Last time, more of the details of the orbital plot were revealed to us, and we had our first near-fatality when Mirressa and her dragon passed out and had to be revived with rescue breathing and the combined will of other riders and their dragons to restart hearts from stoppage. And while this was a potentially preventable affair (and there were immediate measures to prevent a repeat of passing out), Jirana confided in Xhinna that there is much more disaster to come, and Xhinna was almost able to have a real moment of empathy for Jirana based on them both being people in exceptional situations and having the entire weight of the survival of the Isle placed on them more than once. The narrative, however, intervened and chose, instead, to suggest that Jirana is somehow being spoiled by all the attention she’s received before going on a long tangent about children, including showcasing that Xhinna seems to have adopted Fiona’s policies about having lots of kids in her and Taria’s bed, even if Taria is less sanguine about the matter.
Sky Dragons: Chapter Nineteen: A Flame In The Void: Content Notes: Standing on someone’s anxiety triggers,
Chapter Nineteen opens up with J’riz coming to talk with Xhinna. He’s brought klah because they’re sending up the first serious orbital observation rotation this morning. While Xhinna hopes that she manages to sneak out of the bed without disturbing anyone, she’s wrong, but Taria and the others eventually settle back down. Early morning waking time settled, Xhinna arrives at the infirmary, where Mirressa and Bekka are having a discussion about who’s going to look after the children while there are dragons up in the sky. Which eventually resolves in a particularly Pernese way.
“Actually,” Xhinna interposed smoothly. “I’ve already arranged with Fiona.”
Mirressa’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and she started to protest, but Xhinna cut her off. “It’s not as though she doesn’t owe us, after all.”
“You, in particular,” Xhinna cut across the green rider’s incipient objection.
“She’s right, and you know it,” Bekka said. She smiled at the green rider, adding, “And why do you think she’s used you so unmercifully to sit her brood if she didn’t intend return payment?”
Mirressa’s objections died on her lips as she digested Bekka’s words.
“And it’s not as if she won’t pester my mother or Aressil or Colfet or any one of a dozen others to help at it,” J’riz added with a grin.
The particular Pernese way, in this case, being that someone decides that since they’ve been used sufficiently, they’re just going to drop a problem in the lap of the person that’s been using them, without giving them the opportunity to say no. That Fiona is sufficiently able to get others to do what she wants anyway increases their willingness to ditch her, but it’s interesting to see this done without any apparent concern that Fiona will use her gold rider status to exact revenge on them or to escalate after this particular revenge is given. Fiona won’t, because she’s a designated protagonist and Good Person, and if the prediction holds true, she’ll shuck all the kids she doesn’t want to look after on other people, telling them they’ve been volunteered for the job. Given how other dragonriders have been about having things dropped in their lap, depending on what color the person doing the dropping is, I feel like this particular strategy only is going to succeed because it’s Fiona. The Asshole At Telgar certainly wouldn’t be so cheerful or accepting of such a thing were it to happen to him, even if it weren’t also childcare. Appealing to a higher-colored rider’s sense of fairness always seems like a risky proposition to me, especially given what we’ve seen of how the bronze and gold riders can be about what they think is fair.
There’s also some reinforcement of the idea that Bekka likes people who are going to be brats to her.
“I made the boy get it [firestone, in this case],” Bekka said, nodding toward J’riz, who tried his best to look put upon. With any other person, J’riz’s brilliant green eyes and miserable look would have at least won an “Ahhh!” of sympathy, but Bekka merely swatted him on the arm. “Guide them up—I don’t need their broken necks to deal with on top of everything else.”
“As you say, Weyrwoman,” J’riz returned with a low and overly obsequious bow. Bekka snarled at him and he took off like a wounded Meeyu, Xhinna and Mirressa trailing behind, neither of them taken in by the act.
