Friday, December 14, 2007

SKENE: AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT


I wrote two novels last year -- Ginny Bates and a second related science fiction novel, Skene, that in Ginny Bates was written by the character Myra. Once I created the premise for Myra's book, I became so interested in it that I wound up writing that as well. Here's an excerpt that is the very beginning. If there's expressed interest, I will periodically continue posting excerpts here as well.

This is draft one. 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:
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig

CHAPTER ONE

There was an old saying on Skene: "Fecund as a sinner's garden." This meant something that was spare to nonexistent, because of course sinners were exempt from growing their own food. This was commonly believed to be in compensation for sinners' massive contribution to public sustenance, but the likely origin of the exemption lay in the simple fact that weather best suited for plowing, reaping and the like was also ideal weather for sinning. You can't do both on a mild, clear day.

Practically speaking, of course, some sinners did live in Manages which had tillages. Most sinners began as lighters, and lighters were young adults who had bunks at the Lofthall. Lighters were often coupled with other lighters, and they were loved and grieved simultaneously. Those who survived into sinning -- often tragically solo -- were middle-aged, ready to bond with an aggie and Managers who assuredly did raise food. Every now and then a sinner came to her craft by another route than lighting, but in those instances, too, her Manage would have tillage.

Still, the life of a sinner was of the air or the deeps, not standing on safe, familiar earth.


It rained often on Skene. Winter arrived with the month of Burzas, a word which meant rain, blowing downpours from the endless supply of ocean around them. Hogs were slaughtered during these storms, in roofed enclosures where the wall of rain just beyond the eaves seemed to intensify the screams of dying animals and the smell of blood. Bacon was still a rare commodity on Skene, a once-a-week-alternative to fishcakes and rice gruel for breakfast.

Then came Kall, a month of bitter cold, where intermittent rain meant ice and worry about foundations heaving -- Skene houses built from great carved slabs of polished igneous rock were sturdy against sky elements but deathtraps if the earth shifted.

The next month was Jian, which started off as winter but ended in spring, with sheep shearing and lambs. And spring was watered in by Yaomur, which also meant rain, a solid month of warm drenches. Rice was planted now, standing in flooded fields, pushing one's hands down into mud with a seedling, for all the hours of lengthening cloudy days.

Another month of frantic crop planting in Nastere, with puffed white clouds and long chances for the earth to dry out, then came Lamminsade, which again meant rain, only two weeks this time and it was gentle, nurturing rain.

Suddenly it was summer, the eel migration in Med, the first small harvests of greens, children raucous with the end of school, and two or three days at a stretch without any rain at all. Ljeto was high summer, dust actually appearing to coat tomatoes and green apples. And then came Mchele, days still warm but nights cooling off, and rice harvest, all that muck of planting yielding the year's supply of bread, noodles, casseroles, and wine. For a few centuries, life was sustained on Skene by little else but rice and fish. Big platters of seafood risotto were served on outdoor tables, which might have to be hastily carried back into the kitchen if a light squall kicked up.

School resumed in the month of Raccolto, a double burden for children who were hauled into fields after lessons to help with the main harvest. Often picking was done in fresh rains. The only relief for their grumbling was when hives began to be cracked open, in the corner of every tillage, and half the golden honey and combs were stolen from smoke-dazed bees. Fruit was sliced and set out in great bowls, beside a pot of honey that attracted bees who had made it, and children could eat as much as they wanted. Until finally harvest was over, and it was just lessons again, in gloomy classrooms with rain pelting the windows, hands chapping as the cold came on. At the end of the month was the New Year, and Burzas again.

For the most part, people never complained about the rain. It was just there, like air or salt. It meant food, it meant compost would rot which meant a little bit more volcanic rock could be claimed as arable soil, which meant perhaps another few feet of room for people to live on the 40 islands of Skene. Those 40 small islands were the entire world. Everything else was ocean.

And, especially, rain usually meant lighters and sinners were ground-bound. No open ocean flying in rain. However gentle the shower on Skene, it would be much worse out over the depths. Rain meant another day to live in safety for pilots. When the sky cleared, they'd have to climb into small shiny craft and try to pull fish and kelp from waters which were jealously guarded by monsters. Four to five pilots a year died on Skene. In a population of 1000, where everybody knew each other by name, five deaths was never-ending heartbreak. Even if they had died quietly, at home, with those who loved them able to cup a hand to their cheek and murmur memory past tear-moistened lips. Which was not the fate of pilots.

