ON THE WATCHTOWER AT PLATAEA
Garry Kilworth is a critically acclaimed British writer with over eighty novels and short-story collections somewhere out there in the ether, mainly fantasy and science fiction, but a few other genres too. He’s currently writing a science fiction novel with the working title of Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses. This story was first published in Other Edens II in 1988.
There was the chilling possibility, despite Miriam’s assurance that she would dissuade the government from physical confrontation, that I might receive the order to go out and kill my adversary in the temple. They might use the argument that our future existence depended on an answer to be dredged up from the past. I wondered if I could do such a thing: and if so, how? Would I sneak from the watchtower in the night, like an assassin, and murder him in his bed? Or challenge him to single combat, like a true noble warrior is supposed to? The whole idea of such a confrontation made me feel ill and I prayed that if it should come to such a pass, they would send someone else to do the bloody job. I have no stomach for such things.
It was a shock to find that the expedition could go no further back than 429 BC: though for some of us, it was not an unwelcome one. Miriam was perhaps the only one amongst us who was annoyed that we couldn’t get to Pericles. He had died earlier, in the part of the year we couldn’t reach. So near – but we had hit a barrier, as solid as a rockface on the path of linear time, in the year that the Peloponnesian War was gaining momentum. It was the night that Sparta and its allies were to take positive action against the Athenians by attacking a little walled city-state called Plataea. Plataea, with its present garrison of 400 local hoplites and some eighty seconded Athenians, was virtually the only mainland supporter of Athens in the war amongst the Greeks. It was a tiny city-state, even by ancient world standards – perhaps a mile in circumference – and it was heavily outnumbered by the besieging troops led by the Spartan king, Archidamus. It didn’t stand a chance, but by God it put up resistance which rivalled The Alamo for stubbornness, and surpassed it for inventiveness.
Miriam suggested we set up the recording equipment in an old abandoned watchtower on a hill outside the city. From there we could see the main gates, and could record both the Spartan attempts at breaching the walls and the defenders as they battled to keep the invaders at bay. The stonework of the watchtower was unstable, the timber rotting, and it was probably only used to shelter goats. We did not, therefore, expect to be interrupted while we settled in. In any case, while we were “travelling”, we appeared as insubstantial beings and were seldom confronted. The tower was ideal. It gave us the height we needed to command a good view, and had aged enough to be a respectable establishment for spectral forms.
There were three of us in the team. Miriam was the expedition’s leader; John was responsible for the recording equipment; and I was the official communicator, in contact with base camp, AD 2017. By 429, we were not at our harmonious best, having been away from home for a very long time: long enough for all our habits and individual ways to get on each other’s nerves to the point of screaming. I suppose we were all missing home to a certain extent, though why we should want to go back to a world where four-fifths of the population was on the streets, starving, and kept precariously at bay by the private military armies of privileged groups, was never raised. We ourselves, of course, belonged to one of those groups, but we were aware of the instability of the situation and the depressingly obvious fact that we could do nothing to influence it. The haves were no longer in a position to help the have nots, even given the desire to do such. One of the reasons for coming on the expedition was to escape my guilt – and the constant wars between the groups. It was, as always, a mess.
“What do base say?” asked Miriam.
I could see the watch fires on the nearby city walls through her ghostly form, as she moved restlessly around the walkway of the tower. John was doing something below.
“They believe the vortex must have an outer limit,” I said. “It would appear that we’ve reached it.”
This didn’t satisfy her, and I didn’t expect it to. Miriam did not operate on beliefs. She liked people to know.
“But why here? Why now? What’s so special about the year 429? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“You expect it to make sense?”
“I had hoped … oh, I don’t know. An answer which wasn’t still a question I suppose. Doesn’t it worry you? That suddenly we come up against a wall, without any apparent reason?”
I shrugged. “Surely natural limitations are a good enough reason. Human endeavour has often come up against such things – the sound barrier, for example. They believed that was impassable at the time, but they got through it in the end. Maybe this is a comparable problem?”
“It’s a bitch, I know that much,” she replied in a bitter tone. “I really wanted Pericles – and the earlier battles. Marathon. Thermopylae. Damn it, there’s so much we’ll have to leave. Mycenae and Agamemnon. We could have confirmed all that. If we can’t go back any further, Troy will remain covered in mist…”
Which was not altogether a bad thing as far as I was concerned. Already too many illusions had been wiped away. Why destroy all myth and legend, simply for the sake of facts? It’s a pretty boring world, once the magic has been stripped off.
