You are back in Tomahna, and it is quiet. Not that Releeshahn isn’t capable of being peaceful in its own way, but the past couple of weeks you spent there were a blur of meeting new people and getting swept up in the chaos of a society rebuilding itself. Back in the early evening warmth of the desert air, you enjoy the view in the company of just two people, both silent—Yeesha because she is asleep in her mother’s arms; Catherine, making the most of her moment of respite to doze off in her chair.
You’re quite content to let her continue—you are no stranger to solitude when it comes to the domains of Atrus and his family, after all—but she presently cracks an eye open to glance over to you. “Atrus will be along in a minute, I promise. He came up with a few more last-minute things he wanted to pack. You know what he’s like.”
You do. And yet, oddly, you don’t. In the time you’ve known him, you haven’t actually spent much time in each other’s company. You give Catherine a reassuring smile and cast your eyes back up to the sky to consider the occasions: there were those few days on K’veer, Atrus desperately glad for human company and yet deeply consumed in his work. You’d spent brief snatches of time checking in and discussing the Ages you’d visited, those strange worlds he’d written a way into and the journals he’d kept on them. And then you went off to Riven for him, and only glimpsed him again briefly before the stars swallowed you up and brought you home.
You’d kept the Myst Linking Book beneath your bed for years after that, sometimes taking it out but never daring to touch the whirling panel inside without a way back. That book, with its heavy cover and strange hand-written script, had been your only memento of the entire saga, proof of it not being a feverish dreamscape of your own mind’s creation—until one day you received a letter out of the blue, deeply cryptic and rather terse. It had been from Atrus, and somehow you’d known it the moment you unfolded the paper. But he still led you on a merry chase of confirming your identity through your knowledge of Myst and its Ages before you were able to establish a regular correspondence—a caution that was, perhaps, justified. Especially with what happened when finally you made arrangements to visit his home which was, beyond reason or hope, hidden away in your own world, and instead got flung into a set of old lesson Ages in pursuit of Saavedro. After that, you had finally joined Atrus on a trip to Releeshahn, and began to get to know him as a friend, though you shared his attention throughout that time with an entire people still looking to him for his expertise and guidance at all times of the day or night.
Now, finally, the two of you are going on a trip alone, and the thought inspires both relief and trepidation. Perhaps the true test of your friendship won’t be the life-or-death scenarios you’ve worked through, but rather spending two nights out camping with none but the other for company. He’s not even told you where you’re going yet.
Thankfully, you are not left with your thoughts long enough to become plagued by doubt. Atrus arrives at last, a bashful smile behind his round glasses and a long oilskin coat over the shirt and waistcoat he favours. “My friend!” he greets you—the epithet he gave you when you first met, and that you have never given him reason to change. “So sorry to keep you waiting. There may well be rain, so I thought I’d bring more waterproofing, just in case.”
You cock your head at him, acknowledging the clue—wherever you’re going, it’s not the New Mexico desert. His eyes crinkle in amusement, then he turns to Catherine. “Are you sure you’ll be all right? I know it’s just a day or two—”
“I’ll be fine,” Catherine insists quietly, getting to her feet carefully so as not to disturb Yeesha. “Honestly. If I need any help, I’ll link to Releeshahn. Now go. Go on! Have fun!” She flaps a hand at him, and at you, and shoos you both into Atrus’ study, where he bundles one or two more items into a pair of packed bags. The room is mostly cleaned up now, all burnt debris removed and the remaining furniture intact, if a little scorched and soot-stained. Atrus glances around, hands on his hips.
“I, uh…” He pauses for words a moment while he bends down and unlocks one of the drawers of his desk, which had managed to escape mostly unscathed. “I wanted to thank you properly, for everything from ten years ago and now, I suppose, for the rescue of Releeshahn itself too, so… Well, take a look at this.” He takes out a book, and places it on his desk. It’s a weighty thing, not quite the tome that Releeshahn is, but you recognize it as a Book all the same. His hand lingers on it, almost fond. “While I was writing Releeshahn,” he explains, “I needed to be deliberate, precise, more so than I ever usually am when writing an Age. An entire civilisation was depending on me. I couldn’t afford to be… playful, or experimental. But the urge sometimes comes, you know, to break things up, try new things. I wrote this”—he holds up the book, with some amount of pride—“alongside those last stages of writing Releeshahn. Remember the letter I sent, when I asked you about geographical features you’d noticed in your travels?”
You do remember. It was both an odd yet amusingly familiar question to receive from him, reminding you of those days you’d spent in K’veer giving your impressions of the Channelwood trees, or the strangely compelling desolation of the Selenitic Age. You barely remember why, but you’d ended up writing back about cliffs—rock faces you’d seen while out among the sandstone bluffs, waterfalls you’d encountered as a child, the grey walls around the waters of Tay and your curiosity at what lay beyond them. “So… you were looking for inspiration, huh?”
He laughs. “Just a concept. Something to base the Age around. I… well, I remembered feeling rather useless back then, granting you use of the Myst library you’d already mostly explored by yourself. I wanted to write something for you. Something I could show you, that we could explore together. I called it…” He chuckles. “I spent a while trying to come up with a meaningful title in D’ni, but then Catherine laughed at me and reminded me that it’s not even your language. I was overthinking things. In the end, I just called it Cliffside. I’ve not linked in yet, and I’m not entirely sure what we’ll find. Would you like to come with me?”
It’s for you. He’s written an Age for you, and an unexpected burst of emotion takes up residence in the back of your throat, moved at the gesture. Speechless, you hold out your hands, and he passes Cliffside to you. It is solid and heavy in your grasp, the cover a rich, mossy green, with a brown-gold spine and corners. The pages flow elegantly apart as you gently let it fall open, revealing the neat, flowing alien script within. You wonder what parts of the world the words describe as you flick through to the front and study the linking panel.
