There is not a lot of good literature out there, or even bad literature, for and about engineers. So, we decided to fix that by writing a silly, non-literary, and often poorly written serialized story about an engineer, time travel, and using engineering skills to solve problems. We hope you enjoy reading along as much as we enjoyed coming up with the story and the characters.
Like an Owl
It was comforting for Ash to learn that food tastes had not changed so much over the millennia. Sitting in that courtyard under those trees, the marinated vegetables and stewed meats in the bowls Mnihh’dm had brought out tasted wonderful. And the bowls of watered wine quenched her thirst and had just enough flavor to taste good and alcohol to kill the microbes living in the local water supply.
Verihbitt explained each dish and sampled them with Ash.
She then drained her bowl of wine and reached over to touch Ash’s leg. “You have eaten and drunk. Are you ready for questions?”
Ash was ready. “Sure, I guess now is as good a time as any.”
“Are you a witch?”
She was a little stunned by the question but had to remember that everything about Ash’s world was magic to this woman. It was best to address that head-on. How do you explain to an ancient Babylonian what an engineer is? She gave it a try.
“No, I am not a witch. But I am a scholar and an artisan. I study the world around us, and I use what I learn to make things that make life better. Tools that people use.”
Verihbitt thought for a while. “Like the King’s architect?”
“In a way.” Ash pushed down some of the jokes about civil engineers that she had learned in college. “I get paid to solve problems but not to build structures.” She could not resist. “Nor do I design ditches.”
“It is normal for a woman to do such things where you are from?”
Ash laughed, remembering all the meetings where she was the only woman in the room. “Not as normal as it should be. But it is getting better.”
“Well, here it is good for a smart woman like yourself to speak through a man. Some will listen to a wo-“
The sound of shattering wood interrupted Verihbitt as the gate to the courtyard exploded and rained splinters down on the two women. It was quickly followed by the angry shouts of three men who rushed through the opening, spears in their hands. They stopped momentarily to scan the courtyard, then rushed towards Verihbitt.
Without thinking, Ash stood and kicked the low table, bowls and all, towards the approaching men. It slowed them down enough to give Verihbitt time to dart behind the nearest tree. She reappeared with her own spear, and in one fluid motion, launched it at the closest attacker.
Another spear flew by Ash’s head before it thudded into the chest of another attacker. She looked back as Takaa, who must have been sitting in the far corner of the courtyard behind a thick pillar, grabbed another spear. He sent it past her ear, and she heard another thunk as it landed. She ran towards Takaa and dived behind the column.
“Fight or flight,” she said between gasping breaths. “I guess flight wins out today.”
The sounds of a struggle grew louder. There were grunts and cries of pain, but no screaming. After only a few seconds, the sound stopped, and she heard heavy boots approaching her.
“Are you harmed, my lady?” It was the voice of Takaa. Ash relaxed.
Ash stood and came out from behind the column. “I am just a little shaken. I didn’t help much.”
Verihbitt appeared behind Takaa and said, “Well, we know you are not a witch. You cast no spells. But kicking the table at them did slow them down. Thank you.”
Minihh’dm came flying through the door into the house, short sword at the ready.
“My princess, Verihbitt, you are covered in blood. Are you injured?”
Stunned, Ash looked at Verihbitt and could only say, “Well, I may not be a witch, but you appear to be a princess?”
The next half hour was another blur of activity. Takaa ran outside and returned a few minutes later with a chariot let by a beautiful gray horse. All four of them clambered on, and Takaa steered them down a maze of narrow passages, knocking over stalls and more than a few people who could not get out of the way fast enough. At some point, Ash had to close her eyes and hold on as hard as she could to the two-wheeled cart’s railing.
She opened her eyes when Verihbitt told her that they had exited through the eastern gate. Farmland stretched out along the rolling hills. There was still some dodging around donkey carts, and it was too loud to talk. Which was good. Ash needed the journey to process all that had happened. She had never seen someone killed before. And certainly never with a spear.
Takaa guided the cart off the main road up a dirt track that led up a small mountain. A large stone building stood on top. Mnihh’dm yelled over the din into her ear, “The King’s summer palace. We will be safe here. And no, to answer your next question, your hostess is not the King’s daughter, but she is his niece.”
