It was an accident. The universe loves those, leaves them waiting for hapless creatures to blunder into all over the place and then sits back and chuckles at the result. The first thing that Mo knew about the accident was the bright flash of light and the feeling that he was very tall and also very far away at the same time. Then he was standing in the cool dappled light of a woodland instead of the cool l.e.d. light of the experiment chamber.
“oh no” said Mo, and had a little sit down.
Mo sat in the pale green sunlight, listening to the wind moving the canopy about and went through his worldly possessions. One lab coat, white. One biro, chewed. His wallet, duct taped. Fifteen pounds in cash, an ATM card, a couple of loyalty cards, his credit card. The clothes on his back, a cheap watch on his wrist and in his trouser pocket half a pack of cigarettes and his phone.
He pulled the phone out, snug in its much abused protective case, and woke it up. He flicked through to the contacts, tapped the lab and waited while it rang. The pleasant, bland voice of the receptionist babbled far too quickly through a greeting.
“It’s Mohinder,” he snapped “put me through to Julie Tresham right bloody now.”
He waited, kicking at the soil, while his labcoat slowly attracted stains from the surrounding plant life and mud.
“Julie!” he snapped “where the bloody hell has your pack of clowns sent me? What on earth were you doing?”
Then he blinked and held the phone away from his ear as the background noise of wild celebration faded. Tentatively, he tried listening again.
“No,” he said “no I haven’t been disintegrated. But you have moved me somewhere. No, I don’t know where. A wood.”
He paused, frowned.
“I have no idea which wood. The country is covered in them, Julie. Just help me sort out where I am. Yes. Yes. No, not even a headache. No. For…Julie, please calm down. Look, I’ll check Google Maps and…yeah, then I’ll call you back.”
He ended the call, flicked his way to the Maps app and opened it. He waited for the map to open, but after a minute or so it told him it couldn’t find his location and then quit.
“Balls” he said and went to the settings to make sure the GPS was on.
“Bloody 3g” he said. The phone rang.
“Hello? Julie. No, no idea. GPS isn’t working and it’s not picking up any nearby towers. No idea. Freak local condition? Anyway, I’m going to walk west until I find something useful.”
He walked west for quite some time and eventually came to the edge of the woods. He was contemplating the view, which didn’t contain any buildings, pylons or signs of roads, when he heard footsteps behind him. Mo turned to find a man a few yards away picking up sticks in the periphery of the woods. He was wearing a hooded cloak, which Mo found odd, and seemed to have a large knife in his belt. The rough looking tunic, the boots, none of them were anywhere near modern looking. Mo decided the man was probably one of those beardy weirdy hobbyist living history types. He checked Google Maps again.
“Halettan utscytling! Hwon sy innan thin yrsebinincel?”
Mo turned to find the man leaning on a staff with a bag of sticks over his back. He was eyeing Mo’s phone with evident interest. Mo closed the maps and went to Google Translate.
“I’m sorry?” he said “Could you repeat that?”
The bearded man looked baffled.
“Thu beon fram feaorlond gif thu neacnawan getheode urelendisc” he said. Google translate had no idea what to make of it.
“Do you speak English?” asked Mo. The man grinned, his eyes lighting up in recognition.
“Bloody foreigners” said Mohinder under his breath. “Can’t even pronounce it correctly.” He smiled. “Are you from Eastern Europe?”
“Ic neacnawan” said the bearded man, looking crestfallen “ac thu gad geoc. Thu cymst” he said, beckoning, “thu cymst ethel mid mec.”
Mo shrugged and nodded, and followed. He tried the GPS again.
“Thin yrsebinincel negethensum swa beon gehyhtendlic” said his companion as they trudged.
“Whatever” answered Mo.
Mo could smell the village, or more accurately the animals penned in and around the village, before he heard them or saw them. It was a smell he associated with the few farmyards he’d visited. It wasn’t unpleasant, as such, just very present. As he got closer, there were other more human smells too. Woodsmoke, for one. He was puzzled by this. It was a fine day, who’d be needing a fire?
