Chap. 280 The Botanist
Here. This looks like a good spot. Land, please?
Raventh set his wings and spiraled downward to land gently onto the steppe.
The grass was dry, even this early in the day. That meant rain was coming, he remembered. Manylegs webs, festooned on the grass as far as the eye could see, shimmered in the morning light.
He looked all around and saw nothing but horizon. Ah, how I love this, he thought, throwing my eyes to the end of the world. I should do this more often.
His ears had finally stopped ringing from the raucous party the night before. He’d been up late, late last night, talking with friends, reminiscing about Impressions and memories of Weyrling days and Thread fights.
There was something subtly different about the Weyr, something he couldn’t quite coax out of his subconscious to examine. Things change, he thought, like kids. Trees grow, stone fences fall over, kids get taller. People don’t age in one’s memory, and seeing how tall Glyena has grown was a shock. She’s turning into a girl.
Despite numerous invitations to stay in private weyrs or cottages, he’d opted to bunk in the Weyr’s visitors dorm. I don’t feel right, anymore, intruding on someone’s home life, he thought as he’d settled in for sleep. The people in the dorm are strangers, noisy ones-that bloke at the end snoring sounds like he’s a wher calling for battle. But I’m used to that, I’m no one to them and that suits me fine. Living at Landing has spoiled me. I like my solitude. But I have missed my friends, Lindea, Oscoral. And Glyena seems happy and content.
I liked seeing my friends. We went fishing. I caught a big sharptail.
How about Siskin?
Oh, the fire lizards didn’t have to hunt. After Impression, Siskin and the others followed the humans with the bowls. When the hatchlings were done, the humans let the fire lizards clean up the scraps. There was a lot over after the weyrlings fed their hatchlings. They are messy!
Oh, yes, so were you. That first feeding you ate so fast some of it ended up on me.
Raventh laughed, then sobered.
Why wasn’t Careth at Impression?
I don’t know. Maybe D’mitran couldn’t make it? Don’t worry, he’ll be with us on our next survey.
Siskin swirled overhead, still sated from yesterday’s feast. But he still hunted, if only for fun.
I love it out here. The silence is wonderful. No one here but me.
Only Siskin and Raventh know where I am. I feel so small and insignificant compared to the immense expanse of the steppe. I love it so.
He heard the skreeeeeah of a raptor soaring overhead.
Siskin fled to his safe perch just behind Raventh’s head and watched the raptor warily.
“Siena says you are changing,” he said to the steppe. “She says the hunting is poor and the grazing even poorer. Tell me what that means.” He inhaled deeply, relaxed his eyes, and then calmed his mind to invite the steppe in.
The wind sighed through the grasses. He heard an insect stridulating. The raptor continued to soar, screaming her joy at living.
But the steppe was mute.
He remembered riding out onto the steppe that came right to the stone walls that fenced his cothold. You could walk out onto the steppe with your eyes closed and never…
I see a dragon.
He’s on the ground. I see his human. The human stood up then knelt down. Now I can’t see him for the grass.
Why didn’t I bring my binoculars! he grumbled.
I don’t see it!
The blue just dropped his head again. If he’d not raised it I wouldn’t have known it was there. Now he sees us.
Ask him if they’re okay? Is something wrong?
He mounted Raventh and buckled in.
He says they are fine.
Fine, but still..let’s go meet him.
They landed a respectful distance from the blue dragon. The blue looked at Raventh and nodded in respectful recognition.
He’s full fed. Half asleep!
“Hello, blue rider! Hello, K’ndar, rider of brown Raventh here!”
The young man was on his knees, peering intently through a binocular at the ground. An open notebook was next to his knee.
There was no response.
He walked over to just behind the man.
“Hello? Are you alright?”
The man turned and looked up at him, his irritation obvious.
That was strange, but so were his actions. Decorum would have the blue rider introduce himself.
“Uh, well, um…we just saw you out here, doing what?”
Right. I’ve met people like you. Laconic to the point of being mute, but still enough of a smart ass to make that last remark. You could at least respond to my polite introduction with a name, if nothing else.
“I’m K’ndar, rider of brown Raventh. I’m here for the Impression at my former Weyr, and saw you out here. I see you have a binocular, just like mine, and a notebook. If you don’t mind, please tell me what you’re looking at so closely?”
The man shrugged and keeping his gaze on the ground, said, “Plants.”