Halling had been a sinner for one year when she and Yoj partnered. She grew up in her family Manage on Motu Fling, become a lighter right out of school and partnered there at 16 with a gifted, impetuous lighter named Xaya. Songs had been written about Halling and Xaya -- well, written by Yoj, but since Yoj was the official songwriter for Skene, everybody sang them. Their love was worthy of being set to music.

The year Halling and Xaya were finally old enough to legally partner, at 19, they had a huge party at the Lofthall and began talking of finding a Manage. Maybe someday one of them becoming an aggie. Yoj was just Halling's friend then, and Xaya's, too. They were in the same sui, and Yoj practically lived at the Lofthall with the pilots since the songs she was apprenticing to write as dichter were all that kept pilots from being taken by leviathans. Yoj wrote to save the lives of women she loved passionately.

Two months after their celebration, Xaya had risked once too many, saving a laden sinner-barge whose nets had pulled in a baby levi. Halling watched her darling snatched from the air, in the jaws of a monster, and pulled screaming under the chop.

Halling never remembered how she got back to the jichang or landed her lighter. She moved her few personal items out of the Lofthall, into Yoj's cubicle at the University, and would only eat when pushed. For a long time, she just flew kites on the robin-spattered peaks beyond the compost fields on Abfall, a locale too pongy for anyone to join her. Yoj could not get through to her, and she could not spend her days looking after Halling because, in the way of things going from bad to worse, the current dichter dropped dead of a stroke and Yoj suddenly was responsible for the lives of every pilot left on Skene. The best Yoj could offer was a bed at night, warm arms and someone to whom Halling could tell her frequent nightmares.

Which turned out to be enough.

Eventually Halling was talked back to the Lofthall by Mayim, the sinner Xaya had saved. Mayim's guilty grief was something Halling could recognize. She returned to the Lofthall as a sinner. And when she took up sinning, she was as stolid and thorough as she had once been ethereal as a lighter.

She also got involved with the Safety and Design Committee of sinners, and began doing research after dinner at the library. It was at the library where she finally began talking with Yoj about all the torment inside her. Yoj was there to do research on meter and lines. One night, sharing a single lamp at a polished obsidian table, they found an ease with one another which returned a bit of shine to Halling's black eyes.

When Halling and Yoj decided to partner, they continued to eat at the Lofthall, sleep in Yoj's tiny cubicle, but a teenagery kind of existence was not what they wanted forever. They needed a Manage. Yoj, too, had grown up on a Fling, Isola which lay at the opposite end of Skene. Both their emmas at the Manages they'd come from were still hale, busy, and didn't have much room for a new pair. Plus the Manages being on Flings would mean traversing a Morrie Vaseo to get to the Lofthall, an impossible commute. They needed to be where they were, on Riesig, with a Manage.

And, as they talked, they realized they would also need an aggie. Both of them wanted children, desperately. Halling was precluded from becoming an aggie since she was a pilot, and Yoj didn't warm to the notion of giving birth. The practical solution would be to partner with a third. Three-way partnerships were common on Skene. They needed to find a woman who wanted to aggie and had her own Manage somewhere on Riesig. A Manage big enough to take in two more.

They talked it over for a couple of years, making love often with affection and the intimacy of best friends, doing their deadly responsible jobs without an inflated sense of self-importance. Yoj had had a long string of lovers, and often they would discuss this name or that from her past as a possible third for them. Each was rejected for various reasons -- no manage, already partnered, not able to aggie, lived elsewhere, or just not attractive to one or both of them.

At one point, Halling said, lying naked in Yoj's small bed, "What about Culisa?"

Culisa was a woman Yoj's age whom she had dated briefly. She was the child of one of their leraars in school and also one of Yoj's instructors at the University.

"She and I only made out, you know. I wasn't actually lovers with her" said Yoj.

"Does that rule her out?" laughed Halling.

"No..." said Yoj, considering. "She is single, still, and I think she's living at home with her emmas. Which is only a few minutes from here."

"So far so good" said Halling. "She's interesting, from what I remember."

Yoj teased "What you can remember besides Xaya, you mean. Xaya had your attention all through the upper grades."

