City on the Nile
Sailing in a Phoenician trading ship was nothing like a Disney Cruise. Ash quickly found a spot in the rear where she could wrap her arms around a piece of railing to keep herself from being launched over the side while she emptied what little was left in her stomach into the blue Mediterranean. At first, the oarsmen had laughed when they heard her retching. Then, after several hours of obvious misery, they shouted out suggested remedies and appeals to various gods, many Ash had never heard of.
Eventually, the sun began to dip closer to the horizon, and Duzi gave the order to head back towards shore. Verihbitt had been sitting in silence with Ash for some time, occasionally offering honeyed water or a wet rag to put on her forehead.
She said, “Tomorrow, you will feel better. And in a day or two, you will be walking about the deck like an old trader.” She gently stroked Ash’s hair and asked, “do you usually get sick when you sail? When you came to Sur from your land, that must have been a very long journey and on rougher seas than this?”
Ash was startled by the question. The answer she wanted to give was, “the quantum temporal thinga-ma-jigger that tossed me across the time-space continuum does not seem to cause motion sickness.” Then she realized coming up with a Phoenician word for quantum was the least troubling aspect of that statement.
Instead, she said, “I am better at traveling by land. But will get used to it.”
Verihbitt looked at Ash for some time and said, “I can tell there is much you chose not to tell me. I understand that. However, when you agreed to come on this mission, you agreed to share our danger. And if we are all going to survive, let alone succeed, we have to be honest with each other.”
The coastline was getting nearer, and Ash searched it for the correct response. Her heart told her that Verihbitt was right. Hiding so much about who she was could be dangerous for everyone. The growing trust between the two women was also something that Ash was beginning to cherish. Alone in the past, the connection was becoming critical to her sanity.
Weighing her options, she decided to try and shade the truth with what she understood of the world she found herself in.
Ash asked, “What are your thoughts on the gods?”
“Oh, them. We have a difficult relationship.” She laughed. “I do my part. I leave the building of temples and most of the sacrifices to my father and uncle. Most of the gods seem to stay out of my business, and I try to stay out of theirs. Now and then, I think a few play with me.”
She stopped, turned to look at the setting sun, and added, “especially when it comes to men. Maybe I should make some of my own sacrifices.”
This hint at Verihbit’s personal life was fascinating, and Ash wondered if it involved Takaa. She avoided the temptation to go down that road and instead contemplated how to describe her journey in a way that Verihbit would understand.
“The truth is, this is my first voyage by ship. I did not sail or travel on land to get here. I am still unsure what exactly happened. In my land, I made a request to what I thought was one of our minor gods, who we call FLUENT. It seems that two other far more powerful gods saw my request and decided to send me here.”
“I do not know the gods of your land, but they sound like ours. They like to meddle and mix things up. Sometimes I think they are simply bored and do such things for entertainment. Which gods were they? Maybe we have a name for them.”
Ash was relieved. So she continued, embracing the mental translation of physics to mythology. “Yes, I think you are right. One of these gods is Quanta. She controls how very, very small things behave. She is the queen of randomness, and you can never get a yes or no answer from her. And you never know what she has decided till you look closely at what she has done. Before that, she often appears to be doing two different things at the same time”
“This sounds like Hadad, our god of storms and chaos?”
“I think that is different. We call Hadad Entropy. But you will recognize the other god that sent me here, Aion. We call him Temporal. The god of time.”
She stopped and looked at Verhibitt. This complicated woman had taken her, a stranger, into her life. Ash was not sure what she was afraid of. Maybe it was being called a witch and having a crowd call for her to be burned. Perhaps everything was happening too fast.
Veribitt smiled at Ash, and it was not that different from the beauty of the sun setting over her shoulder.
This mythical version of events was starting to make sense to Ash as well. Attempting to understand how a computer system coupled to a virtual reality room sent her through time and space hurt her head. Blaming it on a cable of temperamental gods had its appeal. Ash decided to keep going.
“You see, these gods did not just move me across the world. They moved me across time.” She paused to let it settle. “Verhibitt, I come from the future. And not just tomorrow or next harvest season. I journeyed here from thousands of years in the future.”
Ash waited to hear her friend’s response, watching the white beach move closer as the oarsmen continued their steady rowing, their rhythmic splashes meshing with the sound of waves to form a soothing song that helped settle Ash’s anxiety.
Eventually, Verihbitt stood and shrugged her shoulders. “That makes no sense to me, but who am I to question the gods. I am just thankful they brought you to us. And I chose to believe they did it in answer to the sacrifices and prayers from all those priests the King pays for. Yes, that does make sense. You were sent here to help us.”
