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:
NEW: Skene Map: Argile
Skene Map: Seda with Motu and Krk Flings
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


The following Ot, Halling once again did not have to work because of weather, so she went with Yoj to the school and taught lighter songs to all the classes. In Qen's grade, they made sure to tell the children there how Qen had placed them on the exalted paths they now followed, and to listen to her carefully, she'd do the same for them.

The next day, everyone except Veida went to Market together, with a variety of extras from their allotment and a hunger for citrus fruits. They found a bushel of limes, which they stored in the larder packed in straw. Yoj used half a dozen of them to make a lime custard pie which caused Halling's eyes to bulge after the first bite. Veida was off at a birth, and Halling insisted on saving the last piece of pie for her return.

At dinner, Halling said "I wrote to my emma Ng and told her I'd visit this weekend. I'm going to stop by the dispersal center in the morning for whatever I can collect of back allotment, then catch the ferries out to Motu Fling. The schedule's not in my favor -- I won't be back until Shmonah, and I'm counting on the bad weather continuing. I told the Sheng Zhang if it clears, to replace me for a day."

"Do you want us to go with you?" said Yoj.

"Not yet. I want a chance to talk with her alone" said Halling.

Yoj said to Bux "When we do visit, you and Ng are going to completely hit it off. She's blunt but not in a mean way. And she's an incredible keramiker."

"I remember her well from school, I liked her in particular" said Qen. "And I remember your aggie, Mwezi, too but not as well. She was very quiet."

"Yeah, in public" said Halling. "At home, though, she was nonstop jokes and singing." A look of deep sadness settled on her face.

"Well, tell Ng I want to see her soon" said Yoj. "Will your sibs be there?"

"I doubt it, they all have jobs elsewhere now" answered Halling.

"Tell her hello from me, too" said Bux a little shyly. "And I'll miss you like sunlight."

"Tomorrow" said Yerush, "We are going to wash the clerestory windows inside, and mop every inch of this muddy floor."

"And I've got more clothes cut out" said Qen.

"All right" said Yoj obediently.

Halling was carrying an extra hundred pounds the next morning by the time she got on the ferry. It swung around the bulge of Riesig to the north ferry landing, then crossed morrie vaseo to Argile, where she had to disembark and walk across the lower end to a second ferry which would transport her to Seda. Two of her sibs lived and worked on Seda as kinusans in the silkworm farm there. She didn't have time to visit, though. She again walked ten minutes overland and waited for a third ferry, the one that Ng ran as faryaste to Motu and on to other Flings.

However, when the ferry came into view, Halling was startled to see the driver was not her emma. It was a woman she knew vaguely from Ikrus Fling. When she got on board, she introduced herself and asked where Ng was.

"Home" the faryaste answered. "She's been sick since the Vote. If it keeps up, I'm going to request this job permanently. Here, I've a bundle of mail for her that she's not come down to the dock to pick up, you can take it to her."

Halling saw among the stack her letter to Ng written days earlier. She was now worried. Ng had always had rheumatism, but otherwise had been extremely healthy and never slowed down.

She walked from their home pier up the steep trail to the Manage she'd grown up in as swiftly as she could, given the muddy trail and her burden. As she reached the steps, a throng of katts ran toward her from all directions, crying piteously and rubbing her ankles. She couldn't bend to pet them. At the door, she knocked once, then went on in, calling "Emma?"

The kitchen had a stack of dirty dishes in the sink and more dirty dishes on the table. The sight shocked Halling -- never once had she seen either of her emmas leave dirty dishes. There was a faint pong from the old food, or maybe something else. She heard a weak "Hello" from above her.

Setting down her burderns, she went to the ladder of the kitchen loft and started up it. She heard sounds of someone moving in the bed. When she got to the top of the ladder, a stronger smell hit her, of an unemptied chamber pot. Ng was sitting up in bed, trying to get a pair of metal crutches onto her forearms. Her schmatta was stained, and a few dirty cups were beside the bed.

"Are you all right?" said Halling in a rush of concern. "How sick are you?" She sidestepped the cups and the chamber pot, and sat down next to Ng, putting arms around her.