"For all the best reasons" answered Halling softly. Yoj squeezed her and let memory fill their silence for a while.

Halling finally asked "Why weren't you lovers with Culisa? Was she able to resist the famous Yoj charm?"

Yoj laughed. "No, you rockwit, as it turns out, I was the one who declined her."

"That's rare. What was wrong with her?"

"I don't recall, exactly" said Yoj. "Maybe it was because her emma had been my lower grade teacher, that was a bit weird. Not to mention her other emma, Nan Yerush."

"Ah, Yerush the hallowed professor" said Halling. "When you were at the U and we'd run into her, you hardly seemed able to speak. After we'd walk on, I'd feel like I should check your crotch to see if you'd pissed yourself."

Yoj punched her gently. "If you'd been in her classes, you'd understand. So maybe Culisa's emmas were offputting. Or maybe it that in some way, she began reminding me of Yerush. At any rate, I stopped the advance and she was seriously offended at me."

"Well, then, didn't she have a couple of sibs? What about them?" asked Halling. "I mean, if you can get past the Yerush terror."

Yoj punched her again. "Her siba Paha is partnered already. And the younger one, Bux -- she's still within your sui, I think -- she didn't go to the U, defied Nan Yerush in that regard."

"That's a good sign" said Halling. "I remember Bux, always liked her."

"I think she's a wandmaler now, and doing something else in one of the Sheng Zhang's offices. She's quiet -- I always thought of her as timid. She hung around me and my friends a lot, kind of a pest in school."

"Does she want to aggie?" asked Halling.

"I've no idea. She is an X, I remember that from the privy at school. See, that's what I mean, I couldn't go to the privy without her showing up and suddenly needing to go, too" said Yoj with a remnant of childish irritation.

"Okay, we'll keep looking" said Halling.

"I'm so glad you're an X, have I ever told you that?" said Yoj, rolling to face Halling and stroking her ribs.

"Often" laughed Halling, "In several different ways. But I can stand hearing it again." She put her mouth on Yoj's, and gave a sigh of pleasure at what was to come.


It was considered in extremely bad taste to refer publicly to another's X status. Your partners, of course, your healer, and members of your Manage knew your X. And teenagers who had fumbled passionately with you in the dark solitude of huertas would know. From there it was often an open secret in the community. But you did not inquire publicly, or comment. Only aggies could be open and celebrated for their X. The rare two-aggie pairs were doubly celebrated. And that once-a-year occurrence, an aggie who came to child without Leave -- her partner's status was also obvious, though not celebrated. Not since the Troubles, long ago but not long enough to have been forgotten.

It was generally believed that about three-fourths of the population was XX, and the rest was XY. It was known that XY's tended toward infertility, although no one outside the Genist knew the actual percentage. No differentiation as to gender was ever made in speech, dress or status. This had been written into law after the Troubles, and now, five hundred years since the first colonists had dropped down on Skene and been forgotten by the home planet, most people honestly did not know there had ever been another way of doing things. There was no imaginable alternative to the generic usage of woman to refer to all adults, she and her for all second-person pronouns, and child for all children. Parents were emmas, grandparents were abbas, great-grandparents were habibis. Your aggie was the emma who actually carried you in her womb, demonstrably an XX. Aggies and their partner or partners got Leave to become pregnant, which meant an appointment with the Genist, who traced the genealogy of every person who had ever lived on Skene.

XX's ovulated three or four times a year, and had an eight-day period about a month later. If you were approved for Leave to aggie -- and most women were because the risk of refusal kept borderline situations from applying -- the Genist went into her vault and gave you a Contribution from those donated by 51 Y's centuries before, when Y's were still reliably fertile, and kept in deep cold storage ever since. The Genist chose whose Contribution went where, and worried endlessly over diversity and vigor. That was her job.

Genists served for life. There was a Head Genist and an apprentice selected by her, and they usually wound up fighting bitterly over decisions. The Head Genist had final say-so. When an apprentice was at last able to ascend to Head Genist, because her rival had died, she almost always reversed all the policies and theory of her predecessor. This kept tradition from taking hold, a good thing when it comes to genetic manipulation.

Aggies could have up to three children if they had one partner, four if there were two other emmas, or five in extraordinary circumstances, and by the time a Manage had reached the point of deciding to aggie, they usually went for their limit. Skene was replacing its population more or less reliably. It could not grow beyond where it was, around 1000 people -- there was no room to grow. The Genist worried over this, too.

