Chronological note: This brief tale takes place following the events narrated in the Myst and Riven games, before the Book of D'ni novel and Myst Exile. I was grappling with the transition from the two games to the Book of D'ni novel, where Catherine and Atrus seem remarkably recovered from their recent ordeals. Therefore this story contains spoilers to anyone who hasn't played Riven and Myst. Consider yourself warned, gentle reader.
Catherine stood leaning against the doorframe of his study, cheek propped against her hand with a fading smile on her lips. Atrus was bent over his desk writing diligently, as always, oblivious to her presence. Yet no longer, she feared, was he thus absorbed out of the sheer joy of his work, but rather out of the need to lose himself in it. For there were added lines of care upon his face, more gray streaks in the stubble he'd once again forgotten to shave, shadows under his eyes. And all these things were more pronounced than she remembered of him from the innocent days before their sons had trapped them Ages away from one another, worlds from which they might never have escaped.
For a moment the fine planes of her face tightened with a mirror of the same strain. Atrus had broken the news of what their sons had done as gently as possible, but there was no way to cushion that blow. Against his wishes, Catherine had gone to see for herself the few deserted Ages that remained in their damaged library. It was some consolation that she had found a few more Ages for him, ones that had been stored in an old chest on Channelwood, but these were mostly simple lesson Books lacking the people, the complexity of Atrus' more mature works. All of her own were damaged beyond recovery. Her sons had even destroyed her first Age, the torus-world with the inverted waterfall and the strange creatures that had so puzzled poor young Atrus all those years ago. That happy memory eased her heart somewhat, but the fact remained: countless Ages were gone. And in those Ages which had not been charred to ash, all habitations were stripped bare, the people dead or fled. Katran had pressed Atrus to hope for the latter, at least in the Mechanical Age, where the people had recently begun to build ships of their own; but there had been no sign of their old friends. After extensive searching, it was clear that nothing could be done.
And as for the destroyed Ages, they would never know for certain how the burning of the books word by precious word had affected their inhabitants, for there was no way to discover what happened to an Age once the words of the Descriptive Book had been so drastically altered. She hoped that the people would simply wonder what had happened to their old friends, Atrus and Catherine, and go on about their lives in Everdunes and Ishan and Shaft and the rest. Please, let them be safe. Surely our sons have not had time to pillage and slaughter in all of them. But she had seen enough to know her sons fully capable of ravaging whole worlds, and who knows how many had died in the Ages whose links had been burned away to nothing.
How? How could Sirrus and Achenar have turned their backs on the precepts of honor, respect, understanding, that came so naturally to their parents and wise grandmother? How could Catherine and Atrus ever trust themselves again in any endeavor, when they had failed both their own sons and their sons' victims? The answer was simple. No terrible mistake of the past could be erased, but they must learn the lessons from it and persevere, try to build something new to replace the old. There must be some goal, some dream for Atrus and herself to replace all those which had crumbled. One upon which they could embark on with humility and caution, mindful of the past.
Catherine's mind drifted to the toppled stones of D'ni, and to Atrus' idle comments in moments of speculation that they might be able to find survivors. Perhaps they could salvage something of his grandfather's people. She shuddered inwardly. Had not Gehn been trying to do the same all his life with no more fruits to his labor than the bones of a thousand shattered Ages, her own included? Gehn had been right in one thing, she conceded. D'ni's restoration was too vast for the efforts of one man; it could only be achieved by writing more Ages, enlisting the aid of people like the Rivenese. And that, she suspected, was exactly the idea Atrus was now toying with, for she had browsed the early stages of the Book he was writing, and it was almost certainly destined to be inhabited. She sighed. Yet Atrus was not Gehn, and he would never enslave or deceive people as Gehn had her own world. It could work. And it would give him a dream again. But in the meantime...
"Catherine?" He had heard the sigh and put down his pen at last, blinking with his pale eyes. "What's wrong, my love?" He knew she was perfectly used to his getting so buried in his work that he failed to notice her-- not as if she didn't do the same sometimes-- but he still felt a stab of chagrin whenever it happened.
