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  1. Although it was already late afternoon, I set off for the Colosseum right after talking to Frugi. Who knew when else I would have the next opportunity. My initial enthusiasm faded a little on the way there. I had tracked down the dagger's maker. Though that didn't mean he could point me in the direction of the buyer... or would like to do so. Still, it was a lead worth following. As always, the area around the Colosseum was well-populated. Cries and cheers could be heard from inside the giant building. Probably there was a performance in progress. Perhaps a poor man sentenced to death, now eaten by hungry lions? Or maybe just a chariot race. I turned into the street named by Frugi, keeping my eyes peeled for the armorer's shop. Unfortunately, there was one shop after the other and it was not easy to find the right one. After asking twice for directions, I finally found myself in front of the building I was looking for. From the exterior it was hardly different from the other shops. The sign showed that Marcus Iulius Iustus was the owner. The first thing I noticed when I entered the shop was the temperature. It was much warmer in here than it was outside and outside it was already anything but cool. The reason was easy to spot, a forge from which red embers emerged was positioned on the back wall of the shop. It was a miracle that Elisa did not complain about a blatant violation of various fire regulations. Actually, no wonder. In order to save battery, I had put her into energy-saving mode. Only when I addressed her, or in an emergency would she become active. The furnace was manned by one person. He was fiddling with an object in the embers. Probably there was a technical term for it which I was lacking, ignorant of the art of blacksmithing. On the window front and the sides of the shop there were various weapons on display. Certainly there were several models offered for sale. Swords and daggers of various degrees of curvature and length. I also saw axes. I was lucky I was the only customer in the store. Hopefully I could exchange a few words undisturbed with the blacksmith. I cleared my throat to alert the man to my presence. He turned to me and put his tools aside. "Behold, customers! Be welcome. My name is Marcus and I forge the finest blades in Rome." He approached me, speaking this proud claim probably made by every armorer in the city. He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man. Unlike Frugi, he was carrying a certain amount of belly fat. "What kind of weapon would you like?" he asked. "Or do you come for a repair?" I did not pretend to be interested in buying anything but unpacked the dagger I had brought with me. "Neither Marcus. It's about this dagger here. Unfortunately, its rightful owner has… lost it. I’ve found it though and would like to return it. Thus, I was hoping you might be able to tell me who bought it from you." He squinted his narrow eyes, reddened by the constant heat. "Show me!" he hissed - far less friendly after it was clear that I didn't come here to shop. He took the dagger, looking at it briefly from all sides. "Where did you get this?" he asked in the same rude tone. "How do I know you didn't steal it, only to return it and ask for a finder's fee?" This idea seemed a bit far-fetched to me. Perhaps the constant heat had already melted his synapses? Nevertheless, I answered in a calm voice. "Certainly not, Marcus. I'm an honest finder, just as you are an honest blacksmith." I let the words take effect for a moment in order not to overtax my counterpart’s brain cells. Then I continued. "So? Do you remember who bought this thing?" An almost unpleasantly long amount of time passed, during which the blacksmith stared at the dagger. Suddenly he looked up and threw me the dagger. I winced, struggling to catch it. Fortunately, I didn’t hurt myself. "No," Marcus said, "I can't help you. I sell this stuff by the dozen. It could belong to anyone." He turned on his heel and went back to his stove. I stood there for a while, judging his words. Finally, I shrugged my shoulders and left the shop. The air outside was much cooler by comparison. I took a deep breath before I set off for home as the light was fading. I did find the blacksmith and his behavior a little strange. Still, even this last lead had now fizzled out. I had done everything I could think of. So that was it, I'd give up my research and put it behind me. Amazingly, I felt relieved. It was almost like a weight falling off me with every step. I stopped for a moment and shook my head. I didn't realize how much of a burden this investigation had been on me. I had almost made an obsession out of it. I breathed in the fresh evening air once again. That was over now. I was really looking forward to seeing the brothers - especially Thalis - and planning the next day. Something cracked behind me. Suddenly and without warning, I was struck. I cried out, stumbling forward. I turned around, barely managing to keep my balance. I looked into a man's face. A shiver ran down my back. I had seen the man before, but couldn't remember where. He put on a wide grim smile. A quick glance to the side made me realize that I had been lost in thought, having turned into a side street. A shortcut - but at this late hour also the ideal place for an ambush. The attacker came slowly towards me. For every step he took forward, I took one backward. "I believe," the man began, his voice threatening, "you have something that belongs to me." He looked at the cloth in my right hand in which I had wrapped the dagger. My God, was that Alexios' murderer who stood before me now? I noticed the scar on the man’s right cheek. All of a sudden the veil fell from my eyes. I remembered where I'd seen that guy before. Gasping I took another step back and my back hit the wall. "I think you walk around asking too many questions. That worries my master very much - but it is over now.“ The man - Clodia Magni's bodyguard - swiped his left hand across his neck in a clear gesture. With his right hand, he drew a short sword. "Wait!" I gasped. "At least tell me why. Why did Alexios have to die?" He smiled in amusement. "I guess he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Actually, my orders were to trash the place. Though I couldn't leave any witnesses either..." "But why all this? What's your master's problem with us?" "You still don't realize that?” He spat on the ground in front of me. "For the same reason your boy’s uncle got whacked, of course! If there's one thing my master can't stand, it's other men messing with his wife." My heart was pounding. First and foremost in light of my impending undoing but also for uncovering the truth behind both murders. Blast it! What good was it if the detective got killed? The bodyguard came one step closer. I had no room left to step backward. If I didn't do something right now, that would be it. Elisa, unusually quiet until then, reminded me of my options. "You are in imminent danger of death! Fight or run!" Since I had no chance in a fight against the trained and experienced assassin, the only option left for me was to run. I let the dagger slip from the cloth. With all my strength I hurled the weapon at the attacker. At the same time, I started to run. As if my life depended on it. Because it did. As fast as I could, I ran back towards the busy main road. I heard a subdued scream behind me. It sounded more like surprise than pain. Footsteps echoed, closer than I had hoped. "Distance of pursuer: Five yards.“ "Four yards." "Ten feet." The alley opened and I dived into the crowd. I ran over a passer-by. He fell to the ground behind me, cursing. "Twenty feet." I was lucky. The show at the Colosseum must have just ended. Masses of people were moving through the street. I ducked down a little so as not to stand out from the crowd and continued moving forward. "Location of pursuer lost." I did not stop and did not look back. --- My sense of time couldn't tell me how long I had been rushing through the streets. At some point, long after nightfall, I arrived at the brothers' house. I went through the front door, dropping onto the waiting bench in front of the practice. I leaned my head against the cold wall. My hands were still trembling. For quite a while I stayed like this until I could think more or less clearly again. Jealousy! That had been the motive for the murder. Had Pericles had a relationship with the rich Clodia? It was quite plausible. Alexios though? I don't think so. He was too smart for that. Still, I had no reason to doubt the bodyguard's word. Even if Clodia's husband, in his jealousy, had only imagined such an affair, Alexios had to die for it. Fuck. I realized more and more that I hadn't thought this whole thing through properly. Yes, I had found the murderer, but he also found me. Yes, there was a legal system in ancient Rome. As soon as I went public tough, I would become a target. Not to mention the fact that I had no evidence whatsoever. Even the murder weapon was gone. Another problem dawned on me. I couldn't stay here. First, the killer knew exactly where to find me. Second, I was putting Gregory and Thalis in great danger. Suddenly the door to the practice opened. I winced. Thalis stood on the threshold. "Phillip, there you are," he shouted happily. "I thought I heard some – " He stopped mid-sentence. "Oh, my God! You look like... what happened!?" He put his arm around my shoulder, pulling me into the room. His touch felt warm. It provided a feeling of safety that I knew was no longer appropriate for me. He sat me down on a chair. Gregory was there too. "Take a sip first. For your nerves." Gregory handed me a bottle of hard liquor from which I took a generous sip. They were both staring at me now, waiting for me to explain myself. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. "I... I know who killed Alexios and Pericles. It was the same person." Both of them breathed out sharply. "You remember Clodia Magni, one of your first patients? Her husband ordered the murders out of jealousy. Her bodyguard did the killing." Gregory and Thalis looked back and forth at each other and at me. They were clearly upset, their faces tense, an expression of shock. Thalis shook his head. "But... Alex had nothing to do with that stupid woman who only came here for pseudo-ailments!” Gregory nodded, his mouth curling in disgust. "Yeah but it's enough if she wanted it. When I remember how unnecessarily provocative she dressed and undressed, it fits. Her bodyguard was standing next to her and he reports to his master, of course." "I can't believe it," Thalis said. "Alex had to die because a horny rich woman in an unhappy marriage was his patient?!" "How did you find out about this?" Gregory asked. Since the mood had reached a temporary low, I immediately dropped the next bomb. "I asked the murderer. Just before he tried to kill me.“ Thalis’ face went to pieces. "Are you fucking mad?!" he shouted at me. In a few words, I told them about my research and the fateful encounter in the dark alley. After that everyone remained silent, staring into the distance. "What now?" Gregory finally asked. I took a deep breath. "There's only one way. I must leave you. I must leave you now." Thalis jumped up. "No, Phillip!" He grabbed my shoulders with his hands. There was a mixture of sadness and despair in his eyes. "Please! Stay!" His voice sounded imploring. "We can do this. We're stronger together." It had been clear to me that saying goodbye to Thalis would be the hardest. Even for me. Though precisely because I was very fond of him, I could not stay. Gregory shook his head slowly. "No, Thalis... he's right. Don't let your feelings cloud your judgment. If Phillip stays here, he's as good as dead and we most likely with him. If he leaves, he has a good chance of getting away. Getting out of Rome, going somewhere else. And we… we don't take any more appointments from Clodia and her kin. As long as we keep quiet, I hope we'll be left alone." Thalis whimpered. "This is wrong... so wrong." He was still holding my shoulders. I put my hands around his shoulders, too. I lowered my head forward so that we touched foreheads. "I'm so sorry, Thalis," I whispered. "We have no choice." **** In speaking about the days after the first manned time jump, Lisa Bolzano liked to claim that it had been the most exhausting time of her life. By now she admitted that this had definitely been wrong. The most exhausting time of her life had been the last four weeks, since the disastrous second jump. The trembling uncertainty, being condemned to doing nothing, and finally, the sad certainty that Phil had been lost for good had worked her last nerve. She took a look at the large calendar on the office wall. Thrity-three days had passed. Nothing had happened since – no sign of Phillip. Yet many events were set in motion during those weeks. Dr. Carrol's assumption regarding the battery problem had become a certainty, decisions were made. The board of directors decided to declare the mission a failure. In a depressing press conference Lisa, together with the director of CERN, announced the bad news. In addition - against her vehement resistance - it had been decided to shut down practically the entire ATR program. At least she had been able to put through a request that minimal occupation was allowed to remain to continue the research. Although Phillip had been lost forever - she was sure that he would have wanted the project to continue. The corridors of the underground building were ghostly empty since seventy percent of the employees had been assigned to other projects. It was also quieter than normal with the constant somehow reassuring background hum of the fusion reactor missing. It was the first to be shut down. No wonder, when you consider the operating cost was a good two million euros a day. She cringed when the door to her office was flung open. Dr. Benjamin Torres burst in, completely out of breath. "Lisa, it's... the active instruments are off, but... this is..." She got up, raising both hands. "Take it easy, Ben. What happened?" she asked calmly, but alarmed at the same time. "It's amazing Lisa, you have to see this!" With two big steps he reached her desk. He bent over her monitor. Practiced fingers called up a diagram. "You see this frequency which the space-time spectrometer is recording right now?" Torres asked, giddy with excitement. Lisa squinted her eyes. "Is that… This frequency..." "...is not used anywhere on Earth," Dr. Torres completed her sentence. "Someone is trying to send us a message. Someone who knows our coordinates." Lisa got up. "Start the reactor, Torres!" The head of the central laboratory hesitated for a moment. "You know, the board..." "Fuck the board, Ben! We gotta get to the bottom of this! I'm calling the guys on stand-by duty." Dr. Torres nodded and quickly left the office. She picked up the phone. **** My back hurt when I straightened up. The morning sun was rising over the front of the houses at the edge of the park where I had spent the night. That had definitely been the most uncomfortable night of my life. Even the small pillow hadn't changed that. I put it back into the jute bag we had packed in a hurry yesterday. I would have even preferred the straw-padded floor in Egypt to the rough tree trunk behind my back. Looking back, I should have stayed in one of the 'hotels'. On the other hand, it was questionable whether I would have found a calmer night's sleep with three strangers in the room, probably drunk and snoring. I sighed and pulled myself together. What the future would bring me was uncertain. I didn't have much with me. Only a few pieces of clothing, some provisions, and a supply of coins - the latter from Thalis much more generously given than Gregory's critical looks would have allowed. My plan for the near future was simple. I would leave Rome and travel south again. Back on the Appian Way, to where we had come from, Puteoli. I knew the way, so it seemed the safest option. On the way here, we had passed some villages and small towns. Perhaps I could find a place to stay? I merged myself into the life of Rome's streets, slowly making my way towards the city gates. All around me the usual daily routine was taking place. Some merchants with small stalls loudly offered their goods for sale. Children were running through the streets playing and beggars at the roadside were hoping for some alms. Despite the dirt and in parts quite obvious misery, somehow I had got used to the city. It was a pity that I had to leave it now. There was a crack in my right ear and I heard Elisa's voice. I was annoyed at first because I had forgotten to put her back into stand-by mode after yesterday's incident. "I have registered an electromagnetic emission." My irritation was replaced by amazement. An electromagnetic emission was an event that would be perfectly natural in the modern world. What could have caused such an emission here, though? I looked up. The sky was blue. It couldn't be a thunderstorm. "Can you be more specific?" I asked my electronic companion. At that moment I heard screams behind me. First, individual people. Though soon more voices cried out. Within seconds a mass panic developed. I turned around, but apart from masses of excited people, nothing was to be seen. People were screaming and running in all directions. Most of them came towards me. On their faces was etched horror and panic. After a short time, I was the only person left standing still. I had a hard time not being knocked down. Besides, it dawned on me that maybe I should start moving, too. Before I could put this thought into practice though, the crowd in front of me thinned out. What I saw made my blood freeze in my veins. A few yards away stood a monster. It was humanoid but slightly larger than a human. Its skin, or rather a kind of short fur, was pitch-black. Its build was sturdy and muscular. The face was the strangest thing about the creature. It had a broad mouth with many small but pointed teeth. Two small beady eyes sat above them. I could not see a nose or ears. It was also very strange that the creature was quite wet. Water dripped from the short fur. "Tracking complete. The source of the emission is right in front of you," Elisa needlessly commented. My knowledge of intergalactic monsters was limited. In fact, I knew only one species, and even that one only by name. Nevertheless, I had no doubt that this was exactly that kind of specimen. A Kerlock. Probably the same one who was on Keith's heels and who had already pursued me in Egypt. The Kerlock stared at me with his small eyes. He swung his head back and forth. Surely he expected to find Keith here and not me. I wonder if he could tell that I came from a completely different world than the blond time traveler. Most likely. My equipment alone would give it away. Still, that didn't mean he would spare me. As if to confirm my thoughts, his left arm slowly lifted. The object in his hand was easily identified as a weapon. What should I do? Throughout the whole encounter, I had remained surprisingly calm. The reason was simple. There was absolutely nothing I could do. Even running away made no sense. Not only would he find me, but he would certainly have no scruples about leaving numerous corpses in his wake. "Elisa," I instructed my VI silently, "when I’m dead, execute Emergency Protocol Delta." "Affirmative." The D in Delta stood for destroy. A chemical reaction would destroy all information in Elisa's memory chips, rendering the TTEK unusable. It would, in particular, erase the coordinates of my home time. Better safe than sorry. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for an invasion by time-traveling Kerlocks. I closed my eyes. A loud bang sounded, immediately followed by a deafening explosion. The last thing I felt was being blown off my feet and hurled through the air. --- I was surprised when I woke up. Not about anything in particular, but the general fact that I woke up at all - and thus was not dead. Theoretically, it could have been heaven, hell, or any other life after death. However, I did not really believe in that. The next moment though, I had to revise my last thought when an angel bent over me. I studied the angel’s face more closely. It had shoulder-length blond hair, his brow furrowed, and the eyes radiated concern. I realized the face looked familiar. It wasn’t an angel. It was Keith! I sat up in an abrupt motion. A little too fast, I became dizzy and fell on my back again. Keith giggled. "Take it easy, Phillip. The shock wave got you pretty good, but you're just a little shaken, no injuries. Okay, except for a few abrasions." I slowly pulled myself upright. My eyes wandered over the surroundings. I was still on the street that was now completely deserted. "What happened? Where did you come from all of a sudden?" I asked him. "Well, you've made the acquaintance of my pursuer. When I got the info that he jumped to our coordinates in Egypt and then to where you left for... all I had to do was put two and two together.” He took me by the arm, supporting me to stand up. As I got on my feet, still wobbly, I saw the Kerlock again. Or rather, what was left of it. A crater ten feet in diameter decorated the street where the alien had once stood. Remains of mechanical and fleshly origin were scattered around the crater. The unpleasant smell of burnt flesh was in the air. I quickly turned away to keep my nausea in check. Keith laughed. "Yeah, I really have to thank you. You've been the perfect distraction. I couldn't have taken him down alone." I frowned. "Well, not that I planned it or anything!" Keith rushed to reassure me. "On the contrary. Normally, I'd have been glad he'd lost my trail. However… I knew he was on yours instead. So if anything had happened to you, it would have been my fault. I really couldn't square that with my conscience! You're the first and probably only other time traveler I'll ever meet, after all. I smiled. Keith was just as I had met him in Egypt. Very emotional and worried about other people’s welfare. Simply a nice guy. And yes, the fact that he looked like an angel helped. I gave him a big hug. "Thanks, Keith! You saved my life." He chuckled, all smiles. "It's the least I could do. Though tell me, Phillip, what are you doing here? I was really happy when the trace disk indicated that you jumped away from Egypt. I thought you wanted to go back home.“ "What is a trace disk?" I asked, curious to know. Keith reached into a pocket of his suit. He pulled out a doughnut-shaped object two inches thick. "This," he said. "All Scouts have these. In every world we visit, we leave one behind when we leave. They record all space-time events in and out of that world for a few days. So we can tell if we're being followed by a Kerlock." I nodded. "Makes sense. To answer your question though, I'm stranded here. There was a problem with my battery and I didn't have enough juice left to determine my position in space-time." My heart began to beat faster as I spoke these words. Something stirred in me again that had long since been suffocated. A glimmer of hope, not of returning home, but of contact with home. "Elisa, is your power level still sufficient for the radio module?" "Positive. Module is operational, but shut down due to lack of space-time coordinates." Excited, I turned to Keith. "You could do me a favor, Keith. One almost bigger than saving me from the Kerlock. Can you send me our current space-time location?" Keith laughed. "Sure, man. It's not much of a favor at all.“ "Receiving transmission." A little saddened he went on. "I'm so sorry you're stuck here. It's my fault!" I waved him off. "It's certainly not your fault, Keith. You didn't mean to, nor could you have possibly known." He shrugged his shoulders. "Still, I feel pretty damn bad about it. So just let me know if there's anything else I can do for you." I told him there wasn't and thanked him again with all of my heart. Keith looked around. "Quite a mess I made here. I'd better get going." I laughed, nodding. "Bon voyage, friend from a faraway world," I shouted in a good mood. "Yeah, you too, Phillip. I hope you manage to get home!" I smiled and nodded. That was unlikely, but just the contact with home would mean everything to me. "Oh, yeah," he followed up and threw me the trace disk. "Why don't you hide this thing somewhere for me?" He took a step back. For a moment, nothing happened. Then he disappeared, almost without a noise. "The received space-time coordinates have been processed. I took the liberty of sending a message to base. No response yet." I let my gaze wander over the battlefield one last time. I was sorry that the people here had to witness this traumatic event. There was still no one around. I turned into the next side street. Now and then I passed frightened figures, cowering in doorways. I continued my way, zigzagging until I came back to normal areas of the city which had hardly noticed anything of the incident. Then I continued my way out of Rome. **** The control room was jam-packed to the point people were stepping on each other’s toes. The news that something had been found on said frequency - perhaps even a message - had spread like wildfire through the internal social media channels. When it was confirmed that it was indeed a message from Dr. Marten, the enthusiasm became unstoppable. Even most co-workers who were working on the ATR project before, now long-transferred to other branches, had arrived. Dr. Lisa Bolzano stood in front of the large screens in the middle of the control wall. Her face tense, she stared at the symbol of an egg timer that had been spinning in circles for a good fifteen minutes. "How much longer will this go on?" she asked impatiently. "It's almost there," Dr. Torres reassured her. "The reactor's only a few watts short of establishing bi-directional communications." People in the back joked that maybe they should turn off the lights to save some electricity. Finally, the time had come. There was crackling in the speakers, varying in pitch for a few seconds, eventually transforming into a human voice. "Hello? Lisa?" Everybody started to cheer and clap. People fell into each other's arms, shook hands, and gave high fives. Lisa's response got lost in all the noise. She turned around, silencing the room with an energetic gesture. "Wow!" Phillip's voice came from the speakers. "It's so damn good to see you all.” "And damn good to hear you, Phillip!" Lisa replied. Tears of joy ran down her cheeks. "How are you?" she continued. "I mean... considering the circumstances, is everything okay?" "Yes, Lisa. The last few hours have been a little turbulent, but yes, I'm fine. I know there's no going back for me. Though this contact alone means the world to me." Lisa smiled. "For me, too... you know, we'd given up all hope." Phillip laughed. "I'd buried hope long ago, too!" Lisa exchanged a look with Dr. Carrol to her left. She pulled him a little closer so that he was definitely in the camera's field of view. "Phillip," she began. "There is a way to get you home now that your position has been established!" "Rick," she nodded to Dr. Carrol. "No, no, Lisa, this is not working," Phillip beat him to it. "We both know that the time difference is still too big for a direct jump. With another stopover I would have exactly the same problem with the battery as I have now. Probably the TTEK wouldn't come back to life at all after the next jump." Dr. Carrol nodded eagerly. "Yes, that's right, we have identified the problem as well. However, there is a simple solution! The reason why we can't bring you home directly is that it would take too much energy. You know the term. Mass to the power of six plus time difference in years to the power of three. "Sure..." was the hesitant response through the loudspeaker. "I've already done that math and found out that for a direct return I couldn't weigh more than forty-four pounds. That won't work while I’m alive.” "Exactly!" Carrol continued. "But that also means that we can send something to you from here that is under that weight! For example, a fresh pair of underwear... or a new TTEK with a full battery." For a moment there was silence on the other end of the line. Then Phillip's voice came through. He sounded a little hoarse. "Wait a minute, Rick... considering the mass alone, I get it. But, suppose you send me a new TTEK and I make a time jump. Then its battery will have jumped two times in total and will have the same problem as now.” Dr. Carrol shook his head. "For the TTEK there was never the requirement to endure several time jumps in a row. At least until a few weeks ago. Since then my team and I have been working on this problem. We have made decisive improvements. The model we're sending you will be able to withstand at least two jumps." "That... wow! You're right, Carrol. This could really..." Towards the end of the sentence, Phillip's voice failed. He was overwhelmed by new hope. Phillip closed his eyes. His lip trembled slightly. After all. He would return home, eventually!