It’s not the spinning window into another world that you expect. The panel is dark—not quite black. There’s a rippling motion behind it, barely perceptible to the eye. You give Atrus a querying glance, and he takes the book, placing it still open upon his desktop.
“We can’t see inside, not yet,” he explains. “The link is only truly established when someone travels it for the first time. Now, it shouldn’t be dangerous,” he adds, handing you your bag and a Tomahna linking book in a protective pouch. “But we can link right back here if there’s trouble.”
You don a jacket, sling the bag over your shoulder, and grip the Tomahna book tightly to you. Atrus nods encouragingly, picking up his own luggage. “Go on,” he urges. “Whenever you’re ready. I’ll be right behind you.”
Though linking is familiar to you now, you feel the return of the thrill of anticipation you felt when you first saw the island of Myst, as if as a bird, wheeling beneath you as your fingers stretched out, almost of their own accord, to affirm what you were seeing. As before, you reach out to touch the hole in the world. As before, your stomach lurches as Tomahna vanishes from around you.
Perhaps it is an illusion brought about by your own excitement, but the journey of a moment seems to last a little longer this time. There is the briefest sense of great speed, of expansiveness, of a million worlds at once unfurling before you, overlaid upon each other like the infinitely thin pages of an infinitely deep book. And then there is a feeling like a snap, or a thud, as something settles, and then everything does, and existence around you returns in a throbbing roar.
You are met immediately by a sheet of rain. It is not cold but it is heavy, and batters against you insistently as you close your arms around the Tomahna book you carry. You bow your head against it. There is rugged stone beneath your feet, smoothed by the water, and a little way to your right, roiling ocean waves send up spray into the air to join the descending rain. To your left, the cliff rises—you can barely see it through the rain save for the great grey shadow it makes, but you know it’s there and you start towards it in an instinctive hunt for shelter. The wind is gusty and irregular, and feels almost as if there are wingbeats within it. Moments later, you hear the linking roar once more as Atrus materialises behind you.
“For the love of—” he begins and doesn’t quite manage to finish, as surprised as you are by the torrential welcome. He catches up to you quickly, a brief hand on the shoulder letting you know that he’s there. “There’ll be cover up at the cliff!” he calls over the rain, joining you in your hurried scramble up the slight incline of the rock where you landed. The ground is uneven underfoot, each step threatening a stumble or a twisted ankle. For a minute it is just laboured breathing from the pair of you mixed with the rush of the rain and the pounding of the gusts—then a brief cry from Atrus as he slips. He throws out his arms, rights himself, but the Tomahna book flies from his grasp, skittering back down the slope. Atrus curses softly and makes to go after it, but as he does so you hear it again, and this time you’re certain—wingbeats on the wind. You take his arm to halt him, and as you do, a great shape passes over your heads and descends upon the book, snatching it up in its—talons? Paws? You only have the briefest glimpse before it wheels upwards with a hooting cry of victory. The two of you squint after it, trying to follow its trajectory, but it is soon swallowed up by the mass of rain. You hear a second call from somewhere on the cliff itself and a scuffling noise that may be the creature landing. The rain does not reveal further secrets though, and after a moment Atrus puts an arm around your shoulders and you help each other the last bit of the way to the cliff proper.
You’d hoped to find a cave or something if you walked far enough alongside it, but what you find instead is a little more than you expected. The entire base of the cliff is a veritable honeycomb of cavities and pillars, going some yards back into the rock. The way the ground slopes downwards from the outside means that the inside is quite acceptably dry, and it is easy to find a space large enough to accommodate the two of you setting up tents and spreading out your things to dry with the help of a small fire-marble-powered stove. It can’t have been more than a couple of minutes between linking in and reaching the cliff, but it left you sodden, and even with the valiant effort of your bags, your possessions are still slightly damp. Thankfully, your Tomanha linking book was well-protected, and hopefully that means Atrus’ is as well, wherever it might be now. Atrus is clearly thinking about the same thing, and he glances at the book with a thoughtful frown.
“I was careless. We’ll have to try to find mine, once the rain stops,” he says. “If there are living things in this Age, I don’t feel comfortable leaving an unprotected linking book out here.” He sighs, then gives you a bright smile despite it. “Well, we made it, my friend! I can assure you, this is not the worst complication I’ve encountered upon linking into an Age for the first time. Though it’s a good job I packed all that waterproofing.”
“I don’t suppose having rain on the mind when we linked in had any effect on where we ended up, did it?” you ask, looking out to where the weather seems to form a shimmering sheet at the entrance to the caves. You’re only half-joking.
Atrus gives a quiet laugh. “I’m rather quick to dismiss such thoughts as superstition,” he replies, “but then, we know so little about how a link is established to one Age over another just like it, that for all I know, it could have been a factor. In which case, I apologise for bringing it up—perhaps we should have packed parasols instead.” He gives a humorous grimace and you laugh, put at ease.
A memory of Atrus’ writing comes to mind. “It reminds me of your Stoneship journal,” you tell him. “You said that it rained for the first time when you linked in.”
“I did,” he agrees, scrubbing a hand over his beard. His face turns thoughtful, though he doesn’t elaborate right at this moment.
Atrus decides to settle in and wait out the storm, taking out a journal from his bag and beginning almost immediately to write, brow knitted in concentration and glancing up and around him every now and again to make observations before noting them down. It’s charming to see, though you’re still wet and on a whim you decide to make the most of it before drying off. You head back out into the rain.
