Tuesday, December 25, 2007


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


The following day, Raisa the Genist Apprentice was busy all morning tracing the lineage of a couple who had just applied for Leave to aggie. They lived on Chloddia, and the likelihood of their children moving elsewhere to partner and aggie had to be calculated, when trying to decide which Contribution would add vigor to the mix in their locale. In addition, their children would, in all probability, become miners so physical condition as reflected by the Contribution's genetic outline was more important than usual. By the time she stopped for lunch, it was late and she was quite hungry.

There was no sign that Dest, Head Genist, had eaten or even been in the kitchen. But if she had just grabbed her usual apple, handful of nuts, perhaps some bread, then there were be no trace of her meal except the crumbs in her study. Raisa made herself a quick salad with boiled eggs and tea sweetened with real sugar. She ate it standing up, her mind occupied with the six possibles she had postulated for this couple's Contribution.

She decided to roast a chicken for dinner and set her alarm for when she'd need to go put it in the oven, as usual short-changing the amount of time it would take to cook properly. She plunged back into her puzzle -- she wanted to have a report ready for Dest by tomorrow morning. Not that Dest would necessarily pay any attention to it. Still, the thrill of the puzzle was enough.

After her alarm went off, she rubbed the chicken with spices and set it in the aga. She started a pot of rice and made another, larger salad, which she returned to the larder. Still no sign of Dest. She walked back and knocked on her study door, calling out "Nan Genist, dinner will be ready in half an hour." There was no reply. Raisa felt a flash of irritation -- some days, rudeness was harder to take than others. Using her anger as a shield against the reprimand she was sure to receive, she opened the door to deliberately interrupt Dest.

But the door would only open a few inches. Something was blocking it. She could see a patch of cloth on the floor. She leaned all her weight against the door and slowly pushed the obstacle out of the way: It was Dest's body, already stiff. A white froth was around her mouth, and her dubikun smelled of feces. Raisa felt a great distaste at the idea of touching her. She decided it was probably a stroke, at Dest's age, and began to push back through the door to go radio for help.

But she paused, and turned around to look at Dest's desk. It was stacked with folders and piles of paper. Raisa rifled through the folders and found the one for Bux and her partners. When she opened it, she found the top sheet containing Dest's decision about their application. It was as bad as she had intimated it would be, and in some ways worse. Dest had signed it the night before and affixed her seal. It was now a legal document.

Raisa stood there for a moment. The smell coming from Dest was noxious. Raisa put her thumb under her nose to block the odor. With her other hand, she took from the folder the Genist's decision and returned to the kitchen. She crumpled the thick, expensive paper and lay it on the bottom of the oven. She pulled up a chair to watch. After a few minutes, it caught fire suddenly and burned to ash in less than a minute. Raisa turned up the oven and, since the chicken would now be sacrificed to cover the smoke of burning, she cut herself a wedge of cheese as she walked to the radio.

After the Ethicist, coroner and her crew arrived, Raisa pulled out the charred chicken with apology and offered them tea and cakes. They sat at the table and talked for ten minutes as the crew left with the body. The Ethicist offered to find someone to stay with her for tonight, but Raisa declined, saying she was used to solitude. She did accept the offer of someone to help clean Dest's floor the following morning, and a moving crew to shift quarters.

Once they were gone, Raisa locked the front door and took Bux's folder into her own study. She had her notes from before their visit, and she set herself a new puzzle. She was done before dawn, complete with a new application filled out in handwriting astonishingly like Dest's -- Raisa had studied it often enough, she knew Dest's quirks. Lying the new application in the folder, signed and sealed as the old one had been, she returned it to Dest's desk in the stack of other folders. She lay down for two hours sleep. Her haggard appearance the following day would elicit sympathy, she imagined.

She would need an apprentice, and there were applicants, but she was not going to hurry about selecting one. She wanted to be alone in this house for as long as possible. As she dropped off, she kept saying to herself "Genist of all Skene, Genist of all Skene". The next generation was hers.