  2. The next week went by faster than expected. Everyone concentrated on work in order to think as little as possible about what had happened - and also because they had no other choice if they wanted to survive in Rome. As predicted, the Trajan Baths were abandoned and the two brothers concentrated entirely on the main practice. I also had more to do than ever before. Thalis took over many of Alexios’ tasks. This meant that some of the things that Thalis had taken care of before now fell to me. Among other things, this concerned the purchase of consumables. Moreover, Thalis had persuaded me to make house calls. Alone. No, my original position of not being a doctor was still standing. It was only supposed to be checkups. "Go there, say hello, ask how they are, and report back to me," Thalis had summarized it. "Very simple!" I had replied that if something was wrong, the person concerned would come forward of his or her own accord, or send someone. However, Gregory and Thalis convinced me that this was what wealthy customers expected – and rewarded. So my investigation into Alexios’ death progressed rather slowly. Yesterday, however, I had extended my daily walk to the market a little, to pay Minna's husband a visit. Or at least I tried to. The apartment was empty and a sign "for rent" was attached to the door. The neighbors unanimously stated that Minna’s husband had left Rome only two days after her death. He was a legionary and his unit was sent to the northern part of the empire. Since the murder took place a few days later, I trashed this scenario for the time being. Motive present, but no opportunity. I decided to take a completely different approach. First, to solve Pericles’ death. If there was a connection between the two tragedies, I would uncover it. If not, at least the process of elimination would bring me closer to the real motive for the murder. In the case of Pericles I had two concrete starting points for further investigations. Dear Helena and the secret lover Iulia. I should in fact have been on my way to the market by now. Though instead of turning left at the front door after leaving the practice, I had taken the stairs to the top on the right. I found Helena in the kitchen. She was sitting there knitting a piece of clothing. Maybe a glove, or a cap - my experience in this field was more than scanty. Even my grandmother had never knitted. What a pity. Helena looked up in surprise when I entered the kitchen. "Phillip, what can I do for you?" She let the knitting drop and wrinkled her forehead. "I hope it's not bad news?" she continued. "No no, nothing like that," I reassured her. "Still, there is something we need to talk about." "Of course, Phillip, what is it? Perhaps not here in the kitchen." She took me by the arm and pulled me cluelessly into the dining room. I didn't think she knew what I wanted to talk to her about and I myself was no longer so sure it was a good idea. At the time when I learned about Pericles’ affair the brothers made a conscious decision not to confront Helena. Alexios, in particular, did not think much of it. This time I had not told Thalis and Gregory about my plan. I thought it was better that way. Should something go wrong, I could take the blame upon myself. Helena sat down on one of the couches and gestured for me to sit down as well. So I did. She looked at me expectantly. I cleared my throat and gathered my courage. It seemed best to go directly in medias res - to get straight to the point. "Helena, it's about Pericles. You know he had an affair before he died?" She looked at me blankly for a moment. Only the corners of her eyes twitched slightly. Then she frowned. Her voice sounded angry when she began to speak. "What the hell! Why are you talking about my late husband like that?" Despite my limited knowledge of human nature, I tried to interpret her reaction the best I could. There was astonishment, even annoyance - but no surprise. I answered as calmly as possible. "It's very simple, Helena. I'm trying to figure out exactly what happened. Two deaths have already afflicted you and your loved ones." My voice became more dramatic. "What if there's a connection? What if this is not the end?" Calmer again I continued. "That story about Pericles stumbling on the balcony while visiting a patient, we both don't believe it, do we?" As I spoke, I bent over, looking Helena straight in the eye. She returned my gaze. How long we stared at each other I couldn't really say. After a while though, she broke eye contact. Her gaze moved towards the window. Her face relaxed a little, too. After another moment of silence, she began to speak. "I'm not naive, Phillip. Of course I don't believe that story." She looked at me again, continuing in a resigned voice. "But what was I supposed to do? Stick my nose everywhere and ask questions? A sure way to upset people you shouldn't upset?" "What kind of people do you mean? Do you suspect someone?" She shook her head. "I haven't got the faintest idea. But to answer your original question, yes, my husband's affairs have not escaped my notice. Even though he probably thought I had no idea." So it was true. Iulia had been Pericles' secret lover. Wait a second though – Helena spoke of affairs in the plural. Had good Pericles had several irons in the fire? I asked her. "Yes, this Iulia was the last, but certainly not the first," she explained to me. "And whether she was the only one in her time, or had to share this dubious honor with other rivals... well, I didn't keep a record." The scenario went through my mind again in which Helena caught them in flagrante and Pericles stumbled over the railing while fleeing. "Did you ever confront him?" I asked. A cynical laugh left her lips before she continued. "What for? I didn't want a divorce. Where would I have gone after that? Besides... what Pericles took the liberty of doing, I took the liberty of doing myself.“ She uttered the last sentence with a subtle smile. In my mind, I rolled my eyes. So Helena had her own affair, in retaliation so-to-speak? If I had been able to go back to the future, I could have written a screenplay for a telenovela. Helena breathed out audibly and stood up. "Now you know what I know. Do what you like with it, but be careful. Whoever's behind my husband's death better not find out that someone's snooping around. If you're willing to commit one murder, you won't be afraid to commit another." After proclaiming this great wisdom, she went back into the kitchen. I stayed behind on the couch reflecting on our conversation. Was I smarter than before? Well, the suspicions about the affair were confirmed. In fact, it turned out that there were several affairs. Maybe even simultaneously. Did this get me anywhere though? There was no hint for a connection between the two deaths. No new motives or perpetrators had emerged either. What was Helena's role in all of this? It sounded like she was resigned to the fact her husband had been unfaithful. I'm sure she was one of the people losing the most through his death so I didn't believe she was directly involved. Although I didn’t know for certain. Did it really make sense to investigate further? I thought it would have been easier to get to the bottom of this. I ran my hands over my face. No, giving up now was out of the question! There was nothing left but to try and collect more pieces of the puzzle. I had one lead left. Iulia. --- The Trajan Markets were bustling as always when I arrived. Besides the Trajan Baths and the Trajan Forum, they were another of the buildings constructed under the emperor of the same name, a good fifty years ago. The Trajan markets could best be compared to a modern shopping center. Though instead of a few big stores there were a lot of small shops. The imposing multi-story complex formed a semicircle that was open to the street. The forecourt was lined with marble and decorated with columns. There were numerous market stalls and booths that mainly sold food from the farmers of the region who brought their products to the citizens here. In the building itself, wine, spices, and oil were traded among other things. The latter was also on my shopping list. However, before I went on my errands, I would take a little detour. I passed the Trajan markets, turning right behind them into a small alley. After only a few steps I found the entrance I was looking for. The sign showed that it was the Rattling Coin Hotel. The not very original name was probably chosen due to the proximity to the markets. Pericles’ last mistress was supposed to work here, if one could believe the statement of her former neighbor. The term 'hotel' had to be interpreted carefully. ‘Flophouse’ might have been a better choice. In general, staying in hotels was more a choice of working people like sailors, muleteers and migrant workers. The more affluent classes stayed with relatives and friends whenever possible. I stepped towards the front door. Graffiti on the door frame caught my eye: "The wine here tastes like horse piss!" I wasn't sure which was more worrying, that the landlord had not yet taken the trouble to remove the writing, or that the writer apparently knew what horse piss tasted like. I took one more deep breath before I opened the door, stepping into a long guest room that covered most of the ground floor. A good dozen tables stood in the semi-darkness of the room, the only light coming from a few windows facing the street. It took my eyes a moment before they got used to it. Only two tables had anyone sitting at them. Not surprisingly, given it was early afternoon. In the middle of the room, adjoining the back wall, was the counter. It was occupied by a stocky bored looking man who barely looked up when I entered the room. Perhaps a waiter, or the innkeeper himself. There was no trace of Iulia, not that I knew how she looked. It was, therefore, necessary to inquire. I went to the counter to address the man behind it. He still wouldn't look at me. If it was really the innkeeper he must not have been very enterprising. Which, in turn, would fit with the graffiti that had not been removed. Though maybe he just didn't care because the customers came anyway – or even worse, the customers didn't care. "Excuse me, I'd like to speak to Iulia. I understand she works here as a waitress.“ The man slowly raised his head looking me over with reddened eyes. He did not seem to have had much sleep, perhaps a consequence of his profession in the hotel business. His head dropped again, only to rise again immediately, as if he was about to fall asleep. It was only a moment later that I realized it was a nod. "Four!" the man squawked. I looked at him uncomprehendingly. What did that mean? She's not coming until 4 pm? No, he couldn't mean that. There was no accurate measure of time due to the lack of clocks. The man looked at me with a blank expression. I tried again. "It's important that I talk to her. Do you know where I can find her?" My less talkative counterpart grunted. "I'm not interested. It's still four aces." Four aces. Ah, I should have guessed. So the information had a price. Aces were a smaller unit of denari. One denarius was equal to sixteen aces. I reached into my sack and took out the required coins. The man grabbed them. With practiced fingers he let them slide into his cash box. "Veneria! A Customer!" he yelled into a room behind him. Shortly afterward, a young woman stepped out of the back room. I examined her as she came towards me. She had shoulder length brunette hair tied in a braid. A smile played around the corners of her mouth. It appeared to be fake, considering the dark rings under her eyes, which revealed the true picture. Was that Iulia? The man - whom I now assumed was indeed the proprietor - had called her by another name. Either way, if this Veneria did not take me further in my search for Iulia, I would demand my four aces back. "Come," she said, taking me by the arm. She pulled me towards the stairs which led to the upper floor. I followed willingly. There was no need for the whole room down here to listen in on what we had to talk about. The young woman led me into a small, dreary room. No doubt it was one of the guest rooms. Despite a size of perhaps twelve square meters, three beds were set up in the room. When the woman closed the door behind us, I addressed her. "Listen, um... Veneria. I'm hoping you can help me. I'm looking for...” She interrupted me in the middle of my sentence by putting her index finger on my mouth. "I know what you're looking for," she whispered, "and you found me!" My mouth opened in amazement. So she was Iulia! But how did she know I was looking for her? The whole thing was very strange – and in retrospect clearly a case of 'not seeing the wood for the trees'. For shortly afterward the solution of the riddle was revealed to me – when the supposed Iulia let her breasts pop out of the corset, clasping my unsuspecting genitals with a firm hand. My mouth opened even wider. Being an idiot I had bought a prostitute with my four aces, not information. Meanwhile, she dragged my shocked body onto one of the beds. "You must be a shy one," she giggled. Faster than I could think, her hand had already found its way into my pants. It was high time to act! With a little more force than necessary, I pushed the lady away. She bounced against the wall where the bed stood. "Ow! You brute!" "Sorry," I started, "but this whole thing is a misunderstanding. I don't want to sleep with you! I'm just looking for a young woman named Iulia." She looked at me for a moment, stunned. "How do you know that name? What do you want from her?" she gushed. As I listened I realized she did know Iulia! Now all I had to do was persuade her to give me some more information. For a moment I toyed with the idea of telling the truth or taking up the story about the inheritance again. Considering the milieu Iulia had apparently fallen into, the latter seemed more motivating to me. "I really need to talk to her. It’s about the Pericles’ estate. He left her a large sum of money." Her eyes widened. "He did that!? So he really loved me!" Aha - Veneria and Iulia were one and the same person! At that moment an idea occurred to me – quite a brilliant one, if I say so myself. "There is only one problem," I began. "The family won't give you the money because they're convinced you had something to do with his death." She backed up a little. "Me? No! I didn't have anything to do with it!" I nodded reassuringly. "Of course not, but you were there - you know what really happened. All you have to do is tell me and I'll sort it out." Actually, it was a little mean to trick the poor thing like that, wasn't it? Well, come on... it's a murder investigation for Christ’s sake! However, Instead of gushing out the truth, Iulia moved back even further. "No," she shook her head violently, "I can't. I'd rather be a poor whore than a dead rich one." She got up and made preparations to leave the room. Her breasts were still hanging out of her corset. I held her by the arm. "Wait! You can trust me. I'll protect you." She shook her head. "No, you can't protect me, whoever you are. He would kill me." Her voice sounded frightened. "They are too powerful!" she hissed. She broke free and escaped through the door. I stayed in the room for a while. 'They are too powerful' - that sounded like a conspiracy of illuminative proportions. --- It was already a little later in the afternoon when I finally finished with the errands I had been asked to do. As I arrived back at the practice I almost collided with a patient who had stepped out from the front door. In the hallway, two more people were sitting on the narrow bench that served as a waiting area. I hardly noticed them, as my thoughts were still on my meeting with Iulia. "There you are!" Thalis greeted me when I entered the practice. There was a mixture of anger and relief in his voice. "I was beginning to worry! You don't usually take this long at the market." I put the supplies down and mumbled something about "a lot of traffic" and "a big rush" to justify my late arrival. Thalis didn't look very convinced, but he didn’t inquire further. "Where's Gregory?" I asked, to change the subject quickly. He wasn't in the practice. "Making house calls. The ones you were supposed to be doing.“ Shit. I knew I had forgotten something. "Sorry, Thalis. I'll leave right away if you want." He beckoned me over. "No, Phillip, just..." Thalis pulled me towards him. His mouth found mine and he gave me an intense kiss. "I'm glad you're back," he said, stroking my cheek with his hand. I nodded and smiled at him calmly. He then proceeded to put an arm around me and began to pull me onto the table. I pushed him away, however. "What is this, Thalis? I'm not going to enjoy myself in here with you while two more patients wait outside!" He made an indefinable noise and let go of me. I looked at him, but he averted his gaze. We stood there in silence for a while. Then he went outside to fetch the next patient. I was left with mixed feelings. Thalis leaned heavily on me at an emotional level, especially now after Alexios’ death. I could understand that... but where would it lead? --- It was a few days later when I took the stairs to the third floor to pay the merchant Frugi a visit. Not much had happened since. The daily rut took up most of my time with errands, house calls, and assisting in the practice. I used the time when I lay in bed at night to sort my thoughts. Iulia's reaction went through my mind again and again. It was clear that she had been an eyewitness to the horrible incident. Her words were therefore to be interpreted with caution. It was also likely that the murderer had urged her very strongly to keep quiet, or to tell the story about the accident. Nevertheless, there was something enlightening in her words 'they are too powerful'. There didn't have to be a conspiracy behind it. Though it meant that the murderer had not acted alone and perhaps he had not acted from his own motives either, but on order. Unfortunately, these findings neither made things easier nor did they bring me much closer to the truth. There was still no evidence that the murders of Pericles and Alexios were connected. Besides, it would have been a lie claiming that Iulia's words had not intimidated me at least a little. I therefore often asked myself whether it still made sense to continue investigating. On the other hand, I had the feeling that it would be cowardly and just as dangerous not to get to the bottom of it. In the end I had made a decision. I would put the case of Pericles aside and in the case of Alexios I would follow the one remaining lead I had. If nothing significant came up, I would drop the investigation for good. I knocked on the door of the merchant whose advice I wanted to get. Frugi opened shortly afterwards, greeting me in his jovial manner. "Ah, Phillip, do come in! A colleague of my profession - even if he's off duty like you - is always welcome." With these inviting words, I entered his apartment. As with our apartment below, one entered directly into the living and dining room. However, the furniture was more opulent up here. Two large tapestries decorated the room. One represented Greek, the other one Arabic motives. The usual couches were grouped around an elegant wooden table. On it, instead of a simple oil lamp, there was an elaborate piece made of silver. You could see that the merchant used these rooms for business and wanted to present well. Frugi was the epitome of hospitality, quite contrary to his name. Before I knew it, I already had a glass of wine in one hand and a small bite to eat in the other. He would certainly have been able to sell a raincoat to a desert dweller, or a vacuum cleaner. I was not in the mood for small talk though. I had a specific question for the merchant. So I came straight to the point. "Thank you Frugi, for your readiness to help. When Alexios... passed away, you told us to come to you if we needed anything. In fact, there is something I could use your advice on." Frugi nodded attentively and gestured for me to take a seat. "Please, Phillip. I'll help in any way I can." I took a linen cloth out of my pocket, unrolling the object contained in it. I laid it on the table. It was the dagger with which Alexios had been murdered. Frugi sucked in the air through his teeth. "Is this... what I think it is?" I nodded. "Yes, this is the dagger that was thrust into Alexios' heart. My question is, can you tell me anything useful about it?" Frugi stared at the weapon for a while. Then he looked at me, his forehead furrowed. "Phillip, I don't know... are you sure you want to go down this path? Research of this sort often leads to more misfortunes." I resisted his gaze. "I have followed this path for some time, Frugi. Unfortunately, so far with only moderate success. So if there's anything you can do to help me, I'd be very grateful." The merchant sighed and took up the dagger carefully. He looked at it from all sides. "Handcrafted in an exemplary manner," he commented. "The design corresponds to the latest fashion. It's not more than a year old." I pointed out the engraving. "Do you know what this number means?" Frugi got up and went over to the window. He held the dagger against the light to be able to read the engraving better. "M I I," he said. "Well, Phillip, that's not a number. It's the initials of the armorer who made the dagger." My heart was beating faster. "Do you know who that is?" I breathed. "Marcus Iulius Iustus. He has his shop not far from the Colosseum on Via Spirenca. I've done business with him from time to time. He's an agreeable man." Finally, a viable lead! I quickly took the dagger back. "Thank you, Frugi. That helps me a lot!" I was already turning to leave when the merchant held me back once more. "Please Phillip, be careful," he warned me forcefully. "Only the well-to-do can afford such a dagger and these people tend to have little scruples.”
