The White Dragon: Welcome To The New Age

Last chapter, the retirement Hold built for Master Robinton received its intended occupant, with everyone dancing around this reality. Piemur got grumpy at everyone that no-one was recognizing his efforts that made everything possible, and Jaxom continued to scheme of ways to get Sharra alone so he could try to seduce her.

The White Dragon, Chapter XIX, Part One: Content Notes: Sentient experimentation, paternalism


The chapter starts with the Masterharper calling in Jaxom and Piemur to talk about the Dawn Sisters. (The two are a bit slow-moving from their apparently late night.) Wansor will be by eventually with a bigger telescope to examine things further, and Brekke is there to indicate that the rollout of the Holder sons plan has hit snags (as well as to remind us of the unofficial rule in place that says Robinton is not to be overtaxed, no matter what he thinks). The main gist of the meeting, however, is to say that once Jaxom is certified to fly, he, Piemur, Menolly, and Sharra are going to go looking for more evidence of the ancients on the Southern Continent to see if they can piece together why the Ancients left.

“Harper and Holder?” Jaxom asked, seizing the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
“Harper and Holder? Oh, yes, of course. Piemur, you and Menolly have worked well together, I know. So Sharra can go with Jaxom. Now…” Oblivious to the sharp look Piemur gave Jaxom, the man went on. “One sees things from the air in a perspective not always possible at ground level. The reverse, of course, applies. So any exploration should involve both methods. Jaxom, Piemur knows what I’m looking for…”
“Traces of the original habitation of this continent. I can’t for the life of me imagine why our long-dead ancestors left this fruitful and beautiful continent for the colder, duller North, but I assume they had good reasons.”

Robinton explains that while old Records talk about the need to move North, there aren’t enough surviving ones to figure out why. The discovery of an iron mine by Toric and mine shafts by N’ton and Robinton confirms that there was a civilization here, and they had some impressive power at their disposal, to keep those mines stable, even as other attempts, like D’ram’s shelter in the past, have long since succumbed to the ravages of time.

The scope of the operation is massive, considering the size of the continent, but the potential reward is great, or so Robinton says to them. After laying out the parameters of the initial search grids, Robinton has a final comment.

“However, I want to impress on you both that though this is a joint effort, Piemur is far more experienced, Jaxom, and you will please bear this in mind when problems occur. And send me your reports for this…” he tapped the chart, “every evening! Off with you both, now, and organize your equipment and supplies. And your partners!”

Which, I am sure, infuriates Jaxom some and makes him less likely to defer to Piemur.

The party doesn’t leave that day, as Oldive arrives and looks over both hold and Harper, not buying into Robinton’s attempt at gallows humor, and recommending light duty for the Harper and unobtrusive help from the younger people around. Jaxom is given a clean bill of health, and then Wansor arrives with a full-on proper telescope, instead of the spyglasses that have been in use to this point. The Starsmith has progressed greatly in his knowledge of optics based on reverse-engineering the microscope, to the point where the eyepiece placement is offset, muttering “something about reflective and refracting, ocular and objective and that this was the arrangement he thought best for the purposes of viewing distant objects.” Hats off to the Starsmith and the glass grinders (wherever they get their glass from) who can create such lenses and calculate the optics. I think we’re well past the point of fantasy kingdom at this point, and have firmly moved into the latter part of the time of the Italian city-states.

As we wait for sundown, we’re told that Wansor finally decided to come down and look when Robinton said things were odd with the Dawn Sisters, discounting everyone else, including Idarolan, who as a sea navigator, probably knows more about the heavenly bodies than anyone else. Fandarel has frames for setting the telescopes on, although he apparently has to physically move Wansor to get him out of the way of their construction, and this is treated as friendly and genial.

