The beginning of the book introduces Aitrus (Atrus' grandfather), as a young Guildsman in the Guild of Surveyors working as a crewman on an expedition to the surface. It describes how the D'ni make tunnels through the rock. The process is really interesting. The tunnels turn out smooth and strong, with air locks every so often. They are made to last forever, and are huge enough to move large vessels called excavators and heavy drilling equipment through them on tracks.
The Messenger's Guild sent a vessel out on the tracks with messages from
the government to the expedition leaders, and personal mail and parcels from home for everyone. On this trip, Aitrus was surprised to receive a parcel. It turns out to be a pair of the most beautifully made and expensive portable scales that any surveyor could want. They are from a childhood acquaintance of Aitrus' named Lord Veovis, with whom he went to school.
This is a copy of the note that accompanied the gift and some dialog that follows immediately after it:
"You might remember me from school days. I realize we were not the best of
friends, be we were both young then and such misunderstandings happen.
Recently, however, I chanced upon a report you wrote among my father's
papers and was reminded of those unfortunate days, and it occurred to me
that I might do something to attempt to reverse your poor opinion of me.
If the enclosed gifts are unwelcome, please forgive me. But I hope you
will accept them in the same spirit with which they are given. good luck
with your explorations! Yours in friendship, Veovis."
Aitrus looked up, astonished to see that signature at the foot of the
"It is from Veovis," he said quietly. "Lord Rakeri's son."
"Tejara looked surprised. "Veovis is your friend, Aitrus?"
Aitrus shook his head. "No. At least, he was no friend to me at school."
"Then these gifts are a surprise?"
"More a shock, to be honest, Guild Master. Yet people change, I suppose."
Some time later Veovis comes to inspect the excavation site (he's standing in for his sick father, who is one of the Five Great Lords) and he seems to have
improved a great deal and he seems to want to be friends with Aitrus.
There is some controversy in the government about whether or not the D'ni
should complete the tunnel, and if they complete it, whether they should
actually break through to the surface and contact any inhabitants that
might be up there. Aitrus is afraid that after working for two years and
four months on it, the government will put a stop to it. He really wants
to see the surface.
The government sends a committee of men to observe their work and Aitrus is assigned to show the observers around, especially their leader, Master Kedri of
the Guild of Legislators. Atrus and Master Kedri end up liking each other and eventually become friends. The observers report back to the government and the government sends out news that the tunnel will be finished and that they'll decide later whether or not to actually visit the surface.
More of the guilds become involved in the expedition now, and, after all that work, only a handful of Surveyors are allowed to stay on to see the end of the project. Aitrus is one of those chosen to stay.
There is a lot of description of the construction of a huge oval well that rises straight up to a great height with stairs spiraling up along its sides, and lodges set into the walls where travelers can rest. The floor is an impressive mosaic depicting the City of D'ni surrounded by the earth. The walls of the Well are lit with some twenty thousand firemarbles, each set in an individual lantern. There is a car on a vertical track that mechanically climbs the wall to the top so the elderly Lords and Guild Masters don't have to walk all those stairs. It's a massive structure.
The Guilds hold a big feast to celebrate the cutting of The Well. All eighteen of the Major Guilds are represented. The guildsmen attend in their best
ceremonial cloaks, each Guild having a different official color. Guildsmen of the minor Guild of Artists are on the sidelines sketching away to preserve the moment for posterity. The Caterers Guild has provided food for all during the excavation work and for the banquet.
During the banquet Lord Veovis comes over briefly to greet Aitrus. He doesn't
stay long, because he's so busy with government business, but it is a mark of unusual attention for a Lord to greet a Guildsman of no rank and is noticed by others, making Aitrus a little embarrassed.
Because he hasn't drunk as much as others, Aitrus is awakened by the little
earth quake that strikes during the night. He awakens one of the old Guild
Masters, who tells him it's OK. He sleeps late in the morning and is
awakened a half hour before the breaching ceremony, which he attends.
After the ceremony Veovis tells Aitrus that he's going to take one of the
Great Lords back down The Well, and will return later that evening. Aitrus wonders why Veovis wants to be his friend. He doesn't see anything special about
himself, but others have told Veovis that Aitrus is a very worthy young
man whose acquaintance he should cultivate.
That evening a big earthquake strikes. Aitrus is in one of the huge excavators and it
turns completely over. He bumps his head and blood runs from the wound. He struggles free of the excavator to find that the strong sheets of nara that line the walls of The Well have been buckled. One of the beloved old Guild Masters of the Surveyors fell down The Well to his death. Many were hurt and killed. It is a terrible disaster.