The following morning, Yerush was teaching a group of second-years when the announcement about Dest's death came over Sigrist radio. As soon as class was over, she went to her office where she was supposed to see a series of students in tutorials. She put a sign on her door rescheduling the tutorials for the following week and left, walking up the lane nearest South Rambla and crossing the first bridge so there was no chance of running into anyone from her family.

When she got to the Genist's office, the cleaning and moving crew were just leaving. She kept her condolences formal until the door was shut behind them. After Raisa turned the lock, Yerush pushed her against the metal and began kissing her passionately. When they could come up for air, Raisa said "How long do you have?"

"Until dinner" said Yerush.

Raisa wrote a note and put it on her door, indicating she was out and would be back after dinner. Yerush had gone into the kitchen and was poking through the larder, calling out to her "Have you eaten at all today?"

"Not really" lied Raisa. Yerush lifted the lid on a metal bucket and said "Clams!"

"Yes, one of the workers brought that from the Ethicist" said Raisa.

Yerush set Raisa to dicing potatoes, grating carrots and chopping parsley at the table. Yerush sat close to her and began shucking the clams. Her strong, glistening fingers made Raisa dizzy with desire, and she had trouble telling the story Yerush wanted to hear, about Dest's death. Raisa left out all reference to Bux and her application, and Yerush was too politic to ask.

Once the chowder was set to simmer, Yerush went to wash her hands at the sink. When she turned back around, Raisa's shirt was off, revealing breasts that were anything but plain. She was holding a small bowl of shiny brown syrup that had been sitting on the aga.

"What is that?" asked Yerush, walking toward her with a wide smile.

"Something new from the botaniste" said Raisa. She tilted the bowl over her left breast and several drops of the syrup dropped down onto her areola. She looked at Yerush with half-lidded eyes. Yerush laughed, saying "Let's hope you have no reason to poison me" and closed her mouth over Raisa's nipple. Both of them cried out, Raisa from longing fulfilled and Yerush at the extraordinary flavor in her mouth. After licking and sucking Raisa clean, she looked at her and said "What do you call that elixir?"

"Chocolate" answered Raisa, pouring more onto her other breast.

A few minutes later, Yerush was pulling off her own shati, but Raisa had her hands on Yerush's ku, unbuttoning the waist and tugging down not only the pants but Yerush's knickers in a single motion. She pushed Yerush back against the table, and when Yerush lifted her hips to sit down, Raisa kneeled to remove the trouser legs. She stood again and said in a thick voice, "Lie down. Lift your knees."

Yerush complied, and as Raisa used one hand to part Yerush's thighs and lips, she grabbed the bowl of chocolate with her other hand. She poured a stream onto Yerush's maroon inner lips, and Yerush gasped, saying "It's warm!" Raisa looked at her levelly and said "I'm going to give you one long stroke of my tongue for every grandchild I'm sending your way." She bent over Yerush, and Yerush gave five long moans before Raise stood up again. Yerush looked at her with a mixture of joy and pleading, and said "Count it out again, please, Raisa!"

An hour later they stopped to eat chowder, naked at the kitchen table. Yerush said "I love you having this place to yourself."

"You can come more often" said Raisa. Yerush didn't answer.

Setting bowls to soak in the sink, Yerush said "Is Dest's study empty?"

"Her personal things are gone, and it's been cleaned" answered Raisa, "But her desk is still stacked with Genist records."

Yerush tugged her in that direction. Raisa hesitated, and Yerush murmured "I'm going to bend you over that Genist desk." Raisa followed her quickly after that.

At the 5:00 forecast, Yerush stood up from the chair where she had been on Raisa's lap and said "I have to go home."

"Stay for dinner" pleaded Raisa. "Tell them you need to comfort me -- "

"They'll never believe it" said Yerush, walking into the kitchen to retrieve her clothes.

"Will we never again have a night alone?" said Raisa plaintively.

"If Qen and Veida are both gone, then yes. But I can't fail to show up for bed with them, you know that" said Yerush, wiping a trace of chocolate from her thighs with a dishtowel before she pulled on her knickers. Once she was dressed and had washed her face, she would not kiss Raisa open-mouthed any more. She hugged her tight and said "I'll come again as soon as I can, my darling", then hurried out the door.