Finally, sundown arrives and Wansor steps up to the eyepiece…and refuses to believe his eyes. Fandarel takes a look:

“I see three round objects!” Fandarel announced in a booming voice. “Round metallic objects. Manmade objects. Those are not stars, Wansor,” he said, looking at the distressed Starsmith, “those are things!”
Robinton, almost shoving the Smith’s bulk to one side, bent his eye to the viewer, gasping.
“They are round. They do shine. As metal does. Not as stars do.”
“One thing sure,” Piemur said irreverently in the awed silence, “you have found traces of our ancestors in the South, Master Robinton.”
“Your observation is eminently correct,” the Harper said in such a curiously muffled tone Jaxom want certain if the man was suppressing laughter or anger, “but not at all what I had in mind and you know it!”

That’s right, they have discovered geostationary satellites. (Of scientific interest, Pernese moons are not tide-locked, according to observations.) The discovery is confirmed by everyone there, then the Benden Weyrleaders and the Brown Rider Rapist are summoned to see the same things. Wansor is trying to do the math on something, reaches his result, and then asks both Fandarel and N’ton to recheck the math. Which again confirms that the objects in the heavens are geostationary, and it is Piemur who suggests those are possibly the craft by which the ancestors came to Pern. Which is an interesting conjecture – if it’s true, then whatever disaster befell the Ancients did so very early on, where they weren’t able to finish bringing down all the colony ships to cannibalize their parts to build the new homes with. It seems more likely that they’re part of a communication array of some sort.

Robinton wants to find out what they are. The Brown Rider Rapist is game, but his enthusiasm is met with a stronger veto from Brekke, who has no intention of going through the heartbreak she suffered when he jetted off to the Red Star again. So Robinton asks his fire lizard to go to the Dawn Sisters and tell us what it is. Which really comes across as callous and cruel, considering the only extraplanetary affair so far has been the visit to the Red Star that nearly claimed the lives of the Brown Rider Rapist and Canth. But Robinton appears to have no qualms about sending the fire-lizard he’s empathically bonded to into a potentially hazardous and deadly environment to satisfy his curiosity. Now that I think about it, that sort of sums up Robinton, doesn’t it?

As it turns out, Zair is a blank when it comes to going there. There’s no disappearance or even indication that Zair knows what he’s talking about, which suggests that the memory of the fire-lizards has no recollection of the ships above.

Then comes two really smart decisions. The first is that Oldive puts a sedative in Robinton’s wine so that he falls asleep instead of trying to stay up late, and the other:

It had been tactfully decided not to broadcast the true nature of the Dawn Sisters, at least until such time as Wansor and other interested star-crafters had had a chance to study the phenomenon and reach some conclusion that would not alarm people. There’d been enough shocks of late, F’lar commented. Some might construe those harmless objects to be a danger, much as the Red Star was.
“Danger?” Fandarel had exclaimed. “Were there any danger from those things, we should have known it many Turns past.”
To that, F’lar agreed readily enough but, with everyone conditioned to believe that disaster fell from sky-borne things, it was better to be discreet.

Not that they could know it, but Fandarel is entirely wrong – the destabilization of any of those craft could result in an extinction-level event, and they really wouldn’t know unless someone noticed the orbit decaying of those craft. The time-jumping dragonriders could then engineer a Lessa-class Stable Time Loop where, soon after leaving for the past, the solution party reappears with the answer in hand or already built, so no real danger, but only potential. In any case, the decision to not broadcast the real nature of the Dawn Sisters is a good one to avoid unnecessary panic. Not so great for the advancement of science (SCIENCE!), but it certainly seems like all of those things and discoveries are being treated as Craft secrets anyway.

As Jaxom heads to bed, he resumes thinking with his penis, despite the monumental discovery.