It was considered bigoted to have preferences as to the X of your partners, though a lot of people did. Yoj's emmas were both XX's, and she was uncomfortable with the idea of going to bed with a Y. Despite much demand as a lover, she had stuck to her preference. Halling, on the other hand, came from a family with Ys and Xs, and didn't care much one way or the other.

On days when Halling sinned, she and the other pilots ate at the Lofthall canteen afterward, a raucous meal which had been anticipated for six hours, feeding bodies which had survived another day. They would then shower and take a long nap, or sometimes not even shower if they were tired enough. On this day, Halling had shambled wearily to the cubicle with Yoj, stripped and laid down without a word. Yoj held her until she was sound asleep, only a couple of minutes. She then got up to sit at her desk and try to write.

When Halling woke up, she was on her side facing the desk. Yoj was bent forward in her chair, her wide ass and round shoulders in soft concentration. The winter sun coming down on her picked out the weave in her dark green ku, the cuffs tucked into her otos. Her bulky sweater had once been eggplant-colored but was now faded to nearly blue.

"Hey" said Halling softly, pulling the quilt up to her chin. It was a chilly day.

Yoj turned around in her chair, her large brown eyes lighting up with her grin. "Hey back." She leaned over to unlace her otos, slipped them off, and came to lie beside Halling.

"Take off your pants, too" urged Halling, "And that sweater."

"The air is cold in here" protested Yoj, even as she sat up to comply.

"I know, but your body warms me up faster than your clothes" said Halling, helping to tug Yoj's yoke over her head.

Lying back in Halling's arms, Yoj let Halling kiss her languidly for a while as their shared space under the quilt grew toasty. At one point, Halling said "Yikes, I can really smell myself. The ketone was extra strong today, can you tell?"

Yoj lifted the quilt and took a sniff. "I smell your sweat, which I love, and the lilac in your hair -- and rime, I guess you'd say, from the ocean updraft, and a little bit of the cabbage you ate so much of at lunch. And -- something else, a little bit like ammonia, is that from the ocean, too?"

"That's the ketone breaking down" said Halling. "It's water soluble and where it comes out of their skin, it turns to slime. They float in a coating of their own lubrication. Or so I've been told, I don't actually know anybody who's touched a leviathan." And lived, she didn't need to add.

"Does that help them move so fast?" asked Yoj.

"Likely. And I personally think that's what all the red tint to the water is in Morrie Strati, where they live. Although why it's more viscous there, I don't understand the chemistry behind it" said Halling. "They were so thick underneath me today you could have stepped from one to the other, and the reek in my cabin made my eyes water."

Yoj shuddered involuntarily. Halling squeezed her, but she'd keep telling Yoj exactly what it was like to do what she did. That was part of their agreement -- Yoj wanted to hear it all, she didn't want anything locked up inside Halling against her will.

"Hall, this may be an offensively stupid question, but is there any chance that some of their -- focus on you, on all of you, is more curiosity or attraction to the fish you're sinning than malevolence aimed toward you?" Yoj asked hesitantly.

Halling snorted, leaning back to look into Yoj's eyes incredulously.

"Okay, forgive me" said Yoj. "It's just that I don't understand how the original settlers could have been so completely wrong. I mean, I don't understand much of how they thought, to tell you the truth, but I have a hard time believing they would have sent colonists, even part-time ones, to a place crawling with monsters."

"They were arrogant, we know that. Maybe they thought they could handle it, maybe the monsters where they came from weren't so bad" suggested Halling.

"No, from all accounts they were by far the top predator on -- shards, Halling, why can't I ever remember the name of that original planet? I'm a scholar, I should be able to retain that word. I do know in their language it meant the same as soil."

Halling was trying to remember, too, though it had been several years since she was in any formal school. "Soil, huh? Meant as much to them as it does to us, I guess. That word, started with a Y -- Yereth?"

"I think so" said Yoj. "But they had lots of soil, Halling, in amounts I can't quite comprehend."

"They had vast oceans, too" argued Halling.

"Oh, but -- you remember in third grade, when the leraar showed us a map of this hemisphere, and it was all blue except for a few dots of green and brown near the upper middle?"

After a pause, Halling answered "I always thought that was maybe an exaggeration."

