Eric materialises, closely followed by Yeesha, on a balcony overlooking a lake. The sun is shining brilliantly overhead, and bright birds, startled by his appearance, rise in a cloud and flutter away.
"This is Tomahna," Yeesha says, "where my parents raised me. I intended to bring you here and link straight on to K'veer...but now I am minded to stay a while. I come every few days to tend the plants in the gardens and make sure Father's machines are in order."
"This is Airth, in't it?"
"Yes. The Cleft is..." She pointed. "That way. Father wanted to be near it. This was where I took my first faltering steps in D'ni, where that first Age was Written,, and where I returned, heavy with my failure, convinced I would never be a true Writer like my parents." Her eyes grow faraway. "Father was gentle with me, Mother encouraging. I tried again. I fared better the second time."
"Hang on a minute." Something that has been niggling at the back of Eric's mind now rises to the surface. "You said...back there...Ti'ana told you to welcome failure."
"Yes?" Back in the present, her eyes, but still unreadable.
"Didn't she...sort of...die before you were born?"
"Yes. We had many conversations." Now the expression on her face can only be described as impish. "You are forgetting your game lore, Mr Gutteridge. Did you think Ti'ana never travelled to Serenia?"
"Ah." The necklace from Serenia. Eric remembers, and kicks himself mentally for even mentioning it. "So that bit's real, like, is it?"
"Very real," Yeesha says solemnly, but with the imp-light still dancing in her eyes. "I visited Ti'ana in the Dream world many times. She taught me a great deal. Father was quite surprised on occasion." She turns and opens a door behind them, goes into the room. Eric makes to follow, then sees there is a bed in there and stops dead. "I left it here, in safe keeping, when my memories grew so dark that I wished neither to keep nor relive them. Perhaps--" Her voice becomes muffled for a moment, and then she emerges from a cupboard with something glinting hanging from her hand. "...I should start wearing it again. What do you think, Mr Gutteridge?"
"It's, er...smaller than I expected." The pendant on the delicate silver chain is no larger than a pine nut, shining with its own gentle blue-white radiance.
"They had to make it bigger in the game, so that the player could see it." Yeesha turns her hand, admiring the gem. "I much prefer it this size." She tosses it in the air and catches it. 'Yes. I shall wear it again." She tucks the thing into a pocket of her tunic. "Now. I will go and fetch some books from Father's study. Do you think you can keep out of trouble for ten minutes, Mr Gutteridge?"
"Shouldn't think so," Eric says cheerfully.
Eric does manage to avoid trouble, wandering around Tomahna, which he finds remarkably familiar. They must have had pictures to work from. Atrus's workroom is locked, as is the main bedroom, but he finds plenty to explore. Yeesha eventually locates him down by the huge waterwheel which powers the place, watching the great blades turning.
"Does the system meet with your approval, Mr Gutteridge?" Her voice, pitched slightly louder over the roar of the waters, causes him to turn, and something she sees in his face seems to give her pause.
"He was a hell of an engineer, your dad," Eric says. "He build all this?"
"He had help building it," Yeesha says, "but I am sure he designed it, and that he worked alongside the Guildsmen of D'ni who assembled it. In all my life I do not believe I have ever seen him idle."
"Sometimes there's pleasure in idleness."
"Oh, he could spend hours watching cloud movements or the play of the birds, but his mind was always busy. Put it this way, Mr Gutteridge, he was never bored."
"And never boring, either, I bet. I'd have liked to meet him."
Yeesha hesitates. "Some day you may. But now we must return to K'veer and resume your studies. I want to cover twenty more of the Garohevtee before we break for food." She produces a Linking Book from her tunic and opens it.
"Sure you want to leave that on the path here?"
"I will retrieve it when I next visit." Yeesha opens the Book, and Eric touches the panel.
The rest of the morning's studies proceed apace. Eric is starting to see...no, to feel connections between the symbols, and to get a feeling for the way they are used. He studies the pages of the Descriptive Book of Yeesha's first Age, noting how some symbols are Written in small above or beneath others, "diacritics" Yeesha calls them, modifying again the effects of the symbols. He practices on blank sheets of paper, perfecting his technique, feeling the almost subliminal pull and push of the power as he traces each line, feeling the rush of excitement as he gets a line right. Writing an Age is like writing a poem, rather than a textbook; there are equations there, mathematical operations, but they are subordinate to what one might call metre and rhyme, the flow of rhythm, the setting up of correspondences and subtle dissonances. On an impulse, he finishes a row of symbols and continues Writing, developing the theme he has established, embellishing and emphasising certain elements, caught up in an almost meditative state of mind he has never experienced in his life before. He can almost see, in his mind's eye, a world taking shape under his pen, a world that has never existed before but soon, soon--
"Mr Gutteridge!" Yeesha's voice, loud, peremptory, breaks the mood. He stops and looks down at the page he has almost filled with symbols. Embarrassment washes over him and he makes to cover up the sheet, but Yeesha is quicker and twitches it out of his grasp. She holds it up and scans it.