Without carrying anything you need to protect this time, you spread your arms and allow yourself to stop caring and just look around. The visibility is still poor, but it isn’t particularly dark—though it seems like it may be getting darker, as if you'd linked in towards late afternoon, and the sun is beginning to set. The beast that carried away the book didn’t look big enough to do the same to a human, but you still keep an eye out as you take yourself back down to the sea’s edge, and you can still hear their wings on the air every now and again. The rocky shore, extending out from the cliff much further than you’d expect, is dotted with pools and studded with little clinging plants, which you spend a few minutes examining. And then you turn and return to the cliff itself, and look up.
Above the base perforated by holes and cavities, the entire cliff is covered in vegetation—a forest on its side extending higher than you can make out through the rain. It begins with small shrubs and ferns, their long, branching fronds hanging downwards like a green curtain, and as your gaze rises the plants grow steadily larger, layered by altitude, through wide, tangle-limbed bushes to sprawling trees laced with vines, the wide stretch of their branches letting sunlight into the levels below—or in this case, rain. As you look higher still, it becomes hard to determine where the cliff ends and the enormous outstretched canopy begins.
Upon examination, the cacophony of sound begins to resolve itself as well—beneath the white noise rush of rain, and the pulse of what you now know for sure are wingbeats amongst the gusts of wind, you can hear animal chattering and the rattle of branches and leaves as unseen creatures move through the forest. You watch for a while, trying in vain to make out exactly what is making its way through the wall of greenery, until all of a sudden you become aware of yourself, standing motionless in the pouring rain, staring upwards and putting a crick in your neck. You drop your gaze sharply back to the cave to catch Atrus watching you, charmed. He gives you a quick smile as you catch his gaze, and returns to his writing.
You decide then that you’ve had enough of the rain, and return to shelter, pattering a little way into the honeycomb to towel off and change into dry clothes. Once you return, and lay out your wet things to dry, Atrus beckons you over. There’s a pot of stew heating up on the stove, and some bread keeping warm at the side, and while it cooks he asks you about what you saw, taking notes in his journal. You watch him write, and he does so unselfconsciously, that familiar looping script as much of how you know him as through face-to-face encounters; Atrus as happy to share their contents with you as to have a spoken conversation. It’s odd—you’d always thought of journaling as some very personal activity, but Atrus is always handing you journals of his to read, doling out parcels of his inner world like gifts. Or maybe he just trusts you that much.
You noticed that he’s recorded details that hadn’t yet caught your eye—like the varying hardness of the rock that led to the formation of these caves, and speculations about the properties of the tides and the composition of the rain.
"I was thinking about using this space to write a linking-in point," he explains as he writes. "But until I understand more about how these caves were eroded, I'm not sure I'd be confident of its long-term stability."
"Are you sure we're not concerned about its short-term stability?" you ask, dry with humour but all at once aware of the vast weight of rock and forest above your heads.
Atrus laughs. “You’re not wrong to ask it. I’m certain it’s more than safe for staying a night or two, but we should know the height of the highest tide, or whether other creatures sometimes use these caves, before trying to set up anything more enduring.”
“Why don’t you know it already?” you ask. “Are these details that don’t get written in?”
“Well, in this case they weren’t. It’s to do with how I wrote this Age in particular,” he explains. “My usual process is to write from the bottom up, so to speak—starting from the fundamentals and building on them. I write materials and processes, and work up to what they come together to form. And often what they form—or what forms on top of them—surprises me. But this time… I discovered quite quickly that that method wasn’t working for this one. I had a clear vision, yet the underlying principles were a mystery to me. I began writing from the outside in. A lot more like how Catherine writes. Not a wrong way to write,” he adds hastily, perhaps a reminder to himself as much as an aside to you. “Just different.”
He closes the journal and gets to his feet, pacing the cave as he speaks, animated with enthusiasm. “When you start with that kind of holistic, birds-eye view, what flows down are implications. If you write in a cliff, its very presence implies a long history of erosion, tectonics—maybe even construction or demolition. I wrote in stable shelter at the bottom of the cliff, and only discovered the reason for it now to be these veins of hard rock that make up the supportive columns.”
“Did you write in a way up?”
Atrus gestures vaguely towards the roof of the cave. “I tried to write the Age in a way that implied transport between the layers of the forest. It really should have occurred to me that the most likely form it would take is flight.” You fight back a sound of amusement, but he nods in agreement. “Yes, well, I’m always learning, even now. There could still be a route out there that we could take, though it’ll be hard to search for one in this weather.”
You turn your gazes to the mouth of the cave—the outside has darkened to a slaty grey dusk, and the rain is as insistent as ever. You share a glance of wordless agreement that you will not be going out any time soon.
“Could you write in a way up now?” you ask. “I remember from Stoneship that it’s not as simple as just writing it in…” You remember the surprise in his journal at the unexpected result of his experiment. But then, you also remember his swift and urgent writing into Riven, knitting something new into the very fabric of that world to hold it together.
“It’s true, that’s certainly something I could try. You’re right, though, it’s a little more subtle than declaring that a ship is suddenly present.”
“How does that work, anyway?” you ask. “It didn’t work how you expected, but something still appeared overnight, somehow. How is that possible, if writing is just an act of linking, and not creation itself?” Atrus hasn’t told you much of the details of the Art, but he has stressed that much, as if it were the most important principle there was to know. The Great Tree of Possibilities, he had called it, the act of writing like tying a string from one branch to another.
He returns to the metaphor as he gives his answer. “When we linked in, the book fixed upon a single branch of the vast infinity of branches in the Great Tree of Possibilities. But we shouldn’t consider ourselves on the end of that branch. As time itself passes, every moment that could play out a different way splits ever more branches off into the future of this Age. From a raindrop hitting a leaf just so, to an animal keeping its grip or losing it, to the decisions that we here make from this moment on. From this Age alone, the future is its own infinity of branches. And so, the trick to writing something into an Age is to set it upon a future branch in which, no matter how improbable it may be, the thing you want to see happens. And suddenly giant daggers fall from space and embed themselves into the earth. In the Ages where these things happen, it isn’t impossible, just vanishingly improbable—but with careful writing, you can choose that improbable future for this instance of the Age.”
