The Visitors Chapter 03

Niall Parollan and his Pernese hosts had barely finished their midday meal when Bedella on golden Solth arrived from Telgar, bearing Mastersmith Fandarel and Master Terry. F'lar greeted them politely as the smiths slid down the huge gold dragon's side, and Parollan observed the scene.

"I brought them as quickly as I could, once I got the message from F'lar through his dragon and mine," she said. "R'mart couldn't make it; he's in the middle of a meeting with his Wingleaders and Wingseconds. We always want to show proper honor to the Mastersmith, and he agreed that if he couldn't come on a bronze, then a ride on a gold dragon wouldn't demean him or insult his honor."

"Thank you for bringing them quickly, Bedella," F'lar said. "This is a matter that definitely will need the Mastersmith's involvement. Convey my greetings and my thanks to R'mart."

"I will," she nodded. "Can you tell me what this issue is, in case R'mart wants to know?"

F'lar began to answer, but Lessa cut him off. "I have a feeling that all the Weyrleaders will want to know, and we'll tell everyone as soon as we're sure what the issues are." At Bedella's alarmed expression, she went on, "There is no danger, and we have made no new discoveries that will turn Pern upside-down. We've just had an unexpected turn of events, I'm sure that the smiths will help us sort it all out, and then we'll pass the word to everyone."

"All right," the other Weyrwoman finally nodded. "I'll convey your greetings to R'mart." Solth leaped into the air, and vanished between.

Niall, who had stayed in the background, stepped up to stand next to F'lar. "Can you tell me what just happened there?"

"Bedella is the Weyrwoman of Telgar Weyr," F'lar explained, "and apparently, she has never been to Landing before, or she might have commented on that huge spaceship sitting at the end of the old runway! Anyway, it's customary for the Weyrs to supply transportation to the leaders of the Crafthalls whenever they request it. We asked Mastersmith Fandarel, here, to join us so he can supervise and learn about the metallurgical aspect of your ship repairs, and he brought another master Smith, Terry, to help. Craftmasters expect to be offered rides on bronze dragons, because those dragons are considered the most prestigious. But the bronze dragon riders of Telgar are tied up in a meeting of some kind with their Weyrleader, so the Weyrwoman brought the smiths here on her gold dragon instead."

"Gold dragons are the queens," Lessa added innocently, "and there's no shame in riding a queen, no matter who you are!" F'lar shrugged and nodded.

"And at the end, when they vanished," Niall asked, "where did they go?"

"They went between," Lessa answered.

"Between where and where?"

"Between wherever you are and wherever you want to go," F'lar replied. "Dragons do it instinctively. Between is cold, dark, and somewhat frightening to the uninitiated, but it's a very fast way to cover long distances. By the time you were done asking your original question, Solth and Bedella were back at Telgar Weyr, nearly halfway around Pern. I'm sure that your Central Worlds has invented better ways to get from here to there, but the dragons work well for us."

Parollan wondered for a moment if he should admit the truth to these people. Would they think less of him if he didn't seem to come from an omnipotent culture? But they were clearly being completely honest with him, so he would do the same. "To tell the truth, we have nothing that gets us from Point A to Point B as fast as that. I think our scientists are going to want to study these dragons of yours. Is there a limit to how far you can travel?"

"My brother F'nor and his dragon, Canth, once jumped to the Red Star and back," F'lar said. "It nearly killed him, and his dragon was grounded for weeks afterward from the aftereffects of it, but the jump itself posed no problems. The only limit seems to be the rider's ability to mentally picture his destination and give that picture to his dragon."

"Hmm." Parollan thought that over. "So if I showed you a picture of a place on another planet, you and your dragon could jump between and get there in a matter of a few seconds?"

"There are limits when we're talking about great distances," Lessa cautioned him. "When F'nor and Canth jumped to the Red Star, they said the jump lasted unusually long. When I jumped back 400 Turns in time, we –"

"You jumped back in time?" Parollan was stunned.

"It was almost a very bad idea," F'lar commented.

"I'm told that it took days for me to recover my wits after that," Lessa went on, ignoring their guest's outburst. "The longer the distance we jump, the more time we spend between and the harder it is to recover afterwards. We aren't perfectly knowledgeable about the distances between planets, but a jump outside Pern's solar system would probably be fatal to the rider."

"Tell me more about jumping back in time," Niall said.

"Later!" Helva hissed through his contact button.

"Would it be all right if we discussed that later, Niall?" Piemur cut in. "We've got two of the most important smiths on Pern, standing here waiting to find out what kind of metal you need, so they can make it for you."

"Oh, yes, of course," Parollan nodded. Introductions were made. The Mastersmith greeted him politely, but he seemed impatient to see where his expertise would be needed.

"The damaged area is some distance off the ground," Parollan explained. "You may have to improvise a tall ladder to reach it."

"Or Ruth can take you up to see it directly," Jaxom offered.

"Is there anything those dragons can't do?" Niall marveled.

"We haven't found anything yet," Jaxom shrugged. "They seem to be good at everything, from moving planets to helping with people's love lives."

