Friday, December 28, 2007


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


A week later, Yerush went to Yagi for the weekend, booking a bed at the hostel "so as not to crowd Culisa", as she put it. She took silk and bread, and returned with a pot of herbed goat cheese plus two velvety kid-skins to make shoes for Bux's baby. She said the first talks had been extremely hard, but it had gotten better. She declined to elaborate to the entire Manage: "It's for me, Qen and Veida to ponder." Still, she said she was sure the "rumors" about their Manage would end.

A few months later, autumn underway, Bux was approaching quickening and beginning to have trouble finding a comfortable position in which to sleep. When Yoj walked over from the University in early afternoon, she found Bux already at the jichang, her kaidang ku let out to the extent of its drawstring to accommodate her belly. Yoj thought maybe she looked bigger than she had when Yoj left the house after breakfast.

"How's life with your Sheng Zhang?" asked Yoj, giving her a kiss.

"She spends all her time talking with administrators" said Bux. "I'm doing the real work, and I keep telling her we have to have another secretary to take my place for six months -- but she's so worried about re-election, she can't think straight."

"Fake going into labor early one afternoon, see what that does for her priorities" suggested Yoj.

Bux laughed gaily, leaning rather heavily on Yoj's arm. Yoj wanted Bux to ask about how the song was going -- she needed to talk over one section with somebody -- but Bux said "There's Halling!" and instead they watched her circle in.

After she landed, Bux announced "I've got to find the nearest privy."

"That'll be the Lofthall" said Halling.

"You go on with her" said Yoj, "Go eat. I'll wash Xaya down."

They walked off together and she turned over her song problem in her mind as she ran the jet, hoping it would rinse out her blockage as well. When she got to the canteen, Bux had finished one bowl of chicken stew and Halling was getting them each seconds. "My second lunch" said Bux, a little embarrassed.

Qala was eating at the same table and said "Hey, no worries. Halling's baby knows a good meal when she sees one."

"Who's at the radio?" asked Yoj, sitting down.

"A trainee, with the Sheng Zhang standing over her" said Qala. They both grinned at what wasn't being said: The Sheng Zhang's hands-on experience with most aspects of work at the Lofthall was notoriously skimpy. A favorite lighter joke was that the Sheng Zhang was best at making paper airplanes.

"How goes the song?" asked Qala.

Yoj began explaining just as Halling returned. Bux and Halling broke into conversation about what fish to pick up at the docks, as if Yoj wasn't talking. Yoj lowered her voice and focused on Qala. Qala immediately understood the problem and began offering suggestions around it. None of them were quite right, but the fresh vantage helped Yoj see a different angle. Qala watched her face for a minute, then said "You got an idea?"

"Maybe" Yoj grinned. "Thanks."

"Glad to do it" said Qala. "I don't know how you pull it off every week. When they're in range, I hear the songs and I can see what they're doing on radar, and it's pure beauty, every single time. Not just saving their skins, which would of course be enough."

The sincere admiration in her voice brought tears to Yoj's eyes. She didn't know what was going on with her -- maybe she was having hormonal changes, too, along with Bux.

Having guzzled their seconds, Bux and Halling now stood up, saying to Yoj "Coming?"

Qala joined them, busing her dishes and walking to the front door with them. At the entry, Yoj said "I need to go work some more. I'll be home for dinner."

Bux and Halling gave her perfunctory kisses and walked on, arm in arm. Qala said "I'm heading back to dispatch, and everyone else is going to leave, I'll be on my own in there with the headset on listening to two last hauls and the scouter lighter. There's a free desk and it's kinda peaceful, after the rush. You wanna come work there? In case you need to run an idea past someone?"

Yoj was again touched by the interest. "You know, I'll give it a try" she said gratefully. She put her arm over Qala's shoulder and they turned together, heading back into the Lofthall. She didn't see Bux at the corner stop and turn back to wave one last time at Yoj, or the expression on Bux's face when Yoj disappeared into the Lofthall with Qala.

Yoj was late for dinner. She came in singing, her spirits high -- she'd broken through and all but finished the song. Qala's occasional murmur at the radio had been comforting rather than distracting, and the big clear desk was a nice change.

She washed quickly and slid into her chair, accepting the basket of riceballs Qen handed her. "I apologize for being late" she said, serving herself.