“As long as it is somehow feasibly possible?”
“Right—as long as it doesn’t contradict something already written. If done carelessly, if by trying to add something you introduce contradictions, that’s when you’ll start to make an Age unstable, or even shift the link to a version of the Age different from the one you started with.” Atrus sighs and runs his fingers absently over his hair. “Catherine has a better grasp of this than I do. But I’m trying to learn. The rules of the Art taught by the D’ni are only one approach. They don’t encompass everything that is possible. But experimentation must be done with care. Actually…”
A thought occurs to him, and he digs a piece of chalk out of one of his pockets, sketching an outline onto one of the wider stone columns available. It doesn’t take you long to recognise the shape. “Myst Island.”
Atrus nods, and continues sketching. “With some of those earlier Ages I wrote from Myst, this is what I was doing—trying to answer the question of why, when we write, we link to one Age and not another.” He changes the chalk for a stick of another shade, and his sketch becomes more complex, adding layers and structures to the island that you don’t recognise at first, until the crescent of an impact crater takes shape and suddenly you see it—the halves of a broken ship, walkways between trees, the crater lake, the rocky base of a mechanical fortress, all overlaid upon the same island. “Those Ages—Stoneship, Channelwood, Selenitic… they were all explorations of places that were like Myst, and yet not. Mysts from other times, under different conditions. What if the island sank and all that was left were the trees? Or just the rocky hilltop, surrounded by ocean? I kept so many of the fundamentals the same and carefully controlled the things I changed. And yet, each island was an entirely different place with its own history. No matter the superficial similarities, there was no connection between them beyond the fact that they were all described by me, in a search for commonality.”
He sits back down, his demeanour somewhere between fond and melancholy. “I didn’t find out exactly what I wanted to, but I learned much more in the process. I learned what I could control with the Art and what I couldn’t, and how to find ways to work within those constraints. How to set an Age upon a path of stability, and how to reinforce it against unwelcome futures.”
“So… writing in a change to an Age has repercussions for its future… out of a whole host of possible futures.” You pause as you try to wrap your head around it. Changes bring implications with them, and your mind goes back to Stoneship—what did it imply about the nature of the world that the ship merged with the rocks as it did? What kind of a future did that simple yet strange change set the Age careening towards?
“Well… everything we do anywhere will affect the future of wherever we are,” Atrus says. “That’s just the effect of making choices. It’s just that, when it comes to the Art, our choices hold sway over a lot more than most.”
You nod, but your mind is spinning. It seems too much, too big a choice—the workings of a world far too large a responsibility for one person to have. But then, if it were true that every moment, every permutation, every choice branched out into endless possibilities, then what would it really mean to pick one branch over another? Somewhere on another branch of reality, perhaps you made a different choice—favoured red pages or blue ones, failed to confront or to rescue Saavedro, and whatever calamity would have occurred after has already occurred in another luckless world. What does it mean for the person you are if for every decision you’ve made to get where you are today, some other version of you has made a different choice?
Perhaps Atrus notices that the thought troubles you, because he pats your shoulder before beginning to dole out food. “Don’t dwell on it too much. Here, let’s have something to eat, then I’ll link back to Tomahna and see if I can’t do something helpful. I don’t need to transform the face of the Age—just stopping the rain for a time will be enough. I’m sure Catherine will also have useful thoughts on the matter to contribute.”
You eat dinner in easy companionship, your conversation shifting to lighter matters—things you remember of the Myst Ages and the lesson Ages, your impressions of Releeshahn. Atrus tells you stories of his family, and while the legacies of his father and sons hang heavy upon him, he doesn’t hesitate to mention Sirrus and Achenar. You get the sense that he’s proud of them, even now—of the boys they were, if not the men they became. Once you finish eating, and place your bowls outside to wash in the rain, you agree on a plan—Atrus will link back to Tomahna using the book he gave you to make the required changes to the Age, while you stay and mind the camp, though you can always link back yourself if there’s trouble.
“I expect I shan’t be too long,” Atrus says, donning his coat, “but don’t feel obliged to wait up either. I’ll see you soon.” And then he vanishes with a sound like the branch of a great tree, groaning in the wind as its leaves rustle around it. It sends a shiver through you, even now.
Night has well and truly fallen outside, the rain as heavy as ever, so instead you decide to explore by traversing the cave. You take a lantern with you, and the Tomahna book under one arm, and pick your way along the cliff’s edge from beneath, enough space between the veins of harder rock that you can do so easily, like moving from room to room inside one improbably long house.
You travel what feels to be about half a mile before you turn back. The shape of the caves is much the same the whole way, with some variation in how far back into the rock they extend. They are quiet, but not lifeless—you stumbled across a few small, scurrying lizards along your way, and what were possibly the footprints of a larger creature made in a damper ground some time ago. Outside, there is still the occasional flurry of wingbeats.
You’re about halfway back to the camp when you notice the light. It’s tucked around a corner so you didn’t notice it the first time, but there’s a part of the cavern that goes a little further back than the rest, and in the wall is a glowing crystal. You can’t help but laugh to yourself as you approach to examine it—it’s the first thing you’ve seen here that instantly reminds you that Atrus wrote this place—a signature in luminous pale blue-green, like those you saw in Amateria. At first, it looks like it is embedded in the wall naturally, like some sort of vein emerging from the rock. But it comes free in your hands easily, and then you spot another, also around shoulder height, and another further in. You follow the lights back further than you thought the caves would go, until you stop short in surprise.