  3. It was a holiday with nothing to celebrate. Gregory, Thalis, Helena, and I were lying at the dinner table in the apartment. There was breakfast waiting to be eaten. Nobody had any appetite though. Frugi had just left the apartment again. He had come down, visibly upset, to assure the brothers of his sympathy and all the support they would need. Gregory's face was petrified, in a grimace of pain. Thalis had shed many tears and buried his face in his hands. I too was quite shaken by what I had experienced. Of course, I was not nearly as close to Alex as his brothers. Though I was very sorry that they had to deal with such a horrendous stroke of fate, especially after things were starting to look good. Besides, I still blamed myself. Again and again I went through the events in my head. I could have saved him if I hadn't drunk so much wine and reacted faster, couldn't I? The big questions, which were written all over everyone's face, nobody dared to speak out yet. How would the practice continue? Would they be able to pay the rent on their own? In those minutes a decision grew in me. Alexio's killer had to be found and brought to justice and it was up to me to find him! Unfortunately, in ancient Rome there was no public prosecutor's office or police force that could set up a special commission to investigate a murder in detail. Although there was a court system, this required the plaintiff to name the accused and that was not possible until the murderer was known. So who was going to find him but me? Gregory and Thalis had to take care of the practice now more than ever. Besides, thanks to the TTEK I might have had one or two investigative advantages and last but not least, I wanted to prevent them from putting themselves in unnecessary danger. My eyes wandered to Helena. She looked out of the window. I wondered what she thought. Did she know more than the others? Was there any connection between her husband's death and Alex's murder? My mind was working clear and unclouded again. I had to find the meaning behind the events. So, where to start? Of course with inspecting the crime scene! I jumped up and left the room. The others hardly noticed. Arriving downstairs, I took a short breath before entering the practice, arming myself against the sight I would encounter. Nevertheless, I felt sick when I saw the dead Greek lying on the floor. An unpleasant, indefinable smell was in the air. I bit my lip and tried to swallow the nausea. Entering the room, I took a big step over the pool of blood where I had slipped the first time. It had spread a little further. The body was still in its original location. However, they had already sent for the undertaker, who would surely arrive soon. The first question to answer was why Alex was down here at all when the break-in happened. He had said that he was going back to the office… but why was he still here so late? "Elisa, give me the timeline from when I arrived back home last night until the break-in." "The timeline, in modern time units, is as follows. Your arrival was at 7:42 p.m. Then party till 12:48 a.m., with Alexios leaving at 10:16 p.m. You fell asleep at 12:52 a.m and the break-in took place at 3:10 a.m.“ I paused. "Why are you labeling last night’s dinner as a ‘party’?" "You participated in a social gathering last night, consuming food and various alcoholic beverages. This is more concisely defined as a party.“ Normally, something like this would amuse me. However, I didn't feel in that mood now. Considering the timeline, Alexios had been down here for almost five hours, from leaving the 'party' until the break-in. What had he done during that time? I took in the state of the room. At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary. All cupboards and drawers were closed. The work surfaces were clean. So he had not prepared any medicine. My gaze stopped at the desk. There were several patient files on it. I used to put them away every time the office closed. Though yesterday I had been to the baths. The files were sorted into two stacks. Five on the left side and three on the right side of the table. In the middle between the two stacks was an open file. Apart from that, the inkwell in which the nib was stuck and an empty oil lamp were standing on the table. The chair, which normally stood behind the desk, lay tipped over on the floor. All this evidence easily combined into one picture. Alex had come down here to work on these patient files. Perhaps to catch up on notes he didn't have time to take in the rush of the day. The open inkwell and the two stacks indicated that he had not finished his work. However, it would hardly have taken him five hours for a handful of files. So probably tiredness had gotter the better of him and he fell asleep at his desk. Finally, the position of the chair could mean that Alex had knocked it over when he got up, startled by the burglar. I tried to figure what happened next. Alex lay a few steps away from the desk, closer to the door than to the desk. That means he was walking towards the burglar when he entered. But why? Did he want to confront him? Chase him away? Or did he not suspect anything bad and maybe even thought someone had come for a medical emergency? Eventually, the burglar must have pulled out his dagger and stabbed Alexios in the chest before he left in haste. I knelt down next to the body. The unpleasant smell became more intense and I started to breathe through my mouth. In addition to the fatal injury to the chest, I recognized a cut on the right arm. So Alex had fought back when the unknown man attacked him with the dagger. Of course not very successful, since he hadn’t had a weapon at his disposal. I took a closer look at the dagger that was still stuck in the dead man's torso. The blade, as you would expect, was made of metal, the handle was wood. The transition between the materials was neatly finished and as far as I could tell it was of good craftsmanship. Apart from that, I didn’t notice anything special on the handle. I couldn't take a closer look at the blade though, not while it was still in Alexios chest. I held my head away to the side to take another deep breath. Then I stretched out my hand, ready to pull out the dagger. Though at the last moment I paused - what about fingerprints? "Elisa, can you lift the fingerprints off the dagger's handle?" "The TTEK is not a forensics laboratory, Dr. Marten. However, it should be possible to reconstruct the prints from the sensor data. Slowly move the right bracelet half an inch over the surface of the object." Crime lab or not, it worked. I found myself smiling, but the hint of a smile was immediately replaced by an uneasy feeling of guilt. Scary - in some perverse way, I was enjoying this investigative shit. I shook my head, reminding myself of the presence of a dead person in the room. It could hardly be more serious! I stretched out my right arm and did as Elisa requested. I repeated the procedure for each side of the handle. I waited a few seconds, but nothing happened. Well, asking why it takes so long won't make it go any faster. Elisa would contact me when she was done with the calculations. In the meantime, I proceeded to actually pull out the dagger, producing a disgusting sound. Even then there wasn’t much to see of the blade, because it was completely covered with blood. I fought off the nausea that was building up again and stood up, heading to the worktable where the oils, tinctures, and other medicines were prepared. As usual, there was a bowl of water standing there. I dunked the dagger into it, washing off the blood. Now I could get a better look at the blade. It also looked to be of good quality, but had no special features. I turned the dagger on its axis, when I suddenly noticed a bump on the side facing me. I looked closer. It was an engraving. There were three letters: M I I That was a Roman numeral! In our decimal system, it was the number 1002. What was it supposed to represent though? It couldn't be a year, we were only in the year 954 according to the Roman calendar. Perhaps it was some kind of serial number, indicating that it was the one thousand and second dagger of this type? I couldn't think of how that information would help me, though. There was no indication of the weapons’s manufacturer. Elisa finally got in touch. "Fingerprints from at least two different hands were registered. Among them a left hand and a right hand. I have the prints stored for future reference.” Two hands? I locked my right hand around the handle. It encompassed it completely. So it wasn’t possible to leave prints on the handle with both hands at the same time. Either the killer had held the dagger with both hands alternately, or the prints came from more than one person. In the latter case the most obvious person was of course Alexios. That should be easy to find out. I went back over to the dead man. His hands were half closed. So I couldn't scan them. I sighed and bit my lips, trying to overcome my inhibition to open the dead man’s hands. A shiver ran down my back as I touched the cold and already somewhat stiff fingers. When it was done, I slowly ran my right arm over the fingertips. "Compare the stored prints with these fingers, Elisa.“ This time it did not take quite as long until I received an answer. "I detect a partial match. The fingers match the stored fingerprints of a right hand." I see. So did Alexios clasp the dagger when it was already in his chest? Perhaps. I re-enacted the scene. I held the dagger in front of me and grasped it with my right hand, with the blade pointing towards my chest. Quite logically, in this position my thumb pointed in the direction of the pommel. If I held the dagger the other way round, the way the attacker had to hold it, my thumb pointed in the direction of the blade. I asked Elisa for the orientation of the prints found on the dagger. Without hesitation she confirmed that the right hand was directed to the pommel and the left hand to the tip. So Alexios had indeed clasped the dagger with his right hand after the attacker had thrust it into his chest. However, this revelation didn't really help to advance the investigation. Perhaps the more interesting conclusion was that his killer must have been left-handed. Because the other print could only have come from him. And it was a left-hand print. Or was he wearing gloves? I tried to remember the brief encounter in the hallway. No, I couldn't possibly say. I hadn’t been able to make out more than a dark silhouette in the moonlight. Nevertheless, I came to the conclusion that he had probably not been wearing gloves. First, he didn't have to worry about fingerprints in this millennium. Second, gloves would have been a hindrance to him picking the lock. So the killer was left-handed. Unfortunately, I was afraid that didn't narrow down the list of suspects enough. Speaking of suspects. Who were the suspects? What was the motive? Before I could think about that, there was a knock on the door of the practice. "This is the undertaker." I quickly hid the dagger in the lowest drawer of the herb cupboard before opening the door. As much as I had complained about the profession of the ancient doctor and especially the surgeon – undertaker was worse. --- It was shortly before sunset when the small procession crossed the city wall. Alexios was laid out, carried by the two remaining brothers. Thalis, who was walking ahead, looked at the ground in front of him. Gregory followed in silence. A handful of people walked to the left and right of the stretcher. Helena, Frugi, and a few other friends of the family I didn’t know. We left the hustle and bustle of the main road behind us and after a few minutes we reached the grave where Pericles was buried. Right next to it, Alex would find his last resting place. The undertaker and his assistant had already started to dig the grave. When they were finished, the sun finally disappeared behind the horizon. I trembled a little, unclear whether it was due to the occasion or the drop in temperature. Everyone gathered around the corpse and Thalis, now the elder, gave a short oration. He mentioned their childhood, their good and bad experiences in their homeland, the hopes they had with the move to Rome. He emphasized what a big part Alexios had played in their success. That it was him who gave them the courage to take the risk of a new beginning. That he, the big brother, had often been like a father to them. Strangely enough, Thalis' speech filled me not only with sadness but also with admiration. Although he seemed the most affected by the loss of all of them, he found such clear and concise words. I wondered if I would be able to do the same if there was a bereavement in my own family? Perhaps they had already declared me dead at home and there had been a funeral service for me? I shook off the thought and concentrated on the ceremony. Thalis now approached the corpse. He gave his brother a kiss and put something in his mouth. "A coin, as ferry money for the river of death. It’s a Greek tradition," Frugi whispered in my ear, rightly assuming that I didn’t know. The body was then lowered into the excavated grave. In the light of a few oil lamps the shovelling began. I took a few steps away from the group. I sucked in deeply the cool night air which sharpened my thoughts. I went back over what I had found out about the murder so far. While the concrete course of the crime was quite clear, the suspects still had to be narrowed down. The first step in that process could be the motive. What would be the most obvoius? A robbery, of course. The killer wanted to break into the practice to steal something. I went through the inventory in my mind. Sure, some of the ointments, oils, and even ingredients were quite valuable. However, I hardly believed that a common thief would be interested in them. The income of the practice in the form of hard coins would be more of a potential target. Here too the thief would have left empty-handed. The brothers collected their earnings in a small chest, which they always took with them in the evening. On the other hand – how would a thief know that? From his point of view there was at least a chance for some loot. I thought about who could be a suspect in this scenario. Unfortunately, it came down to just about every crook in town who could read the doctor's sign on the door. However, perhaps it wasn't a robbery after all. So what were the reasons for it not being a robbery? Thinking about it, I spontaneously remembered the dagger that had served as the murder weapon. It was of good quality and probably beyond what a simple man could afford. I shook my head. That train of thought made no sense. If it was a thief, the dagger might as easily have been the booty from a previous robbery. What else didn't fit? Well, of course, there was the fact that nothing was actually stolen. Which was not saying much though, since the perpetrator was interrupted by Alex's presence. I remembered how I had stormed into the room at night. A short shiver ran down my spine. Only the moonlight had illuminated the scene. So the oil lamp had already gone out at the time of the murder. Which in turn meant that a potential thief from the outside could not have seen that there was someone in the office. So the encounter would have surprised the intruder at least as much as the sleeping doctor. Then why the murder in the first place? Why didn't the thief turn on his heels when he realized his mistake? Maybe to leave no witness? Maybe out of panic? I sighed. There were too many open questions to which I neither knew the answer nor how to find out. So I tried a different approach. Assuming it wasn't a robbery, what else could it have been? The only alternative I could think of was that it was a targeted assassination. Either on Alexios in particular, or the three brothers in general. In that case, how did the killer know that someone would be in the office that night? Of course, you would have seen the light of the oil lamp through the window until it went out. I took a look back at the grave site, which was also illuminated by these small oil lamps. I had seen these lamps before and knew that they lasted about three hours before you had to fill up oil. So let's assume that Alexios had filled up the lamp at the beginning of his late session. It would then have gone out two hours before the burglary. So had the killer waited this long in the vicinity? It didn't make sense to me. If he wanted to be sure he'd find the victim, he would have entered while the lamp was on. Or did he want to surprise his victim in his sleep? That didn't make sense either. First, the intruder hadn't been particularly quiet. Second, how could he have known that Alexios had fallen asleep at his desk instead of putting out the lamp and going upstairs? I sighed again. This scenario didn’t really bring me any closer to revealing the truth. Especially since the question of the motive for a targeted assassination was completely open. A dissatisfied patient? A disgruntled competitor? Maybe a connection to Pericles’ death? I ran my hands over my face. No, it wouldn't be so easy. I flinched when someone put a hand on my shoulder from behind. It was Thalis. "Are you coming, Phillip? We're going back to the apartment." His voice sounded faint and broken. The composure he had previously shown in his speech had disappeared. I nodded, following him back onto the road. He walked beside me and hooked his arm under mine. "Phillip, we... I need your support now more than ever. You'll help us, won't you?" I looked at him. He couldn't resist my gaze and looked down at the street. I wasn't sure what he meant exactly. Support in the practice? Or more on a personal, emotional level? Maybe both. Well, sure, I would support him and Gregory in any way I could. --- It was already after ten o'clock in the evening when the small funeral party disbanded and we returned to the apartment. While the others climbed the stairs, exhausted, I stayed behind downstairs. Certainly, nobody had yet restored order in the practice. Indeed, everything was still as I had left it in the late afternoon when the undertaker had come. Especially the pool of blood now well dried yet none the less smelly. I shrugged my shoulders and brought myself to reach for rags and a bucket. Someone had to do it. A quarter of an hour later, the room was put back in order. So tomorrow a new day could begin and the practice could be open again, as if nothing had happened - at least that's how it would appear to an outsider. Though the initiated knew that it would not be like the day before. I paused for a moment. Yes, I suppose they'd have to give up the practice at the baths. My gaze fell on the desk where files were still lying in the two stacks Alexios had worked on before his death. I stepped closer to put them back into the cupboard. I took a look at the file in the middle and opened it. It was the file of a certain Tullius Varus. After perusing the notes, I noticed it was the older man who had his leg amputated. A shiver ran down my spine as the memory of the procedure came to me. Fortunately for the patient, the wound seemed to have healed well. I looked through the other files, but only recognized one patient. Clodia, the rich lady, who had reported another little affliction and was given an expensive tincture. I looked over to the cupboard in which all other files were sorted. If the killer was a patient or a relative then perhaps there was a clue there. I sighed, as I had all too often that day. All right, I had to go through all the files. A few hours later, it had to be well after midnight, I pushed the last file back into the cupboard. I had tried to find patients whose treatment had been particularly unsuccessful or tragic. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, this had hardly been the case. There was only one file that stood out. A young woman named Minna who had been treated for a stomach problem. She died a few days later. Alexio's note made it clear that he didn't see any connection, but her husband did. It wasn't much. Perhaps a lead worth pursuing, though. I let my head sink to the table, exhausted - but soon after I was startled when Elisa's voice resounded in my ear. "Dr. Marten. I would like to warn you not to fall asleep after looking through files at a desk, after midnight and in the light of an oil lamp that will soon go out – a sequence of events that ended with the death of the last person at that desk.” Well, I wasn't superstitious, but the thought couldn’t be entirely dismissed. So I put out the oil lamp and went upstairs.
  4. DavidJ

    Chapter 6

    What are your thoughts as the developments are piling up? Will the brothers be able to overcome this blow? Will they get to the bottom of what is going on?
  5. Thalis walked over to one of the cupboards and took out some vials and bowls. "Anyway, we're out of dill oil. I'll use the time to make some more." Alexios nodded and left the practice. I listened as he went upstairs, perhaps to let Gregory know that the 'rich chick' was gone and he could come down again. Meanwhile, I remained at the desk, trying to put Clodia's file into the right drawer. It was sorted alphabetically. A to C was found on the left side of the desk in the first drawer from the top. Thalis cleared his throat and turned to me. His mouth opened a little, but it took him a moment to get the words out. "Phillip, can you help me with this? Preparing the oil, I mean. At least you'll learn something useful." I shrugged my shoulders and got up from my seat behind the desk. Why wouldn't I? All of this was far better than holding down screaming patients while their limbs were severed. "Tell me though, Phillip, what did you think of the rich - and if Alex has his way, beautiful - Clodia?", Thalis asked me, rolling his eyes at the mention of his brother. I shrugged my shoulders again. "I didn't think she was pretty either, nor very pleasant. Yes, almost hypocritical, I'd say. Perhaps that's because I've known her for longer than you guys.” He looked at me, astonished. "How come?" I laughed and hurried to explain what I meant by telling him about my way home yesterday. Thalis snorted and nodded his head. "I can well imagine that. It only confirms the image I already have." He poured oil from a large bottle into a mixing vessel. "It's actually quite simple. You fill the jug a third full of oil, then the dill blossom comes in. As much as will fit and still be completely covered with oil. And then you stir and knead well, for at least an hour. For that you need to dunk your hands in honey first." After he added the dill flowers, we took turns mixing the oil. Unfortunately, time passed painfully slowly. It wasn't as if the process had been particularly arduous. No, it was a tension that was in the air between Thalis and me. When it felt like two hours I asked Elisa about the time that had passed. It was only twenty-seven minutes. Since starting we hadn't exchanged another word. I noticed though how Thalis gave me sideways glances when I stirred the mixture. Finally he cleared his throat and paused. His hands were still dipped in the oil when he turned to me. "Listen, Phillip... I owe you an apology." His voice sounded uncertain. I looked at him tensely. "I caught you off guard the other day and took advantage of the fact that you were drunk. So you can’t exactly say that we actually did something together. Meaning I'm really not right to complain that you and Gregory are together now." Ah, that story again. How could I best explain to him that there was nothing between Gregory and I? I took a step towards him and put my right hand on his shoulder. "Thalis, now you listen to me. Let me tell you, there's nothing going on between me and Gregory. I don't even think he wants anything from me. In fact, he's not very nice to me, I'd say.” Thalis looked at me, his expression unclear. He went silent for a moment before answering. "I know Gregory, he is my brother, after all. He’s not picky. Pretty girl or tasty guy, no one is safe from him." I had to giggle. "Does this mean you think I'm a 'tasty guy'?" His face turned a little red. "I... think you're... nice." His choice of words only intensified my giggling, which upset him further. I cleared my throat and pulled myself together. I didn't want there to be another misunderstanding. "Thalis", I replied seriously but sensitively, "I think you're nice too." I decided to take the initiative one step further. I leaned over to him and gave him a tender kiss on the mouth. He was too surprised to return it. But when I retracted, I saw the smile on his face. It widened into a big grin. "Let me quickly clean the oil off my hands so that I can better repay you," he said. I approached him and held him back. "Why clean your hands?" I asked, grinning mischievously. "There are all sorts of things you can do with oil!" He looked at me, puzzled. Then the penny dropped. "Oooh, Phillip!" he replied lustfully. "Little did I know you were such a naughty guy!" Was I? Actually, no. I wasn't sure what got hold of me during those minutes. Was it lust, repressed for too long? Or just plain madness? Anyway, I walked backward towards the treatment table, tearing my shirt off. "Oh dear medicus", I imitated the last patient, my voice purring, "I have this pain in my lower lumbar region. Maybe there's an ointment for it?!" I let myself fall backwards onto the table. I almost slipped a little too far, risking to fall off on the other side. Laughing, I also did away with my trousers. Thalis had come closer in the meantime. He held his well-oiled hands at the ready in front of him. "Certainly, my lady! Let's see if we can do something about this fertility problem!" My sexual experiences with Manu had always been beautiful and emotional - but also somehow awkward since neither of us had any real experience. It was different here. More superficial, more physical - but at least as intense. Thalis knew exactly what he was doing. While we both enjoyed ourselves on the table, the next quarter of an hour passed by in a flash. A not inconsiderable amount of the oil intended for medicinal purposes was used in a much more profane way. The whole thing had only one catch, which we had unfortunately overlooked thanks to our bubbling libido. A creaky noise sounded and the door to the practice room swung open. Alexios came in. He stopped as if rooted to the spot, his eyes gaped open. His view must have been bizarre. Two naked bodies on the treatment table, embraced in a clear pose, the skin shining and shimmering from the oil. Whilst I should have been dying of shame right there and then, I instead found the situation hilarious and started laughing out loud. Thalis was a little more startled. He stammered. "Umm... it's just... a massage. Phillip had tension in his back!" This stupid - and for everyone who saw it obviously wrong - excuse only made me laugh even harder. Alexios lowered his head, burying his face in his hands. A few seconds passed in which nobody moved. Only my laughter, which had been reduced to a giggle, penetrated the silence. Finally, Alexios lifted his head again. His expression was serious, but a twitch played around the corners of his mouth. "This is a doctor's office, not a brothel! " he shouted to us. "Imagine if a customer had come in!" Unfortunately, this very justified consideration had escaped us. As well as the fact that we were in a room with an unlocked door. "What is it with you guys and oil anyway?” He shook his head. “No, I don't want to know. Clean yourselves up and get dressed!" He turned around, making his way to the door. Before reaching it, he burst out laughing. "Tension in the back... yeah, right. More likely a tense penis, to be treated by rectal massage!“ Finally he pulled the door shut behind him. Thalis had moved nothing but his head during the whole scene. Even little Thalis was still inside me, albeit deflated. The oil caused a smacking noise when he detached himself from me. Thalis let his head fall on my chest. "Oh, man, that was embarrassing." --- The next two weeks passed faster than expected. I didn't have a lot of free time which saved me from pondering my future too much. What started as two or three patients a day quickly went became ten. After the end of the first week, the waiting area was virtually always occupied, often there were more patients than the brothers had time to treat. These were mainly the less wealthy who did not have a fixed appointment but came to see a doctor after work. Therefore, the practice was quite full, especially in the afternoon, mornings were a little quieter. It was the more affluent clients who did not have to keep regular working hours, who occupied the mornings, as well as more serious cases that were too weak to work. The most fun though - if one could use the word in this context - were the visits to the thermal baths. The brothers had managed to rent a room in the Trajan Baths even though another doctor had settled there after Pericles' death. However, over time, he had proven to be an incompetent charlatan and complaints had accumulated, finishing recently with him being dismissed. That was a stroke of luck for the three brothers because a thermal bath house was the ideal place to acquire new customers. It was the antique equivalent of a water park, without the slides, of course. It was by no means lagging behind the modern version in size and capacity. With more than a hundred thousand square yards of space, the site could accommodate more than a thousand visitors at a time. It was mainly thanks to their presence at the bath that the practice was so well attended. The three brothers even had an advantage over their uncle. In contrast to Pericles, they were able to divide their time and thus one of them was always there and they covered the whole week. It was noon when Thalis and I arrived at the Trajan Baths, walking through one of the three magnificent round arches, which formed the entrance to the park. The inner courtyard comprised a swimming pool covering almost the entire area, lined with arcades on both sides. The pool was empty, but this would change in half an hour when the baths opened for the early afternoon. On a normal day like this, I assisted in the practice the morning and after a quick lunch accompanied one of the brothers to the thermal baths. Usually, Alexios and Thalis took turns. Gregory was less satisfied with the situation because in my absence he often had to take over those assistant duties that I usually took care of. However, he didn't want to go to the baths either. According to his words it was even more beneath his dignity to massage the limbs of fat bathing bigwigs after their 'sport'. Indeed, massages with various essential oils were among our main tasks there. Of course, medical consultations were also offered and simple ailments were treated. Though more serious cases were referred to the actual practice. In the first week, Alexios and Thalis had taught me the basics of massage. Alex had taken the opportunity to point out that I obviously knew a lot about massage oil already. It wasn’t long until I had to roll up my sleves and do massages on real customers. Kneading one customer after the other was much more strenuous than I had imagined. Thalis and I walked along the left colonnade and entered the main central hall. We were heading for one of its side rooms which had been assigned to the brothers. The bath was constructed symmetrically with an identical set of rooms to the left and right of the main hall. The two wings had different sections each with hot pools, cold baths, and sauna-like rooms. The left wing should be reserved for men and the right wing for women. Officially, there was a separation of the sexes, but it was not always respected. Fortunately, I could not confirm Gregory's prejudice that the bathers were 'fat bigwigs'. Sure, there were exceptions, but in general the opposite was true. Most Romans seemed to pay attention to their figure. The baths’ sports facilities were always well-visited. What fascinated me most was the clothing of the bathers. Or rather, the lack of clothing. People were completely naked in the bathing area. Only wearing a loincloth for sports. Thanks to these customs, I was often offered a pleasurable view of well-trained bodies. And when I had the pleasure of welcoming such an Adonis on my massage table, naked of course, then the day was perfect. I suppose it was understandable that it took me a few days to get used to this and being able to do my 'work' without a permanent erection - luckily I didn't have to be naked! Before we entered the small room, we greeted our neighbor on the left. He like us had also just opened his shop, a clothing store. From the room on the right, a snack bar, the smell of frying was already in the air. I helped Thalis and in no time we had everything ready for the arrival of the first visitors. The room offered enough space for a pair of cupboards, a small working table and two treatment tables. Outside we set up a slate which advertised the offered services. The room was too small for a separate waiting area, but Alexios had organized a bench to sit on outside the room. I glanced discreetly at Thalis as he took some materials from the cupboard. He didn't notice. My relationship with him was very good since the incident with the oil - one could almost call it reconciliation sex. He gladly made himself available as a test subject for my massage training, completely selflessly of course. Often, such a training massage ended with a 'happy end' - for the trainer as well as for the student. This time with a closed door, though. Every time I thought about the two of us, I came to the same conclusion. I liked Thalis and thought he was cute, but I wasn’t in love with him. Perhaps things would have been different had I not experienced Egypt. There I had found my first real love - and lost it. Thinking back, this still hurt a lot. How long ago was that now? Just over three weeks, although it felt like three months had passed here. Still, I wasn't ready for another serious relationship yet. Maybe with enough time and for once I had plenty of that. I had known for quite a while that there was no chance of returning and I had more or less accepted it. I wasn't sure what Thalis was expecting? Did he view it the same way I did, or did he expect more? I noticed the occasional sideways glance from him when I was massaging a particularly well-built body, but who knew whether he was jealous of me or the customer. On the other hand, what more could he want? Unlike in ancient Egypt, homosexuality was widely accepted in Rome, but homosexual marriage didn't exist. I shook my head to dispel those thoughts. Everything was alright the way it was. Yeah, considering the circumstances, I was doing pretty good here. Better than I first feared, anyway. I heard someone clearing his throat behind me. I turned around. It was the owner of the diner next door. "This is a doctor's office, isn't it?" Thalis nodded, approaching the guy. "Yes sure, what can I do for you, dear neighbor?" "Well, I've had this athlete's foot for a while now and on my big toe a festering ulcer. Maybe you could take a look at it?" I turned to one of the cupboards, pretending to be terribly busy with something else. I had to giggle quietly and at the same time sigh with relief. Good thing I wasn't the one in the room with medical qualifications. Should the brothers ever want to train me in this respect, I would definitely refuse. --- The rest of the working day had been largely uneventful. It was shortly before sunset when Thalis and I left the thermal baths to head home. That was possible on foot without any problem. In about a quarter of an hour we reached the house, just as the sun disappeared behind the buildings. I paused on the veranda, looking at the setting sun. An intense orange-red saturated the sky. The clouds were shaded from pink to purple, depending on their height. What a beautiful evening. Thalis stepped beside me and put his hand on my shoulder. "You know," he began, "initially I had little hope. Hope. When we first got here, seeing the way it is. Rough, direct, more concerned with the coin than the man. It was different to our little town where almost everyone knew each other. I didn't really think we would be able to get a foothold here.” He followed my gaze into the sky before continuing. "Though it seems to be working out after all. Alex was right. And there are beautiful sunsets here too." His eyes wandered to me and my gaze met his. "Thank you, Phillip, for being here to help us... and me in particular." I broke eye contact before the whole thing got too romantic. "On the contrary, Thalis. I must thank you guys. Without you, I'm sure my future in this city would have been bleaker. Come though, let's go inside. I'm sure the others are waiting for dinner.” So it was. Helena must have guessed we were arriving or seen us out the window. She was already standing in the doorway when we came up the stairs. "Ah, there you are at last!" she called to us in a good mood. "Dinner is served. And Frugi is also visiting!" Hence the lady's good mood. Sure, one could have a good chat with the merchant, having him tell a couple of anecdotes. However, I wondered whether there was more to Helena's joy concering Frugi than met the eye. Who knew? Frugi himself greeted us as we entered. "May I infer from your late arrival that you enjoyed the pleasure of bathing yourselves after closing up shop?" Thalis shook his head. "No, certainly not, Frugi. And if I look at the number of ointments sold for athlete's foot, I don't know if I'd like to either." The merchant giggled. "Oh, Thalis, there's nothing that can spoil a true Roman's bath! And I promise you, tomorrow I'll go to the Trajan Baths and stop by your booth." We took a seat on the uncomfortable couches. Apparently, Helena had splashed out today, having prepared some delicious food. We had a salad with eggs and mushrooms as the starter, following an appetizer of fish. The general mood was noticeably better, more relaxed than two weeks ago. Frugi lifted his glass in which the mead swayed. "To the success of our trio of doctors! May your patients be cured and your coffers filled!" Everyone joined in with laughter and we each took a sip. "Thank you, Frugi!" Alex started, addressing everyone. "We have been practicing here for two weeks. I think we've made it halfway. We're almost always busy. We just have to manage to attract more solvent customers. I am confident though that this will come with time. The baths are a great advertisement." The participants agreed, toasting each other. The meal continued until after sunset. Afterward, we still sat together for some time - of course with a generous serving of Frugi's wine. That was okay because tomorrow was a holiday for once and the practice was supposed to be closed. Only Alex held back with the wine, wanting to finish some documents in the practice after dinner. The merchant was in his element. He was just telling a joke about doctors. "A scholastic goes for a walk when he sees his family doctor. He quickly hides in a doorway. His companion asks, confused 'What is this, why are you hiding?' He replies 'It's been a long time since I was last ill. I’m ashamed.' His joke was answered by loud laughter from all sides. I was quite drunk, but I still didn't think it was funny. Well, different times, different jokes. Something, probably the wine, led me to make a joke as well. I cleared my throat and began, my voice slightly husky. "A man goes to the doctor. The doctor: ‘You must stop masturbating.’ The man asks ‘Why?’ and the doctor replies ‘Because otherwise, I can't examine you’.” In fact, this time everyone joined in. Slippery humor was very popular in ancient Rome as well. After Frugi and I had told a joke, everyone in turn had to tell one. Gregory pleaded to make it a drinking game. If you couldn't think of a joke, you had to drink. "But there must be doctors in it!" he added. Only Alex refused and said goodbye for the evening. I couldn't say exactly how much time had passed when the circle disbanded. Unfortunately, no more doctor jokes had occurred to me. Accordingly unsteady on my legs, I staggered to my chamber, letting myself plonk down on the bed. Before I fell asleep, the thought occurred to me that I could have asked Elisa. Would she have known a doctor joke? --- I was awakened by whistles and roars in my head. So this was the punishment for consuming an excessive amount of wine. I opened one eye and looked out the window. It was still dark outside as well as inside. I noticed the sound was only in my right ear. No sooner had I gained this insight than the noises stopped abruptly. Instead, I heard Elisa's metallic voice. It was clear to me that this had been a wake-up call. The fact that she woke me up in the middle of the night did not bode well. "Alarm! The lock on the front door was forced seventeen seconds ago. Probability eighty-seven percent." My brain worked slowly, processing one thought at a time. Eighty-seven percent. That meant the margin for error was one hundred minus seventeen... no, one hundred minus eighty-seven, which computed to… I interrupted the thought, as it was completely irrelevant, skipping to the next one. A burglar! Downstairs, at the front door! Doing what? Wake the others! Right? Maybe he was armed? Would he come up, or was he planning to clear out the practice? "A second door has just been broken into. Probability of the scenario now ninety-eight percent." There was only one other door on the ground floor. The one to the practice. "How many burglars are there, Elisa?" "One person. However, I am detecting two life signs downstairs.“ I sat up for good. One burglar, but two people? Which means... "The sounds now indicate the use of a weapon. One person has been injured." I jumped up. I staggered for a moment before regaining my balance. I still didn't realize what was happening down there. Though I had to do something immediately. I tore open the door to my room, rushing out into the hallway. As I sprinted towards the front door, I screamed at the top of my lungs. "Burglar! Wake up!" In the darkness, I feverishly fumbled for the latch on the apartment door. I found it quickly, jerking the door open. I ran along the short corridor. Finally, I swung around onto the stairs to the ground floor. At that moment a figure rushed out of the practice room. Its head turned to me. For a small eternity, which hardly lasted a second, we stared at each other. I couldn't make out more than the outline of the person. It was too dark. Abruptly, the figure turned. It pushed open the front door, vanishing into the night. I snapped out of being petrified. I hurried down the stairs and through the open door into the practice. However, I didn't get very far. As soon as I walked through the door, I slipped and fell on my back. It hurt, but I hardly felt the pain. I quickly sat up again. My hands reached into something slippery. I drew a sharp breath. The sight in front of me was horrific. In the pale moonlight, I saw a person lying on the ground. He had a dagger stuck in his chest. Blood was all over the floor. I had slipped on it. I covered the last feet on all fours. I bent over the face of the injured man. Good Lord! It was Alex! Fuck! "Elisa!" I screamed the name of my electronic companion, forgetting to add the actual command. She understood nonetheless. Alex's eyes wandered to me. He made a wheezing sound. "The blade pierced his heart. I cannot identify suitable treatment." "Shit! Alex! Who did this?" I grabbed him by the shoulders as if it could help. He made no more than a gargle. Deep pain and sadness lay in his eyes. I knew it was not his physical suffering. He was aware that he was dying. That his two brothers, for whom he had always taken responsibility as the elder, would be left on their own. My mouth was trembling and tears were running down my cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Alex!" His hand rose slowly. For a second, it touched my cheek. Then it fell, limp. His gaze wandered into infinity. "The patient has died," Elisa commented needlessly. I let myself sink backwards and gave my tears free rein ... What if I'd been down here fifteen seconds earlier? Would I have been able to stop the drama? Or would there have simply been two dead people? I could barely hear Thalis and Gregory entering the room, screaming. They dropped to the ground beside their dead brother. Experienced but with trembling hands Thalis felt his pulse. Slowly his hands sank to the ground. "He's dead, Gregory. Alex is dead.“
  6. DavidJ

    Chapter 5

    I concur. We'll see whether drawing the curtain of silence over the matter will close it for good. I suppose love and jealousy is a top contender amongst reasons for homicide. So that's definitely possible.