The car on the vertical track is stuck part way down from the top, so Aitrus has to climb down to it. He does so, and finds Veovis injured and in mortal danger. He helps him, and gives him oxygen. Just as Aitrus thinks the whole car will come off of the wall and they'll fall far to their deaths, another man in a machine has come up the walls and, plucked the car from the tracks and carried it to safety.
Back in the city of D'ni much later, Aitrus thanks Lord Rakeri, Veovis'
father, for his offer of patronage (to get ahead in D'ni society) but he
refuses, because he wants to earn his own way. Veovis says that he
owes Aitrus a debt, and Aitrus has his word that whatever he should ask in the future, if
it's in Veovis' power to grant it, he will do so.
They both progress in their careers and friendship from that time, though
Veovis is very conservative, haughty, prejudiced against the common D'ni
people, and even worse against outsiders. Aitrus is more balanced and fair
minded, and not as threatened by change. Still, though they don't always
agree, and though Veovis hates not having his way, they remain good
Then the story jumps ahead about 30 years. We are introduced to Anna on the surface. She is a young woman, still in her teens, and lives with her father in the cleft in a place he calls the lodge, which he carved out of the rock by
hand. He is a geologist and has trained his daughter, who was born and has
lived all her life there, to be his assistant. Her mother has died a few
years earlier in a climbing accident (we learn that later in the book).
Anna discovers a cave with some very interesting stone specimens in it.
She has to struggle to get inside, and she brings back some samples to her
father. She just picks some globs up off the floor of the cave, because it
can't be chipped by her hammer.
We get a good picture of what their life has been like together. They are content with their work and happy. Then her father suffers an illness and dies, leaving Anna alone. She packs up her things into a hand cart, meaning to walk out of the desert toward the local town, but she remembers the cave and the strange rocks she found and wants to investigate it a little before she goes.
She hides her cart in a safe place, and exerts herself to enter the cave. She wanders down a great distance, and comes upon what she supposes much be the ruins of an ancient and fabulous civilization. She finds some of the mammoth drilling equipment the D'ni used during their excavation, and the beautifully made tunnels and is so absorbed by it, she becomes lost. The story leaves her trying to find her way out.
We are now in the city of D'ni where more discussion concerning whether or not to visit the surface is still going on after all these years. Lord Veovis is against it. He likes things as they are, and he says the surface dwellers will be savages, because no people has any civilization unless taught it by the superior D'ni.
News that a surface dweller has been found in the tunnels and captured by the Maintainers Guild arrives ending the debate. Now that a surface dweller is among them, there will be no vote in the Council on the question. The news sweeps D'ni, causing much consternation.
Anna is taken into the fortress prison of Irrat and kept there six months. Members of the Guild of Linguists visit her in an attempt to learn her language to communicate with her, but she learns to speak D'ni instead. One of the Great Lords hears about this and goes to see her for himself. Anna draws his portrait, capturing his character. When he sees her work, he's stricken to the core and keeps asking himself if Anna is typical of surface dwellers. They've expected to find a savage, and instead have found an intelligent, talented person.
Anna is questioned by the ruling Council and allowed to stay in D'ni. Grand Master
Kahlis, Aitrus' father, takes her into his home. Kahlis and Tasera his wife, are very nice to Anna. Aitrus meets her there and the slowly get to know each other.
Veovis is very prejudiced and haughty in his treatment of Anna, and purposely snubs her on his Korfah V'ja by refusing to allow her to go with the party to his Age.
He says she isn't D'ni and only D'ni have the right to visit Ages. Aitrus
feels it's very unfair. He feels that Veovis should have said plainly that Anna was not included in the invitation, rather than announcing it when she arrived at his home. He decides to take Anna home to his father's house, rather than let her sit alone on K'veer while everyone else goes to Veovis' Age for the celebration. Veovis feels this is a personal insult, that Aitrus has chosen an outsider over himself, and he becomes angry with Aitrus.
Later Aitrus takes Anna to his family's Age. He explains how the D'ni write Descriptive Books that link to other worlds. He teaches her to read and write common D'ni, and then begins to teach her the Art of Writing Ages.
They work on Aitrus' Age of Gemedet together. When Veovis finds out,
he's enraged. He complains to the Great Lords and High Council. Aitrus' family loses their Ages and are in disgrace. Then Guild Master Kedri and his cadet guildsman find a precedent that shows that not only were natives of Ages allowed to live and work in D'ni, but also to go into other Ages long ago. That is the legal precedent, and the Council then returns their Ages to Aitrus' family.
There remain bad feelings between Aitrus and Veovis over this matter, though they try to patch it up. Veovis is so full of pride and hate, and wants to have his
own way so much, that they can't really be close friends any more.
