I fell, or floated, through the field of stars, for what might have been hours, or years, or centuries, or only minutes. With no way to measure the time, except the way the stars seemed to turn around me, I could not tell. It was beautiful, and mysterious-looking, beyond my imagination. Then, after who knows how long, everything went black, and I felt the by-now-familiar sensation of a Link.
When I opened my eyes, I lay beneath yet another blindingly-bright sky: this one totally cloudless, and almost colorless with the heat. I lay against a rock, in the shade of a hill of sandstone. There was nothing visible around me but the great rock, and a windless, soundless, motionless desert. At my side lay the telescope from Riven, and the skeleton, already half buried, of the Great Wahrk. Shame it had to die, with the rest of its world, but good riddance to anything Gehn thought useful.
I got up and looked around. At the foot of the hill was a road, with nobody and nothing on it. 'Still', I thought, 'if there's a road, people must be coming on it. Maybe someone can give me directions;–– wherever I am. Come to think of it, I still don't know if Myst and its linked Ages, and Riven and Tay and Age 233, are other worlds, somewhere out in space (which makes sense, given how I got here), or literally other Ages of our own world (which makes sense, because most of them are just like us in most things). I don't even know if I'm back in my own Age now. It'd be pure luck if I am, after falling anyhow through space'.
Keeping to the shade, I went around the great rock, and found (to my surprise) a passage of sorts into the side of it. I followed that passage, and found it had been inhabited: there were little miniature gardens in the walls, and several storerooms (empty now), and more chambers which might have been bedrooms, workrooms, and a library. All were empty of anything useful to me, except a small reservoir of water. The whole thing curved along, and slightly into the side of the hill. In some places, I had to take a dozen steps to cross the width of it; in others, I could touch both walls with hands held out at arms' length. Most of it was in the shade (some of it even underground), even in the hottest hours of the day. Every niche held a shelf, or a cabinet, or a patch of garden; every ledge was planed flat, for a table. There were odds and ends here and there, but for the most part the place had been ransacked. A long time ago, too, if I judged by the layers of dust.
After I'd explored the place from end to end, I realized where I was. This was the cleft, where Atrus was raised by his grandmother Ti'ana. Somehow I'd wound up right where the story began, before my time. I couldn't say why. Maybe Atrus was thinking of it when he let me fall into space? He'd taken everything to Myst when he left for the last time; but I could still see the frames which once held his instruments, and the shelves which once held beds and possessions; all empty now, and covered in dust. I wandered the place for some time, trying to match what I saw with what I'd imagined reading about it. One room must've been Atrus' first laboratory, where he spent his childhood studying the animals, vegetables, and minerals of the desert. Another could only have been his bedroom; and right opposite, Ti'ana's. Both were bare; but my memory and imagination supplied the rest: filled the whole place with images of a child Atrus running around, fiddling with his instruments, playing with his cat, or listening wide-eyed to his grandmother's stories. I could almost hear Ti'ana's soft voice, and Atrus' childish laughter. For that matter, I'd never heard the adult Atrus laugh, but I could fantasize, with a little imagination, what it must've sounded like, in happier days on Myst (and likely now, in D'ni, too): possibly a deep, rolling, jolly-old-man's laugh, which shook his whole stout frame and made everyone laugh along. It made me smile just to think of it.
It made me wonder, in a way, about the Atrus I knew. In his journals, he was always the eager explorer, in awe of his discoveries and always on the look-out for more; but at the same time, a meticulous planner, who left nothing to chance: a trait which sang out from everything he made on Myst, or any of his other Ages. (Ti'ana's tutelage again: the same delicate precision was written all over the remains of her furniture in the cleft, and more or less absent in the manner and style of Gehn. Good and evil in that family seemed always to skip alternate generations.) When we met, Atrus was a busy, but kindly old man, who said 'My friend' whenever he spoke (or wrote) to me, and generally treated me like one. I admit I was a little irritated when he offered me the Myst Library as a reward for rescuing him, because I'd been through most of it already; but the discovery of the Rime book made up for that. A technology powerful enough to control the polar aurora deserved nothing but respect; it was almost beyond belief.