Catherine crossed the room gracefully to splay her hands against the side of his new desk. "Very little. How is Averone coming along?"
His own turn to sigh. "It's... well. I'm afraid it's still very close to Riven, as you said, a Riven my father might have written if he understood the principles of the Art better. I am sorry. I can't seem to find anything new to write anymore."
She shook her head slowly. "I never meant that as a criticism, Beloved. I understand. Your heart wishes to see things set right, always. So you find yourself trying to 'fix' Riven, even now that my people are safe. You're still trying to fix the mistakes of our family."
His pale blue eyes widened in startlement. She had certainly never claimed kinship with her father-in-law before. But before he had time to process the knife-sting of those words, she had leaned forward to kiss his forehead beneath his scruffy hairline. "You are forgetting to notice the Whole, my dear," she said, green eyes teasing, recalling one of Anna's old sayings.
He glanced down at the open book and the drying lines of ink with a groan, then back up to meet her perceptive gaze. "What have I have forgotten this time? The air mixture? The--"
"You have forgotten to think outside the box, or in this case, the book. And no, I am not the Whole either, even if your eyes seem to think so just now." She slipped a finger to his chin, gently commanding him to look away from her face and down to one side. The teasing brought a smile to the corners of his eyes at least. Then he blinked, finally noticing the neat stack of books which had been piled up on his desk when he came into his study to begin the day's work. "You found some more--" he started to say with more animation, and then, realization dawning as he recognized the somewhat linear handwriting on the cover of the top book-- "no, you wrote some new Ages?"
"Happy birthday, Atrus," she told him, smiling.
His mouth opened. "I had quite forgotten the date." But he was already pulling the top volume towards him, a slim book wrapped in a jet black cover so that the brown ink used to name it was almost invisible. He opened it gently with care for the new spine, peered at the dark window on the first page, lifted his eyebrows at the growing mischief in her expression, and then started to leaf to the back pages, where the latest fruits of his wife's formidable imagination would be outlined in precise prose.
She put a hand over his, halting his movements. "No. Don't read. It's a surprise," She smiled again. "Trust me."
The weariness in his face conceded a truce to his curiosity. Only slightly crestfallen at being forbidden to read, Atrus obediently flipped back to the first two pages. "Always," he told her.
In answer the question in his eyes, she lifted the flap of the satchel slung across her shoulder to reveal a matching set of Linking Books to be left in each of the new Ages.
Questioning no further, he set his hand on the dark page and vanished into it.
Automatically taking a pace away from the spot where he entered to allow her room to follow, Atrus pulled up short, nearly stumbling. It wasn't as if he hadn't come to dark worlds before, either at night, or when the entry point was in an unlit cave. But this was quite different. There was a light breeze blowing on his face, the secretive scents of plants, faint creaking sounds that must be some form of distant bird, cricket, frog, or other insect-eater. He could hear the lapping of water against rocks, as upon the rim of a wide lake. The air was cool but not uncomfortably so.
But he could not see.
He fumbled for his lenses and strapped them over his eyes, fiddling with the controls. No good. While he waited for his wife to arrive, he knelt and examined the ground. It was covered in something soft and spongy like moss, and he could feel some sort of fronds reaching up from it, perhaps fruiting bodies. They were rounded stems with soft nodules on the end, with no sign of leaves at all.
Atrus was reluctant to move away from the entry point, not when he couldn't find his way back. Minutes passed. Panic began to well up in his chest, spilling over the excitement that always accompanied his first steps in a new Age. "Catherine?"
She laughed softly behind him. "Always, my love?" she reminded him, mimicking his last words to her. "It's safe, I assure you. What do you think?"
He relaxed immediately, only slightly annoyed. She must have been standing behind him, waiting for him to speak. Atrus turned around carefully with hands out, stepped forward, found her shoulders and settled his hands there. "Well, if Anna were here, I couldn't even begin to answer her usual question. I see nothing!"
