Stitching Time III-Return to D'ni
This is yet another snippet I wrote in a fit of 2AM insomnia. All my "Stitching Time" pieces are meant to fill in the gaps between games and/or novels. In particular, here: why does the player show up in Tomahna at the beginning of EXILE, after all that work we did to get home? Spoilers to Riven and Myst therefore apply.
My world is bright and beautiful and has a sun that no D'ni could bear, so why can't I stay? But it's time. I just can't walk the paths laid out for me, knowing that there's a door into endless time sitting in the back shelf of my closet. And the bills are piling up, and there's no one in my bed, not even the cat now; she went with my last girlfriend.
It takes me three hours of excavations through old clothes and corrugated boxes to find the MYST book, and another four hours of dithering, packing, and unpacking before I decide that two changes of clothes and a notebook are all I should bring. This is my life I am sacrificing for a different one, a different dream. I cannot take the past with me where I am going.
I decide to go out to the desert one last time, hiking far and far until I come to the golden-brown outcropping of rocks in the midst of alien trees formed of shaggy green spikes, their branches writhing like serpents. The yuccas send up pale cream-colored stalks ten feet high with papery fruits that rustle in the light wind. I hear coyote song for the last time, the crickets singing, and I camp out a cold night soaking up stars and constellations I will not see again.
Dawn takes me, wakes me, pale blue first, with frost on my feet from the night's breath. Dawn stirs the sky with a blush of pink and gold. I light a fire made of just a few twigs, scant fuel, carefully cupped in a hollow of stone on the rocky shelf where there's no chance of sparks flying out to touch any other living thing. This which I burn must be only my own life. I watch the sky until the light is enough to see the letters emblazoned on the linking book's snowy gray-and-black cover, the strange signs of garo-hevtee that march proudly on its pages. To the east, golden white light spills over the distant rocky hills, the shoulders of hunchbacked giants. The sun's whiteness breaks out gleaming through a dip in the distant outcrop like a chipped tooth. The time is now. I hunch low over the fire, one hand under the book and one hand above, and draw my palms together.
I hear the crackle of paper burning, an old life with it, and I am dragged into the black void, as blind as any D'ni who faces unshielded the pure light of day. Then I am dazzled as a pale sky I remember so well in my dreams arcs overhead. I fall to my knees on peeling timbers that creak dangerously under the sudden weight, voicing a protest.
The gulls cry in the distance, wheel and dip a benison. The sea slaps the dripping piles of the old dock. The ship is... gone? Well, it's been years now, after all. The kiss of wet salt on my eyes is not all from the sea.
I throw my pack down, far from any conscious thought, and begin running for the steps, taking them in twos and threes, barely noticing their poor state of repair. Soon I'm up on the grass by the old planetarium, where I can see across to the flaking library, the stone fountain, the pillared sward marching downhill towards the cabins and the clock.
The grass is overgrown, sparkling with orange butterflies. The paths are untended, swallowed over by moss and little blue flowers. The doors are shut, and the buildings look abandoned. It was always an empty, lonely place, this island, but the emptiness now feels more like that of a peaceful church graveyard sleeping its way to judgement day than that of a sleepy summer afternoon. Dazed, I begin to see the changes. What is time? I begin to walk, to look.
What do you see?
"I see memories," I whisper. "I see things tucked away in closets that no longer have any use." Fear comes stealthily, and I flee it.
I begin to run again, out towards the penninsula to the left of the library and back, from one part of the island to the next. The library is empty, stripped of books, furniture. The furnace in the cabin which was their first home is cold and empty even of ashes. The planetarium's chair and equipment are still there but inoperable. What could it mean? After all my efforts, surely, Catherine and Atrus finally found their way back to their safe haven, well-earned rest?