As Jaxom pushed his legs into his sleeping blanket, he tried not to be annoyed with the thought of another invasion in Cove Hold, just when he thought he and Sharra would be left alone for a while.
Had she been avoiding him? Or was it simply that circumstances had intervened? Such as Piemur’s premature arrival in Cove Hold? The worry over Master Robinton, the need to explore which left them too tired to do more than crawl into their furs, the arrival of half of Pern to complete the Hold for the Harper, and now this! No, Sharra had not been avoiding him. She seemed… there. Her beautiful rich laugh, a tone below Menolly’s, her face often hidden by the strands of dark hair which kept escaping thong and clip…

You’re still being creepy, Jaxom. But rather than let your conscience intrude and point this out, Jaxom sticks with it and passes through “Nobody needs me at Ruatha”, “other dragonriders will have bigger and stronger flyers than Ruth, so they will explore more in any day (and might steal Sharra away from me)”, and parks his jealousy and inadequacy train at “So I’m going to go to the volcano first so I have something to brag about and feel superior to everyone about.” Before he can act on that idea, though, he falls asleep and dreams again of the volcano erupting. This time, though, he can pay enough attention to realize that he might be reliving a vision of the other side of the mountain, which would also lead to proof of where the Ancients were. It’s a can’t-miss plan and it gives Jaxom all the glory he could ever want. All he needs is to borrow Idarolan’s spyglass and…

He pivoted on his heel and lurched backward in surprise. Piemur, Sharra, and Menolly were standing in a row, watching him.
“Do tell, Lord Jaxom, what you saw in the Seaman’s viewer? A mountain, perhaps?” Piemur asked, showing all his teeth in that smug grin.
On Menolly’s shoulder, Beauty chirped.
“Did he see enough?” Menolly asked Piemur, ignoring Jaxom.
“I’d say he had!”
“He wouldn’t have planned to go without us, would he?” Sharra asked.
They regarded him with mocking expressions.
“Ruth can’t carry four.”
None of you are fat. I could manage, Ruth said.
Sharra laughed, covered her mouth to silence the sound and pointed an accusing finger at him.
“I’ll bet anything Ruth just said he could!” she told the other two.
“I’ll bet you’re right.” Menolly didn’t take her eyes from Jaxom’s face. “I think it really is best of you have some help on this venture.” She drawled the last two words significantly.
“This venture?” Piemur echoed the words, alert as ever to nuances of speech.
Jaxom clenched his teeth, glaring at her. “You’re sure you could carry four?” he asked Ruth.
The dragon emerged on the beach, his eyes glowing with excitement.
I have had to fly straight for many days now. That has made me very strong. None of you are heavy. The distance is not great. We are going to see the mountain?
“Ruth is obviously willing,” Menolly said, “but if we don’t make a move soon…” She gestured toward Cove Hold. “C’mon, Sharra, we’ll get the flying gear.”
“I’ll have to rig flying straps for four.”
“Then do it.” Menolly and Sharra raced off down the sand.

And at this point, I kind of feel bad for Jaxom. He’s always been seen as someone who’s messing things up. His birth derailed Lessa’s plan to take over at Ruatha. Lessa may be happier where she is now, in terms of being able to wield real power, but Jaxom had an inauspicious birth. Then he had a dour ex-dragonrider as his warder growing up, and then he screwed things up royally by Impressing Ruth, crossing the streams in ways that made him unpalatable to the Holders and too precious to risk for the dragonriders. Not to mention that Ruth is both a runt, by dragon standards, might be thought of as developmentally delayed, and is apparently ace, which makes him even weirder among the dragons. Since then, both Jaxom and Ruth have basically been under everyone’s watchful eyes. Even when he was sneaking off to see Corana, there was a wink and a nod. The only thing he’s pulled off was the egg return, and even then, there are suspicions among the Harpers that he was responsible. And Piemur is rubbing it in his face, at least in his perception, about what a great explorer he is, Menolly is, and everyone else’s accomplishments, while he has been sidelined with injury and sickness. So Jaxom gets an opportunity to steal a march on everybody and publicly claim something as his and Ruth’s accomplishment, he’s confronted with the very people that he wanted to have something to be on par with, and they’ve known about it all along. For Jaxom, life sucks.

While he gets no cookies at all in how he’s treated women through this whole book, (I suspect, had such a term existed when the book was written, Jaxom would be complaining right now about having been “friendzoned” by Sharra this whole time) with the exception of the egg heist, Jaxom has been the Butt Monkey of this book, despite being its ostensible protagonist. So there is the possibility of empathy here with Jaxom as an underdog.

