The Edge of Tomorrow 2 - 1992
We're On The Road To Nowhen - Stephen Battersby
(page 12/13)

"We're On The Road To Nowhen"

"A good road it was, straight and sure and solid. Make a man feel he was getting somewhere, but not mind if he didn't, mind. Looking forward to it myself!"

Paul regarded his walking companion with amusement. He could hardly believe how well the stereotype was being played. Paul had first met the 'Crusty old countryman" (as he imagined the description might run in a dramatis personae) standing at the junction of two footpaths, squinting theatrically in his direction, and had been greeted with an ebullient hello and a suggestion that they walk together. A welcome idea this was, since the area was a lonely one and Paul hadn't seen another human for hours, and besides this walker's appearance was intriguing enough to merit study. His rough white beard and hair gave him something of a halo, and looked to have been bleached whiter than his years deserved; his skin might have made good boots. Evidently his voice, language and mannerism were consistent with his looks; even the apparent non sequitur.

"Looking forward to what?", asked Paul.

"Oh, gettin' somewhere of course!"

That seemed to put paid to their conversation for a while, but it was an easy companionship and both were content to stride on in silence. The track they had come to was wide and unquestionably straight, a mixture of mud and broken stone. On such an easy path the mind tends to go its own way. Paul's at the time was drawn to the man on his left, who was dressed rather idiosyncratically; once fine boots and leather trousers (worn so badly that with their pattern of lines and creases they looked like the skin of an ancient) sat awkwardly below a luminous skiing jacket which couldn't have been more than a few weeks old; the essential piece of eccentricity written into the character's part, he thought.

Before long a massive stone wall appeared on one side, at first hidden by brambles but becoming obvious as it rose to its full 5 feet, and Paul was puzzled.

"Those stones...they're huge! I may be no farmer but they're surely a bit excessive for deterring sheep, and they're too badly piled to be the remains of anything grander. Odd."

"But someone just picked 'em up off the road. No need to waste them, though perhaps a more noble use might have been found'. The older man sounded wistful, as if he were sorry for the stones.

"The road?" It seemed a grandiose name for the path. Then the obvious struck, "Oh of course, this is a Roman road! Nothing else would be so straight."

"Glad you approve lad".

"Crusty" was treated to a questioning glance from the young man but made no move to elaborate, and Paul let the comment lie.

He was still trying to place the old man's accent, which wasn't a local one (he had visited the area a couple of times since winning a holiday there two years before), rather it seemed to be taking liberties with conventional regionality and scattering itself all over the country. It was strange in another way Paul couldn't grasp, but tracking it was a pleasant enough pastime anyway.

As they walked a change began to impose itself on the path. Soon after the grand animal enclosure on their left had ended, the same stone blocks started appearing underfoot, and the path became gradually more shingly. At the same time the hedges and their accompanying less trammeled briar died out, and a thickening forest grew up on both sides.

It was broadleaved woodland, mostly oak, and clearly diseased. Many trees were in their proper autumn coat, green turning brown, but the majority either had no leaves at all, were putting out new shoots, or had green mature leaves. There was a suggestion of periodicity; bands of healthy trees followed by bands of leafless.

"Season sandwich", thought Paul, then realised that he had said it aloud.

Don't joke about it lad."

Paul found this comment patronising and a bit silly, and out of character with his image of "Crusty". That voice still puzzled him - he decided that part of the problem with it was that the enunciation was a bit too careful. Foreigners often had the same tendency Paul knew, but he found it unlikely that anyone would learn English as a second language with such a strange accent.

Linguistic musings were interrupted by a startling sound; a dog's howl came from the forest to their right, sounding uncomfortably wolfish. Perhaps not worrying in itself, but some seconds later the author of the cry appeared briefly on the path about fifty yards away, and its looks were wolfish too. It stared at the pair with a distinct lack of tameness.

"Nothing to worry about in daylight, I'm sure", Crusty supplied when the animal had leaped into the woods again.

"What?", Paul managed once he'd got his mouth working again; he felt sure it couldn't have been a dog. None of his pets had ever given him a look like that, and just as well. "How would you know? And what's it doing out of a zoo?".

"Pining, by the sound of it". Another cry came to them, as if to confirm the assessment. It also threw Paul off his inquiry, and he found himself trudging along obediently behind his companion with the feeling that the subject was closed; very unsatisfactorily to his mind. After a minute of this, he decided that he really had to resolve the matter. He strode out to catch up and opened his mouth to speak, but it was left open wide along with his eyes, staring at the road ahead.

A road it was. Less than a hundred yards away, all signs of decay were absent; the transition from path to pavement smooth but rapid. He was looking at a picture from a childhood history book, a pristine Roman road, camber and all.

