The Visitors Chapter 01

A/N
Two of Anne McCaffrey's most beloved creations meet, but it is a very uncertain reunion. These events take place after "All the Weyrs of Pern," before "The Skies of Pern,"
and after "The Ship Who Sang."

o

The shock-mounted command chair was meant to cushion its occupant against the forces of high-G liftoff and high-speed maneuvers, not deep-space collisions. Still, Niall Parollan was glad he'd been sitting in it when the impact occurred.

"Helva, are you all right?" were the first words out of his mouth after he'd recovered from the shock of the collision.

"I'm checking," she said distractedly as she scanned her systems for damage. Most of them were intact, but the ones that did get hit were hit pretty badly.

"My own life support systems are fine," she finally said. "My outer shell is a mess between frames 14 and 15. The FTL drive is down, but that's nothing new; that fardling useless piece of Corviki junk wouldn't stay connected to my systems even if it got smacked by a piece of space debris. I can't tell if my radios are working because the connections are all severed; I have no way of verifying that they even exist anymore. My long-range scanners won't be scanning anything for a very long time, but the short-range scanners are up. The thrusters won't work because the fuel pump no longer exists, but my main engines are intact, I think. The cargo bay wasn't hit, so those precious artifacts are still intact, and the passenger compartment is unharmed, so you can still get a good night's sleep. We've lost our backup flight computer, so the main system had better keep working. I've lost access to my long-term memory storage, but I'm rigging a back-door path. The big problem is the cabin air system. Whatever hit us, it wiped out eight of the nine oxygen storage tanks, along with the oxygen scrubber, and that one remaining tank won't last you long enough to get back to Regulus and a full repair job."

Parollan called up the relevant displays on the pilot's console and shuddered. "Regulus? Helva, there's not enough air in that tank to get us to Nova Majorca, and that's the nearest civilized world!" He said "us," but he meant himself, since Helva's oxygen needs were met by an entirely different set of systems than the air scrubbers that kept her brawn alive. "What in the name of every tin-plated, triple-cursed god and goddess in this sector did you hit?"

She checked the damaged areas through her cameras. "It's hard to tell; whatever it was, it was wiped out in the collision. But I think it was man-made. I see traces of refined metals here and there."

"What was something man-made doing out here in the middle of deep space?" Parollan demanded.

"I'm computing its trajectory," she answered. After a moment, she added, "Based on its course and estimated velocity, it was launched from the Rukbat system several thousand years ago. It's been drifting forever. It was sheer bad luck that its course crossed our course today."

"Rukbat?" The man quickly called up the readout on that star system even as Helva was looking it up herself. "There shouldn't be anything launched from Rukbat. There's nobody there! The system is uninhabited. There's an edict against landing on the only inhabitable planet."

"Apparently, there was an attempt at colonization a very long time ago," Helva added. "Some kind of parasite made the surface of the planet uninhabitable, but they found out about it too late for most of the colonists. A handful of survivors were rescued, and no one has been back there since. There's nothing there that anyone wants, anyway."

"I wonder if we hit a probe that they sent out to examine their new solar system when they first arrived," Parollan said distractedly. He shook his head. "Well, I think we need to go to Rukbat, Helva. We're in the middle of nowhere out here, and that's the closest inhabitable world, parasite or no parasite. We need a planet with a breathable atmosphere, and we need one that you can reach before all of our air is gone. You can land there, and then I can get out and try to repair some of the external damage. If I can patch a few of those tanks, then we can pump them full of air from the planet, and hopefully that will keep us going until we reach Nova Majorca." He paused. "The cost of repairing all that damage is going to be a big debit against your account, m'gal."

"If you call me your gal one more time, I'm going to blow you out the air lock!" Helva sputtered. "And don't worry about my account. I'm more worried about you."

"Aww, I didn't know you cared," Niall grinned. "Let's set a course for the Rukbat system. Or did you lose your nav capabilities as well? Do I need to set the course for you?"

"I am perfectly capable of setting my own course, you arrogant, empty-headed Neanderthal!"

