Last chapter, Capiam started a symptom diary and took mental time to criticize the journeywoman tasked with his care for being too blunt, a quality he appreciates in her.
Moreta, on the other hand, has to contain the histrionic Weyrleader, who is the most likely person to start the panic the Weyr does not need, run the Weyr, and keep a very solid boot on the neck of anybody else who might be thinking of running away or violating the quarantine. At least in that last department, she has the help of the queen dragons.
Moreta, Dragonlady of Pern: Chapter VIII: Content Notes: Pathophobia, verbal abuse
This is a double-length chapter, so it’s either going to have a lot of action or a lot of filler.
Chapter VIII opens the next day with Moreta, making the last paragraph of the last chapter even less useful and more interrupting of the plot. Everyone is getting geared up for the Threadfall set to arrive today.
I’m going to make a slight diversion here to point out that in the previous chapters, the Weyr was covered in a fog so thick that seeing a few feet in front of you wasn’t possible and Moreta had to step very carefully. The fog has lifted, conveniently, in time for Thread, but it does pose an interesting quandary – if Thread falls while the fog is too thick to see it by human eyes, do the dragons still see it and deliver flame on target? Can the dragons see outside the visible human spectrum? Do they have other senses to help them know where the Thread is? And what do the queen riders do in this situation, since their dragons don’t flame and the riders can’t see what to shoot?
If not, then what happens when Thread rains and nobody can see it? It seems like a nightmare situation all around. Surely someone has come up with a solution, mostly because if Thread is as deadly as it is made out to be, a fog and a Threadfall could spell disaster for the whole continent. If time-twisting hasn’t been discovered until the Ninth Pass, so that they wouldn’t know to just jump back and roast every bit of fog they can see, then the fog clearing today is the equivalent of the planetary body coming close enough to buzz the atmosphere, freak out all the humans, and then go on its way. I mention this because the author, rather than talking about the preparations being rolled out in case the fog persists, has decided that the problem is just going to go away of its own accord. Based on the track record for worldbuilding thus far, this is not out of the ordinary, but I also suspect that the author wouldn’t know what the preparations are in case of fog, anyway.
Moreta goes to see Leri, who has not found anything in the records that resemble the sickness underway.
“Weyrfolk don’t get sick,” she had said with considerable disgust. “Bellyache from overeating or drinking raw wines, Threadscore, stupid collision, knife fights, abscesses, kidney and liver infections by the hundreds, but sick? I’ve looked through twenty Turns after the last Fall”-Leri paused to give a great yawn-“bloody boring. I’ll read on, but only because duty requires. Dragonriders are a healthy lot!”
That’s not a healthy lot to me. That’s a lot that do dangerous work for a living, and probably drink too much to compensate. And then, not satisfied with their dangerous work, get into fights or daredevil antics with each other and the other residents of Pern. So, healthy in the way the stereotypical “tough guy” is healthy.
In making her rounds of the morning, we come across the first information given ever about what happens to people who are candidates but don’t become dragonriders:
Declan and Maylone were runnerhold-bred like herself. Searched the previous Turn for Pelianth’s clutch, they had not Impressed. Because Declan had proved himself useful to Berchar, and Maylone was young enough to Impress again, the two had been allowed to stay on in the Weyr.
So those with skills to contribute or that are young enough for another go stay on in the Sixth Pass. Which implies the others go back to where they came from if they don’t get their Impression. For queen candidates, that must be particularly harsh, but everyone probably gets a pretty good bout of bad feelings, to have been so close to the elite, only to have the opportunity slip through their fingers.
As Moreta arranges the queens wing for the Fall, with extra lovely mental commentary about the cattiness of the other queen riders, Sh’gall continues to be a powder keg about infection, having his breakfast set down away from him and berating his scout rider for actually being close enough to talk to a rider from High Reaches. If there was anyone who is a perfect candidate for Alessan’s jail cell, Sh’gall is it. He’d stay out of the way of all the people doing work, and he could be as isolated as he wants to be so that his own neuroses don’t trigger dangerous consequences.
After breakfast, the pre-flight checklists get Orlith harnessed up, Moreta in flamethrower gear after checking that there’s enough agenothree in the tank and the nozzle is clear (the tank goes on her back, which makes me wonder how big and heavy a tank would be needed for the queen wing to be effective), and everyone out to supervise the feeding of firestone. Which is apparently a more dangerous proposition than the Ninth Pass would have us believe –
…dragon maneuvered firestone to the grinding surfaces of sturdy teeth, taking the greatest care to set the rock just so before applying pressure. The force that would pulverize firestone could also wreak considerable damage to a dragon’s tongue. Dragons chewed firestone cautiously.