Ng was ashamed of her condition, but still dropped the crutches to embrace Halling, clutching at her gratefully.

"I've hit a really bad spell" she said, then began crying despite trying hard to hold back the tears. Halling had never hard her emma cry like this, with such raw desperation. She wanted to hush her, but managed to instead hold her tight and let it all wash over her.

When Ng could finally talk again, Halling pulled out a handkerchief to wipe her emma's face, then gave it to her so she could blow her nose. "Is it the rheumatism?" she asked gently.

"Yes, but much worse than it's ever been. I mean, every single joint. I hurt all over, and I just can't walk or stand for more than a minute" said Ng, fear thickening her voice.

"How long have been you been up here?" said Halling.

"It's been four days since I could get down. I had a bottle of water and some bread I'd pulled up on a rope, but that ran out yesterday" said Ng with a hard swallow.

"Okay. I'm making you something to eat and bringing you tea, first thing" said Halling, standing up.

"Hall -- I need to -- empty myself" said Ng with extreme shame.

"Oh, right" said Halling. She was sure the chamberpot was full, from the smell of it. "Is there another chamberpot in the house?"

"No" said Ng.

"Wait here, then" said Halling, grabbing the dirty cups and water bottle as she went back down the ladder one-handed. She found an old stock pot with a lid in the kitchen, filled a new water bottle and scrambled back up the ladder with them, setting them beside Ng and saying "Can you manage the pot, or do I need to help you?"

"I can still do that much" said Ng, an edge to her voice.

Halling pulled out the box of fisk she'd brought and crumbled a big mound onto two wide plates. Opening the back door, a chorus of katt wails reached her. She set the plates on a flat spot and backed away quickly as spats broke out. She said to them "Thanks for hanging on. This won't happen again", and went back inside.

She didn't think she could carry the full, reeking chamberpot down a ladder by herself. She went back to the kitchen, then the living room, and finally found a small metal box with handles used to carry in produce from the tillage. She made tea and toast, cut three thick wedges of cheese from a round she'd just brought, added an apple, and carried it back up the ladder in the crate. Ng was leaned against the headboard, watching her with ravenous hope.

"You eat that, and we'll see about getting you whatever else you want" said Halling with forced cheerfulness. She put both chamberpots into the crate and lowered it carefully to the floor below. She kept them in the crate to carry down the hill to the privy, then scrubbed them both outside before setting them on the step to air.

After washing her hands, she climbed to the loft over the living room and rooted through storage in the rafters until she found the folding bed she remembered from when she lived here. She brought this downstairs to the living room and set it up, putting on fresh sheets and a blanket. The pile of laundry in the bath room was immense, and she began a load while she was in there. She also started a bath.

Returned to Ng's loft, she found two of the slices of cheese uneaten but everything else was gone. "I'm stuffed" said Ng, "I couldn't finish it."

"Been empty too long" commented Halling. "Listen, I'm going to get you downstairs for a bath. If you can make it to the top of the ladder, I'll go down in front of you and you can lean your entire body against mine on each step. I can hold your weight, and once we're on the ground floor, I can carry you."

Ng wanted to protest, but did not. She struggled to her feet on the crutches, with deep cries of pain, and hobbled precariously to where Halling was already one step down on the ladder. Halling pulled Ng toward her with one hand, the other arm linked at the elbow around the railing. The descent was slow and obviously very hard on Ng, but safe, Halling made sure of that.

At the bottom, she lifted Ng easily in her arms -- Ng had lost an alarming amount of weight -- and took her to the bath room, lowering her into the bath schmatta and all. She pulled the schmatta off Ng and added it to the laundry, then did the load while Ng washed her hair and cleaned her body, giving endless sighs of release.

Halling had rinsed the first load, run it through the presser and hung it to dry by the hearth by the time Ng was done. She filled the washer with more boiling water and soap, and sorted out another load of laundry to soak, before she helped Ng from the tub and dried her, trying to hide her embarrassment. She had found no clean schmattas but her own in her pack was fresh, so she gave that to Ng to wear. She carried her to the cot in the living room, retrieved a chamberpot to put beside it, and asked if Ng wanted something more to eat.