And, of course, our call-back to the idea that J’riz is a heartbreaker who is going to use his cute to the greatest advantage that he has, even if those who are wise to him are less likely to fall for his charms. Seriously, Bekka has the worst bedside manner. But she seems to find people that enjoy working with her and that she seems to enjoy teasing and being the disciplinarian for. Whatever dynamic works for you. Although I kind of wish the authors would have everybody being old enough where this could be made into something more intentional and an adult decision, rather than it being all subtext and for everyone’s ages to have to be thought about rather prominently, because so many of them are not of age to make those decisions as adults, at least to the Terran readership, even if they’re probably well past the marriageable age on Pern.
So! The first day of the orbital tour is, apparently, following the sun around the planet, using the Dawn Sisters as the first reference point and then handing off the coordinate picture to the next group to come up and look, and basically trying to stay squarely in the middle of wherever the sun is shining on the planet. Since Xhinna’s shift goes first, they use the Dawn Sisters as their reference point of where to jump to for observations, going up at sunup and staying there for their shift. The handoff for the sun chase goes smoothly, there’s a lot of post-observation awe and chatter about what they’ve just done, and Jirana and her queen group, as well as plenty of the other queen riders (apparently on orders from Bekka) burst in to demand their turn to go up and see the planet from orbit. Which gets handled relatively quickly and smoothly.
The narrative then says that for this unscheduled trip,
They arrived near the Dawn Sisters when they were midway across the Western Isle
surprising the observers on shift, and then, after this jaunt,
At the start of the next watch, Xhinna and Mirressa got their image from the last pair of Jirelli’s wing and went up to the Dawn Sisters
, and then later, there’s this:
They can’t see us, can they? Mirressa relayed through her Valcanth to Xhinna.
The Dawn Sisters are bright lights in the sky, Xhinna relayed back by way of answer.
which violates the idea that the Dawn Sisters are in a geostationary orbit or any sort, and contradicts earlier books that specifically say the Dawn Sisters do not move across the sky. I understand why this kind of mistake would be made, because, after all, the name “geostationary” makes someone think that the crafts aren’t moving, but it’s about relative movement in orbit, rather than absolute movement. The sort of thing that is easy for us to discover on the World Wide Web at this point in time, using The Other Wiki, for example, as it even has graphics that demonstrate that geostationary orbits are always staring down at the same patch of land. So, as described, this plan definitely does not work. It’s simple enough to fix, by removing the “midway across the Western Isle” part so that Xhinna and company pop up where the Dawn Sisters are to do their observations, or to change the narrative so that Xhinna and company use the imagery provided by the last observation shift to pop up next to the current ones and startle them slightly by being there, and substituting “Rukbat” or “the sun” for the Dawn Sisters as the bright object that’s in the sky. Ground observers wouldn’t be able to see the dragons in the sky if the dragons always put themselves between the planet and the sun, causing a tiny eclipse with their bodies, unless the observer knew exactly what to point their telescope at and used a proper polarizing filter so that looking at the sun didn’t fry their eyeballs.
And then we have information that should have been relayed much earlier, when I was going on for a significant amount of time about how everyone on the ground should be able to successfully calculate the time in which their Threadfalls begin, if they know when Threadfall begins.
“We need to start keeping an eye out for Thread,” Xhinna said to Avarra and Jerilli later as the watch riders took post with the dawn over Telgar Weyr.
“I thought we had a month at least,” Avarra protested.
“We can’t be certain,” Xhinna said. “We know there were dustfalls before the Fall over Benden, Bitra, and Tillek.”
Which would not have been all that hard to include earlier so that the reader was properly informed that there was variability as to when Thread actually started, necessitating this orbital observation plan in the first place, rather than waiting until the plan was underway to provide justification for its existence. Blargh.
With one final wrongness about the Dawn Sisters, phase two of the plan, which makes much more sense and would potentially work to spot Thread, is unveiled.
“So when we’ve followed the Dawn Sisters back here, what’s next?” Avarra asked.
“Then we start our proper watch,” Xhinna told her. “We’ll need a watch stationary over Benden from sunrise to sunset, same with Telgar and High Reaches—”
“That should let us see everything there,” Jerilli agreed.
“And we’ll keep the same length of watch here over the Great Isles.”