“Well, perhaps we shouldn’t do it all at once,” I suggested. “I feel as if I’m drowning as it is … let someone else destroy Homer.”
She said, “We’re not destroying anything. We’re merely recording…”
“The truth,” I said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my tone.
She glared at me, a silvery frown marring her handsome features. We had clashed in the same way several times recently and I think she was getting tired of my outbursts.
“You have an attitude problem, Stan – don’t make it my problem, too.”
“I won’t,” I said, turning away.
In the distance, I could hear the jingle of brass: the Spartan army tramping through the night, their torches clearly visible. These sounds and sights were the cause of some consternation and excitement amongst the Plataeans on the walls of the city. The enemy had arrived. Little figures ran to and fro, between the watch fires. They had known for a few hours that Archidamus was coming: Theban traitors, spies and double agents had been busy during the day, earning a crust. The warnings had come too late for flight, however, and it was now a case of defying the vastly superior force or surrendering the city. Some of the defenders were relying on the fact that Plataea was sacred ground – it had been consecrated after a successful battle with the Persians earlier in the century – but Archidamus was not a man to take much notice of that. There were ways of appealing to the gods for a suspension of holy rights, if the need was there.
I wondered how the Spartans would react if they knew they were being recorded, visually. They were already pretty good at strutting around in grand macho style, cuffing slaves and flaunting their long hair. We had been told that historical recordings such as this would be studied for possible answers to the problems of our own time. I couldn’t help but feel cynical about this idea, though I did not have the whole picture. The future, beyond my own time, had been investigated by another team and the result was a secret known only to that expedition and our illustrious government, but I couldn’t help feeling it was a very bleak picture.
Besides Spartans, the invading army consisted of slave auxiliaries, a few mercenaries and volunteer forces from the cities allied with Sparta: Corinth, Megara, Elis, Thebes and many others. These cities looked to their big cousin to lead them against the upstart Athens, a city-state of little significance until the early part of the century, when it had thrashed a hugely superior force of Persians at the Battle of Marathon, and had since become too big for its sandals. If there was one thing the ancient Greeks could not stand, it was someone thinking they were better than everyone else.
Except for Plataea. Athens stood virtually alone in mainland Greece, though its maritime empire encompassed almost all the Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor. One of the reasons why the war would last so long was because a stalemate was inevitable. Athens was a strongly walled city, which included its harbour, and could not be penetrated by a land force. Its formidable bronze-toothed fleet of ramming triremes discouraged any idea of a naval blockade. On the other hand, Sparta had no ships to speak of, was an inland unwalled city, but positively encouraged an invasion of their territory since they relished battles and their hoplites were considered almost invincible. Certainly no Spartan would leave a field alive unless victory had been assured. Direct confrontations with such warriors, cool and unafraid of death, were not courted at all keenly, even by brave Athenians.
So, a military might and a naval power, and rarely the twain met. Stalemate. Little Plataea was in fact nothing more than a whipping boy on which Sparta could vent some of its frustration and spleen.
Miriam was looking through night viewers, at the advancing hordes. She said, “This may be the last historical battle we’re able to record.”
I was glad of that. Expeditions like ours tend to start out fortified by enthusiasms and good nature, only to end in disillusionment and bitter emotions, as any geographical explorer will tell you. Discoveries exact a high price from the finders, who have to pay for them with pieces of their souls.
There was a terrible scream from down below, sending lizards racing up my back. I stared at Miriam. A few moments later, John came up the makeshift ladder, looking disgusted.
“Goatboy,” he explained. “Wandered in looking for a place to hide from the troops, I suppose, now that they’ve closed the city gates. He saw me and ran. That earth floor already stinks to high heaven with goat droppings. They must have been using it for decades.”
Miriam said, “Pull up the ladder, John. We may as well settle for the night. Nothing’s going to happen until morning.”
Below us, the weary Allies began to arrive and put up tents, out of range of any archers who might be on the walls of the city. Trumpets were sounded, informing the Plataeans that a bloody business was about to begin, as if they didn’t know that already. They were pretty noisy in unloading their gear, clattering pots and clanking bits of armour; bawling to one another as new groups arrived, in the hearty fashion of the soldier before the killing starts. We required rest, though we did not sleep while we were travelling, any more than we needed to eat or drink.
