By Jon Crout
A tectonic marauder, invading and conquering all land masses in its path.
The City had cut itself adrift itself so long ago that there was no memory or record of the reason. Initially, it had maintained its isolationist existence, but at some point in ancient history things had changed. Gradually, and by strange design rather than accident, this floating City had commenced an aggressive policy of acquisition. This was no quick process. It had started on a relatively small scale. Not innocuous, as a relatively tiny island smashing into a slightly larger one is not something to be ignored. And when that collision causes seismic catastrophe it is not without cost, or staggering, literal impact. The first time that the Island locked its indomitable teeth into the haunches of a neighbour there was great awe and fear generated in both the engineers and the victims of the process, as great destructive tidal waves emanated from the point of collision, and dinosaur bones were scattered far and wide as prehistoric cliffs buckled and exploded under the pressure. And yet this was as nothing compared to what would come after.
Generations came and went many times over as the island on which the City stood forced itself onto other islands, countries and continents. To any observer, its path likely seemed erratic, a zigzag across the Earth’s seas. To start with it would go after the smallest dots on the map, but as it grew in stature, anywhere was fair game. This forceful colonialism resulted in an ever growing unified surface mass, and the Island grew to rival, then eventually dwarf, what land was left, the mountainous scars on its surface testament to the story of its evolution. And the acquisition continued.
This New Pomgea had formed over such a long time. Its original engineers were long gone, but their progeny still enjoyed the fruits of their labours, a global continent that was more than the sum of its parts. At least, that had been the plan.
The whole was now essentially one unimaginably big Island on the move across the surface of this world. And at the heart of this was the original, smaller land mass, home to the City.
And to this old, largely deserted and almost forgotten point of origin, would come visitors.
The Traveller emerged from his Box, squinting in the hazy sunlight. He looked this way and that, and as he did so he inadvertently kicked a cracked skull, sending it bouncing across the square, spraying the dust of centuries as it went.
‘Hmmm…,’ he said, ‘something’s wrong.’
His Companion closed the door of the Box behind her. As usual, she was many paces and some layers of thinking behind him.
‘Wrong? What’s up?’
He kept walking, turning as he did so, and continuing to look around. They were flanked on most sides by tall, crumbling buildings. To the Companion the styles looked like a mixture of old and new, yet they were clearly all more than ancient.
‘Do you see those mountains in the distance?’ The Traveller gestured vaguely over his shoulder. ‘They formed when two land masses came together with incredible force, pushing the land up to great heights.’
‘Isn’t that how all mountains are formed?’
High, snowy peaks were clearly visible above the buildings in most directions. The Traveller ignored the question, and carried on poking his feet in the dust and looking around him. He disappeared behind the plinth of a regal statue.
‘Well what?’ came his muffled reply.
‘Honestly,’ the Companion complained, ‘sometimes I feel that I’m only here to punctuate your pontification.’
A smiling face reappeared.
‘Well yes, one big land mass bumps into another, then if they come together in the right way then ‘boomf’, mountains! Only these were not formed by the random drift of tectonic plates, they appeared as a consequence of the very deliberate manoeuvring of one coast into another.’
‘Really? That’s amazing. And so is that the problem?’
‘You said that something’s wrong. Is it the mountains?’
Down from the slopes they came. The disenchanted caste of self-assessed better breeding had examined their inherited policy of expansion and the associated inevitability of integration, and found it lacking. A new movement was afoot. Something had arisen to challenge the old order. There had been a proposal and a decision had to be made. There had been a mobilisation of those considered eligible to voice a worthy opinion, and in time honoured fashion they had invited upon themselves that most dangerous of societal practices; they had invoked the slumbering, vengeful god, Democracy, and there had been a vote.
The Traveller climbed some steps towards the remains of a glass fronted building. Still thinking, still examining, he maintained the conversation over his shoulder.
‘There was a tower near here, down by the old harbour. We should go and get a good look at the view, see what’s going on.’ He found himself on a loose paving slab and started poking it with his foot, rocking it back and forth.
‘Which way is this tower?’ his Companion asked.
