Sunday, December 30, 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: Map of Bosco
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Shortly after Mill's first birthday, as The Manage was making dinner, Yerush told her partners and Bux that there had been a murder on Bosco: During a wild argument, a young woman had struck her emma with a pipe while they were working in the tillage, in full view of neighbors. The older woman had died before she could be transported to the hospital. The murderer had been led to a locking storage room at the lumber mill, given provisions and bedding, and confined.

Murders were extremely rare on Skene, only occurring once every few years. These were almost always crimes of the moment, a spike in passion within an existing relationship. This news was met by Yerush's Manage with consternation and shock. Yerush added that she had already sent a note to the hostel on Bosco to reserve a private room for her and whoever wished to attend the trial with her, the following Sju.

Yerush felt obligated to attend, not just as a former Ethicist but also as someone who might run for that office again: Ethicists were who conducted trials and passed sentence on those accused. Yerush wanted to see how someone else would handle this case.

In general, all crime on Skene was low. Provocation certainly existed, growing up in crowded Manages with high community expectations and limited resources, but by the time children reached an age to be a menace, they had learned skills for coping with provocation. Rape existed in the statutes as an offense, but no recorded instance had occurred in centuries. Theft was the most common problem, and when convicted, a thief was no longer allowed to live on the island where the theft occurred. She was forced to relocate, taking whatever job and lodging she could find, existing under a cloud of distrust sometimes for years until slowly she had re-established herself in a community. Her Manage had to make restitution to whomever she had stolen from, and the fines could be heavy. Children were raised with dire warnings about stealing.

The next most common crime was assault, usually spontaneous and instantly regretted. Unless the victim had extensive pleas for lenience from others in her community (which a family member might be expected to do), the assailant was likewise forced to move off island and her Manage was fined.

A second occurrence of either of these crimes could, and usually did, result in exile to Peisuo.

Peisuo was a fling-sized island at great distance from any other island, across waters no ferry could ever safely cross. On clear days, it was visible from the southernmost islands, a desolate rock on the horizon. It had a Manage complete with its own geothermal plant, water supply, electricity, and tillage, along with a stone supply shed and a small landing pad. There was radio contact possible with the Sigrist, and exiles were given the same allotment everyone else received, plus supplies to farm for herself. Exile was permanent, with no parole. Once dropped off on Peisuo, you would die there. Mail was picked up and delivered once a month. Medical help could be summoned, but no other visitors were allowed. It was a dreadful enough fate that sometimes several years went by without anyone going into exile.

Two crimes could result in immediate exile. One was murder, and the other was any kind of sexual contact outside of one's sui. If the sexual contact was between an adult and someone under the age of 16, the ensuing trial was merely perfunctory -- there was no alternative sentence. Even worse, the children who had been born into a Manage where an adult was found guilty of sexual contact with a child would be fostered out, would be watched diligently for signs of having learned this behavior, and it was extremely unlikely they would ever be allowed to aggie as adults. They would have a hard time even finding partners. The penalty for helping to cover up this crime, even if you had not participated in it, was also exile.

For sexual misalliances between adults of too disparate an age, fines would be imposed on the Manage(s) involved, the lovers would be relocated to separate islands, and social ostracism would be extreme. Neither of the parties involved would be allowed to aggie, and if they already had children under the age of 16, their children would be fostered out. Affairs were common on Skene, and gossiped about but not condemned as long as they occurred within sui. This line was seldom transgressed, except sometimes by the elderly where sui was fudged by a year or two -- in those cases, everyone tried to ignore what was going on.

At all trials, but especially murder trials, the proceedings occurred in two phases. On the first day, the evidence was heard, the accused was allowed to make a defense or have someone argue her case, and at dinnertime, everyone went home to talk things over. Letters were given to the members of all involved Manages, the neighbors, coworkers, teachers and other close community members of the accused, inviting them to argue for leniency on the accused's behalf. The following day, which was always Shmonah, the Ethicist did not return to the trial room until noon. Promptly at noon, she sat down in the deliberator's chair and the doors were opened to anyone who wanted to plea for leniency.

The Ethicist's sentence would depend heavily on the number and diversity of such pleas. People did not extend themselves to argue for an accused person unless they felt certain that future misbehavior could be prevented. Community reputations were at stake. If someone had murdered a member of their own family, sometimes not even an emma would show up to ask for mercy on their behalf. In those cases, exile was certain. The accused was sentenced, allowed one last set of goodbyes, and escorted by temporary deputies to a waiting sinner to be carried away from human company.