“Noisy bastards,” I grumbled. “I wish they’d shut up.” John, saying his prayers as he always did at that time of night, looked up sharply from his kneeling position and frowned. He did not like interruptions during such a time, and I found myself apologizing.
* * *
Here we were, making sure these squabbles amongst humankind reached a pitch of historical accuracy nobody needed. What the hell was it all about? And were our recordings doing even that useless job? I doubted it. Going back into history, you tend to get caught in the confusion of one small corner of an issue, just as if you lived in the times. One needs God’s eyes to see the whole, and weigh the reasons.
It might be that God dwells beyond some far ripple of the time vortex. If you think of the vortex as an old-fashioned, long-playing record and the groove as linear time, you will have some idea how travellers are able to skip through the ages, as a too light arm of a record deck skates over a disc. It is a mental process, requiring no vehicle. Somewhere beyond those grooves, dwells the Almighty. Who wants to meet God and see absolute truth in all its blinding whiteness? Not me. Not me, my friend. Eyes I dare not meet in dreams, as the poet Eliot said.
By the next morning the Spartans had surrounded Plataea and were intent on encircling it with a palisade of sharpened stakes, leaning inwards. Archidamus wanted to be sure that no one could escape from the city. He wanted to teach the inhabitants a lesson: that siding with those nasty imperialists and free-thinkers, the Athenians, was a dangerous thing to do.
It was true that Athens had created a confederacy, mostly consisting of island states, which she subsequently milked of funds, using the money to build the Parthenon, generally beautify the city, and increase the number of ships in her fleet. It was true that anyone who requested to leave the confederacy found the equivalent of several British gunboats in their harbour within a few days. But it was equally true that the Spartans, with their two kings (one to stay at home, while the other was at war), really could not give a damn about anyone but themselves. Athens was full of woolly-minded intellectuals who not only indulged in progressive thinking and innovations, but were carefree and undisciplined with it. Sparta had long since fossilized. They had put a stop to progress some time ago. In Sparta it was forbidden to write new songs, poetry or plays, or introduce anything into society with a flavour of change about it, let alone the avant-garde stuff allowed in Athens. Why, the northern city was positively licentious in its attitudes towards art and science. Nothing which would disturb the perfection of the lifestyle Spartans had achieved at an earlier time was permitted in Lacedaemonia. Asceticism, the nobility of war, plain food and state-raised children destined for the army: these were the ideals to be upheld. Give a Spartan a coarse hair shirt, a plate of salty porridge, a lusty 300-year-old song to sing and send him out on to the battlefield, and he’ll die thanking you. To the Athenians, who loved good food, new mathematics, eccentric old men asking interminable questions, incomprehensible philosophies, weird inventions, plays making fun of the gods, love, life and the pursuit of happiness – to these people the Spartans were homicidal lunatics.
I suppose it was little wonder that these two Hellenic city-states disliked each other so much.
While the thousands of figures, the keen ones still sweating in their armour, scurried about below us, busy with siege engines, we got on with our regular tasks. John had set up a hologram at the entrance to the tower. It was supposed to represent Apollo and appeared instantly on any human approach, to warn away hoplites who would have otherwise used the tower as a toilet. The hologram uttered its threats in what was probably an appalling accent, but it was the best we could do with the devices at hand. It seemed to do its job, because by noon on the first day gifts had been placed at a respectable distance from the entrance to the watchtower. They could see us, of course, drifting around the top of the tower, but I suppose we were gods, too, witnessing the heroic struggles of mortals. I did my best to assume a Zeus-like posture. We had some “thunder and lightning” for emergencies, but hadn’t needed them up to that point.
The heat of the day made us generally testy and irritable, for although many of our bodily functions were suspended, we still had our senses. I found some shade under the parapet and proceeded to contact base. This time they had a little news for us which was still very vague. Something – they were not sure quite what, but told us to watch for the unusual – something was preventing a further spread of the vortex.
Watch for something unusual? Only those bloody deskriders back at base would say something like that, to travellers in an antique world, where the unusual was all around, in almost every facet of daily life. Personally, I hoped they didn’t solve the problem. I was weary and homesick and a solution would mean continuing the journey. I didn’t say that, of course.