‘Follow that road over there, stick to the side of the derelict railway line, and we’ll pretty much be there,’ he answered.
‘And what exactly would we be looking for?’
The answer this time was an unexpected crashing of concrete where the Traveller had been standing. His Companion ran up the steps and stopped short at the edge of the newly opened dark and dusty hole in the floor. There was no light below, and the billowing debris meant there was so way of discerning what was happening beneath.
‘Hello? Are you all right?’ She coughed as the abrasive particles blew down her throat.
From the hole there was silence. Then a cry of pain. More silence. Eventually some protracted moans, some unpleasant hacking and spitting, then a gurgle that died away to nothing. A little bit more silence.
Suddenly the darkness of the chasm in the floor was banished by an explosion of golden energy that fizzed and crackled in all directions, shooting into the air along with a temporal wind that blew back the Companion’s hair. The intensity of the light forced her to turn her head away. Then as suddenly as it had come, it went.
‘I’m OK!’ shouted an unfamiliar voice from down below, followed by ‘Oh wow! Get a load of this! And this!’
The Companion moved as close to the edge of the hole as she dared, and peered over.
‘Not Transmogrification again?’ she called down.
‘What did you get this time?’
‘Well, I’ve got no mirror, but definitely female, I can tell that much, no bother. About time too. And tall! I’ve banged my head twice already. This starched, frilly shirt isn’t doing my new shape any favours. I’ll need to get a change of clothes as soon as I can.’
‘What’s that accent? Antipodean?’
‘Quite possibly. Every world has a Down Under, no matter where you’re standing.’
‘Even this one?’
‘Of course, although you’d be getting wet right now if you were round the other side.’
‘Well, that’s lovely. What about this deep, dark, dangerous looking hole that you seem to have found?’
There was a scuffling as somebody in a new body tried to get some bearing on their surroundings in the near total absence of light.
‘I appear to be in a basement of some sort. I think I can see the outline of a door over there. Don’t worry, I’m sure there must be a way out and up, I’ll find my own way.’
‘Shall I wait here?’ the Companion asked.
‘No, I’ll catch you up. Why don’t you make your way to that tower and see if you can get our bearings? I’ll know where to find you.’
‘All right, if you’re sure.’ The Companion started to walk away from the hole, then turned back with another plot advancing question. ‘When you said that something was wrong, what did you mean?’
‘Ah,’ called back the new voice, ‘over the centuries that have passed, this area should have ended up under metres of accumulated sediment. Someone has been excavating this hub of the old City. I wonder why? Anyway, see you soon.’
And with that, our characters were divided.
The edge of the ancient harbour ran strangely past the tower. There had been a town across the small body of water that had once existed there, but both were long gone. Well, not entirely gone, but thanks to the strange history of the land, that town now lay approximately seven thousand miles to the north west. Where ferries had once operated over tiny distances, instead one could now climb up to the remnants of the Giant’s Causeway. The join was ragged, a symptom of the bizarre way the world parts had been assembled, like some further nightmare of Mary Shelley. Rain water collects across this area in scattered places sometimes these days, but on the whole the new topography and climate means that this area is dry and empty.
There has been a withdrawal from other parts of the greater world continent, a migration of certain people back towards their ancestral home. There has been a gathering, and there has been debate. Some people feel that they have sacrificed their identity by absorbing the rest of the world. Some think they would be better off to reinstate their island status and establish a definite border with the rest of the world. But then, some don’t.
The Companion arrived at the tower. As she squinted upwards at the off-white sail shape she failed to notice the figures shuffling towards her, and only became aware that she was no longer alone when she was poked in the ribs with a big stick.
‘Who are you then, Stranger?’ she was asked rudely by a tubby, gormless looking man with a shock of unkempt yellow-white hair and a staple sci-fi robe.
‘I think I should ask you the very same question,’ she retorted sharply, rubbing her side.
‘I,’ he began loudly, ‘am Bongojorson, Chief Engineer of the World!’
‘Oh, so you’re in charge of steering this great land mass around, are you?’
‘You know of our purpose, Stranger?’
The Companion leaned in slightly and spoke a little softer.
