Last time, a villain was once again forced into incompetence by the narrative, the colonists continued to fight Thread, and finally decided on the last-ditch option – asking the geneticist to build dragons. To everyone’s surprise, she agreed.
Dragonsdawn, Part Two: Content Notes: Murder, torture
Now that permission has been obtained, basically everyone with any knowledge of animals is put to work helping Kitti Ping. Everyone else is basically conscripted into fighting Thread or researching it. When Fall is going to drop over Stev Kimmer and Avril Bitra’s stake, the administration orders an evacuation, and Stev comes back laden with metals and minerals and mentions that Avril came back weeks ago, putting the administration on alert for her. Avril herself has left Landing and settled into a nearby stake to wait everyone out and see if she can steal the spacecraft, the narrative shows.
The narrative shifts to an impatient Benden and Boll being consoled to patience by Kitti Ping, who reminds them that they cannot rush gestation unless they like having their work go for nothing. Being dismissed sparks an idea in Benden to hold a day of rest and festivities so as to keep up morale. At the event itself, before the festivities get started in earnest, Ongola casually mentions that it would be a good idea to gather more often, and we have a slightly more subtle call forward to the Gather festivals.
However, we get nothing of the festivities, only the fatality reports from the Fall that happened at the same time due to crashes brought on by pilots horsing around, and Ongola having sought a hangover cure before work. And then someone comes in to see him because they found where Kenjo was hoarding space fuel. Ongola swiftly reassures her that the fuel is from the colonists, and not any aliens, and then tells her she found nothing and nobody gets to know. Tarvi arrives and suggests stripping the shuttles so as to repair and rebuild air sleds lost to collision and damage.
Soon after, Kitti Ping dies, having completed the program needed to generate dragons from dragonets. And Ezra reports to Benden and Boll that two probes have attempted to scan and collect data on the wandering planet. Both failed and were destroyed at the same place.
Oh, and that the Thread thing could last up to fifty years, if his program calculations are correct. This segment seems to be all about trying to be a tragedy from start to finish, the part in the narrative moving toward the lowest point in the story, as if the arrival of Thread hasn’t been a good enough low point. The deaths and bad news are all piling up at once, now that the plot flag of dragon eggs has been achieved. Now that we can be reasonably sure the colony will survive, individuals can now be killed off, it appears.
Plot-wise, Ezra suggests sending someone up to the colony ships to fix the remaining probes and send them to the planet and the tail the planet is leaving behind. Kenjo will pilot, and both Bitra and Kimmer are passed on before Ongola is selected as the second for the mission.
So, since everyone is on high alert and ready to go, now is the time Avril decides she’s going to steal the ship and get away, worried that they’re isn’t going to be enough fuel left for her if she waits any longer. As soon as she decides to go, the perspective switches to Sallah, who recognizes Avril again by her gait, and this time is not dissuaded by appearances. Picking up a big wrench, she hustles after Avril, but isn’t able to stop Avril hitting Kenjo and Ongola hard enough to have blood coming out of their heads. Sallah throws herself inside the airlock just before Avril takes the ship up and then passes out. Children discover the two men soon after – Kenjo dead, Ongola severely hurt – after Ezra reports that the shuttle docked successfully with the carrier in space. This is finally enough to shock Benden into a need for a drink and a sit-down. He decides on asking whether or not Kenjo’s wife knows where the rest of the fuel is before trying to figure out who just committed murder and stole the ship.
“Then ask Jake if there are any unmodified sleds on the grid. Find out exactly where Stev Kimmer, Nabol Nahbi, and Bart Lemos are. And-” Paul held up a warning hand. “-if anyone’s seen Avril Bitra anywhere.”
“Avril?” Ezra echoed, and then clamped his mouth firmly shut.
Suddenly Paul swore in a torrent of abusive language that made even Ezra regard him with amazement, and slammed out of the room.
And now, it turns out, we have a very mad Admiral, but luckily, the guidance chip dummies that Ongola had been swapping in and out are still in place on the shuttle ship, so Avril has no way of getting away. Benden thinks there’s something that could have been done to stop Avril, but given the characterization that she’s had, there’s nothing short of letting her go that would have worked to stop Avril. After the self-flagellation from Benden, Boll notes that Sallah is unaccounted for as well.
“Unfortunately,” Emily said, “she had a hostage, whether she knows it or not. Sallah Telgar-Andiyar is also missing.”
Before we follow the narrative over to Avril and Sallah, I have to say that this plotline feels misplaced, as if it were should be put somewhere else, but an editorial decision decided that it would be better to have all the danger all at once.
