I knew that the not-very-well hidden secret purpose of this world is simply to survive, forever. The residents are expected to live long and happy - but not artificially extended - lives, to raise children to replace their parents, to live with minimal impact on the environment, and to propagate the basic human form into the far future unchanged. The people in this settlement represent the widest possible cross-section of the human phenotype and genotype, with every possible skin colour and body plan that our ancestors would have recognised.

So this world is a carefully-constructed utopia, an insurance policy against unforeseen and indeed unimaginable disasters - part-zoo, part low-tech living DNA repository. This purpose is known and understood, respected by adults, and this history and policy are carefully communicated to the children. Our mantra is "stability and survival". Perhaps our forebears would have found this world a little humdrum, even boring, but we understand our purpose and, generally speaking, accept our position in the universe.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, we know human beings have been much more adventurous. Our books are full of daring tales of humans elsewhere in the Stars. There are stories of spaceships making explorations in space, visiting strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilisations, and going boldly where no human has gone before. There are other legends of wars and empires amongst the stars, with exciting accounts of battles in planetary orbits and an order of protectors with an almost mystical ability to manipulate the universe. These tales, and others, I first heard as bedtime stories at my Father's knee, and learned the details in the more interesting parts of school history lessons.

Our planet is one of those that are rarely visited and with extremely infrequent communications with the rest of humankind. Our predecessors had liked it that way, presumably as a security precaution to discourage the accidental arrival of unwanted alien visitors, whether viral or bipedal.

The original settlers had carefully selected the site for New Amsterdam. The city nestled against the wide estuary of a major river, protected by mountain ranges and a narrow isthmus against the worst ravages of the seasonal storms. It was rarely very cold in winter, with little snow. True, a thin film of ice will occasionally form on the canals in the coldest of winters, but this is never enough to prevent the movement of the boats. Conversely, it gets pleasantly warm in the summer, but never dangerously hot, so that we do not often require protection from the sun's harmful rays.

The area of our settlement is green and very fertile, watered and refreshed by the rivers and streams which also feed the canal system, and in turn drain into the sea. The fields are laid to crops and grazing in strict rotation, with sheep and pigs and goats and cows being kept for meat and milk, and materials for clothing and footwear.

The edge of our settlement furthest to the south-west is dotted with villages and harbours on the coast of a warm and shallow sea. The people in this area keep small boats for fishing, make pots to catch lobsters and crabs, or maintain tidal beds for shellfish.

This part of my route was deserted, with no boats or people visible in any direction. The wind had died down a little but a light drizzle had started, and I took shelter in the porch of one of the many stone-built warehouses that lined the canals. This one appeared to be disused. There was no sign that anyone had been here in recent months, although the stout wooden doors were firmly shut and bolted. Even so, I could see that both masonry and woodwork was in good order, obviously recently repaired and carefully re-painted.

Taking advantage of the slight shelter, I rested for a few minutes, shaking out my cloak to dislodge the fine drops of water. As I left to continue my journey, I looked back at the stonework, all ornately carved and lavishly decorated, with the date 790 N.E. - New Earth - carved into the keystone of the arch over the doorway. I knew that so many of these warehouses and workshops were rarely used, although it was uncommon to find one which was sloppily made or poorly maintained. Our people take such pains to make sure all these jobs are done well - such pride in their work.

Suddenly I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, followed by a faint splash as if some large creature had rapidly but stealthily entered the water of the canal.

Unbidden, thoughts of the Webbed Ones sprang to my mind. These strange beings, whose existence is officially denied although frequently debated in quiet corners, are thought to be some strange alien, or perhaps an original native of this world from before it was terraformed. The Webbed Ones are said to be basically humanoid in shape, adapted with webbed hands and feet for a mostly aquatic existence, and wear little or no clothes - such clothing as they adopt is for decoration, rather than modesty.

I stood unmoving, hardly breathing, but I saw or heard nothing more. At first I thought I must have imagined the entire thing, but then I noticed a rope hanging over the low wall that edged the canal here - a rope that had previously been neatly coiled and laid at the edge of the pathway. I shook my head, gathered up my belongings and set off for the city.

On my arrival at the Council Chambers, I was ushered without delay to my meeting with the Mayor. Gillian Atashi-Klima was a tall and painfully thin woman with silver-grey hair cut very short, with a sallow complexion and the slight suggestion of epicanthic folds around her astonishingly bright blue eyes. She had a rather slow and precise way of speaking although, as I had heard, frequently showing great insight in her choice of words.

I had met the Mayor briefly once before, on one of her peripatetic journeys, and I sincerely doubted that she would remember me at all. I had expected that my pre-selection would have been undertaken almost entirely by some unseen committee, with only the briefest of assessments from the Mayor herself.

As I entered her office, Madame Atashi-Klima was sitting behind a modest desk, reading a sheaf of papers in the fading grey light from the window behind her. Through the leaded glass, I could just make out the carefully trimmed shrubbery of the Major's garden that led right down to the edge of the Grand Circular canal itself.

The servant directed me to a comfortable seat right next to the Mayor. He proceeded to light some of the candles set on stands around the room and on the desk in front of us, then quietly left the room closing the door carefully behind him.

I sat demurely, with my hands in my lap, feeling nervous - just a little like the very first time I had applied for a post in local governance.

"Pleased to meet you again," the Mayor addressed me, setting down the documents she had been studying. So she did remember me!

"I read your letter of application with great interest," she continued, waving the papers at me, "And I have studied reports from the Assessors very carefully."

Then, in a deliberate and rather formal tone, she asked me if I would accept the position of Assistant to the Mayor. I must have visibly jumped, having considered this moment with so much anticipation over recent months, and I accepted with alacrity.

"Madame Mayor, I would be honoured to take up this post."

She nodded slowly, taking both of my hands in her own.

"There is much we must discuss, this very evening," she continued, "It will take quite some time. And, please, call me Gillian."

"As you wish, Gillian," I stammered.

"Very good," she said, looking at me appraisingly, "But first, there is a solemn and important ritual I must perform."

"A ritual?" I echoed.

"Yes, an initiation, if you like. Now, have you been thinking about your history lessons, as I instructed in my letter?"

I nodded eagerly, anxious to embrace my new role.

"For the first step of the ritual, I have to tell you that everything that you have learned about our world - all you have heard from the teachers and read in the history books - is a lie."

Part 1 Part 3