"God, I've never heard about this!" The shout was barely voiced as he raced off towards it, and he hardly noticed Crusty straining to keep up. There it was, no mirage.

"Some sort of reconstruction, I suppose"

"Some sort of construction, anyway. Come on, if you want to see more" They walked on, rather faster now, and as they went Paul gazed at the road surface, stopping to touch it once or twice.

"This is very convincing wear", he said, but was treated to no reply. The man was infuriating - he wouldn't react to anything!

Before long the forest gave way to cultivation again, and Paul relaxed somewhat. Generally, he enjoyed a wooded stroll, but in this case the atmosphere had been rather oppressive. Now the land had a pleasantly lived in look; in fact it seemed unusually

pretty, and gave the impression of being well tended. The fields were small, and the plants looked particularly green and full of life.

Unusually the older walker spoke up, "By the way, I'm Quintus."

"Paul"

"Pleased to meet you"

"So what did you mean back there by 'more'?"

Paul was beginning to get a very strange feeling about this ramble.

"You'd better see for yourself."

In the distance was a gate, to either side, a wall. Standing in full view in the gateway was a bored and somewhat stooped but otherwise resplendent Roman legionary, trying to balance his gladius pommel down in the palm of his hand. Visible through the gate were several houses, on a road that was a continuation of that outside the town, and some side streets leading off. A few trails of smoke. Noises of clattering wooden cartwheels on store, people shouting, even an occasional laugh. Three children could be seen hurtling down the main road towards the gate, hot on each other's heels, and as their leader reached the soldier (now looking more lively as he dodged out of the way) he waved and shouted a greeting.

"Salve!" Paul was surprised to find himself walking still at an even pace, and after a longish silence he felt able to speak.

"Yes, well. I see for myself, now please be a bit more forthcoming."

Quintus was grinning.

"You're bloody calm! I'd probably be gibbering at this point," he cleared his throat, "This is my home town, and you will find that we're a little old fashioned in our ways. No, I know what you're about to say, but I can joke about it", he trailed off in the face of a beleaguered and slightly insane look from Paul. 'I'm sorry lad, but imagine my difficulty. How can I tell you a thing like this? For this town and its people, less than sixteen years have passed since the last legions left Britannia. That soldier you can see is just a jumped up old auxiliary - we formed our own legion for morale mostly - but I'm getting ahead of myself."

"So we've travelled back in time?" the shaky voice asked. "Not exactly, no. The best way I know to look at it, everything constantly travels forwards in time. Some of us might be a little bit tardy though...."

Paul had a quick mind and it served him even in extremely stressful conditions. Now, it began to appreciate what Quintus had said, and his mouth formed what his vocal cords weren't quite up to; a large "0".

Quintus watched him. "I think you've got it", he said approvingly. 'We have been walking along a time gradient; quite gradual. Anything more violent might disturb unduly any plants or animals caught on the slope - you've seen the effects of it as it is. Here, almost at one end, time passes at a hundredth of the 'normal' rate. While we have watched our children grow up, sixteen hundred years have passed outside."

By now they'd almost reached the town walls, and through the gateway they had a view to make a thousand historians weep. Not a large town, but not lacking in activity - most of the commerce and socialising was evidently carried out in the streets. In the main street ahead were taverns selling soup from big copper bowls set into stone bar tops by the roadside, the wine in long necked pottery jugs, and small shops were open to the street dealing in a startling range of goods. The people were for the most part fair, and on the short side. There was nothing of the primitive or unsophisticated about them, and they regarded the new arrivals with quite piercing interest. The objects of this attention paused at the gate for Quintus and the guard to exchange a few words, after which the harried looking soldier ran at top speed down the main street.

As they passed through the encircling wall the scene became a world, the observers participants. Most immediately they were engulfed by the town's smell - for all the vaunted Roman plumbing, sewage treatment was rather simplistic, and use of perfumes to cover up natural odours was sparing; the atmosphere was on the wrong side of ripe. Oddly enough Paul found the smell not entirely unpleasant, and it certainly had one welcome effect in dispelling what remained of his dreamlike sensation. There was no doubt as to the reality of this place.

"It's wonderful!", he was wide eyed with excitement, half running from shop to shop, staring down every side street at the buildings and busy people, and he sounded a little hysterical. "But how...?"