You deserve a kick in the arse for your insolence, he thought. Getting people like you to interact is like drawing well water with a sieve.
“What did you think of the Impression?”
“I didn’t go.”
He moved closer to the man to look at his notebook. The morning sun cast his shadow on the page, but he could see data. It looked like Latin names and numbers. In front of the man were four thin plinths of lightwood, straight as a die, laid out in a meter square. Inside were thinner straps, separating it into four identical squares.
It was a transect.
“You’re blocking my light.”
“Sorry,” he said automatically as he backed up.
The man set down the nocs. He began to count individual plants in the southeast square. The notebook page had data already written down under headings “Northwest, northeast, southwest”. ‘Southeast’ had just a few lines, obviously just annotated.
Ah. I know what he’s doing. He’s counting plants by species.
I bet I know what you are. You’re a biologist, maybe? And you’re doing a transect of the plants. You have the air of a focused, anti-social specialist. Like Miklos, who, if his hair caught fire, would allow his ears to burn off rather than tear himself away from his microscope.
Let’s see if I can fetch you out.
“So tell me, what is going on with the steppe?”
The man finally looked up at him. His expression was just this side of scornful.
“You know about the steppe?”
“Ah, you CAN speak. Yes. I grew up on it. My home cothold is three days by horse from here, in the foothills of the Southern Range.”
“You’re the first person I’ve ever met who admits to being steppe bred.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I love the steppe. I’m assuming you’re steppe bred, too?”
“No. I grew up at Greystones Hold, up north, and impressed at Benden Weyr. If you like spending your life pounding on stones, you’ll love Greystones. And Benden Weyr is..well, it’s Benden, but I wasn’t interested in anything on offer there. As soon as Thread stopped falling, I left there and signed into the least rocky Weyr I could find that wasn’t Northern.”
K’ndar laughed, despite the feeling that the man was not only odd, but rude.
“Must be a small Hold, I’ve never heard of it.”
It was obvious the man wanted to go back to looking at plants. Not so soon, K’ndar thought. “So, tell me what you’re sampling.”
“Just plants. I’m a botanist.”
“Obviously. But…well, may I look at your notebook?”
Before the man could say no, K’ndar picked it up. The man scowled.
There was page after page after page of data. He didn’t recognize the scientific names of the grasses, but then, he hadn’t done a study of steppe plants or their nomenclature. They had local, informal names: bluetop, tall stickweed, fireweed, horselove.
“This is a lot of data.” He handed the notebook back. The man grabbed it as if he’d damaged it. He appeared to resist wiping K’ndar cooties off.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
One more, jerk, and I will kick you in the arse.
“Try me. I’m a biologist. And a horseman and steppe bred, and there’s something going on with the steppe that I’d like to know.”
The man sighed and stood up. “I’ve been studying the steppe for about a year. I come out here almost every rest day or when I have time. I’ve been cataloging and studying the plant life. I didn’t get to see the steppe before Thread stopped falling, but in the last six months I’ve seen changes. See the little trees growing? They’re every where. Where did the seeds come from?”
Something in his head went BONK. Yes.
“By the egg, you’re right. My brain has been seeing it. but not my eyes. You’re right. Tiny starts, probably germinated in the spring rains. The seeds are brought in by birds and wherries. The seedlings should be grazed down, but they’re not.”
“Yes. But it’s not just because nothing’s eating them. The trees are growing because the SOIL is changing. The soil! I don’t have the equipment to do a soil test, but I know plants and they tell me what they want to eat. Some species aren’t as plentiful as they were last year, and it’s not because they’ve been eaten.”
“Yes. The chemistry is changing. Ordinarily, when it rains, nutrients-that means dung-leach out, all in the same amounts. There’s plants that need certain chemicals in the soil and if they don’t get it, they don’t set seed and they die. The trees couldn’t compete with the grasses, but now that some of the grasses aren’t growing, they’re taking advantage of it. And there’s two things missing. Thread and the grubs.”
“The grubs? The steppe exists because of the grubs.”
“Yes. The grubs ate Thread. When they defecated, the nutrients and chemicals they got from Thread replaced that what was leached out. The plants evolved to use those specific nutrients. But now, with no thread, the grubs die.”
Oh my stars, he thought. His mind began to whirl.
“That’s..that’s bad news, although I doubt the grubs will starve. They did survive many Intervals without Threadfall. They can adapt.”
K’ndar had enough.