"Not bad," she says after a while. "I think you might find the atmosphere a little difficult, though." She points to a particular symbol.
Sulphur and chlorine, he thinks. How the hell did I miss that?
"You must stay in control of the Writing," Yeesha says. "It is all too easy to let the reverie take you in unexpected directions. Nonetheless, with a Maintainer suit...hmm..." She folds the paper and tucks it into a blank Age Book, which she places on a shelf behind her. "You continue to surprise me, Mr Gutteridge. You have just begun your first Age. When you have attained some self-control, and learned more of the Art, we shall continue it together and see where it takes us. But not yet," she says, holding up a hand as Eric starts to speak. "You have barely begun. See, we are scarcely a tenth of the way into the Rehevkor. And once you have learned all the Written symbols, there is Implication to cover. You will not come to Writing Ages quite that easily."
"Never thought I would," Eric says. "Is it lunchtime yet?"
"Half an hour ago," Yeesha says, and again something seems to give her pause. "I have been trying to attract your attention for that long. Shall we?"
For the next two weeks Eric crams with gusto. He has caught a glimpse of the Art, the essence of it, and he wants that feeling back. Symbol after symbol falls before him, and his notebooks, of which Yeesha seems to have an inexhaustible supply, fill rapidly. He learns about water, the thousand different ways it can be made to behave and still somehow be the simple substance that is the basis of all life as he knows it, the uncountable ways it can go wrong. He learns about balancing the elements that go to make up the bedrock of an Age, their effects on the soil and the possible development of living things. And he begins to skirt the borders of the mystery Yeesha has referred to as Implication.
"Not everything in any Age is Written," she says. "If it were, there would be no surprises, and if you learn one true thing from those games of yours, Mr Gutteridge, it should be this; that the Art can always surprise you. That Age of mine should have remained lifeless and barren for ever, a perfectly stable system. Somewhere, I missed something; somewhere something was Implied."
"But how?" Eric says. "I mean, if you lay everything down pairfectly--"
"Only the Maker has ever achieved perfection," Yeesha says quickly. "I know you do not share my belief, Mr Gutteridge, but in its absence you will simply have to take my word for it; no Written Age is ever perfect, and that is a good thing. Flaws are the Maker's loophole into our creations. Implication is the means by which those flaws are turned into new and wondrous developments of our poor ideas."
"This Age in which we live," Yeesha says. "Do you think even Ri'neref, possibly the greatest Writer my race has ever produced, could design and create an infinite, expanding universe teeming with life-bearing planets orbiting thousands of stars? The Book for such an Age would be infinitely huge, its Writing never completed. He Wrote a planet, a single world, containing everything the D'ni required to live their lives as they had lived them on their native world. The presence of all those rare elements in their quantities, of all those myriad forms of life, Implied the nature of the sun that that world must orbit; the nature of the sun Implied the presence of other planets, and of other suns; the nature of those suns Implied the galaxy that gave birth to them, and so on. In the same way, the structure and the nature of the world's biosphere Implied its evolutionary history, stretching back into time that had not existed before he conceived the world in his mind; it Implied natural laws, developing in their ways according to the Maker's will; it Implied the very creation of this universe itself."
"So the Bible-thumpers are right in a way," Eric says. "The fossil record is a trick. The wairld really was created six thousand yurs ago."
"Ten," Yeesha corrects him. "And no, Mr Gutteridge, it is not a 'trick.' It is a true reflection of what became in that moment a real history, as real as this present moment you and I have just lived through. When a writer of your world writes a story, is it a trick that the characters are living on a world with its own history, its own place in space and time? The Maker tells us only truth, Mr Gutteridge. We who Write worlds, Write the truth as we see it, and through Implication the Maker reveals to us the aspects of that truth that we have not grasped." She narrows her eyes. "Are you taking all this in, Mr Gutteridge?"
"Wish you'd call me Eric," Eric mutters. "Yeah, I'm takin' it in. So why don't all Ages Imply their own univairses?"
"Because very few Ages have been Written on anything like the scale of this one. As I said before, most are merely pockets of spacetime, artificially given the semblance of a planet's surface by manipulating mass, gravity, atmosphere and other characteristics. If the awful, humbling extent of Ri'neref's achievement taught us anything, it was to Write only what is needed. Let the Maker take care of the rest."
"Suppose I don't believe in the Maker?"
"Then you believe in the roll," Yeesha says, "the meaningless operation of blind chance. It comes to the same thing in the end. For myself, I find the Maker more plausible, but that is only my personal belief. And now, will you show me an example of how you would use that symbol in an Age?"
"Well, this is all very nice," Eric says.
