Authors: Anne McCaffrey
This book is most respectfully dedicated
doctors jack and judy cohen
who have enriched my life so much
The author gives full credit to Dr. Jack Cohen once again for making fact out of her fiction and rationalizing the whimsies of her imagination.
The author would also like to thank Elizabeth Moon for her kind permission to use her poem, which is credited to Journeywoman Harper Elimona, in Chapter Fifteen.
The author and Dr. Jack Cohen are fully aware that some of the procedures and developments of new products suggested in these pages would probably take many more months, years, to produce and effect than is here suggested. However, there are certain licenses that an author, and her advisor, may take to produce a novel. Then, too, the Pernese had Aivas to help them, didn’t they?
its sensors responding to a renewal of power from the solar panels on the roof above it. The wind must have become strong enough to blow the clogging dust and volcanic ash away from the panels. There had been enough of these incidents over the past 2,525 years so that Aivas had been able to maintain function, even if only at a very low maintenance level.
Running through the main operating circuits, Aivas found no malfunctions. Exterior optics were still obstructed, but once again the Aivas was aware of some activity in its vicinity.
Was it possible that humans had returned to the Landing facility?
It had not as yet completed its priority assignment: to discover a means to destroy the organism that had been termed “Thread” by the captains. It had received no significant input to allow it to complete that task, but the priority had not been canceled.
Perhaps, with the return of humans, that assignment could at last be completed.
Power began to swell its resources as the panels were uncovered; the removal was not haphazard, as would be caused by wind and weather, but was consistent with a workmanlike activity. As more of the panels were cleared, solar energy recharged the long-unused power collectors. The Aivas responded by distributing the revitalizing energy through its systems, running rapid function checks through circuits long dormant.
Aivas had been efficiently designed, and as power continued to be available, it found itself in full running order by the time the exterior sensors had also been uncovered.
Humans had returned to Landing! Many of them! Once again humankind had triumphed over tremendous odds. Aivas duly noticed through its adjustable optical elements that they were still accompanied by the creatures called fire-dragons. Noise, too, was now filtering through the audio channels: human voices speaking in unusual word patterns. A lingual shift? In 2,525 years, that was entirely likely. Aivas listened and interpreted, measuring the altered vowels and slurred consonants against the speech patterns that had been programmed into it. It organized the new sounds into groups and checked them with its semantics program.
Within its vision came an immense white creature. The descendant of the bioengineer’s first production? Aivas did a rapid extrapolation from the biolab’s files and reached the inescapable conclusion that the so-called dragons had also matured and prospered. It searched for, but did not find, “white” in the parameters of the engineered species.
Not only had humankind survived the incursion of Thread for 2,525 years of Threadfall, but it had flourished. The species had the tenacity to survive where others succumbed.
If humans had been able to return from the Northern Continent, had they also managed to destroy the organism? That would be well done. What must Aivas then do if its priority was superseded?
Humans, with their insatiable curiosity and restlessness, would undoubtedly have new tasks which an Artificial Intelligence Voice-Address System could undertake. They were not, Aivas knew from its memory banks, a complacent species. Soon those who worked to clear the debris of centuries would uncover the entire building and reach its position. It must, of course, react as its program ordained.
The Aivas waited.
Present (Ninth) Pass, 17th Turn
Y THE TIME
the Aivas had finished its recital of the first nine years of the colonization of Pern, the sun Rukbat had set with an unusually fine display. Not that many of the reverent listeners of the history that the Artificial Intelligence Voice-Address System narrated were aware of such externals.
During the hours that the Aivas’s resonant tones had filled the chamber and penetrated to the hallway beyond, more people had crowded in to hear what it said, jostling each other to get an occasional look at the incredible moving pictures with which Aivas illustrated its narrative. Those Lord Holders and Craftmasters hastily summoned by fire-lizard messengers willingly crowded into the stuffy inner room.