There was amusement in her tone. "So? Is light another law I have forgotten about?"
He smiled faintly at that. Her worlds often seemed to turn the laws of physics on their heads, or at least forced them to sit up and beg. "I assume not." He knew she was waiting for him to analyze the place on his own, and, with the reassurance that she was at his side, he turned his mind back to the task at hand, sniffing the air thoughtfully.
"Sulfur," he noticed. "And some steam."
"And the plants have no leaves."
"Yes, of course."
"No light, so they must obtain energy elsewhere..." Realization dawned on him. "The ground is warm. Magma near the surface?"
"Very near. But it doesn't break through too often."
He was silent, considering this. "But there should still be stars! You can't have an earth without a heaven. Or a sun, for that matter!"
She chuckled. "No sun now. Just a thin crust--" he heard her shoe thump against the soft earth-- "and a very dynamic core. This Age won't last more than a few millennia; the interior will cool too quickly. But if it were too close to a sun, the thick atmosphere and cloud cover would trap too much heat."
Punctuating her words, there was a sudden flash of lightning, and for a moment the whole strange place was illuminated in blinding white light. Gigantic pillars of cloud loomed and rolled so low overhead they felt like a hanging blanket. The lines of the land bore the characteristic rippling ledges and bulges and occasional cone-shaped hills of a geologically active world, although all these features were obscured by a healthy layer of plant life. Tall spearlike trees branched out at their peaks with great hook-shaped boughs clustered like the petals of a flower, but they had no more leaves than the tangled spongy masses of bushes and mossy groundcover below. Myriad pools of water, caught in the cracks and hollows of this folded land, glowed whitely for a moment before the darkness swallowed them again. Where higher ground did not block the horizon, there was a silver gleam of water stretching away to the right. There, he realized, an ancient crater had formed a perfectly round lake. Small batlike creatures flittered overhead and around them, and he caught a gleam of white teeth from something tall and deer-graceful, hiding in the copse of trees some years away. And off on the left, backed by the yawning blackness of a steaming fumerole, a fabulous abstract sculpture of green and purple crystals reared up in a mass curved like a giant spoon cupping the escaping vapors that doubtless had created the exquisite deposit.
All this he saw only for an instant, and then darkness flooded back like a physical force against his face. He sighed. "You never cease to amaze me."
"That's the idea," She felt for his hand. "Come, let's explore."
"I have the Linking Book with me. We'll use it whenever you like. I'll just have to write another if we visit again later, so we don't have to worry about searching for this one."
He shook his head. All this, just for a single visit? It took days to write even the simplest Age, and he did not doubt this one had taken her weeks, even with her gifts. But that was Catherine. Obediently, he let himself be led, stumbling a bit upon the soft give of the groundcover and the rather uneven ground of the ancient crumbling lava beneath.
How long they explored he did not know. Time ceased to be along with light, and oftentimes they had to let go of each other's hands, stoop and feel with fingers to crawl upslope or pass through the small clumps of trees. Trust indeed. She had the book, and if he lost her, he might fumble in this world of darkness forever. But in lieu of his eyes his other senses began to pick up subtle clues. He could hear the hiss of steam as they passed by other vents, where they often stopped to wait for the rare lightning bolts to give them fleeting glimpses of the crystalline structures growing there. He could hear the softest creaking of the treetrunks as the explorers moved among them, the slightest shiver of water in the larger pools as the fitfull breeze passed by. The whisper of wings overhead was a constant background sursurrus, and now he could make out the nearly inaudible clicks and high-pitched squeaks they used to navigate. Sometimes there were occasional growling rumbles of thunder, but even these were muffled, invariably high up in the clouds and far, far off.
Apart from the chirping cricket-like things living in the fringes of the small pools, most of the beasts of this Age were a study in silence, no doubt using it as creatures on other worlds used camouflage. Only occasionally did he hear the soft scrape of a hoof on fallen wood, for there were many of these long, graceful creatures with deer bodies, serpentlike flexible necks and small heads that were almost all ears and mouth. They had no eyes, of course, but an odd array of finlike feathers down the spine right to the tail that must help in detecting vibrations, unless they were scent organs. A bewildering place altogether.