Unfortunately, when you’re psychically linked with a dragon that all the fire-lizards adore, you’re probably going to have your secret plans broadcast to others. Ruth probably just thought it would be fun to have friends along on an adventure, without any thought about why Jaxom might want to do something alone.

Ruth can carry the four, and in his exuberance, pops them through hyperspace to the destination. Which is breathtaking, and we learn that the volcano dream was a shared dream, which is what tipped everyone else off to the plan that Jaxom hatched. There’s a lot of scenery porn as we get to see the continent from dragon perspective, on both sides of the mountain. And then, they get to observe the side of the volcano they have been seeing in their dreams, and there are obvious signs of human settlement, presumably in the path of and/or partially buried by the flow of lava or mud from the eruption, but the narrative isn’t clear on this at this point.

The explorer crew’s aerial survey is cut short by noticing Thread on the horizon, which sends everyone back to base on a hyperspace hop. Everyone else at base is apparently annoyed with their trip. Let’s recap, however, who was on that trip:

  • A trained dragonrider, who has flown Threadfall with the Queen Wing and can hold their own in a fight
  • The legendary girl who survived Holdless and Impressed ten fire lizards
  • The Harper who, for the last few years, been exploring the Southern Continent without the protection of a Hold
  • Someone who has been living in the South for years

So I don’t really think there’s any reason for anyone to be annoyed with them for being out during a possible Threadfall. Idarolan is pissed, but that’s probably because they took his spyglass without asking, and what if they broke the delicate expensive instrument, and so forth. We also get one side of a conversation between Ruth and Canth about how everyone on the morning’s expedition was just doing what the Masterharper wanted before everyone buckles down to the task of fighting Thread. Afterward, the Brown Rider Rapist comes by, intending to rip Jaxom a new one for leaving without telling anyone and not being back with enough time to get prepared for the fall. In response, Jaxom gives him a verbal two-finger salute that shows maturity and diplomacy while making it absolutely clear how angry Jaxom is at being talked down to again:

“We were ready for Thread when it fell, brown rider,” he responded calmly. “My duty as the rider of a dragon was to protect Cove Hold. I did. My pleasure and privilege was to fly with Benden.” He gave a slight bow and had the satisfaction of seeing the anger in F’nor’s face give way to surprise. “I’m sure the others have by now reported to Master Robinton what we discovered this morning. Into the water with you, Ruth. I’ll be glad to answer all your questions, F’nor, when I’ve cleaned Ruth up.” He gave F’nor, who was staring at him in honest amazement, a second now and then stripped off hot and sweaty flying gear, leaving only the shortened trousers that were more suitable to the heat.
F’nor was still staring at him when he ran and dove neatly into the water, coming up beside his wallowing white friend.

Jaxom has apparently stupefied the Brown Rider Rapist with this outburst, but by now, people should be ready to start thinking of Jaxom as an independent man instead of a child to be ordered around.

Sharra arrives to assist with the cleaning, bearing stiff-bristle brushes that Brekke brought. Menolly has apparently placated Robinton by giving him a full report and not letting him get a word in edgewise, a feat that impresses Sharra mightily. Brekke was fretting for Jaxom’s health (even though Oldive had pronounced him fit the previous day), and we saw what happened with the Brown Rider Rapist.

The mission is a success, which is a good news, bad news situation. The bad news is that the discovery from this morning is going to bring everyone worth any kind of status immediately down to excavate, analyze, and otherwise attempt to solve the mystery. And they’re all coming right now, right after the Threadfall and the cleaning routine.

And we’ll stop here, after Jaxom gets a quick meal, at the halfway point of the chapter. This particular chapter, by the way, is, at least on the electronic version in reading on, three times as long as any other chapter in the book that I’ve read, and in most other books in the series as well.

15 thoughts on “The White Dragon: Welcome To The New Age

  1. genesistrine October 22, 2015 at 9:34 am

    whatever disaster befell the Ancients did so very early on, where they weren’t able to finish bringing down all the colony ships to cannibalize their parts to build the new homes with.