"Love lives? How did that work?" Parollan wondered.

"Yes, Lord Jaxom," Lytol said intensely. "How, exactly, did Ruth involve himself in your love life?"

Jaxom reddened. He very much did not want to reveal any details of his dalliance with Corana, especially now that he was happily married to Sharra. "Again, can we discuss that later? Let's stick to smithing and metallurgy for now."

"Agreed," F'lar said quickly, sensing Jaxom's embarrassment. "I think his idea of letting Ruth take you up to the damaged area is a good one."

"He can take me and Niall up first," Jaxom suggested, "and leave Niall up there. Then we'll return and bring the Mastersmith up there, and he can discuss metals with the NH-834's first officer."

"That sounds reasonable," Parollan said. "In a spaceyard, we'd have a full-height gantry that could take us anywhere on the ship's exterior. There aren't any spaceyards within a month's travel from here, though. I thought I was going to have to climb up there to make my repairs. Riding a dragon... it will be faster than climbing, but I can just imagine what the nardy hide-bound bureaucrats in Central Worlds will think when they see that on my report!" He chuckled at the thought.

"Will it pose problems for you?" Jaxom asked.

"No, except that some of them will doubt my sanity," Niall said. "We've taken a few stills and videos of your dragons, so I can use those to shut up the bureaucrats if they give me too hard a time. Now, how does one go about riding a dragon? He won't bite me or breathe fire on me, will he?"

"Only if you act and sound like a wherry," Jaxom chuckled. "For a short hop like this, you just sit between two of his neck ridges and hold onto me. If we were going to fight Thread, you'd need a set of riding straps to attach around his neck. Ruth is the most maneuverable dragon on Pern, and he would have lost me a dozen times or more if I wasn't strapped in." He mounted Ruth and gestured for Parollan to sit behind him.

"Helva, if you can get this on video, it would be a wonderful thing," he murmured as he awkwardly climbed onto the white dragon. "I'll be the first brawn from Central Worlds to ride a dragon!" He got onto Ruth's neck a bit too aggressively, slid off the other side, and landed flat on his back on the ground.

"Oh, rest assured, I'm getting all of this on video, including that dainty pratfall," she said impishly. "You just became the first brawn from Central Worlds to fall off a dragon!"

"Maybe we can edit out certain parts of that video once we're on our way," he grunted as he sat up, brushed himself off, and tried again. This time, he got situated in the proper place. Ruth took off – rather gently, Jaxom realized – and took the two of them up to the site of the impact. It was about three stories off the ground, and Parollan was glad that the ship's designers had included streamlined handholds and footholds all over the hull. They looked into the blackened hole in the ship's side.

"What a mess!" Jaxom said sympathetically. "Are you going to try to fix all of that?"

"Not a chance," Parollan replied. "Too much of that equipment is highly specialized, with no spare parts or replacements on board, and too much of it has been smashed beyond recognition. We just need air tanks so we can get to the closest planet with some repair facilities. Then they can patch us up and send us on our way to Regulus. That's the only planet in this sector with facilities for heavy-duty repairs on brainships."

"Brainships?" Jaxom asked. Parollan realized that he'd said too much; he'd meant to keep Helva's true nature secret for a lot longer than this. Still, Jaxom seemed trustworthy, and his reaction suggested curiosity, not revulsion.

"Jaxom, I'll make you a deal," he said. "If you'll keep that little slip of the tongue to yourself, I will completely appease your curiosity later this afternoon. Deal?"

"My lips are sealed," the young Lord Holder nodded. "Ruth won't tell anyone, either. Will you, Ruth?"

If a queen dragon asks me, I will have to tell her. Otherwise, I will say nothing.

Jaxom nodded, satisfied. Parollan couldn't hear Ruth, of course, and assumed that the Lord Holder was talking to his dragon the way a citizen of his own culture might talk to his dog. The white dragon hovered as close to the ship's hull as he could, and Parollan half-stepped, half-fell off the dragon onto a small platform near the damaged zone.

"I'll be right back with the Mastersmith," Jaxom promised. He made sure Parollan was in no danger of falling, then returned to ground level.

"How does it look?" Fandarel asked.

"It looks like a half-wing of bronzes and browns lobbed boulders at the ship, while the greens and the blues hit it with their fires," Jaxom said. "Some of that stuff is so mangled, I can't even guess what it used to be."

"Well, bring me up there so I can see it for myself," the Mastersmith ordered.

"Sir, can I make a suggestion?" Jaxom asked. "That platform isn't very big, and Niall is taking up half of it. You are not a small man, and... I'm not sure you're going to fit up there. How about if I bring Master Terry to the platform so he can confer with Niall about the repairs, and then Ruth can carry you up and hover near the hole so you can at least see some of it?"

"Humph. That's not the most efficient way to plan a major repair operation, but I'll bow to your expertise," Fandarel decided. "I trust Terry to give me a full report when we're done."

