Monday, October 5, 2009

The Ribbon Islands

Below the plane I can see little, outside of the endless expanse of deep dark blue, the horizon a gigantic, distant circle around our craft. The seat is practically dripping with comfort - just what I would expect from first class, at least from the legends I've always heard muttered back in coach.

The vessel appears empty, but common sense reminds me that, aside from the man who accompanied me onboard, there should be at least one person in the cockpit. And hopefully a stewardess. My drink needs refreshing.

Strange, I think, that commercial flight such as this one has been diverted from its normal path and its normal occupancy for the sole sake of this voyage. Stranger still is the thought that I, of all people, have been chosen for this clearly prestigious position, and strangest of all the enigma of the unknown job itself.

My escort, a suave salaryman with a checkered tie, enters through a door from behind me, and takes the seat one space across. "We'll be passing over the first of the islands any second. I recommend you enjoy the view - one of the great tragedies is how few people get a chance to see it."

I take his advice and focus through the window, arcing my head until the twisted ribbons are finally visible. Thin loops of land, stretching in warbled circles across the surface of the water. Some of the corners curve up into smooth and forested mountains, but in most places the land is no more than a slim string between two beaches, the enormous lake in the center of each ring as dark and presumably deep as the ocean surrounding it.

"Like most islands this far out, they're volcanic," the other man says. "But all other islands in ring formations like this are atolls - coral rings that formed around the upper part of an eroded mountain. These ones are different, and totally unique - each one of these *is* a mountain. Hollow volcanoes, and the best part is that their core shafts are so deep, they're believed to go far past the sea floor. Since diving down there is quite dangerous and expensive, no one is absolutely sure, of course - but the sheer range of unique marine life just at the surface gives us a clue that whatever's down there is something special."

I peer at another island approaching, this one with what looks like a small urban area constructed on wooden planks, floating above the island's central lake. While the city itself is clearly a shantytown, an elaborate network of freeway bridges circle the island, eventually connecting the northern village to a pier on the southern end.

"That's the boss' hometown. Not exactly a tourist destination, but he financed those bridges himself in the hopes that it might someday become one. Of course it hasn't happened yet, and cost him a third of his fortune. But, you know, when you have as much as he does, two thirds of your net worth is still more than the rest of us will see in a lifetime."

My eyes are still fixed on the elevated freeways, trying to look from every angle in order to to trace the support columns, if there are any. "But... how do they... I mean, what are the supports connected to? How does he balance that much concrete on such a deep lake? That would be impossible, right?"

The other man laughs. "Well, like I said: when you're as rich as he is..." He nods, with a knowing look.


My innertube zips around the corner of the castle, carried by the artificial current of the artificial river which forms a thin, playful moat around the enormous mansion of the man who hired me. Upon arrival I was told that the boss himself was not yet ready to meet me, and was invited to kill time in the mansion's recreational canals. I've explored every curve in this river - not only does it manage to encircle the entire house, but parts branch off to flow inside of the building itself, connecting all rooms on the ground floor by water as well as by floorboard. In addition, some of the upper rooms feature waterslides and diving boards above the thicker, deeper portions of the moat below, and while this brings to mind immediately lavish and surreal drunken dinner parties, I know enough of the owner's reclusive reputation to know that such extravagances are most likely creature comforts for an eccentric and unbound imagination.

As I turn yet another bend, the house's butler calls me out of the water, declaring that his master is nearly prepared. I climb out and follow him, turning down the towel he offers, comfortable in my bathing suit. The remarkably cool water which still clings to my skin somehow makes the tropical climate more bearable.

I am led to a natural lake not far from the house, the master barely visible on a small island near the center, apparently slaving behind an easel. I am surprised to see that this half of the lake is covered by a layer of fractured ice, which the butler walks onto with an effortless ease. I stall at the shore, unnerved by the way each segment of ice seems to teeter when touched by footsteps.

The butler, a few steps in, turns back. "Don't mind the blocks. It's one of the master's favorite games - a bit of a challenge he likes to go through to reach the "Island of Solitude," as he calls it. The house is full of little games like this - the master says it keeps him productive, to add some little challenges to the drolleries of his everyday life."

The ice stings my bare feet as I step forward. I'm surprised to find it much less slippery than expected - in fact, my feet seem to cling to it as they would to frozen sheet of metal. The greater challenge is centering my balance on each chunk, as an off-center step can tilt the entire block and throw my balance off completely. The butler is naturally accustomed to it, and barely hides his irritation at my insufficient progress.


Ten minutes later, we have reached our temporary destination, my feet stinging but warmed by the naturally hot air. The butler has made his way back across the ice, his pace quickened with no rookies to lead, leaving me alone with my mysterious host. Still focused on his painting, the back of his head gives only the vaguest hints to the shape of his face - but his canvas, an abstractly stylized replica of the sunset before him, brings out colors most eyes would never notice, and seems to show him more openly than any mugshot.

"I'm no good at small talk," he apologizes, quick and kind. "So I'll get right to it. Do you know why you're here?"

"No... not a clue, actually."

He dips his brush again, and patches of red begin to appear, in all of the right places. "Well, as you probably know, I grew up on these islands. When I was very young, I built my own ship, and sailed around to all of them. Not just the thin stringlike ones like this, but the bigger ones closer to land, and the coast of the nearby continent. But although these places are familiar to me, and close to my heart, they don't exist on any map. Do you know why that is?"

I shake my head, no.

"Because the land out here twists and changes every night, and even if there were a map made it would be impossible to find any of these places a second time. The average person doesn't really care for a reality so inconsistent, and so they generally don't set foot out here, nor do they have any interest in hearing about it. But that's not the case with you is it?"

I nod, suddenly understanding my qualifications. "No. I've done quite a bit of exploring around here. I have scrapbooks full of notes and drawings from my journeys - just for my own curiosity, really, since as you said most don't take much of an interest in this place."

He laughs, his thinned hair shaking as he stares away to the sunset. "And so, I'd like to hire you. To make a map, of these islands, the continent, all of the surrounding areas. The cities, the people, and so on."

"A map?" I scratch my head, figuratively at least. "But I don't know how to make maps... I mean, I don't have half of the drawing skill that you have."

"But a place like this is one you could never hope to map in pictures. I think you should map it in words. A picture stays the same, but words change meaning as they are read and re-read, and are certainly the best way to document a place like this. What do you say?"

I stop to consider, only to realize thinking about it is pointless. This is a dream job, and only a fool could turn it away. "I accept."

He nods his unmoving head, and shifts his focus back to the painting. "Well then, I'll make all the necessary arrangements from here. And, I'm sure you won't need it, but good luck."

As I walk back across the frozen lake, I feel a sense of newfound power. The ice no longer stings, shifts, or sticks, and my feet seem to glide across it without misstep. As I turn around to glance back at the central island, I find the host to have somehow vanished, as the landscape beyond seems to shift its colors to a new, and entirely different, palette.

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