"What kept you?" asked Bux, a slight chill in her voice that Yoj didn't notice, but Halling did.

"I was so stuck, and Qala helped me. I hung out in the dispatch room while she worked, and it made all the difference, I tell you. I'm going to try that again" burbled Yoj. She took a bite, and after swallowing she intended to go on with an explanation of her breakthrough, but Bux interjected "I don't like the way she looks at you."

Everyone went still. Yoj stared at Bux. "Who -- Qala?"

"Who else?" said Bux.

"What's wrong with how she looks at me? She's extremely nice to me" objected Yoj. Halling was trying to catch her eye, but Yoj was focused on Bux in her surprise.

"That's pretty much the point. I think she's got her eye on you" said Bux bitterly.

"Oh, that. Yeah, she'd like to have an affair" answered Yoj matter-of-factly. She pointed to the salad dressing by Veida, and Veida handed it to her with wagging eyebrows whose meaning Yoj didn't comprehend.

Bux's shock registered on Yoj. When she looked at her, Bux said "She told you? Just like that?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Yoj belatedly decided to leave out the small kiss.

"Today?" Bux's voice had gone up several tones in pitch.

"No, a couple of months ago" said Yoj, dressing her salad. "I told her 'No, thanks.' She's fine with it" she added reassuringly. But Bux was definitely not reassured.

"Why, may I ask, didn't you see fit to mention it to us?" demanded Bux. Yoj looked across at Halling -- she had told Halling. But Halling wasn't going to meet Yoj's eyes. Her face begged Leave me out of it.

"I guess I forgot. It's no biggie, Bux" said Yoj.

Now Ng was trying to get Yoj's attention. Bux did see that, which made her even madder.

"And why, exactly, did you turn her down?" Bux asked, deathly quiet.

Halling and Veida, had they only known it, were saying the same prayer inside their heads.

"My plate is full" said Yoj simply. If she had left it at that, Bux would have interpreted it in a way that gave her ease. But Yoj was verbal before all else. "I mean, she's extremely attractive, and another time or place, who knows? But I'm barely meeting my obligations as it is."

Bux rose a trifle clumsily, dropping her fork onto her plate, and strode from the kitchen. The slam of the bedroom door was deafening, solid metal on metal frame.

Halling leaned forward and put her head in her hands. "Sometimes you are dim as a shu" she said to Yoj with resignation.

Yoj began to realize what might have gone wrong. Her emphasis on extremely and use of the word attractive, for one thing, to a woman seven months pregnant. Plus describing the richness of her life as obligations.

"I thought the three of you had no promise not to sleep with others" said Yerush acerbically.

"We don't" said Yoj. "I mean, none of us has, not yet, but the option is there."

"Then she's being unfair. Let her figure it out for herself" said Yerush. "Eat your meal. When she gets hungry enough, she'll come back out."

Qen gave Yerush a furious glare. Halling kicked Yoj hard under the table.

"That's not how we do things" said Yoj gently. She excused herself and went to the bedroom. Qen got up to put both their plates in the warmer.

When Yoj and Bux emerged half an hour later, both had been crying but were now grinning in relief and bumping against each other as they walked. Halling jumped up to get their plates from the warmer, serving them with a soft "Thanks for whatever you did" and a kiss on both their heads.

The emmas were done but had not managed to leave the table. Bux looked at them and said with a laugh, "Qala may be attractive but I am the star in the West and a double full moon. I am a reason for existence and the hope of all tomorrows."

Everybody cracked up, even Yerush. She stood up and began clearing their end of the table.

Bux's due date came and went. By working herself ragged, Yoj had two weeks' worth of songs ready for when the baby came. Every morning when Halling left for her job, she made Veida promise she'd call on the radio to the Lofthall the instant anything began. Veida stopped answering requests for her services elsewhere.

Four days past her due date, Bux was headachy at breakfast and asked Veida for something to help it. Veida looked at her closely and said "I don't feel good about giving you any herbs at this point. Drink two glasses of water and go for a long walk. Yoj, you go with her."

"Is it time?" said Yoj urgently.

"If it was time, I'd tell you" said Veida. "Exercise will help, and fresh air. If it was warm weather, I'd have you go wade in Bohaira. That baby will come when she's ready."