I wonder how big the rocks are, then, and/or why dragons don’t seem to have that species instinct of keeping their tongues away from the teeth while eating.
As it is, after we learn that Moreta is not an all-dragon speaker and that apparently the Weyrleader is the commander when it comes to Thread, we also get to see how dragons are configured to do the fighting:
Suddenly the farthest wing launched into the sky, high and straight. They would fly the high first westerly stack of the initial three wings. The second level wing flew out, then the third. Once all had achieved their assigned heights, the three wings went between. The north-south wings launched next for a cross-flight of the probable line of Fall. They went between. The diagonal wings, who would start in the northwest, went aloft and disappeared.
[…impatience to get underway…]
The Weyrleader would take his three wings east, to the line along Crom’s plateau where the leading edge of Thread was due. The queens’ wing took the final position, sweeping as close to the ground as they safely could. Their slower glide, their more powerful wings gave them more flight stability in erratic wind currents.
…maybe it’s me, but it seems like we’re getting a lot more worldbuilding in this book than in the six before it. Perhaps because the fans really want to know what goes on there and the author is finally repenting, or has had sufficient time to think about these things and can write them in now, or has to do it now because the main character can’t hide behind not knowing anything about their position so as to avoid worldbuilding.
As to the practicalities of flying Thread, I do have a big question – who’s playing air traffic control in this scenario? Unless dragons have an ability not mentioned until now to know and then stay at their designated altitude range even while fighting Thread, it would seem there’s a high hazard potential for collisions like those mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. Us Terrans and our flying machines have to do with a radio network across the country that regulates which altitudes what flights can fly at. And each plane has a device and a pilot to make sure that everyone flies at their assigned altitude and stays in contact with everyone else. With twelve wings in the air, presumably of at least five dragons each, that’s a coordination of sixty dragons, all coming at the Thread from different directions. How do they avoid hitting and flaming each other one they reach the center of the storm, assuming they’re all going at the same Fall at the same time? (Doing it in shifts seems unlikely, considering their need to get it all before it hits the ground, but then again, it isn’t mentioned how high the highest ranks go, so maybe all the flaming dragons are high enough that they can cover everything in one pass, and then the arrival of the next squadron is timed such that they can go through at similar altitudes and destroy it all before the third group arrives. If that’s the case, the timing is either really precise or Sixth Pass Pern knows a thing or three about time traveling on dragons.)
The answer we get, it turns out, is that the dragons are their own communications network, and some of them have enough presence of mind to communicate their status when not engaged fully in fighting Thread. It’s not complete information, but those entering or exiting an engagement zone broadcast their status, apparently.
Moreta mentions that the first parts of fighting Thread are generally casualty-free, but that the second hour of the conflict is the one most like to produce injury, as the exuberance wears off (and fatigue starts setting in, I’m guessing. If it takes twelve wings several hours to destroy the Thread rain, the conditioning for dragons and riders must be pretty impressive. It seems like the other Weyrs, assuming they didn’t have Fall in their protection zones, would lend out their riders in support and to provide rest phases for the dragons and riders of the primary Weyr. Maybe they do and we just never have it mentioned.
In the quarantine, though, such sharing would probably freak Sh’gall out enough for him to get hurt, so it’s an Iron Dragon session against the spores.
During the Fall, there’s the usual desire from the gold dragons to shoot fire, excepting for the sterilizing effects, which are, naturally, perfect for the greens or they will overpopulate. I have to wonder whether the natural predators for fire lizard eggs would also take a swing at killing dragon eggs, if the eggs were left and abandoned in the same way that fire lizards eggs are.
And surely whatever brought dragons from fire lizards would figure it how to breed or manipulate out high frequency of mating.
As the fighting progresses, the queens see a little action from Thread that has gotten through the dragon waves. Directing the queens to a wider sweep, Moreta points out the difficulty of having to sweep back and forth without losing focus, as “The rich dark soil of the plateau held sufficient mineral nourishment to sustain Thread long enough to waste fields that had been brought to fertility over hundreds of Turns of careful husbandry.”
…so Thread consumes minerals, but only from organic things or soft enough things that it can burrow? Must be some very specific minerals being sought. What kind of minerals would be common to both plants and animals, but not rocks or other stones?
After some uneventful sweeps, everyone is called to converge at Crom, where the dragon wings do, in fact, intersect with each other as they flame on the Thread, with Moreta nearly singeing a blue rider with her flamethrower as they both chase the same patch of Thread. Moreta points out an ideal Fall would have no wings crossing each other, but that it was difficult to achieve this. Presumably because there’s only a limited interval in which all the Thread has to be burnt up, and the large amount of space a Threadfall covers means no single dragon wing can get to all of it in that time. It’s a complex operation that we haven’t really been privy to the full requirements of up to this point. It would be nice, at some point, to really see the kind of training that weyrlings get so that they can participate in this highly-structured dance.