Lord Jaxom of Ruatha had asked his white dragon, Ruth, to summon the Benden Weyrleaders, so they were the first to join the Masterharper Robinton and Mastersmith Fandarel. Lessa and F’lar slid onto the stools that Jaxom and Journeyman Harper Piemur vacated for them. Piemur frowned at his mate, Mastersmith Jancis, when she started to get down and gestured to Breide, standing gawking in the doorway, to bring more seating. When F’nor, the Benden Wingleader, came, he sat on the floor, where he had to crane his neck to see the screen, though he quickly became too engrossed in the history to notice any discomfort. Room was made in the small, crowded chamber for the Lord Holders, Groghe of Fort, Asgenar of Lemos, and Larad of Telgar. By then, Jaxom had been pushed back to the doorway and politely but firmly refused entry to anyone else.
Subtly the Aivas increased its volume so that the tale was audible to all those in the corridor. No one seemed to mind the stifling closeness of room and corridor, though matters improved when someone considerately passed around water and redfruit juice and, later, meatrolls. Someone also had the foresight to open as many of the windows in the building as possible, thus circulating some air down the corridor, though little enough reached the Aivas chamber.
“The final message received by this facility from Captain Keroon was to confirm that Fort Hold was operational. This message was logged in at 1700, fourth day of the tenth month, eleventh year after Landing.”
When the Aivas ceased speaking, there was a profound and awed silence, finally broken by small scufflings as people shifted, almost apologetically, from long-held positions. A few polite coughs were quickly muffled.
Feeling it incumbent on him to make some response to these historic and unexpected revelations, the Masterharper cleared his throat.
“We are deeply indebted to you, Aivas, for this amazing tale.” Robinton spoke with deep humility and respect. A murmur of agreement circulated room and corridor. “We have lost so much of our early history: It’s been reduced to myth and legend in many cases. You have clarified much that puzzled us. But why does it end so abruptly?”
“There was no further input from the authorized operators.”
“No explanation was given. Failing prior instructions, this facility continued observations until the solar panels became clogged and power was reduced to the minimum needed to retain core integrity.”
“Those panels are the source of your power?” Fandarel asked, his bass voice rumbling with eagerness.
“Those pictures? How did you do that?” Fandarel’s usual reserved manner was discarded in his excitement.
“You no longer have recording devices?”
“No.” Fandarel shook his head in disgust. “Among many of the other marvels you mentioned in passing. Can you teach us what we have forgotten?” His eyes glowed in anticipation.
“The memory banks contain Planetary Engineering and Colonizing data, and the multicultural and historical files considered relevant by the Colony Administrators.”
Before Fandarel could organize another question, F’lar held up one hand.
“With respect, Master Fandarel, we all have questions to ask Aivas.” He turned around to signal Master Esselin and the ubiquitous Breide to come to the door. “I want this corridor cleared, Master Esselin. This room is not to be entered without express permission from one of us present now. Do I make myself plain?” He looked sternly from one to the other.
“Indeed, Weyrleader, perfectly plain,” Breide said, his manner as obsequious as ever.
“Of course, Weyrleader, certainly, Weyrleader,” Master Esselin said, bowing with each use of F’lar’s title.
“Breide, make sure you report today’s event to Lord Toric,” F’lar added, knowing perfectly well that Breide would do just that without permission. “Esselin, bring enough glowbaskets to light the hall and the adjacent rooms. Bring a few cots or pallets, as well, and blankets. Some food.”
“And wine. Don’t forget wine, F’lar,” Robinton called. “Benden wine, if you please, Esselin, and make that two wineskins. This could be very thirsty work,” he added in a conversational tone, grinning at Lessa.
“Well, you’re not going to drink up two skinsful, Robinton,” Lessa said at her sternest, “talking yourself hoarse with Aivas. Which I can see is what you have in mind. I’d say you already had quite enough excitement for one day. It’s certainly more than I can believe in one day.”
