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Civilization is fairly young in my setting. Thus, the sheer number of ruined buildings and abandoned structures, found throughout the wilderness, seems strange.

The ruins vary a lot: has-seen-better-days forts, modern suburb houses, post-communist concrete slabs and lonely staircases (in-universe called "stairway to heaven") are all present.

Some stairs in the middle of the woods

However, these structures are capable of self-repair and relocation. You read that right, they appear at point A, your party runs into it, you come back later to raid it it, but poof, it has completely vanished.

Some monsters (read: dragons) tend to make their lairs in fairly advantageous position, where the ruins often locate themselves to. Dragons, who decide to make a ruin their makeshift lair, often find it vanishing from right above their heads overnight. They don't even wake up, more precisely they never have woken up during the relocation process. Other than those few hours of extra sleep, they're fine, though.

But how could buildings do relocation overnight?

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    $\begingroup$ This really sounds like you need magic to accomplish. I'd love to see an answer without it, but this sounds like magic is needed. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Nov 7 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed sometimes magic is a technology that is too advanced for you to comprehend. $\endgroup$ – Renan Nov 7 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ This question might be a bit too broad for you to get any meaningful answers. No scientific constraints are given, and you have already established the presence of fantasy elements in the form of dragons. You ask for a "rational" method for this, but given the vague setting, almost anything attached to the word "magic" would do it. $\endgroup$ – MrSpudtastic Nov 7 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ Aside from something like Renan's answer (they are actually some form of "natural"/biological phenomena), I'm pretty sure this is impossible with known technology. However, Renan also has a point about Clarke's Third Law. I could, for instance, readily imagine something like this happening on a Forerunner installation and no one would think it was "magic". $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 7 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mind if I use your concept in my DnD campain? This is incredibly cool. $\endgroup$ – KeineMaster Nov 8 at 14:54

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Since there aren't any real constraints in the question, allow me to take a moment and define an entire multiverse:

Ink Bleeds Through the Sheets

In this setting, there is a multiverse which contained all possible universes, as is commonly shown in popular science fiction.

However, something about this particular universe makes the divisions from its probabilistic neighbors somewhat weak. Other universes "bleed through", like ink soaking through a page to mark what lies beneath.

It appears that this typically only effects stationary structures, or portions thereof, likely because something has to remain in a specific location (within its home world) for a certain amount of time before the Bleedthrough starts to occur. Or maybe nothing living ever bleeds through because all these "home worlds" are already dead; who knows?

Natural terrain never appears to Bleedthrough (as far as anyone knows), likely because the entire process relies on probability:

  • A given location can contain no structure (a value of "0), or any given structure (numbered 1 to ∞ for convenience). But it cannot be two values at once. Structures won't appear intersecting with others (either real or Bledthrough)

  • Air is displaced when one of these structures appears, but not solid objects such as Earth, one section of terrain cannot "replace" another.

The structures appear to self-repair any damage because the actual structure (in its home universe) had not been damaged by events in this setting. Instead, it just the Bleedthrough of the structure: a probabilistic shadow. When it's "self repairing", it's actually just a matter of the Bleedthrough re-asserting itself based on the original structure.

Probability Waveforms and Quantum Buzzwords

Strangely enough, no one has ever witnessed any of these Bleedthroughs occurring or vanishing. What they don't realize is that the simple act of observing a Bleedthrough (or lack thereof) locks the current probabilistic state of the area.

These things are not happening because an intelligence makes them happen, but because observation by any intelligence prevents them from happening (or stopping).

