Tuesday, January 1, 2008


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


When Bux was about ready to return to work after Speranz's birth, Qen came home one day from school early, accompanying the children on their walk down the lane. She asked that Halling be awakened, and once everyone was seated at the table, the children with a snack, she announced "Mill hit a child at school in the face today."

"On purpose?" demanded Bux.

"Yes. In full view of leraars" said Qen, her mouth taut.

All eyes turned on Mill, who said "She was being bad!"

"There is no badness that justifies hitting somebody, you know that" said Yoj.

"Who was it?" asked Bux.

"Gerra. She's a year behind me, but she's bigger than I am" said Mill defensively.

"Tell us what happened" said Halling.

"Well, she was mean. We were all playing, a bunch of us, and then Ndege joined us, which was okay because she can run as fast as the older kids" said Mill. Ndege looked gratified at this admission from Mill. "Then Dodd came over and asked if she could play, too, and Gerra said she was too little."

"Is that why you hit her?" asked Yoj.

"No" said Mill irritably. "I said she wasn't too little to do what we were doing, and then Gerra said the reason why Ndege and Dodd weren't the same size is because Ndege had tried to suck the life out of Dodd while they were still in aggie's belly. So I walked over and I punched her. It made her nose bleed" Mill added, with raw satisfaction.

Ng stifled a laugh. Yoj refused to look at anyone but Mill, afraid she would laugh, too, both from horror and in unseemly jubilation at Dodd's defense.

Bux said "I can't believe that shitting old myth is still being passed on out there!"

Qen looked troubled. "Gerra didn't tell me what she had said, she only indicated you were mad because she didn't want Dodd to play." She said to Bux "I'm sorry, I came down on Mill really hard -- "

"As you should have" said Halling. "To echo Yoj, there is no badness that justifies hitting. No excuse." She looked at Mill sternly. Mill's face was beginning to register worry.

"Emma's right" said Bux, more kindly. "It's -- wonderful -- that you stood up for your sibus, and Gerra was not just wrong, she was hateful. Ndege has spent her entire life being good to Dodd, and Dodd back to her, and they were that same way before they were born. So I'm glad you didn't let that lie go unchallenged. But you should have gone straight to a leraar and told her, and let an adult deal with it."

"My brain didn't work that way" said Mill honestly. "I was just so mad."

"Yes, and that's appropriate for someone your age" said Yoj. "We all have to learn, as we grow up, to teach our brains to work even when we're mad."

But Halling was not relenting. "If you were not a child, if you were sixteen or older, do you know what we would all be doing right now?" she asked Mill.

Mill said "No."

"We'd be going to see the Ethicist, to beg her to let you out of wherever they had locked you up. We'd be starting to talk to friends, family, everyone we could, to see if they would plead leniency for you so you didn't spend the rest of your life alone on Peisuo. Hitting is a crime when adults do it, Mill. We have lots of ways of dealing with meanness and lies here on Skene, but hitting is not allowed." Halling's tone finally made Yoj realize Halling was terrified for Mill.

Mill had gone ashen. "Am I -- is the Ethicist -- ?" she whispered.

Ng jumped in, "No, the law is different for children. But we will all have to deal with this."

"First step is, we have to go talk with Gerra's emmas" said Bux. She asked Qen, "Who are her emmas, anyhow?"

"The Sigrists" said Qen grimly.

"Oh, lev" said Bux and Halling simultaneously.

The current Sigrists were a three-way partnership, Asha, Ludo and Kint, who had accepted the position when Asha's emmas retired. They were around Halling's age and seldom were seen outside of Sigrist Poke. Their influence was considerable, however.

Yoj said "Mill, go wash thoroughly, comb your hair, and put on a clean shati."

"I'm changing, too" said Halling, heading for the bedroom.

"Put on a pressed uniform" Bux called after her.

"We'll get dinner tonight" said Veida. "And watch the children, of course."

Halling held Mill's hand on the way up Sigrist Poke while Yoj coached her on what made a good apology. By the time they knocked on the door, Mill looked as if she might pass out. Halling stood behind her supportively as Bux introduced them all formally and asked if they might speak with Gerra's emmas.

The elder who answered the door motioned them up a spiral staircase to an upper level. "They're all up and at the board right now" she said. She walked to a back door and called "Gerra! You need to come in here and talk with your emmas."