Yoj handed Bux her manteau, the only coat that would fit her now, and they walked up the lane toward one of the two bridges over North Rambla. At the middle of the span, they stopped to look down into the water. Bux leaned heavily on the stone railing and said "I get so short of breath these days." Yoj stood beside her, one arm around her.

After a minute, Bux said "She keeps rolling over in there, banging against my bladder. It feels like I might need to pee again."

Yoj looked around. "I don't see a privy nearby. We could head back down the lane for home."

"No, that's five minutes away. Maybe it'll pass. Let's go up the trail toward the Poke" said Bux, pushing herself off the stone. But at the end of the bridge, she said "Oh, no, I guess maybe I can't wait." She looked urgent.

"Here -- there's no one looking, and a bush, you can squat here" said Yoj. "You're a woman about to give birth, it's all right."

She helped Bux untie her kaidang ku, but before Bux could squat, a torrent of hot liquid gushed from her over Yoj's hand and down the inside of her pants.

"Whoa" said Yoj. Bux stared down at herself and said "That wasn't pee. It came from -- a different place."

Yoj grinned. "Here we go, then. How are you feeling?"

"Scared" said Bux. "And -- weird."

"Heading home" said Yoj. They walked slowly back down the hill, Bux leaning on Yoj. As they went by the schoolyard, children poured out the doors for play period. Qen was one of the teachers who followed them. Yoj waved at her and Qen came to the fence. When she got close enough to see the stain on Bux's pants, she registered first shock, then her face lit up.

"My water just broke" said Bux unnecessarily.

Qen leaned over the fence to give her a smacking kiss. "I'll be home right after work" she said in a thrilled voice, "Don't you dare have it until I get there. If it's really coming, you send a neighbor to get me."

"We will" said Yoj. They walked on. At the Manage, Veida had gone out to the tillage. Yoj sat Bux down at the table -- "Don't worry about the chair, it'll wipe off" she commanded -- and went to the back door, calling Veida's name. When Veida came in, she sniffed the stain, pulled down Bux's pants and examined her, and said "Yes, she's knocking at your door. Come lie down, I need to see where she is."

But after putting her fingers inside Bux, with no embarrassment that Yoj could see, and pushing on her amazingly bulbous belly, Veida's face grew serious.

"She's breech" she said, standing back and wiping her hands on a towel. She thought for a minute, then said "You want to have her at home, if at all possible, right?"

"Yes" said Bux, her face frightened.

"All right, then, let's get some help. Yoj, get her some tea while I use the radio."

Yoj left the door open and when she got back with the tea, they heard Veida rouse the Sigrist, saying "We're going into labor here at the Manage of Veida, comadrona on Riesig, and I'm requesting Jyoti of Verzin to come assist me in delivery. Also, please notify all family members listening to this."

Veida had their radio turned off, to make the call, but then she turned it back on and they heard the Sigrist say "We hear you, Veida. Good luck on your new arrival. Please call to tell us when she's here."

Veida came back to the bedroom and said "Jyoti won't make it for at least an hour. When she arrives, we're going to turn that baby. In the meantime, you go take a bath while you can. I'm going to put together a tincture for you, and start some soup. Yoj, you need to stock this bedroom with towels and a chamber pot."

Ten minutes later, Yerush came in the door, breathless. She barged into the bathroom and said "How are you?" Yoj had never seen Yerush this flustered.

"I feel like I need to move my bowels, but that doesn't work" said Bux. "Otherwise, I'm fine."

Yoj told Yerush the facts so far. Yerush sat down on the cabinet and said "I stopped by the Lofthall, Qala's going to call Halling once she's safely on her way back from sinning."

Ten minutes later, Qen burst in the front door. "I got the third grade teacher to take my class into hers" she said. Then, "Where's Ng?"

"Oh my word" said Yoj, "We forgot to tell her. She's out in her studio."

"I'll go get her" said Qen. She helped Ng back into the house. Bux was now out of the bath, in a schmatta and sitting wide-eyed at the table. Ng walked to her, using both canes, and kissed her sweetly on the forehead. "By this time tomorrow, we'll have a baby in this Manage" she said softly. Bux's face flushed, and she hugged Ng.

