“The time travel experiment is not the only scientific experiment I have been a part of. A few years before my leap into the unknown, I was a student at Oxford suffering from a terminal case of leukemia.” A smile at the flash of confusion on Carter’s face. “‘Terminal,’ yes, until I agreed to an experimental therapy administered to me while on summer vacation back in the States.”
“Chemo, I presume.” Carter sat with his hands intertwined over his knees.
“You presume incorrectly: nano.” The stranger chuckled at his own unappreciated wit, then explained. “Nanotechnology. I was injected with several thousand microscopic man-made machines, each smaller than a pinhead. By the mid-Twenties, technology had advanced to the point where these ‘medibots,’ as my doctors called them, tiny machines capable of destroying virtually any infection or other malady, artificially intelligent to the point of sentience, and most importantly, self-replicating, had become viable and useful within the human body.”
Carter’s hands had fallen to his thighs. “They destroyed the cancer.”
The stranger nodded gently into the unbuttoned top of his shirt, once. “And then some. I received my first hint of the full implications of having tens of thousands of microscopic medics floating in my bloodstream for all eternity, when I ran a marathon the following year to raise money for leukemia research. It seems, my good friend, that the medibots were determined not only to destroy my cancer, but to eliminate any lactic acid produced by my marathon effort.”
Carter smiled. “You won the marathon.”
“No.” The stranger smiled. “I ran so fast for so far that my skeletal system could not keep up; I broke a leg at mile twenty-four.”
“Never feel sorry for me, my good friend. You should have seen the look on the faces of the emergency room staff, when they watched my broken tibia heal itself right before their eyes after they had splintered it.”
Now Carter sighed for the first time. “You’re immortal,” he whispered.
To Carter’s surprise the stranger became morose. “For all intents and purposes … yes.” His last word was another sigh, barely audible.
The longest silence ensued between the two men. Then Carter spoke. “What was the Salisbury Plain like in A.D. Thirty?”
The stranger smiled once more. “My good friend,” he glanced at the degrees on his host’s wall, “Doctor Carter, you try me for a fool. A University of Salisbury project would not necessarily be located locally.”
“What was A.D. Thirty like then?”
The stranger looked at his host’s pocket once more. “That, Doctor Carter, will cost you another fag.”
Carter reached for his pocket without hesitation. “Nicotine is a poison–“
“Yes, the little buggers attack nicotine as well,” the stranger interjected as he accepted the cigarette. “Not to mention alcohol. But not before one is able to enjoy a few moments of intense pleasure.” He leaned far forward to accept Carter’s light.
Carter lit his own smoke after the stranger leaned back, then looked up as if struck with a sudden thought. “If you were not drunk the night you made that wager …” Carter allowed his prompt to trail off.
The stranger smoked calmly, yet intensely. “Yes, I made the leap of my own free will.”
“Users of the time machine had no means of return. A man with nothing to lose?”
The stranger exhaled while looking at the ceiling. “And so very much to gain. It is true that I saw, or thought I saw, the opportunities presented by a combination of time travel, a detailed knowledge of history, and immortality, an immortality which made me feel like a medical freak in my own time.”
Carter smiled intensely at the stranger’s smoldering ember. “It seems your moment of pleasure is past.”
The stranger smiled, yet continued to smoke. “And it seems I owe you half of a bargain.”
“Indeed you do.”
“That infernal machine transported me back two thousand years with impressive precision, landing me and my capsule in a subterranean lake.”
“And planned. As was my hike out of the cavern chosen for its accessibility to the surface. Supplies and equipment were kept stored in the capsule for just such a purpose, for the planned stroll still took me the good part of twenty-four hours.”
“And then, instead of climbing, I slept. I rose with the dawn, and began to walk eastward, with some vague notions of making a name for myself in the great city of Rome.”
“Did you know Latin?”
“Of course, as well as German and French, though the latter two would do me hardly any good in the world of A.D. Thirty, and my version of the first would seem stilted and unnatural and therefore, at best, suspicious to a native speaker.
“But I get ahead of myself. When I emerged from that cave in the dark of the night, I was hundreds of miles from the port of London and over a thousand from Rome, in effect over a thousand walking miles and an English Channel from civilization of any consequence. So I determined to walk quickly, following a mountain stream which I found and which I hoped emptied into the Severn.
“Empty into the Severn it did not, but lead to a footpath it did, a footpath which ran eastward and thus gave me hope.
“That footpath, in its own turn, led to a large elk, antlers wide and majestic, standing in the middle of that rut running through the forest. I should have immediately discerned danger for myself in that creature’s wide eyes and the spread of its forelegs, but I was not yet the woodsman which I would be through experience in later years.
“The next moment, that lovely creature was crashing through the undergrowth, and the moment after that, a band of much smaller, but infinitely more deadly, creatures was crashing after it, crossing the trail in an instant.