Ash did not know what to expect as the chariot passed through the gate to the building. The outside was simple stone, and she had only seen artist’s guesses at what a Babylonian summer palace would look like.
The bright colors were stunning. There were statues and frescos everywhere. What Ash had seen in books and online was not even close to what she saw in front of her. The large courtyard was surrounded by two stories of buildings. And every surface she could see was covered with paintings or sculptures.
Ash got off the chariot when it stopped, and she was thankful for Verihbitt’s steadying hand.
She said, “that was some ride. I was not sure I would be able to hold on much longer.”
Verhibitt laughed. “In my line of work, you often have to make a quick escape on a chariot.”
“As a princess? I always thought that involved sitting on pillows and being fed by servants.”
“No.” Verhibitt looked at Ash sideways, smiled, said, “I am also a spy,” and ran across the courtyard towards a man in bright robes.
Ash looked more closely at the far side of the courtyard as she walked towards it. The man stood with Verhibitt at the bottom of a large dirt ramp, and hundreds of shirtless men were pulling a stone slab up the ramp on large wooden rollers using two ropes. She could tell there was a carving of some kind of the top surface of the slab. The wall was covered with scaffolding, and it looked like they were going to hoist a giant stone carving up onto the top of the second story.
Verhibitt was waiting for her at the foot of the ramp, her right arm entwined with that of the older man in bright robes.
“This is my father, Prince Batnoam. One of the King’s brothers and, more importantly, the King’s Architect. He is one of those people who build walls and ditches.”
Feeling a little embarrassed, Ash bowed to Batnoam.
The prince nodded his head in acknowledgment and said, “welcome, my child. My darling Verhi has been breathlessly telling me about your adventures today. I have to admit I could not follow half of it, so I want to know more at dinner.”
He snapped his fingers, and two women in simple robes appeared as if from nowhere. “Please prepare rooms for my daughter and her friend.”
“While we wait for that, let me show you our latest project. This is a piece that shares the story of my glorious brother’s latest conquest in the East. It took almost a full year to carve and most of the summer season to bring up the hill on rollers. Today, we will pull it up to the top of the wall and secure it. We will then spend another week digging out the ramp under it to lower it down against the wall.”
“And you will spend even more of my money doing so.”
Ash turned to see a tall man dressed in shining brass armor taking purposeful steps up the ramp. A dozen soldiers and a cluster of men in robes struggled to climb behind him.
Everyone bowed to him, so Ash followed their motion.
Boatnoam said, “My brother, when you came back from the East you told me you wanted something grand to celebrate your victory. Nobles will flock to the summer palace just to see this story immortalized in stone.”
“Yes, yes. That is what you always say. Then you ask for more money, and it is always too late for me to back out.”
While listening to the Prince and King jest with one another, Ash looked up at the slab and how they were lifting it. Iron rings were attached to the top of the wall and, ropes went from the slab, through rings, and back down to the teams of men who were pulling. Up next to the rope, she could see two boys were slathering grease onto the rope to reduce friction.
The teams pulled, the King and prince argued, and the boys kept applying grease as the slab slowly moved on the wooden rollers. Ash soaked in the pure joy of seeing ancient engineering at work.
And then, for the third time that day, someone tried to kill Ash.
Two men who had been walking next to the ropes on either side of the ramp pulled out large axes and, in unison, swung down on the taught rope. With a loud twang, the ropes split, and the slab began to roll down the hill. It headed right towards Ash, her new friends, and the King.
She screamed, “The slab is loose, run!”
She raced to the side as others ran down the ramp in front of the slab. The air was filled with dust, but she could see the stone crash onto the flat courtyard and stop. There were shouts and screams from a large crowd gathered around the slab. Ash ran down the ramp to find Prince Batnoam trapped. A split roller kept the slab from crushing the prince completely, but it was apparent that both of his legs were trapped.
The King screamed for everyone to come out and to fetch new ropes. But Batnoam saw the same thing Ash did. If they pulled the slab in any direction, it would come off the roller and crush him.
