The Other Assassin
and Odysseus in Hell
by Zachary Mason
The Other Assassin
In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous,
the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten
consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred
assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand
administrators of the third; and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars,
painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants
and hangers on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised to
do the bright, the serene, the etc. emperor's will. It so happened that in
the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon's noble brow clouded at the thought
of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too much renowned for cleverness,
when both cleverness and renown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While
it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent
campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which facilitated
stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on
the royal perogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to
a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides,
Temple Offerings, Investitures, Bankruptcy and Humane and Just Liquidation,
and signed Odysseus's death warrant.
The clerk of Suicides etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document
to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped
it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and
so on through the many twists and turns of the bureaucracy, through the hands
of spy-masters, career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and
finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility
for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and
the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly
born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and
without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant
of the throne, Odysseus.
A messenger came to Ithaka and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them,
his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended
victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems
would arise on his end.
On the eight succeeding days Odysseus sent the following messages to the court
as protocol required:
"I am within a day's sail of his island."
"I walk among people who know him and his habits."
"I am within ten miles of his house."
"I am at his gate."
"The full moon is reflected in the silver mirror over his bed. The silence is
perfect but for his breathing."
"I am standing over his bed holding a razor flecked with his blood. Before
the cut he looked into my face and swore to slay the man who ordered his
death. I think that as a whispering shade he will do no harm."
Odysseus in Hell
A man picks his way along a steel cable strung over a refulgent blue abyss, a
ship's oar over his shoulders for balance. The cable groans and sighs in the
infinitesimal breeze. It is so narrow that the man is, when he thinks of it,
surprised that he is able to keep his footing. Miles in front of him the
horizon is shrouded in bright clouds. It may well be the same behind him but
he has never looked back. The cable sags, very slightly, just discernably
over the course of what may be hours, or days—he is descending.
Above him (he sees this out of his peripheral vision—to look up would be
fatal) is an irregular dark massiveness suggesting mountains. There are
iridescent patches that could be lakes or possibly cities. Below is open sky,
gradations of deep featureless blue. Now a weariness comes over him and he
stops to rest, squatting and balancing the oar across his shoulders, gripping
the cable with feet and hands, peering down into the void in which
he finds a measure of comfort.
He has been walking and balancing for a long time and his mind wanders. For
the most part his reflections are vacant or circular recapitulations of the
conditions of his confinement in this limitless open air. When a thought
crystallizes it is this: Somewhere a judgment is being made. Even now
advocates are striding in flapping robes through bleak arcades toward the
ante-rooms where they will make their case before a judge, whose name he
almost knows—Minos, or possibly Yama. This stirs something in his arid,
empty mind—he wants to argue the case himself.
He knows that if the judgment goes against him a wind will rise in the west, a
white rushing mass devouring a hemisphere of sky, racing over him and scouring
the cable clean. He considers tactics for such a situation—leaning into the
wind and walking on the wind side of the cable or breaking into a dead run
when he sees the storm rising, with every hasty step risking a sudden, final
slip, though there is no end in view. He recognizes the futility of these
plans but this does not permit him to stop formulating them.
The cable might be getting narrower. His legs might be weakening. He might
feel the air stirring. Eyes closed, he hesitates and imagines the languor of
falling. He sees himself snatching futilely at the cable, missing, how
quickly it would dwindle as he kept his eyes and hand turned to it, his sole
reference point, and how he would at last have the luxury of looking up at the
world he was falling away from, secure in the knowledge that no matter what
else came the worst had happened. He steadies himself and takes another step.
Once a generation the spring tide reaches the broken walls of Troy and it is
granted him to recall that once he was Odysseus.
Zachary Mason is an Artificial Intelligence scientist living in Palo
Alto, California. These stories are part of an unpublished novel,
The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
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story copyright by author 2006 all rights reserved