“Much like the elk, I froze in my tracks, terrified at the thought of being hunted down by these long-haired beings wearing the skins of animals and sporting bows and arrows. That hesitation at movement of any sort, versus a subtle pair of steps into the concealing shrubbery along the trail, proved to be the first of many mistakes along my journey through the ages.
“A straggler, perhaps having slowed his own pursuit of the band’s dinner when he sensed a potential threat to his left, emerged from the undergrowth after the others and immediately turned to stare at me with hard, narrow eyes. His sighting of me was followed by a loud shout that to this day I cannot translate, and then he was rushing at me headlong down the path, an iron dagger in hand.
“I, who had known the pain of a broken bone even as it was being miraculously healed, had no desire to test the medibots’ abilities against a twelve-inch stab wound, and thus turned and fled back down the stretch of path which I had followed up to that point.
“The straggler proved to be an adept runner, as did his companions, judging by the shouts which drew closer and closer despite my sprinting. Unfortunately, the same creatures which could break down my lactic acid almost as quickly as my body produced it could not make me an inherently faster or stronger athlete, and I soon found myself being tackled from behind by one of these barbarians straight out of the mists of time.
“Whether out of a desire to interrogate me or to turn me over to a Druidic priest for sacrifice, I could not know at the time, but, instead of filling me with twelve inches of iron, my captor struck me behind the ear with the hilt (and not the blade) of his dagger. You could say I learned at that moment that my microscopic friends were of no use against the shock of a physical blow.
“I was stunned enough to be unable to resist as I was bound by the wrists and arms with sinew ropes, and I was silent as I was pulled to my feet and led away down the footpath with six tribesmen before me and (presumably) an equal number behind me, one of the twelve carrying my pack.
“These hunters sporting wild manes and handlebar moustaches, but, curiously, no beards, moved quickly through the woods and over the mountain which separated the spot of my capture from their village. They ceased speaking directly to me once it was clear that I understood not a word they said, and they ceased speaking even to each other during the steepest stretches of the climb up the face of the mountain.
“Crest the mountain we soon did, as it was not a major summit, and soon my captors were talking excitedly amongst themselves as we descended the far slope and approached a small village nestled in the bend of a mountain stream.
“‘Village’ is perhaps an inaccurate term, as such a term would imply some sort of permanence which this collection of two dozen elk and deerskin tents was obviously lacking. Several of the group’s women, those who had been skinning the carcasses of the previous day’s kill and not those who were fishing in the stream along with the older children, approached without the slightest warmth of greeting and seemed to inquire as to how they were supposed to feed and clothe their children with a pale and skinny human. The lead male struck the lead female across the cheek, and that seemed to put an end to the discussion, if not the difference.
“That night I was put in a hut used to store nuts, skins, and smoked meats, as well as the occasional human captive, and it goes without saying that the smells were enough to keep me up most of the night.
“As were the sounds from the other tents. These primitives, seemingly unconscious of gratuitous cruelty, allowed me to feast on roasted meats with them by firelight that night, bound as I was, however, by ankle and wrist. After the meal, a survey of the contents of my backpack proved to be the evening’s entertainment; items like thermal underwear and a woolen blanket were confiscated by the women, while the more incomprehensible items like my compass and an atlas of the world were unceremoniously stuffed back in the pack. (I should point out at this juncture, my friend, that the nature of the time travel device was proven to fry all electronics, and so my laptop had been left behind in the future.)
“But I digress. Once my pack had been re-stuffed and tossed into the leader’s tent, I was allowed to witness an interesting ritual which I can only presume those primitives practiced on a nightly basis. The leader returned from his tent to the circle seated around the campfire, and then, with an extension of his hand, indicated his interest in the female he had struck only hours before. She, apparently willing to ignore the incident, rose to accept the hand and join the man in his return to his quarters.
“The moment the first couple had turned to walk away, the tribal mating ritual proceeded. My original captor, apparently having risen in the group’s hierarchy with his single-handed exploit earlier that day, rose next, and advanced to extend his hand to the most attractive of the females seated around the fire, a young woman who, like all of the others, was a fair-skinned redhead. (The children had apparently all been put to bed before the adults began their evening repast.)
“The second couple ventured off into the night, in the direction of a second tent, and they were quickly followed in the selection process by a third couple. Judging by several of the males’ selections subsequent to the second, I surmised that it was considered poor form to choose the most attractive woman available over and over again, even if selections still skewed towards the more attractive remaining options. This observation only reinforced my conclusion that my captor had risen high in the hierarchy indeed as a result of my capture, perhaps all the way from last place, and had wished to take advantage of this rare opportunity to have the most desirable female of the lot for his bedroll.
“And enjoy his victory at the expense of most of my night’s sleep I can attest to, as that bedroll was within a tent directly adjacent to my rude lodgings for the night. The last male of the lot, perhaps incensed at being left with a middle-aged, heavy-set woman who had insisted on keeping an infant nursing at one of her drooping breasts throughout the entire ceremony, roughly threw me into the storage tent and barked something which I believe meant I could use one or two of the stored skins for warmth. Use three hides against the northern European night I did, while being kept up a good portion of that night by the exclamations of a female who apparently had no qualms about being regarded as a victor’s spoils.