  7. So it hadn't been a dream after all! I exhaled heavily. My hands were shaking even more than before. How should I act towards Thalis now? This morning, he didn’t let it show at all. Or I hadn't noticed. Were all three brothers gay or bisexual? At least this put Gregory's words in a different light. They were still direct and perhaps impertinent, but no longer completely out of the blue. Should I apologize to him? Yeah... that would probably be best, I thought. Taking another deep breath I stood up, but before I could go back inside two men stepped onto the porch. It was Alexios and Thalis. I wished they could have arrived two minutes later, I would have preferred to talk to Gregory before they all got together again. The two hardly looked up and almost collided with me. Alexios startled. "Ah Phillip, it's you. I hope you had more success than we did? Let's go inside.“ I followed the two brothers, feeling a little queasy, but my unease was unfounded as it turned out. Gregory occasionally gave me a sideways glance, but otherwise acted as if nothing was any different. Meanwhile, Thalis and Alex told me about their visits. I only listened with half an ear, but as far as I could understand, they had had little success. "This one," Thalis just pointed to a name on a long list, "even chased me off the premises, flailing with his dagger." Alexios shook his head. "I must admit, I had imagined it would be simpler. We must not despair though, brothers. Those were just a few names from a very long list of patients. And those who are sending us away now, we can come back to in a few months, when word of our skills should have gotten out!" He continued in a theatrical manner. "Bear in mind, my brothers, all the fools here pretending to be doctors. Any cobbler, weaver, or even butcher can call himself a doctor. But have they sworn the Hippocratic Oath? Have they read the Dioscorides and know every known remedy? Did they study Celsus and Galen, who until recently was still working in Rome himself? No, they have not! - But we have. Real art will stand out!“ "I hope so," Thalis said dryly. He sounded much less convinced than Alexios. Maybe he just wasn't such a good actor. Gregory spoke up. "I have good news for you. While you were out, someone stopped by and made an appointment for tomorrow." "Really?", Alexios looked up in amazement, "who and for when?" "Looked like a rich lady. Clodia Magni is her name. She wants to come in the afternoon.“ "You see," Alexios beamed, "word gets around fast!" Gregory waved him off. "No false optimism, brother. The lady just happened to be passing and saw me through the window putting things away. She was a former patient here and came in to check." Alexios sighed. "Never mind, one patient is already more than none." Then he turned to me. "So, did you find out anything?" he asked curiously. The others now looked attentively at me. I cleared my throat. "Yes, I did. But I don't really know what to make of it. So, this Iulia doesn't live there anymore. A neighbor named Cornelia has taken over the apartment, she did let me see the place. I've also spoken to another neighbor.“ "Yeah, so?", Gregory interrupted me, "Did Pericles really die there? “ Alexios made a gruff gesture towards Gregory. "Let him finish!" "Very probably, yes," I continued. "However, I am far less certain about the cause. The apartment has no windows only a balcony with a railing. To fall over it you would have to run onto the balcony at some speed, then stumble at just the right moment." "Or just being drunk," Thalis interjected. Alexios shook his head. "Our uncle wasn't a drunkard, he didn't think much of it... Look at his appointment books, filled to the brim." I hesitated for a moment before continuing, not knowing how the brothers would react to the next part of my report. "There's something else. Cornelia claimed that Pericles was not really Iulia's doctor. He was her secret lover.” A murmur went round. Gregory blew a whistle. "Impossible!" Alexios proclaimed. "Very possible!" Gregory countered, "What do we know? Countless men indulge in such pleasures when the opportunity arises.“ Alexios was not convinced. "I remember the last time I saw him and Helena, just before he moved to Rome. He loved her.“ "Sure, Alex. But that was over two years ago," Thalis replied. "A lot could have happened since then." Alexios nodded tentatively. "I still don't believe it, but all right. Let's say it's a possibility we can't dismiss completely." "Then we should also consider that perhaps Helena knew about it," Thalis said. Gregory jumped up. "Ha! That's it. She caught them both red-handed and pushed him over the railing!" Could it have played out like that? If she had acted out of jealousy, then wouldn’t Iulia rather be the victim? Besides, Helena was probably not strong enough to lift a grown man over the railing against his will, was she? I imagined the scene. Pericles and Iulia are at it wildly in the bedroom when there's a knock at the door. Iulia interrupts their rendezvous to check. Helena's voice comes through the door, asking about her husband's whereabouts. In a panic, Pericles jumps up, scurrying out of the bedroom. He runs towards the balcony to hide on the outside wall next to the balcony door. He is understandably careless in doing so. He stumbles at the wrong moment and the law of inertia pushes him over the railing. Yeah, it could have happened that way. I shared my thoughts with the others. Thalis nodded. "We must confront her." Gregory agreed. Alexios, however, raised his hands. "Not so fast, brothers. We should not do this." We all looked at him questioningly. "Very simply," he continued, "there are only two possibilities. Either she was telling the truth. Then we would only insult her by accusing her of having something to do with her husband's death or she lied and knows more than she's admitting. In which case, we'd offend her and risk to fall in disgrace. Remember, the lease is in Helena's name and until we get some income from the practice we are dependent on her twice over.“ The other two grumbled, but agreed. Thalis looked at me. "Were you able to find out where this Iulia lives now?" I shook my head. "I'm afraid not. But I know where she probably works." "Then perhaps you could intercept and question her there?" he suggested. "Yes," Gregory agreed, "by the looks of it, she's the only eyewitness." They were quite right. I just wasn't sure if there was any point in pursuing this matter any further. I had read too many crime novels not to know that something could happen to those who investigate such incidents too thoroughly. Alexios didn't think much of the proposition either, but for other reasons. "I am of the opinion that we should leave the matter be. I mean, what do we expect to find out? Suppose it happened the way Phillip thought it could? Would Helena have been responsible for our uncle's death? More likely he himself, since he was cheating, not her.” I agreed with Alexios. After discussing it for a while, we decided to stop investigating for now. He then suggested going upstairs to grab a bite for lunch. This found general approval. As the others left the room, Gregory held me back. He produced three coins and put them in my hand. "Here, your three denari. The herbs were really in the box. You'll have to tell me how you did it some time.“ He stomped past me and followed the others upstairs. I stayed behind in amazement. I guess that was an apology of sorts, actually more than I would have expected from him. So that seemed to settle things between us for now. There was only one issue left, the thing with Thalis. I sighed. I would try to get a hold of him alone tonight. The coins were still in my hand. I put them in my pocket. So, that's how I earned my first three Roman denari. I had to laugh for a moment. Only a small step from here to becoming a Roman millionaire. The trace of fun quickly disappeared though, making way for a melancholic feeling. I had to think of my family and friends I would never see again. Life in Rome at the current time would not be as pleasant as at home. The TTEK's battery would still be able to power Elisa's processor for just under two months. She revealed this to me this morning. I was dreading it. Not that I was afraid of not being able to get along without her, but I was afraid of being alone. Afraid that the last thing I had to relate to my world was gone. Even if it was just a VI on a silicon chip. "Are you coming, Phillip?" Thalis shouted to me from upstairs. I interrupted my brooding and caught up with the brothers. We spent lunch more or less in silence. Everyone was pondering their thoughts. There was bread, olives, and ham. It was common here to only have a light snack at lunchtime. The main meal was taken in the evening. Later, the group split up again. Thalis and Alexios continued their visits while Gregory and I dedicated ourselves to the boxes. The clearing out, rearranging and putting away went much faster than expected. Especially since Gregory actually helped and didn't just sit around. The rest of the day flew by. When we returned to the apartment for dinner, everyone was exhausted. Thalis and Alexios briefly reported their experiences. Thalis was very happy to have at least managed to get one former patient to make an appointment. First thing tomorrow at 10 am. Appropriately, Gregory and I were able to report that the practice was completely set up and ready to reopen officially tomorrow. "Your opening! We should toast to that," Helena said. All of them waved off unanimously. I believed they remembered their father as a cautionary tale. Well, who knew what Thalis would have done to me again at night. I thought, maybe I could have my own bed and I asked Helena about it. "Yes, of course, Phillip. Sorry, I was only prepared for three arrivals yesterday. But I have arranged for another bed. Only it might be a little cramped in the dormitory." "Thank you Helena", I said. "I might as well just sleep downstairs in the practice. There's plenty of room." Alexios shook his head. "That will not be necessary. You can spend the night in the little study opposite the bedroom. We don’t need that for now." That was settled. After dinner, I said good night and made my way to the back of the apartment. Thalis rushed after me. He muttered something about wanting to help me put up the bed. I sensed him staring as we walked down the hall. Taking a deep breath, when I entered the room, I decided this was the opportunity I'd been waiting for to bring up last night. However, I didn't know what I wanted to say. It didn't matter, because Thalis beat me to it. "Phillip, about last night. You didn't say anything. Um, do you remember anything at all?" I looked at him. His gaze was uncertain, but he kept eye-contact. Maybe it was better if I pretended I didn't remember anything? But did I want that? Actually, being that close to him had been very pleasant. Reassuringly familiar in this largely alien world. Thalis now looked down. "I already have a bad feeling about this. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have taken advantage of the situation like that." No, I decided he didn't have to feel bad about it. "It's okay, Thalis. To be honest, I enjoyed it." I smiled at him. He looked up and laughed in relief. "I'm glad. Anyway, you were totally drunk. It was unfair of me. However... you always have the option for a rematch." He came a little closer and put one hand on my shoulder. His hand felt warm and comfortable. But... I didn't feel like rushing right into the next adventure. I had to sort out my thoughts and feelings first. I took his hand and pushed it back gently. "Another time, Thalis. I'm tired today." He stepped back and looked at me almost offended. "I already know what's going on. I've seen the looks you and Gregory give each other all the time. You're having fun with him while we're away!“ Before I could reply, Thalis turned around and left the room. I rolled my eyes. If there was one thing I had learned, it was that interpersonal relationships got much more complicated when sexual attraction was involved. --- I stood on the veranda, looking down at my trembling hands. They were smeared with blood. My clothes also had red stains on them. I didn’t smoke. Though at that moment I would have changed my mind, given the opportunity. As far as surgical interventions were concerned, my personal experience was limited. I still remembered the one time I had fallen off the ladder in a maintenance shaft in the ATR building. The results were bruised ribs and a broken leg. The latter had been repaired under local anesthesia. I had to lie flat for three days afterward to heal the fracture and the bruises, while nanobots were used for tissue regeneration. All in all not a pleasant experience - but what happened on this day in the practice of the three brothers was, of course, something very, very different. The 10 a.m. appointment had been due. Two people arrived. One was the man who had made the appointment and supported by him, his father, the actual patient. The man explained that his father had fallen a few days ago, injuring his leg. It didn’t get better though, worse rather, so they sought medical advice. The older man was put on the treatment table. Alexios and Gregory examined the leg. I only took a cursory look, quickly looking away, swallowing the emerging feeling of nausea. No, I thought, physician assistant was clearly the wrong profession for me. Alas, here I was in this room. Gregory and Alexios threw an indistinct glance at each other. Then Gregory turned to the patient. "It doesn't look good. I'm afraid we'll have to proceed with amputation." The already pale face of the man became a shade paler. So did mine. "Thalis, Phillip, you must assist me," Gregory continued, while he pulled various diabolically looking cutting instruments out of a drawer. "You will have to hold the patient." I would very much like to forget the following minutes. Though they’d probably still haunt me in many a nightmare. Although Alexios had given the patient something that was supposed to ease the pain, judging by the cries it didn't help much. And then there was all that blood. The sawing noises. I clung to the railing of the veranda and emptied the remaining contents of my stomach over the balustrade. Maybe I should ask the merchant Frugi if he has a job for me? The door opened and Thalis stepped out beside me. He grinned at the sight of my condition, hardly seeming to mind the whole thing. "You'll get used to it. It doesn't happen that often, you know." --- Luckily, the afternoon appointment was much calmer and much less bloody. "There she is!" Gregory exclaimed. He had been keeping watch at the window. "It doesn't look as if she needs my services. I'll be off. You can shake that rich chick by yourself." He left his lookout post and disappeared upstairs into the apartment. I smiled. He had no problem sawing off the leg of a screaming man, but he didn't want to deal with a stuck-up aristocrat. Steps could be heard from the hallway and a short time later the lady entered the practice. Two men followed close behind. The first one was dressed in leather armor, carrying a sword at his hip. His hair was shorn short and a scar on his right cheek gave him a grim military look. Probably her bodyguard. The second one was a slave, I guessed. He was rather slim, simply dressed and carried some of the lady's belongings. Only now did I notice that the woman looked familiar. I'd seen that face before. Indeed, it was the lady in the litter whom I had met so rudely yesterday on my way back to the apartment. Alexios greeted the patient politely, introducing himself and his brother while I stayed in the background. "Greetings Clodia Magni, welcome to our practice! What can we, the nephews and successors of the wise Pericles, do for you today?" You had to hand it to him, Alexios was good with words. Clodia showed a subtle smile. "That's exactly how I imagined it. A young, enterprising doctor, filling the void left by Pericles' death. And there are two of them! I'm sure that in time you'll become even better known than your uncle!" "It honors you to praise us in advance, but let us prove to you our skill, which is indeed in no way inferior to our uncles’. We have learned from him as well as from the best in the field." While Alexios ensnared the lady verbally and led her to a chair, Thalis just smiled friendly. I could see he had trouble not making it look too fake. I had taken a seat at the desk, pretending to be intensively occupied with the patient's file. Pericles had been thorough with his notes and had created such a file for each patient. In it, symptoms, diagnoses, and prescribed treatments were recorded. Alexios had instructed me that for the time being, maintaining these files would be my main task - as long as I didn't have to pitch in like I did this morning. This was all right by me, because I wanted to have as little to do with the treatments as possible. Clodia's file was not very informative. She seemed to suffer from everything and nothing. Sometimes insomnia was noted, then headaches, and at other times digestive problems. Even a fertility problem was reported. Well, these were probably the consequences of the extravagant lifestyle, which the ancient like the modern high society fancied alike. Clodia rejected the chair offered by Alexios with an elegant but determined hand movement and sat down directly on the treatment table. "It is the back that troubles me, dear medicus. It is most bearable lying down." I skimmed the document again. Back was new. True to my instructions, I dunked the pen into the inkwell and added the symptom on a new line. When I looked up again Clodia had already dropped all her clothes above the waist. I quickly looked somewhere else. Would I soon have to look at completely exposed old men? I shook myself a little, trying to repress the images that came to mind. Alexios, on the other hand, looked very closely, which was in keeping with his function as a doctor. He asked the patient to lie on her stomach. Then he palpated her back, muttering something to Thalis now and then. Thalis nodded in agreement. When Alexios had completed his investigation, he asked Clodia to sit up again. "Dearest, the cause of your suffering is quite obvious to the trained physician. Your bodily fluids are out of balance!“ "Truly! That you say that finally convinces me of your qualities, young Alexios. For in his time, your blessed uncle always emphasized this as well. I took a look at the file again. Imbalance of the body fluids - whatever that was supposed to be - was noted. With double underlining. Of course, the brothers had studied the report in advance. "What can you prescribe, dear medicus?" For a while, Alexios seemed to think it over. He nodded his head thoughtfully, stroking his pointed beard. "I suppose you bathe regularly, Clodia?" "Of course! Every day, if it can be arranged, in the Trajan Baths. Pericles also practiced there, as I'm sure you know. His massages were so heavenly!" "Yes, exactly. We want to continue this tradition, if possible. Regarding your back pain though, I recommend that after each bath you walk four laps in the surrounding park. Two in a clockwise direction and two against." The patient looked slightly irritated. "And this is supposed to help with my back pain? I thought you were going to make a tincture for me?" Thalis, who had previously left the talking to his older brother, now opened his mouth to reply, but Alexios beat him to it. “Uh, yes... of course, we will prepare an ointment as well. But one works better with the other. The movement promotes the motion of bodily fluids." He turned to Thalis, who looked at him with a slightly wrinkled forehead. "A bottle of dill oil for the lady," Alexios commanded. Thalis hesitated for a moment, then he walked over to a cupboard. I picked up the pen again and noted the dill oil and the prescribed walks. "Rub it on your back in the evening before you go to bed," Alexios continued addressing Clodia, who was about to put her clothes back on. Thalis returned with a small bottle, which he handed to his brother. Alexios gave it to the patient. "I'll see you back in a week for a checkup. Until then, we wish you a speedy recovery.” Clodia was visibly satisfied, thanking the brothers for the good advice. She waved to her slave. He brought her a small leather sack. Probably her purse. "What is your fee?" "Today only fifty denari for examination and thirty for the medicine. The rest you have to pay only after the treatment is completed.” With skilled fingers she loosened the cord that kept the bag closed. A moment later a handful of gold and silver coins changed hands. The two brothers accompanied their first patient to the door, thanked her once again and said goodbye. Clodia left the practice, her bodyguard in front, behind her the slave. Alexios closed the door behind them. No sooner had it shut than Thalis breathed out audibly. "I'd rather assist Gregory with an amputation." Alexios looked at his brother with an irritated look. "What do you have against the lady? She was really quite nice. Pretty, too. But I know you don't care about that." "Right on, brother. I wasn't blinded by her looks like you might have been. I don't like her." Alexios snorted. "Then I hope you at least like the eighty denari she paid us." Thalis shrugged his shoulders and threw a glance out the window. Clodia was just getting into her litter that had been waiting outside the house along with her porters. "What was that about the dill oil anyway?" Thalis asked. "That's no good. The chick's back hurts because she doesn't do a single fucking step, being driven around in that litter all day long!“ Alex giggled. "Yes, brother, that may be true. That's why I told her to exercise. However, when a rich lady wants an ointment... you give her one. And if you can charge thirty denari for it, even more so!“ "It's amazing. In Patrae, we might have been able to charge a tenth of that, if at all." "Exactly Thalis, but there weren't any rich customers there either. And when we treat a worker here, we don't ask as much, of course. The trick is to always ask for just as much as the client can afford." I smiled. This was an economic theory that my professor of business administration at the university would have signed off immediately. It was called 'perfect price differentiation'. Thalis swayed his head back and forth. "Isn't that kind of immoral?" "Is it not, on the contrary, highly moral?" Alexios countered with a laugh. "The rich who can afford it are charged more and thus subsidize the less fortunate." "Well, if you look at it that way, you're right, Alex."
