kilometres away-but the system's yellow dwarf sun, Anatole, was the brightest object in the sky, and Cirrus was somewhere within a few arc seconds of it.
"Homesick?" AlterEgo asked.
"Scared, more like," Bernal answered. "When was the last time one of my people travelled this far from home?"
Bernal was sure he heard AlterEgo's brain hum, even though he knew the AI didn't have any parts that hummed as such. He had been in the AI's company for too long. "Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago. Explorer and miner named Groenig. Last message came when her ship was forty-three billion kilometres from home. Never heard from since."
"No one went after her?"
"What good would that have done? Even back then, when intrasystem shipping was much more active than now, there would not have been more than two or three ships that could have reached her last known position within six months; far too late to do anything to help her if she was in trouble. Most likely there was some onboard disaster, or maybe the loneliness got to her and she committed suicide."
The answer irritated Bernal. "What the hell did you wake me for, anyway?"
"I did have the telescope aligned on something I thought you'd be interested in seeing."
"Don't whinge. What was it?"
"Fortunately, I took the precaution of storing some images over a three day period, which was just enough time to create some very interesting holographic-"
"If you've got something to show me, get on with it," Bernal commanded.
Several small laser beams intersected about half a metre in front of Bernal's face. At first they formed nothing but a white shell, but a second later a 3D-image appeared. It looked like a crown of thorns. "How big is it?"
"Some of my sensor readings indicate the object's mass is close to seven million tonnes."
Bernal was surprised. Without a reference point, he had assumed the object was quite small. Then he remembered AlterEgo saying it had taken three days to get a workable 3D image, which was a lot of time to work with for a computer of AlterEgo's capability.
"What did you say its dimensions were?"
"I didn't, but I estimate a radius of eighty or so kilometres."
"My God! Is this one of the Achaean ships?"
"I should think that if this was just one of their ships, a fleet of them would have been detected from Cirrus several years ago. I surmise, therefore, that this is the fleet, its individual components joined in some way."
Bernal peered at the holograph. "Can you make out any repetitions of shape? Anything we could identify as a single unit?"
"Ah, I was hoping you would ask that." Bernal was sure he heard smugness in that voice. "Indeed, this is why I woke you."
The holographic image changed, metamorphosed into something more like a ship. Bernal peered at it. Well, vaguely more like a ship.
"It reminds me of something I've seen before, but for the life of me I can't figure what."
"Using some deductive logic, a little dash of intuition and a thorough search of the Cirrus Archives, I think I've discovered something," AlterEgo said. "Watch what happens when I remove from the Achaean ship the youngest hull material, connective grids and certain extraneous energy dispersion vanes."
The image altered instantaneously into something barely a tenth the size of the original. Bernal studied the new shape for a moment before a memory clicked in his brain.
"I don't believe it!"
AlterEgo just hummed.
"A Von Neumann probe . . ." Bernal's voice faded as he realised the implications.
"Precisely my deduction," AlterEgo agreed, superimposing a second holograph over the first: a blue outline that almost perfectly matched the image of the Achaean artefact. "This diagram is from Cirrus' most ancient library stores. It is, of course, one of the original plans for a Von Neumann probe, circa 2090 CE."
Bernal whistled. "But that was nearly 5,000 years ago. They were the first human-made ships to reach the stars."
"And in their seedbanks they carried the ancestors of all human life in this part of the spiral arm . . ." There was the slightest of pauses . . . including your own kind."