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I looove this. So much technobabble suddenly becomes possible! :) $\endgroup$ – João Mendes Nov 8 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think that an excuse for terrain not bleeding through could be as simple as "the terrain is the same in every nearby universe". Because the only differences between the universes (in true science fiction abuse of quantum) are the choices people make, which change buildings but generally not the terrain so much). $\endgroup$ – Dast Nov 8 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I follow - what makes air any different from other matter? Why can it displace air, but not anything else? (Furthermore, why displace rather than replace?) Slight variations in the rotation and position of the planet in the two universes also proves problematic (ie, structures appearing out in space instead of on the planet, or underground, etc), unless that's somehow not necessary and they're otherwise 'linked'. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Shellberg Nov 8 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @TylerShellberg There are infinite universes, so there are no differences in rotation/position/etc. The ones that bleed through are the ones whose gravity well matches exactly; fortunately, this only reduces the number of available universes down to ∞. The reason air is displaced is because it doesn't offer significant resistance--beyond a certain threshold, the bleedthrough can't occur. The reason I didn't go with "replaced", is it then creates the possibility of people being shunted to an adjacent universe, which I don't think is what OP was looking for. $\endgroup$ – Liesmith Nov 9 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ Aaargh. This hurts my head. The sci-fi geek in me loves it, but the part of me that spent three months writing a summary paper on the modern understanding of quantum coherence wants to beat you to death with Schroedinger’s cat. +1 $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 10 at 22:06
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Your structures are just like the Yonaguni monument.

Yonaguni

They look like they are the work of supernatural architects, but after a couple seconds judging their artwork, they start resembling the work of an intensely stoned supernatural architect who just learned what geometry is. A little investigation later and you find out such structures exist due to natural causes.

In Yonaguni's case it was seismic activity underwater and it probably took millenia. In your case, you may have fungi that grow some tissues which are as hard as wood (those were a thing before animals conquered land), or even concrete. Fungi are also a good candidate for the source of such structures because some tripping is involved. Here is a timelapse video of some fungi growing - notice the geometrical patterns that some mushrooms are able to create, when their caps cast a net around them.

It just so happens that on your world, fungi grow absurdly fast - faster than bamboo grows in our world - and then, due to some chemical trigger, they consume their own chitin and become a large heap of something that looks like dandruff (if you ever had a micosis and you treated it with ketoconazole, you know what it looks like), or dust or something else.

As to why the shapes of houses, stairs etc. - that attracts curious creatures, and the fungus may then feed on the litter those creatures leave behind. We know that if some stairs showed up in the middle of the woods and leading to nowhere in our own world, it would become a place of religious pilgrimage and some tourists would leave trash in the areas around it. It just so happens that your fungus can imitate a house to a very high degree of precision. It may release spores in the air that cause people to trip so as to complete the illusion - in other words, the paintings in those magic suburb homes are not actual paintings, they are just a plain, square piece of the fruiting body.

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    $\begingroup$ Elegant!! Especially if toxins and spores make the place seem spooky or otherworldly... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 10 at 22:08
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You have a weird thing going on here: Civilization is young, but Communist forts are a thing. Dragons exist, but logic is needed.

So let's get weird. I'd go with time traveling since, 1) it seems that ruins should not be as plentiful as they are, 2) magical beasts (dragons) cannot sense what they're doing.

Here's how it would work. The ruins jump back and forth, but get older within their boundaries, so a modern home/neighborhood could be completely mulched while an ancient obelisk may stand fairly fresh in the center of 'town.' You can have the location be sentient (Even comically trying to avoid pesky peoples' buildings, while choosing prime real estate for civilizations Every. Bleeping. Time.) You could also have 'people' directing the moves, but it seems that the people would have to be god-like or at least un-human-like in specific tangible ways, since no one runs into them.

As to the actual moving, either:

1) The ruins change years but stay at the same day of the year when they do so, so that the planet is in the same place in relation to the sun. Other factors (wobble, general orbital drift) move things slightly from year to year, and the time jump is always a bit precarious.

2) The ruins are moved by a god-like being, strategically and/or randomly. She/he/they could possibly be collecting interesting things, attracting interesting people, comparing things across ages for reference, or just screwing with people (as gods are wont to do).

