As the morning mist burned away in the weak winter sun he became aware again of the dew soaking through to his legs and, despite not actually being cold, he shuddered on instinct. His knees were aching and soon it would be time to try a stint of standing again, though his bare feet twinged in protest, remembering the hours stood on the root veined earth below. On a whim he tested the rope again: there was no more 'give' in it than the last time he had tried. Still too short to allow him to sit, causing him to kneel uncomfortably, or stand properly but plenty strong enough to secure his writs together and them to the strong bough. Kneeling had the advantage of giving his feet a rest but it did mean that the sleeves fell down to his elbows and, cold or not, it wasn't very comfortable.
A strand of hair fell across his face, heralding more to follow with numbing certainty, but he was used to it by now. Most of the night had been spent trying fruitlessly to keep it from his eyes and mouth but the constant shifting this had entailed had finally proved too much. Instead he simply resented the waist length cascade down his back, twisted and wound with ribbon and snagged by leaves and twigs that pulled at his scalp, reminding him of the delicate circlet of bronze he wore above his forehead. It even beat the constriction of the corset around his waist for sheer annoyance, though his breathing remained necessarily shallow, as if he needed any reminder of his predicament.
It was entirely his own fault: Vanessa and Claire were company women all the way. "Time-travel?" he asked, "You're shitting me."
"No. Well, no. It's not pure time-travel as far as we can tell. It's, well, limited and only backwards too. I think... You know what, it's complicated and we probably shouldn't go messing with it too much." Vanessa always loved the theory, "Maybe it's just fall out from breaking the laws of Physics. It seems to even itself out at any rate."
"If it's any consolation, it doesn't seem to break the laws of cause and effect." Claire had added hopefully, as if the observation would somehow mitigate the entire situation.
He had scoffed slightly, "Except for how we came by the concept." Some weeks previously the company had come across a man bearing the device and acquired it for their own usage. They had rapidly identified it as being of their own design but something that had never got beyond theoretical musings with no conclusive evidence that such things were possible. "Isn't anyone else the least bit concerned about this?"
Ostensibly, the villagers had decided to use the stranger as a sacrifice to the dragon that watched over their local spring. Despite being European their language was not totally clear, though he knew enough Latin to catch some, but it was obvious that this was a semi-regular thing. Having a full evening and night to mull it over meant that he had pieced together a reasonable explanation for events. Sacrifices had been started to appease a dragon that kept control of the spring, maybe through some drought or an aquifer running low, and recently, for some reason, the tempo had increased enogh for the village to run out of goats and lambs or other appropriate livestock. His dress had been enough to convince them that he was a virgin and his face enough to convince them that he was young. Predictably they had also taken him as a female: tattooed on lipstick, eye-liner and blusher; extended eye-lashes that had been glued on; hairless skin on his arms and legs and a surgically shaved adam's apple will do that. Finally there was the fact that he was not local and that there was clearly no one looking for him, time-travel had a particualr way of ensuring complete isolation, and that his dress did nothing to hide the pair of breasts he was sporting.
Creaking noises from the bough accompanied his struggle to stand again, they had tied his hands together and tethered them to the tree in such a way that it was next to impossible to grab the rope to help. Multiple layers of skirt and dress didn't help either. Grudgingly he reflected that the villagers had managed a pretty thorough job. His breasts pulled on his chest, it was almost familiar now, and he could see them nestling above the corset that made every movement that little bit more difficult. On anyone else the combination of attractive bust and slender waist would have been pretty, on him he couldn't help but see them as faintly ridiculous. Panting from the effort, he reached the slightly hunched standing posture that allowed some relief to his knees for the moment. Soon his feet would be protesting again and it would be back to kneeling.
At least they hadn't searched too far beneath the skirts, although carefully stowed and caged in the distant future, he had no doubt that the presence of a penis on a female body would excite a superstitious and violent response from the villagers. It was a clearly isolated, if subsistence, farmikng village and though dating evidence was scant the lack of a church building had been rather telling. Given how they had dressed him it was clear that Vanessa and Claire had intended him to fit in to a mediaeval mileu. And, given their attention to detail, Claire at least would have researched local fashions enough to ensure that his dress would be appropriate. Based on that evidence he could be reasonably certain that this was around the 1300s mark, making the lack of Christian influence in an ethnically European village downright disturbing. That and the dragon.
To try and take his mind off the aches and pains in his legs and the difficulty he had breathing in this hunched position, bending his legs would have been better but for the fact that he needed to straighten them in the first place, Pete wondered what they would so when he wasn't eaten. When the huge, scale-encrusted, fire-breathing beast of myth and legend did not swoop low and take their earnest sacrifice in return for allowing the local water supply to keep flowing. Their animal sacrifices either broke free somehow, there was no shortage of sharp rocks and many of the trees did not look very sturdy, or they had been carefully collected by those who ran the myth. A human, on the other hand, provided a very different set of challenges. Indeed, the villagers had been aware of the difference between an instinct-based goat and a reasoning, problem-solving human being in the way they had gone about things. Surprise, planning and the cocktail of drugs that Vanessa muct have used on him had combined to make the use of five people to hold and restrain him quite unnecessary. It wasn't as though he had been particularly strong to start with either. However, the villagers had made good use of few resources, a tree and some rope, to make sure he couldn't use his wits to escape. For a start, they had made sure that all the knots were inaccessibly tied between his wrists, he couldn't even get his teeth to them.