"Nope. To scale. But on -- Yereth -- there were masses of land as big as the dark clumps on the moons when we look at them, when they're full. Like the One-Legged Crab or the Sleeping Anemone" said Yoj, naming familiar shapes on their moons.

"They why come here?" said Halling, echoing a question every Skener considered at some point in her life.

"Nan Yerush said they were accustomed to interplanetary travel, it was like going from island to island for them" said Yoj. "But the bigger question -- "

Halling interrupted her: "Now I can imagine wanting to fly craft that could go such distances. The speeds they must have had, and the maps..." Her voice was excited. "Is solar power stronger higher up in the atmosphere, do you think?"

"I remember hearing their energy sources were things we've never known here" said Yoj, a little shortly. "The point -- "

"And if there's no atmosphere, what how does that affect drag on the skin of the plane?" continued Halling. "What does maneuvering mean, when there's no lift?"

Yoj said "That's not what I was talking about, Halling, could you stop interrupting me?"

After a few seconds, Halling said in a not-quite-wounded voice, "I was interested, Yoj. And showing it."

"Oh, lev, honey, I'm sorry. I know what sizzles for you is the science and math of it all, I apologize" said Yoj earnestly, rolling over to face Halling and kiss her gently.

"All right" said Halling. There was no point in speculating further about space flight, because Yoj wouldn't have those answers. "What is it you were trying to tell me?"

"Just that -- when I took that First Generation Texts course with Nan Yerush, the original entries about leviathans, both from the survey craft who came here before humans arrived and then even the entries for the first few weeks -- well, for one thing, the drawings of levs have this air of softness to them, like you draw kittens or bubblefish. The photographs are accurate enough, but it's clear how people were seeing the levs was influenced, somehow, by what they believed."

"Which was?" asked Halling.

"Well, I can't read the original settlers' language, not yet anyhow, but the key words were translated as benign and docile. Inedible flesh, of course, and curious -- they were described as unfailingly curious."

"Like how a katt will watch at the side of a stream for an hour with bright eyes before it reaches out to hook a minnow and pop it into her mouth" said Halling, a tinge of bitterness in her voice.

But Yoj's tone was much more distraught as she said "I just don't understand, Hall, why did they leave home to go to a place so much worse? Either they were mentally ill, or they made the worst mistake of all time."

"What does it really matter, Yoj? We're here now, we survived the terrible times and Skene is balanced, now" began Halling.

"We're balanced but we'll always be right on the edge, we don't have enough extra to stop working constantly and we never will. Plus, some of that work is -- you don't know how hard it is to see you leave every day, heading off to possible death" cried Yoj.

There was a deep silence, then Yoj burst out "I'm an idiot, of course you know. You've seen it firsthand, oh, Halling, I'm -- "

"S'all right" said Halling. "It comes and goes, for all of us." She could tell Yoj was near weeping but holding back for some reason.

"And the other thing I worry about is, what if we're just as stupid as they were, what if we're making mistakes we won't realize until it's too late? What if our choices are likewise tragically flawed? I mean, I have you, thank all that's glorious, but we still don't have a Manage, or children, we're still crammed into this tiny room -- "

Halling pulled Yoj tight against her and said "We have more than most of the pilots at the Lofthall."

"And that's even worse, they're the finest women on Skene, they face the unspeakable, they should have the best Manages anywhere!" wailed Yoj, and finally the tears came. Halling held her in shared relief.

A few minutes later, Yoj wiped her face with the edge of the pillowcase and Halling asked gently "How long has it been since you heard from your emma?"

Yoj gave a choked laugh. "Saw right through me, didn't you? I write her every week, I send her packages, but not a word. Not a levving word back. And the last time I went out to Isola, riding ferries all day to get there and back, she spent less than an hour with me. Gave me a cup of tea, sat at the table with me but didn't have anything she wanted to talk about, and asked not a single question about my life. When I left home, as far as she's concerned, I might as well have died." Yoj was cried out, or else this would have set her off again.

"She doesn't think of you as dead, Yoj, I know that's not true. Listen, the next day we have where there's rain out over the wasa deeps but not enough to prohibit flying locally, let's me and you borrow a lighter and we'll fly to Isola together. Won't take but ten minutes. We'll bring treats from our back allotment, things everybody wants like good cheese and honey and bacon. She likes me, and this is a job for two people, it's too hard to do alone" said Halling.