  8. Daylight was already falling through the window when I woke up. I leaned on my elbow and looked around. Alexios was no longer to be seen, but Gregory was still lying on his bed snoring. Thalis was also still lying next to me in bed. All of a sudden, the intense and anything but G-rated dream came back to me. I carefully lifted my waistband. Judging by the sticky nature of the fabric, the dream had led to a real outcome. Had it been just a dream though? I looked over to Thalis, who still had his eyes closed, and tried to recall the events. That damn wine! I simply couldn’t tell whether the escapade with the naked Greek had been real or not. A moment later I found the solution. I just had to ask Elisa. Although I knew she was only a computer, the question cost me quite an effort to ask. "Elisa, did any sexual activity occur between my bedmate and me tonight?" "No, Dr. Marten, I have not recorded such actions." I exhaled with relief. Although – it actually was a pity, I thought, glancing at the still peacefully slumbering Thalis. He was cute. I winced because at that moment the door was ripped open. Helena was standing on the threshold. "Let's go, doctors!" she proclaimed in a cheerful tone, "A practice does not run itself!" Sighing, I let myself sink back onto the bed. Since I wasn't a doctor, I didn't feel I was being addressed. Wait a minute - that wasn't true at all. I was a doctor! A doctor of physics. I couldn't help laughing out loud. The thoughts you have when you're not quite awake yet. "That goes for you too!" Helena was pointing in my direction. "He who sleeps late shall soon be put to sleep." After proclaiming this questionable piece of wisdom, she went off again, leaving the door open. Well, it was to no avail. Time to get up. A while later we found ourselves in the dining room where a small breakfast had been prepared. There was some kind of porridge, as well as bread and honey. The brothers had a lively discussion as they were planning the next steps. "We need a new door sign with our names on it," Gregory said. Alexios nodded thoughtfully. "Sure, but more importantly, we must do house calls. We have to split up and go to all our uncle's wealthier customers. If no one knows the practice is open again, no one will come." "Right," Thalis agreed, "we need to revive our uncle’s contacts. Didn’t he offer treatments at the Trajan Baths as well? We should drop in there, perhaps we can resume those." "Yes, he did. Every Tuesday and Saturday," Helena replied. Alexios turned to me. "So, let's get to your part. Thalis already said that you would like to work with us.” I nodded. I didn't know anyone else here. And I certainly didn't want to be on my own in this city. "You wouldn't happen to have any medical experience by chance?" Alexios asked. I thought about it for a moment. Actually, it was absurd. My medical knowledge, or more precisely the knowledge contained in Elisa's database, was much more extensive than the brothers'. But I really didn’t want to go down that route. It was not my place to interfere with this world in such a way. I shook my head. "No, I'm afraid I don’t." And that wasn't even a lie, because I had no actual medical experience. "I thought so," Alexios replied, "It doesn't matter though. You can come and learn with us. We'll teach you everything you need to know for an assistant position." I nodded in agreement. Although I wasn't too happy about the thought of spending the rest of my years as an assistant quack, it was the only option for the time being. Apart from sleeping under the bridge. The conversation continued and after a while, we made our way downstairs to the actual practice rooms. It still looked desolate here, since all the boxes we had dragged in yesterday were still unopened. Helena accompanied us downstairs and then said goodbye for now. Alexios closed the door behind her. He turned around, addressing us in a low voice. "There is something else we should take care of." The other two gave him a questioning look. Involuntarily I took a step closer to understand him better. "That story stinks to high heaven," he continued. "The one about our uncle's death. Stumbled and fell out of the window? Who'd believe that?" "I've seen white mothers giving birth to black children!" Gregory threw in. Thalis giggled, but immediately straightened up again. "Alex is right, it's not a very common cause of death." Alexios nodded. "It's possible there's more to this than Helena knows or tells us." "You mean she's hiding something from us?", Thalis asked. I thought about it. Helena was very happy that the three brothers were here. If they hadn't come, I'm sure she'd have had to give up the apartment. It was possible she held something back. Alexios shrugged. "Perhaps. But I don't want to jump to conclusions. What I'm saying is that we should do our own research on the matter." The discussion went on for a while until a concrete plan was eventually agreed upon. Thalis and Alexios would spend the day visiting their uncles’ old customers and introduce themselves. If there were any rumors, they would surely hear about them soon. Gregory would stay in the office and unpack the inventory. He was not so happy about that, but he still seemed to prefer it to doing visits. So, what about me? Well, I would go to the apartment building on Via Commodus, from whose fifth floor Pericles stumbled to his death. I was to get an idea of the premises and talk to the former patient. "Phillip is perfectly suited for this. He has a feel for this sort of thing. His premonitions have always come true," Alexios had argued. "And how could he alone unpack the boxes and sort out the tinctures he doesn't know how to use?" Had that been the real reason why Alexios nominated me for this task? Maybe he also considered that if something went wrong I would be the most dispensable member of the group… Anyway, I owed the brothers a lot. So I agreed to take care of it. --- The Via Commodus was only about ten minutes' walk from the practice. It was late in the morning when I arrived. The sun had already risen high enough to illuminate the upper floors of all the apartment buildings. The street itself was in shadow. I walked along the buildings, keeping to the left. It should be the fifth house in the row. At least that's what Pericles' diary entry for the day of his death said. And he scribbled "fifth floor, left". The patient's name was also noted as "Iulia". I reached the aforementioned building and let my gaze wander upwards, counting the floors. The fifth floor was the top floor in this house. I could not see a window, but there was a small balcony. A clothesline was stretched from it to the balcony opposite. The houses stood close together, as often the case in these Roman alleys. One thing was certain. A fall from this height was most likely fatal. Involuntarily I looked down, scanning the ground for traces of blood. That was nonsense, of course, as the incident happened months ago. Sighing, I pushed the creaking front door open and made my way up to the fifth floor. When I arrived I turned left. I looked at the apartment door. It had a door knocker and a latch that you could slide open to look out. However, there was no nameplate. I took a deep breath and pulled the door knocker. Nothing happened at first. I listened intently, but could not hear any noise coming from the apartment. Nobody there, I guessed. Relieved, I turned around and started to make my way downstairs. "Sounds are coming from the apartment. Someone seems to be present." I stopped on the stairs and sighed. Should I take Elisa's info and knock again? Or should I just leave it be? The decision was taken out of my hands, because suddenly the latch on the apartment door slid to the side. I heard a croaking female voice. "Who’s that?" I jumped up the last few steps again. "Well hello, Iulia! I'm Phillip from Pericles’ medical practice. I've come to..." The female voice interrupted me. "There's no Iulia here! Not for a long time. Cornelia lives here." I paused. "What happened to Iulia?" I asked, trying to peek through the slit. "Well, what could have happened to her, you dim-witted bird! She moved out. Two months or so ago." The latch was pushed closed. Before I could sort out my thoughts, I heard another latch move. The door opened, revealing a slightly frail middle-aged woman. She looked me up and down. "Pericles, you say? Isn't that the guy who used to visit Iulia?" I nodded. "That's right, her doctor. And what is your relationship with Iulia?" The woman laughed. "In what respect? Why do you talk so funny? And anyway, what is that impossible accent?" She examined me again. Then she laughed. “Come on in. I have nothing to offer you, though. I'm just a poor widow with few possessions, but I have other qualities." She winked at me and made an inviting gesture. I felt uneasy about the whole thing. I couldn’t miss the chance though to see the alleged crime scene from the inside. So I accepted her invitation and entered the apartment. The first thing I noticed was that it was much smaller than the only other Roman apartment I had seen so far. There was only one long corridor that branched off to the left into a small room and ended at a larger room. This was where the lady was leading me to. The room featured simple seating and a table. In addition, there was the balcony I had already seen from the street. There were no windows though, not even on the other side. "I used to live one floor down, you know. But I like it better up here. More air. So I moved up after Iulia left." "Is the air really better up here?" I set off for the balcony as if to check her claim. I looked around. There was no threshold between the apartment and the balcony. Nor could I see anything else that one could trip over. However, I did not know what the apartment had looked like in the days of the previous occupant. The railing of the balcony was a little higher than my hips. Assuming I would stumble a few steps in front of the railing, I would definitely have hit the railing, but not fallen over it. I didn't know how big Pericles had been, but probably shorter. And if you were standing right next to the railing, you couldn't have stumbled. You could have been pushed, of course. Although, maybe it could happen if you stumbled towards it whilst moving quickly? At that moment I was poked from behind. I grabbed the railing with one hand and jerked around. Cornelia had stepped on the balcony beside me. "And it's true, isn't it? More air and also more sun!" I exhaled with relief. For a moment, I had the feeling I was about to be the next victim of this balcony. I gave her a nod. "Yeah, you're right. But tell me, is it true what you hear? Did Pericles really die here?” "Yes, it is." She nodded gravely. "I was unfortunately at the market. When I came back there was only a big red spot left. But my neighbor told me everything afterward. The doc stumbled up here and then hit the ground. His head properly exploded. All the sauce ran down the street." She seemed to sincerely regret not having experienced the macabre spectacle with her own eyes. Cornelia shook. "And poor Iulia witnessed it all, the young thing. No wonder she moved out. Anyway, it's a shame what happened to the doc. And to Iulia. I could always hear her the screams through the ceiling when he was visiting her." "What did she suffer from that made her treatment so painful?" I asked. Cornelia looked at me for a moment with an indistinct expression on her face, then she burst out into resounding laughter. "Treatment?! Kid, you don't know anything about it! He fucked her good, that was the treatment!" With continued laughter, she pulled me by the arm back into the apartment. Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed. Could it be true though? Had Pericles been unfaithful to his wife, amusing himself here with young Iulia? "Elisa, do you think she's lying?" "The probability that the last statement of your conversation partner was true is fifty-seven percent." "Fifty-seven percent? That's not very helpful, Elisa. I could have flipped a coin!“ "Not all parameters needed for the probability model could be captured because the visual input of the visor lenses is missing." I sighed. Could I believe Cornelia? Meanwhile, the lady of the house stared at me intensely. I did not feel comfortable. But I had one more important question for her. "Do you know where Iulia moved to?" "No. How could I? We weren't even friends. But enough with this Iulia! I have my qualities, too.“ With these words, sporting a mischievous smile, Cornelia began to loosen the top buttons of her blouse. It was high time to end this house call! "Dear Cornelia, thank you so much for your hospitality, but I have many clients to visit today, and I can't stay." The last words I called out to her from the doorway. Before she could answer, I closed the door and hurried down the stairs. One floor below, I paused. This is where Cornelia had lived before moving. In the opposite flat lived her neighbor, the one who had told Cornelia about Pericles' death. Should I knock there too? Perhaps this lady knew Iulia's new address? I listened carefully for any noise from upstairs. Cornelia had not opened the door again and seemed not to make any effort to follow me. All right, I'll give it a try. I knocked on the door. Shortly afterward a slit opened and a gruff voice greeted me. "Yes?” "Sorry to disturb you. I'm looking for Iulia, she used to live upstairs. Do you happen to know where she moved to?" The eyes behind the slit stared at me. "Who wants to know?" "I'm Phillip from the Pericles’ medical practice." "Pericles?" The voice uttered the name with disdain. "That guy has already caused enough trouble for poor Iulia. Get out!" The latch was pushed closed again. Pity, that could have gone better. I was about to turn away when I remembered something Frugi had said last night. I shouted through the closed door. "It's about Pericles’ legacy. He has included Iulia in his estate." The hinge of the door creaked when it was opened from inside. "By the grace of Juno, did he?" Frugi had been right. Money did rule in ancient Rome. --- It was shortly after noon when I made my way back to the practice. The information I had gathered in Via Commodus went through my mind. The pieces did not form a clear picture yet. Cornelia's neighbor wasn’t able to tell me where Iulia had moved to, but she knew where Iulia was working. So if I wanted, I could ask for her there. Apart from that, she confirmed the events surrounding Pericles’ death. No wonder, since Cornelia had heard it from her. So at least I knew Cornelia was telling the truth about that, but was she honest about Pericles’ secret affair? The neighbor hadn't directly heard about it, Iulia had apparently been very discreet. However, Cornelia had told her and she believed her. “Why else would Iulia have moved?” she rightly asked. Busy with these thoughts I paid little attention to the street, which now became my downfall. "Out of the way!" A firm hand thrust me aside. I lost my balance and ended up in a ditch. "Make way! Here comes the noble Clodia Magni." From my position in the ditch, I saw two men in light armor. One of them had pushed me aside. Behind them walked four other men, apparently slaves, carrying a litter on their shoulders. In it sat a woman, perhaps in her early thirties, with shoulder-length, well-groomed hair, wearing elegant clothing. Her expression was cold and her gaze directed into the distance. I wouldn't have called her pretty, but I wasn't an expert in this field either. The procession was gone as quickly as it had arrived. I picked myself up, brushed the dust from my clothes and continued on my way. So that was how the richest citizens of Rome got around. Well, the stories of ‘Roman decadence’ had to come from somewhere. After a while I reached the practice. I entered. Gregory was busy unpacking and putting things away. Thalis and Alexios were not back yet. My eyes wandered over the boxes. He didn't seem to have made much progress, a good two-thirds of the crates were still standing unopened in the middle of the room where we had dropped them off yesterday. I wondered if he had perhaps gone extra slow, speculating on my return in time, in the hopes I would relieve him of some of the work? Who knew. He snorted and put down the box he had just lifted from the pile. "Good, you’re here, Phillip. I could use your help." I should have guessed, I would have done better to have gone for another walk around town. He went on. "I'm just putting away the herbs. But there's one collection missing. It must be in some box, but I'm afraid we'll have to search them all." "Wouldn't it be more logical," I explained, "if we opened one box at a time and unpacked the contents to their proper place?" Gregory thought for a while. "No, it wouldn't. We’re doing the medicinal herbs first." I sighed. Logic would not help here. "All right, let's check the boxes." I hoisted the next box from the pile, inspecting the contents. Books and manuscripts, but no herbs. I pushed the box aside. When I looked up again, Gregory had laid down on the treatment table, which was still placed along the wall. He crossed his arms behind his head. "What’s that supposed to mean?" I asked, slightly annoyed. "Should I look for your herbs alone or what?" Gregory glanced in my direction. "I've already emptied all these boxes here. He pointed to a pair of empty boxes he had stacked against the other wall. I deserve a break. You go ahead." I snorted. What an idiot. Should I put up with that? Not usually, but I was clearly in a weaker position. My survival in this town was currently dependent on the brothers. Conversely, they didn't really need me. Ironically, I had felt freer in Egypt as Manu’s slave than I did here. And more loved. I sighed quietly and swallowed my anger. All right, so I had to give in. But I would cheat a little, though. "Determine the box containing the herbs," I instructed my electronic companion silently. "To perform the analysis, please hover your right arm over the crates." No sooner said than done. I slowly walked in circles around the stack of boxes, letting my stretched out hand hover over it. Gregory looked at me from the table. "What are you doing now?" "I’m performing an Arabian tap dance for sensing medicinal herbs," I answered, giving my voice all the seriousness I could muster. Gregory laughed. "You're crazy." "Analysis complete. Go back two steps in a circle and turn towards the stack. Then three crates horizontally and two vertically." I cleared the boxes in the way and dead on target lifted the right one out of the stack. I carried it to the treatment table, setting it down at Gregory's feet. "There you go, the box of herbs." Gregory made a mocking sound. "What are we betting?" I added. Gregory checked his pockets and brought three coins into the light. "I have three denari with me. If you win, they’re yours. But... you don't have three denari of your own to bet with, do you?" I shook my head. "I thought so. So what do I get if you lose?“ Gregory swayed his head back and forth. He stared at me with his grey-blue eyes. "I got it," he started. "If you lose, you suck my dick." My eyes widened. Did I get that right? And if so, how did he mean it? Was something like that common here? I found that hard to imagine. Was it a cheap pickup line? Or was he just pulling my leg? My heart was suddenly pounding in my chest. Assuming he was serious, how should I react? I opened my mouth to answer. But I couldn't think of anything. He did. "Open your mouth a little wider. Or it won't fit." That's the last straw! "Idiot!" I shouted at him. Virtually without my intervention, my hand moved, slapping Gregory's face. I turned around and left the room at a quick pace. I slammed the door behind me. Even before it clunked shut I heard Gregory yelling after me. "Don't act so innocent! I was watching you last night!" I sat down on a stone on the porch of the house, hoping he wouldn’t follow me. Take a deep breath, Phillip! My hands were still shaking. I had to think. And make sense out of this mess. Why had I reacted so violently in the first place? With a bet that you were sure to win, your own stake didn't matter - did it? "I watched you last night" – his final words only now came to me. What did he mean by that? The fling with Thalis had only been a dream, Elisa had confirmed that quite clearly. Oh fuck! - I hit my forehead with the flat of my hand. There it was, my fallacy. Of course Elisa had no 'memory' of the events in question. I had instructed her in Egypt to leave out my sexual experiences from the records!
  9. DavidJ

    Chapter 3

    All your guys comments' are hinting in that direction. An astute obsersvation. Though sometimes weird things just happen, don't they? Let's see what develops!
  10. DavidJ

    Chapter 3

    Interesting. So in other words, they did it to better gorge themselves? 😂 Still, I imagine it very uncomfortable for the arm/shoulder.