But Catherine was always at his side. She did not speak, adapting herself to the ways of the place, and after a while he gave up words too-- his chief treasures-- and let himself sink into simple awareness of the three or four senses left to him. Nevertheless, Atrus found himself paying less attention to the Age as they explored further, excited and intrigued by this amazing place although he surely was. He had never noticed so clearly the way she placed her feet just so (for this he could hear plainly in spite of his own clumsier, heavier boot-steps), the sound of the flowing layers of fabric she wore, her breath louder when they were climbing and the way she held it after each lightning flash, the slight writing-callouses on the fingers of her right hand, the scent of her skin and her hair. Sometimes he found himself trying to anticipate the fleeting lightning so as to be looking her way when illumination came and went. These glances felt like stolen treasures, never mind that they had known each other now for over thirty years.
He heard her stumble over a small shrub and moved quickly to catch her, by now having learned to sense exactly where she was without need of sight. She was already straightening to stand, and laughed, a startling sound after so much quiet, giving his forearm a light squeeze. He stooped to kiss her, found her ear, and she chuckled again. "I am still not the Whole, Atrus. Bored of the place so soon? Shall we try another of your presents?"
"No and yes," he told her, resting his chin against her hair. "Please."
They returned to his study. Again she made him promise to read no pages before they Linked, and slipped out to fetch two picnic lunches she had prepared for them.
They ate on a cliff beside a many-streamed waterfall thundering downward as far as the eye could see. Water surrounded their picnic spot. It and countless other narrow ridges of lichen-covered rock were separated by rushing channels of water all along the straight clifftop, so that it resembed a gigantic comb. Small twisted spiky trees with pink fluffy balls that must be flowers punctuated this Age of natural lines and right angles. They perched here and there on the islands of stone and overhung the precipitous drop, even clinging to the walls below wherever the sheer cliff face offered meager purchase. Small white birds with daggered wings swooped and swirled freely before and below them, weaving a complex graceful dance knitting the sky to the sky. This Age was anchored sideways, or at least the gravity seemed to be. There was sky overhead, but also sky before and below them, so that the waterfall-laced cliff faced only emptiness, a vast expanse of pink and yellow bands of cloud that extended down and down until they converged with infinity and the gray-blue depths of the cliff itself.
Refreshed here, they went on, savoring the wonders of each Age like courses of an exquisitely prepared meal: a great round lake in a cavern whose polished crystal ceiling reflected the lake itself, forming a gigantic kaleidescope lit by the glinting, flashing fish and the soft glowing red fungus clinging to the damp mud around the shore; a veldt whose constantly shifting grasses and thousands of leaping, bounding gazelle-like and rabbit-like creatures dazzled the eyes like the ripples of a sunlit pond; a dense, ancient forest of hardwoods, each of which reminded Atrus of the Great Tree on Riven before Gehn's mistakes and callousness had first broken, then felled that potent symbol of Catherine's people.
And finally when they Linked back to his study, there remained only a blue-green Book with a blue-green picture window. He peered at the last Linking Book in Catherine's satchel, one whose cover seemed to be made of a rubbery skin like that of the whark-like beasts she had included in the Moiety's Age. Waterproof? But before he could voice his question, she was peeling off his cloak and fumbling with his shirt. He gave a startled squawk of-- well, not exactly protest, but he usually expected a few preliminaries!
She untucked the hem of his shirt and pulled it upwards firmly. "Unless you want your clothes to get soaked through, best to leave them behind."
Bemused at his expression, she added serenely, "Don't worry, there's no people in Caeladine."
Enlightened and amused, Atrus complied and stripped, wondering why she had saved for him a deluged rainforest, apparently, until last. Well, she knew he liked rain.
