Monday, December 17, 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:
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


At dinner the next Roku, Yerush asked Qen "So what surprises is the botaniste going to have for us this year? Don't play coy, I know you know."

Qen grinned at Veida and said "Well...Since the Vote is tomorrow..."

The annual harvest and production report for all of Skene, the nian cheng, was published every New Year during Raccolto. Skeners pored over this document, comparing it to years past and having long debates, public and private, over the disposition of community resources. Finally, two months later at the start of Kall, all of Skene who could manage travel arrived on Riesig for the Vote, wherein decisions were made for the following year's main crops, land use, and a long list of smaller environmental issues. Five of the current Sheng Zhangs -- those for Rahat, Tanyan, Recursos, Potenza and Verzinnen -- were elected to a year term at the Vote, along with the Ethicist. The Ethicist would be up for a second vote in Med. Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall was also elected during Kall.

Yoj had been taught in her Social Organization course, under Nan Yerush, that it was believed asking Skene to vote during the harsh chill of Kall predisposed them to conservatism and thinking of the public good. Yoj wasn't sure this was true. People complained unceasingly about ferry travel in such weather, especially crowded ferries where the warm cabins were not big enough to hold all passengers. They worried for their children and elderly. Then, once they reached the big overheated rooms at the Lofthall and University, where they were overwhelmed with speeches, graphs, and the stress of discord with people from other islands, they tended to sink into a stupor.

The one part of Vote day that everyone enjoyed was the Tasting. Each year, the botaniste put forth ideas for tinkering with what main crops were grown at the community ejidas and greenhouses. Some things, of course, were never going to change -- fish, rice, mulberries, apples -- these were staples. Plus citrus and spices in the hothouses. But new items could be retrieved and coaxed into balanced life from the seed and organism Archive, and tough decisions had to be made. The botaniste spent months developing new items which would be harvested and cooked the night before Vote day, and everyone filed through the Tasting line to sample products no living person on Skene had ever eaten. It was usually just a mouthful. On the basis of this, and all the accompanying documentation of viability and consequences, a vote would be made.

Qen lowered her voice, as if someone else might be listening in, and her family leaned forward to hear. She said "To begin with the most likely to pass: She has two new sea creatures, both of them ideally suited to atoll waters and interacting without harm to what's already here."

"Two!" said Veida. "What are they like?"

"One is a kind of mussel that will grow only in the deeper lagoons, and has to scraped up from the bottom. But they have two products, a large round of tender flesh and then roe. The other is -- "

"Wait" said Yerush. "What are the mussels called?"

"Scallops" said Qen. "And the other are a new kind of crustacean, called prawns, that swim more freely than crabs or lobsters. They're smaller but more of their body is edible. And, oh, both of them taste heavenly!"

Veida looked envious. "When you have dinner with the botaniste, does she ever make anything ordinary, or is it all rare delicacies?"

"Butter is butter" said Qen with a grin. "Otherwise..."

"All right, what else?" said Yerush, a little testily.

Qen looked at Halling and said "Well, mangos. They've come up with a dwarf tree that will fit inside greenhouses. Be sure to taste those with a mind toward us maybe getting a tree for ourselves. There's a new cabbage, that won't make it through frosts as well but produces a lot more leaves, and it's this lovely dappled color. Another vegetable will be presented, with red stalks that can be stewed for tart sauces, used for pies and jelly, or to make wine -- it's called rhubarb. The problem with it that the leaves are toxic, only the stalks are edible. Let's see, what else -- A new kind of evergreen which will almost certainly pass because its leaves are extremely useful medicinally, as well as having good lumber. A new kind of goat, with less milk but it's higher in butterfat, and its hair is much better for weaving."

"The capristes will have a lot to say about that" predicted Bux.

"I bet they come to blows over it" said Yerush drily.

Yoj could tell Qen was saving the best for last. She nudged Qen and said "And?"

Qen almost hugged herself with delight: "A new grain!"

Yerush groaned. "Oh, no. They're just getting our hopes up again. Remember millet? And amaranth? I mean, some folks tuck them into their tillages, but we can't find enough land to grow them for the community. We're doomed to rice forever."