She leaned down and gently kissed the top of Ash’s head. “When we arrive in Egypt, we will find a temple for each of your two gods and make a sacrifice of thanksgiving. No harm in bribing them. But that is days away. Now it is time to prepare to beach the ship and make camp.”
Behind Ash, the crew and passengers rushed around the deck. The wind was now behind them, and several of the oarsmen opened the sail. Others stowed the oars. The ship surged forward, riding the wind and waves.
In a rush that threatened to turn Ash’s stomach inside out once again, a gust pushed the ship forward and onto the beach. Ash felt the ship slide across the sand and settle with a pronounced tilt toward the side she still clung to. Without hesitation, she climbed over the railing and jumped down into the sand. She wasn’t sure if the overwhelming relief she felt was because the constant rocking had stopped or because she was no longer hiding her secret from Verihbitt.
Drained from a day of sea sicknesses, Ash found a place to sit in the sand as the crew set up around an existing fire pit. Some of the oarsmen went into the scrubby forest that started just past the beach, while others set up tents and camp tables in the setting sun.
The night was Ash’s most enjoyable since arriving. She didn’t know what she was eating or where it had come from on the small ship. She only knew it tasted good. Alim insisted she drink two bowls of wine that were not watered down. As the others talked and laughed, Ash felt herself drift off to sleep.
The following morning Ash stalled as long as possible before boarding the ship, finally walking up the thin plank onto the deck as the tide was starting to lift the keel off the sand. Fearful of another day of seasickness, she took up her position at the railing. Thankfully, nausea never came, and she soon joined the other passengers on the forward deck under a striped tent that kept both the sun and the wind away.
Duzi, Verihbitt, and Mnihh’dm were huddled together, whispering and planning. So Ash found a pillow next to Alim.
He looked up from the papyrus scroll he was reading and said, “Good morning, my lady. I see you have your sea legs today. That is good. We were worried that this would be a long voyage for you.”
“Thank you, Alim. Yesterday was difficult, but today I feel almost normal. As long as there are no storms and the swells stay small.”
“Duzi had the men capture some birds when we landed, and he sacrificed them to this morning, asking for smooth sailing. There is not much else we can do.” He went back to reading his scroll.
Before too long, Ash became incredibly bored. Since middle school, she had had a phone in her hand. A tool that connected her to everyone she knew and an endless stream of videos, social media posts, and articles. Until now, Ash had been dealing with one crisis after another. Now, under this tent as the ship slowly made its way south, she began to panic. She saw her backpack on a pile of supplies in the corner of the tent. She walked over, removed her phone from the front pocket, and held it to her chest.
In English, she said, “This is just stupid. Maybe gramma was right. Maybe I am too attached to this thing.”
Under her backpack were the supplies she had hastily gathered from the market before they departed.
She felt a zing in her brain as she called across the tent, “Alim! Want to help me build a –“ there was really no good word in ancient Phoenician for battery – “a lightning jar?”
The idea of building anything intrigued Alim. Something as magical as a jar full of lightning had the older man behaving like an eager schoolchild. He was full of questions while they gathered the raw materials on the deck before them.
Ash said, “Maybe I should draw a picture. Do you have something I can draw on?”
Alim dashed up and ran to his supplies, returning with a wooden plank and sharpened pieces of charcoal. “I have not clay or papyrus.” He said. “I use this board to make my notes, and then I have a scribe put it down on something that lasts longer.”
“This will do just fine,” Ash said.
She placed the flat board on her lap and picked up a piece of charcoal, saying, “This is the clay pot.”
She drew a cross-section of the clay jar, with a neck and an opening on the top.
“And this is the iron rod in the center.”
She sketched a thick line in sticking out the top and down to almost touching the bottom.
“Next is the copper cylinder,” she said. She rummaged through the charcoal pieces till she found a gray one.
“And this is this is the linen we will use to keep the copper from touching the iron and hold it up at the bottom.”
She then picked up the black charcoal again and drew a wavy line across the top. Two lines for the wires attached to the copper and iron, and a + and – on each wire.
“Then we will fill it with the fruit juice.”
She showed it to Alim, and he studied it closely. He then asked, “You want to keep the fruit juice away from the space between the copper and the iron?”
Ash looked at the sketch. The linen at the bottom would keep the liquid from moving freely between the two electrodes.
“You are right, “ she said, and used her thumb to smudge away the linen at the bottom. Then in English, “this is why we do design reviews.”
For the rest of that day, they huddled around the small stone anvil at the bow of the ship, trying to make the copper blocks they had into a sheet they could turn into a cylinder. It did not go well. As soon as they pounded it thin enough, it would tear. Or when they thought they had a good enough sheet, it ripped when they tried to roll it around a broken piece of oar they were using as a pattern.