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    $\begingroup$ "The ruins are moved by a god-like being" Or the gods are playing some kind of game where the ruins are the pieces and the planet is the board. $\endgroup$ – zovits supports GoFundMonica Nov 8 at 9:22
  • $\begingroup$ I like the time travel because it provides the OP with constrains to what his ruins will and won't do. $\endgroup$ – mart Nov 8 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ @zovitssupportsGoFundMonica ** cough ** No Game No Life ** cough ** $\endgroup$ – Varad Mahashabde Nov 9 at 18:45
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Earth is artificial

This is a good take because it's a trope people are familiar with and like to entertain it. Of course, you shouldn't say it out loud in your ancient setting, but instead put a simple hints that your reader will be able to put together.

The exact explanations may then vary:

  • Earth is a nanobot simulation (ie. physical simulation constructed by robots) of the real Earth that is long lost. The simulation is malfunctioning and producing random structures. The creators of this planetlike machine are long gone and will never fix it.

    This explanation also allows you to explain permanent ancient/medieval world if you wish.

  • Similar to above, this earth was meant to be something like Westworld, but it was abandoned and started generating structures and props at random. People on the planet are a mix of inmates that were sent there as entertaiment (after having their memory altered to believe they live in the medieval) and people who were visiting and got stuck after the project was abandoned. Over generations, this was all forgotten, except for maybe some legends.

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Sounds like a herd of giant mimic.

For those not knowing those fabulous creatures, mimics are predatory monsters using their shapeshifting ability to look like inanimate objects to lure their preys. Often, there original form is describe some sort of slime.

While mimics are often described as carnivores, cases of insectivore ones aren't rare : while the "usual" creature create adherent mucus to trap unaware preys, those "gentle" specimens hunt with two abilities :

  • Instead of mucus, they produce a slow to act but potent anesthetic gas around them. The gas affects instantly insects when the land on the walls, and while anything larger is usually safe, sleeping in those ruins can be dangerous for anything, as the saturation of the gas in the area builds up. Even if larger creatures being affected seems to be a secondary effect, some mimics seems to try to be welcoming, as those creatures can help to attract mosquitoes and others little buggers. The gas dissipate fairly quickly once the mimic moved away.

  • Their shapeshifting ability allow them to have shadowy and damp area their prey like so much.

When the mimic doesn't detect movement for a while, it slowly melt back to its slime form before moving, engulfing and taking with it smaller object/entities like insects, gold pieces and others small debris to reform elsewhere, including the debris it took with it to looks more "natural".


Advantages of this solution :

  • Can fit any fantasy setting, as the mimics could take the shape of any ruins they saw;
  • Works well with your dragon example;
  • Dangerousness of a ruin can be change if needed : some insectivores might group up with few carnivore ones for protection and the presence of rotting corpses attract a lot of things;
  • Use mimics;

As a comment pointed out, the question wanted Science-based answers. While I though a "slime" might be acceptable in a question talking about dragons, replace this term by "rare type of mold", "sentient colony of bacteria" or "viscous aggregate of nanobots created by aliens" if needed.

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    $\begingroup$ The question asked for science-based answers. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Nov 8 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM, there are dragons and other monsters, no reason why one of those other monsters shouldn't be mimics. It's appropriate to the environment described in the question. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 8 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Nothing indicates magic dragons, and the question is tagged science-based. Yes, those are reasons to not use mimics unless, like the fungal answer, you have a science-based explanation for the mimicry. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Nov 8 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM "Nothing indicates magic dragons" I didn't talk about magic. Even if non-magical dragons are technically possible, they don't exist while there is an occurrence of mold proving at least memory if not intelligence. The "slime" can be a kind of mold like the experiment linked, a sentient macro-colony of bacteria or a swarm of nanobot using a viscous fluid to protect themselves. $\endgroup$ – Nahyn - support Monica Cellio Nov 8 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't seem any more far-fetched or magical than the other answers. There are some pretty skilled mimics existing in real science after all. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Nov 8 at 23:36
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Hermit elephants

The Hermit Elephant (Elephantus Solitarius) is a species native to Howondaland. The Hermit Elephant has thin skin making another form of protection necessary; it enters a village and lifts a building onto its back to use as a shell. As the elephant grows larger it will require bigger and bigger houses. The Hermit Elephant is similar in this way to the Roundworld hermit crab.