Yoj gave another choked laugh. "I thought the point of families was that you never were alone."

"Well, just like every human has different talents, some families are better at connecting than others. Rosz -- I love your emma, but she's got some gaps in how she does things" said Halling diplomatically.

"What if I have those same gaps?" whispered Yoj.

"I'd know by now" said Halling, laughing. "Listen, I can't take how I smell, I need to go wash this off me. Let's go back to the Lofthall so I can shower. We could have an early dinner and ride the ferry to Verzin, there's a band from Juh playing at a cafe near the machine shop."

"A new band? You're on!" said Yoj, throwing back the quilt.

The next day, as they were eating dinner together with table full of pilots, Yoj told Halling "I found a book at the library today I'd never read -- a collection of journal and log book excerpts from the original settlers here. It hasn't been translated into modern Skenish, so it's slow going for me, and even with a dictionary some of their meaning seems just bizarre. I was looking for descriptions of Skene when it parts of it were still wild, for a song or two, but all they can talk about is being hungry and freaking out about the leviathans."

Lmape, a pilot just promoted from lighter to sinner, said "Why would they come here without enough to eat?"

Yoj looked at her. "You had this in school. They didn't mean to stay here."

Halling kicked her foot under the table -- she always jumped on Yoj when she thought Yoj was being snotty about having gone to University.

"Oh, right. They got abandoned, right?" said Lmape, remembering.

"Something like that. Nobody knows why their home planet didn't send a ship back for them." said Yoj. "So, in this new book, these people -- they fought a lot among themselves."

"The Troubles" said Halling knowingly.

"No, this was even before the Troubles. They had people divided up into all these meaningless categories, but they had values attached to each. And -- not everybody had equal access to food. Unless I'm reading it wrong" said Yoj.

Halling looked shocked. "You mean, like, you might not get the same amount of food as someone else because -- because why?"

"Because -- " Yoj lowered her voice and said "Well, one reason was because you were an X instead of a Y. Or because you were a a record keeper instead of pilot."

Halling stared at her for a minute, then said "Was it malnutrition, then? Making them nuts?"

"I don't know" said Yoj. "Anyhow, the only funny part so far was the various ways they're trying to train shu to stay out of their houses."

"Train them?" said Lmape. "Did they not have shu where they came from, then?"

"No. They had pests, but apparently their pests weren't suicidal. And they hadn't brought out katts from the botaniste archives yet. And mostly it was just rocks everywhere, so it was still shu paradise" said Yoj. She couldn't help but shudder.

"Speaking of katts, " said Halling, "It's our turn tonight to feed them out back, and put away the chickens. And if it's not storming tomorrow, that means it's our turn to weed the Lofthall tillage, plus whatever else is on the list."

The Lofthall and University shared an extensive tillage and chicken run that supplied food for both canteens, and every student and pilot had a work shift at least once a month. Everybody produced a significant portion of their own food on Skene: Hunger was held at bay by steady effort.

Yoj's face brightened. She adored katts, and she liked working in gardens. She and Halling were both children from Flings, isolated single-family islands where the outdoors was a major antidote to boredom.

A week later, after two years of discussion without a possible aggie, they decided to advertise for one. This was sometimes done -- barter was life's blood on Skene, and almost anything was open to negotiation. They worked on the wording together, putting down their requirements and what they had to offer. The latter left them feeling rather respectable: In addition to the decent income they were each guaranteed because of their essential services, Halling and Yoj were both certain of being given Leave to aggie, again because of their service. So any X who wanted a secure position as an aggie should find their offer irresistible, they felt. And each agreed that the other was handsome, agreeable, and very skilled in bed.

They sat down to write out slates to post at public kiosks. As they were writing, Halling remarked "You know, sinning is a word that used to mean something quite different. One of my flight instructors said it didn't have to do with an occupation at all -- it was a kind of condition, or morality."

"Hard to imagine" said Yoj. "What sort of condition?"

"I can't remember" said Halling. "But not -- positive, I don't think."

"Well, then I'm glad it got rehabilitated" said Yoj, kissing her cheek. "You are such a blessing, to Skene and to me. And to the lucky X who reads this slate."