At home, Qen was in the tillage and Yoj was beginning dinner. By the time Qen came in, Yerush's face was no longer flushed and she was occupied with slicing onions very thin for a tart Yoj was making. Qen began scrubbing spinach and, with her back turned to Yerush, she asked casually "I presume you heard about Dest."

"I certainly did" answered Yerush. "I don't want to wish ill of the dead, but I can't help thinking this will be good for our Manage."

Yoj's face lit up. "Really?" she asked.

Still not facing Yerush, Qen said "Did you ask Raisa about Bux's application?"

"No, I have not" answered Yerush vigorously. "She'll get in touch with us, with them, in the proper way, I'm sure."

Qen's shoulders relaxed, interpreting this to mean Yerush had not seen Raisa. When everyone else joined them and they were eating dinner, they continued to bring up the topic of what Dest's death might mean. Yerush kept her cover from everyone except Veida, who didn't know her any better than Qen but had no interest in deluding herself. As they were clearing the table, Yerush said "By the way, Qen -- I've been thinking about the greenhouse, and how sad it is that you can't grow avocados because we simply cannot built a structure tall enough. As consolation, I think we should add on a few square feet to the footage and you should ask the botaniste for seeds to grow -- cacao, you called it?"

Qen's face illuminated. "You mean it? It won't produce much, maybe five pounds of cocoa paste a year. Not enough for us to recoup costs by barter."

"Forget the barter. We are going to have children in this house again, let's have a few luxuries here and there to give them" said Yerush, kissing Qen sweetly. Qen responded, and Yerush whispered in her ear "I love you always."

Ng had written to old friends on Seda and Argile regarding her question for a potting wheel and kiln, with leads that eventually led to a successful barter. Halling traded sinner hauling for a portion of the purchase price, which meant her work shifts got extended several days in a row. But the equipment got delivered and installed per Ng's instructions, along with heavy crates of assorted clays, slips, and glazes. Ng still had her tools.

In the mornings, after Halling left for work, Ng forced her stiff joints out the back door, into the cold dark, and sat in her studio which was blessedly warm, rubbing her hands together until she could bear to sink her fingers into damp clay.

When Yoj and Bux got up, one of them carried breakfast out to Ng and sat with her as she ate, performing such lifting and other chores as she'd need for the next few hours. Bux went home at lunch, making sure Ng was fed and again helping with physical tasks. Halling insisted on being the one to load Ng's kiln -- she had long experience at it.

Qen took an assortment of Ng's first firing to a consignment shop where she often shopped. The storeowner actually recognized Ng's work and gave them a favorable deal. A week later, when Halling stopped by after work, she was thrilled to be handed an envelope jingling with coins. It was even more thrilling to be able to hand this to Ng at dinner, in full view of everyone. Ng's eyes shone as she counted it. She got to her feet and put all but one coin into the Manage money jar.

Despite the deleterious effects of the wet clay on Ng's joints, her insistence on returning to potting helped with her hand flexibility. During dinner preparation, Yoj began asking Ng to teach her how she carved radishes, cucumbers, and other raw vegetables into the beautiful, ornate shapes that made their salads so beautiful now. It was in the middle of such a session, where Yoj was learning how to create roses from butter, that Bux came home from work late and looked through her mail on the sideboard. She froze, then turned and croaked out Yoj's name.

"What is it? What's wrong?" said Yoj. Ng gently took the knife from her hand.

"I have a letter here from the Genist" said Bux hoarsely.

Yoj reached for it, but Ng said "Go wake up Halling."

Yoj obliged, returning with a huge-eyed Halling who sat down next to Bux and took her hand. Qen and Veida were also now at the table, called in from outside by Bux.

Yerush said "Do you want one of us to read it?"

"No" said Bux. She let go of Halling's hand and carefully untied the envelope's clasp. "It's on real paper" she said, pulling the sheet out.