“Be assured, Madam Lessa,” Aivas said in a placatory voice, “that every word you have heard is factual.”
Lessa turned toward the screen that had displayed marvels to her, images of people who had turned to dust centuries before and objects totally foreign to her eyes. “I don’t doubt you, Aivas. I doubt my ability to absorb half the wonders you have described and shown us.”
“Be assured that you have achieved wonders of your own,” Aivas replied, “to survive the menace that nearly overwhelmed the settlers. Are those immense and magnificent creatures ranged on the slopes outside the descendants of the dragons which Madam Kitti Ping Yung created?”
“Yes, they are,” Lessa replied with proprietary pride. “The golden queen is Ramoth—”
“The largest dragon on all Pern,” the Masterharper said in a sly tone, his eyes twinkling.
Lessa started to glare at him but instead burst out laughing. “Well, she is.”
“The bronze who is probably resting beside her is Mnementh, and I am his rider,” F’lar said, grinning at his mate’s discomfort.
“How do you know what is outside?” Fandarel blurted out.
“The exterior sensors of this facility are now operational.”
“Exterior sensors . . .” Fandarel subsided into silent amazement.
“And the white one?” Aivas went on. “It—”
,” Jaxom said firmly but without rancor, “is Ruth, and I am his rider.”
“Remarkable. The bioengineering report indicated that there were to be five variations, imitating the genetic material of the fire-dragons.”
“Ruth is a sport,” Jaxom replied. He had long since stopped being defensive about his dragon. Ruth had his own special abilities.
“A part of
history,” Robinton said soothingly.
“Which,” Lessa said with another stern glare at the Harper, “will wait until some of us have rested.”
“My curiosity will be contained, Madam.”
Lessa darted a suspicious look at the dim screen panel. “You have curiosity? And what is this ‘madam’?”
“Gathering information is not restricted to humans. Madam is a title of respect.”
“Lessa’s respectful title is Weyrwoman, Aivas,” F’lar said with another grin. “Or Ramoth’s rider.”
“And yours, sir?”
“Weyrleader, or Mnementh’s rider. You have already met Masterharper Robinton, Harper Journeyman Piemur, Mastersmith Jancis, and Lord Jaxom of Ruatha Hold, but let me make known to you the Mastersmith Fandarel, Lord Groghe of Fort Hold, which we have always known was the first to be founded—” F’lar hid a grin at Lord Groghe’s suddenly modest demeanor. “—though certainly not why. Lord of Telgar, Larad, and Lord of Lemos, Asgenar.”
“Lemos? Indeed.” But before the listeners could react to the mild surprise in Aivas’s tone, it continued. “It is good to know that the name Telgar survived.”
“We have lost the knowledge of the naming,” Larad murmured. “And are prouder to know that the sacrifices of Sallah and Tarvi are remembered so lastingly.”
“Aivas,” F’lar said, standing squarely in front of the screen, “you said that you were attempting to discover where Thread came from and how to exterminate it. Did you come to any conclusion?”
“Several. The organism known as Thread is somehow attracted to the eccentric planet which, at aphelion, pierces the Oort Cloud; as it approaches perihelion, it drags matter with it into this sector of space. This trailing cloud disgorged a little of its burden into the skies of this planet. Calculations at the time indicated that this would continue for approximately fifty years, at which time the material in Pern’s orbit would be exhausted. Calculations also indicated that there would be recurrences of the phenomenon at intervals of two hundred fifty years, give or take a decade either way.”
F’lar glanced about to see if anyone had understood what the Aivas was saying.
“With due respect, Aivas, we do not understand your explanation,” the Harper said wryly. “A great deal of time has passed since Admiral Benden and Governor Boll led the settlers north. We are currently in the seventeenth Turn—what you call a year, I think—of the Ninth Pass of the Red Star.”
“It has always been
,” F’lar said, “that Thread came from the Red Star.”