Our last meeting was a different story. He was rather abrupt, and it hurt my feelings a little. None of the usual Hail-fellow-well-met from him; nothing but, "Where's Catherine?!", as if he expected me to signal him without finding her first. (Not that I could have done; she told me how to do it. Funny way of doing it, anyhow; like setting off an earthquake to alert someone watching a seismograph.) When she appeared behind him, he was back to his usual joyous self; but I still felt stung. Was it this same faux-callous manner that set his sons against him? (I don't suppose it upset Catherine herself at all; she had the same manner, too. Maybe that had something to do with it. I mean, if I came to either of them expecting to be praised, and got nothing but my next assignment, and found that upsetting, how much worse would it be for their own sons?) I say faux, because I know he cared. The problem was, he sometimes seemed not to, when showing he did would've been a big help. I spent a while thinking about this, between sips of water.
It must have been an hour or two later, I heard a sound which I thought I'd heard before, but couldn't quite remember. I looked outside; and it was a truck! A perfectly ordinary, modern truck! I was in my native Age after all! And none too far from civilization!
I ran down to the road and hailed the driver, who kindly pulled over for me. He was a middle-aged, dark-complected, dusty specimen; but to me, no sight could've been more beautiful.
He said: 'Need a lift?'.
I answered: 'Sure; if you're going my way. Where's the nearest town?'.
He said: 'Right where I'm going. Hop in'.
I hopped in, and he started off, and asked: 'What're you doing out here, alone, without a car, a hat, or boots, or any water?'.
I answered: 'Just got knocked out, somewhere else; and when I woke up, I was here. Couldn't say how. What's today's date, anyway?'.
He told me; and I was speechless. It was the same year I'd first gone to Myst, and only a few weeks later! The whole adventure had taken almost no time at all!
All I said was, 'I thought it'd been longer', and no more on that subject.
The rest of the way, I talked freely with the driver (Jeff Zandi was his name), and told him my name and where I'd come from, and as much as I could about Myst and all the rest, without revealing anything he wouldn't believe. (I still had my diary, and all the photos I'd taken, and a few of Atrus and Catherine's journals and letters, so I could assure myself it wasn't all a dream.) He dropped me off in the next town, told me where to find him again, and wished me luck. I still had some money, so I took a train for my home town.
Earlier, in Jeff's truck, and later, on the train, I had plenty of time to think about my adventure. I'd seen a lot of amazing things, and gone a long way since I picked up a battered old manuscript in a second-hand-book store. I didn't suppose (and still don't) I'd give up book-collecting, but for a while after, I'd be looking closely at every old manuscript I picked up, just in case the pictures started to move. (Would I link through, if they did? Maybe. Not without a link back, I hope; Atrus and Gehn disagreed on a lot, but they agreed on that. Weird, they never wrote any Books about my home Age, and had to toss me through the Star Fissure instead.)
When in Jeff's truck, I looked around at the desert hills. Somewhere, under one of those hills, was the lost city of D'ni. It had been on my home Age all along. Somewhere out there, the ruins of a potentially infinite civilization lay in our own backyards, and hardly anyone knew it. Somewhere out there, right that minute, maybe within sight of me, Atrus and Catherine were sitting in the cool underground chamber, and he was telling her all about Sirrus and Achenar, and how he'd trapped them once and for all in the emptiness between Ages. So close, and yet, so far. All those times I was sitting with Atrus in the underground room, watching him write, I'd been in my home Age, and never known it. Atrus himself hadn't recognized it when I told him about it, and he had no Books about it. How long ago had he lived in the cleft? The so-called 'Book of Atrus' I'd found in his library on Myst, which narrated the story of his life, had his grandmother trading with horse-drawn caravans, on the same road I was hitchhiking now. He and I spoke the same language, which should've tipped us both off (even the snobbish Gehn spoke it like a native), with only the smallest difference in style; that meant, he'd lived on Earth (as I still thought of it) only a short time before me. But if the horse-drawn caravans were real, he must've been much older than he looked. Time, it seems, passes at different rates between Ages; which made me wonder how anyone calculated Gehn's exile of 30 years.
As if that weren't enough: plenty of the machines on Myst, D'ni, and Riven (to say nothing of Rime!) included electricity and steam and moving parts, and other things advanced even beyond the technology of our time, let alone the days of horse-drawn caravans. What the implications were, I still can't imagine.
