Thursday, December 20, 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.

In this chapter, characters Danaan and Rark get introduced, and this is my chance to thank Shadocat for ALL her support and encouragement. The character Rark is based on her.

There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Isola Fling
Map of All Skene
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


On Moja, Yoj received a letter from the Ethicist's office informing her that a crew would be going to Isola Fling to clear it out by the end of the week; if she wanted any of her belongings remaining there, she needed to get them within the next few days. She had just walked home with Halling after work when she read it. She sat down heavily at the table and looked bleak.

"I don't know if I can handle going back there" she said colorlessly.

"Bux will go with you, you know that -- and me if I don't have to work" Halling said.

Yoj met her eyes. "I'm not sure I'm ready to show Bux -- my past" she said. "And she's behind on Sheng Zhang tasks, anyhow, because of all her wandmaler and other work lately. Maybe I should just let it all go, I can't remember what I'd want from there, anyhow."

"Nonsense" said Veida. "If you can't remember, then you must go look. I'll go with you. We'll get the earliest ferry we can tomorrow, we should get there by noon and be able to leave before it gets dark. You can trust me with your past, can't you?"

Yoj looked at her, still not smiling, and said "I guess I could."

"Forget about ferries" said Halling. "I'll sign up to do the school run tomorrow, which will happen even if it's raining. Meet me at the schoolyard by 8:00. Then I can use that big sinner to drop you off at Isola, it'll take just a few minutes. I'll come get you around 2:00, and if there's furniture to haul, that sinner can handle it. I'll drop you off at the schoolyard and do the afternoon bus run from there."

"All right" said Yoj, still in dread.

"I'm going to run back to the Lofthall and change my schedule now" said Halling, grabbing her guibba.

"You're tired -- " began Yoj.

"Yeah, but I get to sleep in tomorrow, don't worry" said Halling, heading out the door.

When Bux came home for dinner, she tried for half an hour to devise a way of going with them that would still allow her to meet her other obligations that week. Finally she sighed and said to Veida, "You'll make sure she's okay out there?"

Yoj said "I'm sitting right here, you know. I'm not helpless." But her expression wasn't convincing.

Veida nodded unobtrusively at Bux. Bux added "Even if she's not sure she wants it, bring it back. We'll find better homes for it than the Ethicist's crew will."

Yoj went to bed early with Halling while Bux used her office to do paperwork for the Sheng Zhang, but she had trouble going to sleep and staying asleep. She felt ragged in the morning as she ate a silent breakfast with Veida. It was raining lightly when they walked up the lane to the school and waited in the foyer, tall figures among swirling children, for Halling to arrive.

Yoj sat in a rear seat and let Veida have the front next to Halling. Veida was very animated, asking questions about changes in instrumentation and controls. Almost immediately after take-off, Halling set down again at the Lofthall tarmac and said "I'm going to grab some crates for you, be just a sec." When she sprinted back and handed crates in to Yoj through the big sliding door, she said to Veida "Sheng Zhang is nowhere around and Qala gave me the okay. Would you like to fly this baby to Isola?"

"It's been decades -- " Veida started to say, then, with her eyes dancing, she said "Lev, yes, I would. But you remind me of everything, okay?" She scooted over into the pilot's seat and Halling climbed in beside her, taking her through a long check list. Yoj began to feel a new kind of dread.

But once Veida engaged full power and pushed on the handbars, her usual calm competence came to the fore. The take-off was smooth and steady. She followed the lift path over Verzin to have enough altitude before she reached any deeps of East Tendril. At one point, during a small arc toward the south, she gave a bark of triumphant laughter, but otherwise she was completely focused. The excitement in the front of the cabin was as thick as the rain beating down the windshield.

North of Beras, with Yanja a blurry darkness ahead of them, Yoj looked down into the water of East Tendril and saw vast pinkish shapes not far below the surface. She glanced at Halling to see if she saw them, too. Halling picked up the radio and reported the bearings of the leviathans to Qala, then turned to Yoj and said "They're always here. We always report them, but there's nothing to be done about it."

Veida circled Isola from on high twice, checking out the small landing pad. "It looks very overgrown" she commented. Yoj spoke up: "It often got that way, but it's completely level, I made sure of that and it's volcanic rock underneath, I don't think that will have changed."