Before you is a door, made of rough wooden planks bolted together. There is enough space in the gaps to peer through and see a kind of chimney beyond—a cavity extending upwards beyond your sight, with rough hewn steps spiralling up its walls, all lit by the same eerie blue-green glow.
You find yourself backing away from the door, your heart thundering in your chest. At first, you’re not even sure you know why you’re scared, but it comes to you that, whoever the people are that make their home here, they will have never met an outsider like you before—an intruder from another world who had appeared out of thin air. Logically, you know that Atrus must have had first encounters like this many times before, explaining himself to new people, learning language and making friends. Irrevocably changing the course of lives, of whole civilisations. You don’t know how you would even begin. You don’t even know if you should.
Somehow, you make it back to camp before you wholly realise you’ve done so. You’re rattled, and all you can think to do is to retreat into your tent and crawl into your blankets, trying to think through your dilemma. Outside, the rain has stopped, almost without you noticing—the relentless battering has transitioned to a gentle shower of drops still falling from the forest above. After a little while, you hear the sound of Atrus returning, a soft laugh making its way up to the cave as he appreciates his handiwork. You peer from the mouth of your tent to bid him welcome back and good night. He’s pleased to see you well after his absence, and promises to explain everything in the morning. You lie back with the crystal still in one hand, and your sleep is restless and troubled.
You wake with sunlight streaming into your camp. You rise to find Atrus already awake and outside, looking out over the sea, the edge of which is still a fair way down the slope from the caves.
“Look at this!” he calls as he sees you emerge. You join him on the rocks and he points out to the horizon. “Over there—see the setting moon?” You do—it is half lit and quite small, even as close to the surface of the sea as it appears. Atrus then turns to point to the top of the cliff, some way down the coast. You can see the top now, with the rain gone, and for a moment you think he means the gigantic tree stretching its branches wide over the forest below it, so large that it almost breaks your sense of scale. And then you see it—a second moon, a yellow crescent nestled in the teal-grey of its branches and slowly rising.
“It’s the tides!” Atrus explains excitedly. “With the moons as they are, misaligned, the tides are chaotic but not very extreme. It’s when they line up that the tide is at its highest.”
“Ah, and that’s when the water is high enough to reach the cliffs! Amazing.”
“I didn’t even write them in, you know. They just result from bringing explanation to what I did write. I suppose it rules the caves out as a linking chamber—the shore as well, in the long term, though in the meantime all we’ll need to do is keep track of the moon phases to know when it’s safe to link in.”
You grin, delighted at a mystery solved. “How was last night?”
Atrus chuckles. “Catherine wasn’t all too impressed at first, to see me come back by myself. But we talked it over, and came up with a nice way to define the weather system…” He launches into an explanation of how the Art can influence climates, which lasts you through a quick breakfast and most of the way into striking camp. “What about you?” he asks finally. “I’m sorry to have left you alone all evening—I hope it wasn’t too dull for you.”
You shake your head, and pull the crystal you found out of your pocket. “I found this.”
“Ah! Remarkable. I wasn’t sure whether we were going to encounter any,” he says, confirming your suspicion that it was something he’d put in deliberately. “Where did you find it, can you show me?”
An odd reluctance grips you, and you close your hand around the crystal. “It’s a fair way along,” you tell him. “It’ll still be there later. We should focus on finding that Tomahna book first.”
“Right, of course, you’re right.” He agrees with you instantly, and you try not to feel guilty about it.
You sit outside a while, watching the forest for flying things. There aren’t very many of them, but they are out and active under the morning sun, launching themselves from somewhere in the canopy into lower regions of the forest, or out over the sea, or sometimes to circle the two of you, hooting to each other. You’re fairly sure that they’re not birds, maybe something more akin to bats, with a wingspan the size of your outstretched arms. After a while, you and Atrus agree on a most likely site that the book would have landed in—a set of branches in one of the trees about three-quarters of the way up with a curving shape to them, and in which the creatures seem to have constructed a nest, or at least a kind of gathering space used for launching and landing. Now all you need to do is find a way up—again you think of the steps you saw last night, and wonder if you should stop worrying and mention them.
Before you can do so, Atrus takes out a tool from his bag, unpacking it into something like a crossbow covered in gears. He picks out a sturdy-looking limb of a bush a little way up and fires up a rope, its weighted end wrapping around the branch and locking in place by way of small hooks that snap out upon impact. The crossbow part becomes a kind of automated pulley mechanism that climbs the rope—the two of you bolt onto it, and while it could theoretically pull you both straight up, you simply allow it to assist you as it pulls your baggage up behind you. You scramble up one of the columns at the foot of the cliff and begin to climb it in earnest.
The forest looked at first like it would be a challenge to climb through, but you quickly find that the cracking and splintering of the rock offers plentiful footholds, and even the smaller plants lower down have tough root bases that are easy to grip. Hand over hand you climb, and your secret falls behind you, left behind like so many other places have been left behind by Atrus over the years. The view from above will hide it, and perhaps that is for the best.
You make it up to your first waypoint with ease, and you both sit in the bush and rest while Atrus resets his climbing device. Everything is still a little damp around you. You notice the trickling sound of water, and look around for its source until you realise that you’re not hearing a single stream, but rather the drip of tiny rivulets making their way down the leaves themselves. Many of the plants here have leaves like U-shaped slides, collecting water and directing it down to roots below—often not even of the same plant but the ones beneath, everything that grows watered by its higher neighbour. Other plants have leaves like bowls, with water gathered inside and drunk from by insects and tiny crawling animals. As Atrus picks a new anchor and you ascend once more, you begin to pass through draping vines, trickles of water spiralling down their surface from levels far higher up. Vibrant flowers in vivid yellows and pinks bloom from large bushes and the ivy-like climbers draped around their branches, with bat-winged creatures as small as hummingbirds flitting between them to drink from using long, anteater-like snouts, whistling to each other as they go.