"No, but I'd appreciate some water and my toothbrush" said Ng. Halling helped her brush her teeth, then combed her long grey frizzy hair until it dried and put it back into waves at the side. Ng looked exhausted, and her eyes closed as soon as she lay back on the bed.

Halling stood up, looked around herself, and made a mental list. First she began soaking beans and put the chicken she had brought into a pot to simmer gently. Suddenly she grabbed her pack, pulled out paper and wrote quick letters to all three of her sibs, sliding them into envelopes and running down the trail to the ferry landing. A ferry was just approaching, and Halling flagged it down. "Will you see these go out in today's mail?" she asked the faryaste, who said "Sure", then asked "Is she all right?"

"Not really" said Halling. "But I'm here now."

Back at the house, she alternated between laundry, cleaning, and cooking until the early afternoon, when Ng woke back up and ate lunch with her. Halling had placed Ng's bed against a wall so Ng could sit up by leaning sideways against the wall. She brought her fresh tea and the mail, then went outside to spend a couple of hours in the tillage while the rain was just a mist. Coming in with a huge harvest and muddy clothes, she washed up, did more laundry, and stripped the loft bed. There were no more clean sheets, so she left the blanket up there -- she'd have to sleep with just that for tonight.

She wrote another, longer letter to her partners and took it back down to the ferry landing, putting on the light that indicated mail to go out and leaving it in the box. Then she made dinner, ate with Ng, folded what dry laundry there was, and began another load. Ng was watching her, not sleeping. After hanging the last load, Halling pulled up a chair and said "You feel like talking?"

Ng sighed, and said "All right."

"Is there something the curanderas can do for you? Have you not been following their instructions?" began Halling.

"I've done everything they prescribed, and a few more things friends suggested" said Ng. "But -- they said the disease might progress to this point. And it's been so cold and wet this winter. I just -- couldn't bounce back."

"Well, then, emma, you have to have someone living with you" said Halling. "At least until it gets warm again and you improve."

Ng closed her eyes, an indefinable expression on her face.

Halling said "I wrote Moasi, Tu and Lawa, asking one or all of them to come tomorrow. Tu is single, she could move out here. Or maybe Lawa, she could commute back and forth between here and Byli."

"They're young and just now on their own" said Ng, "They don't want to be burdened with looking after a sick emma. They'll never have a chance to date or go in fresh directions."

"We'll leave that up to them" said Halling. "I'll be staying here with you until it all gets sorted out. You're not going to be left alone again. I mean, not unless you want privacy, of course."

Ng managed a laugh. "I levvin' hate this, Halling" she whispered.

"I know you must. But remember how you took care of aggie, those two years? She'd do this for you if she were here. I'm just living up to her example" said Halling.

Ng began crying again. "I still miss her terribly" she said.

"I do, too" said Halling. She moved over to sit beside Ng, who choked back her tears and said "All right. I want to hear everything about this new love of yours, and your new home. And Yoj, of course. And the Lofthall."

They talked until Ng fell unwillingly asleep. Halling tucked her in, made sure she had water at hand, and turned off the light. She did the dishes, went to the privy, and climbed the loft to curl up in her sokken, shati, and the sour-smelling blanket. She was so drained, she dropped off instantly.

The next day at 10:00, Moasi and her partner Ktiva arrived. "We didn't get your letter until today" she said, hugging Halling in the kitchen where Ng had managed to come sit at the table as Halling continued her cleaning and cooking. Moasi rushed over to Ng and gave her a long hug, saying "Oh, emma, why didn't you tell me you were having such a hard time?"

"I couldn't" said Ng. "Couldn't get down to the ferry landing."

"And we didn't notice your silence" said Ktiva, stricken, kissing Ng's cheek and sitting down on the other side of her.

"Well, that will never happen again" said Moasi fervently. Halling handed them tea and sat at the table, too.

"I haven't heard from Tu or Lawa yet, but sounds like the mail is a day delayed" she commented. She launched into the story of what condition she'd found Ng and the Manage in, stark details that brought color to Ng's cheeks -- to everyone's cheeks, actually -- but it had to be said. When she was done, Ng added slowly "Halling says I cannot live here alone any more."

