World-Building Challenge

Okay so, I can’t really take credit for this, as it comes from two writing friends of mine, Jennifer Don and Dominique Goodall (click the links for their take on this challenge).  It’s a bit of an oddity (at least mine is), and one that ran a bit longer than I previously hoped.

So here’s the challenge:


Take a close look at Aeron Alfrey’s flying city (2009). Several questions might occur to you. Is the setting fantastical but realistic – or is it surreal? What kind of cause-and-effect might exist here? What are the creatures lying dead on the ground? Is the city fleeing? Is it in the midst of being destroyed? Construct a reasonable rationale for the setting of this image that might lead to a story, even if it uses the logic of dream.

Looks mess up, right?

Yeah…. probably gonna wish you didn’t read on then…


Landing claws extended and pistons hissed loudly as the sleek sterile-white ship touched down on a raised plateau of rotting moss-laden rock.  The plateau was almost perfectly flat; certainly nothing to interfere with the ship’s landing.

The ship powered down, its engines and systems humming on standby.

A ramp telescoped down noiselessly.

Two figures, armoured and heavily armed, marched down and set up a small perimeter, scanning around them.  Their comms clicked and hummed with wordless acknowledgements.  One called the rest of the party down whilst the other pushed out to the edge plateau, his plasma rifle waving from one side to the other.

There was no wind, no natural noise, nothing to indicate that this planet had natural life.  The orbital scans showed no mountains, no oceans, not even any forests, or vegetation except moss.  It was a dead world.  And yet, it was utterly dangerous.  The troopers, soldiers from the Terran Army, were worried; they were nervous and tense because of the stories of this place.

The rest walked down at the insistence of the security troopers, hesitant at first, but seeing no threat they swaggered down onto the rock.

“All of you be careful,” the nearest trooper growled.  “Glor is classified as a Deathworld for a reason.”

“We know,” the lead scientist snapped.  “That’s why we’re here.”

The trooper shook his head, controlling his temper to stop him from slapping the smug look off the man’s bespectacled face.  He squeezed his gloved hand into a fist and then released the tension.

“And that’s why the Army assigned us to your expedition, Professor.  The Terran Science Council is keen to discover this planet’s bizarre properties.  It’s interesting, I’ll grant, but the stories of this place are… worrying.”

The scientists practically scoffed as one.

“We are aware of the barrack room tales, Sergeant.  You, however, seem to think that they could be a danger.  You are here, aren’t you?  And not an entire regiment of soldiers?”

The two soldiers looked at each other, and both rolled their eyes.  The Sergeant didn’t mention to the scientists that they were essentially expendable, or they would have sent an entire regiment.

“It’s starting!”

The scientists ran to the edge, and the Sergeant was left growling into his hand.

The plateau presided over a massive rocky plain for as far as the eye could see, the same rotten stone and moss.  For the casual observer, it seemed like somebody had shaped a massive sphere out of the same decomposing material and slapped an atmosphere on it.

Something pretending to be a breeze wafted over the group, shifting the ground a little.

The Sergeant had felt the like before; it was the downdraft of some big engine nearby, and the displacement of air from something huge.  Heat haze rose from the ground, and when the troopers looked at the rock down below they could see hideous patterns twisting and writhing in the rock.  The younger of the two felt sick looking at them.

And there it was, as if it had been there the whole time and nobody had noticed.

A floating city.

It was kilometres away, and yet the very air seemed to distort and swirl, and they could see the city.  It hovered three hundred metres off the ground, tendrils of power cables, debris and foundation trailing under it, giving the impression that it had just been ripped out of the ground by some monstrous technology… or intelligence.

The buildings were ancient and weather-beaten, the windows dark as it approached straight towards them.

But that wasn’t the most disturbing thing.

Pools of fire ignited ahead of its wake, and the flames formed into translucent tentacles that shrieked in agony and reached up at the city, tortured souls begging for release from hell, so the legends went.  The mass of rock, earth and concrete trundled unhurriedly on, ignorant of the screaming beneath.

The younger trooper backed away from his position at the edge as the ground began to shake.  The rock under their feet was vibrating, tortured by whatever was coming.  He had heard the tales, of course; he hadn’t believed them, scoffed at them even.

Now he did, and every fibre of his being wanted to run back into that ship and hide.  He checked his rifle’s charge, finding comfort in the swift smooth action.  The Sergeant touched his armour over where an old religious icon hung from his neck.

“Massive readings of all kinds of energies,” one of the scientists reported.

“I’m detecting nothing, just fluctuations in the space-time continuum,” another said, a confused frown on both their faces.  “How can we be detecting separate things, and not the other as well?”

The Sergeant knew why.

The city wasn’t natural, or even manmade, despite its obvious appearance.  It defied rational explanation, and even defied the laws of physics.

It was a gateway to Hell.

But the lead scientist stepped towards it, fascination and madness on his face.  The others started backing away, worry on their own features, and doubts about the point of their mission.

The Sergeant and his subordinate gripped their rifles side by side, making ready to defend the scientists from whatever came next.

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