When I first got the Summons from the Mayor's office, I was alternately terrified and elated. I could barely contain my emotions, with joy and pride and fear of failure all mixed up. When I had simmered down a little, however, the accompanying enigmatic instructions, written in the same cursive script on the parchment I had just been handed, provoked a more thoughtful reaction within me.

"Think about your life, your childhood," the letter instructed, "Your schooling and, especially, your history lessons. Be prepared to answer questions about what you have learned."

On the day appointed, I make myself ready for a journey. I drew on my best leather boots and the heavy woollen cloak I reserved for cooler weather, then drew up my hair braids - I still grew it long, almost to my waist - inside the woollen hat I habitually wore. Finally I picked up the leather satchel containing the hand-copied books I was currently studying and my precious notebook. With a last look around the little house I had shared with my family since I got married, I set off.

I had a journey of perhaps three hours in front of me, on foot. Most of my route would follow the towpath of the New Cut and, later on, the Grand Circular canal. The waterways were busy, even at this late time of year, with winter really only a few weeks away. Long narrowboats laden with goods and materials were being towed by placid horses, the animals so familiar with the route that they plodded along with almost no human guidance.

Alongside the cut stood the squat towers of the windmills, the wooden frames of their sails creaking as they pumped water to keep the canal system running. The heavy stone-built towers of the mills were a familiar part of the landscape hereabouts. Elsewhere, windmills pumped water for irrigation or drainage in different seasons, or ground wheat to make flour for bread.

In this part of our country, the local gradients are too small to provide adequate power for water-mills. In the hills, the ridges of foothills that effectively formed the boundary of our little settlement, water mills are commonplace, driving sawmills for timber and cutting stone blocks, or powering the forges which wrought iron for wheels and hinges. The timbers and cut stone from the quarries are of course transported first by wagon and then by narrow boat to the more populous centres.

Nodding politely to the men and women working the boats and horses, I strode onwards, head down against the brisk wind and scudding clouds. As I walked, I reflected on what I had learned about our world during my forty or so years, as instructed by the Mayor herself.

The area centred on the city of the same name was called New Amsterdam. The city Mayor was the de facto leader of the entire community. He or, more usually, she was elected for life but rarely, it seemed, against any serious opposition. The Mayor chaired a Grand Council in the long building near Landing Central, made up by the hundred or so representatives from all the communes and townships in our country.

My portentous news was that I had been asked to become the Mayor's Assistant, her private aide - a post which, over the generations, has been seen as a stepping-stone to greater things. Some people say this is almost a position of "Mayor-in-waiting", although I personally believe this is an exaggeration.

I have been the leader of our commune council for near four years, doing my best to guide and direct the township of Garden Welwyn. In practice, this has meant I have been a personal advisor and confidante to what seems like most of the five thousand adults who live in the town, or in the villages, hamlets and farms nearby.

I applied for the Assistant role several years ago, writing a long letter detailing my qualifications - such as they are - and explaining why I felt myself fit for the responsibility. I suspect that many apply for the position, and it was quite a surprise when I was asked to meet and be assessed by increasingly senior representatives from the Council.

As I had been doing increasingly frequently, I was leaving behind my husband and two children - hardly children any more, more well-grown teenagers. The elder boy, Johann, is already employed almost daily on the waterways improvement programme, labouring at building the extension to the western docks at Welwyn Port. We are hoping to confirm his apprenticeship with the Waterways Guild next year.

Our younger girl, Gwendolyn, is already showing a remarkable affinity with growing things - she has almost single-handedly run our vegetable patch for many years. She has expressed an ambition to join the Forest Watch, the highly respected body responsible for managing and replanting the upland woodlands we rely upon so much for both winter fuel and building materials.

But this will not be a short trip away - at least, if the Mayor accepts me as her Assistant. Gwendolyn has already expressed her unease at the prospect of an unsettling move, away from the friends and neighbours that she had grown up with - indeed, in most cases, that I had grown up with. Despite the risk of family upset, we have agreed that both husband and children will move to the city, to be with me in my new role.

I was now walking steadily downhill on the towpath of the Grand Circular, following a series of locks and short reaches as the canal dropped down towards the city. I crested a low rise and caught sight of New Amsterdam.

Inevitably, Faraway Tower was the first thing I could make out in the distance. This tall white tower is made of some amazingly resilient material - not metal, not stonework - and grows steadily narrower towards the summit, with a large ball, a sphere, at the very top. No-one now alive can conceive of how it was constructed. It appears to be some kind of ceramic, much tougher and smoother than the pottery plates and mugs we use at home. The Tower was constructed by the Settlers themselves, shortly after First Arrival. Everyone knows that, set all around the base of the tower, there are darker areas - almost like windows - which, we are told, sometimes light up with messages from other worlds, but this has not happened recently.

Settlers Square, the open area around the Tower, was the original landing site for the new arrivals. The city of New Amsterdam which grew up around it and the surroundings areas form one of a handful of settlements scattered across this world of New Earth.

Like the original, this Earth orbits its Sun - a star once known in the catalogues as Bygones - at a distance of ninety-three million miles, turns on its axis once every twenty-four hours and with a year of 365-and-a-bit days. This year is 977, based on our year zero - the date of the first official landing of settlers. Our history tells us that Humankind was aware of our planet for thousands of years before anyone actually landed here. There was a long and slow process of terraforming - literally, earth shaping - turning this world into a near-duplicate of our original home.

Introduction Part 2