I told Miriam what base had said, and she nodded.
“Thanks. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Boredom, that’s what time travel is mostly about. Like war, it’s 5 per cent feverish action, and 95 per cent sitting around with nothing to do. I settled down wearily for a game of chess with John.
“You’re the Athenians and I’m the Spartans, so I get to have two kings,” he joked.
I thought John uncomplicated and open, and we seemed to get on well together, though he was a good deal younger than me. I was reticent, but he didn’t seem to mind that. He had not lost the bubbling enthusiasm of youth, took religion seriously (both of which got on my nerves sometimes, when I was feeling bloody), and had a love for his fellows which was difficult to resist.
Miriam was of a similar disposition to myself. Sometimes to while away the hours, I imagined a romantic connection between us, which was actually as farfetched as any fairytale romance. Although she is a fine-looking woman, with a strong will and good mind, I was not in the least attracted to her. Interested in her, but not attracted. One of those chemical negatives I suppose. I’m sure the feeling was mutual, if she thought about it at all. She had a husband back home, and two kids, not that she ever talked about them. I expect they were none of our damn business.
John shifted his head, to interfere with my line of vision.
“Oh, yes – sorry. Daydreaming.”
“Occupational hazard,” he said, with more seriousness than was warranted, but I didn’t have time to question his tone. At that moment a bird, a bee-eater I think, flew into the parapet with a smack. I picked the beautiful creature up, whereupon it pecked me, struggled from my grasp and took groggily to the air. It seemed to be all right.
John gave me a significant stare. It is one of his theories that the vortex interferes with the orientation of natural creatures (time travellers being unnatural, I expect) and he intended towrite something of the sort when we returned to civilization. He could be right, but if he believed that anyone would care about such things, he was in for a disappointment. It is one of my theories that, back at base camp, they don’t even care about the orientation of humans, let alone bee-eaters.
Over the next few weeks we watched the activity below with a little more interest. It became a battle of wits, not swords, the main combatants being the engineering corps of both sides. The Spartan army laboured long and hard to build an earth ramp against the city wall, up which they intended to march and take the city, at the same time catapulting fireballs through the air and making futile attempts at scaling the walls with ladders. Before the ramp was completed the wily Plataeans had raised the height of the wall at that point, cannibalizing their houses for stone blocks. It became a race. The taller grew the ramp, the higher went the wall. In the end, Archidamus put every available man on earth-carrying duty and by this means he managed to gain on the Plataeans, threatening to reach the top of the wall.
Undaunted, the defenders then tunnelled underneath their own wall and through the earth ramp, removing the loose soil until the ramp collapsed. On seeing his beautiful mound fall in on itself, Archidamus stamped around threatening death and destruction. He sacrificed a dozen goats to us, and to another shrine – a small temple about half a mile from our position – hoping we would intervene divinely on his behalf in subduing these irksome Plataeans. He came to us in full armour, wearing the classic Corinthian helmet, with its decorated, elongated cheek-pieces and transverse crest of horsehair, his brass-faced shield and muscled greaves, and a heavy bell cuirass. For a Spartan he was pretty flashy, but then he was a king. It was obvious that he was hot and testy, and I think it took all his reserve to remain polite to the gods who were giving his troops such a hard time. The goats’ entrails stank like hell thrown into the copper bowl of flames and we retreated below for a while, leaving a hologram of Athena to receive promises of temples to be erected, and pilgrimages to be undertaken, once victory was within Spartan grasp. On reflection it was not the most tactful thing to have done, since Athena was the goddess protector of Athens, but we didn’t think about that at the time. In any case, what was irritating Archidamus was the fact that the enemy would not come out and fight like men. Spartans do not make the best besieging troops in the world. They hate messing around with mud, sticks and stones, when they could be looking their best, charging across a windy plain with their long black hair streaming and their mouths uttering terrible war cries, ready to stick in or be stuck by some sharp instrument. There were lots of jokes about the Spartans, even amongst their own allies. The one about the shrew’s brain in a lion’s skin was a particular favourite.