But Qen was undimmed. "Well, bundled into the grain proposal is a land use shift." She had their attention now. "The tolts of Argile, where only a few mountain goats live, would make a large flat ejida if leveled. It would be perfect for growing this grain -- called red wheat, by the way -- for half the year, and the other half it could be rotated to another crop, like sugar beets."

"Sugar" repeated Halling.

Yerush's eyes glinted. "The people of Argile are going to be outraged at the notion of leveling half their island. And will it have an adverse effect on the clay beds?"

"No adverse effect" replied Qen, "And an influx of workers. With income. Plus -- there aren't that many folks currently living on Argile. I mean, I hate to put it that way, but they're outnumbered."

Yoj was bothered by this. "Yeah, the big islands always dominate the Vote."

Halling looked across the table at her and nodded.

"But a new grain -- that would be to everyone's benefit" argued Bux. Halling and Yoj looked at each other again, as if their point had just been proven.

Qen began talking about the nutritional components of wheat, which seemed to be vastly superior to rice. When she mentioned that its meal make a spectacular bread, Yoj began listening again.

Once the possibilities of the botaniste were exhausted, Veida turned to Halling and said "Is Igoz presenting any new proposals for a vote?"

Halling looked disgusted. "Not a single thing. The Lofthall is, according to her, perfect exactly the way it is. Except she'll no doubt raise fees some minute amount for all the commercial hauling -- not enough to cause rebellion, but enough to pay for all her dinners around Skene schmoozing with business folk."

Yerush smiled to herself. Bux said "Is Qala the official secretary to the Sheng Zhang at the Lofthall? I've never known who that is."

"No, she's dispatcher by title -- although, yes, she does most of Igoz's work for her. Along with me" said Halling, still bitter.

"Then who is the secretary over there?" Bux was the assistant secretary to her Sheng Zhang, of Rahat, but hoped to move up into the official secretary position in the next year.

"We don't have one at the Lofthall" said Halling.

Bux was astounded. "What? But that's dysfunctional" she cried.

Yerush said "The Lofthall is the only arena where they didn't implement the secretary structure, back in the 300s. The original intent, aside from assisting with the workload, was to create a balance of power. But the Lofthall successfully resisted, claiming with its past ties to militarism, a power struggle within their ranks could lead to another outbreak of violence like during the Troubles."

"But -- " Bux's eyes were blue fire -- "It looks to me like the opposite argument should be made. Concentrating all that power into the hands of one person -- that's just asking for trouble."

"Well, not when the person is Igoz" said Halling. "She's too lazy to start conflict."

Yoj spoke up. "Laziness and stupidity have often gone hand in hand with conflict, that's no guarantee."

Bux spoke passionately to the entire table. "Secretaries keep a Sheng Zhang honest, in more ways than just avoiding violence. If she can prove evidence of corruption, she becomes the new Sheng Zhang, instantly. With a doubling of her salary. I know for a fact that keeps Sheng Zhangs on their toes and squeaky clean."

"What if she makes a false accusation?" asked Yoj, curious.

"Then, if it's proven false, she is out of a job and can't ever work in any kind of governing position again, just like a guilty Sheng Zhang" said Bux. "I mean, yes, there is tension between every Sheng Zhang and secretary, but it's a productive tension." She turned to Halling. "No wonder things are so frustrating at the Lofthall, you don't have any mechanism for small change."

"Unless we get Igoz voted out" said Yerush with a secret smile.

"Yeah, well, there's no takers for that job" said Halling. "As far as Sheng Zhangs go, the Lofthall is small potatoes."

"Being a pilot is where the glory dwells" said Yoj, grinning at Halling.

Bux and Yerush looked at each, across the length of the table, and shared a common thought. No one else noticed, not even Veida.

Qen said wistfully, "When I was a little girl on Byli, just about to start school, I remember the ejida had a cao for a while."

Everyone was surprised, even Yerush.

"Really? A live cao?" said Bux.

"Yes. The botaniste got consent to bring just one out of cold storage. She started as a calf, and I remember emma saying she couldn't drink regular milk, they had to supplement it somehow. But she grew really fast, and she was enormous. I mean, it's not just that I was so small -- she weighed several hundred pounds at the end. And she was so beautiful. Big dreamy eyes, a kind face. I cried and cried when she died" said Qen.