We get a little bit of what they should be learning as Moreta calls for another tank for her flamethrower and the weyrling comes far too close to the rocks for safety.
“Don’t be clever, T’ragel! Be safe!” Moreta shouted at him. “You could have come out in the ridge, not on it! You’ve never been here before! Hasn’t F’neldril drilled it into your skull to have air space landing as well as taking off?”
[…Moreta sets the rider to watch the valley they are at for any signs of movement as punishment for his antics…]
No matter how often they were cautioned by the Weyrlingmaster and Weyrleader, weyrlings inexplicably disappeared and the older dragons grieved. The casualties were such a waste of the Weyr’s resources.
Which seems like a major problem with the design or breeding of the dragons and their hyperspace abilities. If inexperienced riders routinely transport themselves into solid rock or other hazards, it seems like there should be a safety mechanism in place to prevent this. A well-formed picture in the rider’s head should not permit teleportation into rocks. Unless it’s really not the picture that matters, but a set of coordinates obtained from the picture, which could cause issues. But how difficult would it have been for the dragons to be able to see their exit points and adjust accordingly? Or for a system of traffic control to be established over the planet so that when someone wants to teleport in, they can receive an accurate and up-to-the-minute picture of what the airspace looks like at that point, with specific altitudes reserved for weyrlings so that they always get in the habit of providing enough cushion? There have been almost six Passes at this point, and yet this problem hasn’t been taken care of, and won’t be taken care of at least into the next three Passes. If Weyrs were really concerned about the loss of their young due to teleporting accidents, they’d figure out a way to prevent it, or at least cut the casualty rate down a lot. And with the way that queens can apparently demand compliance from other dragons, that seems like a good way to go as well – the queens order that the dragons will only do safe hops, and the dragons obey.
As it is, the end of Threadfall calls everyone back to the Weyr. The injury report is mostly minor Thread injuries, but there are some bruised ribs and dislocated shoulders, as well as a couple heavily injured dragon wings. Moreta takes a look at Dilenth, who has suffered a significant wing injury that will definitely keep him out of the fighting, and threatens to take away full use of the wing if it heals improperly. Moreta uses Orlith to stop Dilenth from thrashing about so that the injury team can attend to him, and sends Nesso to get supplies and people to help with the mending process. The rider is stuck in self-recrimination about the injury, so much so that his own injuries haven’t been tended to. Thankfully, his weyrmate has them and can be ordered to put them on.
I don’t actually understand what a weyrmate is, now that I think about it. I sort of assume that it’s a romantic relationship between the dragons that produces them, but the people themselves almost always come across more as roomies rather than partners. Even though the only women riders in the Weyr are queen riders. Another opportunity to show off a healthy and adjusted culture of gay relationships wasted.
Nesso returns with sewing supplies, cloth, oil, numbweed salve and several weyrlings to help. After explaining everyone’s duties, and admonishing the weyrmate to get sick now over seeing the injury if he’s going to, Moreta sets to the mending of the torn wing, using Orlith to keep Dilenth still and keeping up a running commentary of the good things happening while doing the mending so that everyone else has something positive to concentrate on. Once finished, everyone has some wine and lets out their internalized stress. Including Nesso, who apologizes for sending K’lon to convey Tolocamp back to Fort from Ruatha on an emergency drum message.
The second message, though, came in heavily encoded and mentioned that there were sick riders at Igen, Telgar, and Ista Weyrs, which becomes a problem when the time schedules say Thread is due in their area in two days. Which is a message Moreta will have to deliver to Sh’gall, because Nesso won’t.
As Moreta makes her way to tell the Weyrleader, she remembers the weyrling she stuck on guard duty and asks Orlith if he came home safely. He did, he told the Weyrlingmaster about what happened, and the Weyrlingmaster would like a word with Moreta about endangering young riders. Moreta intends to give as good as she will get.
The tour of the injured continues, and finishes up with food and a distraction for Nesso, as someone went into labor during the Fall and birth is now imminent. Nesso complains that nobody knows who the father is, because Tellani, the mother, didn’t know, promoting Moreta to silently critique Tellani:
Privately, Moreta blessed Tellani for her timing; she would have respite from the Headwoman, and a birth after Fall was regarded as propitious. The Weyr needed a good dollop of luck. A bou, even of uncertain parentage, would please the dragonriders. She’d have a stern talk with Tellani about keeping track of her lovers – surely a simple enough task even for so loving a woman as Tellani. The Weyr had to be cautious about consanguinity. It might just be the wiser course to foster Tellani’s children to other Weyrs.