"She's right" said Moasi. "I mean, you agree?"

After a long pause, Ng said "I do. But I don't feel ready to give up this Manage. It's -- it's the link I have to your aggie. And I'm hoping that spring will enable me to go back to work."

"Well, then" said Moasi. "We talked it over on the way here. Ktiva's emmas are about to move in with us, on Seda. They can keep our Manage for us, and we can move out here. For as long as it takes. We can commute to work from here, it's just one ferry ride and if the schedules are against us on a particular day, we can stay overnight at our Manage on Seda that night. But otherwise, we can keep you fed and happy."

Halling saw the relief on Ng's face, and felt a tidal wave of emotion herself. If Ng was okay with Moasi and Ktiva moving in, then it was a good solution. She hadn't been sure -- Moasi was always closer to Mwezi than Ng. The special bond had always been between Halling and Ng. But -- this would work.

Moasi stood up and began looking in the larder, saying "I can begin lunch for us -- wow, look at this cheese and bacon! Where did this come from?"

"Me" said Halling briefly, as she slid over into Moasi's just vacated chair and took Ng's hand.

"Emma?" she asked earnestly. "Is this really okay with you? Because if it's not, we can come up with something else. I'll do whatever you want."

Ng's face looked more relaxed than it had since Halling arrived. "Oh, sweetie -- you're such a good child. I am delighted to have Moasi and Ktiva here, they are extremely fine company. But I do want to meet your new partner. So you all come visit here soon, how's that for a request?"

"You got it" said Halling.

"Honey with comb in it!" exclaimed Moasi. "And -- pecans? Okay, I'm making cake this afternoon."

Ng's face lit up completely, as did Halling's. Their sweet tooth was shared.

"Would you like help in the kitchen or shall I go back to the tillage? Still a lot to do out there" offered Halling.

"You go garden" said Moasi. "And Ktiva, you join her -- that'll give me some time alone with emma."

Ktiva and Halling walked outside, where sunlight had broken through the clouds. A group of katts, still anxious about human presence and the promise of dinner, accompanied them to the shed as they got tools.

"Thank goodness she stopped having chickens last year" Halling commented. "They'd have died over the last week."

"We can bring eggs from the Manage in town" said Ktiva. "Don't worry about her. I can't believe we let this happen, we've just been caught up with my own emmas this month."

"S'okay" said Halling, although it wasn't, really. But she blamed herself as much as anyone else. "Here's the thing -- I don't care what's going on, keep me informed and ask me for help. Ask even if you're not sure about it."

Ktiva looked at her levelly, then said "Okay." They began hoeing around the cabbages.

After lunch, Halling made up the loft bed with clean linen and finished the last of the laundry, hanging it to dry on the line outside. When she came back in, Moasi said "Listen, sibu, we're planning to stay the night. I need to go back in tomorrow morning, but Ktiva can stay here and, over the next few days, we'll get moved out here and Ktiva's emmas installed at our Manage. So you can go back home when the ferry starts running again around dinner time, if you want."

Halling said "I don't want to, but I need to. My partners will be worried, and I have to work tomorrow. Are you sure?"

"I'm sure" said Moasi. Halling went in to talk with Ng, who was back in her bed but sitting up. Ng sent her on her way as well. Halling finished all the work she could do outside, including flushing the privy, and brought in the dry laundry before she left.

"What about your schmatta?" said Ng, trying to scoot to the edge of the bed.

Halling laughed. "Bux is on a clothes-making frenzy for me and Yoj, she'll be glad of the excuse to make me a new one. You keep this one, as a reminder of me."

Ng pulled her into a hug, whispering "I never need reminders. You're with me always."

Halling felt desolate, walking onto the ferry and waving goodbye to Moasi and the Manage. She was lost in her memories and worries as she walked to the next ferry and rode to Argile. Trudging across Argile, she didn't see Yoj until Yoj was right on her, grabbing her exuberantly and saying "Hey!"

Halling kissed her over and over, saying "Were you coming to get me?"

"I was coming to help" said Yoj. "We got your letter this afternoon, and Bux went through conniptions because she couldn't figure out a way to get off work tomorrow, but finally she let me go without her."