"How did she die?" asked Yerush.

"Oh, they slaughtered her. Emma was there, and told me about it when I was older. They weren't sure how to do it right. And they were all sad as well."

"But -- why?" asked Veida. "I mean, was she not growing right?"

"Not a thing wrong with her. Except her size, and how much grass she had to eat. Her consumption was untenable. Even with how much milk she produced -- gallons each day, and I remember how it tasted, like a complete food. And her dung was great for any number of things. But she ate more than they could spare, on the ejida. We got one of the roasts, I remember, and it was extraordinarily rich meat, better than goose, even."

Halling had a look of longing on her face that matched Qen's. Yoj said "And I've read that the original planet had vast herds of them."

"Land" said Yerush simply. "Land with vast open, unused grassy stretches."

After a small silence, Halling said "I looked at maps of that planet in school, but I still don't quite get it. The scale isn't human, you know?"

Yoj saw Yerush's lecture expression appear. Sure enough, she began with something Yoj had heard in class. "Imagine climbing to the top of Sigrist Poke and looking off toward the foot of Yanja, where magma flows into the sea, and that everything in between was all land, no ocean at all. No ocean as far as you can see." Yerush paused to let that sink in. "So you climb down and you walk that distance, all the way to where you could see, and there's another high spot you can ascend, for another vista. You spend the night, and the next day you again walk as far as you can see. You keep doing that, day after day, for an entire year. And in all that time you never hit ocean."

"Leapin' lev" said Halling. "That's how much land there was?"

"That would be just one continent. On the original planet, they had seven continents" said Yerush.

It was disturbing, a kind of reality that seemed off-kilter. Bux said "Then why ever did they come here?"

"They began running out of resources" said Yerush.

This was even more disturbing, a kind of profanity. How could they have wasted such plenty?

After another long silence, Yerush said drily "Something to think about as we go into the Vote tomorrow."

The next morning, everyone got up early and shared a hasty breakfast of rice kasha with dried fruit and steamed eggs. Pilots had Vote day off, and as the six from the Manage approached the University to listen to debates, a cluster of yellow and blue uniformed pilots lounging outside in the frost called out Halling's name. They'd been waiting for her and her new family. Qala was among them. They went gratefully inside to the warmth, where already the halls were crowded in a way people seldom experienced on Skene.

Yoj grabbed a list of the day's events, reading it aloud to the others over the hubbub of the hall. "There's a concert of that brass group you like so much at noon" she said to Qala.

"The Vjetars? Oceans, let's grab something portable to eat and make sure we hear them" said Qala. Bux looked a little cross and said "Isn't that at the same time as the debate about the school proposals?"

Yoj turned to Qen and said "Which way should I vote on the school proposals?" Qen, caught off guard, said bluntly "Yes to everything except the expansion of the playground into the park -- children need unorganized play more than sports."

Yoj turned back to Bux, grinning, and said "All right. I can miss that debate now. What Qen thinks goes for me." She looped her arm through Bux's and said "C'mon, you'll love the trumpets. In the meantime, where shall we go first?" They wandered off. Halling went with Qala to a discussion of changes in batteries and electrical circuitry, and the emmas scattered as well.

Yoj had written both her emmas and sibus, saying she'd be at a certain spot at 10 a.m. and hoped to meet up with them. She was there by 9:50, along with a nervous Bux, but when no one arrived by 10:15, Yoj gave up, blinking back tears. "They hate coming to Riesig" she said miserably to Bux. "And my emmas both simply never take off work."

"But what about your sibus?" said Bux, bewildered.

"Aahh, I don't know. They act like I'm not part of the family any more. Well, they act like they aren't part of the family either" said Yoj. "I'm so sorry, Bux, I really wanted you to meet them."

"We'll plan a trip to Isola, then" said Bux. "In the meantime, Halling's sibs and emma should be at the Tasting. I know all of your sibs of course from school, but it feels different now."

"It is different" said Yoj. "All right, then. Let's check out the presentation about filling in Exploit Lagoon."