If an exile became unable to care for herself on Peisuo, either through old age or disability, the Ethicist advertised for a caretaker. The salary was high -- 60 eks, currently -- and upon completion of her self-imposed exile, the caretaker was also guaranteed Leave to aggie and a Manage somewhere on Skene. Usually the people who applied for the job were young and not yet established elsewhere. It was required that they be single and have no children.

Caretakers were expected to radio in to the Sigrist twice a day. They were given a bed in the supply shed, which also had an indoor toilet and a solid locking metal door. It had happened that once, three hundred years ago, a caretaker had been murdered by the feeble exile she had gone to assist. When her second expected radio call had passed without hearing from her, the Ethicist had chosen four yanjangers of particular bulk and crankiness, armed them with lasers, and flown out to Peisuo on a sinner. They had found the caretaker lying on the kitchen floor, the back of her skull caved in, a frying pan missing, and the exile claiming accident. After the body was removed to the sinner, a year's allotment of rice and dried fish -- the equivalent of hard rations if it was carefully meted out -- was left in the kitchen, the radio was removed, and the exile was told they would return in a year to check on her.

When they returned after a year, the exile was dead. Skene children loved to tell each other lurid stories of how she had suicided, overcome with remorse or in a fit of rage that had nowhere to go except against herself. The most popular version was that she had somehow staggered with a hundred-weight of dried fish to a small cliff over deep waters at island's edge, poured the fisk into the water to attract leviathans, then stripped naked and stood shrieking at the precipice until an obliging leviathan leaped up and devoured her. Yerush, who had read the actual record, said the fact of the matter was that when they returned after a year, the exile had been found mummified in her bed, having died in her sleep some months earlier.

What was true, Yerush continued, is that upon returning to Riesig, the Ethicist had gone on the radio and broadcast a crisp warning that the presence of a uncontrolled murderer on Peisuo would not make her hesitate in the slightest to sentence someone else there if the need arose during the coming year. Yerush said this seemed to have acted on quite a deterrent against crime. Bux remarked that may have been so, but she thanked her lucky stars she didn't have be a member of that Ethicist's Manage. Which had earned her a glare from Yerush and an guffaw from Veida.

It sometimes happened that a Skener was sentenced to exile at a time when there was already someone living on Peisuo. The second exile was taken to the island with her allotment and no advance notice to the resident exile. She was left to negotiate her way on Peisuo on her own. Usually, of course, an exile of long-standing would be ecstatic at an end to their dismal isolation, at least for a while. If, as had twice occurred, one exile killed another, the prior punishment of going on hard rations and no radio contact for a year was doled out to the murderer. No one thus far had ever survived this extreme measure.

They were still discussing all this when Halling and Yoj got up from their nap with Mill. Yerush was saying that on Roku, after marketing was done, she and Qen were going to take the ferry to Bosco and stay at the hostel that night.

As Yoj handed Mill to Ng reaching for her, Bux said "You two showing up is going to cause gossip about whether one of you, especially you, Qen, intend to plea for leniency for her."

Qen looked distressed. "I remember her from school but I haven't seen her since. I don't mean to get her hopes up. I'm simply going -- well, for a chance to get away, and to be with Yerush. Is that shallow of me?"

Yerush said "Of course not" but Yerush's reassurance was not what Qen was seeking. She looked at Veida, who said "I think you should go, definitely."

Ng had a bowl full of carrot coins she'd been cutting for dinner, and Mill was gleefully running hands through them.

Halling and Yoj spoke at the same time, Halling to ask "Why aren't you going then, Veida?" and Yoj saying "Who are we talking about? I missed the name -- who committed the murder?"

"Alleged murder" said Yerush, then "Z'bef."

Yoj sat down heavily in her chair. "No" she breathed.

Bux looked shocked. "Is she a friend of yours?"

"No...not friend. But we were in the same grade at school, and I had -- an empathy for her" said Yoj, visibly upset. Halling, too, looked troubled.

"I remember, in third grade" said Halling, "You two used to eat lunch together sometimes."

"She was painfully shy" said Yoj. "And not witty, or what the other kids called attractive. Oh, this is awful."

Yoj looked at Qen. "She had a terrible home life, did you know that?"