Every part of this forest seems to be cared for and supported by another. “This Age is a generous world,” you comment as you climb. You remember then that Atrus had you in mind while writing this Age, and wonder what the nature of this place says about the way he sees you. For his part, Atrus doesn’t respond, but he looks happy—as happy as you have ever seen him.
That happiness is exceeded only by the delight in his voice after he reaches the latest anchor branch a little ahead of you and hauls himself up onto a rocky ledge just above it. “Oh! Oh, I’ve found something amazing. Come on up, you need to see this!”
You pull yourself up after him and shake out your arms. Atrus is over at one end of the ledge, examining something in the wall of the cliff embedded within a thick tapestry of moss studded with flowers. At first it just looks like a small outcrop of rock, but then Atrus takes hold of it and pulls it downwards like a lever. With a rustle, a rope bridge that was hidden amongst the hanging plant matter unfolds from the wall, wooden slats unfolding and snapping into place, leading to another ledge further up and along, which you would have hardly noticed were it not for the path that has appeared in front of you.
It shouldn’t be possible for your heart to leap in wonder and sink at the same time, but nevertheless, that is what happens. Atrus is only barely watching for your reaction, intrigued by the mechanism of the bridge and talking excitedly. “You can’t predict, exactly, whether an Age will be inhabited by people ahead of time, but I wrote this Age to be hospitable and I certainly hoped it would be. And look! We found them! It’s somewhat off our route, but maybe they’ll be able to help us with an easier way to get to the book.”
He begins to coil up the rope and unbuckle himself from the mechanism as you process this latest development with a sense of defeat. Your trying to hide the presence of people here was meaningless—he was always going to be looking out for them. Not finding evidence of human inhabitants might even have been disappointing to him. But you remember Narayan. How a precarious Age was very nearly ruined by the machinations of invaders. Saavedro’s anguish is fresh in your mind, and where he placed the blame—not on the invaders themselves, but the one who had built the bridge in the first place, and then abandoned it.
“Atrus, wait.” He looks up at you, querying. You inhale and pause, trying to find the words to explain your misgivings. “Look… once we make contact, there’s no going back. Maybe we shouldn’t—maybe we should just find the book and leave quietly.”
He smiles, reassuring. “I don’t think you have to worry. I wrote this Age to be a welcoming one—if a civilisation has developed here, then I’m sure its people would be welcoming too. I wanted that for you. The Ages you found yourself in were so often empty and inhospitable—I wanted you to have company.”
“Don’t you know what that sounds like?” You’re baffled by how much his response misses the point, and maybe a little angry. “You can’t just… gift me a civilisation of people. You don’t have the right—no one does! And whoever these people are, whatever they’re like… we would irreversibly change their society, just by arriving and explaining what we’re looking for. Think of Narayan! That’s… that’s so much responsibility, Atrus. It’s too much.”
Atrus is still for a long moment, surprised and perhaps more than a little hurt. You’ve thrown ice water on his enthusiasm. The silence hangs awkwardly between the two of you enough to become uncomfortable, before he nods. “All right,” he says quietly. “All right. We’ll stick to the original plan.” He pulls the lever again, and the bridge folds back into the cliff face, covered once more by the dense foliage. He squints upwards, studying the remainder of your route. “You know, I think if I can get something near that tree, we can climb the rest of the way in one leg, if you’re up for it.”
You nod your assent, and Atrus once more prepares his device. He aims it carefully through the thickening forest above you and the rope shoots upwards to wrap around the trunk of a smaller companion to the tree you’re heading towards, a little to one side but close enough that you’ll be able to climb up to the nest with ease. A few of the flying creatures jump into the air and scatter at the disturbance before wheeling back around to land nearby, examining the grip with a cautious curiosity. You clip yourselves in and climb.
Neither of you speak during this leg of the ascent, giving yourselves a chance to cool off and focus on the climb instead. At this point, you are no so much climbing the wall of the cliff as the vegetation itself—all gnarly, twisting bush branches interspersed amongst actual trees, their trunks extending horizontally from the wall like outstretched arms, their branches splaying out behind your backs like open palms. Your progress is a little more ungainly, but it’s easier to find perches to stop for breaks up here, and so you take your time, and continue to observe the world around you. More tiny bat-winged flyers live up here, as well as long, sinuous mammals like ferrets that scurry outwards along the trees as you pass by, watching your passage with round, orange eyes. They’re wary, but don’t seem to be afraid—perhaps humans are a common sight here. Perhaps they treat the world around them kindly.
It’s hard to tell the time, especially now that you’re deep in the forest and the light is obscured by an ever-growing density of leaves above and around you, but it appears that noon has come and passed by the time you reach the final anchor point. Atrus helps you up onto the anchor tree, and you find a thick net of tangled vines that will lead you up to your goal—the trunk of the tree containing the nest you saw from the ground. Now that you’re here, the trunk is even bigger than you realised and slightly elliptical as well. You’re both able to sit down on the rough bark of its flattened top surface, with so much space on either side of you that you have little fear of falling. Atrus ropes you both to one of the few branches near the base that reaches vertically upwards, and then you can relax. You lie back against the trunk, releasing the tension in your arms and shoulders, and watching the movement around you as you examine the large flying creatures closely for the first time.
Your guess was right that they are far more akin to bats than birds, with stretched skin wings and slightly crumpled dog-like faces, but now you can look at them properly you see that they are colourful creatures, with a short, deep red fur covering their bodies and bright yellow or green tufts of longer hair around their paws and behind their ears, giving the impression of tropical bird feathers. They hoot at each other as they come and go, staring intently at the strangers who have arrived in the tree they call home.