Avril, as characterized here, is a mid-boss at best. She wants to fill up a craft with gemstones and fly back from where she came to live out a life of luxury. Good gemstones aren’t particularly hard to find or mine, apparently, so there’s no real reason why Avril would wait eight years before deciding to leave. If she needs Landing depopulated enough to steal the ship, then smarter villainy suggests that she would be trying very hard to get everyone else established in their stakes so that they go away and leave her to taking the craft. She would not be ignoring Landing so much as to miss the whole Thread thing – she’d be hip deep in it, looking for opportune times to steal the spacecraft. It feels like a plot that should be happening in the first year or two of the colony, a small test of the leadership to see if they can stop her from stealing and/or trying to get herself elected leader so that she can just take the shuttle herself. The whole Avril arc should have been concluded by now, so that when the world-threatening menace appears, it can be a proper threat. Depending on how things resolved with Avril attempting a democratic takeover, maybe Avril does this sequence as an opportunistic attempt, but this sequence should be in the context where Avril’s already been defeated a few times and is popping up again.
Not to mention that the narrative itself seems to have been struggling at this point. It started with three groups – the administrative team for when logistics was needed, Sean and Sorka for exploration, and Avril for the voice of the discontent, which is usually used to poke holes in the utopic visions of the others. Avril’s disappearance and Tubberman’s mental break took the teeth out of that voice, and once things started to settle, Sean and Sorka stopped appearing, too. Now Avril’s back, for no apparent reason, and the narrative is struggling to put her back into the Thread plot.
Finally, Holds and Weyrs are named after people, presumably, that the colonists look up to and respect. Given their characterization do far, why do Bitra and Nabol Holds exist at all?
The plot gives us this sequence to open the confrontation between Telgar and Bitra:
Sallah returned to consciousness aware of severe discomfort and a throbbing pain in her left foot. She was bound tightly and efficiently in an uncomfortable position, her hands behind her back and secured to her tied feet. She was floating with her side just brushing the floor of the spacecraft; the lack of gravity told her she was no longer on Pern. There was a rhythmic but unpleasant background noise, along with the sounds of things clattering and slipping about.
Then she recognized the monotonous and vicious sounds to be the curses of Avril Bitra.
No, sorry, that doesn’t work. Cursing, by nature, is not monotonous, and if it were, it could not be vicious as well. Sallah might think Avril’s choices in curses uninspired or ineffective, but they certainly aren’t going to be delivered in a monotone.
Avril kicks Sallah and threatens to space her for what Avril believes Sallah did to the ship. Sallah plays for time to start, and as Avril realizes that the ship can’t do anything, accompanied by a “…tirade of malevolent and resentful oaths spun from Avril’s lips” (See? Much better phrasing.), Avril decides she needs Sallah alive, but not before Avril spins her around in the microgravity until Sallah vomits.
“You bitch woman!” Avril stopped Sallah before she could expel more vomit into the air. “Okay! If that’s the way of it, you know what I need to know. And you’re going to tell me, or I’ll kill you by inches.” A spaceman’s knife, with its many handlepacked implements, sliced across the top of Sallah’s nose.
Then she felt the blade none too gently cutting the bindings on her hands and feet. Blood rushed through starved arteries, and her strained muscles reacted painfully. If she had not been in free-fall, she would have collapsed.
I’m not sure what happened here. Did Avril actually cut Sallah on her nose, which would cause blood to leak out into microgravity and create a bigger potential mess? Especially since head wounds tend to bleed worse than other ones? Or is this just the bad use of a word here?
I also don’t quite understand why Avril is getting upset at Sallah vomiting after Avril spun her around so quickly. Maybe it was fun until reality ensued? Or Avril, who just cut Sallah, got squicked by vomit?
In any case, Avril drags Sallah to the pilot’s seat, tethers her to it, and orders her to put a course in to the nearest system over. Sallah figures that even if the fuel tanks run out, Avril will be able to drift for centuries in deep sleep, eventually be rescued by someone picking up on a distress beacon, and sell off all the gems and metals at a very tidy profit. Everyone knew, apparently, what Avril’s plan was, but nobody appeared to care or think that Avril would try to pull it off. Except perhaps Ongola. Probably because they didn’t think it very likely or possible that someone would be able to pull off the sequence.
When the computer returns an error, Avril turns her rage back on Sallah.
Avril pressed Sallah’s foot against the base of the console module, increasing the pain to the point where Sallah felt herself losing consciousness. Avril viciously pinched her left breast. “You don’t pass out on me, Telgar!”