Since you have large buildings moving around on their own you clearly have an infestation of hermit elephants. I suggest using bees to keep them away from your villages, elephants don't like bees.

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The buildings are perfectly mundane structures. They are incredibly well constructed—not mortar and stone, but torque-resistant modules that are made to be attached to each other and swapped out when repairs are needed.

There are fleets of automated construction robots running on a long-forgotten schedule that move buildings to repair bays. When repairs are done, the buildings are moved back where they were originally. The repair bays are long gone, so buildings get moved to a general location. That’s where they tend to cluster. Then the robots move them back. But whereas the repair bay locations are marked with radio beacons, the other locations are recorded with GPS... and the satellite network is slowly becoming less complete as satellites fail.

The dragons have seen the buildings move. But the red flashing lights and warning beeping of the robots causes species-wide epileptic shock. The dragons go into a catatonic state similar to deer in headlights. They have no short-term memory of the events.

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Giant flying entity moves them. Or a swarm of small entities that dis/assembles them.

They teleport, or they are holograms created by a small mobile projector.

They are a cloud of nanobots that can assemble into shapes, and use local materials on the outer surface. This also explains self-repair.

They are self-propelled, with tracks/wheels or folding hot air baloons, or anti-gravity generators. More viable if they are actually made from light materials like plastic or styrofoam.

They are ambush predators that use their body as a lure.

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This is roughly the same as Bald Bear's (first) answer, but more fleshed out...

The "ruins" are built (and removed) by "cloaked" repair mechs of unknown origin. These mechs have some form of probably anti-gravity propulsion (that is, they "float" in air and are near-silent). Something about them, maybe related to said propulsive field, has a side effect of inhibiting neural activity in the vicinity, with the effect that any animal (i.e. humans, dragons, etc.) nearby either falls asleep, or is unable to wake up if already asleep.

These were originally created by unknown beings to rapidly build/reproduce, relocate, and repair usable structures... but they seem to have developed some sort of glitch, because there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind their building and relocating things, and the things they build and/or relocate don't seem to be in the condition the creators of the mechs probably intended. (Alternate explanation: they are mindlessly copying/relocating things they find in their environment, which happen to be "ruins". Who knows what they were originally supposed to build?)

Depending on what "flavor" you're aiming for, you could substitute "repair mechs" with something like "dwarves" or "fairies".

Alternatively, you could use nanomachines only as disassemblers, with the same "disrupts nervous systems" idea explaining why they're rarely or never seen in action. Maybe ruins don't "relocate"; rather, the nanomachines have some number of templates, and what people think is relocation is just the same template being constructed at a different location.

I think this not only works well for your purposes (no obvious mechanism for the ruins to move on their own, nor are they made of "unusual" materials like nanomachines), and also has tremendous potential for additional narrative. Where did the mechs come from? Why are they behaving the way they are? What happens if one malfunctions and someone is able to "catch" it? You don't have to explore these ideas, but you could.

OTOH... maybe your world just operates as in your question, and no one knows why. I think that could be interesting too. (Even if you as an author have a reason. Of course, as the author, knowing why probably helps for narrative consistency.)


On a related note, I think you're going to have problems with no one ever seeing this happen. As soon as your locals invent any sort of telescope, some one is going to be determined enough to systematically stake out some ruins to see what happens. The only way to avoid this is if whatever causes them to move has some form of near-omniscient knowledge of whether it's being observed.

HOWEVER... this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and could be story fodder all on its own. Given the above suggestions, imagine if pieces of the ruin start to vanish into thin air, or if the whole thing turns to dust.