None of them had ever seen the Sigrist radio room before. It was full of equipment, scans and maps that called to Halling yearningly. Bux repeated her introductions. Asha, her tone cool, said "Yes, Gerra told us she was attacked at school today."

At that point, Gerra shuffled in, blood flecks still on her shati. She made an ostentatious circle around Mill and sidled up to Asha.

"Mill has something to say to you" prompted Halling. Mill wiped her hand over her forehead in pure terror, then began "I -- I was wrong to hit you. I was very wrong. I feel -- I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I had no right."

Ludo and Kint both looked mollified at this stark apology, Asha less so. When Gerra just stood there, scowling, Mill addressed Gerra's emmas, saying "I feel really bad. I want you to know, my emmas didn't raise me this way, it's not their fault. I just got mad, and I guess I don't know how to be good yet -- " She suddenly burst into tears, and Halling picked her up, tucking Mill's face into her shoulder.

Yoj began "We accept responsibility for this, she's just a child, and I can assure you, this won't happen again."

Asha nudged Gerra and said "Are you going to accept her apology?"

Gerra looked stubborn, but said "All right. I guess." Asha said to Yoj "And of course, we accept your apology. I understand Mill being upset about her sibu feeling excluded, immaturity is something we have to overcome."

Bux spoke up "Yes, and prejudice is hard for any child to handle." Yoj saw this hit all three emmas with uncertainty. Bux went on, in a quiet but knowing voice, "My emma, Nan Qen, will be doing an instruction at school on how wrong it is to say hateful things about others based on their birth, and I imagine that will help clear things up, as well."

Kint said "What are you talking about?"

"Didn't Gerra tell you?" said Bux, all innocence. She repeated Gerra's comment, and had the satisfaction of seeing Asha gasp. Gerra immediately began protesting "That's what everybody says, emma, I didn't make it up!"

Halling said "As members of the Lofthall and employees of the Sheng Zhang, we of course don't condone that kind of thinking in our family, and I assure you, we know the members of the Sigrist's family are likewise fair-minded people. I'm sure you'll get to the bottom of it on your end, just as we will on ours." Her tone was more convincing that Bux's. Asha was red-faced but said "I appreciate you coming to us directly. I hope -- Nan Qen won't single out Gerra -- "

"Of course not" said Bux. "Shaming will just exacerbate the problem. Mill, honey, wipe your face and get down so you can shake Gerra's hand."

Mill complied, and this time, Gerra managed a fairly sincere-sounding "You're welcome", followed by "Tell Dodd I'm sorry I said that about her, I didn't mean it."

"You can tell her yourself at school tomorrow" said Ludo. "And she's to play with you all whenever she wants."

They walked down the hill in silence for a few minutes, until Halling said "I'm really proud of how you handled that, Mill. Most honorable." Mill's smile grew even larger when Yoj added "And Gerra is now in a world of trouble, from the looks of it."

The following Ot, Mill brought home a note from Asha asking that she and her sibs come to play with the Sigrists' children on Sju afternoon. After conferring with Bux and Halling, Yoj wrote a reply accepting the invitation and sent Mill up the Poke to deliver it.

Two days later, Yoj carried Speranz and led her four older children back to the Poke. The upper level around the house was terraces of tillage, but a wider walled yard circled below it. Gerra and her two sibus joined them in this yard, and the play was instantly raucous. The youngest of the Sigrists' children was about a year old. Dodd took her hand, helping her walk the perimeter of the yard, away from the boisturous older children, talking to her softly, while Yoj sat in a sunny patch with Speranz and enjoyed herself.

After that, invitations to the Sigrists' house came often, and the Manage reciprocated. Gerra and Ndege became particular friends. At the Lofthall, the story of Mill's bloodletting was told with great relish and pride when Halling wasn't around.

Mill ran into trouble again, however, when her grades were sent home at mid-term. She was doing poorly across the board, but her math and science scores were especially below average. The emmas talked it over first.

"I know she can excel in these two areas, she's been ahead of the curve since she could talk" said Halling bitterly.

"Clearly she's stopped applying herself" said Yoj. "Any clue as to why?"

"I asked emma about it" said Bux. Mill was now in Qen's class. "She says there's another child that Mill is desperate to impress, a wise-cracker who scorns intellect."

"Is it a crush?" asked Yoj, horrifying Halling.

"Could be" said Bux.

"Let me talk to her" said Halling, standing up.

"No more threats of Peisuo" warned Yoj.