Skene had several atoll-protected lagoons between islands that were close together, which afforded 24-hour morrie vaseos for ferries and also sheltered water-farms to raise certain kinds of kelp, mussels, clams, and crustaceans. The ring-shaped Bohaira Lagoon, around Pomar and the long sides of both Riesig and Verzin, was also an extremely popular outlet for swimming, punting, and wading during warm weather. The idea of filling in a lagoon seemed, on the face of it, slightly blasphemous, even with the desperate need for land.

But the lagoon between Chloddia and Exploit had been one of the first created, centuries earlier, and its waters had suffered from poor design. The tidal flow was sluggish. In addition, sandwiched between two islands devoted to heavy mining had resulted in some runoff of nasty byproducts into the shallows, despite Skene prohibition against pollution. As a result, the sea life that managed to survive in the lagoon had not been eaten for over a decade. And those mining communities didn't seem to be especially fond of punting.

So, every year for as long as Yoj had been alive, a proposal had been put forth that the non-toxic tailings from mines and residue of Yanja's lava shaping be dumped to fill in the lagoon, creating a solid land mass connecting Chloddia and Exploit. At first, the people of the two islands had vehemently opposed this proposal and succeeded in getting it defeated, twisting a lot of arms in the process. This had created some ill will, which layered itself comfortably on top of the general ambivalence the rest of Skene had about the two mining islands. Chloddia and Exploit did not do their share of food production. The miners, smelters and other heavy industry workers there displayed an arrogance about Skene owing them nourishment because of the service they provided. But other crafts on other islands were not inclined to see their labor as less essential.

Paradoxically, the populations of the two islands had swung around, in the last decade, to supporting the idea of closing the gap. Their lagoon was increasingly problematic, and the locals had developed grand designs for the extra land. At the same time, however, the rest of Skene had allowed their resentment of the miners to change their minds as well. They thought it only fitting that the islands have to stew in their own mess, and if extra land was going to appear, they wanted it to be under the thumb of folks who would make it productive in an agricultural sense, not to build houses for even more snot-nosed miners.

So, the proposal kept being voted down, despite the support of every Sheng Zhang and the Ethicist who kept insisting the land use would be decided for the benefit of all. The argument each year on Vote day turned into screaming matches. Miners were, in general, smaller than Skeners from other islands and not as prone to shove-fests as the capristes of Yagi or burly yanjangers who scared the piss out of everybody, but they were gifted verbally and had a smoldering menace behind their impassioned arguments that was quite impressive. Yoj loved to listed to the tirades, taking notes on language usage and cadence. She personally thought they should not only fill in that lagoon, but also the one between Seda and Argile. She made the mistake of saying that once to Halling, whose ancestral origins were from Seda, and Halling had been so upset she just walked off, refusing to speak to Yoj until later in the day.

Change was incremental on Skene, and always viewed with suspicion.

Lunch was ikan rolls, spicy rice balls and a pear apiece bought from a stand outside so they could go hear the Vjetars perform. Bux wound up enjoying herself immensely, and even danced a short dance with Qala, though most of her time was with Yoj or Halling. Qen was at the school proposal debate with Veida. Yoj saw Yerush disappear down the corridor leading to her office with Igoz, and wondered what that was about -- Yerush better not say or do anything that affected Halling's work, or Halling would have her hide. She chuckled to herself at the thought: Her money would be on Halling, every time.

In the early afternoon, Halling's family arrived. Her emma Ng was walking with determined pain on a pair of metal forearm crutches; her rheumatism kept advancing each time Yoj saw her. Yoj noticed Halling's oldest siba, Moasi, was carrying one of the folding aluminum litter chairs that people used to transport their elderly and disabled. Skene had very few smoothly-paved areas -- rain must be allowed unfettered access to the fresh water table below -- so wheelchairs were only practical inside dwellings. The trek to Riesig would have been arduous.

Bux had met and spend time with Ng before, when she updated the Motu Fling mural after Mwezi's death. She felt much more interested in Ng now, and studied her carefully. She saw many signs of Halling in Ng, in her high cheekbones, her square jaw, the color of her eyes and hair. She was much shorter than Halling, but Yoj had told her that Mwezi had given Halling her height. Ng's hair was iron grey and combed into two waves on either side, but it looked as soft as Halling's. Her mustache was fuller than Halling's, and her hands slightly larger yet the same shape. Bux found her utterly beautiful.