Exhausted, I collapse at the foot of the great tree on the low end of the island and press my cheek against the old wood, thinking of Catherine's prison and the things that have been chopped down, lost. Where could they have gone? I have found no books; even those in the places of protection have been taken. What's left? The fireplace would not turn, but maybe I have forgotten the proper pattern. The dock--
I lurch to my feet and thread my way among the trees, not bothering to go by paths, sliding down through the underbrush to tumble at one end of the dock. A mistake, that. My foot punches through rotten wood and I go down, hands skinned on the planks as I catch myself. Wincing, I pry my foot loose and hobble back towards the door in the bank, setting my hands against it in just that certain way until the barrier slides up with a polished sound.
I descend more cautiously, clinging to the railing and memories, hearing strains of music in my mind like a dream. A few of the lights down here still glow dimly blue, gold. I turn to face the the panel on the wall by the stairs, flip it up, dial the correct number--eight? Was it eight?
I try various combinations. All are useless, except for a few that conjure odd diagrams and schematics for incomprehensible bits of machinery, and an image of a stark red-rocked canyon from the topographical extrusion program that at other times I would enjoy studying in detail. None of these things interest me now. Think. Think. What number could possibly be a password to the past?
I key it in and hit the red button; the panel slides closed. I turn and cross back to the pool, touching the pressure-sensor on its rim with the toe of my shoe for what feels like the hundredth time. The water ripples and fades with a welcome hum, dissolving behind the image of two familiar faces I have missed. They are older now, like me, but there is an ease in the smiles that light their faces which I don't recall being there before, except perhaps at our parting on the brink of cataclysm.
"My friend," they say together, his gruff voice and her steady one.
Atrus continues, "I tried to return you to your proper place, for I never meant to entangle a stranger in our troubles. Such generosity I can never forget, nor ever repay, but at least I could restore you to your home. And yet--"
"You will visit us," Catherine says with amused certainty. "Atrus told me how you stumbled your way into our world, and with what stubbornness you sought the answers to Myst island until you found him. Such curiosity cannot be quenched by one world. Not for Atrus, and not for you."
Atrus exhales. "We are leaving Myst," he says quietly, the first hint of old burdens coming into his grave voice, "for the last time. I think perhaps you know why. After all that has happened, I must take precautions against visitors with less integrity than yours. It would be most prudent to burn every Linking Book from Myst to our new home, but I cannot take the risk of stranding a friend."
"The fireplace," Catheine continues with a meaningful look. She pauses, and her image grows larger as she leans towards the imager. "Two letters, the beginning of words. One, your name. The other, the first word we will say to you, if ever, dear friend, you come to us again."
I let go the breath I have been holding, staring fixedly at the rippling blue-green water long after their images fade. Then, almost mechanically, I cross over to the panel to erase the message, and trudge upstairs into open air.
Snagging my backpack this time, I ponder all the way back to the library. A word. A word.
What would I say to them, if I ever saw them?
"Why did you send me away?"
"There was never time to talk! You were so busy, and then I had to leave!"
"Teach me D'ni. I want to learn everything."
"Are you happy now? Have you finally found peace?"
Smiling suddenly, I duck into the library's dimness and the shadows of the fireplace itself. In my overzealous eagerness for metaphor, I have left behind all sorts of things. One of them is a flashlight.
Laughing at myself now, half nervously, half in anticipation, I make one more trek to the turbulence pool room to pry loose and retrieve a fire-marble. Then I squeeze into the fireplace, racking my brains to remember the D'ni alphabet.
One letter. The second. It takes me some while to find the proper way to fit elegant D'ni characters to the grid, and still longer to realize that they used English for my name, and D'ni only for the second word. But at last a soft click tells me I have found the right letters. The fireplace begins to turn with a grating sound of protesting gears that have not budged in many years.
The book in the alcove is a reddish-brown, flecked with what looks like bits of pyrite. Tomahna, I read upon the cover. What does that mean? I open the book eagerly, nearly jogging it from its podium in my haste to see what the gateway image holds.
It is the red, deeply-cloven canyon country which I glimpsed in the imager by the dock. The view in the window heaves up at a steep slant, and -- how? I am looking over the shoulders of a brownish-red bird of prey, as it rides the thermals rising up from the stony spires.