‘Listen, why do you think me a Stranger? I could just be from one of the more remote lands that you have acquired?’
Bongojorson stepped back and pointed his big stick. ‘The Box! You were seen arriving in the strange craft. You are Other!’
‘You surely can’t be a xenophobe if you’re in charge of mashing your country into all the others on the planet, can you?’
Another man, similarly robed, but with a strange, drippy, frog-like face stepped forward.
‘Don’t listen to him. We’re not all like that. I am Niffelgarage. How may we help you, honoured visitor?’
Relieved, the Companion gestured towards the top of the tower. ‘I’d like to go up there, please. That bit on the outside, is it a lift?’
‘Oh yes,’ replied Niffelgarage, ‘the exterior lift is one of the original design features, installed when the tower was new, before we ever started our global journey. History tells us that there were teething problems with getting it to go up and down, but we have had millennia to bring to bear the full, mighty wisdom of the World Movers. We are able to apply the very pinnacle of human engineering.’
‘So does it work?’
It turned out there was an interior lift that was working. The Companion was escorted up to the viewing platform by the two locals that she had already spoken to, and about a dozen others. A few of them seemed taller than the rest, an appearance helped by their tall, enclosed, tusked helmets and high-held lances. She assumed they were guards of some sort, but what they were guarding was not immediately obvious. At intervals around the perimeter, the interpretation boards in front of the windows were a patchwork of additions and amendments. The Companion studied the first one, looked at the higgledy-piggledy mishmash of information closely, then shielded her eyes as she stared into the distance.
‘Oh my goodness, is that what I think it is?’ she asked.
One of the group reached out and touched the window, which activated some hidden technology in the glass. The view became magnified, and brought into sharp focus the heads of Easter Island.
‘Amazing.’ She walked on to the next board, then looked out again. ‘And is Greenland really just over that way?’
The Companion became aware that one of the guards was just at her shoulder. She took one step away and tapped Bongojorson on the arm.
‘Why do you future societies always seem to have these throwback styles, the old robes, primitive weapons and archaic helmets, that sort of thing?’
Bongojorson turned to her with a strained, confused look. ‘This isn’t the future, it’s the present.’
The guard beside her was making her a little nervous, but at the same time she noticed that the people with her were very noticeably congregating into two groups. The two factions were huddling on opposite sides of the room. ‘Do you people not get on very well?’
Niffelgarage answered. ‘We recalled all eligible folk to our spiritual home for a reason. No one has really lived here for a long time, but we returned, all of us direct descendants of the original islanders, and made it ready for habitation once more. And then we polled the people.’
‘We no longer acquire new land. Our Union is absolute. There are no places left to grab. Some people fear stagnation. Others bemoan a dilution of our original way of being. The deals we have made and laws we have agreed to in order to harmonise such a large, diverse set of cultures has changed us. Or so we have been told. There was a movement to counteract the way that we had become part of a broader global community. Many argued that we as individuals and as true members of the Island race would benefit from reinstating borders, and changing the way we interact with the rest of the world.’
‘And how did the vote go?’
There was an embarrassed pause. ‘Oh, it came out nearly fifty-fifty.’
The Companion was sure she heard a snigger just behind her. ‘Oh. How near?’
‘So a majority did win?’
‘Well yes, but because it was so close, a lot of the people who lost got a bit upset, and there have been lots of accusations of an unfair fight, false promises, and vote fixing. Almost half the people involved are very disappointed with the outcome. Some are terribly worried about what colour our personal papers and travel documents are going to be. It’s all got a bit nasty, to be fair.’
‘And so what was the vote? What question did you ask your people to decide on?’
He cleared his throat, then recited: ‘’We are concerned to try and secure the future of our healthcare, to prioritise the spend of our resources on the Island, to preserve opportunities for Island folk by limiting the ingress of others, to negotiate our own local trade agreements, and to take back control of our own Island’s destiny. We should achieve this by not refusing to vote to remain as part of the group that wants to leave the Union; yes or no?’‘
‘Phew. And did you fully explore, in a transparent and well communicated way, the likely outcomes and benefits to everyone of each part of that question?’