Folding her dress neatly and setting her clothes in the corner, Catherine held up the book for him, green eyes matching the shimmering color of the linking window. He touched her cheek once before laying his hand across the page.
Blind and utter panic clutched at his chest as he found himself submersed completely in water, clapping his mouth shut too late on a half-drawn breath that made him choke. He started floundering upwards, arms spread wide.
Her voice sounded odd, barely registering on his eardrums over the sound of his own frantic thrashing.
"Atrus," she called again, swimming upwards and wrapping her arms around his middle, slowing him. "Breathe!"
"I can't," he gasped. The sound of his own voice, muffled and thickened by the water pressing against his ears, finally brought him to his senses. "I can?"
She let go and circled around him, leaning into a relaxed sidestroke. "You can," she returned, the end of her long braid fanned out like a mermaid's tail tracing her path as she moved. "Look around."
Atrus coughed again, brain still fighting against lungs which were quite convinced this was water and he was drowning. He felt his chest muscles spasming to retch, and wrapped his arms around himself, body sinking slowly. She swam down to him and supported him until the shuddering passed. "Perhaps this one should not have been a surprise," she said apologetically.
"No," he rasped. "It just takes... a little getting used to." He could not help but remember how he had first arrived in Riven at the bottom of the lagoon, nearly drowning before her two cousins fished him out. "Is it water?"
"Almost," she replied, reassured as he began to unfold and move his hands and feet on his own to steady himself. "I'll show you the notes for it when we return. You wouldn't believe how many tries it took to find the right balance."
"I can imagine," he replied, lurching again as a bullet-shaped silver creature with a beaver's paddle-tail went barrelling past their legs. Atrus spun slowly in place, beginning to take in the brilliant shafts of greenish-blue light shining down from high above. There was no surface in sight; this liquid substance must transmit light as well as fiber optics to be so bright this far in the depths. Weaving grayish-green patches punctuated by occasional flashes here and there must be schools of fish. And there--
Atrus stopped spinning, eyes moving slowly to take in all he was seeing. A huge mountain like a vast irregular pyramid rose from the depths, its sides quite covered in brilliant gold and green and ivory turrets and rounded ledges of coral. Stalks of purple seaweed and the brilliant red arms of some sort of giant anemone fanned out from this living Tower of Babel. Brightly colored fish and tentacled animals teemed and swirled around it in constantly shifting patterns. No silent world this one: far off, drifting through unimaginable depths, there rolled the haunting wails and calls of huge animals. Moreover, Atrus swore that he could hear a faint modulated humming coming from the corals themselves, or at least from creatures clinging to their sides. Catherine had once teased him in the Selenitic Age for finding beauty in absolutely everything, but here there could be no doubts. Caeladine was a sculpture of living beauty shaped by the hand of the sea itself, and that of his own particular nymph.
Atrus began to swim towards the seamount, which loomed more massively the closer they came. Finally its peak was just below them, demarcated by the giant shell of a long-departed bivalve which had left its pearly hulk buried in the coral below. Into this natural bucket Catherine placed the Linking Book, securing it with some thick cords stored in the satchel. "And now," she said, "we can explore."
Explore they did, diving and swimming, always keeping close to the living mountain even when they weren't examining its incredibly diverse inhabitants. Gaping mouths, huge eyes stared at the unlikely intruders, but nothing tried to eat or hinder them. Atrus saw how the little fish cleaned the parasites off the larger ones, how the bullet-creatures hunted with speed and swiftness, how the coin-sized winged rays banded together in bewildering schools by the thousands to thwart and dazzle predators, how the armed corals lured their prey with little gold orbs suspended on thin, almost translucent tendrils, how some creatures could change the color of their skin at a moment's notice, and others hid and thrived in the anemones, safe from foes. In many of his worlds, he had striven to perfect the dance of symbiosis and mutual interdependence, but here, where all was in motion and animal lived affixed to other animals or risked drifting away into the endless expanse of sea, he saw a system that surpassed anything he'd been able to define.
