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 buildingI was looking for. From the exteriorit 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.“
The alley opened and I dived into the crowd. I ran over a passer-by. He fell to the ground behind me, cursing.
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 andcontinued movingforward.
"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 inall 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 noseor 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."
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.“
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'tand 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.
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!