They sat down on a nearby bench and Halling told the whole story, leaning heavily against Yoj and feeling solid ground under her feet again for the first time in a couple of days. Finally Yoj said "Okay. That's good for the time being. But we're going back out there as soon as we can. In the meantime -- have you had dinner?"

"No" said Halling. Yoj looked at her watch and said "The ferry's good for another couple of hours. Let's go to the cafe here on Argile, see what they have to offer. We'll still give Bux a thrill when we come back home together."

"Maybe they'll have pie" said Halling, standing up. Then she paused for a second and said, "Yoj? I'll want to tell Bux everything, of course, but please -- don't mention to the others about emma's -- the chamberpot, and all that."

Yoj said "Of course".

Two weeks later, after dinner Bux pulled her partners into their bedroom and closed the door. "I have gifts for you. Well, for us all."

She handed them each small velvet drawstring bags, keeping one in her own hands. Yoj was the first to get hers open: It was a ring, a braid of gold, silver and platinum. The gold middle band was carved with a relief of suns, and was inset with a small octagonal sapphire. Halling's ring had a relief of shooting stars, and her stone was an emerald. Bux's ring was engraved with crescent moons, mounted by a ruby.

Halling looked at her with awe. "Because I'm a green 56, right?" she said, referring to her sui.

"And I'm a blue 56, and you're our red 57 -- oh, Bux, these are spectacular!" said Yoj, trying to slide the ring on her finger and hug Bux at the same time.

"Wherever did you get these?" asked Halling, kissing Bux on her cheeks over and over.

"A jeweler on Verzin makes them to order. I couldn't stand to wait until our partnering ceremony, I wanted us to be linked already. I mean, in a public way" said Bux. "Is it all right that I chose the design for us?"

"Who better?" said Yoj. "And it's a perfect fit, how did you figure that out?"

Bux went a deep red. "I -- improvised from other -- situations" she said.

Halling burst out laughing. "Well aren't you the clever one!" she said.

"Let's go show them to the emmas" suggested Yoj. She kept fingering the backside of her ring with her thumb, a habit that would become lifelong, especially when she was trying to write.

Halling always ate her breakfast at the Lofthall rapidly because when she was done, she had to spend several minutes in the dispatch room with Qala and the Sheng Zhang going over that morning's ocean current and weather maps. These came in after midnight from Astronomer Poke on Verzin, a special circuit that printed them out in the dispatch room.

The observatory on Astronomer's Poke had one of the few computers on Skene, and was linked to a computer in the Geography Room at the University. No one understood any longer how all the software worked, although a fadian and a chemist between them were able, eventually, to repair any computer that stopped working. Skene technology was not now able to build a new computer or create software. Halling left it to others to worry about that.

Her job, with Qala and the Sheng Zhang, was to read the latest map to guess where today's best fishing might be located. Usually this meant looking at the northeast quadrant. The head of the kelp sinning crew was also present for these sessions, although her maps did not change much from day to day -- she was almost always going to a southern quadrant, just a short distance away from where her crew had harvested the day before. She, too, had to contend with leviathan risk, but to a far lesser degree than Halling's sinners. She had only two teams of lighters instead of four, and usually her runs were so matter of fact that they could do two kelp harvests on a clear day. Kelp sinners dumped on a Verzin dock near the factories that turned kelp into edible meal, paper, plastics, linen, and a multitude of other products.

Halling, on the other hand, with Qala's real help and the Sheng Zhang's pretend knowledge, had to gauge proximity to morrie strati and the likely numbers of leviathan assault as well as types of fish to be schooling that time of year, in what numbers, at what depths, and how long the weather might hold. She had eight lighters, four sinners, and a back-up sinner in case of mechanical failure of the sort that didn't lead to instant death.

After making her first four choices for that day's run and marking them on the map, she rolled it up and walked out to her sinner. The rest of her crew would already have warmed their engines and be ready for take-off.