"Because you'll want to save it for your children" said Qen with hope. Bux leaned toward Yoj and motioned her head at Halling, who got up and came to stand behind her so they could all read at once. Halling's expression gave it away first, unholy joy flooding her features. She kissed Bux's neck exuberantly, then pulled Yoj to her feet and they began dancing a crazy jig. "Emmas, emmas, emmas!" Yoj screamed.

Bux thrust the page toward Ng and joined them in their dance. Ng read it out loud. When she reached the end, she tactfully stopped before reading Raisa's name.

Veida and Yerush were both gaping, and found each other's eyes.

"Unprecedented" said Yerush.

"And that phrase, gravida collectiva -- you know what that means, don't you?"

Bux stopped dancing and said "What? What does it mean?"

Yerush reached for the letter and read through it again. "This is not the usual language. There are no restrictions on your Leave. There are always restrictions -- such as if one or more of you dissolves your partnership, or if one of you...dies. And they're always spelled out in detail. But she says 'absolute warrant' here. I've never seen that given before."

Yoj sat down heavily. "Wow. I didn't think we went over that well."

Yerush said, glancing at Qen, "I would say it was Raisa using her influence -- but no, it's signed and sealed by Dest, the day before her death. Raisa just signs it to indicate she is in accord with Dest's decision and authenticates it post-mortem." A frown appeared on Yerush's forehead. She kept silent about her wonderings, however.

Veida said "And not only is the leave extended 'up to and including quintapara' -- which equal five pregnancies -- but in parentheses she says 'Consideration given for gravida collectiva'. That means twins, or even triplets. Not for sure, I'm thinking it will depend on how well you carry children and if you indicate an interest in multiple birth. But, waves and ripples, Bux, this will make you unique on Skene!"

Now Qen smelled a shu as well. She looked at Yerush, and Yerush gave her just a flicker, as if to say "Later." Bux, Yoj and Halling began screaming and jumping around the room again.

After her shift the next day, Halling had crowded Bux into the Xaya with her (quite against regulations, but only Qala was in the dispatch room and Qala would never tell) and taken her on a private tour of Skene. Bux had returned with an excitement Yoj remembered from her own first flight with a pilot -- only she had not also been in love with that pilot. At dinner that night, Bux kept returning to talking about what she had seen. At one point she asked Halling, "What do you think about the morrie strati, honey? I mean, why the sea is red there? And thicker?"

"The explanation we're given is that either it's something the leviathans extrude as they congregate, or it's something that occurs naturally in some patches of the ocean and that's why the levis choose to gather there. Or maybe a mix of both" said Halling. "No one seems to know for sure. I suggested once to the Sheng Zhang that we send a sinner out there with a bucket on a super-fast winch, drop it to snag a sample, and run like the wind. To see what's in that ocean water."

"And of course she didn't go for it" remarked Ng.

"Not only that, she implied I was unbalanced for even considering it. I mean, we're not supposed to fly over morrie strati at all, because if you go down there, it's curtains for sure. But there was also something in her tone..." Halling trailed off.

"Ah, that's because of history" said Yerush knowingly.

"What, in history?" said Bux.

"There was once an effort to study the morrie strati, I remember reading about it. And, of course, there was also once an effort to wage war on the leviathans" said Yerush.

Halling was riveted. After gulping down her bite, she said "What? Give it to me, Yerush."

Yerush grinned, and took a couple seconds more of letting all eyes remain on her. "Beginning with the ocean composition -- I gather they did it much as you suggested, Halling, a quick sample that was returned to biologists here. Which would have been rather a different bunch than now -- I'll get back to that later. They found that the red pigment comes from some chemical reacting to sunlight, which they surmised meant that further down, where light doesn't penetrate, the ocean would not turn red. How far down the morrie strati penetrates is not known. At least one of the chemicals was also found in concentration in leviathan flesh -- but whether it is there because they are releasing it into the water or ingesting it from the water is, well, a chicken and egg sort of question. We'd need to know the life cycle and detailed biology of leviathans. They did have more tissue to study, at one point..." Yerush paused, trying to organize her speech. She took a sip of tea and went on.