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    $\begingroup$ Why make observers fall asleep? Simply give the repair bots a "don't move buildings that have people nearby" restriction, originally programmed for obvious safety reasons. If you had a properly fenced-off area with nobody inside it would accept that area as safe for transport as well, but the fencing type the system recognizes hasn't been in use for generations. (This also means that you can keep any useful structures around by making sure they are always inhabited.) $\endgroup$ – user3757614 Nov 10 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @user3757614, the OP specified that ruins sometimes move while critters are in them, and the critters a) sleep through the process, and b) wake up to find no ruins. If the mechs avoid structures with observers nearby, I sure hope they also avoid structures with observers inside... Having them cause nearby critters to fall asleep fits with that bit of the OP's scenario. (They could also delicately relocate such observers so they aren't injured, e.g. if a high floor is removed from under them.) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 11 at 0:44
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Non-Euclidean geometry

Well, not exactly—more like superfluid geometry. Let's start with a simplistic example. You go a hundred paces to the North, then turn 180 degrees and walk a hundred paces South, but you end up somewhere else.

Just to illustrate the idea, let's apply it to trees. Say there is a straight line of trees and you carve a letters into each one, then when you go and come back, the trees are all over the place. It's not a tectonic shift, it's more like a change in history of where the seeds fell, where the seedlings grew, and where you were when you carved those letters (except your memory hasn't been affected.)

Perhaps in your case, it's more the ruins than the trees that are affected. And this process is halted when someone is observing, so being asleep allows geometry to flow.

It may not really be technological or magical; just a world where geometry simply isn't like our own. (Though magic/technology may be able to exert an influence on it.)

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Upon reading your question, I immediately thought of the Death Valley sailing stones. These are large rocks in the middle of the desert that change position over time, and leave long tracks across the landscape. The explanation for this movement defied explanation for a long time, but it's now understood that during cold weather, the rocks are lifted by a thin sheet of melting ice, which allow the rocks to be moved by strong winds as they float over the surface.

The geographic and climatic requirements for this phenomenon to be observed are quite strict, so you only see this happen in very few locations around the world. But if you're looking for a way to move large objects seemingly spontaneously and without human intervention, you might be able to use this as a jumping off point. This doesn't explain how the structures could repair themselves, however.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure this utterly fails to address the OP's requirements. In particular: "you come back later [...] but poof, it has completely vanished". Given the DVSS mechanism only works on level terrain, not quickly, and (at least in Death Valley) leaves trails, it's hard to see how something like that mechanism could cause "ruins" to "completely vanish". $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 7 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew The sailing stones can move at up to 5m per minute, and if you tweak the world setting so the winds are even stronger, they could go even faster. With strong, consistent winds, something moving using this mechanism could move several miles a day. Something could completely "vanish" (be nowhere in sight from where you left it) over the course of several hours, fitting the bill for vanishing during overnight sleep. I agree it's not perfect, but you could amplify the effect through careful world building or some light handwaving, while keeping roots in real science. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Nov 8 at 14:02
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They could use some form of magic-based teleportation network to transport these structures across the area. Either due to sabotage or by decay over the millennia, have broken-down, and are now causing the ruins to move around at locations that have portals of some form that use the network. As to why this is the case, the group that built the network were using to transport materials or whole buildings to places that can't be reached by other means.

Depending on how large your setting is. These areas where the ruins are transported to can act as sources of treasures or exotic devices that any group will try to get a hold of. Making them valuable strategic positions that parties or civilizations would fight over for control.

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They are made out of a magical goo that can simply dissolve and move around.

It can dissolve into something like dust that moves on it's own to another location. It can simply teleport. It can attach itself to animal or bugs for teleportation, provided it guides them to a place.

Then once at it's location it starts getting together to build the desired shape.