Still, two years went by without a reply. Perhaps, they thought, their combined glamour was a bit intimidating. Or the fact that they were newly coupled, with that air of not needing anyone else. Most people coupled for sentiment as well as practicality, and no one got close enough to Halling and Yoj to be washed over by sentiment.

That's what they told themselves.

In truth, Bux was still watching Yoj. She didn't get to see her at school every day, but Bux frequently went to the library to research murals, and she managed to always be two tables away from Yoj when they shared a room. Not that Yoj noticed her back. As usual.

When Bux was 13 and a swot now being assailed by hormones, she had written into her notebook the names of every person on Skene who was within her sui. Age grades, or sui, on Skene were what determined whom you could be lovers with or partner. More than a four year difference in age was not allowed in adult sexual relationships. The difference was smaller for those under 21. Bux realized this limit made it possible, easy, even, to determine the group she would wind up with. She wondered that more people didn't do it; it was just a question of math.

Once she had her list, she ranked them. She began with the "never under any circumstances" partners, because those were glaringly obvious. She had had two brief liasions, and those names went on the No list, too. Next, she did the Maybes. That left her with the Yeses. She felt a litle dizzy, looking at the seven names remaining.

Halling had been on that list, she remembered. So was Yoj. But when she decided to rank them, one through seven, there was no contest. It was Yoj she wanted most. It had always been Yoj.

Halling had remained interesting to Bux: Number two on her list. During the first year of Bux's apprenticeship as wandmaler, Halling's aggie had died. Bux was sent to do the update on their Manage wall mural, and she had taken in the entire story of Halling's lineage. When Xaya died, Bux had been washed with grief for Halling.

But it was Yoj who appeared, unbidden, in her dreams. Yoj muttering cadence to herself as she sat, eyes closed, at a table, composing a song that would keep Halling alive this month or next. Yoj arguing in a cafe with other writers about whether such and so a pattern had been used too recently to be safely implemented again, her brown hair and eyes matching almost exactly. Yoj in the schoolyard, teaching old songs to gleeful children, laughing harder than they were at their inevitable riffs and ribaldry.

Each of Yoj's affairs had landed a dart in Bux's heart. Yoj's flirtation with Bux's sib Culisa had been too brief for Bux to find out about it, or else she might have thrown herself from the Shatters into the sea in despair. When Yoj remained single after Bux reached partnering age at 19, hope sprang up in her anew.

But that year, Yoj and Halling got together. Her emma Qen came home with the gossip, pleased at the match. Of course Halling chose Yoj, who wouldn't, thought Bux. She had gone to the bath room and sat in a hot tub, weeping inconsolably, until her siba banged on the door and said other people needed to bathe, too. When Bux emerged with puffy red eyes, her emmas had looked at each other and wondered what now. Bux was quiet, Yoj had been right about that, but definitely not timid.

After a night without much sleep, Bux had suddenly realized Yoj was not permanently lost to her. Her own emmas were in a three-way partnership. She could be with both Yoj and Halling. This idea shifted her instantaneously from a tragic expression to grinning and humming. Her emmas looked at each other again.

So, in theory, the slate Yoj and Halling posted at the market square nearest Bux's Manage should have been the final solution to her heart's ambition. Bux knew she wanted to aggie, had wanted it all her life. She wanted many children, and she had outwaited her obnoxious siba Culisa until Culisa left to seek employment elsewhere -- Bux now felt certain of inheriting the Manage from her emmas. She was a perfect match for Yoj and Halling.

But an ad on a public wall was not a personal invitation. Bux wanted Yoj to want her, to notice her, to do the stupid math, at the very least. She thought she deserved that much. Her pride forced her to ignore the slate, and to walk out of the house when her emmas discussed it. If Yoj was that ignorant, that self-absorbed, then she could just do without Bux.

And, after two years, Bux had the satisfaction of seeing no one else answer their offensive ad, either.


Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild

4 comments:

liza said...

more,please.

Jesse Wendel said...

Okay, now this is just mean.

I'm already hooked on ONE of your books.

Two? And after one chapter?

Grrrrr.

(Yes, that was a growl. Here's another one. Grrrrrrrrr.)

Jesse Wendel said...

(Goes off to read the next chapter.)

*sighs*

I can see this is going to become a regular thing.

No third book. I simply don't have space to read a third one right now, thank you very much. I'm just saying.

Maggie Jochild said...

Oh, Liza. Thx.