The elderly scholar and the young engineer were so engrossed by their task that they were shocked when the ship slid onto a beach. Duzi and Verihbitt were standing next to the pair, laughter in their eyes.
Duzi said, “We are putting in early today. The coast between here and the Nile delta is not safe. You two can continue your attempt to be artisans once we set up camp.”
As he talked, he picked up another piece of rounded wood from the broken oar and jabbed it into a pot of sand sitting next to the anvil.
Ash rushed towards him, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek
Ash said, “You are brilliant, Duzi. I was trying to form the copper cylinder. I should have been casting it.”
She pecked him on the cheek again before realizing that Duzi’s face was bright red and everyone around them was utterly silent. She also became aware of how warm his body was and how firm his shoulder and neck muscles were. Reluctantly, she let go and took a few steps back from him.
“I am sorry. When I figure something out, I get very excited.” In English, she added, “I’m glad there is no HR here.”
Once camp was set up, Ash and Alim built a small fire and placed copper in a stone crucible which they set above the growing flames. They also dug a deep, round hole and placed the wooden rod in the middle. While the copper melted, Verihbitt, Mnihh’dm, Takaa, and Duzi formed a circle around the improvised casting facility. One of the oarsmen also joined them.
When the copper looked fully melted, Alim used long iron tongs to lift the cup from the fire and pull the molten copper into the hole around the wood. Flames leaped up from the wood. Everyone gasped and took a step back. Once the cup was empty, the oarsman stepped forward and tossed sand on the burning wood.
He took the tongs from Alim and said, “You know, old man, I am the ship’s maker. All you had to do was ask, and I can build anything from wood or metal. Go have your meal. I’ll pull it out when it cools.”
Ash felt embarrassed. Of course, the ship would have someone on the crew who could make new tools and repair broken ones on their journey. At the same time, she was glad she had not known. Making this part had been so much fun.
The group walked to the tents and the smell of dinner. Ash realized Alim was shuffling his feet in the sand, his head bowed. She stopped and waited for him to catch up.
“It is just fine,” she said. “I always wanted to make something that way. I really enjoyed our day.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek before dashing ahead to join the group.
Ash slept well that night. The next morning, as soon as the oars touched the water, she and Alim were at their shipboard workbench assembling her battery. The rest of the passengers joined in when it was time to squeeze the citrus. Working as a team, the steady rowing marking their time, the morning past swiftly.
After a brief break for lunch, she returned to their invention to try it out. Taking her spare charging cable from her backpack, she cut off the large USB connector and pulled the wires out of the insulation. Trying to remember which ones were the power lines, she wrapped one around the rod and one in a hole she punched in the cast copper. She then carefully poured the juice in, then lowered the copper cylinder and iron rod assembly down, pushing till the linen wrapped around the top of the copper part wedged into place.
Not knowing how else to test it, she placed the lightning connector in her mount.
“Ouch!” she yelled. And then began to laugh. “My friends, with your help, we have lightning in a jar.”
Everyone wanted to try the device, delighted in the shock it delivered to their mouth.
Once everyone had given it a try, she said, “Thank you all for your help. Now I need to see if it works with my –,“ she had to come up with a name for her phone. “My special tablet.” That sounded good to her. She went on. “Given to me by one of our minor gods, Stevejobs.”
Pleased with her inside joke, Ash headed to her backpack to get her phone. Halfway there, she heard the lookout yell, and what he said stopped her dead in her tracks.
She looked aft and saw the lookout pointing into the wind. Turning to see what he was pointing at, Ash could see two ships upwind from them, large sales open to catch the wind.
Duzi yelled, “Turn to put the wind behind us, drop the sail.” The crew leaped into action. Ash had to sit when the tiller was thrown to the side, and the deck leaned so far that the railing touched the water. She heard the sail drop and felt the ship leap forward as the wind pushed to ship ahead.
The two ships behind them were thinner and had more oars and larger sails. The oarsman rowed in two teams. One keeping a steady pace while the other group rested and drank water. Even with their strenuous effort, the two perusing ships continued to grow in size as they came closer.
With worry on his face, Duzi told the passengers, who had all moved to the bow of the ship, “We won’t be able to outrun them. We will have to turn and fight.”
He gave a single command, “four!” to the oarsmen. As one, they lifted their oars from the water and started to count with the same rhythm they had used to row.
One, two, three, four.” On four, they all stowed their oars.