After delivering his dubious gifts, Archidamus then went to the small temple, inside the palisade, and repeated the exercise. Miriam became very curious about this rival for our affections and managed to find a spot around the tower wall where she could see the building through her viewers. Finally, she asked John to take some footage, though it was not possible to see directly into the obliquely positioned temple and our line of sight was hampered by the points of some tall stakes on the palisade. We ran this through, afterwards, and managed to catch a glimpse of a figure between the marble columns. He had some kind of tri-legged device with him, the head of which seemed to incorporate revolving flaps of stiff material, that flashed like mirrors when it was operated. More significant than this, however, was the fact that the white-robed figure working this machine seemed to have semi-transparent flesh. Certainly, he was treated with distant, wary reverence by the Hellenes, in the same way that we were ourselves. There was very good reason to suppose that we and this elusive person, and possibly any companions hidden by the temple walls, had a great deal in common.
“Look at those beggars – you’ve got to hand it to them,” said John, with admiration in his voice. He was, of course, talking about the Plataeans. Archidamus’s engineers had stopped the Plataeans’ little game of removing earth from under the ramp by packing baskets with clay and placing them as foundation blocks for the ramp. These could not be drawn away like loose earth. The defenders met this device by digging a subterranean mine to beyond the ramp and allowing the whole effort to collapse again. By this time, the earth was having to be carried from some considerable distance by the besiegers and they were becoming dispirited and thoroughly disgruntled by the whole affair. Deserters began to drift by our watchtower at night, and one or two minor kings packed their tents and took their citizen-soldiers home. Archidamus executed some malefactors, possibly to create an interesting diversion to the gruelling manual labour, but was unable to stem the increasing tide of dissatisfaction amongst his troops. He had sent for some Scythian archers of his own, but the Plataeans erected animal-hide screens on top of the walls to protect themselves and the bowmen were less than effective. Added to this there was the smell of sickness in the air, which was part of the sordid business of a war in stalemate.
Some time after calling base regarding the possible presence of another group of travellers, we were asked to obtain further information. Miriam had already spent a great deal of time studying the mysterious occupants of the small temple through the viewer, but there were too many obstacles in the way to get anything concrete.
“We’ll have to go over there,” she said, “and get a closer look.”
John and I glanced at one another. Although the watchtower was far from secure against aggressive action, it provided protection for us in that it had become a sacred building to the Greeks and was unlikely to be violated. It ensured that we remained distant, aloof figures which could be avoided simply by giving the crumbling structure a wide berth. Once we started wandering amongst them, like ordinary mortals, we were in danger of becoming too familiar. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that some brave hoplite might decide to challenge the “gods”: after all, Odysseus had got away with it. It was a risky business. Of course, we could protect ourselves with our own weapons, but never having had to resort to such drastic action, we were unsure of the consequences.
“What do you suggest?” asked John.
Miriam said, “I’ll take the portable and go over there for some close-ups – Stan, you come with me.”
Not too close, I thought, but nodded in assent. I must admit, the anticipation of some excitement gave me a charge, despite my apprehension.
We set off just as the Hellenic dawn was coming up. Miriam carried the hand recorder, while I self-consciously cradled a weapon in my arms. I knew how to use it, but it was more a question of whether it knew how to use me. I have never had to hurt anyone in my life – physically, that is. We walked between tents and lean-to shacks that had been raised by the invaders, without hindrance, though one or two wide-eyed early risers moved quickly out of our way. When we got to the gate in the palisade of stakes we had a problem. It was closed.
“What do we do?” I said. “We can’t walk through the damn thing. And gods don’t fiddle with gates, wondering how they open.”
Before Miriam could answer, one of the sentries rushed forward and pulled at a leather thong. The gate swung open. He had not, of course, understood the language of the gods, but our intentions were obvious and the mere fact that I had voiced some strange words must have spurred him to action.
We made our way towards the temple. I prayed that the archers on the walls of Plataea would be too overawed by the sight of a pair of semi-transparent beings to fire any arrows.
We stood off about a hundred yards from the temple, where we had a clear view into the interior, and Miriam began recording. Half-hidden in the heavy shadows thrown by the columns we could see a translucent form operating the instrument with the metallic flaps, which was possibly some sort of heliographic recording device, though it looked like something knocked-up in a Swiss toy-maker’s workshop for an Anibian prince. The stand was fashioned of polished wood covered in hieroglyphics and there were lead weights on plumblines which balanced wooden arms connected to cogged wheels. Behind the operator, hanging from the pillars, were two elongated scrolls of painted parchment, one with a picture of a dog’s body with a monkey’s head, the other depicting some sort of wading bird.