Then he saw the buildings.
“You’re kidding” he said.
Even though he was a theoretical physicist, he’d watched enough Time Team to recognise wattle and daub construction when he saw it. Mud huts. Well, mud houses, really. And there was a larger building towards the centre which seemed much better constructed and decorated. His companion was leading him there, past groups of people who eyed him curiously as he passed them.
Aethelstan took the stranger to Aelfryth, on the basis that Aelfryth was in charge and had travelled quite a bit. Aethelstan liked Aelfryth, who was not afraid to stand in a shield wall and was generous with his hospitality and gift giving. There were far worse kings to have. He took the stranger to the hall and approached Aelfryth’s seat at the far end. The boss was talking with a few of his Housecarls, so Aethelstan waited for them to finish their conversation before respectfully greeting his leader and introducing the problem of the stranger.
“He looked lost, and you can see the clothes he’s wearing. I thought it best to bring him to you before something eats him” said Aethelstan. Aelfryth, who was normally quick to decide and quicker in action, studied the man closely.
“You say he speaks no word of our language?” he asked.
“Well…” said Aethelstan “…he speaks words that feel like ours. You know how sometimes a kenning will go from making no sense to making complete sense?” Aelfryth nodded. “Well, sometimes he says words and it’s like he’s heard people speaking like we do but not properly. But mostly it’s some foreign tongue. Where do you think he’s from?”
“By his skin, a long way east of here.”
“Boss, everywhere is east of here! Also, he has a little box that he plays with and sometimes talks to. I think he might be a bit…simple.”
Aelfryth stood, walked to the dark skinned stranger and clapped him on both upper arms.
“Welcome and well met, stranger. I am Aelfryth. You are guest in my hall and you shall eat with me tonight, rest here and tomorrow we shall see what we can do to find where you belong. If you can understand me, well and good. If not, be at ease. We are friends!”
Mo blinked at this. The body language, welcoming and friendly, was clear enough, but he had no idea what to do about it. He nodded and smiled, which seemed to produce a good reaction, and was lead to a chair, given a beaker of something he didn’t want to drink and left alone while a lot of other people talked and wandered around. He thought about calling home. He thought about calling a cab. He thought seriously about calling his mum. He picked up the phone, woke it and called Julie.
Julie picked up her phone and shushed everyone around her.
“Hi Mo!” she said “it’s really good you called. How are you?”
She listened for some minutes, scribbling notes on a tablet and firing them off to people.
“Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news,” she began “which would you like first? OK, the good news is that we know why you can’t get a GPS signal and we’re pretty sure we know what happened to cause the accident.”
“Well, that’s the bad news. It’s not so much where you are as when. That’s right. Drink? What does it smell like? Well if it smells a bit like honey and piss it’s probably mead and you can drink as much of it as you can stand. Just don’t touch the water.
“No, some time between 840 and 1060. We’ll try to get more accurate. In the mean time, turn your phone off to conserve the battery. If we can’t call you, we won’t be able to…”
Julie put her phone down
“We’ve lost him” she said. “The line died.”
“But” began Doctor Halberstrom “without that as a signal guide, we have no hope of retrieving him!”
“We have to do better than that,” she said “we can’t just leave him there!”
At another lab, in another university, two archeologists stared at a piece of paper and then at each other.
“Did you leave the setup for this test to undergrads?” asked one. The other shook his head.
“Then would you mind telling me how this fine example of Anglo Saxon man could possibly have spent his early years in Mumbai?”
“Are you sure we’re looking at the right samples?” asked his colleague.
“Definitely. Look, this is either proof that dark ages Britain was trading with India or someone screwed up. Which is more likely?”
There was an academic pause.
“Let’s just never talk about this again” said the distinguished professor of Archeology, sliding the remains back into their box and carefully not labelling them with any care.