"All right then" said Veida, her jaw set. She put herself in hover position, because sweeping in low from the side was not an option, not as perched on deep water as Isola was. The descent was a little choppy, because of crosswinds and nervousness on Veida's part, but aside from one lurch at contact, it was a solid landing. Halling whooped and thumped Veida on the back, and Yoj joined in. Veida held out her hands and said "Look at how white my knuckles are!"

They emerged from the sinner to wind and a sense of complete desolation. Yoj looked at the dark house and felt her blood turn to tapwater. Halling put her arm through Yoj's and said "Whatever you need." Veida handed a picnic basket to Halling and picked up the crates herself. After a moment, Yoj began walking them along the overgrown path to the back door.

The house smelled not just stale but a little putrid inside. Veida reacted with shock and said "Oh, no, that's not -- what is that odor?"

"Shu" said Yoj briefly. She began looking desperately all around her as she took one slow step after another. Halling stared up into the rafters, where she could hear skittering and scrambling. She walked over to a metal kitchen chair, pulled it in the middle of the room, and commanded Yoj "Sit down here. We're going to check things out."

She fastened her guibba tight, pulled on cap and gloves, and turned on her large pilot's flash. Veida looked around, picked up a dusty umbrella by the door, and followed Halling. Yoj lifted her feet to the rungs of the chair and kept her face turned upward, toward the rafters.

The house was extremely small. Aside from the kitchen with a table occupying most of its free space, the adjoining room had a loft and small hearth, a double bed at one end and Rosz's loom plus boxes of weaving supplies stacked at the other end. A single pitted metal rocking chair by the hearth indicated it might once have been a living room. The ladder to the loft was blocked by an old but well-made wooden three-person bed, turned on its side and leaned against it.

"Was this your bed as a child?" called Veida. Yoj turned cautiously to look. "Yes" she answered.

"Someone's been here, rifling through things" said Halling. "They got the bed down from the loft but I guess couldn't get it off the island right away."

After a minute, Yoj said "It has to be the neighbors, on Insula Fling. They're the only ones with unobserved access to the ferry here."

"Well, they're not making off with your family's things, not now" said Halling grimly. Twice, as she and Veida checked cupboards and murmured to each other, Yoj heard exclamations and then the sound of whacking as Veida killed a shu. She closed her eyes and shuddered. Finally Halling came back to the kitchen and said "Electricity is still on and the clock's right. Radio's working, too. I have to go, I have other jobs to run. If you need anything, call the Sigrist and have them call me. I mean it, Yoj. I'll be back by 2:00, no later." She lifted Yoj's chin so their eyes met and said "I love you. You're with me now. This is one last time. You got it?" Yoj nodded, and Halling kissed her sweetly before leaving.

As the engine on the sinner flared into life, Yoj and Veida heard a long deep wail, followed by strange belches, reverberate through the stone walls of the house. Veida went pale and said "It sounds like it's right outside the door!"

"It more or less is" said Yoj hollowly. The leviathan calls continued nonstop for a couple of minutes, more than one in conversation, but disappeared into the direction that Halling was flying.

Veida shook out her shoulders and said "I appreciate you letting me come with you, Yoj." Yoj tried to stop her shivering. Veida continued "Halling and I agreed, the big bed and the loom go for sure."

"I don't want the loom -- " began Yoj.

"I understand" said Veida, "But it's a work of art, and it should go to another weaver somewhere. Qen said we can store things in the spare room at the school, don't worry, it won't be sitting around house, all right? The bed can be cleaned and refinished for your own children, unless you can't abide it, either."

"No" said Yoj, "The bed is -- neutral."

"What about this rocking chair?" asked Veida.

Yoj looked at it, and a faint smile appeared on her face. "That was my abba's. Yes, I'd like that."

Then she remembered, "There's a crib, somewhere, made of real wood like the loom. From when we were babies."

Veida walked around with the flash Halling had left her, playing it into the rafters until she said "I see it. When Halling comes back and we can shift that bed away from the ladder, we can get it. Now, what about this table or any of these chairs?"

"They're not anything to look at" said Yoj. "I leave it to you."

Veida inspected them and said "They'll do for putting in the shed or sitting out in the tillage. Speaking of which, is there anything planted on the grounds you'll want?"

Yoj began to shake her head, then said "When I was little, very little -- aggie liked to grow roses. Yellow and red, I remember. And every spring, she had violets. But she wasn't much at raising food, or herbs. You'd know better than me."