As we stood, both he and us, recording each other – a situation that struck me as rather ironical – another wraith-like figure appeared, wearing a long, flowing robe and decorated headcloth. He whispered to his companion, then went back into a side-room. I was sure that the directional mike would capture that whisper, which when amplified would reveal their language. Miriam gestured to me without speaking and we stopped recording, making our way back.
The gate had been left open for us and we passed through without any problem, but on the other side of the palisade it was a different matter. Word had got around that the gods were abroad and a huge crowd had gathered, though there was a wide path through the middle of it leading to the tower. I could see John on the ramparts of the watchtower with a weapon in his hands.
“Okay,” said Miriam, “let’s go, Stan. Don’t look back…”
I had no intention of doing anything of the sort. All I wanted to do was reach the tower, safely. As we walked down the avenue a murmuring broke out amongst the troops, which grew in volume to uncoordinated chants. I hadn’t any doubt we were being petitioned for various miracles, both collective and individual. Two-thirds of the way along there was a horrible incident. A young man broke from the crowd and threw himself at my feet, attempting to clutch my ankle. Before he could lay a hand on me, he was pinned to the mud by several spears, thrown by his comrades. I wanted to be sick on the spot as I watched him squirming in the dust like some wounded porcupine. We made the tower without any further problems and shortly afterwards the crowd broke up as Spartan officers moved amongst them with whips. The young man’s body was removed and as he was carried away I wondered what had made him so desperate as to brave touching a god. Maybe his mother or father was terminally ill? Or a close friend had been killed whom he wished us to raise from the dead? Or perhaps he was just a helot, a slave, who thought we could free him from the oppression of his Spartan masters with a wave of our hands? Poor bastard.
Later, I went to Miriam and asked her about our friends in the temple. We had already mentioned the word Egyptian to each other, though all we had as evidence for that were the hieroglyphics and the pictures. A group of future ancient Egyptian revivalists? Just because they wore the costume and carried the artefacts didn’t make them residents from the banks of the Nile. Though there didn’t seem any logical reason for a masquerade, cults are seldom founded on reason, or by rational thinkers.
“The bird picture was an ibis,’ said Miriam, “and the dog-monkey … well, the ancient Egyptian god Zehuti was represented by both those symbolic characters.”
“Zehuti?” I knew a little of the culture in question, but this was a new one to me.
“Sorry, you probably know him as Thoth – Zehuti is his older name. The Greeks identified him with Hermes, which makes sense. Hermes the messenger – a traveller?”
“Yes – Thoth was also the patron of science and inventions, the spokesman of the gods and their keeper of the records. Thoth invented all the arts and sciences, including surveying, geometry, astronomy, soothsaying, magic … do I need to go on?”
“No. I get the picture. If you wanted a god of time travel, Thoth fits the bill quite nicely. So what do we do now?”
She gave me a grim smile.
“Wait. What else? Once you’ve transmitted the recording back to base, we wait until they come up with definites.”
So we did what we were best, and worst, at: waiting.
One evening the three of us were sitting, more or less in a rough circle, engaged in frivolous tasks. I was actually doing nothing. The stars were out, above us, and I could hear the snuffling of livestock and the clank of pots from down below. The area around Plataea was becoming as unsavoury as the no man’s land of World War Two, with cesspits filling the air with an appalling stink and churned mud giving the landscape an ugly, open-wound appearance. We had been discussing our situation. Something was preventing the outer ring of our vortex from going any further, and base believed that what was stopping it was another vortex, coming from the other direction, the distant past. The two whirlpools were touching each other, and neither could proceed before the other retreated. Our friends were indeed early Egyptians. It had taken a while for this idea to sink in, but when I thought deeply about it, it was not at all far-fetched.
On a simple level, time travel involved a psychological state induced by the use of darkness and light, resulting in the fusion of infinites, of space and time. The dark and light became unified into a substance which formed a shape. That shape was common enough in the night sky: a spiral on a flat plane, moving outwards from the centre of the group, some of whom remained behind to form an anchor point for the vortex. The base-camp group. The room in which we had begun the vigil was no longer a room, but something else: a super-physical universe that possibly exists in all minds at some level of perception. There was no technological reason why an earlier civilization could not have made the same mental discovery. On the other hand, people of our rank were still not privy to the source of the discovery, and it could well be that the knowledge had come from the past. Egyptian documents perhaps, only recently decoded? I remembered something about mirrors being used to flood the dark interior passages of the pyramids with light from the sun.