“We’ll have fourteen hours over the Northern Continent, but only eleven over our own,” Jerilli noted. When Avarra grunted in confusion, Jerilli explained, “We only get eight hours of sunlight in one place; there’s six hours’ difference between Benden and High Reaches, whereas we’ve only got three at best between the easternmost of Eastern and the westernmost of Western.”
At which point I scream in aggravation, because not only did we not have the information about the dustfalls earlier in time, we didn’t have an indication that the time zones had already been figured out and/or know, both of which would have curbed several of the objections I had to the plan as originally discussed and decided upon. We know they don’t use them, but right now, a beta and an editor really would have helped put the correct information in the correct places so the whole thing would flow better and not contain glaring errors about the ships in orbit around Pern.
Because there’s a time discrepancy, there’s also a shift discrepancy that needs to be ironed out. Xhinna says she’s open for suggestions, which everyone else takes to mean “I have an idea already,” and they’re not wrong. It happens to be that Xhinna and the other wingleaders agree about staying up a little bit longer for each shift and for staggering things properly so there’s always a new pair up to check on the old ones and make sure they’re not extending themselves past their ability. With that ironed out, the observers settle into their schedules to wait. And very quickly (within six days) become bored of staring at the same spot for hours upon end without anything changing. Right after grumbling that there might be a mere nineteen days to go before the first known Threadfall, there’s a Threadfall reported over Bitra, and Xhinna and company pop up to the orbiting space to confirm what’s going on.
Xhinna quickly found Bitra. There, dark smudges seemed to mar the landscape. She looked around, saw the rest of her wing form around her, and called to her blue, Take us there!
And it is, in fact, Thread that is falling, but they’ve spotted it before it fully unspools itself into the silver rain, which means their altitude is too high to effectively ignite the air and the Thread, so Danirry tells the dragons to fall with it and then unleash their flame on the Thread as it makes the transition from space spore to deadly organism, which is effective. And, for the first time in basically all of these books, we get to see the transition.
Xhinna looked at the Thread, so tantalizingly close, deadly, threatening. The clumps were changing, glowing with a heat of their own and—extending, growing, streaming into—
Thread! Tazith bellowed, bursting forth with another belch of firestone—this time it lit and the streaming Thread in front of him caught fire, crisped, and charred into nothingness
Having figured out the effective altitude to wallop Thread at, Xhinna calls Avarra and Jeilli to her and the wings roast the Thread completely, everyone extremely happy that they’re finally getting actual combat practice and breaking the routine they have otherwise been suffering from.
That said, apparently “dark smudges” over somewhere is enough to call down the alarm as to what is being sought after. Everyone who has seen Thread before has seen it as the silvery rain that it becomes after the heat of atmospheric entry causes the spores to shed their space travel covers, so I would have expected the call to be much more “Is this Thread?” rather than “This is Thread!” I am entirely okay with the orbital observers going “That’s not the usual weather patterns, those aren’t the usual clouds, we should go investigate that,” but unless someone has already seen it transform, or someone magically already knows what Thread looks like before it unspools, I can’t really believe they have that kind of certainty.
After jubilation about effectively crushing Thread for the first time, when K’dan and Fiona come by and suggest that perhaps they should report in about what happened, Fiona makes a statement that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
Danirry’s Kiarith reported to everyone, and you knew that Xhinna and her—ahem—consorts were going to fight the Thread.
Okay, so who’s present at this hugging session? Xhinna, R’ney, Davissa, Danirry. Of these four, Xhinna’s connected to R’ney through Taria and the children, to Danirry because Danirry, we’ve been told, has a monster crush on Xhinna (and possibly has become intimate with R’ney as well, given that Xhinna blushed when she interrupted them together?) and Davissa is just part of the wing. I don’t believe she has any connection to Xhinna in any intimate way. If there are any jokes about who’s consorting with whom, it should be focused on R’ney, since he’s the one with the demonstrated, or at least insinuated, big ball of polyamory going on. Instead, Fiona makes this crack about Xhinna and insinuates that she’s the one who’s got a partner in every weyr. For this to be seen as a much more joking affair, I feel like Xhinna should swipe back with something like “I learned from the best, clearly,” so that the reader understands there’s no malice in either tease or response.