    Nitpick, but there’s plenty of reasons they might not have done that. The ships might be too large to land safely; they might use rotational gravity (or none at all), which would make most of their interiors difficult or impossible to access under planetary gravity; they might have been stripped internally so all that’s left is the hulls. They may have been left in orbit as microgravity facilities or because they contained useful equipment that couldn’t be moved because of weight, power requirements, fragility etc, assuming that the anti-science thing wasn’t a feature of the original colonists (which it might be, which could be another reason the ships weren’t dismantled).

    You have NO IDEA how much I want them to be the top end of a space elevator, BTW…

    And we’re told that Pern’s system has multiple asteroid belts, so how about merry bands of asteroid miners, who have no idea anyone’s living on that huge big useless planet? 🙂

  2. Firedrake October 22, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Also the potential for damage from lithobraking depends vastly on the size of the ships – I don’t think we get any indication of that at this point.

    genesistrine: Planets are nasty sticky things. They have gravity to bring you too close and atmosphere to grab you when you get there. Much better to stay clear.

  3. genesistrine October 22, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    “Lithobraking” is one of my very favourite euphemisms. Along with “engine-rich exhaust”, “Rapid Unplanned Disassembly” and “Undergoing a thermal event”.

    And absolutely! Couldn’t agree more!

  4. Only Some Stardust October 23, 2015 at 1:27 am

    ‘ the destabilization of any of those craft could result in an extinction-level event,’
    that would have to be a pretty big ship going at pretty high speed. although, hmm, I do wonder if the smaller size(?) of Pern means it can’t take hits as well as Earth. It’s undoubtedly still pretty big, but, a smaller planet might mean a smaller atmosphere, which is important to burning up falling objects before they impact.

  5. genesistrine October 23, 2015 at 2:38 am

    Pern’s also more volcanically active than Earth, so if the impact set off a chain of eruptions you’ve got the equivalent of a nuclear winter from that instead of just the impact itself.

  6. boutet October 23, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    I find it weird that none of the characters find it weird to be sharing a dream vision of the past.

    Lessa had some weird feelings that lead to her hiding the night her family was killed, but that was explained by her being time-traveled to that place and essentially warning herself. What is bringing on this dream of the past? Is it collective fire-lizard memory? Why is it resurfacing now?

  7. Silver Adept October 24, 2015 at 7:52 am

    It’s true that we don’t have information about the Dawn Sisters in size, just that they manage a geostationary orbit and they’re close enough and big enough to be visible in the night sky as points of light, and an optical telescope is enough to make out that they’re artificial. I assumed that a colony ship would have to be big to contain everything necessary for life on another planet, and the acceleration gathered from a decaying orbit would be enough to impart a pretty big boom. genesistrine gives me a kinder explanation by pointing out the volcanoes everywhere on Pern.

    boutet: I think the lack of surprise about these images of the past is that everyone seems conditioned to believe that fire lizards are flighty creatures that panic about “nothing”, like, say, unresolved temporal events, and that have lots of jumbled pictures in their heads that they can’t communicate clearly enough to explain what they are. Fire lizards are pets and treated like them and small children, so if someone is having dreams like that, it must be flights of fire lizard fancy. It’s only after comparing the details and realizing that others are having the same dream, and there’s some translation applied through Ruth, that anything starts to take on importance.

  8. Firedrake October 31, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    Silver Adept, we can work the numbers. Assume Pern is the same size and mass as Earth. Geostationary orbit is around 22,000 miles above the surface; we can add another 3,900 miles or so for looking sideways rather than straight up (which makes sense if they’re the “Dawn Sisters” near the horizon). Call it 22-26,000 miles.

    Angular resolution of a typical eye is around 60 arcseconds. If the Sisters can’t be resolved as more than a point by eye, that means they’re no bigger than 10-12km across. (Might be bigger because I’m not allowing for atmospheric interference.)