"Do you have a name picked out yet?" asked Qen.

"We do, but we want to wait until she's here" said Bux.

Yerush turned to Veida. "All right, my love, what do we do now?"

"We wait on Jyoti. If this goes long, we're going to need a bed for her -- can we set up a cot in the living room?"

"I'll take the cot" said Ng, "Give her my bed so she can rest in peace."

"I'll change your sheets" said Qen.

"I'll get the cot" said Yerush.

"Should I make more food?" said Yoj.

"My guess is that neighbors will be dropping dishes by, and we've got soup and bread for the moment, let's hold off on cooking" said Veida. She came to Bux and put a few drops of something from a bottle under her tongue, then cupped Bux's face between her hands, smiling down at her with utmost tenderness. "You have your aggie's hips, this is going to be a good birth" she said reassuringly.

Bux kissed Veida's palms, then shifted in her chair uncomfortably. "I feel like I might have pulled a muscle somewhere along the way" she said, "I have a slight backache."

Veida grinned at her. "That's your first contractions" she said.

"Oh, wow" said Bux, her expression one of wonder.

Veida turned to Yoj. "I know you don't want to leave her side, and except for this errand, your job will be to stay with her in every way. But right now, I need you to go to the Lofthall and tell the Sheng Zhang or Qala or whoever's appropriate that we need a standby crew of six strong women. In case we have to rush her to the hospital. It may be an all-nighter. Tell them to eat and shower before they come over here."

"Okay" said Yoj, a little reluctant. Bux kissed her fiercely and said "Hurry back."

Yoj began running once she was out the front door. Qala thumped her on her shoulders repeatedly, her face beaming, while she relayed her request. "You got it" she assured her. "And I expect to be talking with Halling in another half hour. She should be home in, oh, an hour or so."

It was actually an hour and a half. By that time, Bux had had her first real pain, a short spasm that surprised her and left her a little pale. It wasn't the intensity of the pain, she said, just the inevitability of it.

Halling literally hurtled in the front door, almost running down Qen who was coming out of Ng's room which had been turned into a guest room. Qen set some clothes and Ng's pillow on her cot in the corner of the living room as Halling barreled by her toward the kitchen. She kneeled in front of Bux's chair and said, out of breath, "What's happening? Are you okay?"

"Give me a kiss" said Bux. Halling leaned up to kiss her, breathless, and then kissed Yoj sitting next to Bux.

"The baby is breech" said Yoj, "But Veida and another comadrona are going to turn her around."

"I just had a real labor pain" said Bux, still impressed with herself. Halling looked around for Veida, a little wall-eyed.

Veida laughed and said "Pace yourself, it's early days yet."

Ng put her hand on Halling's shoulder and said "You know, your aggie was in hard labor with you for 26 hours." After a horrified pause, Veida and Yerush both burst into laughter.

"What is so funny?" demanded Halling. Then, to Ng, "That didn't reassure me, you know."

Qen, coming into the kitchen, said "Do you want soup or some of this potato-cheese custard the folks next door just brought over?"

After a few seconds, Halling stood up and said "Both." She shrugged out of her guibba, hung it over the back of her chair, and pulled it over next to Bux's other side. Yoj told her about their walk, Bux's water breaking and every minute so far as Halling ate quickly. Bux sat with her eyes closed, her hands on her belly.

Just as Halling was finishing, Bux said "Oh -- oh, I think it's another one."

Veida glanced at the clock as Yoj and Halling each took one of Bux's hands. The contraction rolled on through, and Bux said "All right, then. I think I can do this."

Veida grinned to herself. A knock came at the front door, and Veida went to answer it. Leading a 40-something brown woman into the kitchen, she introduced Jyoti to Bux, then the rest, and began telling her details of Bux's condition. Yerush served Jyoti lunch as another knock came at the front door, which Qen answered. She returned with a dish of fried fish cakes. She set it on the table, and Halling took one to eat, watching Bux intently as Bux began talking with Jyoti about what she was feeling and what she hoped for in the birthing.

"Halling, honey, you need to bathe" said Ng with a pointed sniff. Halling looked at Veida, who said "You've got time, we won't do anything until you're with us again."