Terry was a big man, but he wasn't as big as Fandarel. Ruth lifted him easily, and Niall extended a hand and helped him step onto the small platform. He was soon immersed in an animated discussion with Parollan as Ruth returned to land yet again and took the Mastersmith up for a look. It was hard for him to hover with such a heavy weight on his neck, but he did his best, and Fandarel got a good picture of the damaged area before he returned to the ground. Then Ruth took Terry back down, and finally Parollan. They stood next to the others, who had been craning their necks to see the hole in the ship and the two men on the platform who were pointing into it.

"Well?" Lessa demanded.

"Do you remember that forge in northern Nerat that was ruined when the foul gases built up inside it and exploded?" Fandarel told her. "That's very much what the inside of that spaceship looks like. I'm amazed that it can fly."

"Captain Helva is an excellent pilot," Parollan told him. "Still, we'll all be happier if we can fix at least some of that damage. What do you think? Is it doable?"

"We may not be able to match the precise alloy that you're using," Terry said thoughtfully, "but we do know how to make airtight oxygen tanks. The issue is the size of the tanks. Ours have all been for personal use on spacesuits. We've never made tanks that big before."

"Could you make a series of small tanks to replace one big one?" Jancis suggested.

"That's not the most efficient solution," Fandarel thought out loud, "but it ought to work if we can't make some large tanks. What do you think, Terry? Are you up to the challenge?"

"Is there a forge equipped for specialty alloys and big enough to work on a tank of that size?" Terry asked doubtfully.

"The main forge in Telgar should be big enough," the Mastersmith said.

"The main forge in Telgar is tied up with refining and drawing the wires for your long-distance communicators," Terry reminded him. "If we put our forge onto this air-tank project, you'll lose all the time you put into setting up the wire job. It could set your project back by at least a month, probably more."

"Niall, are you in a hurry to fix your damage and be on your way?" Fandarel asked.

"Yes, we do have places we have to get to," Parollan said. "The sooner we get home, the sooner we can get our damage fully repaired and start earning money to pay for those repairs."

"You have to pay for your own repairs?" Everyone looked sharply at Piemur, who realized that his question might not have been very diplomatic.

"A ship of this kind is very expensive," Niall said, trying to answer the question without revealing too much (again). "Central Worlds created a system of wages and payments so we can earn enough to pay off our debt and become free agents. This damage is going to set us back quite a bit, but it's too late to do anything about that, except to do what we have to do."

"Again, we'll help in any way we can," F'lar promised, and the others nodded.

"We appreciate that," Niall nodded. "I think I need to spend some time with your smiths, discussing particulars." He lowered his voice and turned to Jaxom. "If you stand at the base of the ship and call out, 'Lift, please,' I think your curiosity will be appeased in full measure." Then he turned back to Fandarel and Terry. "Gentlemen, I'll thank you for your help in advance. Now, let's sit down and talk dimensions, and alloys, and pressure ratings."

"Excellent," Terry nodded, and they led Parollan toward the AIVAS building, where conference rooms with computer terminals waited. Jaxom watched them go, then turned and began strolling toward the spaceship.

"Going somewhere?" Piemur demanded, quickly catching up with him on his right side.

"Niall asked me to do something for him," Jaxom said casually.

"And you're being vague and imprecise, which is a sure sign that you're hiding something from us," said Jancis from his left.

"I'm just not sure that you guys are invited," Jaxom exclaimed, desperately trying to dampen their sudden enthusiasm to keep him company. "I mean, you can't just walk onto his ship without permission, can you?"

"Can you?" Piemur asked pointedly.

"I was invited because Ruth and I helped him bring the smiths up to see the damage on his ship," Jaxom said defensively. "Piemur, I know you love sneaking into Gathers when you aren't invited, but this isn't the same thing at all."

"It's not sneaking when you're ordered to go by a Master of your craft," Piemur shot back. "I think they call that 'obedience' instead."

"And you will always be obedient," Jaxom retorted, "as long as it means doing what you wanted to do anyway." Jancis tried to stifle a laugh.

Piemur wasn't done, though. "You, on the other hand, have a proven track record of trying to leave your friends behind while you sneak off and discover things all by yourself. It didn't work when we found the Two-Faced Mountain, Lord Holder, and it's not going to work today!"

They were startled by a clear female voice from the direction of the ship. "If I invited all three of you on board, would that solve your problem?" Farli chittered at the sudden, disembodied voice and tightened her tail's grip around Piemur's neck.

Jaxom's shoulders drooped. He felt like he'd been defeated somehow. "Yes, it would solve our problem," he called toward the ship. He shrugged and said to his friends, "That's it, then. We're all invited." They resumed walking toward the ship, faster than before.

"What are we going to find?" Jancis asked him. "Do you have any idea?"

"I know that the captain's name is Helva," Jaxom replied, "and that's about all. This ship is much smaller than the ships that our ancestors used, so the crew is probably quite small. That's a guess, though. Guesses and questions are all I've got."

"Then let's get some answers!" Piemur said decisively. They reached the spaceship, and Jaxom called, "Lift, please," because Niall had told him to. The sliding platform was already descending towards them, though. They stepped onto it, and it smoothly lifted them toward the entry door and the mysteries that lay inside.

What could a "brainship" be?