They say that Land is sliding and drifting as a sargassum mat floats across the endless seas. That Land is a brief solid and that its natural form is liquid, hot, restless. All that motion is hard for me to hold inside my head and I am not sure what they measure it against. If Land is slipping around like a loose hide, doesn’t all the stuff underneath the sea slip too?
The small skeleton of a bat, desiccated, lies at my feet. I look at it, puzzled. What purpose, bat? Air-breathing, air-flying, but ultimately Land-bound creature. What good are you, bat? What good am I? I stoop to pick up the bat and sniff. It smells bad, yet I am somehow sure it is correct for the bat to smell like this. I drop the stiff, black little shape back down into the sand and stand back up to contemplate Land.
It has been many years since I set foot here. Trees. An ancient part of me still finds them a balm for the eyes. But at the same time their concealing leaves disturb me. What hidden threat could sussurate behind and dart from frond, impersonate a vine? But set foot among the trees I have, and feel the sand grit between my toes as the Land stood so still it made my sea-sturdy legs waver. Small birds, smaller than the sail-winged creatures that reach the boat city, dart between branches. They have the look of furry little mammals, and their flight buzzes as if they were bugs.
I had forgotten the singing. Land makes such sounds you cannot hear from a boat city. The waves whisper across the sand. Wind tosses the trees and their leaves whistle, sigh and patter. A piddling little creek giggles at the smallest rock in its way. And insects whirr, whirr, whirr. I had forgotten the smells too, leaf litter, resin, sap, freshness and decay.
I decide it is a man, this Land. Some say it is a mother, but I am sure I would not be afraid of my mother.
I wander into the interior, trying not to flinch at leaves and grass touching me. After a time I come to some of the things we have left when we abandoned Land: big, blocky, dark things. Things with a sense of permanence that is oppressive. I touch one of the things – a big, purplish-black stone thing. It is rough, corroded feeling under my hand. It is warm. This unsettles me.
“Don’t go back to Land,” she had said. “You’ll become a wild wolf-man from the invisible rays.” I try to think about a wolf, to picture it, but all I can conjure up is a childhood image – a whirl of eyes, fangs and fur, pressed flat between the illustrated pages of a book. It is not what a wolf really looks like, I’m sure. It is an ancestral night-thought of a wolf. But what of invisible rays? I ask myself. I can’t see them. But I can feel them. Or can I? Because I think I should feel them? A prickling at the back of my neck, a dry headache. But at least I know there are no predators here, no wolves, or so the scientists said. We killed them all and killed our evolution, and so it is. What would we be? I wonder, If we hadn’t killed our impetus to change? I look down at the webbing between my toes. It is beginning to itch and get sore in the sandy soil. I wonder if the scientists are right about everything. I shift my pack more comfortably and leave the man-things behind as I go in further.
I spot a creature on a leaf. It is eating a lacy structure into that leaf like a tiny dynamo, jaws pulsating on top of a thin, wormy body. I wonder if I should remove it. Aren’t trees important? I vacillate for some time until I decide to leave it to its greed. Further up, further into the million hectares of all that is solid crust in this world of ocean.
I need to piss but feel uncomfortable about wasting the water. It should be recycled, cleaned and fed back into the system. I don’t feel good about just letting the drops soak into the sandy soil. Land is the system, you dolt, the dry voice in the rear seat of my brain mocks. I sigh and stand next to a tree, trying to think how my bodily nutrients might actually be of benefit to it. Drops patter and the sun catches them like jewels.
They told me there was a city here. I have followed their directions and I can see no city. Not even the dark, bulking shapes of stone and metal that were closer to the beach. What there is is an inverted cone of packed sandy soil and then the hole. It goes straight down and the part I can see (it was said to be heading straight for the middle of the world, into that soupy, hot rock) is covered in a kind of green, circuitboard-like stuff. The runaway self-replicating machines have been doing their job alright.
I dig out the package from my bag and dangle it over the lip of the sandy funnel, dithering. There was something I was supposed to do before I drop it? A shock of blankness takes me and for a moment I think I’ll drop it and it will be useless. The scientists will demand my head, my woman will disown me. Calm down, the dry voice says. Think. Ah yes. It comes back to me and I nearly swoon with relief. The spell. I was to say a spell before I commit the sacrifice to its fate. I say the mysterious words of the spell. “Uptake, replication x, bracket, purge, close bracket.” I drop the package with satisfaction. It thunks and slides a little, then friction makes it stop, teetering on the edge of the hole proper. I snort breath through my nose, stoop, reach forward a useless hand, stand up again and wriggle my fingers in frustration. I look around for inspiration. Eventually I decide to scoop up handfuls of sand and toss them after the package. It does nothing but dribble around the package, a little under it, and cascades over the lip in a taunting hiss.
I kneel down and dangle a foot over the edge but there is no point. My leg is not three metres long. I stand up and brush the sand from my clothes. This bloody stuff gets everywhere, I decide. I look around and spot a stone. Would it smash the package? No, I guess. The package was being hurled down a bloody great chasm, surely it would withstand a stone. I have to dig the stone from the ground, difficult even with the sandy soil. I rolly-polly it over to the edge. I line up the stone with the package, squinting one eye to get it right, and push it down the slope. It slowly begins to slide. Then it stops. I swear and bob up and down in frustration. Then some gravimetric imperative overtakes it and the sand thrown down starts to act as a lubricant. It shudders down, picking up speed. The stone cannons the package over the edge. There is no sound after this.
I stand for a moment, staring down the hole. I don’t know why, there is nothing to see. I sigh, and turn back to my boat.
On its comforting, swaying planks I inspect the flower I have picked for my woman. Take nothing they’d said. I stow it away and raise my sails.