"Now I know there's something wrong with you," Parollan said wryly. "You're mistaking me for Teron, your last brawn! But, out of chivalry, I shall bow to your superior course-setting expertise." He bowed mockingly and settled himself into the acceleration chair. It took them nineteen days to reach Rukbat at high speed, and four more days to decelerate as they navigated into the system and matched orbits with the one inhabitable planet.

"It looks like a nice place to live," Niall commented as he watched it slowly rotate on the main screen.

"It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there," Helva quoted. "The colony's survivors told about a parasite that fell from space and devoured any organic matter it touched. The survivors holed up in some stone structures and lived on stored food until the rescue ship came. Nasty stuff."

"How did the planetary survey team miss something like that?" Parollan wondered. "A planet like that never should have been approved for colonization in the first place!"

"I'm sure the survey team worked for the ancestors of our own Central Worlds bureaucracy," Helva commented sourly. "Remember that disaster I ran into on Alioth, with the death cult and the hallucinogenic gas? Same failure of a survey team. Same bureaucracy." Parollan blew a rude noise.

Then he came alert. "Is that a ship in orbit around our planet?"

"It looks like one from here," Helva agreed, "but without my long-range scanners, I can't tell you much about it. In about half an hour, we can do a flyby and then I can tell you more."

"A flyby sounds like a good idea," Parollan nodded. "I'd like to check out this planet at close range before we pick a landing spot. I don't want to get out of the ship in the middle of one of those space-parasite storms. That could bring our partnership to a very quick end."

"You're not getting away from me that easily, Niall Parollan!" Helva mock-scolded him. "You signed up for the duration, and just because I can't appease your satyriasis, that's no reason to end it all by jumping in front of space parasites!"

"Don't you worry, m'gal," he smiled. "I've got a lot more living and a lot more loving to do before I'm ready to call it a day." They watched in companionable silence as the planet grew steadily closer. The point of light in geosynchronous orbit slowly grew into the outline of a man-made vessel.

"I never saw one like that before," Helva said slowly. "What do you make of it, Niall?"

Parollan looked up from his display. "I'd call it an old Montreal-class cruiser, minus its engineering section. They used to reuse surplus warships for colonizing, rather than scrap them. That museum piece must be how the colonists got here, all those centuries ago. If you're about to ask me where its engines went, the answer is, 'I have no idea.' That's a mystery that we will probably never solve."

"Then we'll work on a more pertinent mystery instead," Helva said sharply. "Why is there a live data feed running from that ship to a point on the southern continent?"

"Live data? After all these centuries?" Parollan called up a different display and focused on it. "Dang, you're right, Helva. It's not doing much, but the carrier wave is definitely up and running. Can we get a look at the point on the surface where the feed is feeding?"

"That's close enough for camera work," Helva agreed. The main viewscreen was replaced by a close-up of...

They stared, shocked into silence.

Finally, Helva said, "I thought this planet was abandoned. I thought there weren't any people on it."

"I'll add that to the long list of things I used to think were true," Parollan said softly. "That sure looks like an inhabited village to me. Zoom in closer." She adjusted her camera.

"Those are people, all right," she said. "They look very much alive, and – what is that?!"

Parollan whistled. "If I didn't know better, I would swear that was a dragon."

"The dragon is a mythical beast," Helva reminded him.

"Just as mythical as the people on that planet," Parollan countered her. "It doesn't seem to be burning any castles or kidnapping any princesses, though. The people are walking right past it, like it's no big deal to have a dragon in your village. Look, there's two of them! There's a small white one right next to the big bronze-colored one. Mother and child, maybe?"

"I see them," she said. "There are some others scattered around the edges of the town. Do you know what else I see? I see a runway, partially buried and partially dug out, and the remains of three very, very old shuttlecraft."

"This must be the place where they started their colony, all those thousands of years ago," Parollan nodded. "But if they landed here, and then got wiped out by space parasites, then what's going on down there now?"

