A few months later I was again working on a machine. I made sure it went round and round, because the entire kingdom was depending on me. Well, not quite. The kingdom itself was now depending on Johso, but the kingdoms goals were depending on this ship, the first steam-powered ship that ever had been built, and I was managing its engine. The king had agreed to my plan remarkably quickly, as if he just had been waiting for someone with any sort of plan that went further than desperation.
The rest of the ships crew were a very mixed bag. Some were indeed former farm workers that had been unemployed because of my machines. An astronomer was tasked with steering the ship. Most astoundingly, the captain was a fisherman who had sailed together with my granddad all those years ago. And while one farm worker looked like a coal miner and the astronomer like a farm worker, the captain looked like a captain had to look like: White beard, pipe, dark blue sailors cap, wrinkled face — yet always relaxed.
We had been sailing for just over 3 days when the captain screamed “MACHINE HALT”, followed by “ALL HANDS ON DECK”. I was last to come up, and almost fell back down the stair when I saw another ship in the distance. The captain knew the ship.
— Those are the remnants of my ship you can see there. You can see the fog starting closely behind it. We’re almost there.
— But didn’t you say the edge was weeks of sailing away?
— Of sailing against the wind, yes. We have the luxury of not having to care about the wind this time, we plowed right through it. We need to be careful now. Everyone with good eyes, go to the bow. Look for stones and anything flat. I want the machine on the lowest possible power. If we crash, I want people in the lower parts of the ship immediately to fix leaks. If there is a current sucking us beyond the edge, I want full power backwards. Be prepared. Understood?
— Aye, aye, Captain!
The machine now was so slow that I could have added power simply by pushing the paddling wheels. It was now more of a cat, hissing with steam than the roaring monster it had been before. We slowly approached the edge, or at least I hope we did, as I couldn’t see. Another “MACHINE HALT”. We had reached the wreck. The captain went on board and returned with a book. He didn’t say what it was, only wanted to move on, even slower than before. This time, I actually had to help the crank turn.
Suddenly, a tumult occurred on deck. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the command was “half power backwards”, followed by another “slow forwards”. As it turned out later, the crew had spotted regular pillars and archways on the sea floor. Pillars, that surely had ripped through the old wooden ship like a lance into a heart. But we were prepared, our steam ship was extra flat and also made of steel.
After another “MACHINE HALT”, we finally were as close to the edge as we could comfortably be. We tied the ship to the pillars and waded through the chest-deep water on the other side of the pillars. With every step I took, it became clearer: This was a path. It hadn’t always been flooded here. Remnants of houses appeared. Some of them full with amphorae, some empty, one was overflowing with plants which had survived all odds and were finally able to flourish after the roof had collapsed. Some of its offspring tried to repeat its success on neighbouring buildings, but if they managed to not get washed into the water by rainfall, they’d quickly die on the nutrient-free concrete.
The path now was up high enough to be dry, and the fog was getting thicker. A statue of someone appeared in the middle of the road. There was a helpful plate on the statue’s base, but it was unhelpfully written in foreign squiggles. With enough time, it might have been possible to decipher it, maybe get a copy to the intelligent archivists back home, but it’d probably just be just some king, his name, and a praise that he’d built this city or something.
We carried on. The astronomer shrieked as he stepped on a skeleton of a rat. If even those bastards didn’t make it, nobody else would be here. The fog was getting uncomfortably cold, the dankness penetrating our clothes. Just as the wind was picking back up, somehow from below, wheezing through the cracks of the ground, the astronomer shrieked again, but was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, the fog revealed its true form, rising to the sky and becoming a cloud. The path had found its end, and the astronomer had gone beyond it.
If I had been brave, I could have ran towards the edge and watch him fall down to his death. If I had been brave, I could have enjoyed the view that opened up for us. But I was not brave, and found myself assuming a backwards crab position, scurrying back to the statue. Nobody was brave. Nobody but the captain.
The captain ran towards the edge, shouted something, and then hurried back to a house we passed earlier where he had seen a net in. “Come with me”, he cried on the way back to the edge, “the astronomer is still there!” And indeed, he was. The net somehow had survived the ages. It was made out of a weird green fabric and looked way too weak to catch anything but the smallest of fish. But it was this net that had to hold the astronomer, with all his hopes and dreams. We lowered the net to him. The astronomer caught on to it and started to climb up it, step by step. The captain lost hold of his part of the net, and the jolt sent the astronomer flying down, down but not away, for his foot was still stuck in the net. He struggled to get into a more useful position, but it was hopeless. “Pull up the net!”, the captain shouted. He wasn’t the strongest anymore, but the two farmers and I were.
The three of us started to pull, but it was quickly interrupted by a “STOP”. The edges of the path would cut through the net if we did that. We should go closer to the edge. I tried, but couldn’t bring myself to get closer than one foot to it. The captain laid his hand on my shoulder. Calmly, he ordered me to go the other step, to reach just the edge. He would hold me.
And he held. The astronomer was pulled upwards, first limp like an exhausted fish which had tried and failed to escape from the net, then desperately struggling to free himself from the net once he was back on land, also quite like a fish.
Only now could I properly process where we were. Beyond the edge of the world, there was no void or fog or anything, there just was more world. Far, far down, but clearly: World. Complete with its own clouds we could look down on, mountains that wouldn’t even go halfway up to us, its own forest and meadows, and…
— It’s own cities!, cried the astronomer. One of the reasons he couldn’t climb back up earlier was the telescope he wouldn’t let go of.
— Where?, I asked.
— Where my finger is!
— Oh, yeah! I see it!
We stood like this for a while, in a respectable distance to the edge, passing around the telescope and seeing the new world for the first time. It was strangely similar to our world, but it seemed to not have nearly enough water. Apart from the stream that clearly originated from our high perch there were no rivers, and besides the lake the river formed at some point, there were no lakes either.
And indeed, as another cloud passed, it revealed a region down to the south that was scarred and scorched, where the mountains themselves were burning. Between this scarred land and the green land (which I named Scarland and Greenland, accordingly), another grey structure. Just like the ruins we were in, it, too, looked mostly broken, with one impressively big hall that even stood out to the naked eye. Well, the foundations and walls and pillars of it anyway, the roof was long gone.
Unlike our ruins however, there seemed to be life in that city. A colourful patch indicated the presence of a market, the forest-free farmlands around it indicated that it, too, had quite an impressive number living in it. But even further south, in Scarland, there clearly was a city. How it survived there, I didn’t know, but our telescope unfortunately had no mouth or ears to ask the people down there.
— Alright, kids, the captain said, — we’ve had enough of this view, and we still have a mission. We need to establish whether a trading route is possible between the lands down below and our kingdom.
— But, can’t they find out themselves?, one of the farm boys, my fireman, asked.
— No. The king already knew it’s possible to get here. We now have the technology to easily do so. The part until now was the routine, it’s the part ahead of us where you’ll need to be daring.
— So what should we do?
— Get looking. There ought to be stairs down somewhere.