I gather my nerves and again force myself to fling my hand into the abyss, so that my body may follow.
My feet find a floor on the other side of the darkness. Drystone walls of a cabin enfold me.
What on Earth? Not Earth, I reminded myself. Never again. I stand in a spare but clean room, large enough to hold comfortably a small bed, a desk, a few books on a wall-shelf, a washbasin on a stand with piping connecting it to the wall, and a bowl of dried fruits and meat, covered over by a silk scrap of cloth.
Deep windows covered in pale greenish-blue glass and shuttered from a bright sun cover three walls; the fourth has a metal door. I hasten towards it, turn the handle, and step out onto a parapet.
And press my back against the doorpost. There is no railing, and the hut is perched uopn one of the many incredibly high spires of red stone, pared away by wind and time to a thin needle of rock. Hugging the walls of the small structure, I circle my way around the narrow space, but there is no ladder down, no bridge anywhere to be seen. Finally, some ten yards away, I spot the faint scars of cut stone on a nearby cliff wall, steps starting parallel to the parapet and climbing up, over the lip, and out of sight. Fixing my eyes on the base of the crude staircase, I notice a hoizontal gash in the rockface just under them, and the glint of metal. A retracted bridge? But how do I use it from here?
I return to the hut to search it more carefully for clues. There is just one, a yellowed scrap of paper lying on the desk. On it is a crude drawing of a wahrk, probably made by a child's hand. It is depicted with its jaws open, tusks thrust forward, with wavy lines behind it as if to indicate that it is swimming ahead. This alone helps little, however, until I find the secret catch under the lefthand side of the desk, which causes a flat hidden drawer to pop out from underneath. Inside the drawer is a strange device which I set to work analyzing at once.
The metal panel set into the wood is a sort of pegboard, its small holes arranged in a grid pattern. In the drawer with it are a number of long, thin wooden pieces, curved or straight, painted different colors, each backed by several small posts that fit the holes perfectly. I fiddle with the puzzle fruitlessly for a long while until I remember the child's drawing and, sifting through the parts, find just the right curves and straight lines to form a D'ni symbol for "red". As I click the last segment into place, the stone walls of the cabin ring with a sweet-sounding gong that reverberates all up and down the canyon.
But nothing else happens. The bridge, if that is what it is, has not moved, when I go outside to inspect it.
What have I done wrong?
After another hour or more of discouraged searching, I pick up The Book of Ti'ana: Tales of the Storyteller. Most of the volumes on the shelf are written in English, I notice tiredly. Time to curl up on the bed and rest and clear my mind.
I never meant to fall asleep, but adrenalin can only last so long. I am roused by a strong but gentle hand shaking my shoulder lightly. I open my eyes, groggy and confused in a strange bed, a strange world. Anyone who didn't recognize them for what they were might have been frightened by the cloaked figure looming over me, eyes concealed behind strange goggles. But this is what I most hoped to see. Relief floods my face as I grasp his hands.
"Shorah," Atrus wishes me warmly, "old friend."
He insists on carrying my pack as he leads me outside. Sunset is painting the rocks more vividly than ever as he guides me with obvious care across the bridge and up the climbing path. He speaks to me quietly as we travel, telling me a small fraction of what my heart is bursting to know. I was expected, and the last device was a signal to call him, if he were anywhere on Tomahna. Catherine is waiting for us with their new daughter in their home up on the cliffs above. Atrus has found many D'ni survivors and written a new Age for them, which he immediately invites me to explore first thing tomorrow if I am up to more travel. Busy as always, he apologetically excuses himself from tonight's meal for the sake of an errand, but he will leave me in Catherine's capable hands, and return for me in the morning. I will be their welcomed guest for as long as I wish. And this time, there will be no overhanging danger, no riddles, no quest. This time, there will be time to ask all the questions and hear all the answers, and I am not the stranger, but an old friend coming to stay.