"All right, if it clears any, I'll go check it out. What about dishes?" said Veida, pulling open a cupboard door in the kitchen.

Yoj managed to get to her feet and walk around with Veida in the brightly lit kitchen, saying Yes or No to plates, bowls, pans and other items. All the Yes items got wrapped in old towels and dishclothes and packed into crates. The kitchen was not so laden with memories for Yoj -- they had not gathered here much. It was the area around the loom that was haunted. And her emmas' bed -- where, apparently, Rosz had died.

When they moved on into the second room, Yoj suddenly said "I need to use the privy."

"All right" said Veida, but when Yoj didn't move, Veida looked at her and said "Oh, yes, of course. I'll come with you." The trail out to the side of the house was even more overgrown, and the rustling of small bodies in the undergrowth was unnerving. Veida inspected the privy thoroughly before coming back out and said "All clear." Even so, Yoj could not close the door behind her. Veida turned away to give her modesty. When Yoj was done, Veida said "While I'm here" and took a turn. As they walked back to the house, Veida said "This is scaring even me, Yoj. I can't imagine being a child, having to come out here in the dark."

After a second, Yoj said softly "I escorted my sibus, too, so they didn't have to do it by themselves."

Back in the house, Veida opened the first of the crates stacked next to the loom and gasped. Yoj froze, waiting for a shu to jump out, but Veida reached in and pulled out a length of opulent blue silk in a pattern of stars and phases of the moon. "Oh, my word, this is unbelievably beautiful!" she exclaimed. "The looters must not have looked in here."

"Or -- if it's the people on Insula, they're not the sort to notice beauty" responded Yoj. She joined Veida and they inspected all eight crates, and every one of them was filled with either stunning bolts of silk or vivid spools of thread, not yet woven.

"All of this goes" said Veida emphatically. "Straight to our loft storage, where Qen and Bux will make us the best-dressed Manage on Skene for years and years to come. Wearing your inheritance, Yoj" she said with emotion. Yoj leaned against her and felt a little of the horror inside her subside.

Next they went through the wall cupboards in the second room, where photographs, a few mementoes, and a stash of books and stories from Yoj's childhood got put into crates. The small children's clothes chests were mostly empty, and were so rusted that Yoj insisted they were not saving. This left the clothes chest next to Rosz's bed. Yoj hesitated at that, and Veida said "Why don't you go sit down for a minute? I'll see what's in there and bring anything to you I have a question about."

Yoj took refuge in the kitchen. After a few minutes, Veida came in with a small ceramic jewelry box and said "This was at the bottom. It's got some things I think you'll want."

Yoj fingered through the necklaces, bracelets, a few rings. None of them were of great value or beauty, and in truth Yoj could barely remember Rosz wearing any jewelry. But she nodded and Veida put it into a crate. Bux would want them, and maybe their children.

Veida glanced at the clock and said "I'm getting hungry, how about you?" Yoj nodded and stood up, saying "I don't trust the aga's cistern, but we can drink just plain water from the faucet."

"All right" said Veida, putting the picnic basket on the table and starting to unpack it. Yoj opened the cabinet next to the sink and leaped backward instinctively at the faint sound of movement within. A shu just missed her, leaped to the floor and disappeared behind the aga.

"Lev, lev, lev!" swore Yoj, starting to shake again.

"We were just in that cabinet, an hour ago!" exclaimed Veida. "Here, sit down again, I'll get the water." She made Yoj drink down a glass and got her a refill, then sat down close enough to touch her and handed her a sandwich. "Cheese and tomato, with Qen's dressing. Eat."

The taste of her own bread and the unmistakeable flavor of Qen's spread on it grounded Yoj like nothing else. She did have a home to go back to, she suddenly remembered. She ate hungrily, sharing a salad with Veida and then cutting into an apple as she told small stories about the few happy memories she had in this house. After they were done, she repacked the basket as Veida went to the window and said "Not raining at the moment. I'm going to inspect the tillage, do you want to wait here or come with me?"

"Wait here" said Yoj instantly. Then, "You're doing all the work, Veida, I'm sorry."