As it is, Danirry is over the moon about how her plan worked perfectly. However,
“Uh, dear…,” R’ney prompted.
At this, Danirry seemed to realize that she’d left a few important words out—a habit of hers that her fellow blues and greens had come to accept, but which was foreign to most others.
[…Danirry starts her explanation, but it’s not particularly illuminating to the others, apparently…]
“Please explain, blue rider, and assume that we’ve never heard what you’re talking about before,” Fiona said.
“Because we haven’t,” R’ney added, reaching forward to poke the blue rider affectionately on the shoulder. “Once again, dear heart, you forget what you haven’t told us.”
“Oh,” Danirry said, only slightly repentant.
(Okay, so yes, clearly, Danirry and R’ney are a thing together, thank you narrative, and also, see above about how R’ney should be getting the harem joke.)
As I recall, from earlier chapters, this was a thing that R’ney also did, so I’m kind of happy that two people with compatible neuroatypicalities are doing well together and are being supportive of each other. Although I think that R’ney could probably do a little bit better in the supportive department. I’m also glad that the people who are around Danirry have adjusted to this particular thing, and it doesn’t seem to be affecting anyone’s ability to do things or their opinion of Danirry.
That said, Danirry’s explanation is a little strange to the Terran audience.
“Well, it’s just that I thought—well, Thread burns, right?”
K’dan nodded slowly.
“And it grows; it eats things,” Danirry continued. “So it’s something that lives and needs air.” She glanced around, her eyes darting quickly toward K’dan and Fiona before coming to rest on Xhinna as she took a deep breath. “So I figure that it lives, then while it’s in the cold of space it must be dead—”
“Dead?” K’dan repeated, his brows furrowed.
“Asleep, like a seed out of the ground,” Danirry said. “Inert, if you will.”
“I see,” K’dan said.
“So when it falls, something has to wake it, as it were, or it would still be a seed when it hit the soil, wouldn’t it?”
“We’re with you,” R’ney said encouragingly.
“So I figured that when it woke up would be when it was most vulnerable, when it would be smallest and easiest to destroy,” Danirry continued. She looked K’dan full in the eyes as she concluded, “Just when it was spooling out into Thread. Just where there was enough air to slow it down, enough air that we could flame it into dust.”
“By the first Egg!” Fiona swore in awe. She glanced to K’dan.
“It worked?” K’dan asked.
“Perfectly,” Xhinna said, moving to Danirry’s side and hugging the blue rider’s shoulders. She glanced toward Avarra and Jerilli. “Not a dragon or rider injured, and no Thread reached the ground.”
This feels like one of those times where someone who has a scientific mind is trying to explain a concept that she doesn’t actually have the words for. Because it would be a lot easier for her to say “Thread is in a dormant phase until the friction from atmospheric entry removes the spore casing, at which point it becomes vulnerable to dragon fire,” but if she said that, she’d have to go back and explain all of those things all the same, I suspect. And it’s an interesting property of Thread, apparently, that as it loses the casing, it becomes a lot more subject to drag and thermals and other such things. Describing it as “rain” has been a bit of a misnomer throughout all of these books, but I suppose it’s the best thing they have, a rain with clumps that’s affected by wind so it blows in unexpected directions.
Anyway, having discovered a new point to start making calculations from, the entire Western Isle group is a-flutter that they’re way out of sync with what they’ve already experienced, before Danirry suggests that the reason everything is so out of phase, and there’s only dustfall instead of Threadfall is because the Sky Dragons have already cleaned it up using their upper-atmosphere techniques. Which, again, appear to work perfectly well because…Thread doesn’t behave erratically when it’s coming out of the spore shell? Because they’re high enough up that there isn’t any wind? I don’t know, but it sounds like this technique can be used to destroy Thread in neat rows or ways without risking the dragonriders to Thread. So long as they hit the timing and altitude windows correctly, which everyone is very enthusiastic about and resources are rearranged and reallocated to make sure there’s enough catching dragons for the Skies to attempt this new technique multiple times in the future.