With the next four, they stood and faced their benches. At the end of every count, as one, they made what was obviously a well-rehearsed move. First, they lifted the top of the benches, Then they removed shining armor. In three counts, they had all put the armor on and lifted bright helms onto their heads. Next, they remove spears and bows from the storage area beneath the benches.
They counted to four one last time, then turned to face the left side of the boat, bows raised.
Ash heard Takaa say, “I actually feel sorry for those pirates. They have no idea who they are attacking.”
Duzi shouted, “One!”
The helmsman pushed the tiller arm slightly to the right, veering the ship at an angle slightly away from the pirate vessels that were now close enough for Ash to see faces.
Ash lost her balance as the ship turned sharply to the left. The wind was no longer behind them, and their forward momentum was spent. They sat dead in the water, their left side facing the attackers.
A loud twang of bows preceded a rain of arrows that fell on each ship. Ash could tell that some had landed because many of the oars had stopped moving.
The two black ships were now close, and those aboard who had not been hit by arrows fell to well-aimed spears.
The next five minutes were complete chaos. When the ships were close enough, the remaining pirates boarded. But none of them made it very far. They were dropped by arrow, spear, or short sword if they did get close enough. Ash was no expert, but she could tell that the muscular men who had rowed their ship for three days were no galley slaves. They were well-trained and seasoned soldiers who dealt death with casual professionalism.
Through the entire battle, Takaa guarded the passengers with his sword drawn. But they were never in any real danger. Duzi had joined the fray, directing the soldiers as they pushed forward. Eventually, they jumped over to the pirate ships.
When the sound of battle stopped, Ash heard Duzi yell, “One!”
In answer, the soldiers responded with vigor and abandon that can only come from realizing that they had survived another battle. “two, three, FOUR!”
Ash felt Alim’s thin hand rest on her shoulder and squeeze. He said, “It can be overwhelming, no matter how many times you see it.”
The world was spinning for Ash. She had certainly seen war in movies, even played at it with her friends. But CGI effects, video game gore, and foam-covered wooden swords did not prepare her for the amount of blood, the sounds of flesh being sliced, or the pitiful crying of the dying. The encounter in Verihbitt’s garden, her first experience with the brutality of hand-to-hand contact, did not soften the mental blow of seeing the compliment of two ships methodically slaughtered in front of her.
Alim said, “Come, let us retire to the tent.”
Ash was asleep, collapsed into the fetal position on a large pillow before the soldiers had returned to their benches to row them on to Egypt.
They spent the next night on the ship, anchored in one of the many small rivers in the Nile delta. Ash stayed in the tent the next day as they rowed through the maze of the delta. She could only see green reeds and muddy water through the opening of the tent.
When her friends gathered for the mid-day meal, she joined them around dried fish and olive platters. Their simple chatter about things that were not important brought her out of her shock. By the end of the meal, she was laughing and talking with them. However, inside she was still dazed.
When the meal was done, Duzi asked, “Would you like to see something amazing?”
“Yes, I could use that.”
“Good, come with me. You will only see this for the first time, once in your life.”
He led her out of the tent and to the very front of the ship. The channel there were in was wider and full of small boats and a few merchant ships. Low hills blocked the view in front of them. To the sides, green fields lined both sides of what, Ash realized, must be the Nile river itself.
Ash said, “It is beautiful.”
“Wait, this is nothing.” Said Verihbitt
The rest of the group had joined them. A strong breeze pushed up the river, and she could hear the oarsmen strain against the current and the wind. The ship dodged a group of fishermen who were casting large nets into the water and hauling them back onto their small boats, bursting with wriggling fish.
They rounded a gentle bend in the river, and Ash gasped in amazement.
In front of the ship, amongst a vast complex of colorful buildings, a gleaming white pyramid rose up towards the sky. It was the Great Pyramid of Giza. Not the brown, crumbling structure surrounded by sand and tourists that Ash had seen her whole life on TV. The structure was covered in white limestone sheeting and gleamed in the sun. The top was painted and inlaid with gold and silver. Temples, obelisks, and statues crowded around the base.
Alim said, “It is hard to find words, is it not?”
All Ash could say was, “Yes.”
The ship made its way up the Nile, and the two smaller pyramids came into view, initially blocked by the great pyramid. Ash said in English, “I can not believe I am on a Phoenician trader, rowing into the harbor at Giza, and the pyramids are there, right in front of me.”
Being a person from the 21st century, her impulse was to pull out her phone, take a picture, and post it on social media. With a physical jump, she remembered the project she had been working on before the pirate attack.
Ash turned to Alim, grabbed him by the shoulders, and shouted in his face, “Alim, the lightning jar! Was it damaged in the attack?”