"Ah. Well." There was a short pause, and then, while Paul stared at and felt the rolls of fabric and pieces of worked leather in a shop whose owner seemed only slightly startled, Quintus began to explain. "Well, it wasn't easy. The Druids - forgive me if I seem to head off at a tangent - had always been a threat to us, you see. Not very tolerant people. So they were persecuted, pursued, very nearly exterminated by the legions; the remainder driven underground. Their legendary abilities were considered only that by our time; a myth created by Britons unhappy with Roman rule. After all they hadn't been able to save their society from invasion or themselves from the swords of Rome. Still, there was, um, one of the townspeople of a more romantic, even superstitious tendency, who felt that perhaps the magic of the Island of the Mighty was subtler than that. Indeed it proved so - there is a saga within this tale and I mustn't bore you with it", Paul had no time to protest, "but in the end he found what sort of underground the Druids had made for themselves, and it was just as this is; a warren in time. I won't pretend he was welcomed, for himself nor for his entreaty, but they can be an enlightened people despite their ability for barbarism, and perhaps saw some advantage to be gained for themselves. Who knows?"

They turned down a small side street at last, and Quintus shed his brooding countenance for one of happy expectancy; childlike, as if their journey had rejuvenated him. The road was quite reminiscent of twentieth century suburbia, or rather London mews housing; each house much like its neighbour in shape but distinguished by decoration an ornament, and the result was attractive. It was one of these houses that Paul was lead to, and waited outside while Quintus ran in. Soon sounds of emotional reunion could be heard, and Paul found himself absurdly awkward, standing alone in an impossible place yet governed by his reserved upbringing. He laughed and heard his voice echo gently from the stucco walls.

After a minute Quintus reappeared with a girl apparently his daughter.

"Paul, this is my wife Mella. I'm afraid she speaks no English." He was grinning widely now, with obvious pride. Mella wore a shyer smile, making her youth still more apparent, and Paul found that he had to force his face into a courteous mirror of theirs to avoid embarrassment. The age difference shocked him, being a more easily assimilated thing than the recent appearance of an intact and living ancient town.

This was evidently just an aside, since Quintus now headed them back to the main street. The Via Principalis, Paul remembered; and then he remembered something else from his schooldays.

"This is a Roman custom isn't it, to take a young wife?" He saw Quintus' expression and regretted speaking.

"Haven't you wondered how I came to be fluent in your 'bastard tongue'? Where I got these silly clothes?", he kicked a flagstone as if to admonish the boot, "I took me a long time. A long time in your lightning world, but just two months in our slow moving cocoon here. Mella saw me leave only two months ago."

Paul looked at the older man and performed a little mental arithmetic. He was horrified. Murderers get less, he thought.

Silence fell on the pair once more, but only for as long as it took them to reach a relatively large tavern, "The Bull's Head" according to the picture above the doorway. Ushered inside, and bought a pitcher of dark, heavy red wine, Paul found all the questions which should have been asked before finally reach the surface, by force of numbers perhaps.

"But why did you do it? What can have been worth it?", here he found he was interrupted.

"Do you mean why did I leave, or why did we try to preserve the town?"

"Both!", Paul had to say, but after a very short pause; "You first."

"All right, but perhaps you can tell me. What have I actually done?" Paul realised that the question was not rhetorical, and then realised what the answer was with a feeling that was not yet fear or guilt, but was nonetheless powerful.

"You've brought me here."

"Very good. Your next question will be "Why me?", yes?", Quintus sighed and took a long and clearly satisfying draught from his pitcher. 'Well, I think we must go back to the question of the town's unusual situation, or rather tempo. We found ourselves in a dozen kinds of trouble back in the early fifth century. All good Romans we; quite happy with the richer, cleaner, safer life we'd been taught some generations before. But that was coming to an end; barbarian incursions, Rome itself on the brink - you should realise that this was not at all obvious; most Britons assumed that Rome could not fall and would not abandon us for long."

Here he paused to catch his breath and take another pull from his pitcher, and Paul realised that the tavern was filling up with people, silently and expectantly watching the pair of them. This was so unnerving he didn't notice that Quintus had started again.

"...had to do something about it, so I sought help from the Druids. We had to protect ourselves until our true protector returned but that was a long time coming, and when we realised just how long, spies were sent out. Many of course fared badly in the much-changed world, but usually they returned and brought bad news. At first, as we had feared, the land was crude and ungodly; later, the civilisation which grew would have had nothing but fear of us", another pause, another drink. "This century was mine, and I must say I've had obstacles my predecessors never found! Your world has finally reached beyond us in most things, and we cannot expect to stay hidden for another hundred years. We had discussed such a thing occurring, and agreed that in the event we would need the proper leadership. I spent quite some time in genealogical research, building on the work of all the others, and found..."

"No!", Paul's interruption was violent, "I don't believe you - that's ridiculous! I'm..."

"Paul Ambrosius."

The tavern became horribly silent.

"There are no Caesars with such a claim. The people trust me: you will have no opposition if you wish to be Emperor."

Paul was never able in later life to describe his state of mind as he sat there, the crowd in the inn waiting quietly while the blood thumped in his ears. Among other things he could never explain the capricious impulse that made him answer: "I'll have to brush up my Latin..."

Stephen Battersby