Alexander Inheritance – Snippet 10
He looked where the guard was looking and saw symbols like the ones in the dots lighting up in order. Again, his quick mind figured it out. There was a light moving along behind the strip of symbols, lighting each in turn as they moved. He could almost see the gears. He was familiar with gears. They were all the rage in Athens for astrological calculating devices.
* * *
That lasted till the doors opened and he was led into a room with leather-covered seats, more like thrones than the sort of stool Atum was used to. There he was introduced to an older woman named Marie Easley and a younger woman called Eleanor Kinney. The older woman spoke something approaching passable Macedonian Greek. She didn’t speak it well, and there was much too much of the Athenian about it to be proper Macedonian, but it was closer to understandable than the pidgin Greek he had heard up to now.
“Welcome. I am Marie Easley, a scholar of this time,” the woman said.
“Explain, please. You study the present? Recent history perhaps?”
“We are not of this time. We on this ship come from far in the future. We have learned a great deal and I am an historian, one who studies Ptolemaic Egypt.”
Atum didn’t believe her, but he couldn’t say that. For now at least, he was in these people’s power. So he leaned back in the seat and considered her words as though they were true. Ptolemaic Egypt? That would mean that Ptolemy would become pharaoh. Alexander’s empire would collapse. Or would it? Would Ptolemy become the next king of Alexander’s empire and move the capital to Egypt? That seemed possible, certainly. Even though Ptolemy protested his loyalty to Alexander’s heirs in every second sentence. “What is Ptolemaic Egypt to be, then?”
The scholar pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly. “We aren’t sure. The truth is, we don’t know how it happened that we came here, or really even what happened. We have no record of a ship such as this arriving off Alexandria at this time. I assure you, there would be such a record. And there are causes and effects, so we must assume that history will take a different path in this time than it did in our history. If that is not too confusing.”
“I think I understand, at least in a general way,” Atum said. “What happened with Ptolemy and the generals in your history is not necessarily what will happen now.”
“Yes, that’s the conclusion we have at least tentatively drawn. But what brings you to brave this ship? You said something about trade?”
“Yes. I assume you will need food and provisions. If you have goods or money, we can deal. I am a wheat merchant, and I buy from the farmers up the Nile and sell to the construction crews. I can arrange for grain to feed your rowers.”
“Rowers?” she asked.
Atum shrugged. “You must have something to propel your ship.” Seeing the confusion on her face, he rephrased the question. “Something to push the ship through the water.”
She turned to the young woman and spoke. The young woman wore her hair short, but not shaved with a wig as was sometimes done by women in Egypt. She had a heart-shaped face, with brown eyes and hair. The hair had blond streaks, bleached by the sun, Atum thought. The woman was attractive and the style made her more exotic than her features did. The woman spoke back to the scholar and they turned to a young man who seemed to be the chief of their guards. He took a device from his pocket and touched it, held it to the side of his head with one end next to his ear and the other near his mouth, then spoke and apparently listened. He pocketed the device and spoke to the women, all while Atum looked on and tried to understand what was going on.
Atum didn’t speak the language they were speaking, but he didn’t need to. He was good at reading people. It was a large part of his business. It was clear that the women were in charge in this room, but that the young Gaul was high in their trust. He had been asked about something and Atum, after his earlier experiences, guessed that the device he had used was some sort of a speaking horn. And he wanted one. As he watched, it seemed to Atum that they at least believed their tale of traveling through time. Either that, or they were much better liars than they seemed to be.
“We needed to speak to the captain of the ship,” the scholar explained. “The ship uses burning naphtha — or any liquid that will burn, for that matter — to push it through the water and to power many of our devices.” She pointed at the lights in the ceiling and then at the slates, like the one the young Gaul had presumably used to talk to the captain. “But we do need grain and other foodstuffs. Sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, fruits and vegetables.”
Then they got down to business. For the next hour, Atum dealt with Eleanor Kinney through the scholar. He guessed that Kinney was a skilled negotiator, and they had a series of goods brought in. Including account books, and a box of writing implements that the scribes in the royal palace would be lining up to buy at almost any price. Eleanor warned him that they would run out of ink eventually. It wouldn’t be soon, months of use, perhaps as long as a year. That would lower the price, but the “pens” would still be valuable, as would the very fine papyrus they used, neatly formed and lined.
Ten minutes in, Atum knew he wasn’t the only person in the room who could read people. The fact that the women were doing the dealing didn’t upset Atum. He was half-Egyptian after all. But it did make it clear these people weren’t Greeks. They appeared to be of every tribe imaginable — and some he had never imagined — but were all of one culture. Or seemed to be, at least.
He bought a backpack. What a useful device that! How odd that people who could come up with such devices would accept barbarian Gauls into their ranks! He sold, for a backpack full of pens and paper and five thousand “dollars” in ship’s credit, a ship’s boat full of wheat. This agreement was a bit of an experiment, both on his part and on theirs. It would take him a little time to find the resale price on the pens and paper, and they would need to examine the grain. It would give everyone a chance to judge the value of what they were buying and selling.
They showed him around the ship. He had a meal in one of the “restaurants,” and he looked around the shops. Then they reached the “casino.”
Atum didn’t lose his head. He was careful. But he did, gradually, gambling till dawn, lose three thousand of the five thousand “dollars” credit. He would win some, lose some, win some more. It was great fun and very exciting, if a little overwhelming with the noise and the lights. He realized that the wrong person could lose a kingdom in a night in this room. Or, if the gods were smiling, win one.
The next morning as the sun came up, an exhausted Atum boarded the boat he had promised to fill with grain. It was a small ship almost the size of his family’s galley, and escorted Atum’s galley back to the docks. The small ship had no rowers, but it was obvious to Atum that it could have made circles around his galley if it had chosen to. Atum was on the small ship and found it comfortable, if noisy.
“How is it powered?” he asked in Greek and got no response other than pointing at ears and shaking heads. He pulled out the tablet and pencil he had bought at one of the great ship’s “gift shops” and wrote in Greek.
He passed the tablet over to the young man in the white clothing and the peculiar hat that was called a “uniform,” and watched as that man pulled out one of the magical “electronic devices” they had and tapped it with his fingers. Atum was almost getting used to that, and this Dag seemed a nice enough lad for a barbarian Gaul.