  11. "All roads lead to Rome," they say and even though ours certainly led to Rome - the milestones on the side of the road left no doubt about the shrinking distance to the capital - the way still seemed unbearably long. The entire trip on the Nile, which had lasted several weeks, appeared to have passed faster than the four days we had already been on this road. Perhaps it was because of the company? The three brothers were nice, but no comparison to Manu. No wonder, because I had experienced something completely different with him... Or perhaps it was simply because a trip like this did not offer many options for distraction, which left me brooding most of the time. Only now and then was there any variety. For example, when I took a seat in the back with Thalis or Gregory, who were also bored. Then we rolled the dice or they recounted an anecdote from their life in Greece. Gregory regularly claimed that I had influenced the dice if I won. And if he lost, it was because of the cart, which supposedly jerked just at the wrong moment. Or it was my fault, having enchanted the dice with an evil eye. In general, Romans lived to roll the dice, Thalis had assured me. The brothers themselves were more cautious and never played for money. Something which distinguished them from their father, who had had a passion, not only for alcohol, but also for gambling. I asked why we drove so slowly, constantly being overtaken by other vehicles. Alexios said we had to spare the horses because we couldn't afford to change them. Still, I had neither reason nor right to complain. I could have been dead. Or I could have had to clean the latrines in the dock barracks in forced labor. Although I was not sure which fate would have been worse. In the meantime, thanks to Elisa's large database, I had also found out that the 954th year after the foundation of Rome, the year in which I found myself, corresponded to the year 201 A.D., according to modern calculation. Elisa also informed me that the ruling emperor at that time was Septimius Severus. Not that this information would be of any use to me. Finally, on the evening of the fourth day after we departed from Puteoli, we reached our destination. Even before the city gates came into view, another phenomenon was evidence of their proximity. The number of graves, family vaults, and mausoleums increased along the way. The closer we came to the city, the more magnificent they became. "Why do I feel like we’re driving through a cemetery?" I asked. Alexios, who held the reins, turned his head towards me. "Because we are. Inside the city, funerals are forbidden because of hygiene. And those who have money and influence will, of course, be buried where most people can see how rich and powerful their family is." That made sense I suppose. Even at this late hour with the sun almost on the horizon there was a lot of activity here. Soon the road widened and ended on a huge square where dozens of carts seemed to be waiting for something. "What's going on here?" I asked. "It's good that we’ve arrived in the evening, otherwise we would have had to wait here too. During the day, the city center is closed to carriages.“ Very strange. We also had cities with such restrictions in my time, but here they were closing all day, making for heavy traffic at night. The people of Rome could hardly sleep in peace. I hoped our accommodation wouldn’t be located on a main road. "It may take a while to get through here," Gregory grumbled. He was right. Every car in the parking lot was on the move and a well-sized queue was already forming in front of the city gate. Apparently, the curfew had just ended. Thalis shrugged. "We've been on the road for four days. We'll be able to hold out for another one or two hours." I had to agree with him there. Mainly because there was so much to see one could hardly get bored. I watched the other vehicles with their cargoes, all the people and the city gate. I even knew the place, I'd been here before. Two thousand years later, of course, during a city tour of Rome. Together with a friend from college I had visited the ancient Italian metropolis for two weeks. We admired the classic sites, like the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, which at this time were not yet built, as well as some sights off the beaten tourist tracks. The gate in front of which we now lined up, the Porta Capena, had unfortunately long crumbled to dust in my time. "Have you ever been to Rome before?" I asked the others. "Well, I haven’t yet," Thalis said, "neither has Gregory. But Alexios has visited our uncle a few times. I would have liked to go too, but someone had to earn the money, you know.” He threw a reproachful glance in Alexios’ direction. "I don’t think you can complain, brother. After all, I often came home with more in the sack than I took. Our uncle could be very generous.” "He just pitied us, the way we had to slave away in the sticks, Alex." Gregory, who had taken a seat in the back, stretched his head forward. "Yes, from today on though, everything will change. We'll follow in uncle Peris' footsteps and become successful doctors!" Alexios took a view more down-to-earth. "It won't be that fast, brother. We will have to work hard to prove ourselves. The idea of getting rich in Rome has been tried and failed by many before us. --- Half an hour later we finally passed the archways, being sucked into a jumble of carts, people, houses, and shops. Although we were on a main road, the bustle leaving no doubt about it, the path was barely twenty feet wide. The actual usable area was even smaller, as shops had set up their displays by the roadside where shopkeepers offered their goods for sale. The houses, however, made the biggest impression on me. They stood close together at the side of the road, only interrupted by an occasional side path, which barely had room for a single cart. It was their height that took my breath away. You had to stretch your neck to see the top of the concrete wall. Hardly any apartment building was lower than six stories. Houses that were not directly on the street, but further inside the block, towered above the ones in front. I was surprised that the Romans could build such skyscrapers. However, as we all know, necessity is the mother of invention and space seemed to be in short supply in this city. No wonder the solution was found in taller buildings, just as in my own time in modern cities. Thalis and Gregory were also astonished. "We don't have anything like this at home." Alexios nodded gravely. "Yes, friends, this is Rome. You will learn to hate it!" Smiling grimly, as if in possession of a deeper truth, or simply greater experience with regard to this city, he directed our tired horses along the road. "You might as well tell us something," Thalis asked him, "or does holding the reins require all your concentration?” Apparently, this was not the case, because Alexios now took on the role of a guide. "Now, the buildings you see here, for example. They're almost all apartment buildings. They're inhabited by the poor, the ordinary people, whilst the rich reside on the hills. Probably because the air is better up there, or the view, or perhaps it just makes them feel like they're above the rest. If you look ahead now. The bridge we're about to cross, it's the... um, a bridge." His speech stalled. The small gap in his knowledge had thrown him off his game. I took the opportunity to ask a question myself. "Who are those figures hanging about under the bridge?" "They are beggars. The poorest of the poor. They sleep under bridges." I shuddered to think I could end up there as well. Behind the bridge, Alexios indicated that it wasn't far now and turned right. What a pity, because in front of us the Circus Maximus came into view, one of the few roman buildings that almost everybody knew by name. There were mainly chariot races being held there. Despite the lower speed, the accident and death rate of the charioteers was significantly above Formula One average. I had little time for thoughts about wild chases, though. The next monument was already in sight. Unlike the Circus Maximus, which would crumble into ruin over the next two thousand years, this building was one of the best-preserved. It was the Colosseum, which could seat over seventy thousand spectators. This masterpiece of Roman architecture was also a prime example of addiction to pleasure, decadence, and cruelty. Over one hundred thousand people are said to have died here during the course of the Roman Empire. In gladiator fights, fights with wild animals, and executions. Even if I intended to integrate myself into the local life - I could not imagine witnessing such cruelties, especially not for amusement or as a leisure activity. I liked our modern day football games much more. The worst that could happen there was occasional trouble from hooligans. We passed the Colosseum and turned right again. After a while, when we changed direction yet again, this time to the left, I knew I had lost any sense of orientation. Although I didn't think I would have to resort to it, Elisa had no doubt recorded the way and could lead me out again. Even though I had lost the visor lenses and she couldn't ‘see’ anymore, she still had other ways of perception. Since the power level had recovered slightly, her environmental sensors were working again. The street we had last turned into was a narrow, steeply rising alley. I hoped that no vehicle would come towards us, as we already filled the entire space. It was much darker in this alley than on the road before. Not because the sky was cloudy. No, the sun was still shining. But as much as I laid my head back, hardly any rays of the sun pierced the tangle of balconies. Every apartment seemed to have one. And the houses were so close together that you could reach out from your balcony and shake the hand of your neighbor, opposite. The horses puffed, working hard to pull the cart up the slope. As abruptly as the ascent had begun though, the road soon became level again. We reached a small fork. One path led downhill to the left, another uphill to the right, with houses straight ahead. Alexios tightened the reins and the wagon came to a halt at the crossroads. "This is it. We're here!” Everyone looked around curiously. The row of houses we were looking at was directly below a steep slope, which was not built on because of its incline. Directly in front of us was a four-story, rather new looking house. At first glance, it looked similar to all the other apartment buildings we had passed so far. With the difference that it was not quite as high and two small columns decorated the entrance. The other houses in the row followed this trend. Right next to the entrance I noticed two carved signs. The top one said: "Merchant Gaius Silius Frugi" And the lower one said: "Pericles from Patrae, Doctor. Treatments, baths, and cures.“ There was no doubt, this was the house where the uncle of my traveling companions had lived and practiced. "It makes a decent impression," Thalis said. Gregory shrugged his shoulders. "For Rome, at least. We had it nicer at home. And much more garden." "Sure, Gregory. Why don’t you try planting a large garden within the city walls." The brothers had dismounted and were walking towards the entrance. I followed them. Alexios opened the door. It was unlocked and gave passage to a narrow staircase. To the right was another door, next to which a sign again pointed out Doctor Pericles. "Our uncle rented the two lower floors. Here on the ground floor is the practice itself, on the first floor the private apartment. The two remaining floors belong to the merchant Frugi." "An appropriate name for a merchant," Thalis joked. He was right because ‘Frugi’ was Latin for cheapskate. Alexios shook the door. "Locked. Come on, let's try upstairs. They gotta be somewhere.“ I wasn’t sure who he was referring to, but I would certainly find out soon. Arriving on the first floor, Alexios knocked on the apartment door. For a while nothing happened at all, then footsteps could be heard and a small slit opened. "Alexios!", a voice echoed from inside. It was the voice of an audibly delighted woman. The slit was immediately closed again and I could hear a latch being pushed back from inside. Finally, the door opened and a middle-aged woman, perhaps around forty, appeared. Alexios stepped forward and embraced her. "Helena, my condolences." "Thank you, Alex. It's been three months since my husband died and I wrote you that letter. I was afraid you wouldn't come anymore. But then I remembered how long such a voyage takes and that you would surely still arrive. And now you are here!" One by one she hugged Gregory and Thalis. "You've gotten pretty big! How old are you now?" Just your typical caring aunt. Although she reminded me a little more of my grandmother. Or Manu's mother-in-law Naha. Though her chatty trait was all right with me. So I learned that Gregory was twenty-two, Thalis twenty-three and Alexios twenty-five years old. I guessed I could have just asked them earlier if I had had the desire to know. After the lovely welcoming, Helena's attention finally shifted to me. "Who have you brought with you? A slave from home? I wrote specifically that it was not necessary." "No no, dear step-aunt, we didn't. This is Phillip. We picked him up on the way. At sea, as a matter of fact." "Hello," I said which was all that came to mind. I was sure she wouldn't hesitate to ask if she wanted to know more. "Really!? That sounds very exciting. You must tell me the story right away. But first come in and sit down! I'm sure the journey was tiring.” Alexios declined. "We would love to do that, Helena. But downstairs our cart is parked on the intersection, blocking just about every direction. We have to unload it first and drop it off." It was clear what that meant. Carrying crates again. Upstairs. --- Half an hour later all the cargo was unloaded. The crates had been transported either to the apartment or the practice. Nothing had been unpacked yet, of course. Nobody wanted to do that anymore today. "The wagon still has to be returned," Alexios said. Thalis winced. "To Puteoli?!" "Are you crazy?!" Alexios shook his head. "Not to Puteoli, of course. That would be really stupid." Thalis eyeballed Alexios, only to break into loud laughter. I joined in because it was obvious that Thalis had played a joke on his brother. Alexios snorted. "If you're having such a good time, you might as well take the cart back. The rental office is right behind Porta Capena, where all the cars were waiting earlier." Thalis shrugged his shoulders and was about to get on the cart when he stopped and frowned. "Hmm, I'd do it anytime, Alex. But for the life of me, I can't remember the way." No worries, I could help him out. "No problem, Thalis. I've memorized everything." Alexios gave me an appreciative look that I didn't really deserve. "Then it's all settled. But please hurry, the streets get dangerous after dark." While he and Gregory climbed the staircase, I swung myself onto the bench next to Thalis. "Alright,” Thalis said. “I think we go down here, right?" I nodded in agreement. Thalis clicked his tongue and the horses started moving. Elisa, however, had an objection. "I advise against passing through this street at this time. There is a vehicle approaching." I reacted immediately. "Stop, Thalis! Wait a second. I think I heard a cart ahead of us. And we can’t pass each other in the alley." Thalis stopped again and listened. In fact, the soft rattling of hoofs could now be heard, swelling from second to second. "True. You're right, Phillip." A short time later the path was clear again and we rolled down the hill. "Tell me, Phillip, are you from a big city like Rome?" I thought for a moment. I was born and grew up in Lübeck, which, with a population of almost two hundred thousand, was considerably smaller than ancient Rome. After all, over a million people lived here. "No, I guess not. We have about one-fifth that many people in my town." "Hmm. I don't know if it was the right decision. I mean, moving here to Rome." I gave him a sidelong glance. "How can you say that, Thalis? You’ve only just arrived here." "Sure. But everything here is somehow more extreme than in Patrae. Everything is... more. More people, more dirt, more noise." "And more money!" I added jokingly. Thalis laughed. "Yes, hopefully. But I'm not so sure. Did you see all those poor people and the beggars on the side of the road? The workmen who do a good job and yet can barely make ends meet? Rome is above all an expensive city, especially when it comes to rents, that much I know from Alex. For the rent my uncle paid in a year, you could buy a whole villa in the country, including land. And what do we get here? An average apartment building we don’t even own, which is not directly in the cesspool, meaning in the valley.“ I nodded thoughtfully. That's the way it usually was in metropolitan areas. Especially when everyone was pushing into the city, attracted by superficial pomp and stories of splendor. In search of an ancient version of the American Dream. From dishwasher or harvester to millionaire, it didn't matter. Rome had money, lots of money. Only, it wasn't lying in the streets, just waiting to be picked up by the newcomer, but resting quietly and safely in the iron-fitted chests of the mighty. At the point where the poor fool realized his mistake, it was too late to turn around. The savings had been spent and he became dependent on some patron. The latter would know how to avoid any change in this profitable situation. Thalis poked me in the side and put on a playful grin. "Don't you have an opinion, or are you just grumpy by nature?” Ah, crap. I forgot to answer, having pondered these profound thoughts. I didn’t want to tell him something that dark, though. Rather something cheery. "Sure, I've seen it all before in other cities. Rome isn't even the worst place. You and your brothers, however, have a good job, especially in a city like this which attracts not only the poor but also the rich and powerful who can afford to consult a doctor. Your uncle made his living here after all, and there are three of you, so you could make three times as much." "Hmm, true again. We have no choice anyway but to take it as it comes." Ain't that the truth. "Take the next right." The first satnav of Ancient Rome had spoken. I relayed the instructions immediately. After a while, the Colosseum came into view again and we had to keep left. "Say, Phillip, what will you do now?" Thalis asked hesitantly. "You already said that you don't know anybody here. I personally wouldn’t want to be all on my own in this city.” That was a good question that caught me off guard. It had crossed my mind at one time or another, but I did not want to think about the future, because I saw no future for myself. Now though I had to say something. So, what was I gonna do? On my own, I wouldn't stand much of a chance. Except maybe as a thief. Yes, with Elisa as an accomplice, who could practically see through walls and always knew if the master of the house was gone and the gold jewelry was there. I quietly laughed at the thought. No, there had to be another way. Thalis still looked at me with expectation, neglecting the traffic more than was good. I guess the obvious thing would be to stay with the three brothers. Perhaps they could use my help? "I'd like to stay with you, Thalis. If perhaps you need a helping hand in your new practice? I'm not asking for money, I'm just looking for a roof over my head and a meal.“ Thalis sported a big grin. " 'A roof over your head and a meal,' you almost sound like one of those beggars under the bridge." I only smiled out of politeness. Under other circumstances this would have been funny, but since my survival was at stake, I didn't feel like laughing. Thalis liked to joke, but on the other hand, he was also a sensitive judge of character. "Don't worry about it, Phillip. You can stay with us, I'm sure. There's always something to do. In particular now as we're about to make a fresh start. After all, all employees were laid off after our uncle died.“ He said this in a serious tone, so I had no reason to doubt his words. A feeling of relief came over me. If this worked, I wouldn't be as alone as I had feared. We now came to the intersection where the path to the right led to the Circus Maximus. "Here we must turn left again." "It doesn’t make much sense actually," Thalis began in a good mood, "that you give the directions and I drive. It's not like you have to look at a map or calculate an angle. So you might as well drive yourself." Saying this, he handed me the reins and whip. Still a little perplexed, I took them without knowing exactly what to do with them. But as luck had it, there wouldn't be much left to steer. The city gate was already in sight. "What exactly did you do, Phillip?" "What do you mean?" "Well, what was your profession?" During the long hours of our bumpy journey, I had had enough time to come up with a plausible background story. Just in case anyone asked, like now. Shortly after waking up on the ship, I was already confronted with the question of what I wanted to do in Rome. Since I spontaneously opted for trading, the choice of profession was pretty clear. A tradesman of something. After some deliberation, I chose spices. That suited my far away home country, of which I had no idea where it should be, by the way. "I was a spice trader." "Spices. Aha. What kind of spices?" Phew, he wanted to know exactly. I wasn't against small talk, but did it have to be all questions? Anyway, what were the spices I could have shipped to Rome? I passed the question on to Elisa. Let her search her database for spices. "Examples are Pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron." Faithfully I repeated the list out loud. "Herbs too?" "No, really just spices." This seemed to satisfy his curiosity for the time being. There would have been no time for further questions anyway because we arrived at the parking lot. --- Loud laughter echoed in the hallway when Thalis and I climbed up the stairs. The source of amusement was a small gathering, consisting of the three brothers, their step-aunt, and a man I had never met before. They noticed us entering the apartment and the chatting stopped. "Ah, there you are," Alexios shouted with relief. "And it's about time. It's almost dark outside." "They must have got lost," mocked Gregory, "or maybe taken a trip to the whorehouse?" He made explicit movements with his hip. "You mean the place they won't let you in because they think you're still a kid when they see your little dick?", Thalis replied glibly. Everybody laughed. I found it a bit strange to talk like that in the presence of a lady, but you know what they say – when in Rome do as the Romans do. The man, still unknown to me, approached us. He was rather small, but not wispy. His black hair was short and already bald at the back of his head. He introduced himself. "Gaius Silius Frugi, merchant. I live upstairs.” I shook his outstretched hand and introduced myself as well. "Phillip, spice trader." "Spice trader?" repeated the merchant, clearly interested, as he went on to shake Thalis' hand. "How exciting! We should talk tomorrow. Maybe we can do some business." That wasn’t about to happen. I shook my head regretfully. "I’m sorry, merchant Frugi, but I'm out of business. My ship sank with all my goods. I was the only one to survive, barely escaping with my life." "We pulled him out of the water," Gregory commented. "No, really!?", Helena asked. "You have to tell me the whole story! Everything about your journey. For months now I've been waiting for you with no one to talk to except Frugi, who comes down for a sip of wine every so often.” She glanced sideways at the merchant, a look that could mean much or nothing. I wonder if Frugi had given the widow more comfort during his visits than a glass of wine? Helena made an inviting gesture. "First though, please take a seat. Have a bite to eat and tell us everything." I took the opportunity to look around the room. Judging by its dimensions, this was the largest room in the apartment. The long side had two windows, which would give a lot of light during the day. Now it was dark and the shutters were closed. Several oil lamps illuminated the room which was sparsely furnished. The wall opposite the windows was decorated with a large map. Patrae, the hometown of Pericles and his nephews, was highlighted on it. On the narrow side, next to the entrance, there were some shelves and chests. The biggest space, however, was taken up by the dining area, which was typical for ancient Rome and Greece. Three couches were grouped around a table on which the evening meal was served. One ate lying down, supported on the left elbow. Not very comfortable, if you asked me. Following the request of the charming hostess, we took a seat. It was time. My stomach had already growled on the way back to the house. Frugi was invited as well, being a friend of the family. I estimated that the couches could hold three people each. So up to nine people could dine at the table. Luckily there were only six of us, so it didn't get too cramped. Merchant Frugi, who sat next to me, seemed like a friendly guy, but I didn't want to cuddle with him. My thoughts wandered, making me consider with which of the three brothers I would like to cuddle most? Was it cute Thalis, with his frizzy hair and deep, dark eyes? Or rather the gruff but pretty Gregory, with his mischievous grin? Or Alexios, the leader, who captivated with his sexy serenity? Before I could make a choice, my train of thought was interrupted. The lady of the house and a girl unknown to me came in, carrying a few bowls. After everything was served, Helena joined us. The girl, probably a servant, retired to the kitchen. The hostess had prepared a sumptuous meal. The starter was a salad with caramelized mushrooms. This was followed by roast pork as the main course and some kind of cake to finish. The food was eaten with spoon and fingers. Frugi breathed a sigh of relief when the first course was brought out. "At last something for the palate again! I feared you'd spend the rest of your life eating porridge.” Helena was a little embarrassed by the merchant’s comment. I guessed it was understandable that she lived frugally – no pun intended – after her husband's death. She probably had no income. I wonder what she would have done had the brothers not turned up. Her reply was friendly but determined. "Frugi, you know very well how hard the past few months have been for me. I am very happy to see my husband's nephews here.” Alexios nodded. "We are very happy to see you too, Helena. And to see that you are doing well, considering the circumstances. Tell us, Helena, how did it happen... Pericles, your husband... our uncle?” Helena swallowed a bite, her gaze wandering to the closed window. "Uh, I mean... I didn't mean to offend you," Alexios added. "No no, my dear. You have every right to ask." Helena cleared her throat. "Peris is... was a sought-after doctor. He received patients here at his practice, but he also made a lot of house calls. It was not far from here, in an apartment building on Via Commodus. He visited a patient there who lives on the fifth floor. Unfortunately... he stumbled and fell out of the window.“ Gregory and Thalis showed concerned faces. Alexios frowned at first but then put on a sad face. "Yes, such misfortunes happen more often than you would like," Frugi chimed in. "One can never be too careful," he added, glancing at Alexios. At that moment the servant entered with the main course, which interrupted the unpleasant conversation. The dinner continued in silence. The merchant made a few more attempts to put the conversation back on a more cheerful track but to no avail. After the cake was eaten Frugi pulled out a bottle. "The best wine from my storage. To celebrate the occasion!" After a few glasses of the quite enjoyable drink, the mood rose and the conversation livened up again. A second bottle was also not long in coming. I actually didn't want to drink anything. If it wasn’t for the peer pressure… At least I learned that Frugi traded with almost everything “as long as you can eat, drink or otherwise consume it”. He was a wholesaler who bought up products from distant regions of the empire, distributing them in Rome to shops and other bulk buyers. "With an appropriate margin, of course," Frugi winked. "Sometimes I even supply the Imperial Palace, but I don't really like to. They're usually stingy and you can't protest. What about you? Where do you get around as a spice dealer? I buy spices too, but not in the producing country. Mostly in Puteoli, the stuff that arrives by ship.“ I had already thought about this part of my background story. "Mostly I was traveling from Arabia. I bought spices there and then shipped them to Alexandria and Miletus. However, the biggest market is here in Rome, so I wanted to sell here this time. But as you know, it didn't quite work out." Frugi laughed. "Ha, not quite worked out. That's one way to put it when your ship sinks along with its cargo. But what's keeping you here? Why don't you take the next ship heading east?" Well, that was a logical question. One I wasn't prepared for. Though by now inventing such details was almost second nature. "I have no wife and children, and all my wealth was invested in the ship's cargo. There is nothing to go back to. Better a poor man here with the opportunities of Rome than somewhere in the sticks." The merchant nodded. "Foolish of you, boy! That thing with the ship. You never put all your denari on one dice. But Rome, a wise choice. Resourceful minds can get far here. So take it from an experienced trader. Here in Rome, status and family count for little. Prestige and votes are bought - the money is what counts!” He chuckled. “You know, back when I started transporting goods from Northern Italy to Rome with two carts..." The next hour or so passed by with Frugi telling me detailed anecdotes from the early days of his career, whose wit, moral, or other punch lines I usually did not get. Maybe that was also because the effect of the wine made it increasingly difficult for me to follow the flow of words. I reached for my glass and regretfully found that it was empty – only to be annoyed at myself. I did not want to drink anything else. Frugi was of a different opinion. "Ah, the glasses are empty, but the evening still young. Don't despair though, I brought this bottle of very fine liqueur!" Seeking help, I looked around at the others, but only Helena was to be seen, still giggling after Frugi's last remark. "Where did they all go?" I asked. "They've already gone to bed," Helena giggled at me. I stood up, staggering a little. Who knew whether it was from the wine or the long time spent lying down. "Well, I better go to bed, too. It's gonna be a long day tomorrow." Before Frugi could try to persuade me, I left him and the still giggling Helena behind. I exited the apartment’s main room through the only other corridor that did not lead to the kitchen. According to the plop echoing behind me, Frugi had just uncorked the ‘very fine liqueur’ for Helena and him. I found the three brothers in a room at the back of the apartment, already lying in bed. The room had probably been prepared for their arrival long ago. Apart from three beds in an L-shaped arrangement, there was a small table in the middle of the room and a cupboard on the opposite side. I stood in the doorway for a while, as my alcohol-soaked synapses tried to find a solution to the problem that there were only three beds but four people. Thalis was the first to notice me. "Ah, there you are. I was afraid Frugi had lulled you to sleep in the dining room." "Yes, he almost did," I replied laughing. "Um, is there another bed for me somewhere, or should I just lie on the floor?" I was so tired from carrying the boxes, the abundant food, and the amount of wine that I could fall asleep anywhere. Thalis waved me off. "I didn't see another bed. But you can lie down with me, there's plenty of room. Alexios seemed to be asleep already, but Gregory looked up. "What nonsense, this is much too tight for two. Sleep on the floor." "Why don't you sleep on the floor, so Phillip can sleep in your bed?" Thalis countered. "Come Phillip, put out the lamp." I set myself in motion, taking off my clothes. I only kept my pants on, out of decency. A measure that my bed neighbor did not share, as a fleeting glance under the simple sheet revealed. I was too tired to develop this arousing thought further so I put out the lamp and let myself sink into the soft bed. --- I once heard that the last thought before falling asleep often determines what you dream about. I hadn't been able to understand this before, but that night it was true. Thali's soft hands glided gently over my torso. Up and down. The fingers of his left hand slowly circled my hard nipples while his right hand started to wander toward my navel. I moaned slightly. His hand went deeper and deeper. It encompassed my hard erection, which was still enclosed by my pants. I writhed under a shower of pleasure as his hand stroked my dick. Then his hand moved on, massaging my testicles. Finally, his fingers ran beyond my testicles and caressed my butt. Meanwhile, the left hand had also moved lower, reaching my pants. In a moment of tension, the hand paused. Then it slipped under the waistband and completely took hold of my shaft. I groaned with pleasure again. His hand began to work my cock in a tender but assertive rhythm. Up and down. I whimpered with excitement. The other hand moved up from my butt again and started to massage my testicles gently. It took but a few movements and my body could not stand it anymore. I came, moaning. My cock poured its semen into my pants and Thalis’ hand. Finally, his hands retreated slowly, caressing my body from bottom to top. It had just been a dream though, hadn’t it?