"Hush. Your work was to get you out of here, I'm just helping you finish it" said Veida, grabbing a big metal spoon and knife to use as garden tools. Yoj heard her, a minute later, squeak open the rusting shed door, then more swearing as no doubt she contended with the mass of shu who always inhabited it. Half an hour later, Veida returned with muddy hands and a tray of various-sized clay pots holding cuttings. As she washed at the sink, they heard the sound of a sinner overhead, and Yoj felt relief flood her body. She went to the back door to watch as Veida said "She's an hour early, thank goodness".

Halling had returned with a large high-sided metal pallet slung underneath the sinner. She laid it carefully onto a flat portion of the path, then somehow went gently sideways at the last minute to land the sinner itself on the pad. She climbed from the door, waving, and started for the house. Yoj yelled at her, "Be sure to shut the door good!" and Halling, comprehending, returned to secure the sinner against stowaways.

In the house, she and Veida conferred. "Everything will fit in or on the pallet, I think" said Halling, "Except that big bed. Let's haul it out first, lift the pallet and tie the bed on underneath. I've got ropes and padding in the sinner."

Yoj helped them get the bed outside and in position. Halling and Veida used pilot's knots to make it a solid piece underneath the pallet. Back in the house, Veida handed Halling the flash and a hoe she'd found in the shed and said "The loft storage has to be checked. There's a crib for sure we want. And you're more agile than me."

Halling again bundled up and climbed the ladder. She shined the flash into the rafters and began swearing steadily. After a minute, she stomped around, then yelled threateningly and banged the hoe against metal crossbeams.

A frantic scurrying erupted all over the upper part of the house. Yoj, sitting in her kitchen chair, froze in terror. Veida had a broom and was waving it around, making contact with falling shu in mid air. The next second, a shu landed directly in Yoj's lap, leaped to her wrist and bit it viciously, then scrambled down her leg and out the open kitchen door.

Yoj couldn't seem to stop shrieking, even after Halling and Veida reached her. Finally Halling pulled Yoj's face into her belly, up against the guibba, and Yoj switched from screaming to crying.

A few minutes later, she was able to lean back and look up at Halling. Halling kneeled beside her and said "I'm so sorry, darling, I'm a rockwit." Veida had gone outside and come back in with a selection of herbs which she was mashing on an old plate, mixing with something she'd found in a cabinet until it was a paste. She smeared this over the shu bite, already inflamed and throbbing, and tied it with strips of old rag.

"Come on" said Halling, "We're going to put you in the sinner until it's time to go." She led Yoj to the craft, helping her clamber over the pallet on the path. Once the sinner door shut with a solid click, Yoj began shivering in release. She lay down on the double seat and closed her eyes.

What seemed like only a minute later, Veida was opening the door to hand in the tray of plants and the picnic basket. The pallet was piled high, covered with a tarp and lashed securely. Halling said "You ready to say goodbye?"

"Absolutely" said Yoj, fastening her seatbelt. As Halling began the engines, she said "With this load beneath me, I dare not head out over any deeps. I think I'll have to follow the ferry line until I can get height over Yanja."

"That way, the thieves on Insula will see there's no need to return here" said Veida.

It began raining again before they reached Verzin. Halling did her lowering the pallet, then sideways landing trick again at the schoolyard, where children had to be held back from harm's way by teachers. Halling hopped out to unfasten the pallet as Yoj and Veida, carrying their gear from the sinner, went to greet Qen.

Qen kissed them both and said "How was it?"

"Dreadful" said Veida. Qen noticed the bandage on Yoj's wrist, then, and said "Go inside to my classroom. Get some tea and sit down. There's cookies in my desk drawer."

A cluster of loft-struck teenagers had been recruited by Qen to unload the pallet. Halling gathered her first round of children to be delivered to West Tendril and took off. The hauling of items back and forth to the school's storage room took quite a while. Eventually Yoj went to help them. Veida held back one crate, full of photos and mementoes, for them to carry home today. She showed the silks and threads to Qen, who was speechless with their splendor.

When they were done and the store-room locked, they leaned the pallet against the school and all the teenagers returned to Qen's classroom for tea and cookies. Two of them, around 13 or 14, were a pair of best friends Yoj remembered from their enthusiastic attendance at her singing lessons. One was very small and dark, the other was tall and pale, with red hair, but despite their difference in size, they clearly thought of each other as absolute equals. They hovered around Yoj now, the small one asking "Do you have a new song for this week already?"