“The following morning proved to be a groggy one for myself, but my captors were chipper and business-like as they fed me elk meat left over from the night before and bound me once more by the arms. My original captor, a rather short fellow who seemed to pay less attention to the shaving of his cheeks than the other males, was then joined by the previous night’s last selector in leading me to a patch of creekshore on the far side of a set of rapids, less than a hundred yards below the village.
“You can imagine my trepidation, my friend, as I was set in a dugout canoe which I presume had been removed from a hiding place in the forest undergrowth. Judging from the exchange of farewells and the ponderous load of provisions my two escorts set in the rear of our vessel, I surmised that this journey to whatever fate awaited me would be a long one.
“But, alas, it was not as long as I feared. A day’s journey down the River Severn, which proved to flow only a few miles below my hosts’ bend in the creek, and we reached tidal waters. My remaining two captors, who had begun to paddle furiously once the incoming tide had made progress difficult, steered our little dugout in the direction of a small dock, to which was moored a single-masted vessel, presumably a seafarer awaiting the appropriate time and tide. Above the shore on which my two friends grounded our vessel was a small fort situated within the confluence of the Severn and another river, and it was to this palisade atop a mound and a surrounding moat that I was now led, still bound by the arms.
“We passed the dock on our journey to the fort, as the path leading to the moat’s bridge led directly from the foot of the dock. It was by this happenstance that I, for the first time, heard Latin being spoken by native speakers. I called out ‘good evening’ to the two tunicked men loading the sailing ship with bound stacks of elk hides, and was rewarded for my impertinence with a blow to the back of the head from one of my captors, albeit a knock much lighter than the one which had stunned me the day before.
“My original captor, who was walking before me, stopped to look back and, instead of striking me as well, stared at me with hard eyes which showed calculation after a moment’s reflection. Then, without a word to either myself or his comrade behind me, he turned back to the fort and trudged to its entrance with a somewhat quickened pace.
“The fort was guarded in fact, but not in spirit, and we, these two barbarians from the north and myself, were allowed entrance into the walled compound by two guards armed with iron spears and armored with bronze breastplates. The compound consisted merely of twenty round huts arranged in an oblong pattern that conformed with the surrounding log palisade, and the autumn mud beneath these hovels only reinforced the impression that I was still among barbarians, albeit ones who had settled down to till the land.
“And the general primeval nature of this settlement, with its rabbits, chickens, and geese darting in and out between those huts, only served to reinforce the impression of otherworldliness which met my sight when I first laid eyes upon the Roman traders. They, both clad in long tunics beneath woolen robes, stood before a wooden table in the center of the muck, a sturdy cedar plane stacked high with animal hides most likely traded by the natives for items like the bolt of dyed cloth and the amphora that a young couple were carrying off in their arms.
“Those were not the only items being traded at this makeshift store, I realized the moment I comprehended the transaction being conducted directly before the table, between the younger of the two traders and the younger of two native men who were not my captors. The two natives held between them, by means of one hand on each arm, a girl not more than fifteen years of age standing perfectly still with eyes dormant. Her statuesque stance was significant, in light of the fact that the Roman had slid one hand within the bosom of her deerskin tunic. As I watched, the trader then removed that hand to slide it up one pale thigh while asking a question in a non-Latin tongue.
“The two possessors were not given a chance to answer, as the elder of the two traders, having made a notation of the just-concluded transaction with the scratching of an inkless stylus on a large piece of bark, now turned around and snapped, ‘Cassius, stop wasting time; the tide will turn soon and we only deal in furs.’
“‘But father–’ Cassius allowed his voice to trail off as he removed his hand from beneath the girl’s tunic.
“‘Son, we must go,’ the father insisted as he rolled the stylus up in the piece of bark and gestured to a stack of pelts for the benefit of one of the crewmen whom I had encountered at the dock.
“‘This is a pretty girl, sir,’ the elder of the possessors pointed out in rough Latin, as he lifted the girl’s tunic to expose fair young skin and much more. ‘She would be nice to have on the voyage,’ he added with a smile.
“‘My son’s mother awaits me at home, and I am too old for such foolishness besides,’ Cassius’s father replied without looking too closely, as he stuffed his sales records underneath his robe. The elder trader shoved a second stack of pelts along the table to the second returned crewman, then continued with, ‘However, I am sure some lonely centurion in Gaul will have use for her once winter sets in.’ The trader looked not at the girl, but at her possessors. ‘Two thousand denarii.’
“The elder possessor laughed. ‘She’s worth twice that,’ he replied.
“The elder trader shrugged. ‘In the Empire, perhaps, but we are headed for the Empire and you are not. See you next spring, my friends.’ Having now cleared the table, the trader nodded to his son for help in carrying off that table.
“‘Three thousand denarii, then,’ the elder native conceded after a long hesitation. He gripped his possession’s arm hard enough to make her gasp. ‘I could use her too.’