"I can think of only one way to find out," Helva decided. "I don't see any space parasites down there, just people. And if people can live there, then the planet will meet our needs for oxygen. All in favor of us landing on that runway, raise your hand!"

Parollan wiggled his left hand for a moment and settled himself into the shock-mounted chair. "The crew is preparing for a landing. Try not to bump me as hard as you did when you hit that probe."

o

Jaxom was frustrated. He had tried everything in his newly-acquired repertoire of computer tricks, but he just could not turn AIVAS back on.

Why does that bother you so much? Ruth asked him.

"How could that confounded AI system turn himself off in the first place?" the young man burst out. "Wasn't he supposed to help people? Don't we still need help? Is an AIVAS supposed to pick and choose what kind of help he gives us? You'd think he was programmed to be prideful!"

I think you are sad because you miss both AIVAS and the Harper.

"You're right, of course," Jaxom sighed. "The two of them were the strongest voices for progress, and now they're both silenced forever. AIVAS wasn't really a person, but Masterharper Robinton certainly was! And we were just beginning to learn everything we could learn from them." He waved his arm around at Landing. "Look at what we've done in just a few short years with their help! We've recovered our heritage! We've gotten rid of Thread forever! We've even learned to fly up to the Yokohama and see our planet the same way our ancestors saw it." He glanced up toward where the Yokohama was. He couldn't see her, of course; she was invisible in the daytime.

But something was up there.

"Ruth, what is that?"

I do not know. Is it a star?

It looked like a bright point of light in the eastern sky, and it was growing brighter.

"Bespeak Tiroth, quickly. D'ram needs to know about this, and he has to tell Lytol. You and I are going flying, my friend!" He climbed onto Ruth's neck, affixed his straps, and braced himself for Ruth's quick take-off.

What are we going to do?

"We are going to fly up next to that... thing... and see what it is."

I think it is too high for me to fly up to it.

"But it's coming down, and we're going to meet it before it hits Pern."

Do you think it will do damage when it hits?

"I don't know, and I don't want to be on the ground if it's going to smack into our planet from outer space," Jaxom decided. As they circled up, they heard an alarm going off. Apparently, someone in the AIVAS building had triggered the security alarm as the quickest way to alert everyone else in Landing. People ran out of buildings or stopped the work they were doing. More and more were looking upward.

They could hear it now. It sounded like a muted roar, like a large waterfall heard from a distance, and it was getting slowly louder.

"Don't get right underneath it, Ruth! Let it pass by to the side."

I feel its heat. I will give it plenty of room.

Ruth put a wing over and put some distance between himself and the descending path of the whatever-it-was. Below them, Landing looked like a disturbed anthill as everyone dropped what they were doing and stared up at the source of that roaring noise.

"I think it just altered course, Ruth! That means that someone intelligent is on board. Someone, or something."

It will land at the end of the runway, where we have not dug all the soil away.

"That's going to kick up a huge cloud of old volcanic ash and spread it all over Landing! Warn the dragons."

As they watched, the other dragons lifted off and then winked between so they would not be caught by the ash cloud. Even with their extra eyelids, they didn't want that stuff getting in their eyes. The spaceship (for that was clearly what it was) slid downward, slowing with each passing moment. Its superheated exhaust quickly burned away the layer of grass and soil at the end of the runway, and darkened the sky with clouds of the volcanic ash that lay beneath that soil. Part of the ship looked damaged, but it seemed to have no difficulty making a smooth landing. The roaring sound stopped and, in the sudden silence, the ash cloud slowly settled over everything. People who had run back inside when the cloud was kicked up began to re-emerge and stare at the artificial object that had just joined them on Pern.

D'ram wants to know if you have any idea what it is or why it is here.

"Tell D'ram that he knows as much as I do. It might be from the culture that our ancestors came from, or it might be from some other culture that we know nothing about. It might have people on it, or it might be guided by an AIVAS, or... oh, shards, we know absolutely nothing about it! All we can do is guess."

I told him we don't know.

"That's the short version. Thanks." They flew broad circles around the unknown craft.

It is not doing anything.