  12. DavidJ

    Chapter 1

    That they shall do - whether Phillip will enjoy it or not, well we'll see. 😄
  13. Dr. Lisa Bolzano sat alone in her office, burying her face in her hands. She felt it was unfair, being able to sit on the comfortable, custom-made leather armchair while her colleague and friend was lost somewhere - or nowhere - in a past world. She jumped as someone knocked at the door. “Come in!” Apologetically, Dr. Torres, head of the central lab, entered the room. Lisa quickly sat up. She looked at him, expectation in her gaze. He came in person... was there any word from Phillip? "I'm just bringing you the new readings." He waved a sheet of electronic paper in front of her as if to justify his visit. She let herself sink back into the armchair, exhaling heavily. "I'm sorry, Lisa. I know you were hoping for a different message. I'm sure he'll contact us eventually. Remember, it's only been twenty-four hours. In Egypt, it took thirty-five hours to make contact. He put the paper on her desk. Lisa knew that the test results were only an excuse to pay her a visit. She could have accessed the chart at any time from her computer terminal. So apparently, Torres wanted to give her some comfort. Or… he'd been sent by the board to test her emotional state. "Better get some sleep, Lisa. Even if it's difficult for you. There's nothing you can do now." She gave him a grateful nod before he left the room. No, he had been here of his own accord, otherwise he would have at least asked how she was feeling. She briefly skimmed the document he had left on her desk. Nothing new of course. It went into the trash. The interior of the office was a mixture of modern coolness and personal warmth. While two grey steel cabinets and an oversized calendar on the left wall created a sterile atmosphere, the other side tried to convey the opposite. There was a large aquarium set into the wall, as well as some paintings. Lisa's gaze wandered from the largest piece she had brought from home - it was the View of Florence by Oswald Achenbach - to the photographs on her desk. The latter didn’t have artistic ambition. One showed her together with her family. The other Phillip and her on a team excursion to Lübeck, the originally planned time travel destination. She sighed. Of course, Torres was right when he said it would have taken longer in Egypt. Though that had been expected back then, after the time jump was anything but smooth with a few thousand years of deviation. It was only thanks to the tireless efforts of the whole team that a connection had finally been made. This time, however, the situation was different. Even though they didn't quite understand how it worked exactly - they’d been working with data from the distant future - there was no interference signal like last time or anything else unusual. It looked like everything was fine - and yet Phillip didn't answer. The situation was therefore in no way comparable to that of Egypt. What annoyed her most though was that she couldn't do anything other than just wait-and-see. Nevertheless, there would have been only moderate cause for concern if Dr. Carrol had not made a very disturbing discovery this morning. A little guilty, like a toddler who had done something silly, he had approached her. It is possible that he knew the reason for the delay, he had said. "Don't keep me in suspense, Rick." "I have just run a simulation that estimates the effects of several transfers in succession on the body and electronics. This is the first time I've been able to use Keith's new data." "So… is there a health risk?" she had asked, alarmed. "No, no. That's not it. But the TTEK's battery could suffer. I mean, it might not be able to reach its full power level again." "What amount of power loss are we talking about?" "Up to eighty percent." That hit home. Lisa had become even more restless since this revelation, imagining more and more horrible scenarios. She span around in the armchair. If she was religious, she would have prayed. For Dr. Carrol to be wrong. **** The bumping and rocking with which the fully loaded carriage moved over the cobblestones reminded me a little of my involuntary camel ride in Egypt. Fortunately, I was now in better physical condition and did not have to fight with nausea. Still, the journey was not comfortable. It turned out that the front seat of the two-horse cart could not hold more than three people. So one of us had to move to the rear and make do with the loading area. As the unplanned guest, I volunteered. I was sitting on one of the crates, whose exorbitant customs costs Alexios had somehow managed to avoid. Because after he had returned from his walk with the officer, we had started moving right away. At first, I had hoped that he would explain to us immediately how he had achieved this miracle. But for the last five minutes, during which we were driving through the narrow streets of Puteoli, Alexios hadn't said a word about it. The other two had apparently expected to be initiated as well. They threw each other discontented looks when Alexios explanation failed to materialize. However, they didn't ask him either. They apparently didn't want to admit to not having the faintest idea how he had done it. I was a little more pragmatic. Wanting to satisfy my curiosity, I finally asked. "So, Alexios. Tell us how you convinced the customs officer." He grinned. "I thought you'd never ask." "Why should I ask?" Gregory interjected, "I already know." "All the better. Then you might as well tell the story. I have to concentrate on steering." Gregory didn't expect that. "Um... I think a firsthand account is more appropriate in this case." Thalis couldn't help but laugh. "All right. In actual fact, it was quite simple," Alexios said. "I have left him a small medicinal tincture." "What kind of tincture?" Gregory asked doubtingly. He didn't seem to realize that by doing so he admitted he knew nothing. Alexios had also noticed this contradiction and threw a skeptical glance at his brother. Alexios stated it more precisely. "Quite simply, a sage tincture of stamina." "A what?" "A little sexual enhancer." Now everyone understood and a general giggle ensued. "You were lucky," Thalis said. "If Pontius' manhood had been at its peak, the cards would have been stacked against you.” "It wasn't, though. And like a good doctor, I noticed that right away." I didn't know if and how you could visually determine someone’s potency, but Alexios had the right instinct. "Could you have paid him if he hadn't gone for it?" I asked. Alexios' expression got serious again. "No, I couldn’t have paid him. He charged a quarter more denari than we have." So we were really lucky. I wonder what would have happened. Maybe we'd have had to pay off the difference by working the latrines. I'd rather not ask. Instead, I curiously observed our surroundings. I only saw what was in front of us, because the tarpaulin covering the cart blocked the view in other directions. There was a lot going on outside with plenty of vehicles coming towards us. Pedestrians as well. They had to squeeze along the sides, especially when two carts pushed past each other on the narrow street. We continued on the same road for a while. From time to time small side paths were branching off, but these were only suitable for pedestrians. At the roadside, there were buildings of various heights close together, made up of one to four stories. The construction method seemed to be very progressive, as the stones used were held together with concrete. However, these stones were - both in arrangement and form - much less regular than in modern houses. The poor visibility from the back of the cart was more than made up for by its solitude. I was able to withdraw here undisturbed and subject the TTEK to an inspection. After all, I still didn't know what that beeping was all about. So I sat down on one of the boxes. "Elisa?" I asked silently. No answer. It was usually enough to form the words without actually speaking them aloud. The TTEK could detect the vibrations through an implanted vocal cord sensor. But just to be sure, I asked again, out loud. "Elisa?" Nothing happened at first. Then there was a soft crackling sound. Then about a dozen equally quiet beeps. Oh, great. What was that supposed to mean? Had Elisa lost her electronic mind? The beeping started again. Single tones of the same pitch but of different lengths. After pondering this oddity for a while, the solution came to mind. It had to be Morse code! So she wasn't crazy after all! A certain feeling of relief came over me. Besides the question of why Elisa tried to communicate with me in Morse code, the problem was that I had no clue about Morse code. "Can you understand me?" I asked her. A single beep indicated that she probably could. "That's good, but I don't understand you. I know your beeps are in Morse code, but I don't know Morse code." A brief look towards the front of the vehicle confirmed that I was talking quietly enough for the others not to become aware of our somewhat one-sided dialogue. Elisa didn’t beep anymore. I had to smile for a second as the memory of a similar situation came to my mind. I had not been able to talk to Manu either, because I had pretended to be mute. He had asked me all sorts of questions and I only had to nod or shake my head in response. And that is exactly what would work with Elisa. Only this time, I was the one asking. "All right. I'm going to ask you some questions. You answer with one beep for yes, and two beeps for no.” Beep. First the most important question. Even though I could already guess the answer. "Has the space-time localization been completed?" Beep. Beep. "So it’s running right now?" I asked, hoping. Beep. Beep. Shit. I was afraid it would be like that since she couldn't even communicate with me normally. Without determining my exact whereabouts in space and time, however, it was impossible to contact Base. "Is there any damage to the electronics?" Two beeps. At least a glimmer of hope. "Does the battery have enough power?" Beep. Beep. Ah, so the situation was as I feared. The battery was simply not designed for two time jumps in a row, each causing a complete discharge. All that remained now was to find out why the beeping was necessary. "Is my earpiece broken?" Beep. Beep. "Is there enough power for it?" I asked in disbelief. Beep. Beep. Fuck. I didn't think it was that bad. "Will this get any better? I mean is the battery still charging?" At first, there was no answer, then a very quiet beeping. I guessed that was her version of ‘maybe’. After the first sign of life from the TTEK, I had some hope again. ‘Perhaps everything would turn out alright after all.’ That is what I had thought, but I had been wrong. Disillusioned, I leaned back, realizing too late that was not a good idea. There was a loud rumble and as I turned around, a falling crate hit me hard in the face. --- Something hurt like hell. Whether it was my nose, my eyes, my mouth or everything altogether, I couldn't tell. Aching, I raised my head and leant on my elbows. I was lying in the back of the rocking cart. Thalis was sitting next to me on a box, sporting a mocking smile. "Can't you be left alone for a minute?“ I was a little embarrassed to find myself in this stupid position. I guess I should have been more careful with those damned boxes. On the other hand, did it really matter anymore? Now returning home seemed impossible? I thought to myself, perhaps it would have been better if the box had contained heavy lead bars instead of herbs and tinctures? Thalis could not possibly have guessed what was going through my mind, but he did notice my sad face. "You’ll be okay. We're doctors, after all. Nothing's broken, by the way." That would have been the last thing I needed. Without electricity for Elisa's nanobots, I would have been stuck with a crooked nose in addition to weeks of pain. However, in the end, it wouldn't have mattered. There was no one left to look good for. "Where are we?" I asked. "We've just left the city behind. Now it's about thirty miles to the Appian Way. From there only another one hundred and twenty more miles to Rome. “ I thanked him for the information, which I had not asked for in such detail. The word ‘only’, however, seemed a little out of place to me. After all, Alexios had estimated the expected travel time to be several days. I ignored the stabbing pain in my face, letting myself sink back down. I noticed that there was something soft under my head. It was a blanket. "I put it under your head so you would be more comfortable," Thalis said. I thanked him again. He seemed to be a really nice guy. So did Alexios. Only Gregory was a little... grumpy? While Thalis looked down on me from above, I took the opportunity to take a closer look at him. I had already noticed the evening before that he had dark eyes, but during twilight I had not been able to make out the exact color. Now I saw that they were a very dark brown. Thalis tilted his head forward a little. "Why are you looking at me like that?" Oops! I may have stared a little too long. I tried to come up with a witty reply, but failed. Nothing had come to mind, so I made do with something dim-witted. Thalis frowned and I looked away. Hopefully, he'd chalk it up to language issues. Next time, I'd pass on the repartee, especially when there really wasn’t anything wrong with looking at someone. I made a new conversation attempt. "To be honest, I'm pretty hungry. Do we stop for lunch?" "No, we'll drive through until evening. Along the Via Appia there are numerous accommodations. We'll spend the night at one. But we do have provisions for lunch. Would you like something?" I nodded gratefully, and sat up, avoiding touching the boxes with my back as much as possible. Thalis laughed when he saw me do this. "You can lean back, I've tied up the top boxes." Relieved, I leaned back. I took a piece of bread and a piece of ham from Thalis. He also cut a few slices for himself. We sat on the back of the cart, eating and chatting, while the wagon was rocking over the bumpy country road. Almost idyllic. Almost! Thalis was not only a nice guy but, once warmed up, very talkative. Only interrupted by chewing the occasional slice of bread and ham, he told me about his life in Patrae, their hometown. Early on he had been an apprentice to his father, who had in his turn continued the family medical tradition. Unfortunately, not as successful as Thalis’ grandfather, which meant the family struggled to eke out a living. Alexios had taken the same career path. Gregory, however, disappointed by the failures of a drunk for a father, took up the profession of surgeon. Apparently this was an independent medical profession. After the early death of their father, their uncle Pericles took the brothers Alexios and Thalis under his wing. He was a much more talented doctor than their father and taught them everything their own father had missed. ‘You will become excellent doctors, much like your grandfather’, he had used to say. After their uncle sometime later emigrated to Rome, they took over his practice in Patrae, but they had no luck. People still remembered their useless father only too well and following the proverb ‘a chip off the old block’ they avoided them. When the brothers received news of Pericles' death some two years later, they were saddened, but also saw their chance for a new beginning. Their uncle had a wife, but no children. Thalis and Alexios were therefore the only family members who could continue his practice in Rome. So they had packed their belongings, booked passage on the next ship, and were now sitting here on this wagon. Gregory, who shared their fate, had joined them. Thalis wanted to recount some more, but Gregory gruffly called him up front. I didn't understand what they were discussing. Their words were quiet but emphatic and they were talking in Greek. It seemed to me as if Gregory didn't want Thalis to discuss their family history with me. I wondered what was the matter with Gregory. Perhaps he was just a loner. I couldn't care less, though, I had more serious problems to deal with. Still, it had felt good having such a casual chat. I was able to pretend everything was all right, that I was just an ordinary citizen of this world, like any other. Of course, this self-deception could only be short-lived. Sighing, I stepped forward, taking a place behind the bench where Thalis was sitting and staring at the ground. Alexios held the reins calmly in his hands, he hadn't bothered to join in the dispute between the other two. When he noticed me approaching, he turned around. "We'll be there shortly. See that big house over there? We can stay there for the night,"Alexios said. I looked towards the building on one side of the road less than a hundred yards in front of us. Before I could take it in though, my gaze was distracted by the road itself. I had not noticed that we were already on the Via Appia, a change from the country road to the ancient highway. This road was wider, better paved, and busier, populated by fewer pedestrians, but more wagons. There was a brief jolt and we came to a halt in front of the three-story tavern. Gregory jumped down first. "I'm fucking starving." He was about to rush off towards the entrance when Alexios held him back. "Wait. Take the cart to the yard first and make sure it's parked safely. And get the horses fed and watered." "I'm not your slave, brother. Phillip can go, why do we have him here after all?" Since I didn't want to be the cause of another quarrel, I offered to go - even if I didn't have the slightest desire to help this ruffian, who apparently regarded me as a slave. Alexios welcomed my offer, Gregory hummed something incomprehensible. So we set off. While Gregory took the reins and led the horses and cart towards the rear yard, I walked alongside. Behind the main building we found another structure, apparently a stable and a kind of parking lot for carts. It was already pretty full. "There's a free space back there," I told Gregory. "I can see that myself!" I wondered if he was always so obnoxious. Maybe Thalis was about to tell me something about him before he interrupted us. I decided I would ask Thalis, given an opportunity. As we drew near, I noticed some soldiers patrolling the site. They apparently made sure that parked carts were still waiting there for their owners the next morning. Gregory stopped the horses and started to fiddle with one of the harnesses. "Don't just stand there like a barrel of old fish, take the other side!" I tried hard to comply with his request, because I did not want to encourage his bad mood, not knowing if I was the cause or not. However, once round the other side, I found myself as helpless as the proverbial duck in a thunderstorm. Faced with the tangle of ropes and poles, I was clueless. Elisa would have told me right away where I needed to put my hands, and if the visor lenses hadn't been lost in that sandstorm, which was my own stupidity, she would have even shown me a nice animation. Now though, I had no choice but to confess my ignorance, well knowing Gregory would not be amused. I cleared my throat. "What exactly am I supposed to do?" I tried asking in a diplomatic way. "Get the nags off the goddamn cart!" All right, it was of no avail. I tried to sound as apologetic as possible. "I don't know these harnesses, you'll have to tell me exactly what to do." "Are you kidding me? It's a harness like any other." He came over and stood next to me. He hesitated a moment. Then another. "So this is how it works." He grabbed my hand, somewhat roughly and put it on a spot on the harness. "First grab there and untie the knot." He actually explained the procedure to me. Rude, in somewhat harsh terms, but detailed and precise. When I made a small mistake, he patiently pointed it out to me. "Good. Now you can take the horses to the stable. I'll take care of the carriage." While I led the two brownish horses towards the stable, Gregory called after me to hurry up, because he was fucking hungry. I couldn't figure out the fellow at all. I wish I could have told him off, but that was out of the question, as I was so desperately dependent on the hospitality of the three brothers. When I entered the stable, holding the horses by the reins, a boy of perhaps fourteen years hurried towards me. "I will do this for you, my Lord." Happy to be able to withdraw from this unknown terrain, I handed the reins over to the stable lad. I wondered if it was customary to leave a tip, but even if it was, I didn’t have any coins. At least I could thank the poor boy. I bet it wasn't easy working in the stables, especially for a kid. "No need to thank me, my Lord. It's my job." Alexios and Thalis were still waiting at the same spot in front of the inn where we had left them. Gregory had already joined them. "Now[DD1] let's go in," Alexios commanded. "A jug of mead will do everyone good!" It really was a nice evening, I thought to myself. The sun was about to dip below the horizon, radiating a reddish glow reflected by the clouds. The trees rustled lightly in the wind, a small bird was tweeting a shrill song. No! I interrupted myself, it wasn't a bird, it was Elisa. She had beeped twice. I stopped, rooted to the spot. "What is it now?" Gregory complained. Good question. In actual fact, I wasn't sure either what Elisa's unsolicited beeping was supposed to mean. I waited for a moment, but it didn’t repeat. Shrugging my shoulders, I continued toward the entrance. Beep! Beep! I stopped again, the others looking at me in bewilderment. “Should we not go in there? Is that what you mean?” I asked her silently. Beep. Interesting. Why though? Had her sensitive ambient microphone picked up something from inside the inn that made it advisable not to enter? "Um, we shouldn't go in there right now," I said. Gergory shook his head in disbelief. "Why not?" Alexios asked. How should I explain this? If only Elisa could have told me what was wrong. "I have a bad feeling about this," I told them. Gregory laughed mockingly. "The Lord, here, has a bad feeling! Well, that makes all the difference. I think we have to turn back. Return to Greece." Even Alexios could not help but grin. "Tell me, did you also have a bad feeling before you boarded your now sunken ship?" Gregory continued. "Yes," I replied in all seriousness, "a very bad one, in fact." Thalis frowned. "If that's right, we should listen to his feeling, it's probably a premonition. I for one will not go in there now." Alexios looked undecided. I guessed he was a little surprised by Thalis’ decision. To be honest, so was I. Gregory, on the other hand, did not harbor any concerns and turned towards the door. "For Zeus’ sake! You can starve out here for all I care. I'm going in now." However, he didn't get far. Just as he was about to open the door, a loud rumbling came from inside and the door was pushed open. Gregory fell back. "Out of my inn, you bastard sons!" The angry landlord appeared and sent two very drunk brawlers packing. Realizing he wasn’t alone, he turned to us. "Excuse me, gentlemen. Come in," he said to his new guests, hoping not to have frightened them off by the little show. Alexios gave me a respectful nod. "Your hunches are not to be underestimated." And so we entered the inn together, followed by a slightly limping Gregory. A few minutes later we had settled in, taking a seat at the bar. The landlord had quickly noticed that we were not just out for a beer after work. As overnight guests, he served each of us a pitcher on the house, the ulterior motive in mind that more drinks would follow. He had been right. I had made the resolve that after the carousal on the ship I would hold back next time, but I was persuaded nonetheless. "Beer is nice. The only real drink, however, is wine," Gregory interjected. Thalis answered, his brow furrowed. "Maybe so, Gregory, but we have started with beer. Not by our own decision, but at the invitation of our amiable landlord and you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Therefore, to change to wine without further ado is not possible." "But Thalis, why can't you do that?" Gregory asked gruffly. "I'll drink whatever I feel like and now I want wine, preferably Greek wine." Alexios watched the small discussion attentively, with a smile on his lips. "I think dear brothers, you can both be right. Let's just order a round of mead for in-between!" Of course, they also ordered for me. As I wanted to try this foreign drink, I had no objections. I didn’t know much about it, only that it was very popular in the Roman Empire and made from honey somehow. As soon as it was served, the three brothers started drinking. I took a cautious sip at first. It tasted good, although a little sweet. "I heard a joke the other day that I really must tell you," Thalis said. "An Athenian student goes to the doctor and says: ‘Doctor, when I wake up in the morning, I always feel dizzy. After half an hour everything is fine again.' The doctor replied: 'Then why don't you wait half an hour before you wake up?'" Everyone laughed. I more out of courtesy because I didn't think it was very funny. "I thought your students were smart?" I commented. "You know, Phillip, what you want the world to think is one thing, but the reality is a little different." This brought to mind a Roman joke, unfortunately, it wouldn't make sense for several more centuries. In history class, the teacher asks: ‘In what regard had the ancient Romans been ahead of us?’ A student answers: ‘They didn't need to learn Latin!’ --- The early bird catches the worm. Isn't that what they say? Well, I wouldn’t catch any today, I thought, given that it was already light outside when I woke up. Besides, any worms would probably be warned off by my bad breath, which I obviously didn’t perceive myself, but whose presence was safe to assume. After all, I had not brushed my teeth for quite some time. Still tired, I sat up. Funny what thoughts came to mind. Aesthetic issues were the least of my worries right now. It took me by surprise that I apparently was the last guest in the bedroom. The three brothers were already gone. They wouldn't have left without me, would they? My pulse quickened. In no time I was on my feet. I dressed and hurried downstairs, but my sense of panic was unfounded. All three of them were sat in the guest room at a table by the window having breakfast. "Ah, Phillip, you late riser! There you are." Alexios gave me a friendly greeting. I felt something akin to relief, but Gregory gave his mocking smile. "We were just discussing when we should go and wake you up, but now there is no need," Alexios said. Thalis nodded. "Just as well, because the discussion got a bit heated. Gregory believes sleeping late is a disease," Alexios said. "An assertion I still stand by," Gregory confirmed. "Do you remember Alina? She was also ..." I didn’t listen anymore. Let them engage in pseudo-medical shop talk, I would have breakfast in peace. Almost twenty minutes later we were sitting on the cart again, making our way along the bumpy road towards Rome. The horses' hooves made a constant clacking sound on the cobblestones, making my head ache after a short while. Funny, because it didn't bother me yesterday. Perhaps it was because I had taken a seat on the front bench this time. Thalis had insisted on riding in the back today. He didn't want to be responsible for me getting hit by a crate again, he said half jokingly, half serious. I sat next to Alexios, with Gregory holding the reins, and I watched the landscape and oncoming vehicles. There were no pedestrians to be seen. The next village was probably still far away and while woods, meadows, and fields went by, my eyelids became heavier and heavier. Too much alcohol, too little sleep. Despite, or perhaps because of the monotonous clatter, I dozed off. The sun was almost at its zenith when I woke up again. An odd crackling sound had pulled me out of dreamless sleep and my neck felt stiff as I raised my head. It was then I noticed where, or rather on what, it had rested until just now. On Gregory's shoulder. I quickly sat up completely and mumbled an apology. Despite this small embarrassment I felt much better than in the morning. Gregory smiled. "I think I'm right about my thesis on sleeping too long," he sneered. Before I could think of a witty reply, I heard that crackling sound again. Right next to me. I turned my head but there was nothing. Suddenly the noise was replaced by a voice and I realized where it was coming from. "Dr. Marten, can you hear me?" "Elisa!" Overjoyed, I had spoken out loud. The others looked at me in amazement, but at that moment I didn't care. "Tell me, how are you?" This time I formed the words without uttering a sound. It also came to mind that the question of how one was feeling was kind of pointless if directed at a computer. "What's the status? You've obviously got your energy back?" "Energy is not the problem, battery charge is good. However, for reasons unknown to me, there are only twenty-one percent of operating power available." "Things have improved though, haven't they?" "Yes. As you can hear, there is now sufficient power to operate the micro loudspeaker implanted in your ear." I knew that already. If I hadn’t known better, I would have considered that sarcasm. "What else?" "Still out of service are: The spectrometer, the environmental scan, the space-time sounding module, the space-time radio module, the... “ "Alright," I interrupted her, "so everything else doesn't work yet. Will the power level improve further?" "If I make an extrapolation based on the development so far, I come to the conclusion that in three days a maximum of about fifty percent will be reached.“ The next question was, once again, the crucial one. "And will fifty percent be enough for determining our position in space-time?" "No. That module requires at least seventy percent." That's the end of it. The verdict had been delivered. The initial uncertainty on the ship, the fears and doubts during the cart ride, and the nightly carousel of thoughts in the inn - all this had happened under the impression of a small glimmer of hope. The belief that everything could still turn out for the better. That was over now. If no miracle happened, and I wasn't stupid enough to believe it would, then I was trapped here. Forever. Till death and beyond. Strangely enough, I became quite calm at these thoughts. Now I had certainty. I was just trembling a little. Alexios watched me closely from the other side of the bench. "Are you all right, Phillip? You look so..." He probably could not think of a word to describe my condition and he left the sentence unfinished. I couldn't think of one either. I stoically answered that I was fine and everything was all right. As the cart continued to clatter across the cobblestones a whole world of sensations and memories from my previous life, now so far away from me, passed by. Way too soon the beautiful memories faded and I only felt the hard wood of the bench at my back. For quite a while I sat there staring into nothing, pondering over everything.