Halling introduced Bux formally to Ng, and Ng kissed her cheek sweetly, saying "Welcome to our family." Halling's sibs did the same in turn. They were all dark, but none of them strongly resembled each other except Halling and Ng. Lawa had epicanthal folds at the corners of her eyes, which Halling said their aggie Mwezi also had, and Moasi had Halling's tight curly hair. They all treated Yoj with great affection and familiarity. Yoj kept her arm linked through Bux's, ensuring her sense of belonging.

They found a bench for Ng to sit, and Halling stood in her cluster of sibs, looking very young and happy. Her siba Moasi was partnered with Ktiva, and they lived on Seda, working in the silkworm and mulberry tree industry there. Tu, the next oldest, also lived on Seda. Then had come Halling. Lawa, the baby, had moved to Byli and worked on the ejida. Bux remembered Lawa from school, but the other two were enough older that she hadn't really known them.

Ng apologized for them being late. She worked as faryaste between Seda and Byli, and she had to run routes until the morrie vaseo closed. They had all just made the last ferry to Riesig. She and Halling's sibs wanted to attend the debate about land use on Argile which was due to begin in a quarter hour. At that point, Bux's emmas walked up. Qen and Ng greeted each other gladly -- they had been in first grade together, although Qen was four years older than Ng. More introductions followed, and the cluster of family felt wonderfully big to Yoj, but also missing anything that was especially hers. She tried to shake off her longing.

As they went on to the next debate, Halling, Yoj, Bux and Qala insisted on taking turns carrying Ng on the litter, to give Halling's sibs a chance to rest. They stayed together as a group for the rest of the afternoon, except for Yerush disappearing to confab with the powerful and influential, Yoj noticed. At 4:00, Qen said "The tasting begins in half an hour. I think we should try to snag a table at the Lofthall."

The foodstuffs would be served at the Lofthall canteen. Qala and another pilot peeled off, saying they'd go save a table. After a few minutes, however, the rest of the joined families decided they'd had enough of being talked at or trying to consider weighty issues. They trailed over to the Lofthall and sat at a big table with Qala and Lmape. Halling got them all tea, and they relaxed into the relative quiet of this room, not yet crammed with people. A few minutes later, Bux's siba Paha found them and they did another round of introductions, squeezing her in at the table. Bux's siba Culisa and Paha's partner Tlochin had not been able to travel to Riesig, Paha said.

When a line began forming at the serving array, Yoj and Bux got up to hold a place for everyone else. The botaniste was extremely busy in the kitchen behind them, trying to do a dozen last-minute touches at once. However, when she saw Bux, she smiled broadly and came out to them, saying "Is your emma here?" Bux pointed to Qen at their table, and the botaniste made a beeline for her. She stayed in deep conversation with Qen and Ng until serving began. She bustled back then to the food array, calling back to Qen's table "Don't get up, I'll put enough on the children's plates for all of you."

Yoj liked being one of the children in this room where she was usually extremely responsible for others, a kind of elder. The botaniste personally heaped their plates with all the new treats and said "I want to hear from all of you directly about what you think. Not just the Vote."

At the table, servings were doled out and Yoj looked uncertainly at what remained on her plate. The prawns were bright pink and didn't appear entirely edible to her. A tomato sauce to dip them in was adjoining. The scallops were in a lime-butter sauce, and she began with a bite of that.

Her exclamations were drowned out by everyone else's. Every delicacy proved to be a hit, including the prawns, although Yoj gave one of hers to Bux because Bux went wild over them. Yoj was especially taken by the red wheat kasha and a slice of bread -- it was little dry, but she thought she could make a better dough. Halling flipped over the rhubarb pie, as did Ng. Yerush kept trying to decipher the recipe for the mango chutney. Veida and Paha did a critique of the new goat cheese, but Veida became distracted by Lawa and Ktiva's discussion about the medicinal aspects of the evergeen and soon everyone was drawn into that information sharing.