Before we go forward to this plan of running several secret high-altitude Thread destruction, Fiona and K’dan have more…teasing isn’t the right word, but it’s close, because what they’re doing is standing hard again on how much Xhinna doesn’t want attention, even if she’s really competent at what she’s being asked to do. (Because all of Xhinna’s life experiences to this point have told her that getting attention is negative attention.)
“Flightleader?” Xhinna exclaimed when Fiona and K’dan sprang their latest surprise on her the next morning in the High Kitchen.
“Well, ‘Weyrleader’ seems a bit much,” K’dan told her, barely able to keep the grin off his face.
“Although Flightleader is an insult, because you’ll be in charge of two Flights,” Fiona added. She turned to K’dan, suggesting “Over-leader?”
“No,” Xhinna said, raising her hands in horror. She knew how persuasive Fiona could be, especially with the Weyrleader. Well, actually, pretty much with all the Weyrleaders. It was absolutely necessary to nip this in the bud. “No, anything but that!”
“So, Flightleader it is,” Fiona said triumphantly.
“Still,” K’dan began, clearly enjoying himself, “it’s not quite right, because you’ll be in charge of six wings.”
“Flightleader will do fine,” Xhinna muttered. Shaking her head, she looked across the table at the two of them. Settling her gaze on Fiona, she accused, “You set me up for this.”
“Well, of course,” Fiona agreed easily. “Although far be it from me to suggest that perhaps you actually earned it—”
“No, that would be my job,” K’dan inserted. He grinned at Xhinna. “You’ve got all the qualifications. And, you’ll note, the other Weyrleaders all saw fit to send their best—”
“And not a bronze among them,” Xhinna noted tartly.
“Well, that’s not fair,” Fiona said, her light tone evaporating. “Jirana makes too much sense with her notion of catching falling dragons—”
[…they point out that it has worked when needed, but because of how much help is needed to catch bigger dragons, they’ll stick with the lighter ones in the Sky Wings, which Fiona has also just sprung on Xhinna…”]
“Sky Wings?” Xhinna interrupted.
“Well, I don’t think Space Wings makes much sense,” Fiona continued, thoroughly enjoying herself, “as you’re not really up in space for all that long, after all.”
“Sky Wings,” Xhinna repeated with a long sigh of resignation. She was rewarded with chuckles from the Weyrwoman and Weyrleader, which is what she’d intended.
Specifically, they’re assholes because they should know by now that promoting Fiona and giving her new titles and new names for things is exactly the worst thing to do to her, and they are clearly taking delight in doing this, rather than doing something like this with less flash and fanfare and more asking Xhinna if she’s comfortable with this thing and then just assigning people as needed to her. But it seems like Fiona and K’dan both enjoy torturing Xhinna with these kinds of rewards for her competence that only increase her profile and make her even more of a target for people who think that women shouldn’t be doing any of these things. And increases Xhinna’s pressure on herself, as well. If the authors were trying to show us how terrible these previous protagonists have become in the intervening time, they did an excellent job. After outlining the new plan and the new duties, Fiona can’t help but tease Xhinna one final time.
“Catching wings,” Fiona mumured approvingly and then, with a cry that startled everyone she shouted “Sky wings! Skyleader!”
Xhinna raced out before Fiona could formally pin the appelation on her.
Because, of course, you can’t have this sort of thing happening unless you have a name for it and you can spread that name around as much as possible so that everyone knows it and uses it. As opposed to, say, what the actual situation on the ground might be for this kind of thing:
Reflecting on the numerous times she and Jirana had ridden in Search, she knew that the odds were more than even that any blue or green rider would be female. The older riders, in a distinct but revered minority, found the change both difficult and pleasing.