"I need to back up a bit. You all have been told in school that the original colonists never intended to stay. They came here in a ship from the planet of origin, which they called Urth -- " Halling and Yoj glanced at each other but Yerush didn't notice -- "traveling at some special kind of velocity for a year. It was 111 people, by the time they landed. That doesn't include the crew flying the ship. Their plan was to leave a group here primarily to mine Skene -- something available here was in extremely short supply where they came from, I don't remember what -- and of course all the means for surviving that year were brought with them. The ship and its small crew left to return to home. At the same time, a year after the original ship had left, a second ship was supposed to embark heading for here, so after the colonists had been working here a year, a relief ship would arrive with new people and supplies, and the original travelers would leave. It was a three-year commitment each of them had made. Does that make sense so far?" asked Yerush.

"Everything except why they'd make such a commitment in the first place" said Halling. "I don't understand why someone would leave home and hearth for three years. Not for minerals."

"Well, that's another lecture" smiled Yerush. "So -- once the ship was gone, the folks here set about figuring out how to build permanent structures -- there were no trees at all on Skene, and mining began immediately but refining takes a while. They had incredible tools, though, and technology we've lost along the way. They settled first on Riesig because it was biggest and had a very good water supply, plus some preliminary flat spots to build on, start fields, the like. There was also a group on Exploit, mining, and a few on Yanja because of the magma flow -- they seemed to have an idea right away about using the magma and the energy there. They also had lasers, like ours but much more powerful, and they cut Beras into terraces to grow rice, a grain that could handle the wet climate here. But aside from the stores they'd brought with them, they planned to eat mostly from the sea -- kelp and fish."

Qen interrupted "But they had frozen samples or seeds of almost every kind of life from home, to see what could be grown on Skene. Which is the archive the botaniste still has."

"Quite right" agreed Yerush, taking the reins back from Qen. "And -- to back up again -- an original survey ship had been here to make sure people could live on Skene. Checking out the air, water, organisms, and terrain. At that time leviathans were seen, of course, and probably interacted with some extent -- at that point, they were curious but friendly. And -- this is crucial -- on the planet they came from, there were similar-looking large sea creatures who were completely docile and rather loved by human beings. So, they assumed leviathans were the same."

Halling snorted. "Rockwits."

"The ship left, and the colonists got very busy. And, some time during that first month, a ship -- by this, I mean a boat, a ship that floated on the water, not an airship -- was out gathering kelp but it never returned. Since it was a clear day, the assumption has been they were the first casualties of leviathans. There've been dozens of theories over the years -- maybe they did something provocative either by accident or deliberately, or maybe the leviathan's curiosity finally got overrun by their innate hostility. We'll never know. At any rate, the kelp ship's silence had just been noticed and people on Riesig were planning to go looking for them when a distress call came in from a ship that was also out on the water, this time a sinner. The one person still on board said they'd been attacked by leviathans, who were doing their best to turn over the ship and everyone else had already been either swept overboard or, apparently, one had been plucked from the deck by a leviathan in a rush. The caller was screaming, and right after that, their radio sent silent as well."

Yerush let the silence sit at the table, as she did in class. It was very effective: They were all imagining the shock and horror as realization sunk in.

"No one else wanted to get on a boat and go help survivors, but a few aircraft were sent out to the last known heading. Not a trace was found. The next day, a couple of boats shuttling between the islands were attacked, one of them in full view of everyone on Yanja, and all the passengers were eaten. And that was that. The oceans were suddenly off limits.

"It took them a while to figure out how to sin from aircraft. They got rather hungry by the time they pulled it off. They learned about the 30 meter limit for leviathan leaps by fatal trial and error. And -- the use of lighters to distract the levs was the innovation of a couple of clever pilots -- "

"Amanda Summers and Davis Limon" interjected Halling.

"But their losses were still horrific until at least a year later, when one pilot came up with singing as a means of coordinating patterns to befuddle the levs. And the requirement of a new song each week, that took another long while to sort out" said Yerush, looking at Yoj.