Despite the variety, it wasn't quite a full meal. However, ferries were about to begin running again, and Ng was compelled to be on the first one out of Riesig so she could carry people on her route when she got home. They all filled out their ballots, dropped them into the collecting box, and then the whole crowd walked Ng and Halling's sibs to the ferry landing by the fish docks. The line there was already voluminous. Ng was pushed to the front of it, however, in her capacity as faryaste. After they were waved off, the rest of the family returned to the Manage, including Qala, to eat sandwiches, drink tea and unwind. Paha was going to spend the night on a pallet in the living room loft and leave early the next day -- she said winter was not a slack season on Beras.

Before breakfast the next morning, Halling got up and went in pouring sleet to the kiosks, bringing back a report of the Vote. The school proposals had gone through as Qen wished. Most of the Sheng Zhangs had been re-elected, except for a surprise upset where the former Sheng Zhang of Verzinnen -- manufacture and commerce -- had been defeated in favor of a newcomer. The reasons for this would be theorized about all day. Foln the Ethicist had also been re-elected. Yerush noticed that the number of votes for Igoz, who ran unopposed, did not equal anywhere near the amount of people who had actually voted, and she pointed this out to Halling. "Not popular" she said with emphasis. "I could have told you that" replied Halling.

Expansion of the Exploit-Chloddia lagoon had again gone down to defeat. "I'm glad I didn't have to ride home on those ferries" remarked Yoj. Bux giggled and said "I bet they were hoping for some stupid lev to tangle with them, just so they could take out their pique on something they could tear to pieces."

All of the new foods were voted in, including the red wheat and the land revision on Argile. Halling was shocked, and everyone else held in their celebration while she was trying to process this decision. When Bux and her emmas walked Paha to her ferry, Yoj stayed behind with Halling, sitting next to her cozily on the sofa as they drank the last of their tea.

After several minutes of silence, Halling said "You know, with enough time and effort, we could probably fill in the entire East Tendril. So there really would be solid land all the way from Sigrist Poke to Yanja."

"What an idea. I'd love to see the look on their faces if you make that proposal next year" said Yoj.

Halling laughed. "I mean, we could always extend an atoll out from one big island. Just think if we were able to walk from one end of Skene to the other, no ferries."

"It would put our emmas out of faryaste jobs" remarked Yoj.

"I bet it would affect the Lofthall, too" said Halling. "Half of what we do is commercial hauling. If we had one solid land mass, we could have roads for handtrucks."

Yoj snuggled against her and said "Well, I'm glad I actually don't have to face that. This year's changes are quite enough for me."

"Yeah, it was an interesting Vote" said Halling.

"I didn't mean that. I meant Bux, and this Manage" said Yoj.

"Oh. Yeah, that's even more interesting" grinned Halling.

"Couldn't do it without you" said Yoj.

"Back atcha" said Halling. Then: "I'm still short on sleep. And I have the day off. Wanna go back to bed?"

Yoj raised an eyebrow. "Bux will barge in with righteous indignation when she gets home."

"Let her, there's room" said Halling. They stood and went to the bedroom.

Two days later, Bux announced at dinner that she had been contacted for a wandmaler job.

"Is this Lurok, out at Pulo Fling?" asked Qen.

"Yes" answered Bux. "She died last week, and her Manage doesn't want to put off adding her to their mural."

"I went to school with her children" said Qen. "She was beloved. And they have a wonderful tillage."

"Yes, but it's almost as far out as you can go on the West Tendril. So I'll be spending the night there. Even if I take all my supplies and the work goes fast, I'll be gone most of two days" she said with palpable regret.

Yoj was visibly upset. "Maybe I could go with you?" she offered. "We could stay at the hostel on Yagi, I could write in a cafe -- "

Bux put her hand in Yoj's. "I don't want to be away from you -- both of you -- either. But preparing a mural addition is a very private time for Manages. They need room to grieve as they tell me about who has died. And I have to get a feel for them, to paint them. You, my love, are an impossible distraction."

"When do you have to go?" asked Halling.

"Tomorrow morning" said Bux. "I'll get up with you and catch the ferry at first light."

"The forecast was for rain" reminded Halling. "But I'll still get up with you and walk you to the ferry."

"So will I" said Yoj.