Qen sat down now, too. "No. What do you mean?"

"Her emmas were constantly busy, foresters there on Bosco. And they had just her, I don't know why only one. They never praised her, never thought anything she did was right. They didn't hit her, I'm pretty sure, but the ridicule was constant. She -- I wasn't the right person to be her friend, I had my own things to sort out. But we recognized something in each other."

Bux put her hand in Yoj's and said "You weren't responsible for saving her."

"Perhaps not" said Yoj. "But who was? Because clearly it didn't happen. When I heard one of her emmas had died a couple of years ago, I hoped she had left home by that time, found a place for herself elsewhere. Sounds like she didn't, though."

Halling said "Do you want to go and speak on her behalf?"

A deep silence fell over the room. They would all be implicated in this decision: Their entire Manage's word was now bound up in Yoj's word.

Yoj looked around at them. "I don't know what the right thing to do is here."

Ng said "Are you willing to help her start a new life elsewhere, keep her on a clear path?"

"I -- I can't" whispered Yoj. "I'm committed elsewhere."

"Do you think you can find someone who will do that for her?" continued Ng.

Yoj thought. "I have no names to give you." She looked miserable.

"Then you are not the person to step in" said Ng. "Any more than I am."

Veida slammed down a spoon she'd been using to stir. Mill jumped violently.

"So that's the way it gets decided, then?" said Veida furiously. "If you can't do it all, she has nothing to save her from oblivion? Well, I'll tell you right here and now, I will never let any one of you go into exile. I don't care what I have to promise or sacrifice, I would never let them do such an inhuman thing to you!" Her black eyes were wide and fighting back tears, even as her face was enraged.

Qen went to her and put her arms around her. "I know, Veida. I feel the same way about you, about us all. We're bound together, don't worry."

Veida held Qen tightly for a minute, her breathing heavy. Mill was watching them with a serious expression.

Bux looked at Yerush, and Yerush said gently "Veida's habibi's sister was exiled. For a second incident of assault."

Veida flared again "It wasn't her fault! I mean, yes, she did it, but she didn't have control of her emotions. They kept her on the Fling, and they knew how to deal with her, how to calm her down. But somebody came out there when nobody else was home, and she -- " Veida began crying, then, which was a relief.

Yerush finished softly "She didn't last a full year in exile. She didn't really know how to take care of herself. Veida's habibi, her siba, offered to go into exile with her, to look after her, but they wouldn't allow her. It's been a pain in the family ever since."

Mill picked up one of the carrot rounds and held it in Veida's direction, saying "Abba cookie?" Bux grinned but Veida didn't notice Mill.

"I can see why she perished" said Yoj hotly. "It's bad enough to be held captive on a Fling, but at least she had someone who cared for her there, but then to go -- " Yoj began crying, too. Bux and Halling both moved to hold her. An abba and an emma crying at the same time was too much for Mill to take in. Her face crumpled and she started to wail. Yerush picked her up and walked outside with her swiftly, saying "Let's go feed the chick-chicks, baby love."

After some quiet was restored, Veida said to Yoj, "One thing I know about, you could write a letter to the court. Offering what you know. It will be taken into account by the Ethicist."

"I'll deliver it" said Qen. "And talk with her directly myself."

"A good idea" said Yoj. Halling added "You can write Z'Bef, too, directly." Yoj gazed at her for a long minute, then said "I will."

They got up and began helping with dinner. When Yerush and Mill came back in, Mill looked at Yoj keenly. Yoj walked over and kissed her cheek, saying "Emmas cry sometimes, too, but we're fine. Would you like a cup of milk before dinner?'

Mill accepted eagerly. Yoj pulled Mill's new high-chair up to the table. Bux had recently had another period, her first since Mill was born, as usual in sync with Halling and Yoj's period. They had talked it over and agreed with Bux's next ovulatory cycle, she would try to get pregnant again. She had already contacted the Genist about it. The next day, Bux had brought home the high-chair from the used furniture store, saying with a new baby being considered, it would be better for Mill to adjust now rather than associate it with siblings taking her place.

Mill hated the high-chair, however. She wanted to be fed in a lap. She kicked at the chair wildly as Yoj tried to put her in it and began screaming "Harsh, harsh!" at the top of her range. Harsh was Mill's word when she felt in the grips of injustice. Bux helped Yoj and they managed to get both of Mill's legs under the tray and the harness around her. Mill pounded on the metal tray and continued to scream. It had been like this at every meal for three days now.