Well, Pern seems to have remembered or discovered the part where close cousins and siblings are not good matches for each other in terms of genetics. That said, since the children are raised communally and by people who aren’t their birth parents, there has to be some way of knowing who has what genes and ancestry. Nominally, the naming conventions for dragonriders would help, since a full name is a portmanteau of the mother and father’s names, but that only means dragonriders know. What about daughters? They don’t have that convention. It seems like the smartest thing to do is to do what Moreta is thinking, but adopt it as a Weyr-wide policy, like the Lords Holder do – all children in a Weyr are fostered out to other Weyrs so as to avoid, as much as possible, too close of genetic relatives having children together. It’s still possible, of course, but that’s the risk you run by not knowing completely who your family is.
After Moreta eats, K’lon comes over to explain why he shuttled Tolocamp back to Fort, spinning a bit of a yarn about not having heard the quarantine order, and passing along that all the daughters that were hoping to catch Alessan’s eye stayed behind. The implications of that are cut short by Sh’gall’s angry entrance, furious that the Holds they were flying over supplied very few ground crews to help with Thread, despite no reported cases of the plague at their locations. Moreta’s relay of the sick riders is met with insistence that everyone will do their duty at Fort…and then is roundly undercut by the sound of dragon mourning, announcing the first of seven rider deaths from the fever. This winds Sh’gall up even more, and he demands of Cumir, the Harper, to send out a priority request for a status update on the disease. Fortine sends back that it’s considered a pandemic, that isolation is imperative, and a list of things to treat symptoms with. Sh’gall is not satisfied, and asks for a direct reply from Capiam, which Fortine acknowledges but does nothing about. Still frustrated, Sh’gall turns on Moreta.
“S’gor tells me [Moreta] he [Berchar] has been using what Master Fortine suggests. K’lon has recovered.”
“But Ch’mon has died!”
His statement became an accusation, and she was at fault.
“The illness is among us, Sh’gall,” Moreta said, gathering strength from an inner source whose name was Orlith. “Nothing we can do or say now alters that. No one forced us to attend the Gathers, you know.” Her wayward humor brought grim smiles to several of the faces about her. “And most of us enjoyed ourselves.”
“And look what happened!” Sh’gall’s body vibrated with his fury.
“We can’t reverse the happening, Sh’gall. K’lon survived the plague as we have survived Thread today and every fall the past forty-three Turns, as we have survived all the other natural disasters that have visited is since the Crossing.” She smiled wearily. “We just be good at surviving to have lived so long in this planet.”
The weyrfolk and all the riders began to take heart at Moreta’s words, but Sh’gall gave her another long stare of outraged disgust and stalked out of the Lower Caverns.
The confrontation had shaken Moreta. She was drained of all energy, even Orlith’s, and it had become an effort to keep upright. She gripped the edge of her chair, trembling. It wasn’t just Sh’gall’s rage but the unpalatable, unavoidable knowledge that she was very likely the next victim of the plague in the Weyr. Her head was beginning to ache and it was not the kind that succeeded tension or the stress and concentration of repairing dragon injuries.
First, here’s a great big reason why there needs to be a check or succession plan for Weyrleaders, because Sh’gall is clearly unable to handle this problem. He’s panicked, irrationally afraid, and he’s going to hurt someone if this continues. Much like how Tolocamp should have been able to let his sons run the Weyr, Sh’gall needs to turn over his responsibilities to someone else. He won’t, because of the fear, but that’s what the escape valve is for, so that a Weyrleader who is clearly compromised can be removed from the business of running the Weyr until the crisis has passed.
Not related to that, I detect a significant amount of narrative punishment here. It was foreshadowed all this time, with all the nervousness about the runners and her contact and the good time she had with Alessan, but I can’t see a narrative reason for Moreta to be infected with the disease. Capiam’s story can easily carry the weight of “what is the experience like for someone important to be infected”, and Sh’gall and Ruatha are providing more than enough of “how do we keep everyone under control while this disease rages over the planet”, so there doesn’t seem to be a narrative necessity for Moreta to fall ill, as well. It brings up the history of queen riders being punished by the narrative for being active people with opinions and for having fun with people outside their social caste. With as long as has happened between this book and The White Dragon, I hoped this particular problem would have been caught and removed.
The end of the chapter is Moreta stumbling back to her quarters, where Leri has already laid out the recommended course of treatment for the plague. Moreta gratefully steps in, drinks fellis-laced wine, and falls asleep.