  14. Water, waves, and a raging storm surrounded me. A feeling of being engulfed by the floods was the first thing that reached my numb senses. I knew it was just a dream. But that did not change the threat from the mass of water that seemed to come down on me from all sides. Blurrily, I saw myself floating on the ocean, slowly but surely sinking into the black depths. My whole body feeling like it was filled with water, an infinite heaviness, that pulled me faster and faster towards the bottom of the sea. It was so cold, I appeared to be freezing. Although I couldn't tell, because I didn't actually feel anything anymore. I noticed, at the edge of my consciousness, I hit the ground gently. Suddenly, a jolt tore through the floor. A tremendous shockwave violently washed away the layers of water weighing on me. The quake continued! It permeated my body, forcing me spluttering and choking to spew out all the liquid I had collected inside of me. --- The first real feeling that reached my still clouded senses was nausea. Not the kind caused by time travel, but a much more tangible sensation. I opened my eyes to take in my surroundings. However, before I could classify the vague impression of blue being part of the sky, I had to turn my head to the right and throw up. The sumptuous breakfast at the home of Manu's mother-in-law now became my undoing. Exhausted, I let my head fall back on - yes on what actually? It felt hard. As a precaution, I closed my eyes again, trying to assess the situation. My immediate position was clear: I was lying on my back. In terms of what the world around me looked like, well I didn’t dare speculate. One thing was certain, I was alive. And that was, after all, reassuring. With the nausea fading to a bearable level, I listened to my body. There was nothing noticeable like the stabbing and pulling I had felt after my arrival in Egypt. However, my limbs felt leaden and my head was spinning - not to mention the countless other painful spots. I decided I ought to complain less and instead find out what it was like around me. So I opened my eyes to try again and this time I managed to catch more than a glimpse of the sky. I straightened up a little and leaned on my elbows. What the heck? I was expecting all sorts of things, but not this. I was on a ship! Shocked, I let myself fall back once more. How could something like that have come about? Had I been unconscious for so long that they had found me and wanted to ship me off for some reason? No, that was a stupid idea. Only now did I notice a dampness under the blankets I was wrapped in. Was my strange dream perhaps not so unrealistic as I thought, had I reappeared in the water? Or did I materialize directly on board? “Elisa, are you there?” No response. Of course, the battery of my electronic companion was exhausted due to the time jump. Since it was apparently not yet recharged, my appearance here could not have been too long ago. Well, if I couldn't find out anything from Elisa, I had to take matters into my own hands. I straightened up completely and concentrated on my immediate surroundings. Three people stood not far from me at the railing, looking out toward the sea. As I followed their gaze, I noticed land in the distance, which we were probably heading for. The three figures were men. They were dressed in weatherproof hooded coats. I estimated them to be in their mid-twenties, a little older than me perhaps. Given the harsh living conditions of earlier times, it was hard to be certain. Otherwise, there was not much to see on deck. The ship, about twenty-five meters long, had a mast with sails. My experience with ships was limited. Therefore, its construction unfortunately did not allow me to draw any conclusions about the place or time. One of the men turned around and noticing me, he hurried to get the others' attention. They all came running, hovering over me in a semicircle. The first one, recognizable by his pointed beard, said something to me, but I did not understand a single word. It sounded like a question, though. Probably "who are you?" – or something along those lines. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer him, nor could I guess the true meaning of his words. Although I was sure that I did not know his language, it somehow seemed familiar to me. If only the TTEK would start up again... Nevertheless, the man uttered a few more sentences until my uncomprehending face made him understand that his attempts were in vain. Now, they engaged in a lively discussion among themselves. Probably thinking about what to do next. The second guy, who stood opposite the first one on my left, gestured for the others to be silent. He knelt down beside me, his colleagues following suit. Then he started talking to me as well. This time he used a different language though, which seemed much more familiar to me, even though it was no longer spoken in our time. He spoke in Latin. It took a load off my mind. Although I did not speak Latin fluently - if one could say such a thing about a dead language at all - I had had to acquire quite a bit in the course of my history studies. And so I also understood his question about my name, which he now repeated for the second time. I thought about my name for a second. I mean the name I would want to bear if I was in fact in the Roman Empire. Well, it couldn't hurt to stick with the truth for now. An undertaking that I would have to give up soon enough. "Nomen mihi est Phillip." - My name is Phillip. A three-part "Ohh!" and "Aww!" accompanied my first linguistic attempt in this time. The other two men congratulated their colleague on his success. Then they also introduced themselves. The one with the pointed beard on my left was named Alexios. On my right was Thalis and Gregory was sitting at my feet. Good. We were able to communicate and an immediate danger did not seem to emanate from these guys either. After all, they had wrapped me in a blanket and now we were talking to each other. Right after this initial success, however, they started to bombard me with questions in Latin. I didn’t even try to understand what they were asking. I raised both hands, gesturing them to slow down. They laughed, apparently at their own impatience, and talked to each other again, falling back into the other language. I was just as curious about them as they were about me so I asked what language they were using. “Greek,” they said. Alexios took my question as an opportunity to tell me a little bit about himself and his companions, which was of course very welcome. Firstly, I learned something about my situation and secondly, I did not have to answer unpleasant questions myself. I didn't understand everything, but enough. They were Greeks who had taken this ship on their way to Rome. Not bad! Maybe I had been lucky. At least the deviation in space wasn’t that huge. On the other hand, it should have been only a few feet. Before the three of them came up with a counter-question, I asked them the one thing nagging at me since I woke up. Namely, how I had gotten onto this ship. As they told me, I gasped. The answer was very disturbing indeed. They had seen me floating on the water and Thalis, who was a good swimmer, had pulled me out. A shiver ran down my back as I imagined what a pitiful death I might have met. "The test went well" - were those not the words of my friend and boss Lisa Bolzano? Well, once again, it didn't work out quite as it was supposed to. And this time I barely escaped with my life. I sure hoped they would do better next time! Before I could worry about that, though, I had to deal with the current situation. My fellow passengers had meanwhile agreed on another question for me. "How is it that I had to fish you out of the water?" Thalis, the one who rescued me, asked. Sooner than I had imagined we reached the point where telling the truth wouldn’t work anymore. I had to fabricate something. What though? I decided to take the obvious route. "I was traveling by boat, too, but mine sank in the storm." They exchanged knowing looks with each other. "Yes, here near Rome the water can be treacherous at times," Gregory said. He hadn’t spoken to me before. Perhaps it was because his Latin wasn’t as fluent as the others'? "And where did your ship come from?" Thalis asked. Since I really didn't know the answer, I simply made a gesture that was supposed to express ‘from far away’. That seemed to satisfy them for now. Since I finally wanted to know for certain, I simply decided to ask straight out. "Quis annus est?" - What year is it? Alexios looked at me, puzzled. He furrowed his brow but proceeded to tell me that it was the year 954 after the foundation of Rome. Great… and when was that? I had learned a lot about antiquity, but I wasn’t good at remembering dates. Still, it was good news. If the calendar here was based on the foundation of Rome, then at least I had arrived at some time during the Roman Empire. Gregory tilted his head. "Maybe the water has washed out his skull?" Thalis nodded thoughtfully. "That's an interesting thesis, brother. If he wasn't alive, I'd peek inside.” I was still sitting on the floor but instinctively crawled backward a little. What was that all about? Thalis noticed my bewilderment. He laughed. "Don't worry, I don't intend to do it. We're doctors, you see. The rich people in Rome pay well for our services. That's why we want to take over the practice of our uncle there, who died recently." So, I was sharing a vessel with three ancient quacks. Well, as long as they weren’t starting to experiment on me, I should be fine. "I better examine you again," Alexios said. He seemed to be the elder and in charge. Wait a moment, what did ‘again’ mean? Had he felt me up before? It's a good thing syringes weren't invented yet, were they? Let's hope not. I was lucky though and the examination turned out to be harmless. Alexios just took a closer look at my head. He probably looked for bruises or some other head injury after my supposed loss of memory. "Is this your ship?" I asked. The three laughed. "Of course not, I'm afraid we couldn't afford that. It's a cargo ship. And for giving us passage, we paid the captain a small remuneration." "So you are not by any chance a citizen of Rome?" Alexios now asked me. "No, unfortunately not." "What a pity." The three of them exchanged a few glances. "We had hoped you might be. At least that way we'd have someone who knew the place and could support us." "We had also hoped that you were very wealthy," Gregory added, "and that you would pay us well for your rescue." I understood. Of course they had an ulterior motive in pulling me out of the ocean. Hippocratic oath notwithstanding. "Unfortunately, I can't help you with that either. All my possessions went down with my ship. And I don’t know anyone in Rome." Their faces showed disappointment. It was only Gregory, though, who uttered a demonstrative sigh of regret. "Why were you going to Rome anyway? Or were you on your way back?" Thalis pursued. "No, I was on my way there. Trading and business, the usual." I hoped their interest in such topics was now satisfied. Thalis pondered for a while. "I think there's still something you can do for us. If what you say is true and you don't know anyone in Rome, I'm sure you'll be glad to have a few friends there." At the same time, he pointed at his brothers. "You could help us move our belongings from the ship to my uncle's dwelling." I thought for a moment. Sure, I could do that. It certainly wouldn't take much time and Thalis was quite right in what he said. So I agreed. The others nodded, somewhat satisfied, as they still received something in return for their rescue mission. Even though it was not as big, and above all not as golden, as they would have liked. I tried to get on my feet. I was still a little wobbly, but I managed to stand up. How long had I been awake now? Fifteen minutes, maybe? "When did you find me?" Alexios thought for a moment. "It must have been about five hours ago." What!? I was supposed to have been unconscious on deck for five fucking hours? That couldn't be true. The battery of the TTEK should have been recharged long ago! Then again, why would he lie to me? I started to feel sick. Had the damn electronics been damaged by the water? I tried to remember if the device was constructed to be waterproof. I didn’t know, though. Take a deep breath. Don't panic! There must have been a plausible explanation. One that had nothing to do with short circuits. Restlessly brooding, I walked up and down the ship. I couldn’t care less about the three friends throwing worried glances at each other. Let them think I wasn’t quite right in the head. In my situation, it was always better to be underestimated. Okay. Let's assume the electronics were intact. Then there's only one reason the device wasn't working. It's because there was no power. However, the battery should have been... wait a second. That was it! What should have been the normal course of my little trip through space and time? Exactly, outward journey, a few hours' stay at most, and then back again. Back to base, where the TTEK would be extensively maintained. What had I done, though? Several weeks of stay and then a second time jump, which had discharged the battery again. No wonder the TTEK was crapping out on me now. It wasn’t designed for that. However, Lisa would have known that, right? She wouldn't have sent me on a second one-way trip, would she? On the other hand, we had no choice. After all, this alien monster from a parallel world had been after me - as unreal as it seemed in retrospect. I never believed in monsters. Well, maybe when I was five. And I certainly didn't believe in aliens. That I would meet both of them one day, and together in one person - if you could call the Kerlock that - I would never have dreamed it up. Even now, the thought of it made me uneasy. I was digressing again, though. I stopped abruptly at the ship’s bow, staring out at the approaching mainland. I wonder if this would not only be the destination of this cruise, but also my grave? It seemed inevitable to me that I would be lost without help in this strange city and time. The situation would be even worse than Egypt. Actually, it wasn’t even a legitimate comparison, because in Manu's country I was doing really well - except for the first day! And most importantly, I was always able to get help from my digital assistant, Elisa, or even from Base. I took a deep breath in and out. More optimism, Phillip! --- I didn't know how long I had been standing at the railing, pondering. At some point, Thalis had carefully patted me on the shoulder, asking if everything was okay. "Yes, I’m fine, Thalis," I reassured him. "You don't look like it, to be honest." "It's just... about my ship. I have lost… everything", I replied and spoke the truth, at least in the second sentence. Thalis nodded understandingly. Then he asked me something which I did not understand at first. I asked him to repeat it, which he did. Often I found the pronunciation a bit unfamiliar, but I slowly got used to it. "Were your wife and kids on it?" was his question. "Uh, no. I don't have either a wife or children." He nodded, but my answer seemed to have confused him a little. Suddenly it struck me that I had not yet thanked him. After all, he had saved my life. Should I just hug him? For the first time, I consciously looked him over. He had short frizzy black hair and equally dark eyes. His facial hair was well-trimmed. But no, hugging strangers was probably not customary here. Lifesaver or not. "I want to thank you, Thalis. For saving me from certain death." He lowered his gaze, a little embarrassed, which was quite sweet to watch. "You're welcome," he murmured. What a funny guy. "Come join the others," he said, "we'll play the Triangle game." They’ll play what? Oh, for fuck's sake! Elisa would've known for sure. My gaze clouded over again, wandering off into the distance. Thalis noticed and put his hand on my shoulder. "Come on, Phillip. This will cheer you up. We've got something to drink too." I sighed. He was right. And I could indeed use a good sip of something strong - as long as it wasn't saltwater. Besides, I should finally stop being pessimistic. Nothing was certain yet. Maybe the battery would simply take a little longer to recharge. Even though I couldn't completely suppress the bad feeling nagging at me, I followed Thalis and joined the others. --- The Triangle game was doing its name justice. The playing field consisted of a cloth laid out on the ground, on which a triangle was drawn. This was divided into ten areas by horizontal lines. According to its trigonometric nature, the area enclosing the peak was the smallest, the sizes increasing towards the bottom. The areas were marked with the Roman numerals from I to X, meaning one to ten, ascending from the base to the top. After I confessed to Thalis that I did not know how to play the game, which surprised him, he willingly explained it to me. The goal was to stand three meters away from the cloth target and launch a nut so that it landed on the triangle. The score for the throw was based on the numerical value of the section of triangle on which the nut came to rest. What sounded quite simple, wasn’t in practice. The swaying of the ship often made it difficult to hit the cloth at all. Alexios and Gregory, however, showed considerable skill in adapting their throws to the inclination of the barge, scoring good hits against the odds. In the beginning, I did not do so well, but it didn't take long until I got the hang of it. Thalis seemed to have the same fate. He even had to put up with a mocking remark by Gregory who asked whether Thalis’ arms had shrunk while swimming. It seemed strange to me, too, since he must have had a lot of practice during the long journey. I wondered if he did this on purpose... "but no, Phillip," I thought. "You're imagining again!" After a few dozen rounds of the game, another phenomenon came to light. The throws became less precise, until finally it was a rarity and cause for loud cheering if one of us scored a point at all. What happened? The hit rate had decreased as the alcohol level, fed by constant intake from the ship's cargo hold, increased. The wine, of which there seemed to be an almost inexhaustible supply below deck, had been served and drunk by the gallon, since the game started. It was soon clear to me that I couldn’t take much more. The provisions the three brothers kindly shared with me only soaked up so much. I should have known this beforehand, given that in my time I only ever drank during occasional company parties. This abstinence had been part of my training program. Earlier though, when I was a student, things had been quite different. However, the stamina I had back then was long a thing of the past. I heard loud laughter as Thalis messed up his throw so badly that the nut went overboard. Gregory laughed. "Maybe you should jump in and save it?" "I think…" he continued with a heavy tongue, but then faltered. "You’re thinking, ohh. That's new," Alexios said. "Yes, I think. I think we should go to bed now." Alexios nodded. "For once you are right, brother. We're going to be in port tomorrow morning and we better be sober by then." Rather unwillingly the others agreed. The game was over, the day had come to an end. Now I staggered to the railing and leaned on it. I wondered what time it was? A hint of melancholy struck me, albeit diluted by the alcohol. Elisa could have told me. The wristwatch had not yet been invented, that much was clear enough looking at the wrists of my fellow travelers. The Romans counted the hours differently anyway, but I could not remember how. I was startled by Thalis talking behind me. I hadn't heard him coming. "Don't fall in the water. I couldn't save you now," he said. Was that humor, the musings of a drunk, or serious concern? Be it how it may. My scrambled brain needed rest. "Yes, let's go to sleep. But where?" I replied. "On deck, of course. The hold is full of cargo. Over there are some mattresses." He nodded in the direction. Then stepped next to me and proceeded to relieve himself over the side of the ship. I see, that's how it's done here. Quite logical I suppose. I didn't think long and followed suit. A moment later, we walked over to the spot he had indicated. There was a stack of mattresses piled next to some barrels, from which the others had already helped themselves. We took one each and lay down. There was even a pillow. "Good night, everybody," Alexios said. "Tomorrow we will be ashore!" I wished them good night and tried to get comfortable on my bed. The mattress seemed to be filled with straw. I would have found it quite uncomfortable under normal circumstances, but the alcohol did its job. I was used to the abstinence from comfortable beds, something I already had to endure in Egypt. I fell asleep in no time at all. --- "Puteoli! Puteoli! All rise, port ahead!" The booming voice of the captain woke us up. Bleary eyed, I sat up and inspected the beds next to me. Gregory was rubbing his eyes and Thalis seemed to be still asleep. Only Alexios was nowhere to be seen. Looking around with tired eyes, I discovered him standing at the bow. He was talking to the captain, who I had barely seen before. He didn't seem to care much for his guests. "Fucking wine," Thalis muttered next to me. He was right, my head was throbbing too. I had to get up, though. Besides, I was dying to know what was ahead. When I stepped up to the bow next to Alexios, I saw it. A huge harbor was spread out before us. The most impressive thing was a sort of stone footbridge we were about to pass. It led from the shore several hundred feet out into the sea and was more than thirty feet wide. The massive pillars supporting the path were connected by round arches, similar to many modern bridges. Though that wasn’t all. The footbridge was also populated with columns, statues, and triumphal arches, as well as by people walking on it. What was the point of this structure? I didn't see any landing stages. It had to have some purpose besides beautifying the landscape. I asked Alexios about it. "It's a breakwater. To protect the harbor from the waves, because of the dangerous southerly winds." So that was it. Surely we had something like that in the future as well, just without all the adornment. In my time, such splendor would be too costly and perceived as decadent. They clearly had different standards here. The deeper we went into the harbor, the better I could see the dimensions of the whole city. Somehow, what I saw there seemed strange to me. Certainly it was home to a large assortment of ships, harbor buildings, and further back what looked like residential housing. Even an amphitheater was visible, but it did not look like a huge city. I had imagined Rome differently. However, that didn’t have to mean anything. I still didn't know what time period I was in - not even what time I should have been in if the time jump had gone correctly. After all, everything had to go pretty damn fast during my hasty escape. I sighed. Elisa would've known. Once again a touch of hopelessness overcame me. What could I do? Images floated into my mind; Lisa Bolzano, those happy hours I had spent with my boss and best friend, my colleagues at CERN, and my family, who must be worried now. Would I ever see them again? About a day had passed since my arrival without the slightest sign of life from the TTEK. How much longer could I keep hoping? "Look, Phillip!" Thalis had apparently got up as well because he was now standing next to us. I blinked, trying to shed the moisture from my eyes. Probably not fast enough, because Thalis noticed. "Is everything all right with you?" "Yeah, sure. It's just the wind." I didn't know if he believed me. He didn’t press me though. "Look how beautiful and splendid everything is here. What will it be like in Rome!" Wait a moment. Let me get this straight. "This is not Rome?" Thalis laughed. Alexios, who had listened to our conversation, laughed as well. "Of course not," he told me. "This here is Puteoli. One of the largest ports in the Empire. It is still quite a way to Rome, but we must continue our journey on land." This of course explained why my image of Rome did not fit with this city. "How far is it from here?" "About 140 miles. Only a few days' travel on the Via Appia." Whew… days! This reminded me of my last, week-long boat trip on the Nile. And it reminded me that not much had changed in terms of speed of travel in the last thousand years. The street name Via Appia sounded familiar though. It was that masterpiece of Roman paving art that stretched from Rome all the way to the far south of the Italian boot. Some sections were a mile-long and dead straight. "Get your luggage together and bring up our cargo," Alexios ordered. "And you, Phillip, help. When we dock, everything should be in one place, otherwise the customs check will take longer than necessary." Thalis grumbled, but set to work. I followed him, helping to carry their luggage. Physical exertion was always a good distraction. --- Fifty boxes later I saw that in a slightly different light. "Oh, boy! What's in there? I hope that's everything.“ "Don't worry," Thalis reassured me, "this one will probably be the last. And in terms of the contents, well it's clothes, a few souvenirs from home and of course our medical arsenal." Knowing what I was carrying didn't make the work any easier. Fortunately though, it was done. Groaning, I put down the last crate. The ship meanwhile had reached its berth and the ropes were tied off. The captain jumped ashore, where he was welcomed by a small committee consisting of three port employees. For the less agile among us, a plank was laid down. Alexios beckoned me over. "Listen, Phillip, here's what we're gonna do. If the officials ask, we'll pass you off as our slave. It may sound undignified, but it avoids unnecessary questions." "Sure. Do it the way you think is best," I replied. Even though it was the right thing for me to remain as unnoticed as possible, a slight feeling of déjà vu came over me. Followed by a painful memory of Manu. Understandable, considering I had last seen him a few hours ago... yet he had been dead for over a thousand years. Did he have a good life? One should differentiate though, because the Manu of the world I was in now had never met me. This world corresponded to the original past again, based on my home time. I wonder if he had had a happier life without meeting me. Before I could rack my brains about the confusing interrelations of time, I had to lug crates again. This time from the ship onto a wagon. While Thalis, Gregory, and I started to carry the luggage, Alexios talked to one of the men from the harbor. Probably the customs officer he spoke of. I was just passing them, listening in on their conversation, as the officer stepped forward. "Stop! Not so fast! Before these crates are loaded, all contents must be declared." Seeking help, I looked to Alexios. He proceeded to talk to the rather small, chubby-cheeked representative. "But my dear Pontius, is this really necessary? We really do have a lot of boxes - trivial things, incidentally, of purely personal value - and we don't want to take up too much of your valuable time." The little man blinked, torn between duty and Alexios flattery. The Greek noticed his hesitation and immediately followed up. "Look over there, dear friend. Another freighter about to dock." Alexios gaze wandered demonstratively from the cargo ship to the sky, his face an expression of sympathy. With a gentle, understanding tone he continued his monologue. "Consider all your work. If you have to handle this ship too, you won't get home before sundown. I'd be really embarrassed to put you through that." The customs officer seemed relieved, as his mind could easily solve this problem. "Just don't worry about it, my colleague over there is in charge of that ship. So if we start right away, we'll be through before dark." This was not the reaction Alexios had hoped for. His face twitched before he made another move. "Dear Pontius, how long is it now since I last came here to visit my uncle? More than a year if I remember correctly. And to my amazement, I must now see that a man like you, yes such a man I say, has not yet been appointed harbour manager. To me, I must say, a complete mystery." A brief convulsion ran over Alexios' face and it almost seemed as if the Holy Spirit itself had enlightened him with an idea. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was in a theater performance. Alexios was a good actor, no doubt. Except that his goal was not to entertain the audience, but to circumvent the freight control. "I have an idea, dear Pontius. When I arrive in Rome, I shall tell my uncle about your outstanding merits. As a respected doctor, he knows many high ranking citizens." He was pushing his luck, given his uncle had long since passed away. Why was he so determined to avoid the inspection? The officer ran his hand over his bald head. "But Alexios, haven’t I heard about your uncle's funeral?" Uh – oh. This was going downhill fast. Alexios acted surprised while he feverishly searched for a way out. Meanwhile, the others stood behind me, curiously following the conversation. "He screwed up again," Gregory whispered to Thalis. Since he was under pressure to move, Alexios put on an obliging smile and began. "Well, most gracious Pontius, it is -" Suddenly a penetrating sound interrupted him. "Beep! Beep! Beep!" Three distinct beeps. Actually, it was too regular for it to be of natural origin. It didn't come from the micro-speaker in my ear though, because the others had heard it too. I was still holding the crate in my hands, but the real source could only be the TTEK. Whether it was a good sign, I did not know yet. But at least it was a sign! "Elisa?" I asked silently. Hopefully, she would react again! But she remained silent. The customs officer, however, did not. "What was that noise?" he said, looking in my direction. His expression hardened and he seemed to have come to a decision. "Dead or alive uncle, it doesn't matter. In these boxes though, there is something alive. You're not importing illegal animals, are you?" "Of course not," Alexios replied somewhat confused. "Well then, open all the crates! All contents must be declared before loading." The Greek surrendered. He gave us a signal to comply with the officer's request. I put down the box, which I had held in my hands for far too long, and lifted the lid. A collection of different vials was inside. "Ahh!" exclaimed Pontius, "what do we have here?" "Merely our modest supply of medicinal tinctures. Certainly not animals" Alexios explained, resignation in the tone of his voice. "Medicine, that is. Dutiable! All dutiable!" Filled with zeal, he pulled out a sheet of paper on which various goods and the assigned import duties were listed. "Are there any more of these?" Alexios rolled his eyes. "A few." We resumed the transport of the boxes again, lifting the lid halfway and subjecting the contents to a thorough examination by the eyes of the little man. Clearly satisfied, he expressed his pleasure by humming and hissing in various pitches. ‘I knew it!’ was written all over his face. In the end, Alexios' ‘a few’ turned out to be ‘almost all boxes’. Whereupon the customs officer told him a figure that apparently let the Greek age by several years on the spot. "Have you double-checked that sum?", Alexios asked, hoping that it might be a mistake. "Of course. It's all correct." Gregory and Thalis, who had just stowed the last box in the cart, threw worried looks at each other. "My good Pontius," Alexios began in a hesitant tone and added somewhat more firmly, "let's go for a walk. I have something to talk to you about." As they walked along the quay, my two other travel companions stepped next to me. "Gregory, what is he doing?" "I don't know, Thalis. How should I know? Maybe he wants to get rid of him by sending him to join the fish." "I hope not. There are about a dozen guards in this place." True, the area was well guarded. There was an armed man at every harbor building and landing place. So I hardly believed that Alexios was up to something like that. It looked like he had a plan, though.
  15. Phillip's journey continues, though can he hope to ever return back home? Arriving at his next destination, he gets entangled in events that threaten to outgrow him.
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