Bongojorson and Niffelgarage looked at each other rather blankly.
The Companion looked around the room. The two opposing groups were casting suspicious looks at each other, and whispering amongst themselves. She was struck by the thought that there was no way of knowing which group was which. There was no visible distinction. She could not tell just by looking which group had wanted change, and which had wanted things to remain as they are. On each side they were a real mix of ages, colours and multiple assorted genders. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a pair of sunglasses, put them on, then operated an almost undetectable button on the side. She was instantly given a detailed report on the DNA of everyone in the room. ‘You are all so very, very different, in a reassuringly similar way,’ she whispered to herself.
The attentive guard removed their helmet and tucked it underneath the arm that was not holding the lance. Then they spoke to the Companion in a vaguely Australian accent.
‘I think these lovely people clearly have lots to talk about. Perhaps we should leave them to it and make ourselves scarce.’
‘Oh, it’s you. Very dramatic. I was wondering where you’d got to.’ The Companion looked out at the world stretching away in all directions, then back at the divided throng. ‘It seems a shame that they can’t sort out their differences. Shouldn’t we interfere from a superior standpoint, make sure the good guys win, that sort of thing?’
The Traveller smiled broadly, bright new teeth shining from within a large mouth. She was much taller than she used to be, and her dark skin shone in the natural light.
‘And which ones are the good guys?’
‘Exactly. Come on.’
The Traveller turned and went to walk across the section of glass floor. Unfortunately the centuries had not been kind, and the brittle, time-worn transparent panel cracked as her lance tapped down upon it. She just had time to look up, surprised, before the whole unit fell away.
‘Not again.’ The Companion and everyone else shuffled to the edge, buffeted by the sudden breeze, and looked over. There was a cloud of debris visible down at ground level that reminded her of a cartoon she used to watch. This was followed by blasts of Transmogrification energy shooting out in all directions.
The Traveller’s new body was a slender, androgynous affair. They were now dressed in a smart tunic that buttoned up under the chin, round spectacles perched on a sharp nose, under tight, curly blonde hair. Side by side with the Companion, they both were looking down from the open doors of the Box as it hung impossibly in the air about a mile over the City.
‘What do you think they will do?’ asked the Companion.
‘They’ll screw it up.’
‘Do you know which side won?’
‘No, and it doesn’t matter. For all the wonderful aspects of humanity, I just expect them to make the wrong choice.’
‘You sanctimonious alien, you.’
‘Come on. You know as well as I do that their vote will have been orchestrated, and the result manipulated, by a select minority with a vested interest in the outcome.’
‘You cynical, sanctimonious alien. If it was so close, why didn’t they all just look at it again, debate the issues sensibly, and have another poll?’
‘And undermine the democratic process of the original free and fair vote?’
‘So what’s going to happen?’
‘Take a look.’
Far below them, the outline of the original City became a dynamic uprising of earth and noise as a series of explosions erupted at numerous points along the border. Echoing the drama that had cut the City loose in the first place all those years ago, this new fission was seeking to impose a new natural isolation, one that bit logic firmly on the nose.
‘They’re trying to cut themselves loose!’ The Companion was dumbstruck. ‘But they’re bounded by land on all sides. How is that going to work?’
They watched on, as the Island seemed to wriggle in its centric position, then wobble slightly, before plunging completely from sight as one entire piece into a great, black abyss. After a while, the dust blew away, and all seemed calm. The space that was left was impossibly dark. A World City no more, the Island had embarked on some new subterraneous adventure.
‘Will they be OK?’ asked the Companion.
‘Who knows,’ said the Traveller with a twinkle. ‘Maybe we should come back in a few thousand years and see. Right now, I think we should be off,’ they added, tapping their wristwatch.
‘Why, what’s the time, Traveller?’ They both laughed.
‘That one never gets old.’
‘A bit like you,’ the Companion replied. She found herself wondering if the rest of the world would actually be at all bothered that a small part of it had decided to leave and go elsewhere, rather than continue to cooperate and coexist in a sensible way.
The doors of the Box closed behind them both, and it faded from sight with the sound of a thousand wheezing yeti.