A little way out, the branches of the tree splay out into a rough bowl shape, filled in with a dense weave of vines and sticks to make a giant structure for which ‘nest’ seems too cheap a word. Within it are many smaller bowls and ledges and little nooks that wide-eyed faces peer out from, small piles of gathered fruits scattered around the sides amongst the empty skins of those already eaten. You notice a familiar angular shape and sit up straight, reaching out for Atrus’ arm as you excitedly point it out.
“Yes, I see it!” he whispers back, relieved.
The Tomahna book, still wrapped up in its protective cloth, is to one side of the nest, looking quite wet and like it was chewed on at least a little bit before being discarded. But there it lies, otherwise mostly intact. Atrus gets to his feet and adjusts the rope to give himself some more slack for movement. He reaches out a hand to you. “Pass me your book a moment, I want to try something.” You do so, and Atrus brandishes the package in front of him, showing it to the creatures.
“I need the book,” he says slowly, pointing first at the package he carries, then at the one in the nest. “The book.” He points between the two books a few more times, then hands yours back to you and slowly begins to advance along the tree trunk. There is a small amount of agitation from the creatures as he approaches, stopping and starting a few times to acclimatise them to his presence. He drops to a crouch as one or two fly close by to his head, maybe to discourage him from going any further. “The book,” he repeats gently, continuing to point at his target as he inches closer. “I’m just coming to get the book.”
By the time he reaches the edge of the nest, he is surrounded by a veritable chorus of hooting cries. Unsure of what to do, you reach into your pocket for the crystal. Maybe you could shout and get the creatures’ attention or throw it at them if you need to distract them from Atrus, who is slowly climbing into the bowl of the nest. And then something remarkable happens—one of the creatures, finally understanding what Atrus is indicating, scurries out and grabs the book in its mouth. You share a moment of panic with Atrus as you wonder what exactly it will do with the book, but it simply tugs the package from its resting place and moves it a foot or two towards Atrus before losing its nerve and dropping it, then scurrying back to safety. It’s enough for Atrus to stretch forward and catch the wrapping cloth in his fingers. He pulls the book towards him, then scoops it up into his arms and rises to his feet.
The animals chatter and skitter backwards a little. Atrus simply bows his head. “Thank you,” he tells them, with earnest gratitude, before turning and making his way carefully but quickly back to you. As he sits back down next to you, you release the breath you hadn’t quite realised you were holding. Atrus too gives a deep sigh. You give him a congratulatory clap on the shoulder, and he manages a chuckle of relief. He unfolds the protective wrapping, bringing out the Tomahna book to examine. The cover is a little dented where little teeth have pressed into it, and the edges of the pages didn’t quite escape the damp, but the book is amazingly intact for the journey it took. He opens it and flips to the linking panel—the New Mexico valley circles beneath it, sunny and intact and beautiful.
“Thank the Maker,” Atrus says quietly, closing it and rewrapping its cover. “I’ll need to check it properly when we get back, but it looks just fine.”
“First contact with a local population went well, huh,” you tell him wryly. “I guess I shouldn’t have worried.”
He chuckles at that, shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know. I was just waiting for one of them to knock me off the tree. I thought I might lose my glasses at one point…” He leans his head back, finally seems to relax. “Honestly, particularly early on, I didn’t give the dilemma much thought a lot of the time, simply because I would often link in somewhere and almost immediately run into people, and have to explain myself as a man who had appeared in their world from nowhere. You did mention responsibility, though.”
He swivels to face you, hands clasped in front of him over the book in his lap. “I felt like I had a responsibility to the people in the Ages I visited to introduce and explain myself as soon as I could. I was a visitor on their land, in their home. To sneak around without them knowing seemed wrong. Especially after Stoneship—it was then that I truly appreciated the change that can be wrought on an Age simply by establishing a link there. And that was just rain, easy enough to explain, but what other changes could I be inflicting upon an Age without knowing?”
You nod, seeing his point. “And you actively changed the weather here. That might not go unnoticed.”
“Right. I don’t believe I’ve ruined the climate or anything—I tried not to introduce too great an effect at all, but something may still have been irrevocably altered, and I should own up to that at some point.” He sighs, winces slightly. “You were right, though, to bring up Narayan. The responsibility to one Age doesn’t end when I write another. I should never have left that Age—any of my Ages—unvisited for so long. That in all of those places you went, putting aside Riven, you never met a single person save Saavedro—that was the fault of my own negligence.
“I kept telling myself that my primary responsibility was to refine my understanding of the Art. Especially lately, with the D’ni remnants counting on me. And if I’m to practice, I must write Ages. And the more Ages I write, the more worlds I should really be keeping an eye on.” He rubs his brow, and looks exhausted. “You’re right, it is too much, far too much for one person. This is part of what the D’ni Guild of Linguists did, you know—keep regular contact with the native inhabitants of Ages. Ah, maybe I should try to get some people involved next time I visit Releeshahn, do a proper job of it.” He scrubs a hand over his beard and his gaze is lost to the middle distance for a moment as he considers it.
You feel a little deflated, having heard Atrus’ perspective, though you’re glad to have had the conversation, and that he’s not angry at you for raising an objection. You’re not angry at him, either. For so long it was just him and his family, with a gift and capabilities far beyond the capacity of a handful of people to manage all the consequences of. Atrus probably understands that better than anyone. But then, it probably makes an outsider’s perspective all the more valuable to him too.
You turn the crystal around in your hand and give a shaky laugh. “I suppose it was pointless in the end. In another branch of the Great Tree of Possibilities, I didn’t raise a fuss. In another, I didn’t hide where this came from.” You hand him the crystal, and he takes it from you, mouth ajar as he puts the pieces together and doesn’t quite believe what he’s come up with. “I found it near a door, and stairs, in the base of the cliff while I was exploring last night. I’m sorry for not telling you.”