A horrible thought occurred to me.
“We’re not going to stay here, until they go back?”
“I don’t know. I’m awaiting instructions from base.”
“Now look, we’re the ones that are here. Not them.”
“You know how it is, as well as I do, Stan.”
I stared at her.
“I know how it is,” I said, bitterly.
Her phantom features produced a faint smile.
I lay awake that night, thinking about the stalemate I had got myself into. Egyptians? If they had had time travel for so long, why hadn’t they visited future centuries? But then, of course, they probably had and we had run screaming from them, just as the goatboy had fled from us. They probably had a similar policy to ourselves: no interference, just record and return. So, on their umpteenth journey into the future, they had come to a halt, suddenly, and had no doubt come to the same conclusion as we had: someone was blocking the path.
It wasn’t difficult either to see how such a discovery might be lost to future civilizations. Hadn’t certain surgical techniques been lost too? Time travel would undoubtedly have been in the hands of an elite: probably a priesthood. Some pharaoh, his brain addled as the result of a long lineage of incestuous relationships, had destroyed the brotherhood in a fit of pique; or the priests had been put to death by invading barbarians, their secret locked in stone vaults.
On the current front, the Plataeans were still one jump ahead of the Spartans. They had abandoned their mining operations and instead had built another crescent-shaped wall inside their own, so that when the ramp was finally completed, the Spartans were faced with a second, higher obstacle. Peltasts tried lobbing spears over the higher wall, only to find the distance was too great. Archidamus had his men fill the gap between the two walls with faggots and set light to it, but a chance storm doused this attempt to burn down the city. We got a few indignant looks from the Spartans after that. As gods, we were responsible for the weather. The war trumpets of the invaders filled the air with bleating notes which we felt sure were a criticism of us and our seeming partiality towards the defenders.
Finally, battering rams were employed, over the gap between the walls, but the Plataeans had a device – a huge beam on chains – which they dropped on to the ram-headed war machines and snapped off the ends.
Archidamus gave up. He ordered yet another wall to be built, outside the palisade of stakes, and left part of his army to guard it. Winter was beginning to set in and the king had had enough of the inglorious mudbath in which he had been wallowing. He went home, to his family in the south.
The majority of the Egyptians also withdrew at this point. One of them remained behind.
We received our orders from base.
“One of us must stay,” said Miriam, “until a relief can be sent. If we all go back, the vortex will recede with us and the Egyptians will move forward, gain on us.”
“A Mexican stand-off,” I said, disgustedly.
“Right. We can’t allow them the opportunity to invade the territory we already hold…”
“Shit,” I said, ignoring a black look from John, “now we’ve got a cold war on our hands. Even time isn’t safe from ownership. First it was things, then it was countries … now it’s time itself. Why don’t we build a bloody great wall across this year, like Archidamus, and send an army of guards to defend it?”
Miriam said, “Sarcasm won’t help at this stage, Stan.”
“No, I don’t suppose it will, but it makes me feel good. So what happens now? We draw straws?”
“I suggest we do it democratically.” She produced three shards of pottery that she had gathered from the ground below, and distributed one to each of us.
“We each write the name of the person we think most competent to remain behind,” she explained, “and then toss them in the middle.”
“Most competent – I like the diplomatic language,” I muttered. John, I knew, would put down his own name. He was one of those selfless types, who volunteered for everything. His minor household gods were Duty and Honour. He would actually want to stay.
I picked up my piece of pot. It was an unglazed shard depicting two wrestlers locked in an eternal, motionless struggle, each seemingly of equal strength and skill, and each determined not to give ground. I turned it over and wrote JOHN in clear letters, before placing it, picture-side up, in the middle of the ring.
Two other pieces clattered against mine. Miriam sorted through them, turning them over.
My name was on two of them.
I turned to John.
“Thanks,” I said.
“It had to be somebody. You’re the best man for the job.”
“Bullshit,” I said. I turned to Miriam. “What if I refuse to stay? I’ll resign, terminate my contract.”
