The sun had just gone down when I got to the town gates. Some places closed up tight at sunset but this one looked like it stayed open. There was almost no other traffic and the guard barely glanced in my direction as I passed, instead concentrating on using a torch to light the large beacon over the main entrance.
The usual tourist spots were just inside, torchlight streaming from most of them though the burger and coffee joints had their typically anachronistically artificial lighting, the cost of which I suspected would be reflected in their prices. I went a bit further down the main road before taking a side street and finding a smaller place with a more subdued illumination scheme. Inside I found a seat at the end of the bar.
The bartender was busy with a couple of guys in typical traveller garb but indicated that he had noticed me with a nod. I settled my pack at my feet while waiting and looked over his current customers. Their gear was a bit too neat and clean and coordinated a bit too well. New on the Road. I winced as the bartender handed them a couple of Buds. Really new then. Previous customers served, he grabbed a towel and came over to where I was sitting.
“What’ll you have?” he asked, wiping the towel quickly across the bar in front of me. He glanced over my own clothing as he did. It was similar to what the others were wearing, rugged natural fibers and leathers, but mine were far less matching and were showing far more wear and dirt.
“Whatever the local stuff is.” I told him. He nodded then turned back as one of the other pair suddenly broke into a spasm of coughing interspersed by curses.
“That stuff never travels well.” I said with a smirk.
He turned back long enough to give a quick smirk of his own. “It wasn’t that good to begin with, really.” He hurried off to check on his other customer. I pulled out my phone and glanced over it while waiting on my drink to arrive.
The bartender returned with some kind of dark ale and sat it in front of me then gestured over his shoulder towards the other two travellers. “I only keep that stuff because everybody orders it the first time and it’s easier than explaining transitions to the tourists. One taste tells them.” He glanced down at my phone and his expression changed. “You know that won’t work.” he said. I knew he was suddenly wondering if he had misjudged how long I had been travelling.
I looked down at the blank, LED surface and flipped the phone over. The other side glowed with bioluminescence, faint but enough to reflect off the crystalline grid and provide a low-resolution but still readable display showing the current time, location and phase parameters.
He raised an eyebrow and nodded approval. “Nice. Don’t see multi-mode units like that this far off the main Road very often.”
I shrugged. “Easier than carrying four or five different units.”
“Yeah, I can imagine.” He looked back around to see how his other customers were doing then left to bring the two tourists the local beer. I tried it myself. It was warm and a bit salty but surprisingly good. The local brew always was.
The bartender came back, glancing over his shoulder to see how the other two were doing, then turned back to me. “Been out for a while?”
I nodded slowly. “Longer than you would think.”
He waited to see if I would continue. When I didn’t, he finally asked “So what brings you this far off the main Road?”
I thought for a moment about how much to tell him, then shrugged. “I’m trying to find a place.”
He nodded. He’d heard that one many times before. “Any place in particular?”
I hesitated. “Phaedra.” I said finally.
“Phaedra.” he repeated. The name was familiar but it took him a bit to remember why. “Wait…” he said finally. “Phaedra? Oh come on. That place isn’t real. It doesn’t exist.”
I shook my head. “It does. I was there, once.”
He snorted. “Oh come on! I’ve been running a bar on the Road for a long time. Do you know how often I’ve heard lines like that? Maybe you can impress those guys over there with a tale like that but I’m not buying it.” He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder.
I shrugged. “Believe what you like. I know the stories. But I was there, a long time ago.”
“So why don’t you just go back?” He wasn’t convinced.
“I can’t. There was a phase shift. The Road that leads there goes through a dead zone now. I’m trying to find another side Road, another path.”
“Which road?” he asked.
“East Plinth.” I said. “Beyond Eternal Hope.”
“Never been to Eternal Hope,” he said, “but I’ve met a few travellers from there. Nothing works there, does it?”
“Nothing over 4.” I told him. “You don’t go there unless you want to be literally sick and tired constantly. Tech, mech, mag and bio are all out. And they drop fast when you take the Road out of town. A few klicks out and you’ve got nothing but dust.” I closed my eyes and shook my head. “It’s like flour. Like powder. It blows into the town and covers everything. You can smell it, you can’t escape it. It smells… dead. There’s no other way to describe it. Nothing can live in it. Nothing has ever lived in it. And it gets onto and into everything. If there was any machine or construct or summon that could work there then it would have fouled their workings in nothing flat. I don’t know why anyone lives there.”
“So why were you there?” he asked, interested in spite of himself.
I shrugged. “Trying to find a way around the dead zone. You ever been close to one?”
He shook his head.
“It’s difficult.” I told him. “When the parameters drop too far even thought starts to break down. I came across a couple of bodies. You see those all over the Road of course, but these were… different. Below 4 you can’t even think, really. So you stop moving. You stop thinking. You act on instinct, but instinct doesn’t help when even basic biological activities just won’t work. So eventually you fall and even the act of getting up again violates the rules of the universe that apply there. So you lie there and die without even knowing why because at those levels even the concept of “why?” has no meaning.”
He shook his head. “I can’t imagine that. Why would anyone even go there, then?”
I shrugged again. “Some don’t believe. Some do believe, but in something that doesn’t exist. Me? I know there is something on the other side. I just have to find how to get there.”
There was a long silence. I drank my ale while he circled the bar, checking on his other customers. When he came back, he had another question.
“What was her name?”
“Renee.” I said eventually, after taking another drink to clear the sudden dryness in my throat. “She didn’t want me to leave. She knew the shift was coming, somehow. She had been right before, I knew it and she knew it. I just didn’t think it would be that bad.”
“So you think she’s still there?”
“Phaedra has to still be there!” I said, louder than I had planned. Apparently the local beer was stronger than I had realized. The other customers looked at me curiously, but when I sat back down and took another drink they returned to their own conversations.
“Phaedra had everything.” I said, staring at my now empty mug. “*I* had everything, but I didn’t realize it. Everyone says we can find anything on the Road. Anything is possible. I had that, and I left it. Now… I just want it back.”
He shook his head, still not sure if he should believe me. “And you think you can find it again?”
I sat for a long time. “Yes.” I said finally. “I have to believe that. If I don’t then… it has all been for nothing.”
He nodded slowly, then took my mug and refilled it. He then turned to his other customers, the one for whom the Road was still a source of amazement. I almost envied them. I had been like them once; exploring the infinite possibilities to which the Road led. But now I no longer wanted the infinite. I just wanted to go home.