“Look, I don’t know what your problem is, but it must hurt. Maybe they don’t teach civility at Benden Weyr or maybe you slept through it, but you need to learn to be polite. I’ve told you my name and what I do. I’ve given you two chances to reciprocate and you’ve ignored them. For all I know, you’re a rogue dragon rider, here for some nefarious reason, and if you don’t straighten up, I’ll have Weyrleader F’mart teach you manners.”
“I’m no rogue!”
“Then who are you?”
The man frowned. “Fine. I’m L’ichen, rider of blue Sorath. Formerly of Benden Weyr, then Honshu, then Southern, now lower right wing of Kahrain Steppe Weyr. I’m a botanist.”
“And I’m K’ndar, rider of brown Raventh, staff biologist at Landing.”
Something dawned in L’ichens eyes.
“Wait. Wait. You’re THAT K’ndar? A member of the steppe expedition?”
“Unless Benden has a K’ndar, then, yes.”
L’ichen’s face twisted. “By the stars, I am so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t. Yes, I guess I’m rude but I don’t like people. They’re stupid, they ask stupid questions like what are you doing and why plants. I don’t like being bothered. I like plants, all my life I’ve studied them. I’ve found a lot of species that the Ancients never discovered. I’ve named them, scoped them, and drawn them. Most people don’t understand. I thought you were just another yob bothering me.”
“Even if I were, you should at least be courteous. Civility costs nothing. Your attitude invites antagonism. I was about to kick your arse and I don’t do that. Dragon riders are in a precarious position right now, and all it takes is one jerk to set an entire Hold or cothold against us. So from now on, try and be at least responsive with something more substantial than a monosyllabic grunt, okay?”
Something started yelling in his mind. A botanist. Doing research on a steppe that is changing.
“May I see your data again?”
L’ichen handed the notebook to him. He flipped through it, admiring the precise numbers, the careful and clear writing, the attention to dates, times, weather, animal life, forbs and grasses, even coordinates when he could get them and a sketch of a cairn or a landmark if he didn’t. This man, for all his rudeness, was a good data collector.
On the cover it said “4”.
“You have other notebooks? With data like this?”
“Yes sir. I fill them up pretty fast.”
“Have you considered turning in your data to Landing? I must congratulate you on your neat figures and your attention to detail. You won’t have to re-write them to make them legible. I do, I’m a sloppy writer, but before I turn in a notebook, I completely re-write it, nice and neat. I turn that one in and get a new notebook, free. That way I keep my field notes.”
“A free notebook? Landing? I’ve never been there. They would like this data? It’s just my findings, it’s not anything official.”
“Yes, they would. Yes, you’d get a free notebook, one for one. This is excellent work, L’ichen, your data entry is perfect. There’s no such thing as “official’ data. Elene, the Chief Librarian, would be very happy to accept your data.”
“You said you’re Landing staff?”
“Yes. I’m Staff Biologist.”
Something in the man’s eyes glimmered. Ah, maybe there IS a social animal inside that head, he thought.
“Would you…um, I mean, I don’t know how to ask this..” L’ichen looked torn. He looked at his field notebook, and then, as if he were cutting off his hand, extended it to K’ndar.
He waved it off. “Take your notebook? No. That’s asking a lot, I know I wouldn’t dream of giving my notebooks to just anybody. Why don’t you go with me? I’ll be leaving for Landing here shortly. While it’s a rest day, I think Elene would be willing to at least brief you on what she wants, and she’ll possibly give you some new notebooks on credit. Then when you have time, you can copy your field notes and turn them in on your own schedule.”
“Do you really think my data is all that important?”
He nodded. “I do. No one has done this before. I don’t even know the nomenclature for the grasses, just what I learned from years on the steppe. If there’s trouble with the steppe, that means trouble for the herds and the herdmasters, trouble for the environment, and, ultimately, all of Pern.”
“I’d…I’d like that. Yes, I would like to go with you and meet this Elene.”
“Fine. We’ll go back to the Weyr, you can collect what you want, and then we’ll go to Landing.” He was about to head for Raventh when the thought struck him.
He pointed a finger at L’ichen. “Now listen”, he growled, “when you speak with Elene, be polite, understand? None of this one word grunting, none of your smart ass remarks. You introduce yourself, speak in complete sentences, you say yes ma’am and no ma’am, please and thank you very much. If you don’t, I promise you, you’ll regret it. She’s gentle as a lamb but make no mistake, if Landing has a Weyrwoman, Elene is it.”