"Yeah, I noticed that, too. If nothing happens soon, then we'll land. I'm sure that Lytol and D'ram are having an emergency meeting about this, and I'd like to be part of it if they'll let me. Hey, I think there's something written on the side! Take us in closer, Ruth." The dragon slowed and glided closer to the spacecraft. Sure enough, there were some letters neatly stenciled near the bottom.

"Central Worlds Courier Service," Jaxom read out loud. "NH-834. I'm not sure what the words mean, but I recognize them well enough. They speak our language, so they must be people like us. Unless an AIVAS is in control of it."

Is that what you want it to be?

After a few seconds, Jaxom shook his head. "I do have AIVAS on the brain, don't I? I miss AIVAS, but... somehow it wouldn't be the same if we got another one. Our own AIVAS was a gift from our ancestors. Even if this ship is controlled by an identical AIVAS, it would be from different people, it would have a different reason for being, and it probably wouldn't know anything about Pern. I can't control what's inside that spaceship, of course, but maybe it would be best if there were people inside."

Two quick flits of darkness blotted out the sun for a moment each. Lessa and F'lar had arrived on Mnementh and Ramoth. They took a wide circle around Landing, then closed with Ruth.

"D'ram and Tiroth said something big was happening down here, and we needed to get down here as fast as possible," F'lar began. "He was never given to exaggeration, so we took him at his word... and he was not mistaken!"

"Jaxom, do you have any idea what it is?" Lessa asked him.

"It appears to be human-made, judging by the lettering on the side of it. It came from the same area of space as the Yokohama, it made a controlled landing, and now it's just sitting there."

"Perhaps they're waiting for a welcoming committee," F'lar suggested.

"I'm willing to welcome them, if they're friendly," Lessa nodded. "Jaxom, are you willing to join us and represent the Lord Holders?"

"I'm hardly a true representative of most of the Lord Holders," Jaxom said distastefully.

"And I, for one, am thankful for that!" Lessa nodded. "But they aren't here and you are."

"Should we have a representative from the Halls?" Jaxom wondered. "I think Jancis and Piemur are in one of the AIVAS classrooms, learning about the electronic generation of music." He shook his head. "Those beeps and buzzes will never replace a Harper's pipes and drum! At least, they never will in Ruatha Hold. But the two of them think it's fascinating to merge two disciplines like that."

"Perhaps it would be good if they joined us," F'lar decided. "Jaxom, can Ruth bespeak Piemur's fire-lizard and bring that pair out without our having to go in after them?"

"I think he can, and he already has," Jaxom said. Half a minute later, Piemur stumbled out of the AIVAS building, with Farli tugging on his vest and chittering excitedly, and Jancis right behind him.

"I don't know why she's acting like this," Jancis was saying, "but... Piemur, look at that!"

"Where did that come from?" the young man burst out.

"It came from outer space," Jaxom explained as the three dragons landed next to the young Harper and Smith. "You mean you didn't hear all the noise it made when it landed?"

"We were wearing headphones to listen to the music," Piemur said. "We heard some background noise, but we ignored it. So... what is it?"

"All we know is that there are probably people like us inside," Jaxom told him. "We're forming a welcoming committee. F'lar and Lessa are here in the name of the Weyrs, I'm acting like a Lord Holder, and you two can represent the Crafthalls."

"We'll walk over to it and wave at them," Lessa said mischievously. "Once they can see that we're just like them, maybe they'll come out and say hello."

"That's almost a mile away," Jaxom observed with distaste.

"Some of us don't have dragons to ride," Jancis reminded him. "Or riding gear to ride someone else's dragon."

"Besides," Piemur went on, "how many times do I have to tell you? Going places on foot is just better. You can see more."

"I think we can already see everything that can be seen of that ship," Lessa argued.

"There's another factor," Piemur continued. "If they're people just like us, then they might be afraid of dragons. Maybe they don't have weyrs where they come from."

Jaxom shrugged. "I guess there could be some truth in that." The three dragon riders dismounted, and the five of them walked together toward the spaceship that waited silently at the end of the ancient runway.