Mill's face fell when she saw the letter containing her marks. That was a good sign, and Halling capitalized on it. "If what you want to do when you graduate is herd goats, or plant rice, then these kinds of grades won't matter" she said casually. "People will respect you for being a hard worker physically, and maybe good at making jokes. But you won't be the kind of leader who makes decisions about strategy. And you'll never fly with Rark and Danaan, of course -- they were both whizzes at school, and when they got teased, as I did, about being so smart, they just grinned and waggled their hands like wings."

"Will these -- will it keep me from the Lofthall?" asked Mill hoarsely.

"Not if it's a one-time incident" said Halling. "Listen, I'll get up an hour early from my nap, right when you get home from school, and I'll do your homework with you all. I can go to bed an hour early, it'll be okay. How's that sound?"

"Thanks, emma" said Mill, hugging her.

"Now, let's talk repercussions. In addition to bringing your grades back up, what do you think should happen as a consequence of not doing your job as a Skener?" said Halling amiably. Mill was completely caught off guard; she thought the problem was dealt with. Bux and Yoj both hid their smiles as they worked on dinner.

Mill gulped, then bravely said "Flushing the privy, I guess?"

Halling also had to hide her smile. "You already do your share of that. But it's commendable of you to offer. Do you think you're old enough to carry a crate of abba's ceramics to the consignment store without breaking any of them? It's heavy, you'll have to stop and rest. And you'll have to collect her fees from the last sales and bring them home safely."

Mill's face clearly indicated this was no punishment. "Oh, yes, emma! I'll be careful, I promise."

"All right then, every San after school, you come straight home and do that for abba. Until the end of term, and if you're tired of it then, we can give the chore back to one of us" said Halling. But she knew Mill would consider it an ongoing honor.

Bux went back to work, asking for a 3/4 time schedule. She explained to Halling and Yoj it wasn't so much for the extra money, which was only two eks, but because it would enhance her resume. Yerush began coming home after classes to work in Yoj's study and spend time with Speranz as often as she could.

One day, however, Yerush wasn't home by dinner. After waiting an extra ten minutes, Qen snapped "The children are hungry, we're going ahead." She slammed a pot of cooked greens on the table and began pouring tumblers of water for the children. All the adults got a child seated and served, and conversation was almost normal, except for Qen's silence. Finally Ndege asked Halling in a carrying whisper "Is abba mad at me?"

Halling couldn't help but laugh, and Qen joined her, leaning over to hug Ndege and say "I'm not mad at anybody in this room". All the children grinned in relief, except for Mill who was too old to be taken in by that trick.

Just as Veida was serving roasted pears sprinkled with almond slivers, the front door opened and Yerush bustled in. She was carrying a long tube of wrapped linen, and was a little breathless, though not breathless enough to account for the extreme redness of her cheeks. Yoj didn't think it was embarrassment, either. Yerush set her bundle carefully on the sideboard, pulled off her sweater and said "I'm so sorry to be late. But I have something amazing to show you after dinner."

"Is it a present?" "For me?" said Prl and Dodd in unison.

Yerush washed her hands and face at the sink and said "No, it's for Halling to look at. It's a grown-up toy."

The juxtaposition of "grown-up" and "toy" intrigued the older children, though not enough to distract them from their pears. Veida set her serving platter back on the aga and Yerush gave her a quick kiss. Veida nodded her head at Qen's stiff back, and Yerush made a dismissive eye-roll, which hardened the face of both Veida and Yoj, who was watching.

Yerush got herself a bowl of pears and sat down without speaking to Qen.

"You can't have dessert first" said Prl, "You're supposed to eat your vetegables."

"I already had dinner" said Yerush briskly, cutting off Mill who was beginning to say "It's VEG--". "But I came home to have dessert with you."

"Where were you?" asked Bux neutrally.

Yerush's good humor dropped a notch. "At the Genist's. And she's found something in her archive that shouldn't be there, it's either part of the Lofthall or the main Archivist's purview. But I persuaded her to let me show it to you first" she said to Halling.

At the mention of Raisa, Qen stopped eating. She divided her pears into quarters and walked around the table, giving a portion to each child except Speranz, who was too busy getting cooked fruit all over herself and Yoj's lap to notice. She said "I'm going to feed the chickens and put them up", and walked stonily out the back door.

"Honestly, emma" said Bux as soon as Qen was gone. "The least you could do is not rub her face in it."