In addition to the map, Halling's sinner had underwater radar equipment. Since it was her job to run this demanding scan, the actual mechanics of sinning was left to her second in command, Schla, known as a wrangler. Halling ran oversaw process and made decisions about location, but Schla carried the metal nets and managed the timing of sinning. With a good relationship between head sinner and wrangler, the sinning could go swiftly and flawlessly. An important attribute with leviathans on the scene.

But Halling found Schla sometimes quietly contentious and always humorless. Halling assumed it was because she had been made crew head instead of Schla, who technically had more seniority. She tried to ignore Schla's stiffness, for the good of her crew.

On this particular morning, the weather window was tight, the best schools were likely to be close to morrie strati, and consequently the harvest might be light. Still, Halling's job was to feed Skene. The cluster of craft flew northeast, past Juh, Abfall and Exploit, and started with the least likely location first just because it was farthest from leviathan territory.

When that did not pan out after half an hour, Halling directed them on. Eventually, two hours later, they wound up at the fourth location, the most likely, where almost the entire horizon was red from morrie strati. Halling dropped to the 30 meter level and began flying survey with the radar on. She found a decent school, centered over it, and radioed her crew to join her.

Already there were leviathans, drawn by her survey passes, probably. All the sinners remained above reach, but as Schla sent out nets and the three other sinners formed the points of a compass, using grapples to join themselves to each other and the net, Halling's adrenaline began pumping. When the nets dropped down to ocean level and below, a leviathan who charged it would leave the sinners no choice but to disengage or be pulled down into the water. Wranglers were the last to disengage, hoping to save the net, and it was a judgment call from wrangler to wrangler as to timing. Halling noticed that the two times it had become necessary to sacrifice a net, Schla made that decision at least a full minute earlier than Halling herself would have.

It was the work of lighters to draw leviathans away from the net, away from the bulk of the schooling fish, creating a glittery diversion long enough for the sinners to haul their catch back up to the 30 meter level, when they could stop hovering and commence a tightly-coordinated formation on their return to Skene. Each team of lighters took a different quadrant, using one sinner as ground zero.

Today, as usual, the lighters worked miracles, their song filling the radio and making Halling think about how much she loved Yoj, an antidote to the fear and worry jangling her bloodstream. Halling's radio could cut through everyone else's in case of emergency, but she preferred to listen to the song without comment if all was going smoothly.

The net was deployed, scooped in a tolerable harvest, and ratcheted back up with a heavy drag to the level of 30 meters. Halling used her radio then, saying "All clear" and immediately lighters zoomed to the safe zone, crowing victory. "Take that, you bastards" Halling thought, as she did every day when they started for home.

But five minutes later, Schla said "Oh, lev -- look in the net, Halling." This could only mean one thing. Still, Halling craned down for a view and, after a few seconds, spotted it -- a baby lev had gotten its stupid self into their catch, and was now thrashing around on top of the mass of dying fish.

Halling began swearing steadily. She issued graduated speed reductions, so all the sinners slowed to hover at precisely the same rate. Then she paused. She looked behind her, at the horizon, and saw clouds approaching. They would not have time for a second run today. The water below them had at least a dozen leviathans following them, making futile leaps at them, but that happened whether they'd netted one of their young or not. Halling radioed everyone, saying "Look, we've already got the harvest. We could just go on home and let the fish docks push the lev off the cliff. It'll be dead by the time we get there."

Schla's shocked voice replied "That's against policy. We're not to engage in antagonistic behavior toward the levs."

Lmape, another sinner, replied sarcastically "Yeah, wouldn't want to make them mad or anything, they might hurt us."

"That's not the point" retorted Schla. Then, when Halling didn't answer, Schla repeated "Policy is clear."

"I just wanted to hear what everybody else thought" said Halling calmly. The two other sinners, one at the net and their back-up, waited a few seconds, then said "I don't see why we can't give it a try" and "No skin off my nose".

Schla's voice was now strident: "We don't have the right to create policy, or make decisions that might affect the well-being of Skene!"

Halling was getting rankled. "The well-being of Skene depends on being fed, and dropping this harvest certainly is a decision I'm expected to make on my own. We've got a storm moving in -- we drop this, we have to go straight home with nothing today."

