The Weight of Air
Her first stop was at a small hut with a shed on tall stilts at the top of a hill. Alina remembered flying over it in Threadfall and wondering at the place. It was such an unnatural location to build a home, and it stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of a tangled forest. This far inland neither she nor Imarith could see the sea, and normally lush green of her coastal Weyr had softened into a drier, darker hue.
Imarith banked her wings and descended toward the little clearing. Now that they were closer Alina could see a small, tidy garden and what looked like a well. Idly she wondered how far down it went. Imairth landed neatly in the middle of the space and Alina pushed back her goggles. "Hello?"
There was a long pause, and then a movement at the window of the hut as the shutters cracked open and a head emerged, squinting in the sunlight. "About time! You're very late!" He started to retreat inside, then stopped and scowled at Imarith's green hide. "Wait. Where's the usual one?"
"Fenolth was injured so I am taking J'pil's duties." Alina squinted into the shadows of the window. "I'm Alina, and this is Imairth."
"Huh." The head vanished, the shutters slamming behind it. Several moments passed in silence, and then the door opened and a man emerged, blinking, with a sheaf of papers under one arm. He was short but sturdy, his clothes well-worn and the badge of his Craft faded but visible. Bright dark eyes peered at them from under a pair of bushy grey eyebrows. Coming face to face with the green dragon, he did remember his manners enough to make a bow.
"My duty to you, Imarith. I'm Master Ebren, and I do apologise if I was short - but it really is most important that my reports get to Weyr and Hall on time! Most important!" He started to leaf through the papers, each densely covered with ink and neatly drawn tables, then caught himself again. "Oh - but of course. Fenolth. Not badly hurt, I hope? Not Threadscore?"
"No, sir." Alina unstrapped herself and stepped onto Imarith's elbow to dismount. It would be rude to sit up on her dragon's back while speaking to a Master Crafter. "An injury while drilling, I'm afraid. I'm not sure how long he will be grounded for. And... my apologies for being late."
"Well, no matter. Not your fault. An injured dragon...though if you could mention to your Wingleader that it really is very, very important that my Hall gets my data promptly. The wind measurements at this station are critical for predicting the conditions across Emerald Falls territory!" He watched her curiously as she descended. "Is this your first time collecting weather reports?"
"Yes, sir. Again, my apologies for being late, but drills ran long." She paused. "I'll let my Wingleader know."
"Good, good. Not to worry." For all his earlier agitation, the master starsmith didn't seem in too much of a hurry to sort through his reports. "Let's see. Here are the tables of the cloud cover, and these are the wind measurements. I don't suppose you've seen one of those before, if this is your first trip?" He gestured towards a curious metal structure mounted on top of the hut.
Alina shook her head. "I haven't, sir." It looked a bit like the old weather vane on the top of the ovine barn at Nadol Cothold, only it had little cups on it and it was spinning furiously.
"That is called an anemometer. Funny name, isn't it. Our craft records say it's a design of the ancients. The wind makes the cups spin around, and the more times they go around in a minute, the faster the wind. See how one of them is a different colour?" Master Ebren pointed as the marked cup spun past. "This table shows the number of times it passes, and the the calculation of the wind speed. It is very important to keep the raw data. Very important! If a mistake should ever be discovered in the calibration, the starsmiths at the Hall could go back and re-calculate, and we wouldn't lose a single day's measurements."
"Anemometer..." The word tasted strange on her tongue. "I saw one of the weather charts that my Wingleader uses... it said something about... what is barmic pressure?"
"Barmic?" The starsmith blinked at her, perplexed, then suddenly his expression cleared. "Oh! You mean 'barometric'. Another funny name. It's a measurement of the pressure of the air. I'll show you."
He turned and walked back towards the hut, where a case containing another mysterious device was attached to the wall. Inside was a tall, slender glass tube partly filled with a metallic grey liquid, with a bulb at the bottom. "Now, this is a barometer. See these marks at the top? These are where we read off the barometic pressure. If the pressure rises, it pushes the mercury further up the tube, and if it falls, the reading falls with it. We measure the height of the column..." He thought for a moment, perhaps recalling long-ago days spent teaching his craft to apprentices. "Did you know that the air around us has a weight?"
The idea of air having weight surprised a laugh out of her. Air could push, but it wasn't _heavy_. "What?"
"Yes! All the air above you - though you don't feel it. Although..." He considered. "When you're flying with your dragon, you might have noticed that the air seems thinner up there - or perhaps you have other things on your mind! But if you were to take this instrument up with you, you'd see the measurement fall further, the higher you go. That's because there's less air above you, and it, to push down."
Alina vaguely remembered being told in her Candidate classes that air got thin the higher a dragon flew. She knew that her ears popped painfully and it became hard to breathe if they flew too high. Everyone tried flying straight up at least once. "Does that mean there's a... top to the air?"
"Yes, just as there's a surface to the water in the oceans. No-one's ever been there, since when the air grows too thin, riders grow dizzy, and can even lose consciousness. Dragons tolerate it better, from what I've read." For a moment, Master Ebren looked worried. "I do hope you're not thinking of trying it yourself. It's dangerous, and we have quite enough data on the subject already."
"No sir, I wouldn't dare." Never mind that she and Imarith had already done it once. Once was enough. The air was too cold, Imarith grew tired, and Alina grew frightened as Pern had slipped away beneath them. "But... what's on the other side of the air?"
"Ah, now that is a good question. Most of us think there's simply nothing at all, nothing but a few stray particles of dust, all the way out to the moons. And Thread, of course, comes from out there," he said, his voice sombre. "It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be there. One of the most interesting questions in my Craft is whether it is the same as /between/, or whether that's something else entirely. But it is exceedingly difficult to carry out experiments /between/."
"How come? There must be Starsmiths who have Impressed." All sorts of crafters Impressed.
"There's no shortage of volunteers, from what I've heard. The difficulty is to take readings when you can't see, hear or feel." He sighed. "Ah, if anyone could solve that problem, their name would be remembered for generations to come. But so far as I know, not even the ancients had a successful method, unless it's been lost to time."
"How curious." A task for brighter minds than her own, but the idea of an unsolvable question was romantic. Alina stared into a bright blue sky that looked altogether different now. After a while she realized that the Starsmith was still looking at her, and she flushed, remembering her more earthbound duties. "I... ah, I ought to collect the report, sir. I'm so sorry for taking up your time."
"Not to worry. It's useful to have someone to talk to, now and then, you never know what ideas might come of it, and I don't get many visitors here. No, not many. When I used to teach, back at the Smith Hall..." His voice trailed off. Then he shook himself and began to sort through his papers, picking out a handful of neatly inscribed sheets. "You're quite right, though, the report must get back to the Weyr without delay. And your time is surely valuable as well. You must have other stops to get to?"
She nodded. "It was good to give Imarith a bit of a rest, though. Thank you, sir."
"You're welcome. And please give my regards to J'pil, and wish his Fenolth a swift recovery." He handed over the report. "Until next time, then?"
"I'll look forward to it." Alina was surprised to find that she meant it. She settled herself back on Imarith and with a smart salute, the pair leaped into the sky. She peered down at the Starsmith's little hut as they circled for altitude and caught one last glimpse of Master Ebren as they jumped /between/.
Last updated on the October 13th 2020