Time passes as Anna and Aitrus work together on Gemedet. They have a lot in common, as geology is a Surveyor's specialty and Anna was trained by her father as a geologist. They share similar values. Anna tells Aitrus many stories of the mythology of the surface, so Aitrus calls her Ti'ana which means story teller in the D'ni language and sounds similar to her own name.
Aitrus gains his parents' blessing to ask Anna to marry him. When Anna agrees, he goes to the Council for approval, which should be a mere formality, but it is refused. Veovis alone says no and gives no reason, as is his right. Aitrus can never marry Anna unless he has unanimous approval from the Council. Seeing no other way, he goes to Veovis, reminds him of the promise he made when Aitrus saved his life, and humbly asks for permission. Veovis gives it, as he's sworn his word, but he's furious. He feels personally betrayed that Aitrus has chosen Anna over his friendship with him, and that's the beginning of his really hating Aitrus.
Years pass; Aitrus and Anna have a son they call Gehn. Anna becomes a citizen of D'ni. Veovis' anger has not waned. Anna's acceptance by most of the D'ni, and the existence of the half-D'ni child inflame his hatred. He and Aitrus often oppose each other in the Council. The nature of the ill feelings between them is generally known.
A man named A'Gaeris, who was dismissed from his Guild in disgrace on the charge of fraud fifty years before, exploits Veovis' negative emotions for his own wicked ends. With the help of a Guildsman named Suahrnir, A'Gaeris tricks Veovis into a compromising situation. He uses Aitrus, tricking him also, to bring out evidence which makes Veovis look guilty of terrible crimes. He is convicted, and sentenced to a Prison Age.
Veovis' character flaws make him so resentful of what the D'ni government has done to him in wrongly convicting him of crimes he didn't commit, that he angrily goes along with A'Gaeris in trying to destroy the whole civilization.
They terrorize D'ni with explosions, sabotage, and random killings, but Anna stumbles upon their plans and foils them. Veovis tries to murder Anna, but she escapes in the nick of time, and both of them link suddenly into the Council Chamber of D'ni.
Veovis is captured, arrested, tried, and convicted a second time. His crimes are so terrible that the Great Lords decide to put him to death, but Anna speaks up for him, reminds them how they unjustly convicted him the first time, and persuades them to merely exile him to a very secure Prison Age for the rest of his life so that he won't be able to hurt anyone, rather than executing him.
The D'ni took the greatest care to make sure the Prison Age will be entirely secure, so Veovis can't escape and cause further harm. They would have succeeded, but they didn't realize that A'Gaeris and Suahrnir were working against them. Between the two of them, they hatched a plot so that A'Gaeris was able to link to the Prison Age just after Veovis did with a Linking Book they could use to escape to another Age. The D'ni burned the Book of the Prison Age, thinking they had seen the last of Veovis.
It was Veovis' genius that created the biological weapon that decimated the D'ni civilization. It seems that strategic explosions also caused devastating earthquakes which felled much of the City's buildings. The people fled to the different Ages for safety, but Veovis and his cohorts sent contamination after them, killing most of the survivors.
Aitrus returns from the safety of his personal Age with breathing gear in case the gas is still present in D'ni. He links from D'ni to another Age to find his father and the other members of the High Council, where they have gone to discuss what is to be done. He finds them all dead and realizes, after he has removed his breathing gear, that he has also been contaminated by the disease.
Aitrus knows that if Veovis and his friends are contaminating the Ages, there is no safety for anyone there. He returns to Gemedet to take his family to the surface of Earth, thinking that this is the only place of safety left for them.
As they are passing through the heartbreaking devastation of D'ni on their way to the surface, they hear a cry for help. Not being able to ignore the plea, Aitrus leaves Anna and his son by the dock and goes to find the injured person. To his very great surprise, he finds Veovis on the point of death from a terrible wound.
Veovis and A'Gaeris have worked together, but when A'Gaeris wanted Veovis to make an Age where they could rule as gods, Veovis refused. They argued. A'Gaeris took a butcher's cleaver and stabbed Veovis in the back, leaving him to die.
As Veovis tells Aitrus what has happened, they hear Anna cry out. Realizing that A'Gaeris has found and captured his wife and son, and that he can't get to them without a boat, Aitrus despairs. Veovis gives him his linking book to his personal Age, telling him he can link from there to K'veer and get there ahead of A'Gaeris and his family. Aitrus does so.
In order to save his family, Aitrus fools A'Gaeris into thinking that he is going with a torch to burn all of the Descriptive Books that A'Gaeris has amassed in his Age. Aitrus, knowing he is about to die of the plague, has written changes into the Descriptive book, turning it into an inferno. He deliberately links first, to his death, knowing that A'Gaeris will follow him, leaving Anna and Gehn alive.
A grief strickened Anna, and a traumatized eight year old Gehn follow the path Aitrus had found to the safety of the surface.