"Look at 'em jump" said Clun. "I saw if we do dump, we fly it back directly over a morrie strati and drop it on their stinking heads, see if we can kill one of 'em with the baby's carcass."

The other lighters laughed, and Halling admitted to herself it was a lovely image. Except it meant four sinners would be squarely over the deadliest portion of the ocean, and that was not something she'd ever ask them to do.

Schla said "Unless you give the order now, I'm going to file a protest with the Sheng Zhang. This is reckless in the extreme, and I can't believe you, of all people, is willing to play with our lives this way."

Halling's mind congealed with anger. Schla was referring to Xaya, who had died as a lighter trying to keep leviathans from grabbing the snagged net of a sinner. Not the same at all, and even if it was, that woman had no right to even think of Xaya, much less invoke her name.

Everything Halling could think of to reply would make Schla hate her forever. Finally, she set it all aside and radioed "Prepare for dump." Schla released the bottom of the net and all the sinners rocked as weight suddenly dropped away. In reverse order, they released their grapples and Schla pulled in her net.

Halling signaled "Head for home, no need for formation" and accelerated heavily, determined to be the first to land. Not to talk to the Sheng Zhang -- the Sheng Zhang could go lev herself -- but because if she had to face Schla without a crowd around her right now, she'd probably bloody her nose. Yoj would be at the jichang; Yoj could help her calm down.

And Bux. Now she had Bux, too.

When she got within radio range of Skene, she hailed Qala and announced the dump. She couldn't help adding that they could have brought it back with no risk to any pilot, and now today was a total loss. Qala answered "I hear that." Which meant the Sheng Zhang was not in the office. Then "Your sweethearts were just in here. You aren't ever empty-handed when they're around."

Halling laughed and said "Thanks, Qala. Looks like I'll be first back today."

She was gladder than usual to hug her partners. Their faces were so vivid, she thought there must never have been women as beautiful. When Yoj asked "How was the run?", Halling said "Crappy. Had to dump because of a baby lev. And -- other stuff. I'll tell you later." She could see Schla angling in to land. She washed down her sinner, then the three of them went to the canteen and sat in the far corner. Several others joined them, but no one talked about the tension around the dump because Schla was only two tables over, eating with the kelp sinners.

After eating, Halling said "I have to fill out a report before heading home". Bux said "I need to get back to my Sheng Zhang, I'll see you for dinner", kissed them both and left. In the dispatch room, Halling picked up the log book and began writing in today's harvest location, conditions, and outcome. Qala motioned for Yoj to close the door, and when she did, Qala pulled one earphone away from her head and said "You look steamed. What happened out there?"

Halling told her the story. Yoj became furious at the remark about Xaya, which actually helped Halling get over some of her anger. She said to Qala, "What is it with her? It is just sour grapes that I got crew head instead of her?"

"I dunno" said Qala. "She never had a shot at it, except with the Sheng Zhang who looks only at numbers, not personal dynamics. I told the Sheng Zhang if she didn't put you in as head, she'd have nonstop bickering and complaints to deal with."

"You did, huh" grinned Halling. "And we all know how much she loves dealing with complaints."

"Well, Schla hasn't been in here or indicated any interest in talking to the Sheng Zhang today, so I think she's being smart enough to let it go" said Qala.

"Yeah, she'd rather just be pissy on the sly" said Halling. "Well, thanks as usual, Qala. See you bright and early."

"Sleep tight" said Qala, returning to her radio.

After a nap, Halling forgot about it and spent time after dinner helping Veida replant two of the coldframes. As she was getting undressed for bed, however, Yoj said "She seems to prefer the kelp sinners -- is there any way you could get her transferred over to their crew? Do they need a wrangler?"

"Who?" said Bux.

"Schla" answered Halling. She gave Bux a two-sentence version of what had happened, adding "She's been a real pain in my ass for a month or two now."

Bux looked disturbed and, after a silence, said "A month or two? Like, since you became partners with me?"

Halling stared at her. "What would that have to do with anything?" she asked.

Bux's face was turning red. "She and I were lovers. The last lover I had. We broke up at least a year ago, but we'd been together a year and -- maybe she's upset about that. Although I'm sure not, I wouldn't care who she was with."