“Brother, I think we need to lift it.” In between gasps of pain, the architect described his latest scheme. “Put stakes in the dirt mound to keep the slab from moving. Then attach ropes to the far end up through the iron loops. Then pull to tilt it up and off of me.”
Ash looked at the geometry. The angle was too low. There was no way they could lift the slab. She decided to speak.
“Your highness, although this idea is close, I do not think it will be enough to lift the stone. In my land, we use a different method to lift large items. Might I try that?”
“No.” Said the King. “We will do as my brother’s asked, not the musings of a foreign girl.”
The next half hour was busy. The workers were able to wedge some more wood under the stone to relieve a little pressure. But no matter how many men or oxen they put on the ropes, they could not lift the stone.
As the sun started to set, Batnoam gestured for the King to come closer. “Brother, it is getting late, and we are losing light. And I do not want to miss dinner.” The King laughed at his brother’s bravado. “Bring torches and, maybe we should let the foreign girl try.”
The King reluctantly nodded towards her, and Ash sprang into action.
“Someone bring that scaffolding over here, the tall one there, and put it over the end of the slab.”
She walked to a group of men who had been pulling on the ropes and said, “You need to gather me two of thickest rollers you have. And more rope, lots of rope.” She shouted after their retreating backs, “And lots of grease.”
It had been years since Ash had studied how a simple tackle worked. But, while others had been attempting to lift the stone, she had been sketching her idea in the dirt. The top roller would be attached to the scaffolding. A rope would be attached to either end of the lower roller, looped up over the top roller, back down around the bottom roller, then over the top roller again. This configuration would provide four times the lifting force, minus all the drag from the ropes rubbing on the rollers.
It took close to an hour to build the rig. No one had spoken to Ash while it was being created and they followed her orders with obvious irritation. But, the King had sanctioned this approach, so they worked at it.
When the rig was ready, she had two teams of twelve men at the ends of each rope.
“You need to pull together so that it lifts the same on both sides.” She shouted to them. “At first, it will not move much. But it will move. Try now.”
Ash put her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers. In English, she whispered, “Freshman statics, don’t fail me now,”under her breath.
They pulled, and the scaffolding creaked. And then the ropes began to stretch. The slab didn’t move.
The men just stood and looked at her.
The King shouted, “Pull, you dogs, or I’ll toss all of you off the top of that wall.”
With the King’s orders, they pulled again, and the lower roller began to rise, pulling the slab with it.
“One more pace back!” shouted Ash.
They heaved one more time as one, and the slab lifted again. Other builders quickly placed wood blocks under the slab while a soldier pulled the King’s brother from under the stone.
Once clear of the stone they moved him to stretcher. Batnoam took his daughter’s hand and says, “I do like this new friend. She is wise, like an owl.”
Everyone was focused on the prince and getting him to his rooms, and they stopped paying attention to Ash. So no one noticed when she lost consciousness and crumpled to the stone paving of the courtyard.
“bzzzzzz.” “bzzzzzzzzzz.” “bzzzzzz”
Ash wasn’t sure if she was dreaming or not. She opened her eyes to a dark room. The full moon was shining through open windows and a light sea breeze filled the room with humid, salty air.
“bzzzzzz.” “bzzzzzzzzzz.” “bzzzzzz”
Sitting up, Ash looked around the room. She was a little light-headed but felt better than she expected. The moonlight illuminated her backpack in the corner of the small room. She walked towards it, and the buzzing got louder. It was her phone.
Fumbling a bit, she found it in the outside pocket.
“bzzzzzz.” “bzzzzzzzzzz.” “bzzzzzz”
She turned it over in her hand and pressed the action button. The screen lit the room, showing her a single text message.
ALEX A: “Where did you go? One second you were here. Then you were gone. The system has locked me out. I thought you had gone on your vacation, but the police came looking for you just now. Are you OK?”
At first, Ash thought this must be a message that he had sent right after she had been tossed back into time. She checked the time. It said 5 min ago. The signal strength in the upper right corner showed one bar.
She quickly typed a message.
ASH: “I’m here. OK, all things considered. Let me know if you get this.”
She waited for a second, bathed in the moonlight that shined through an open window of a Babylonian King’s summer palace.
ALEX A: “Whew! 😊”
– To Be Continued –
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