Mill was all ears, and Prl said "Rub her face in what? Like Speranz?"

Yoj and Halling said in the same breath "Never mind" as Yerush scowled at Bux. "I really was late because of the -- find" she retorted. "I'm not thoughtless, you can't fault my devotion to this Manage."

Ndege was eating her extra portion in huge gulps. She pointed her spoon at Yerush's bowl and said "Are you going to eat all of yours?" in a hopeful voice.

Yerush managed to smile, a little stiff, and answer "I am, Ndege Piglet of Skene. But thanks for the offer."

Even the mildest of sarcasm was lost on Ndege. She said politely "You're very welcome" and began licking her bowl.

After everyone was done, Yoj and Bux herded the children into the bath room to wash again while Yerush helped clear the table at a rapid pace. Halling and Veida set dishes to soak, and Yerush washed and dried the table. As she was lifting her bundle from the sideboard, the children ran back into the kitchen clamoring, "We wanna see!"

Yerush kept her bundle close to her chest and said "No touching. I mean it. This may be one of the oldest things on Skene, and only I or Halling can touch it."

This only excited the children more. Bux and Halling pulled chairs away from the table, removing places for the children to sit, with only Ng remaining. They placed one chair a few feet away by Yoj, one by Bux for Ndege and Dodd to stand on for better viewing. Yoj already had Prl in her arms, and Bux picked up Speranz. Mill stood between Ng and Halling, stiff-necked with her added height and maturity.

As Yerush began gently unrolling her bundle, Veida stepped to the back door and called out into the dark "Qen, please come in here with us to look at this." Her tone was sweet and pleading. In half a minute, Qen's face appeared walking past the window, then coming in the door. She had been crying, and Veida kissed her cheeks one after the other. They stood together on the far side of the table, Veida's long arm crooked around Qen's neck.

Yerush saw only that what was being revealed on the table: A chart-sized piece of unfamiliar paper absolutely covered with an irregular pattern of minutely printed numbers, symbols, and fields of faded color. Halling sucked in her breath and stepped up to the table edge to look down on it.

"What is it?" she asked Yerush.

"Raisa thinks it must be a map, but despite our best efforts, we couldn't figure out how to read it or what it might actually represent."

Halling put her fingertip down almost but not quite touching the chart, bent over and reading numbers aloud to herself. Bux approached a corner of the chart and, violating Yerush's order, fingered it gently. She looked at Qen and said "I don't know what kind of paper this is, do you, emma?"

Qen, ignoring Yerush, approached her corner and tested it also. "It's -- I don't think there's a cloth mix in it. But it's thick and seems like it might be water resistant. No, I've never felt anything like it, either."

"Exactly" said Yerush excitedly, addressing Qen for the first time. "We -- I think it might be from the first settlers here."

Qen stepped back to Veida without meeting Yerush's eyes or responding. At that moment, a knock came at the front door.

Yerush gave out a breath and said "This is not for public eyes."

"I'll see who it is" said Yoj, turning for the door but she was quickly outrun by Dodd and Ndege who had leaped from their chairs recklessly. She yelled at them "Wait until I get there to open it!"

With the twins in her way, she tried to block the view in the door as she opened it partway. She said "Hello", then turned to call into the kitchen "It's Rark and Danaan."

Yerush looked like she wanted to send them away, but Halling called back "Ask them in." Ndege and Dodd dragged them into the house, and Mill forsook her place next to Halling to go leap into Danaan's arms. As they all returned to the kitchen, Halling said "Yerush found something in the Genist's files that the Genist can't identify. She thinks it might be a map, although if it is, I can't make sense of it yet."

Ng grinned at that "yet". Halling's confidence was unshakeable.

Danaan slid Mill back down to the floor and bent over the paper with Halling and Rark. Dodd and Ndege clambered back onto their chairs and watched intently.

Danaan said "These colors have faded so badly, I can't quite tell them apart in lots of places. But I'm presuming they have meaning."

"I'm sure they do" answered Yerush. "If you look at them under a microscope, they are not added on top of the paper, like ink -- they seem to be part of the paper itself."

Halling glanced up at her. "Can we print things like that?"

But Yoj answered before Yerush could. Yoj was good friends with the cartagen on Verzin, was one of her best customers, and knew her way around the technology. "No, we cannot" she confirmed. Ng nodded agreement.

"Is there a date anywhere on this?" asked Halling, looking at the margins.