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Unstable time-shifted matter

The buildings have not been built yet, however much later in history a civilization settles the area. They develop a quantum disruption weapon which is supposed to disrupt the strong nuclear force shredding things into their basic quarks, however the calculations were wrong. When they thought they were reducing things to quarks, they were actually destabilizing the atoms in the time-stream. Materials in objects hit with this weapon "decay" with a certain half-life, which shifts it in time at every decay. But the time shift doesn't move the object - it just sends it back or forward a few minutes or seconds. But the earth has rotated, so the building is in a new location!

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  • $\begingroup$ The planet (is it Earth?) will also move in its orbit quite a bit in minutes, or even seconds. Those buildings are going to rematerialize either deep inside the planet or rather far out in space... $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 8 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ Has that ever once stopped a time-travel story? I literally just finished Douglas Richard’s Split Second which does this exact trick - move an object through the fourth dimension only, and after he spent a chapter explaining how the teleportation is caused by the movement of the earth, he hand-waves that “Turns out, the universe won’t allow two things to exist in the same space, so the teleportation ‘appears’ in the closest unoccupied space.” I don’t agree with it but it seems to sell. $\endgroup$ – Vogon Poet Nov 8 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Also if the time travel happens exactly at noon or midnight the direction of travel will be parallel to the surface of the earth. At sunset, you’re in space. At sunrise, ouch. $\endgroup$ – Vogon Poet Nov 8 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Has anyone ever written a story with junk science? I can swallow "time travel" that accounts for the Earth's motion, because you'd have a pretty terrible story otherwise. Accounting for the Earth's orbital motion but not its rotation (or vice verse) is a little harder to swallow. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 8 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ It’s the art of authorship to make it palatable. In any way that teleporting structures can be made “rational,” mine is thrown on the heap. I know I won’t solve time travel paradoxes in the comments section today, but they still seem to be entertaining. $\endgroup$ – Vogon Poet Nov 8 at 16:25
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The first thing we have to concider is the origin of these ruins. They are oooold. Not old by human standards, who are like flies to those dragons. Old for dragon standards, and even older than the oldest of their ancient stories. And if even dragons cannot remember where they came from, how could we?

If one looked close enough at them, however, and studied different ruins for enough time, maybe one could find some oddities and still deduct their origin. For there is something peculiar about them. For every staircase that leads into straight air, there is an old building with a door midway in the air, that cannot be accessed. For every broken beginning of a bridge that ends in nowhere, there is a second part, almost identical, that leads the other way.

For once, before they became ruins, they were all part of the same city. A glorious city, made my by an even more glorious people. Glourious, until their downfall, that is. They meddled with powers that should not belong in the hands of mortals, trying to breach the borders of this worlds and enter in different dimensions. It was an experimend doomed to fail, and fail it did, tearing the whole city appart the different dimensions. And the rift in the world they created has never been closed. It is said that until this day, the old ruins shift back and forth between the worlds, forever only pieces of the glory they had been.

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The how would depend on whether you are after a magical or a technological explanation. If you want technological then the structures are built using nanotechnology. An ancient race built a network of devices inside of the world which automatically creates the nanobots and construction materials they require. The beings who made this network had designated certain buildings to move around according to their requirements. For example, a persons house might be near their workplace for most of the year, but during one month (or equivalent) the person goes on vacation. So the network is programmed to automatically dismantle the house and rebuild it at either a predetermined location or a location chosen by certain criteria.

The beings who built the network have long since vanished, but the programming for their structures remains. The nanobots can recognize organic life and will be careful not to disturb anyone while they work.

If you want to rely on magic as an explanation then use similar reasoning but with teleportation magic or some other kind of magic that can dismantle and fabricate on demand.

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  • $\begingroup$ I apparently came up with the exact same solution as you, @Allan Mills! I promise did not see your answer prior to posting mine ;) funny that our descriptions were remarkably similar. Great minds, and all that.. $\endgroup$ – Brian Lacy Nov 12 at 18:36
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There's a relatively simple solution here, if you're willing to consider the work of a prior civilization:

Nanotech.