Bux could tell from Halling and Ng's faces that they'd give in. She took the cup of milk from Yoj and sat down beside Mill, saying calmly "When you're done being upset, I'll give you a sip of milk. You let me know."

Yoj returned to making dinner as Mill tantrumed. Halling went outside for five minutes and returned with a single cucumber gripped tightly in her hand, which Ng took from her with a grin and cut into very thin slices for the salad. By the time food was ready to set on the table, Mill was done with her outrage. Halling sat down in her own chair and scooted Mill's closer so she could feed her. She put an ikan roll on Mill's tray and Mill began reducing it to crumbs, but some of it made its way to her mouth. She accepted Halling's spoonfuls of soup and rice with good grace.

Watching her, Yerush remarked "Just when you think you can't stand them fighting maturity one day longer, they suddenly flip over and began demanding privileges they aren't nearly ready for."

Veida and Qen laughed. "Remember how Bux came home by herself the third day of school?" said Qen.

"What? said Yoj. "You mean, just walked home?"

"Yeah" said Qen. "When they couldn't find her anywhere, they came to me, frantic. And my heart nearly stopped. But I rushed home, just in case, and she was sitting at the kitchen table with a handful of fisk, feeding it to three katts up on the table in front of her."

"Why did you leave school?" Halling asked Bux. Before Bux could answer, Veida said "She'd decided she had learned what she needed to know. She said she could pick up the rest as she went along."

Everybody began laughing, even Mill after a moment though it was clear she was just playing cool.

"She pitched a screaming, blue-faced fit when I carried her back to school" said Qen.

Bux said, between bites, "You all tell this story on me but I have absolutely no memory of it."

Ng said, "Well, Halling didn't want to give up wearing diapers. The only one of our four who fought potty-training."

Halling's mouth dropped open. "I never!" she said.

"Oh, yes you did" laughed Ng. "We tried giving you special knickers but you just filled 'em, we tried shaming you but you didn't care, we even tried taking your pants completely away from you. You'd blithely squat on the floor and drop a load, then go on playing."

Halling's face was deep dusky red. Bux was now laughing much harder than she had been before.

"She was almost two before we finally got her privy-trained" continued Ng. "And when she decided to play along, it happened overnight."

"What did the trick?" asked Qen.

"Her cousins came for a visit, and the one who was Halling's age told her she smelled bad. Halling adored that cousin, in particular. She came crying to her aggie, who verified that she did in fact smell like poop most of the time, and explained how that could be avoided. She never had a single accident after that."

Halling had her face in her hands. Yoj said "At this moment, I'm really glad I don't have an emma here to share a tale about me."

Bux said confidentially to Halling "And you're so fastidious now, is that why?"

Halling waved her away, giving Mill another bite and saying to her sweetly "I will never, ever tell your partners awful stories about you, my darling". Mill nodded in agreement. Yoj said "Speaking of potty-training, did either of you take her in the last two hours?"

"Uh-oh" said Halling. She swept Mill from her chair and carried her to the bath room where they had a chamber pot set up for her. When she returned, she said "Just in time."

"I pottied!" declared Mill proudly.

"Good, good Mill" came a chorus of voices. Halling washed their hands at the sink and returned them to the table.

On Roku, after school, Qen and Yerush walked to the ferry landing, bags in hand. Everyone else said goodbye to them at the Manage and went on with dinner preparation. Yoj remarked "There's a movie day after tomorrow. At the Lofthall."

"Let's all go" said Bux, and Halling said to Ng "We'll get you there and back."

Ng said "Sounds good" but Veida equivocated. "What's the movie about? I've seen all the old ones."

Yoj grinned at her and said "A first-time filmmaker from Exploit goes down into a phosphate mine and shows how it is quarried, then interviews various workers in the extraction process, then shows some of the things it's used for. It's about an hour long."

Veida burst into laughter. "You've got to be kidding! They've rented the Lofthall for that? Why don't they just show it on Exploit?"

"They have, and it was a rave there" giggled Yoj. "So they want to share. After the movie, there'll be dramatic reading by one of their poets, and then the Cwynfanners are going to play."

"Ah!" said Veida, her eyes lighting up. "Accordions and bodhráns?"