    The big far-viewer is “thick enough so that [Jaxom] needed two hands to surround it”; let’s call it about a 6″ diameter. Best case resolution at 400nm will be about 0.5 arcsecond. So the minimum size is around 85-100 metres. (Again, this may climb as you account for atmospheric interference, poor optical quality, etc.)

    The actual diameter of a Dawn Sister will probably be somewhere between these two values, I’d guess towards the bigger end.

  9. genesistrine October 31, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Firedrake: also bear in mind that there may be more up there than Wansor’s refractor can resolve – the Sisters may just be the shiny bits of a larger structure (tanks? dishes?).

  10. Firedrake November 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    That’s valid; Pern doesn’t have a tradition of naked-eye astronomy (or any sort of curiosity, really) so it’s plausible that nobody ever noticed that you couldn’t spot stars when they ought to be seen between the Dawn Sisters – or the occasional flashes of reflected sunlight around dusk.

    It sounds as if they’re seeing more details than just “a shiny disc”, so that again tends to raise the minimum size.

    I don’t believe the size was ever actually specified in-canon.

  11. genesistrine November 1, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Argh. I meant reflector above.

    Anyway, I don’t think we’re ever told how close together the Sisters appear to be either, so if they do occult stars that pass behind them, it may not seem odd even if anyone noticed. But assuming they’re in the same orbital plane as one or more of the moons, it ought to be possible to see if there is more structure there during a lunar transit.

    (Or solar, but I wouldn’t trust Pernese not to try naked-eye observation then….)

  12. Silver Adept November 1, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    If they have the maths to be able to predict the orbits of the planets, it would make sense for them to be able to make a rough guess about size, but it hasn’t happened yet. That lack of curiosity really does get in the way of a lot of things. Otherwise, they would probably have a lot more technology than they do now, and it would be useful tech.

  13. genesistrine November 2, 2015 at 8:56 am

    I’m not sure they have enough information to make a sensible guess. Do they have a distance yardstick yet?

    They should be able to twig that the Dawn Sisters are staying in the same place because they have an orbital period exactly the same length as a Pernese day. Wansor builds telescopes, so he knows enough optics to do the same maths that Firedrake did, but what they very likely don’t know is Pern’s diameter. The orbital equations can give them relative distances, but they need one defined distance as a yardstick to convert those to absolute distances.

    It’s interesting to try and figure out a way they could estimate it. They wouldn’t need accurate chronometers for longitude estimation, since they have close-enough-to-instant teleportation, but they’d need Piemur’s footslogged maps to match degrees of longitude to “dragonlengths”. Assuming Piemur’s been keeping an eye on his latitude, too – there hasn’t been any mention of sextants; he seems to be doing everything by eye-and-Farli.

    Though I may be overthinking this; they presumably know the distances between Weyrs/Holds, so a couple of dragonriders in different places with sextants aligned on an agreed star should be able to figure it out to a tolerable level of accuracy in a night.

    I like to think this is what Wansor, N’ton and Mirrim are busy doing all night.

  14. Silver Adept November 3, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    That would be totally awesome fanfic to write – “The Astronomers of Pern”, where we find out there’s a secret society of scientists doing all of this work to figure out distances and sizes and a standard length (there hasn’t been am official definition of anything yet, even though I think there have been feet used as a measurement).

    It certainly seems, though, that discoveries and advances have to be in the service of fighting Thread or discovering ancestry to be legitimized. Otherwise, this could have all been done aeons ago and just passed down through the eras, barring disasters that would wipe out the keepers of knowledge…

  15. genesistrine November 3, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    Well, we’ve already seen one disaster wipe out knowledge – the one man who knew that grubs ate Thread died before telling anyone else. Because it had to be kept a SEEEECRET. Because… REASONS?

    Since the Crafts seem to operate on the principle of Craft Secrets rather than scientific openness, goodness knows how much else has been lost the same way. One bout of botulism or Pernese flu in a Crafthall and foof. Not to mention decaying/unreadable/unmaintained Records.

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