“It is not a star: the most reasonable explanation is that it is a stray planet, probably drawn out of its native system by some odd event, traveling through space until it was attracted by Rukbat’s gravitational pull and became trapped in this system. The matter you call Thread does not come from its surface. It originates in the Oort Cloud of this system.”
“And just what is an Oort Cloud?” Master Fandarel asked ingenuously.
“According to the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, the eponymous cloud is composed of material orbiting a sun far beyond the orbit of its outermost planet. Cometary material leaks from the cloud into the inner part of the system. In the particular case of Rukbat, some of the material is hard-shelled ovoids that change in a peculiar manner, losing their outer layers and attenuating on contact with the upper atmosphere, falling to the surface as what has been termed ‘Thread’; this resembles a voracious organism that devours carbon-based organic material.”
Fandarel blinked in his attempt to digest the information.
“Well, you did ask, Master Fandarel,” Piemur remarked with a mischievous expression.
“Your explanations only confuse us, Aivas, for none of us have the learning to understand them,” F’lar said, lifting a hand to indicate that he was not to be interrupted. “But if you knew, and presumably our ancestors knew, what Thread was and where it came from, why didn’t they destroy its source?”
“By the time this facility reached those conclusions, Weyrleader, your ancestors had removed to the Northern Continent and did not return to receive the report.”
A depressed and defeated silence prevailed over the room.
“But we are here now,” Robinton said, straightening up on his stool. “And we can receive your report.”
“If we can understand it,” F’lar added drolly.
“This facility has educational programs that can supply remedial teaching in all branches of science. The prime directive given this unit by captains Keroon and Tillek, as well as Admiral Benden and Governor Boll, was to gather information and formulate a course of action that would end the threat posed by these incursions.”
“Then it is possible to remove the threat of Thread?” F’lar asked, carefully schooling his expression to reveal none of the hope that he was feeling.
“The possibility exists, Weyrleader.”
was the incredulous response of everyone in the room.
“The possibility exists, Weyrleader, but will require tremendous effort from you and quite likely the majority of your population. First, you must be able to understand scientific language and learn to work with advanced technology. In addition, access to the main banks of the
must be obtained to add to relevant data on asteroid positions. Then a course of action can be initiated that could probably result in the cessation of these incursions.”
“Possibility? Probably result? But the possibility exists?” F’lar strode to the screen and put a hand on each side of its subtly glowing blankness. “I would do anything
to rid Pern of Thread.”
“If you are prepared to relearn lost skills and perfect them, the possibility does exist.”
“The end of these incursions remains the first priority of this facility.”
“Not half as much as it is of ours!” F’lar replied. F’nor fervently seconded him.
The Lord Holders exchanged quick glances, hope warring with surprise. The destruction of all Thread was what F’lar had promised them nineteen Turns before when he had become leader of Pern’s then single Weyr. Benden’s wings of brave dragons and riders had been all that stood between the certain reduction of humankind on Pern to hunters and gatherers by the totally unexpected resumption of Threadfall after a lapse of four hundred Turns. In their extremity, the Lord Holders had promised support of all his emergency measures. Struggling with the exigencies of the Pass, they had quite forgotten his vow. But all three were quick to perceive the advantages to
if they could also see the disadvantages to the Dragonriders—to be quit of their ancient responsibilities. Jaxom, as both rider and Holder, regarded F’lar with consternation. Yet there was no doubt the Benden Weyrleader meant exactly what he said—that he would do all he could to rid Pern of Thread forever.
“Then there is much to be done,” Aivas said in a brisk tone. Almost, Master Robinton thought, as if the thing was relieved to have employment after so long a recess. “Your Records, Masters Robinton and Fandarel, would be of immense value in assessing your history and potential, and what knowledge of science you currently possess. Certainly a synopsis of your own history would assist an evaluation of the educational programs required to achieve your goal.”