“Oh. Wow.” Atrus stares at the crystal, eyes wide and clearly at a loss for words. “I’m not… I don’t… ah. Thank you for telling me now.” He seems more impressed than annoyed at you for hiding it in the first place. “I honestly wouldn’t have suspected.” You know he wouldn’t. It’s one of the things you like about him—despite the problems his trusting nature has caused him, you have always appreciated his trust in you.
“Even if I’d managed to keep the secret in this branch, though, countless other instances of this civilisation would be encountering some kind of existential revelation right about now,” you muse. “There’s nothing I can do from here to help them. I… I don’t know what to do with that.”
Atrus is quiet for a while, his brow furrowed in thought. When he speaks, it is slowly and deliberately. “My friend,” he says firmly, “for that is what you are to me, no matter what. I wrote this Age the way I did because for the longest time all I had of you was a view from a distance. I just saw the kindness you had shown me and my family, with no demands of your own, or blame for the situation you found yourself in, which was entirely my own doing, if not at all intentional. I didn’t know where it came from, the fundamentals that it was drawn from—I couldn’t explain it, it was just there. Kindness. And that’s what I wanted to write—an Age that is kind, even if I didn’t entirely know what drives it.”
He gestures around himself a little sheepishly. “Maybe with mixed success,” he admits. “The torrential downpour wasn’t part of the plan. But returning to the matter of the Great Tree, I don’t think that I explained myself well. The branches of an Age’s future may be infinite, but there being infinite possibilities isn’t the same as there being every conceivable possibility. Some changes can’t be made without creating a contradiction, and maybe even breaking the link entirely.
“A part of me wants to believe that there are branches of the Tree in which my sons didn’t make the choices they did. Ones in which they embraced their responsibility, ones in which all those people in all those Ages didn’t suffer. But I don’t mean to say that your choices don’t have meaning. There are countless things that I am certain that no version of you would ever choose to do. It would contradict your very nature.” He returns the crystal to you, folding your hands around it and clasping them in his own. “Please believe me regarding this—whatever choice you make here, I am sure it will be a kind one.”
His faith in you is unshaken, and his words put you at ease. You feel a sense of peace as you give your answer. “We’ll visit the people of this Age, and tell them who we are. But… not yet. I want to take some time to think about it first. That’s what I choose.”
Atrus gives you a warm smile. “That sounds wise to me.”
You share lunch up there on the tree trunk, and leave a hunk of bread a little way along for the tree-bats, who slowly move closer over the course of your meal to nibble at it. When you finish up, Atrus gets to his feet and stretches, before peering up into the upper reaches of the forest, to the highest and largest tree level.
“I think one more climb can get us up to the roots,” he says, indicating where they emerge from the cliff in a thick tangle. Unlike the trees below that grow straight out from the cliff, this one grows upwards at a diagonal, reaching triumphantly into the sky. “From there, it looks like there are enough climbing plants on the tree itself that we can get up the trunk fairly easily, into the crown of the branches. It’ll be hard work, but I’m up for it if you are.”
You want to reach the top as dearly as he does, so you prepare for one more ascent. Atrus manages to get a clear shot to the roots from a little way out from the cliff face, but your climb itself is ever more chaotic as by now you both are dwarfed by the scale of the vegetation and find yourselves having to weave from side to side to follow the best course upwards. You spend the climb in happy chatter, sharing what you find on your way, and are joined by a few of the tree-bats that follow you up, commenting on your progress in a chorus of hoots and squeaks. Navigating up around the roots is its own challenge, but when you reach the top side of the trunk, the route that remains is a simple rugged staircase of rough bark and vines. You reach the crown thoroughly worn out but victorious, and rewarded by a clear view through the branches, which tower far above any other part of the forest that may conspire to block your vision.
You can see out across the sea, from where it laps against the shore a fair distance from the base of the cliff itself, to where it meets the horizon in a blue haze. Behind you, there isn’t the clifftop plateau you were expecting—rather, the land falls away almost immediately, not into a drop as sharp as the one you climbed, but into a massive crater bowl, covered in forest and disappearing into hazy cloud, shrouding the far side from view. The tree you stand in is one of a line at the very top of the visible world.
To each side of the tree, similar behemoths stand with sprawling reach, and yours is by no means the largest. A few trees along the crest of the cliff—perhaps nearly a mile away given the expanse of each one—is the largest of the lot that you can see, in whose branches you spied a moon nestling only hours ago. Now when you gaze across to it from a comparable height, you think you see what could be structures amongst the vast branches, tree houses linked by hanging bridges. Perhaps that is where the rope bridge route would have ended up taking you. Perhaps that is where you will go when you next come back.
“Maybe I’m just getting old,” Atrus says eventually, “but I rather think we’ve earned a proper night’s sleep in Tomahna rather than trying to camp again tonight. I’ve found somewhere we can leave a linking book where it won’t be found, at least for as long as it takes for us to establish contact properly and arrange for a linking chamber.” He shows you a large knothole in one of the branches, slightly covered by a fringe of fern leaves growing above it. Scraping out the leaf litter and debris from inside leaves a hollow large enough to leave a book, and sheltered enough for it not to get damaged by rain. You use the oilskin that your book was wrapped in to roughly line the hole, and place the book gently down inside.
It doesn’t seem likely that anyone regularly climbs up this far, or that they would spot this hole unless they were looking for it. But, you suppose, if a stranger should accidentally stumble upon it against all odds, it would be no worse than the eerie and wonderful things that happened to you when you first stumbled across a strange book, all those years ago. Some twists of fate are beyond your control.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Atrus tells you, as you look his way, ready to go. You stretch out your hand towards the familiar red desert haven, and as the forests of Cliffside fold away from around you, your mind is already swimming with what you might do when you return.