[…Sallah directs Avril to open a panel and see what’s gone…]
“How did they do it? What did they take, Telgar, or I’ll start carving you up.” Avril flattened Sallah’s left hand over the exposed chips, and her knife blade cut through the little finger to the bone. Pain and shock lanced through Sallah’s body. “You don’t need this one at all!”
“Blood hangs in the air just like vomit and urine, Bitra. And if you don’t stop, you’ll have both in free-fall.”
They locked eyes in a contest of wills.
“What…did…they…remove?” With each word Avril sawed against the little finger. Sallah screamed. It felt good to scream, and she knew it would complete the picture of her in Avril’s mind: soft. Sallah had never felt harder in her life.
So, I’m guessing that the earlier knife attack was an actual wound given there, too. Sallah should be bleeding particularly well at this point, with as much damage as Avril has been doing to her in her rage. This should be a matter of contamination risk a lot earlier than when it is mentioned, but I think we’re supposed to see Avril as letting out her true self, instead of the charmer and manipulator that she’s been cultivating this entire time (and that everyone has already apparently seen through), and so is no longer concerned with such things as whether or not the spacecraft she intends to fly out will actually be safe enough to get to her destination.
As things are, the narrative goes back to the planet, as the assembled administrators, Ezra, and Tarvi watch Avril take Sallah onto the Yokohama to find replacement parts for the missing guidance chips. Apparently, the chips and crystals are the wrong size, but things will apparently work well enough to get the tiny ship out and on its way before the real sabotage, already done by Ongola, is made clear – the ship, once pointed in a direction, will only travel on that line, instead of any particular course laid in.
After Sallah watches Avril and the small ship disappear, having been left behind by Avril, she opens communications to the planet and tells Ezra that he has three probes to fire. The people on the ground are not amused by this and want to talk about how to get her back down to the planet. She dispatches the probes according to the directions Ezra gives her, rigs the data transfer to be forwarded on to the planet, and then points out to the assembled on the ground that she doesn’t have enough oxygen in her tanks to get rescued, not mentioning the part where she’s also bleeding out from the wounds that Avril gave her. Tarvi gives an impassioned plea of his love for her and how stupid he was not to have said it and shown it more. Sallah hears it and responds to it before she dies.
As for Avril, it turns out that the vector that she chose, and expects the craft to follow, will take her into a crash with the Red Star. The only useful thing that comes out of that encounter, other than constant curses, is a fragmentary “It’s not the–” that is, naturally, left unexplained before the craft crashes and Avril is also no more.
All that’s left for this section is to give the news officially to Kenjo’s wife, learn about the existence of the other fuel cave, even if they don’t know where it is exactly, and then to have the bonfire lighting. Tarvi has the “honor” of the action, and here we see the first inklings of the custom that will result in the naming of the Holds and Weyrs.
“From now on,” he shouted hoarsely, “I am not Tarvi, nor Andiyar. I am Telgar, so that her name is spoken every day, so that her name is remembered by everyone for giving us her life today. Our children will now bear that name, too. Ram Telgar, Ben Telgar, Dana Telgar, and Cara Telgar, who will never know her mother.” He took a deep breath, filling his chest. “What is my name?”
“Telgar!” Paul replied as loud as he could.
“Telgar!” cried Emily beside him, Pierre’s baritone repeating it a breath behind her. “Telgar!”
“Telgar! Telgar! Telgar! Telgar! Telgar!” Nearly three thousand voices took up the shout in a chant, pumping their arms until Telgar thrust the burning torch into the bonfire. As the flame roared up through the dry wood and fern, the name crescendoed. “Telgar! Telgar! Telgar!”
The tragedy compounds. In a narrative where this was further up in the story, this would be a good lead into the arrival of something more dangerous and deadly – the story of sacrifices made before the world-ending rain arrived. Instead, the truth of Thread means that mourning and resolution is likely to be out on hold because survival is about to become foremost in everyone’s mind again. A big narrative beat is stolen away by not being in the right place.
Furthermore, it’s only after the tragedy that we find out that Tarvi really loves his wife (and has had multiple children with her! Those dawn attacks were apparently super-effective.) and is now regretting not showing it. It’s an action without any sort of precedent at all in Tarvi’s character. Admittedly, being grief-stricken will do shame things to you, but it would have been nicer to have had precedent, like a little more about how even though he basically acts/is ace, Tarvi has flashes of affection or desire for Sallah. People can be complex, and that’s okay.