"Thanks to the woman who became the First Dichter of Skene" supplied Yoj. "Nilmoni Szczepanski." What long names those people gave themselves, she thought, not for the first time.

"The colonists were, naturally, having a hard time with all these challenges, but had not yet gone collectively insane -- that would only happen when the return ships never arrived, with no explanation ever as to why" continued Yerush, "And then the discovery about how Skene was apparently altering human reproductive biology. No, at this point they were just contending with the leviathans. But the planet they came from had a habit of engaging the natural world in a confrontational way, rather than seeking balance. So, in those first few months, they tried to kill off the leviathans" said Yerush.

Bux looked shocked. Not Halling, though. Halling said "I've often thought we should take all the worst tailings and industrial debris that we funnel into offshore magma flows and instead dump it into morrie strati. Pollute them to death."

Bux looked even more shocked.

Yerush grinned and said "You'd have found company in the pilots of those days. They did drop explosives and other kind of weapons into morrie strati, as well as blasting away at any levi they saw. Those people had all sorts of weapons we do not."

Every mention of weapon was drawing a reaction from Qen and Bux alike: Weapon was a blasphemous word, seldom uttered by Skeners.

Yerush continued "And the result was no noticeable drop in the numbers of leviathans -- turns out, they are remarkably hard to kill -- but a great deal of body parts and slicks washing up on shore. Fouling the few kelp cortices, mussel beds and the like that people had been able to reach without risk of lev attack. Eventually all assaults on levs were stopped. And, of course, after the Troubles, an ethical mandate against aggression took hold. But, to get back to the original question, the chemistry of levs and morrie strati: Research on those dismembered levs didn't answer enough questions. We're not even absolutely certain how they chew their meals, although it does seem, from photographs, that their throats have spiraling rows of sharp cartilage which probably shreds whatever they swallow."

Too late, Yerush remembered one person at the table had lost her partner to such a throat. Halling had stopped eating and now closed her eyes.

"Oh, Halling, I'm so stupid -- " began Yerush, and Bux gave her a furious glare. Yoj stood up and went to hug Halling from behind, but Halling opened her eyes again and gave a weak smile at Yerush. "Not your doing" she said. "And yes, I have looked down those gullets. I agree with the interpretation you gave."

Veida's pilot humor came to the fore. She picked up a bowl and said to Halling "Care for some grated cheese?"

Qen and Bux looked at her in horror, but Yoj, Ng and Halling burst into maniacal laughter. Halling actually took the bowl and sprinkled cheese on her salad, saying "Mmmm, pre-shredded, how thoughtful." Their howls of hysteria were release, and eventually even Qen and Bux joined in.

Two days later, Yoj entered her study to find a lovely, Ng-made pot on her desk holding a small cluster of violets. She could smell them faintly in the air. She turned and immediately went looking for Veida, finding her on the roof at the pepper coldframe. By the time she reached her, she was crying silently, her cheeks wet. She wrapped Veida from behind in a hug and said "Thank you. I think those were originally planted at Isola by my abba, Dodoj."

Veida slid around in her arms to grin down at her and say "It was partly Ng's idea, too. You know, all of us have to decide what to keep and what to leave behind from how our emmas raise us. But beauty endures." She cupped Yoj's face in her loamy hands, and Yoj closed her eyes as Veida kissed her forehead. "Emma" Yoj whispered, and Veida pulled her into a tight hug before releasing her.

"Are you weeding or transplanting?" asked Yoj, looking at the coldframe.

"Weeding" said Veida.

"I'll join you" said Yoj, settling down on her knees. "Halling showed me the photo of Maszon on the Lofthall wall -- she was a looker. Tell me about her. If you want to, I mean."

Veida sat down next to her; her knees were too old to put her full weight on them any more. She began talking.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


C. Diva said...

"taking the reins"

This is not systematic, only as it creeps up on me. If you need me to stop I will.

Maggie Jochild said...

DON'T stop!