"On one end, on the back, is a very faint handwritten notation" said Yerush. "I don't want to bend this to show you, but I copied it." She fished a paper from her pocket and handed it to Halling, who read it and then said "I can only make sense of the numbers -- what does it say?"

Yoj came to stand behind her and read, translating: "2179 ACE -- that means a year, doesn't it, Yerush?" Yerush nodded. Yoj read "North -- northern, that is -- I don't know that word -- "

Yerush supplied "Hemisphere. It's a section of a globe, meaning we think either a half or a quarter of it."

"Northern Hemisphere, 53 section -- no, sector, which means the same as section, right?"

Yerush nodded again. Yoj continued "Bath -- bathymetric" -- the words sounded utterly alien, and the children's faces were awed. Yoj looked at Yerush, who said "I haven't used the ancient dictionaries yet to puzzle it out."

Yoj continued, struggling "Hisp -- no, hypso-metric, with -- okay, that makes sense, this phrase translates to 'oceanic survey', then -- chloropeth?, then -- there it is, chart. Chart means map. So it has to do with an ocean survey chart, at least."

"Metric, I know, has to do with measurement" added Yerush.

"And it's a portion of the globe, which may or may not be Skene, taken in the year 2179."

Halling was incredulous. "What kind of year would be labeled 2179? You mean thousands of years of keeping time?"

"Yes" said Yoj. "Actually, more than that. ACE means after some point in their history, so there seems to be thousands of years before that as well."

Yoj's easy familiarity with these ideas was more startling to Halling and Bux than the outlandish ideas themselves. After staring at her for a minute, Halling returned to scanning the map. Which Rark had never stopped doing, and now Rark said "Most of these numbers have this symbol in front of them, but there are patches where all the numbers in a cluster have this other symbol in front of them." She pointed two examples out without touching the paper.

Once she knew what to look for, Halling could see what Rark meant. She and Danaan both grew excited, pointing out the two different kinds of clusters on the map. Yerush pushed in next to Rark and began seeing it, too.

"There, I knew you should be the one to examine this" she said to Halling, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was Rark who had just their first breakthrough. "And that symbol? I've seen it on an astronomer's chart. You don't think this is a chart of the heavens, do you?"

Yoj leaned over to examine the symbol up close, holding Prl's grabby fingers out of reach.

"No -- I've seen both of those in an old mathematics book. It's a math symbol" she declared. "And a common one. Give me just a second, I can almost remember -- that one!" she said, pointing to the symbol which was much more prevalent on the map than any other. "That means minus, or less than!"

Yerush's memory, now jogged, exclaimed "You are right! And the other one means plus, or more than!"

She and Yoj grinned at each other in triumph.

Halling's forehead was deeply creased as she looked closely at the tiny numbers. "I wish I could draw on this" she said, "I think this means some kind of change or boundary, these low numbers that go from one symbol to the other."

"Oh!" said Bux. "I know what you can use!" She whirled abruptly and rushed into the living room, causing Speranz to crow in surprise. They heard her opening a cupboard, and shortly she was back, with Speranz clutching a pad of paper. "I have tracing tissue that I use in mural work -- you can lay it over the numbers and still see them through it, and you can draw on it! Give the paper to your emma, Speranz."

Speranz handed it over prettily, and Halling said to her earnestly "This is perfect, Speranz. Thank you so much for thinking of it."

Speranz was intensely gratified and said "You welcome." Dodd began protesting "She didn't think of -- " but Yoj shushed her, whispering something in her ear. Speranz looked at them suspiciously over Bux's shoulder.

Halling pulled a sheet of tracing paper from the pad and Yerush demanded of Bux "Are you sure nothing will leak through it?"

"I use it with pigments, it's safe" assured Bux. Even so, Yerush got Halling a pencil from the kitchen drawer instead of her pen and said "Don't bear down on this."

Halling positioned the tracing paper over a section in the lower middle of the chart and held it down at the top with the flat edge of one hand. With her other hand, she lightly began a pencil line. As she continued having to lift the tracing paper to be sure of the numbers, over and over, Ng assumed the duty of holding the tracing paper down so Halling could use both hands to go back and forth. The line slowly followed an irregular path down, then to a side, then back up and returning to itself. When she was done, Halling said "Every number inside this shape has a plus symbol in front of it, and every number outside it for quite a ways has a minus symbol next to it."