"And pennywhistles" said Yoj appreciatively.

"They do drama and epic poetry so well on Exploit, why would someone try to make a bad movie?" said Veida.

"Hunger for something different" said Ng. Yoj nodded, then said to Veida "How about if you be my date for the evening? There's bound to be a ceilidh, with that band -- I'll save my dances for you."

Veida was genuinely touched. "I accept. Let's dress up, shall we?"

Bux said "You have new shirts from the same moss-green material, you could wear those". Yoj kissed her in thanks.

The movie was actually worse than Veida had feared. Whoever handled the sound had botched it, so the uninspired dialogue was full of pops and feedback. But movies were only a twice-a-month event on Skene, and a good crowd had turned out. They were polite and managed to not laugh much during the hour. The filmmaker, a red-faced 17-year-old, took her bows and got kind applause.

"Let's hope she doesn't decide to do a series, about the minerals of Exploit" whispered Veida to Yoj. Yoj choked back a giggle.

The poet was someone whose work they loved, and she returned energy to the room. The band had already set up their instruments, so the instant the poet stepped down, the Cwynfanners leapt into action, drenching music over the crowd. Yoj and Veida, Halling and Bux rushed to the middle of the floor, leaving Ng at a table full of pilots, Mill being danced around by Qala.

Yoj had danced with Veida before, but tonight she had a new appreciation for her. Veida was about the same height and color as Halling, although her skin was often so dry it seemed to have a film on it. Veida, or her partners, were always rubbing lotion onto the rusty spots at her knees and elbows or around her neck. And although both Halling and Veida were long-boned and muscular, Halling's muscles bulged while Veida's were flat, like her bones. Veida's hands and feet, though, were simply enormous. She was impressively deft with her footwork, and her hands wrapped around Yoj's during a whirl were comforting. Yoj couldn't stop grinning.

After an hour, Bux cut in on Veida, unable to not be in Yoj's arms any longer. Halling was waltzing away with Veida when sigrist radio came over the room's speaker. The musicians stopped instantly -- at this time of night, it would be urgent.

"Call for Veida, comadrona of Riesig: Qiro of Bosco is in labor, needs you right away. Ferries will run for another 45 minutes. Morrie vaseo."

Veida immediately began threading her way to the door. Yoj told Bux "I'm going to see her off" and followed her. Qala went to the dispatch room, to answer Sigrist and tell her Veida was en route.

At the Manage, Veida sponged off and put on fresh clothes while calling out to Yoj what to put in her travel bag. Yoj asked "Is she on this side of Bosco or the other?"

"The other" said Veida, pulling on otos. This meant she'd have to walk the width of Bosco, through the dark forest on a path between rongyan walls to keep the wild pigs off the trail.

Yoj filled a jug with hot tea and added a wedge of cheese between two slices of bread to Veida's bag. Veida pulled on her manteau and burzaka, and Yoj handed her a flash as they walked out the front door together.

"You don't have to walk me to the ferry" said Veida.

"You're still my date until you leave Riesig" said Yoj. "Isn't it funny that you're going to be in the same place at Qen and Yerush this weekend, after all?"

"I won't be going hear the court house" said Veida darkly.

"Nor would I" said Yoj. Veida glanced at her and slid her arm through Yoj's.

"The three of you, you'll look out for Ng, right?" said Veida. "Not just leave her with Mill, as delightful as Mill is."

"Promise" said Yoj. "You know, I don't remember the name of the comadrona who delivered us at Isola, but it wasn't you. She was short and crabby."

Veida smiled at her a little enigmatically. "She was my trainer. And no, it wasn't me there for Myrd or Owera. But I was present at your birth."

Yoj stopped in her tracks, halting Veida with her. "You were?"

"I saw you born, Yoj la Rosz. I was still in training, so I didn't catch you, but I'm the one who wiped you off, swaddled you and handed you back to your ecstatic aggie."

Yoj's eyes were luminous.

"And, may I add, you were quite the singer even then" said Veida. "Your vocal gusto was impressive. Now, come on, I have to hurry."

Back at the dance, Yoj took a long, slow turn with Bux, telling her the revelation she had just found out and murmuring how this was yet again proof they were meant to be. She declined all offers to dance except with her partners, spending most of her time at the table with Ng, pumping her for more stories about Halling's early years. Mill went to sleep being rocked by Qala.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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