"Eat your dinner" said Yerush. "We'll keep you fed while she's gone."

Lovemaking that night was extended and urgent. With only a few hours of sleep behind them, the three young women walked in burzakas and wide-brimmed hats to the ferry landing. The ferry was already there, chugging gently at the dock. They kissed tearfully, lingeringly, then Yoj and Halling handed Bux her bags and watched her go into the ferry cabin. They waited until it had disappeared into the dawn downpour before returning to the Manage.

Veida had breakfast waiting for them. Yoj was miserable and only ate half her rice porridge. Halling swapped bowls with her and finished it off, saying "I'm going back to bed. Come on, I'll hold you and you can cry. Maybe then you'll sleep."

They got up again at 10, Yoj still feeling dull around her heart but better rested. Qen and Yerush were both at work. Veida was at the table sorting potatoes. She said "I need some help with the tillage today. We're going into nonstop rain for a while."

Halling, setting tea in front of Yoj and herself, said "Keep me busy."

"Me, too" said Yoj. "I don't feel like writing at the moment."

They worked through to early afternoon, installing a sun-allowing rain shield over the producing parts of the tillage and diverting its runoff into the municipal cistern lines. Halling and Yoj walked down to the dispersal center with a wheelbarrow and came back with 600 pounds of ripe compost, which they spread onto their own compost pile to finish cooking for spring planting. Yoj did two loads of laundry and spread them on hearth racks to dry, hopefully, before they mildewed. She set red beans to soak for dinner and Halling inoculated tempeh rhizome into a tray of soybeans. When Qen got home after work, she was very solicitous of Yoj in particular, patting her on the back. She also kept adjusting a stray frizz at the side of Halling's hair.

Once the beans were cooking slowly with salt pork and onions, Halling glanced outside and said "It's clearing up in the east." When she turned back around, Yoj was looking at her with tears in her eyes.

"What?" asked Halling.

"You'll be gone all day tomorrow, too" choked out Yoj.

"Nothing new there" laughed Halling, pulling Yoj into her arms.

"I know...but things are different now" said Yoj, resting her head on Halling's shoulder.

"Come on, let's get out here for a bit, so we can stop missing her" said Halling. "Put on your new manteau and we'll go for a walk."

They headed for the edge of town, north toward Sigrist Poke, and then began climbing the steep hill, using the trail that circled around toward the ocean, holding hands and not talking at first. They had the place to themselves. Everyone else was either still at jobs or making the most of the little window of sunshine to work in their tillage.

About halfway up, with a view of both Bohaira Lagoon and the Wasa North, was an outcropping of rock that made a bench large enough for them to sit together. They rested, bundling their manteaus around them for warmth, and looked out at open ocean.

"I can't believe how lucky I am" said Yoj.

"Bux, you mean" said Halling.

Yoj grinned at her. "Well, not just her. Long before her was you, and before that discovering I could write, and before that -- actually, Qen. Qen turned my childhood around, gave me the hope of living here, on Riesig, when I grew up. I loved my aggie, I think more than most kids do, but she did not make our Manage a home. Not like this place. And that's another piece of luck, this Manage."

"I know" said Halling. "Pilots don't expect to have a Manage, you know. And -- well, I think I'm the only one with so much filling my hands."

"And babies to come" said Yoj.

"Babies to come" echoed Halling.

After a long silence, Yoj said "Looking back on it, seems like I was meant to be part of this Manage. Bux knew it before anybody else."

"Bux knew about you before anybody else" said Halling. "I'm just glad I got in the door before you noticed her."

Yoj leaned over and kissed her. "You and I were meant to be, too, rockwit."

Halling was pleased. "You know, Qen turned things around in my life, too."

"How so?"

"Well, she was the first to emphasize how good I was at maths and science. She said I could make a fine living out of it, and when I asked her what kind of career, in particular, pilot was one of the things she listed. And she also raved about my singing, my ability to hear fine musical distinctions."

"I remember how she asked you to do solos during chorus" said Yoj. "At the Lofthall, do you ever get trainees applying who can't sing, who are tone deaf?"