Danaan, watching intently at Halling's elbow, said "The plus numbers closest to the line are all smaller than the ones further into the shape. And look, over here, there's some numbers that are much larger." She pointed to an upper right edge of the shape Halling had traced.

Halling stared at Danaan and whispered "It's elevations. These numbers mean heights. And those big numbers mean a -- a gabal, or poke."

Yerush gasped and said "That's got to be it!"

Halling pulled the tracing paper onto the table, no longer over the map, and draw in the pencil lines darkly. She held it up for everyone to see, and in the same breath Ng and Qen said "It's Peisuo!"

All the adults instantly realized they were right. Peisuo's features had been hardly altered over the centuries. Rark said "Those big numbers, that means heights? That's the big cliffs at the northern edge!"

The excitement in the room was palpable. Dodd whispered to Yoj "Peisuo is where bad people have to go" and Yoj answered "Yes, but the island itself is neither bad nor good. This is just a picture, it's okay." Dodd leaned her arm on Yoj's shoulder, still confused but reassured.

Halling, bent over the map again, said "That means -- these minus numbers are the ocean." She looked up at Veida, her eyes huge in shock. "This is a map of the seas, what it looks like under the surface."

"However did they get this information?" marveled Yerush. Yoj felt a shiver go down her backbone. She was glad when Bux took a step in her direction so their hips touched.

Danaan moved around the table so she was at the upper edge of the map, scanning it from just a few inches away. Suddenly she said "Here's more positive numbers! A big cluster -- and other big cluster, both along the edge -- and two smaller ones just north, I guess, of one of the big ones."

Yoj understood it first. "That must be Yanja and Beras. And flings -- Isola's on there."

Now Qen gave up her distance and came around the table to take Prl from Yoj's arms, so Yoj could go look at the map closely. Halling tore off more sheets of tracing paper and outlined the new islands, beginning with Isola. She was able to mark in some of the elevation features on the island itself, and when she was done and gave it to Yoj, Yoj said "That's it. It didn't really change for 500 years, I guess."

"Until now" murmured Bux. Yoj looked at her and Bux blew her a kiss.

Halling had begun tracing Yanja, and before she was done she was shaking her head. "This is not quite right."

Yerush said "Yanja has an active magma field. It's changed shape over time, has to have, because it's still growing." Halling's confusion cleared, only to return when she began tracing Beras. She said "Beras isn't active, but the elevations here are all wrong, it's just one jagged spike after another."

Yoj said "They leveled Beras, early on, to make rice field terraces. It must have looked like that originally."

They gazed at it as if they were time travelers. Rark remarked "The lagoon wasn't there, then. Look, it's much deeper water between the two islands. And now that I can see the islands, I can see how none of the colors are on land, they're only in the ocean parts."

Halling's heart started racing. She looked at Yoj, and saw that Yoj had reached the same conclusion. But it was Veida who said it out loud: "Are they -- do the colors have to do with Morrie Strati?"

"And migration paths. And schooling clusters" said Halling. "I'll bet my guibba they do."

Veida looked at Yerush and said "This is a treasure. This can't go back into hiding."

Yerush looked uncertain. "But I promised Raisa, I gave her my word -- "

Qen made a disgusted sound and went into the living room with Prl. Mill said to Halling "This is a treasure map, emma? Are we going to go hunt for treasure?"

Halling laughed and said "In a manner of speaking. It's not about treasure like in your story books, it's about the treasure of understanding the ocean."

Not nearly as interesting, it was clear the children felt.

Danaan had continued scanning the map. The rest of Skene was too far to the north and west to appear on it, but she kept poring over the numbers, working her way around it in a circle, until she reached the far right bottom edge, south and east of Peisuo. She said quietly but urgently, "There's more positive numbers over here."

Halling, Rark and Yoj almost banged heads, trying to see where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a small cluster of plus symbols and low numbers, a cluster smaller than Isola Fling but still a homogenous whole. Yoj whispered "It's an island. Another island that nobody knows about."

"It's tiny, though" said Rark. "Not even as big as a secano."

Halling was calculating distances by measuring from Peisuo to Beras on the map. Finally she said "It's out of range. It's beyond the reach of lighter or sinner, that's why we've never seen it. I mean, we could get there on one charge but then we couldn't return."

"And that's if it's still there" said Ng. "Given it's size, it could have been swallowed by the sea in the last 500 years."

"Still..." said Danaan. And they all shared her emotion: If there was one, there could be more.