The bulkheads forming Mycenae's cavernous, square reception hall were decorated with depictions of a Cyclopean city: grey walls made from unworked boulders and dressed stone; a corbel arch gateway topped by a heavy, triangular sculpture of two lions and a Minoan column; and a massive beehive tomb made from the same stone as the city.
Mingling in the hall were dozens of ship captains and their wives or mistresses, all dressed in elaborate costumes, the men in shining breastplates and tall helmets sprouting horse-hair crests or eagle feathers, the women in long tunics bordered in gold and beads of amber and lapis lazuli.
Agamemnon moved among his captains, greeting each individually with generous words, baulking only when he met the two he knew were Achilles and Patroclus, but was unable to tell them apart in their silver helmets. He smiled, pretending to enjoy their private joke, and moved on to deliver more glib welcomings. Clytemnestra circulated as well, talking to the women, flattering them about their clothing and hair.
In a short while, smaller groups coalesced from the throng, centred on the fleet's major captains. The largest group circled Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus; a second group almost as large gathered around Achilles and Patroclus; other heroes to have their own audience included Diomedes, the huge Ajax, Nestor and Idomeneus. Standing apart from them all, however, was one captain without any followers or even the companionship of his own woman.
Odysseus stood back from the assembly, looking on with a wry smile. He enjoyed observing the posturings of the major captains, the false camaraderie they shared and the whispered insults they passed. As well, he was entertained by the antics of the lesser captains, eager to please their patrons and desperate to raise their own status in the fleet.
His inspection was interrupted by an owl that appeared on his shoulder.
"The guest has arrived," the owl said. "His ship is about to dock. He brings a friend with him."
"A friend?" Odysseus replied. "Troy was instructed to send only one of their own."
"His friend is not human," the owl continued. "It is some kind of AI. I only learned of this when it communicated with the navigation computer."
"Have you told Agamemnon?"
"Not yet."
"Then do so now. He should greet this Paris personally."

Bernal cursed as AlterEgo made what it called "minor" adjustments to the ship's attitude in its final approach to the docking site. The ship jerked to port, then performed a quarter-roll, jerked back in the other direction, and finally decelerated rapidly as all the lateral thrusters fired simultaneously. Bernal's journey to the Achaean fleet, which had begun with a smooth acceleration away from orbit around Cirrus and then continued on just as smoothly for another three weeks through intrasystem space, was now ending with a violent jagging that did nothing to ease his roiling stomach.
Bernal was about to ask AlterEgo when all the manoeuvring would finish, when suddenly there was a thump and he felt himself flung forward before the gravity webbing caught him and flung him back again.
And then a new sensation.
Bernal realised after a moment. The Achaean fleet is not only locked together; it's also rotating.
"We are here," AlterEgo announced calmly.
"I think I have a headache coming on."
"It is just the tension, Paris. You will be fine once you get moving."
"Do I have to suit up?"
"No need. We have docked adjacent to an airlock. You will be able to stroll through and meet our hosts as soon as the airlock is pressurised."
"Can you take a sample of their air?"
"Already done. Breathable. Nitrogen-oxygen mix, a little heavy on the oxygen side, but nothing extraordinary. Very few trace gasses. The airlock has pressurised. Do you want me to open the hatch?"
"Is there anyone waiting for me?"
"Not in the airlock itself. Wait, I'll communicate with the Achaean command system."
Bernal unstrapped himself from the webbing, then carefully climbed out of the life support suit that had kept him fed, removed his body waste, injected him with regular doses of calcium and vitamins, and electrically stimulated his muscles for the duration of the journey. By the time he had finished, AlterEgo was able to report that a welcoming committee would be waiting for him on the other side of the airlock.
"Did you think to ask who's in the committee?"
There was a sound like a sigh. "Agamemnon, Over-captain of the Achaean Fleet, his wife Clytemnestra, his brother Menelaus, Captain of Sparta, and his wife Helen, and Odysseus, Captain of Ithaca."
Bernal closed his eyes, slowly shook his head. "That ache is getting worse."
"Paris, they're waiting."
Bernal nodded, climbed into a one-piece shipsuit. He clipped onto his chest a small metal badge displaying the Grand Seal of Cirrus; to a nipple on the pin showing through on the reverse of the suit he attached a thin filament that was in turn connected to a jack built into his fifth vertebra. He tapped the badge gently. "You there, old friend?"
In spirit, if not body,
AlterEgo said in his mind.
Bernal sealed the suit and went to the hatch. "Open Sesame," he said, trying to sound braver than he felt.

Part 1 ] Part 2 ] Part 3 ] Part 4 ]

This story was originally published online at
Eidolon: SF Online December 1997.
©1997 Sean Williams and Simon Brown
Artwork ©1997 R&D Studios

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