To their right, the russet and golden jungles of Haven spread out to the horizon. Above, the sun is just past its zenith, and the day is warm, but the air is clear and full of strange but not unpleasing fragrances. Cushy prisons your dad makes, Eric thinks but does not say. On the rock ledge where he and Yeesha are picnicking, a little way off to their left, two parasails stand ready.
"You are not forgetting the purpose of our visit, I hope, Mr Gutteridge," Yeesha says, spooning a rich dark berry jam on to a slice of fresh bread.
"Course not," Eric says. "You want me to get the feel of the place, see how it fits together, then when we go back I can look at the Age Book and check against the text."
"My father walked a difficult tightrope with this Age," Yeesha says. "Spire was relatively easy by comparison, given its nature, but Haven had to be a complete ecosystem functioning in balance. And as you know, balanced systems..."
"Stimulate civilisations," Eric says.
"He had to be sure that no humanlike species could develop on this world. As it is, the mangrees come dangerously close; if Achenar had stayed longer, and if he had still been...that which he was, he might have had some success at enslaving them."
"Killed a bunch," Eric points out. "Wiped out the big fish things."
"I know," Yeesha says, a little sharply. "Father did not create these Ages lightly. He says now that he never expected his sons to fall into these traps, but I think he must have known...they were designed so perfectly to appeal to each one's baser natures. And why only the two?"
"Have you asked him?"
"Do I strike you as a cruel person, Mr Gutteridge?"
"No,' Eric says. "Sorry. Stupid question."
Yeesha finishes her bread and licks her fingers. "Oh," she says, opening the picnic basket and peering in. "I meant to bring napkins, but I see I left them behind."
"Pity you can't just Write some in," Eric says. "Shall we do that next time?"
Yeesha starts to reply, then her eyes flick to a point beyond Eric's shoulder and she gasps. Eric turns away a moment to see what she is looking at, and when he turns back, the point of her dagger is against his throat.
"It was a joke," he says, a little hoarsely.
"I do not hear laughter," Yeesha says, her voice cold and flat as the rock beneath them. "I think you begin to forget, Mr Gutteridge, just how we got here."
Eric says nothing.
"You coerced me," Yeesha says. "Did you think I had forgotten, just because I am...nice to you? Just because, against my will, we are beginning to bond after all? You stand, Mr Gutteridge, on the brink of the precipice from which my grandfather fell. You have just enough of the Art to think you have it all. You have still barely begun, but the Art gives its rewards quickly. You could cobble together an Age now, of sorts, were I to permit it, and it might even be stable. You know enough D'ni to read the old Age Books in the library on K'veer and find sections in them that you could patch together to make a world according to your desires. Mountains of gold and rivers of wine and trees that blossom with cheeseburgers. Would you like to do that, Mr Gutteridge? Or perhaps you would Write in some people, simple primitives who would be impressed by your strange appearance and awed by your powers, who would give you the worship you truly deserve. I could show you the relevant passages. My grandfather marked them carefully, the words he used to create my mother's people. Would you like to do that, Mr Gutteridge?" The dagger point stings his throat just a little.
"No," Eric manages. "When I Write an Age...I want to do...proper job." He raises his hand slowly, and pushes the dagger away from him. Yeesha does not resist. "I'm not interested in pinchin' other guys' wairk. Never have been, never will be. I succeed on me own merits, thanks very much. An' if I want a cheesebairger I know wur I can get one. In a year or two's time, when I've done the course and you let me go, I'm gonna walk into the nearest McDonalds and have three. Or Bairger King, better, if they're still goin'." He stands up and looks down at her. "I'm sorry about the coaircion. If I'd had any other way...you've done hard things in your time, and you've been angry. I was angry. I was wrong. But now I'm here, and you're teachin' me, and the very last thing in the wairld I want to do is disappoint you. Not 'cause you'll kill me, though I know you will. 'Cause I've seen it now, and I've known you, and I could never be content with less than your absolute approval. God, that sounds wet." He shakes himself like a dog. "True though. I want it all. That hasn't changed. An' I'll cut off me own hand before I do anything stupid like what you said."
Yeesha looks up at him, the dagger in her hand seemingly forgotten.
"Very well," Yeesha says at last. She puts out a hand, and Eric helps her to rise, though he knows she can do it perfectly well on her own. "I am glad that you said that. We are starting to bond, and it would now sadden me to be forced to kill you. Do not forget, though, that we still stand as blackmailer and victim, and that will need to be made right before you get your cheeseburgers. No, do not say any more now. I will think of a way for you to make it right. It will not be easy."
"Nor it shouldn't," Eric says as she sheathes the dagger. "Thank you."