"Not very often" laughed Halling. "Usually someone close to them has broken it to them along the way that they aren't hitting the notes, you know. We teach breath control, basic music, stuff like that along with aerodynamics but you can't teach someone to hear what they can't hear."

After another pause, Halling added "And it was Qen who, when I was thirteen, had my teacher put me at a shared desk with Xaya."

"Aahhh" said Yoj. She saw Halling shift her gaze toward the east. Xaya had died in the eastern ocean.

"They're bad out there" Yoj whispered. "I have a terror of them, you know."

Halling looked at her. "I didn't know. More than usual, you mean?"

"Completely phobic" said Yoj. "If I wasn't, I'd likely have tried to become a pilot."

Halling was now thoroughly surprised. "I can't believe I never knew that. Well, much as I'd love to fly with you, the service you provide as dichter is infinitely more important. And singular. I get to hear the byways of your mind every single day."

"I know you're a sinner, not a lighter" said Yoj, "but when I write, it's you I imagine singing. It's you I'm writing for."

Halling kissed her, then. The kiss lengthened until Yoj was wrapped around Halling. When they finally came up for air, Yoj laughed and said "It's good to be alone with you."

They sat in each other's warmth, savoring it, for a few minutes. Then a piece of wail drifted up from the cliffs below, mixed with a scrap of surf sound. Both of them stiffened, and they looked down at the deeps nearest the atoll.

"Can you see it?" asked Yoj.

"No" said Halling. "But if it's talking, there's more than one."

"I know" said Yoj. "Out on Isola, they sang much of the day, answering each other, and all night long. It literally echoed through our walls."

Halling whistled. "What was that like for you?"

"Oh, when I was really little, before Owera was born and Myrd was still just a baby, I didn't know enough to be frightened. I thought it was beautiful. My emmas had told me that Myrd's crying was her trying to tell us something, and that eventually she'd learn to talk, so I thought the leviathans must be trying to talk, too. I taught myself to imitate what they were saying. One of the first songs I wrote was in levi."

Halling tried not to be shocked, but she was. "You mean, you understood them?"

"No, no. But I could replicate them exactly. I went out on the point one day and sang my lev song, and a group of them gathered to listen." Yoj shivered at the memory.

"Thunder me down" breathed Halling. "Did they answer?"

"Never had a chance to find out. My aggie heard me and came raging out of the house, dragged me back in and told me to never do that again. That's when she filled my head with what leviathans are really like. That's when I got petrified of them. Later, once I was at school, I knew to not ever tell anyone, not even Qen, that I sometimes wrote levi song in my head."

"Do you still?" asked Halling in a whisper.

"Not actively. But it's in there, like every poem I ever read" admitted Yoj.

Halling shook her gently and said "Sing some."

"Oh, Hall -- I don't want anyone to hear me, least of all them" said Yoj, pointing her head toward the atoll.

"Then sing softly. I want to hear it" said Halling.

Yoj breathed deeply twice, squeezing her arms around Halling, and began with a trill that led into a deep, basso wail. Halling tried not to shudder, but couldn't help herself. Yoj went through a complete song. When she was done, Halling said "I can't believe how real that is."

"Had lots of time to study it" said Yoj. "Those clicks they make, followed by a kind of grunt, they come in between -- measures, I guess you'd call it."

"That's when they breathe" said Halling. "I've seen 'em, down below me."

Yoj was amazed. "Do they just float there, or are they moving?"

"Mostly they're still. And, one thing I'll say, if they're singing it means they're not about to leap. Listen...will you sing it again? I want to learn it."

"Are you sure, Hall?"

"I'm sure. Whatever I can find out about them, I need to know."

For the next half hour, Yoj went slowly through the bars of her song and Halling repeated it, over and over, in her clear accurate voice until she knew it as well as Yoj, Yoj said. It was familiar to her, now that she tried to sing it. It was blasphemy of the first degree -- who else but isolated little Yoj would have even dared try? But now that Halling heard it echo inside her own head, she was glad to have broken through the barrier.

Eventually Yoj said "I don't want to walk down in the dark, and I'm chilled through, even with you in my arms."

Halling stood up and said "Let's go make dinner for our amazing new emmas."


"And tomorrow night Bux will be home" said Halling with anticipation in her voice.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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