Veida caught Yerush's eye. Yerush sighed and said "I'll talk with Raisa. You're right, we have to get as much from this as we can."

Yoj said "I could get the cartagen to make a copy. She'll keep it it a secret, she's done that before."

"Great idea" said Halling. "Make more than one, and we can hand on the original to the Archivist -- NOT the Sheng Zhang -- and beg her to see if there's any more like it. I mean, if this is Sector 53, the implication is there must be 52 others, right?"

"But it's our secret" Yerush said, looking at the children. "We don't tell a single person, is that understood?" They nodded solemnly. Yoj tried to think of other ways to make them forget the map, because they were too young to keep such a promise.

Yerush looked at Rark and Danaan speculatively, then said "Why did you two come visit, anyhow?"

Halling barked out a laugh and said, "Oh, my goodness, what a poor host I've been! Here, have a chair, do you want some tea?"

Rark, grinning, said "This is the most fun you could have provided." Danaan at last gave up poring over the map because Yerush was firmly rolling it up. She said "The new addition to our Manage is done and we wanted to inspect it. My emmas begin moving day after tomorrow. Plus it looks like rain tomorrow for us, and there's no school tomorrow, so we ambled over to see the kids."

Mill climbed back into Danaan's arms. Rark picked up Dodd and Ndege on either hip and asked them "What's new?"

Qen came back into the kitchen and returned Prl to Yoj, then helped Veida make tea and dish up the last of the pears for their guests. Returning chairs to the now clear table. Rark allowed the twins to continue to lean on her and fed them every other bite of her dessert. Danaan, talking earnestly with Halling about the possibilities of the map, wolfed down most of her dessert before she noticed Mill watching her in disbelief. She pushed her bowl to Mill and said "Will you finish that for me?"

Prl began to object, and Yoj carried her into the kitchen so they could scrape out the last of the serving dish together. After two cups of tea and nothing but silence from Qen, Halling glanced at the clock and said "Weekend or no, it's getting close to bedtime. How about if we all put on burzakas and walk the pilots back to the Lofthall?"

Prl slid down from Yoj's arms to join the stampede to the coat rack. Yoj helped Bux get Speranz into her slicker, then took her while Bux got rainproof and opened a parasol to hold over her and Speranz's head. Before coming to join them, Halling said quietly to Yerush "We'll be gone at least half an hour. Tell her you're sorry and make things right." She did it within Ng, Qen and Veida's hearing, then gave them each a kiss and went to put on her own burzaka.

The streets were deserted and soaked. The children, admonished to be quiet because some people were in bed, ran with delighted energy back and forth across the lane and sidewalks, looking for puddles to splash through. The adults walked very slowly, talking and periodically shushing the children. When Speranz fell swiftly asleep, Halling took her from Bux, along with the parasol, and Bux slid her arm under Yoj's coat so they could amble against one another.

At the Lofthall, lights were still on and they went in. A group of pilots were playing cards in the main room, including Qala, and they jumped to their feet and grabbed the children for hugs as they poured in. The game switched to a round of Quackers with the children competing fiercely against a pack of four lighters. Yoj pulled Qala into the dispatch room and told her about the map. When they returned, Yoj looked at Bux to see if she was jealous, but was relieved to find she was not.

By the time they left, Prl was crying from tiredness and Yoj carried her, singing softly. Prl, too, fell asleep by the time they got home. The kitchen was dark and the older women were all in bed. Bux and Halling took the twins and Mill out to the privy as Yoj got the two littlest settled in with Ng. Bux gave the three eldest in their loft a whispered bedtime story as Yoj used the privy, escorted by Halling. The emmas finally washed and went to bed together. As they snuggled in the dark, Halling said drowsily "I love Yerush, and oceans, what she brought home tonight. But I still may have to kick her ass."

Bux giggled. "I want to watch if you do."

Iro and Ektr got settled in quickly. The extra room off the living room was intended as their bedroom -- "We'll be growing old here" said Ektr, and this made their manage the same size as The Manage had been when Halling and Yoj first moved in. Their tillage was smaller, but it had a pear tree -- "Makes a change from apples" grinned Iro -- and Ng spent two days with them, weeding neglected beds and helping them plan rotation.

Danaan and Rark officially moved in a day later, a large raucous procession of pilots carrying their clothes trunks and small collection of personal possessions from the Lofthall. They spilled over into the Manage, leaving the gate open which caused katt conniptions for an hour. Bux gave the children a stern lesson about hours of visitation and knocking at their neighbors' back door before entering, a lesson she knew she's have to repeat endlessly. Rark and Danaan began appearing for tea with Halling, Veida and Ng, to walk with her to the Lofthall each morning.