"Now," Yeesha continues, "I have concealed a Linking Book back to K'veer somewhere in this Age. Now that my brother is dead there is no reason why it should remain a prison. You will seek it, and I shall watch, and along the way you will gain whatever insights you can into the way the Age functions and how that will be reflected in the Writing. You will notice that it is considerably larger than the version in your game, though the basics of the ecosphere are broadly similar. There are dangerous predators here. If one should attack you, I will be on hand to...dissuade it."
"Ta very much," Eric says. "I won't say no. You don't get dangerous predators in Liverpool." Well, only the two-legged kind.
"Our journey begins here." Yeesha indicates the parasails, and Eric swallows.
"Do we have to?"
"Are you afraid?"
"Bloody terrified," Eric admits, "but if that's what's on the cards, I'm up for it."
"It is the only way down from this ledge and into the jungle," Yeesha says. "Take hold here and here..."
Soon, two brightly coloured wings of fabric launch themselves from the rock ledge, and Eric's whoop echoes from the cliff walls and over the jungle of Haven and startles its denizens.
"How old are you then?" Eric inquires.
Yeesha flinches momentarily, then takes refuge behind a piece of paper which she uses like a fan. "Why, Mr Gutteridge, a gentleman never inquires," she protests.
It is the fourth day of their sojourn on Haven. They have had two narrow escapes from the toothy predators called "camoudiles," and have watched the herbivorous "zeftyrs" grazing in the swamp, in vast herds of several hundred at a time. Achenar's constructions still stand, much as they did in the game Eric has played, and they are sitting in his lake house, enjoying a meal of local fruit after a study session.
"Well, 's not like I don't know roughly," Eric says defensively. "It's just...it seems weird, you lookin' like a lass of fifteen or so and havin' done all that."
"To me it seems 'weird' that you look like my father and have not yet reached your first century," Yeesha retorts. "Lifespans of a thousand years are not uncommon among true D'ni. Of course, I am only an octoroon, as it were, but I still hope for several hundred years more. And since it was we D'ni who came first, as it were..."
"It's another argument for creationism, though, in't it?" Eric says. "I don't mean creationism," he corrects himself a moment later. "I mean thinkin' that Writers create their Ages, rather than linkin' to pre-existing realities."
"I do not follow."
"You bein' an eighth D'ni, I mean. Your granny bein' human and your mam Rivenese." Eric marshals his thoughts. "I dunno if you know it, but back up top on Airth we got these shows on telly..."
"Fictional dramas broadcast to home imagers," Yeesha says, nodding.
"An' there's one--well, there's loads really--where they go to all different planets, and wherever they go the natives all look pairfectly human 'cept for pointy ears or blue skin or bumps on their foreheads, and they're always cross-breeding with humans."
"Always?" Yeesha quirks an eyebrow, in a manner which makes Eric wonder just how well acquainted with "home imagers" she really is.
"Well, not on screen, not usually." Eric, reddening, returns to his point. "An' the nairds get really really aerated about this, 'cause they've read a book on genetics and they think they know the lot. There's no way a human should ever be able to crossbreed with any species from any other wairld, they say. The genetic material gorra be completely incompatible. Even if the planets were precisely similar, the probability of two separate species evolvin' to be breedable is absolutely zero, they say. And your lot finds two at least, and probably a load more and all."
"Doc--our friend in the cap explained your quantum theory to me," Yeesha says. Eric's mumbled "Better man than I am then" goes unremarked. "According to one interpretation, the universe multiplies into almost identical copies of itself every time a decision is made, or a random event occurs. Given the number of planets in this universe, the number of life forms it may contain, the number of random events that must occur every nanosecond, I find this hard to believe, but I am not a student of Earth physics. To me there is one reality; everything else is possibility. And possibility and probability are not the same thing. Yes, to Write an Age in which the people are genetically compatible to ourselves despite having taken a completely different evolutionary path must, I think, involve making something real which was not before, and my people have indeed done it many times."
"Never got me head round all that quantum stuff," Eric says. "Could be true, I guess, but it makes everything we do a bit unimportant, dun't it?"
"There is nothing wrong with being unimportant, Mr Gutteridge," Yeesha says. "Most people are, to all but a tiny few. But I take your point. Why should the Stranger have striven so to rescue my mother from Gehn, when an infinite number of worlds existed in which she was never in danger? What does one iteration matter among an infinity? I prefer a reality in which what we do is...significant." She sighs. "This, I believe, is why the Least fled from me when I caused the Great Shattering...because it is not the natural order of things that many identical realities should exist side by side. Why it took me so long to enlist their aid in my latest deception."
"Well," Eric says after an uncomfortable silence, "maybe one day we'll know for sairtain. In the meantime--" He stands up. "I gorra take a leak. Where's a good place?"
"The animals are not particular," Yeesha says, "and neither was Achenar. Outside, for preference, though, I think."
Eric, mumbling, goes to the door, and nearly walks into a camoudile.
Next part: https://www.patreon.com/posts/9430207