“At least I don’t have to look at your old scarred face all the time!” was a common refrain among some of them. Several had been skeptical initially, believing that women wouldn’t be up to the rigors of riding a fighting dragon, but Xhinna had been at the forefront of dismantling that concern. Still, she found herself having to fight the fear that these new wingleaders and their wings had been assigned to her because they weren’t good enough to be considered good enough to fight in “proper” wings.
When she thought about it, though, she realized that if fighting Thread at the heights worked as well as it had the first time, it would be these six wings that would bear the brunt of fighting Thread for the foreseeable future—not the “proper” wings flying in the thicker, warmer air near the ground. So it would be up to Xhinna to be sure that these wings could meet the challenge.
All the faces were familiar to her. They looked at her expectantly and almost with awe. She’d Searched them; she’d assured them as young girls and women that they could become dragonriders, that there was a hope for them far beyond the dank confines of their dying cotholds and fallow fields. She, Jirana, Taria, and a few others had been the ones to warn them for the first time about between, to bring them forward in time from the end of the Plague years to the lush Western Isle where they had begun new lives.
So, yet again, we have the situation where Xhinna is not wrong in thinking that the men riders are going to think that the women riders aren’t able to hack it and they’ll have to keep continuously proving it to hem, even though they’ve already been proving that they are able to do things. This is one of those things where I think the authors didn’t intend for their novel to match the reality of their readers, but they nailed it and have been doing so perfectly, repeatedly, to the point that a reader or editor who’s a man might start complaining about how it’s unrealistic that the women keep having to prove themselves and that the men characters seem to be more interested in how pretty the women riders look rather than their competence. Even though it’s completely realistic that this keeps happening and they keep having to do it and that K’dan and Fiona are being completely useless about it, instead coming up with new titles and springing all of this on Fiona for their own amusement while they put a significant amount of new pressure and expectations on her. (We knew K’dan was useless, but Fiona apparently has become the same, and a reader who wanted to could probably claim that the author very specifically decided to make Fiona useless now that she has her children with her again, because gender roles and being a “proper” Weyrwoman or other such bullshit.)
In any case, Xhinna meets with all of the people who are going to lead the wings and help Xhinna achieve the orbital bombardment plan, learns that all the things she needs to plan for have been planned for, save Jepara and Jirana wanting to participate in the flaming plan instead of the catching plan, but the narrative tells us it’s not completely important and is resolved quickly, before moving on to a scene where Jirana gets clingy, Xhinna gets aggravated at her clinginess, and the two of them go off to talk alone, where Xhinna correctly deduces that Jirana is being this way because she’s seen Xhinna die and is trying to spend as much time with her as possible. So Xhinna tells Jirana that she should talk with Seban, since he understands things like death, and for once in the narrative, Jirana admits she could be wrong about this, and Xhinna chooses not to give any credence to that idea.
“I could be wrong,” Jirana said in a small voice. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Xhinna wasn’t sure how much credence to put in the young Seer’s hopes. Thus far, she’d been right about everything.
Because now the drama is in Jirana being right, rather than in Jirana being wrong, so now everyone is certain that Jirana can’t be wrong about anything. This, I think, is also the first time that Jirana has expressed the possibility that she might be wrong, and it’s specifically because she doesn’t want to lose Xhinna.
Right after this, K’dan arrives and wants to double the watch because he’s worried they’re still going to get caught out by Thread falling out of phase. He’s going to be right, making him useful, for once, and Xhinna is going to recognize that a thing that she saw earlier on in her own timeline is something that she’s caused to happen. However, we’re going to wait to talk about the fallout from that particular event until next week, when, hopefully, we finally finish this book and the second author’s run.
Additionally, the catching wings that are going to be on standby are going to contain all of the green queens. As was brought to our attention in the comments earlier, the technique of spotting tunnel snakes is something that can be taught, but there’s still some worry about whether or not this last clutch of eggs is going to be okay if all the green queens are on catch duty. Fiona reassures Xhinna that there’s no need for worry on that, between the guards and the constant contact between queens and eggs. But again, that technique can be taught, so that we don’t need to have worries about queens being away from the eggs if the tunnel snakes attack. The amount of things that get forgotten in this book are pretty impressive.