In millennia past, an advanced civilization learned to build structures very efficiently using microscopic, self-assembling nano-scale robots. AI-driven, designed to respond and adapt to precisely-defined patterns, structures could be assembled by simply deploying a fleet of nanobuilders and assigning them a pattern. They would make use of the resources available in the specified location, break them down to their component parts at the molecular level, and reassemble them into the materials needed. The nanobuilders themselves would become part of the structure, acting in effect as the ultra-strong "glue" that held the structure together.

Unfortunately, the devices outlived their creators. Long after the civilization collapsed, the nanobuilders began to slowly malfunction. Sometimes the glitches were minor, leading to apparently- (and more-or-less actually) natural decay, just as one would expect of natural structures when left to the elements over a long period of time.

But of course their originally-assigned structural patterns remained encoded within them.

Frequently, a small number of nanobuilders would malfunction, leading to a cascade effect of systemic corruption that would cause an entire structure to seemingly disintegrate near-instantaneously. The nanobuilders would scramble about for awhile, trying to get back in the right configuration, but fighting their own age and decay. Eventually, they would get themselves back together again and rapidly reassemble their target structure -- although between the effects of the natural environment, mixing and mingling with other groups of nanobuilders, and their own scrambling about, they might have traveled many miles before achieving their purpose.

In addition, many groups of nanobuilders were also developed with networking capabilities, originally intended to be able to deploy the structures remotely or redesign structures on the fly from a central location. Now the nanobuilders have begun to experience "cross-talk" with other groups and thus get confused about which structure they're supposed to be building. Since their decision coding is based on group consensus, they may suddenly reconfigure themselves to an entirely different structure -- perhaps a malformed, ancient-looking fortress, or perhaps a shiny new suburban condominium standing alone in the middle of the woods.

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    $\begingroup$ You could also add that the reason this only happens when nobody is around is because "don't restructure the building when humans are present" is one of their most deeply-encoded safety features. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Nov 10 at 8:25
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In a parallel universe far from our own...

In year 1981, Communists States of America was performing an unmatched experiment in a secret facility hidden in the middle of defeated remnants of Mayan civilization. Their aim was to build a dimension bomb against Napoléon the Third in WW4. On the day of displacement (24th of April 81), a terrible accident has happened. While calibrating, normally very controlled dimensional shifting, the core turned critical, causing mass dimensional shifting in an area of 100km in diameter and 10m in height. The explosion instantly disintegrated all living beings in the region, and sent all man made objects into a state of oscillation between dimensions. These oscillations are not perfectly aligned in the 5th dimension that causes them to appear in other universes, but rather in all dimensions, causing these object to reappear at seemingly random locations. Some scientists even speculate it is this misalignment why the explosion occurred.

The most interesting part of the explosion is that the objects seems to be bouncing backwards in time from the start of the explosion in a strange fashion. That is why if they are damaged, they go back to their previous state at the peak of the oscillation. The damage that the people do will only affect the object's future, not the past; which in turn affects the past of the current dimension that the object is in. This behavior causes lesser beings in other dimensions to think that these ruins heal overnight. While in fact, they are actually damaged in the feature rather than in the past. After all, most of these structures were intact when the displacement occurred.

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Quantum mechanics. The ruins exhibit the strange property of existing in two places at once.

I hope I wasn't the only one to immediately think of Outer Wilds when I read about your mysterious ruins moving on their own :)

It's a tenuous connection, but it's there. It's an interesting experience in the game, and it may make for some interesting situations in your world.

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    $\begingroup$ As someone familiar with quantum mechanics, please don’t use “quantum mechanics” as a synonym for handwaving. $\endgroup$ – user76284 Nov 8 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ The Wikipedia article on quantum mechanics mentions the observer effect, which would cover the desired result (some hand waving still required of course). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics) $\endgroup$ – NBJack Nov 8 at 21:24

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