Finally Catherine ducked into a large dark blue shadowed hole in the side of the mountain, a sort of tunnel, and he followed. The interior was dimly lit by light slipping through cracks in the irregular coral superstructure, and sunlight was supplemented by the greenish glow of phosphorescent kelp. Small blinking dots of color flashed and danced throughout the dark grotto, some sort of diatom or other small organism. Atrus and Catherine had to weave their way with care through the entrance to the interior, since tendrils of kelp made a kind of webbing across most of the entrance.
Catherine slowed to a stop, as much as one could while floating, and reached out to catch one of the aquatic fireflies. It pulsed violet briefly in her palm before fluttering off again. "We can rest here without being pulled out by the current."
Atrus swam over to her side, and, with less difficulty than he would have had a few hours ago, allowed his body to completely relax. With the last dregs of momentum he jostled against her and hung there, making no movements to right himself as his body began to turn. Tired he was in every limb, her words had made him realize belatedly. They'd been swimming for at least an hour or two against a light current, and clambering over rocks or climbing trees for all of a day.
"I feel like I'm made of water myself now," he said ruefully. "I'm as limp as a piece of that kelp."
"That was the idea, Atrus." She reached out to nudge him with a toe. "Your writing hasn't gone stale; you just need to clear your head and relax."
He closed his eyes, reminded of Anon, the dark world they had explored so many hours earlier. He opened them again with a long exhalation. "Yes. Except I need to complete Averone, so we can start work on..."
"Getting back to D'ni, and searching for survivors?"
He blinked slowly at the nuances of amusement, faint reproach, worry, and pleasure in her tone of voice that the water served to magnify, not muffle. "Yes," he said quietly. "I was going to discuss it with you once I had finished Averone."
"I know," She began to circle him again, only an arm's reach away, since there was little room to spare in this dim grotto. "It is the right thing to do." That was the reassurance she needed for herself, to banish the spectre of Gehn's legacy. Perhaps he needed it too, to judge by his expression, which eased at her assertion. "But you cannot obsess yourself only with the ruins of the past, or you will be unable to build the present. Your heart must be washed free, Beloved, and you must balance the old with the new."
"The Whole," he repeated. "Which includes time as well as space."
Her eyes were squinted half-closed in as much contentment as he had seen on her face since their poignant reunion at the brink of Riven's collapse, before that dreadful moment when he had to break to her the news of Sirrus' and Achenar's crimes and punishment. Another stab of pain tightened his chest, and he began to cough again.
"Let it go," she said, settling her arms around him again to keep him from bumping his head against coral. "Let it go into the water. We cannot change it. There is nothing we can do except live anew, and perhaps restore another world broken by a pair of madmen," She whispered again, "Let it go."
His tears leaked out to disperse into the water for a long time. As he wept he could hear the rippling, clear-noted music of the great sea-beasts of the deep, and the nearer humming of the coral ramparts. Not that he was consciously aware of these sounds, but inevitably they soothed, pared away the inner layers of caked grief and guilt that bound his insides like rusty armor. At last he sought solace in her arms and skin, and for a time they ignored the world they'd come to explore to linger in their mutual private Whole.
It must have been hours later that he awoke, relaxed but disoriented, tangled in ribbons of her hair which had begun to slip free of her braid. That must be a first for a human, to have slept underwater without benefit of gills! He looked down at his wife to find green eyes looking back, holding more secrets in them than before they slept.
"What?" he whispered.
"I dreamed of our daughter, Beloved," she told him, once again revelling in her power to leave him dumbfounded. With a word she could still peel away the careworn, thoughtful mask from his face to reveal the astonishment of a young boy living in a cleft in the desert for whom his whole spare world had been an exercise in discovery.
A daughter? Atrus had heard her speak prophetic dreams before, something that rather disturbed his scientific turn of mind. But he was in no frame of mind right now to question or to doubt.
Disentangling her hair from one of his forearms, Catherine turned to swim towards the entrance. "Come. Let's go finish Averone, and begin building your new dream."