Halling's stare was now incredulous. "That was you? You were the one everyone was gossiping about, the townie mystery babe who spent every Sju night with her?" Yoj's face also showed recognition.

Bux was now upset as well. "What, gossip -- why would anybody care? Who was talking about it?"

"All the pilots" said Halling angrily. "Schla always had some piece of ass on the side, and usually bragged about it, just another reason I never much cared for her. But this one she wouldn't talk about. Oh, lev me, I can't believe you would go to bed with her!" She was shouting, and Bux pulled back from her as if Halling had hit her.

"Hold on, Hall" said Yoj.

"No, I mean it, why the lev didn't you tell me, Bux?" Halling continued to shout. "I have to work with her every day, didn't you think maybe I deserved to have that information? Are there any other pilots in your box of secrets, am I just one of a string at the Lofthall?" She began pacing up and down the narrow space beside the bed, waving her hands in the air. Bux was hunkered next to the headboard, and Yoj sat down beside her protectively.

"And Yoj told me you'd never come before us, so of course it was Schla the tight-ass who never bothered to give you complete pleasure. But you spent a year with her all the same, what in the world was the attraction? Oh, lev, I don't know if I can face her tomorrow, I really don't!" Halling was beside herself.

A knock came at the bedroom. All three of them stared at the metal door without moving, and after a moment, it opened to show Veida standing in her schmatta.

"What's going on in here?" she asked with a challenge in her voice. She looked at Halling, wearing only her knickers and rage still on her face, and said "Some of us in this house are trying to sleep."

When no one answered, Veida said "Cool it off" and shut the door.

After a minute, Halling hissed "I'm going to your cubicle for the night, Yoj, where's your key?"

"You most certainly are not" whispered Yoj. "Sit down here and talk with me, with us. You're blowing this out of proportion."

Halling glared at her, then sat down on a clothes chest and folded her arms over her chest.

Bux whispered, "I do regret her as a choice, but some things you have to learn the hard way. I had a one-month affair with someone the year before her, and I was simply not going to wait around for you or Yoj to finally take notice of me. I wanted some experience, and I thought she cared for me. You're right, we were a terrible match. And I only spent Sju nights with her because, well, I wanted to go slow. And -- the sex was just not very good, but I thought it must be me, because of my inexperience. When I finally figured it out, I broke up with her. She didn't take it very well, either. We've not spoken since, and -- I didn't tell you because I was ashamed, Halling. I didn't want you to think less of me. As clearly you do." Bux began crying. Yoj pulled her into her arms and said "It's all right, darling, all of us have mistakes in our past, it's nothing to be ashamed of."

"I don't" said Halling.

"You don't what?" asked Yoj.

"Have mistakes in my past. The first woman I ever slept with was Xaya, and the second and third are in this room with me right now" said Halling.

"Well, if you intend to claim superiority because of that -- " began Yoj, but Halling interrupted "No, I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I'm sorry, Bux, that I blew up. But the truth is, I don't understand how you can sleep with someone who isn't your heart's desire, because I've never done it. And -- I guess I'm jealous she got you before I did. Plus, the -- nastiness of having to work with someone who's -- been with you."

"Oh, Halling" wept Bux, "She was never once with me the way you are. She never had me. And I'm so glad to hear you still call me your heart's desire." Halling stood up and joined them, then, pulling Bux's face onto her shoulder and repeating how sorry she was. They made up, and Bux lay down between the two of them. Just before they drifted off, Yoj giggled and said "Veida was ready to kick your ass, Halling."

Halling laughed and said "She could do it, too."

The next morning, Veida handed Halling her tea and waited until she'd had a sip, then asked quietly "What was all the ruckus about?"

Halling sighed, and told her. Veida said "I never did like that Schla. She made no effort to converse with any of us. Not much of a pilot, not by my books."

Halling grinned. "I'm glad to hear it."

"You're going to want to say something to her today, and I really advise you don't" continued Veida. "It won't land well. The fact is, she failed utterly with Bux while you have clearly made Bux ecstatic. Let that be enough. Let her stew in it."

"That's what I'd already decided" said Halling. "But thanks for confirming it."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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