"No" laughed Yoj, "It'll be a few more days before that's done. I often have to work until the last minute on the weekend to get it to the pilots on time."

"We're going to be pilots" said the taller one, quite unnecessarily. "We want to be on Nan Halling's crew."

Yoj asked their names again: Danaan, the dark one, and Rark, the redhead.

Danaan said "You wrote that song about Nan Halling and Xaya, didn't you?"

"I did for a fact" grinned Yoj. "That was before Halling and I became partners."

"And Nan Qen's child, that's your third partner, right?" said Rark.

"Bux, yes. And this is one of her other emmas, Nan Veida" Yoj introduced.

A teenager a year or two older than Rark but with the same red hair came into the classroom and said "The sinner is about to land, we need to catch it home, Rark."

"Where do you live?" asked Yoj as they stood.

"Abfall" they answered in unison.

"Would your emmas mind, you think, if you were the last to be dropped off today?" asked Yoj.

Their faces filled with hope, and Rark's older sib came to stand with them, saying "I'm in charge of them until dinner, it would be all right."

Yoj took a piece of paper from Qen's desk and wrote a note on it saying "Please give these two future pilots the grand tour, for all their help to us this afternoon -- Yoj". She folded it and handed it to Danaan, instructing her to give it to Nan Halling. They ran from the school to the sinner, and Yoj went to the window to wave goodbye to Halling.

Yoj and Veida helped Qen clean up, sweep the room, and lock the school doors. The three of them carried their armloads down the lane, in a light but steady rain, to the clean warmth of their Manage. As Veida walked through the kitchen to put her plants outside, Yoj followed her and said quietly, at the doorway, "Would you please not share the -- details of today? Not unless I bring it up first."

Veida kissed her forehead and said "It's yours to tell."

After putting her box of mementoes in her study, Yoj felt suddenly exhausted. She went out to the privy by herself, accompanied by two katts whom she kept petting and praising. Back in the kitchen, she sat down at the table and said to Qen, "I'll help you start dinner in a minute, I just need to take in how good it feels to be here."

"You're not doing a thing but resting" said Qen. Veida returned, washed her hands, and they took off Yoj's makeshift bandage to inspect her wound. It was definitely looking better, but still red and painful. As Veida was putting together a new salve, this one with antibiotics in it, Bux came home. She was outraged over the bite and insisted on dressing it herself, kissing Yoj over and over, saying "Oh, I knew I should have gone with you."

Finally Yoj said "Veida did everything you could have, Bux. I don't mean to put you down, but she was incredible today, and I can't thank her enough for how she took care of me."

Veida's face melted, and Bux went to hug her, saying "Bless you".

Yerush arrived soon afterward, and as she and Qen made dinner, Veida and Yoj listed all the items brought back from Isola. By the time Halling got home for dinner, Bux had Yoj's family photos spread out on the table, deciding which ones had to be framed and put up in the house. Halling helped clear and set the table, remarking to Yoj "Those two third-graders you had bring me the note, they shared the front seat and watched every move I made. I flew them out past Isola far enough to see the edge of Morrie Strati, and the little one looked like she might throw up, but she managed to hang onto her stomach. On the way back in, a lev took a leap at us, scaring the piss out of the siba, but those two laughed and said 'Wait till we're lighters, you bastard'. By the time we landed, I thought maybe they could fly the sinner themselves."

"Next generation" said Yoj. "Thanks for giving them the thrill."

"That's all I'll hear about tomorrow" said Qen. "I just hope the emmas don't crawl down my neck about the visit to the Morrie Strati."

"Send 'em to me if they do" said Halling, handing a bowl of greens to Bux.

"We have two new rosebushes from Isola" said Veida. "They're small but will grow huge, I think. I want to put them on either side of the front door."

"Oh, that will be lovely!" said Yerush.

Yoj told them about Veida flying the sinner, which shocked her partners but also made them look at her with a new respect. She informed them of the attempted pilferage, which Bux said she would pass on to the Ethicist. She asked Bux to refinish the rocking chair and maybe the bed and crib.

She also told the story of how the shu came to drop on her, making it funny as she imitated Halling's assault on the rafters, and joined in everyone's laughter. But Veida kept her silence as Yoj left out the parts about going to the privy, the leviathan song following Halling, and the smell of her childhood home.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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