The following Shmonah, Halling got off work after one fast and highly productive run because she had worked extra hours earlier in the week. It was a very warm, sunny day. The children were all in cut-off buksers and their lightest shatis.

Before lunch, Yerush opened both the front and back doors to get a breeze going through the house. After lunch, the adults lingered at the table drinking iced tea, and the children hung around, bored and hoping for an outing. Speranz had claimed Yerush's lap, as usual, and was fishing half-melted chunks of ice from her tea with grubby fingers.

Yoj had twice announced her intention to wash every item of laundry in the house, while such good drying weather held, but still had not moved from her chair, languidly tracing letters on the tabletop from the condensation on her glass.

Finally Qen stood and went into Yoj's bedroom, emerging with an armload of used bed linens. Instead of going directly to the bath room, however, she came to the end of the table and said "Prl and Speranz were playing in there earlier and left some of their toys on the floor, except I'm not sure what these ones are". She set three soft plastic items on the table, one pale green, one blue, and one lavender: A trio of blossoms.

A deathly silence followed, as all eyes fell on the curious items. Halling rose effortlessly to her feet and loped lightly for the front door, never looking back. Mill said urgently "Where's emma going?" and Yoj, also standing, said "It's a race. Whoever can get to the swings on the school playground first gets a whole bag of rice candy from the sweet shop."

The childrens' headlong hegira for the door was immediate except for Speranz, who missed a precious couple of seconds in slow comprehension. She tried to make up for it by slithering from Yerush's lap under the table and running its length before emerging into the open. She fell twice, skidding, before reaching the front steps, and by the second fall she was wailing. Yoj scooped her up without pause and carried her on out the door after the others.

Bux, now rising, said almost inaudibly "Oh, lev" and began for the door as well. Qen was open-mouthed in astonishment and said to Bux "What in the world? Some of those children are barefoot!" But Bux brushed past her and gathered an armload of mismatched kiatu on her way out. Before she was clear of the house, she heard Yerush begin "Now don't jump down my throat when I tell you what those are, because this is the first time I've ever seen one in person..."

The refugees straggled home an hour later. Every child was clutching a half-bag of candy with a sticky fist. Yoj was still carrying Speranz, who had two scraped knees that were oozing. Dodd was limping, with an obviously swollen ankle, and leaning on Bux. Ndege had the beginnings of a black eye, and Mill's nostrils were ringed in blood. Only Prl, in Halling's arms, had no visible damage.

As they came in, Halling was asking Mill "Can I have another one of those strawberry kind?"

"I already gave you four!" protested Mill. "You shoulda got your own bag."

"I spent all my money buying the bags for you five" reminded Halling. Yoj handed Speranz to Ng, who was reaching for her. Mill sighed and peered into her bag, holding it away from Halling's view. Then she said grudgingly, "I could spare a yellow one."

"That'll do" said Halling. She joined the sucking and crunching chorus of the children.

Yerush inspected Ndege's face with a tsking sound and said "Did you run into something?"

"No" said Ndege hotly, "It was Mill, she cheated and said she won -- "

Mill burst in with "You didn't touch the swing, you only stood there like a dummy -- "

"Hey!" shouted Halling, silencing them. Then she held out her hand toward Veida, showing a nasty half-moon bite on the web between her thumb and forefinger.

"Is that from a shu?" exclaimed Veida.

"No. The first three kids blasted by me and I didn't know what was going on, so I managed to snag Prl when she came running up. But she began screaming to let her go, she was going to lose, and then she clamped on. It hurts like blazes" complained Halling.

Qen fixed Halling and Yoj in her gaze and said emphatically "You are idiots. Both of you." Then she turned to Bux and said "I put those -- things -- under your pillow."

"What things?" asked Dodd. As Qen turned and strode to the back door, Bux called after her "You know you want one for yourself."

"What?" ased Mill. "What does she want?"

Veida had gotten her first aid kit and was being watched with apprehension by Ndege and Speranz. Yerush went to the freezer drawer of the larder for a pan of ice to smash for Dodd's ankle. Yoj stood uncertainly for a minute, listening to Ng laugh hysterically, then said "I guess I'll do that laundry now." She went into the bath room.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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