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Alexandria

28 October 201002:29PMfiction

[Previously.]

We'd gone from standing in my dingy apartment to standing outside a very large stone building in the middle of an exceptionally bad-smelling, amazingly hot, and very yellow-tinted city. Stan looked around a bit.

"Too early," he said. He started stabbing the arrow key on the netbook which controls his cube. With each stab, the cube blinked, and a day shot past. I can't imagine what it would look like from the outside. A pair of strangers appearing for a few fractions of a second at nine in the morning each day. Stan was pedantic like that. All of time to choose from and he always picks nine in the morning. Nothing much around us changes. Stan stabs faster. Men with goats and women with baskets and soldiers with swords flick past. The sun begins to visibly move in the sky as the seasons change. The building in front of us flits between a titanic stone behemoth and a burnt-out husk- wait, what?

Stan settles on a date. The building restores itself again. I finally have a chance to get a word in edgeways.

"So. Where is it this time?"

"You mean when."

"Whatever." Nitpicking comes as naturally to Stan as swimming, stinging, and being entirely organless come to a jellyfish.

"Alexandria, 48BC. Specifically, the day before the fire. I'm not entirely sure what day, so we'll have to hop around a bit beforehand. Also, I've never been that far back before-"

"Wait, seriously? You have a time machine, and you've never been to the Roman times?"

Stan raised an eyebrow quizically.

"What's so interesting about the past? There's considerably less of it than there is of the future, and it's all already happened. Although strictly speaking, from a retrospective viewpoint, everything's already happened. I meant subjectively, there's less interest for a twenty-first century citizen to-"

"Stan. Shut up."

"Sorry. Anyway I have a theory about the library which I'd like to test." Of course. It was never about interest. There was always a theory or a hypothesis or something which needed to be tested.

He walked towards the building which I assumed was the Library, and pushed open the door.

I'm not quite sure what I was expecting. Maybe racks of scrolls or piles of papyrus or whatever they used back then. Dark, and dingy. Certainly not marble and glass. I didn't think they had glassmaking in Ptolemaic Egypt, not skilled enough to make wall-size sheets of the stuff. Evidently there was a lot more knowledge lost in the Library fire than was thought.

Stan walked up to a woman behind a counter. Counters too... a proper library. "Hello. I have some questions about the library-"

"Stan. This is ancient Egypt. They will speak Egyptian, or Greek if you're lucky. There is no way they'll understand-

"Certainly sir. Step this way, if you would please."

I blinked. Twice. Stan just looked at me with this 'isn't it obvious' look on his face and gestured for me to follow.

"So, when was the library founded?" Stan asks.

"This morning, at six in the morning by your measurement," the librarian says.

"Stan. Stan, she's speaking English"

"Yes, I know. Would you shut up for a minute Joe?" He turned back to the librarian.

"Would I be correct in assuming that we are not, in fact, the first time- travellers to arrive here?" he asks.

I just gape.

"Yes. That is correct. In fact, there are already several instances of you yourselves here taking advantage of our services, although I cannot say how many or allow you any contact with them."

"Of course, of course."

I managed to drag my flailing wits together a little.

"Um. Services?"

She leads us through a door into a gigantic room, again in marble and glass, with every wall lined with books, paintings, or artifacts.

"Welcome to the Library of Alexandria. We opened at six a.m., July 17th, 48BCE, by your reckoning, and will close at seven p.m. on the same day. We have the largest collection of knowledge and art in the entire of human history."

She turns to us and says, "Sooner or later, everything ends up in the Library."

Stan nods as if he was expecting all this. "It makes sense." he says.

"Stan, this is 48BCE, and we are in a time travel library. What about this situation possibly makes sense?"

"Think about it, Joe. The Library at Alexandria is the most famous library in all of history, and we have no surviving evidence. They say if it hadn't been burnt, we would have reached the moon two hundred years earlier, split the atom in the nineteenth century. No time-traveller could resist a chance to find out what knowledge we missed out on. And so its an obvious place for time travellers to set up."

"They only need one day, because you can just jump to that day from anywhere. They can have any artifact they like, because it only needs to go missing for twenty-four hours in order to become part of the greatest collection of historical material ever. In fact, it only really needs to go missing for a fraction of a second, because you can return it literally before you took it."

"So what about the fire? Doesn't this all burn?", I ask as we walk past the Mona Lisa.

"That's the beauty of it. None of this affects history, because it's only here for a day. Before this there's the proper ancient Library, and after, the fire comes, and cleans up the evidence, and gives us all a reason to come here in the first place. Obvious, really."

Yeah. Obvious. How could I be so naive?

"So", I ask the librarian, "You have everything?"

"Not just everything. Everyone. Since we need them for literally no time at all, objectively, and only twenty-four hours subjectively, we have a bevvy of historical figures as well. Isaac Newton is popular, given the scientifically minded nature of our clientele. They give lectures and answer questions, and at the end of the day we wipe the Library from their memory and drop them back at the same time we took them."

We were still walking. The place is enormous. I asked how they fit an infinite number of time travellers in. Stan laughed at this one.

"Even I can answer that. They just go back in time and add extensions. They have all the tech they need to build kilometres underground and probably above ground invisibly too. Again, obvious."

My head was spinning by this point. Clearly I'm not cut out for time travel. The librarian hands us each a strip of metal the size of a credit card. Or for that matter, a Library card.

"For obvious reasons, we can't let you check anything out of the Library. The card is so we know you've already been inducted, so you can just walk right in next time. Membership is free. Try to keep the noise down."

I looked around again incredulously. Stan smiled the smile of a scientist whose hunch has been proven. The librarian looks down over her glasses, bows slightly, and walks away.

"Enjoy your stay."

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