Little boxes with black glass eyes were attached to the corners of buildings. Some were motionless and some could move. Every now and then one would turn and follow Asklepios. He didn’t like that one bit.
He had walked back inland to try and find his bearings. It was no good, his sense of direction had deserted him. North felt like south, west was east. Whenever he felt like he was going the right way he ended up in a part of the city he had never seen before.
Now he was light-headed with hunger and thirst. When he saw a passer-by drop unwanted items into a bin Asklepios swallowed his pride and sat in a nearby shop doorway. A man threw away what looked like a bottle half full of water. Asklepios went to retrieve it. He heard a voice, a hand touched his shoulder. He turned, head down, ready to face more anger, ready to run. It was a young woman in a purple headscarf and a multi-coloured dress. In her outstretched hand were a few coins.
Asklepios’ heart nearly broke. He cupped his hands and she tipped in the coins. ‘A thousand blessings on you and your family.’ His voice cracked with emotion. The woman smiled in incomprehension and turned away.
By showing his coins to a stallholder and pointing at his goods Asklepios was able to buy a bag of nuts and dried fruit. He sat on some nearby steps, ate a handful and felt a little better. It was humiliating but he would be able to survive scavenging and begging. He continued to wander. The window of a shop caught his attention. It displayed several objects he recognised and valued – pens and styli, paper, and ink, and measuring instruments made of the flexible transparent substance that was so common here. One instrument was a simple rule, though marked with superb precision and regularity. Another was a variation of the set square, a triangular section of a rectangle, again with each side exactly marked and divided.
It was the third item that caught his eye, a half circle with numbered lines radiating out to the edge. Lost in thought, Asklepios pressed his nose against the window and stared. Drawing a perfect circle was easy, requiring nothing more than stick, twine and chalk. It was the angles, the proportionality, the placement of the items around the circle that was the weakness in his summonings. Scaled up, this instrument was exactly what he needed.
He had to have it.
The shopkeeper, a lanky stooped man with slicked-over hair, eyed Asklepios suspiciously as he entered the shop. Smiling pleasantly, Asklepios strolled between the shelves, inspecting various items. The shopkeeper served another customer, Asklepios innocuously returned to the front of the shop. His heart pounded, his hands were damp, he had never stolen anything in his adult life. What if the eye-boxes followed him? What might they call down? No matter, he had to take the risk. He reached into the window display and snatched up the protractor and other instruments.
‘Hey!’ The shopkeeper erupted out from behind the counter.
Asklepios through the door and away into the streets, his three prizes clutched in his hand. He dashed across a busy road, turned into a side street and slowed, joining in with the other pedestrians. He risked a look behind him. There was no sight or sound of pursuit. He sighed with relief. Foolish, so foolish, but he had what he wanted and it had been worth it.
Moving with the crowds he found himself on the promenade overlooking the sea. Here was another marvel – a small town built on a platform of hundreds of legs out over the sea. An enormous mirrored ball slowly turned on one of the roofs. Far to his right lay the colossal wreck of another such town. No doubt there had been a war and one town had been victorious.
Asklepios descended to the beach, sat on the shingle and stared out to sea. The fact that he was alone and the sun was setting barely registered. When it was dark and he was shivering with cold he finally broke from his reverie. The town over the sea blazed with light and brash music. Behind him the city on the land was also brightly illuminated.
He needed somewhere to sleep, somewhere he would not be found. He trudged across the shingle towards the ruined sea town.
The sand against the road wall was still warm from the sun. He curled up there, sheltered from the wind under the rusting pylons of the ruin. How could there have been war when there was peace in the city, when so many races lived together? Something else must have happened.
All day he had walked through a city of riches. The night lamps stood atop metal posts in every street, the marvellous vehicles were built from the same material. This ruin he crouched under contained more iron than he had ever dreamed existed, yet nobody bothered to reclaim it.
How could such plenty, such knowledge and power have been lost? With growing certainty Asklepios decided he must be in the future, not the past. He looked down at the stolen instruments in his hand and felt very foolish. He had been wrong about so very many things.
A night wind blew. The lights of ships moved far out across the dark water. Hugging his knees Asklepios looked out to sea awed by the immensity of time.
To be continued…