Those who concocted the myth, or at least those who profited from it, would not tolerate his survival, of course; the ringleader, or committee, that based their power on the myth of a dragon in need of placating would need evidence. Of course he would have to die, there would have to be remains, but it was likely to be quiet and painless: screaming from the first human sacrifice would invite investigation and curiosity, which would defeat the object. Later, once there had been a few human sacrifices, screaming could be permitted, encouraged even, to increase the fear and uncertainty among the village's population. But that fear had to be created by silence first.
More hair fell across Pete's face, it was all his own, as he drooped; he was too ired to care now and aware that there would be no relief from that. When they came to finish him off he hoped he would still be awake. He assumed so, there had definitely been an air of urgency about proceedings the previous day and an anticipation that the whole affair would be over quickly. In the village they had had the advantage of numbers and him being unaware of his strength. Now there had been time for him to become acquainted with his changed body: he was wiry rather than muscled; despite the corset he could be quick and he had endurance on his side. A full night in a stress position, no food for days beforehand and little sleep had not dimmed his reactions so far. His brain was still working at full tilt; his body ached but was not numb. Stranded he may be for the moment, and dressed and appearing as a woman in an era of institutionalised and unparallelled misogyny, but that did not mean that he was defenceless or doomed. In fact, in many ways he had the aces of the pack: he knew the limits of his restraints and movements after a night of testing them, his would-be murderers would not. Nor would they be likely to expect his actions from what they perceived as a woman.
"It's the ultimate humanitarian weapon!" Vanessa had a talent for over-statement.
"The target still dies."
"Not really, the target ends up someplace else and is exchanged with a version that's about to die anyway," Vanessa was only half answering him, "In that sense this thing doesn't kill anyone and is entirely humanitarian."
Pete raised an eyebrow. "What about the suffering?"
"Well, the family of the target..."
"Oh come on! I never said it was perfect, just that it was the ultimate. I doubt very much that there could even be a perfect humanitarian weapon," she was smiling but her eyes were hard, "The clue's in the name."
"You know, mainly it's been natural causes, ain't never had an exchange survive neither. So that's gotta be good, right?"
"You've tested this!?"
"Of course we tested it. Anyways, we never hit the same target twice so I guess the gun doesn't really run out of options," both Claire and Vanessa had taken to referring to the device as a 'gun' and a 'weapon'. No doubt this pleased the people they reported to but Pete couldn't bring himself to quite see it that way. "Actually, you know," Vanessa leaned in conspiratorially, "I'd say the thing has a twisted sense of humour."
Despite himself, Pete was intrigued. "How'd you suppose that?"
"The exchange is usually pretty damn' appropriate - the dead version is usually dying from something connected to the reason the target is the target."
They hadn't just been testing it, they had used it out in the field. Pete had known they were keeping things from him but the enormity of what they were doing was only now becoming apparent. He was in charge of ethics, it was supposed to be him that reined them in.
"You know: lung cancer for a tobacco giant; radiation poisoning for a nuclear technician... My favourite was the guy dying of gonorrhea exchanged for the Islamic terrorist! That was a nice touch. Then there's the time-travelling stuff, you exchange them with versions of themselves from when they was younger. Man, that's a trip when you use it to prevent some of the-"
"What would happen if you turned it on yourself?"
"Never gonna happen, so I don't much care."
"Come on, Vanessa, at least entertain the notion. What happens when you retro-engineer a new unit and you end up with people duking it out with these things - we have to know."
She appraised him suspiciously for a moment, narrowing her eyes, before relaxing a little and clearing her throat. Her blink was just a little longer than normal and he caught the tensing of her shoulders. "Fine." It was shot like a bullet. "In all probability I'd find myself in another version of reality with no way home. Or somewhere from my timeline. Or not, someone else's timeline. Chances are, if it were another reality, it'd be pretty like this one."
"Could it get itself?" He resisted the urge to reach out and take it at that moment, timing would be everything.
"I don't follow."
"What if the device took you and itself as the target? Is there some way you could control the settings, maybe keep it with you?" He watched her expression change, "O now be serious! You can't tell me that the thought hasn't crossed your mind! You're a scientist above all else and-"
"No, no, it's better than that. Area of effect! What if I could programme multiple targets in one go?"
"Hold on a second, I thought you'd built this." The look on her face was terrifying. "You mean to tell me..."
"I never thought too hard about the guy that brought this in. Hell, I can recreate the damn' thing but I could never tell you how it works! Scaling this baby up would be-"
His lunge for the device had come a fraction of a second too late, allowing her to scoop it up easily and programme it with a fluid motion before firing. What followed was almost indescribeable - it felt as though he was being pulled through an envelope as it was being turned inside-out; it smelt faintly of honeyed bacon but tasted like licking copper; his whole body felt as if he had washed in salt-water on a hot day. Then he wasn't in the lab any more. And then Claire had hit him with a tranquiliser.
A shadow passed over, lazily, much too large for a bird but in the wrong direction for a cloud and quickly enough that Pete couldn't brush his hair aside in time to see what cast it. The coincidence of the abrupt silence, no birdsong or animal noises, that came with it unnerved him. He shifted his posture to try and get a good look all around him. An odour pricked his nostrils: acrid and dry but with a sweetness that he couldn't quite place, puting him in mind of his local supermarket back home. Another pass of the shadow and he whipped his head to follow, being rewarded by his lengthy tresses falling and covering his face and vision completely, his view was now firmly through a mess of long brunette hair. Suppressing the urge to swear, it was too long to brush back without kneeling again, he tried to ready his stance: he would be ready for whatever came next.