Miriam shook her head. “You won’t do that. You’d never get another trip and while you get restless in the field, you get even worse at home. I know your type, Stan. Once you’ve been back a couple of weeks you’ll be yelling to go again.”
She was right, damn her. While I got bored in the field, I was twice as bad back home.
“I’m not a type,” I said, and got up to go below. Shortly afterwards, Miriam followed me.
“I’m sorry, Stan,” She touched my arm. “You see it for what it is – another political attempt at putting up fences by possessive, parochial old farts. Unless I go back and convince them otherwise, they’ll be sending death squads down the line to wipe out the Egyptians. You do understand?”
“So it had to be me.”
“John’s too young to leave here alone. I’ll get them to replace you as soon as I can – until then…”
She held out her slim hand and I placed my own slowly and gently into her grip. The touch of her skin was like warm silk.
“Goodbye,” I said.
She went up the ladder and John came down next.
I said coldly, “What is this? Visiting day?”
“I came to say goodbye,” he said, stiffly.
I stared hard at him, hoping I was making it difficult, hoping the bastard was uncomfortable and squirming.
“Why me, John? You had a reason.”
He suddenly looked very prim, his spectral features assuming a sharp quality.
“I thought about volunteering myself, but that would have meant you two going back alone – together, that is…” He became flustered. “She’s a married woman, Stan. She’ll go back to her husband and forget you.”
I rocked on my heels.
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Miriam. I’ve seen the way you two look at each other.”
I stared at him, finding it difficult to believe he could be so stupid.
“You’re a fool, John. The worst kind of fool. It’s people like you, with twisted minds, that start things like that war out there. Go on – get out of my sight.”
He started to climb the ladder, then he looked down and gave me a Parthian shot. “You put my name on your shard. Why should I feel guilty about putting yours?”
And he was right, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to jerk the ladder from under him and breaking his bloody neck.
They were gone within the hour, leaving me to haunt the Greeks all on my own, a solitary ghost moving restlessly around the parapet of the tower. I saw my Egyptian counterpart once, in the small hours, as a shimmering figure came out into the open to stare at my prison. I thought for a moment he or she was going to wave again, but nothing so interesting happened, and I was left to think about my predicament once more. I knew how slowly things moved back home. They had all the time in the world. I wondered whether Egyptians could learn to play chess. It was a pity Diogenes wasn’t yet alive, or I might have been tempted to wander down to Corinth. He would certainly have enjoyed a game, providing I stayed out of his sun. Me and Diogenes, sitting on top of his barrel, playing chess a thousand years before the game was invented – that would have been something. Plato was a newborn babe in arms. Socrates was around, in his early forties, but who would want to play with that cunning man. Once he got the hang of it, you’d never win a game.
Flurries of snow began to drift in, over the mountains. The little Plataeans were in for a hard winter. I knew the result of the siege, of course. Three hundred Plataeans and seconded Athenians would make a break for it in a year’s time, killing the sentries left by Archidamus on the outer wall and getting away in the dark. All of them would make it, to Athens, fooling their pursuers into following a false trail, their inventive minds never flagging when it came to survival. Those Plataeans whose hearts failed them when it came to risking the escape, almost two hundred, would be put to death by the irate Spartans. The city itself would be razed. Perhaps the Spartans would learn something from the incident, but I doubted it. There was certainly a lot of patience around in the ancient world.
Patience. I wondered how much patience those people from the land of the pharaohs had, because it occurred to me that the natural movement of time was on their side. Provided we did nothing but maintain the status quo, standing nose to nose on the edges of our own vortices, they would gain, ever so gradually. Hour by hour, day by day, we were moving back to that place I call home.
We might replace our frontier guards, by one or by thousands, but the plain fact of the matter is we will eventually be pushed back to where we belong. Why, they’ve already gained several months as it is … only another twenty-five centuries and I’ll be back in my own back yard.
Then again, I might receive that terrible message I have been dreading, which would turn me from being the Athenian I believe I am, into a Spartan. Which would have me laying down my scroll and taking up the spear and shield. A ghost-warrior from the future, running forth to meet a god-soldier from the past. I can only hope that the possible historical havoc such action might cause will govern any decision made back home. I can’t help thinking, however, that the wish for sense to prevail must have been in the lips of a million-million such as me, who killed or died in fields, in trenches, in deserts and jungles, on seas and in the air.
The odds are stacked against me.