When I mentioned the name of D'ni to a fellow-passenger on the train, he said: 'D'ni? Dineh, you mean? I don't know if you're interested, but "Dineh" is the Navajo name for themselves. It means, simply, Our People. I've never heard it was the name of any place; and I've studied Navajo culture for years'.
To my recollection, Atrus hadn't looked Navajo, and neither did Gehn; but it wasn't out of the question. I said only, 'O, really?', and heard nothing but Navajo culture until my fellow-passenger got off at the station after next: among other things, the interesting revelation that cities carved into mountains weren't unknown in these parts, whereas the local peoples had once been decimated by diseases introduced by the Conquerors;–– exactly what had happened to D'ni, according to what I'd read: both in the Book of Atrus, and in his journal.
Between fellow-passengers, I sat and wondered, Would Atrus and Catherine have more children, or would they give up? Either way, where would they live? On Myst again? I couldn't imagine him leaving it alone for the rest of its life, like an abandoned work of art;–– and yet, what else was it?. What were those sea-things on Rime? Seals or walruses? Or something more like those baleen-mouthed sun-bathing beach-creatures on Riven? Their calls sounded more like humpback-whales than anything else I knew; but what humpback could be heard in the air?! Did the D'ni create the Ages, or discover them? The evidence was split right down the middle. Either way, had Riven really been destroyed? And by Gehn's incompetence alone? Or was there a 'real' Riven out there, waiting to be Linked again? Were we 'in the book' all along? I'd thought the same kind of thing on Myst, when listening to Sirrus and Achenar:
"If I were living in a book, I'd be grumpy too. Wait a minute! I am living in a book".
Was each Age a 'book-within-a-book', then? Or did I move from one book to another? Would someone reading about an Age I was in, read about me in it? Would that text (if any) disappear when I linked out? I guessed I'd never know. Atrus explained a lot, and the book named after him explained more; but not everything. I'd no doubt he'd return to Myst some day, when things settled down; it wasn't like him to leave something for ever.
When the moon shone through the train window, I looked up at it and startled myself; for a moment, the markings on its face looked like the skull image in Achenar's room on one of the Ages. Now I wondered what made that skull so frightening. For one thing, it hadn't the same proportions as a normal human skull. The braincase was too small, the eyes too big, and the jaws too long. It might've been that of an ape, or maybe of one of the natives of Channelwood. Juxtaposed with the rose image, as it was, it made sense as an object of science; but knowing Achenar, that wasn't the only use.
I'd spent a little while going through his rooms, and those of Sirrus, on the deserted Ages linked to Myst, and found some of his notes on the subject. Apparently, he'd studied rose and skull (and dozens of other pairs of unrelated-looking objects) for months, trying to figure out which features and inner structures in one, corresponded to which in the other. Until he got a satisfactory result, he went on collecting specimens. Eventually, killing became a habit with him. With Sirrus, it was a different story; he was addicted to pleasures, like drugs and fine wines and treasure. Both took after Gehn in becoming tyrants, but they lacked his ambition in a way, because they never got very far when trying to become like gods.
When I got home at last, I could hardly believe I was really back, and I spent hours staring and fondling everything, and hugging all the family. The strangest thing, at first, was seeing my own bed again. On Myst, I'd slept in the cabin under the Elevator Tree: I didn't take any pictures of it, but there was a bed there, and a few cupboards full of bread and dried fruit and nut-butter and what might've been milk, and all the comforts of home. Somehow those things replenished whenever I left the cabin, so I never went without. (Must've been Catherine's doing; she was supposed to be good at making impossible things happen, when she wrote an Age.) I wasn't comfortable sleeping in Atrus and Catherine's bedroom, let alone Sirrus or Achenar's, or Ti'ana's. With Atrus still alive and liable to come back any day (though he seldom did), his bed wasn't an option; and I felt thoroughly sick of his sons. Except for the cabin, the bedrooms were all under the tower of rotation, on the seaward side of the mountain it was on.
I told my family the same I'd told Jeff: just enough to make it believable, and not enough to do the contrary. Almost the first thing I did, when they finally let me out of their sight, was to change clothes. (I'd worn some spares of Atrus', when still a guest on his island; but the latest of these had all the dust of Riven and 233 and now my own Age on them.) When I did, something fell out of my pocket. It was a Myst linking book.