Halling got a fresh set of clothes and went into the bath room. When she emerged, Bux was sprawled back in her chair and Yoj's mouth was in front of her crotch, singing lighter songs. Halling stopped in mid-step, and Veida walked over to her to explain: "We're trying to persuade the baby to turn back around, put her head down at the birth canal. Singing often lures them."

Halling said "I want a turn", and at the end of her song, Yoj stood up and gave her place to Halling. After one song, Bux said "She's moving around in there, I can feel it." Jyoti put her hands on Bux's belly and examined her, then said "Not quite." Yoj kneeled beside Halling and they did another song together, beginning to laugh halfway through, Halling's arm slung over Yoj's shoulder.

"Oh -- wow" said Bux. "I'm having another contraction, but something else is happening."

Veida kept her hand on Bux's stomach through the contraction, and afterward she grinned and said "She's turned. She's trying to get closer to her emmas."

Tears were standing in Yoj's eyes. She and Halling looked at each other, a new emotion gripping both of them, then they leaned up and kissed Bux's cheeks tenderly. Qen emerged from their bedroom, telling Veida "I put down protection under the sheets, she can go in there if you need."

Veida gathered up several of the pillows on the couch, plus towels to cover them, and called Bux to follow her. On her bed, Bux was positioned with her head at a 40 degree angle lower than her feet. "This will encourage the baby not to turn back" said Veida. Jyoti added "Tell us right away if you feel her shift again."

There was a knock at the front door, and it was another neighbor from the street with a dish for the Manage. The woman came in and chatted with them all for a bit. As she was leaving, an expanse of blue and yellow uniforms filled the doorway: Pilots come to carry Bux if she needed to be rushed to the hospital. They had a stretcher from the Lofthall. Qala was among them, saying she had turned over the radio to the Sheng Zhang, she wasn't going to miss this.

Awkward and excited, they clustered around Bux and took turns feeling of her belly, stealing glances around them at the bedroom: This was where Halling and Yoj slept. Eventually Yerush chased them all into the kitchen, where they sat at the table with Ng and ate a great deal of the food already brought by neighbors. But more food kept appearing, and the singing and laughing from the kitchen seemed to help ease the slow, inevitable progress toward pain in the bedroom.

Bux kept drinking the teas Jyoti and Veida gave her, and after the first couple of hours, she gave up trying to reach the privy when she needed to pee, instead leaning on Halling and Yoj to balance over the chamberpot. Dinner was a vast buffet where Halling and Yoj ate in hurried shifts and Bux did not eat at all. After dinner, the pilots went to their dorms and returned with rolled mattresses, blankets, pillows, and fresh clothes for the morning. They lined up along the living room floor, leaving a path for the comadronas and going completely silent when Bux's moans emerged from the bedroom. Ng settled on her cot among them and listened to their stories as they drifted off to sleep, one by one.

By midnight, Bux was having contractions less than three minutes apart and was soaked in sweat, her face contorted in pain. Yoj and Halling sat on either side of her, murmuring love and encouragement. Ng had a cushioned perch on a clothes chest. Jyoti sat between Bux's legs, and when she said "She's dropped", Veida bent over to look with her. Then Veida said "She's crowning" and motioned for Yoj, then Halling in turn to come look. Yerush and Qen stood behind Veida, arm in arm with tears on their cheeks. Halling saw her child tumble out of Bux with a gush of fluid and a flail of her tiny arms. At Bux's scream, she moved back to her side, but everyone was looking at the baby, even Bux.

Veida cut the cord and handed her to Qen, who cleaned her. Yerush wrapped her and returned her to Bux's belly. Jyoti was delivering the afterbirth, and she and Veida were discussing whether to stitch up two small tears in Bux's vagina. Finally deciding yes, Veida gave Bux an injection of local anesthetic, then Jyoti did the suturing while Veida held a flash so she could see.

But even Bux didn't notice their activity. Everyone was meeting the newest member of the Manage, who was yelling loudly and protesting even the dim light in the room. Yoj announced, "Emmas, this is Mill", and her abbas cried joy at her name.

Mill was creamy dark, though not as dark as she would become in a few days. She had a coating of vernix on her face creases, knuckles, elbows and knees. Her eyes were unfocused but hinted at darkness, too. Her hair was black and lay in thick tight curls to her beautiful head. She looked amazingly like Halling. Ng confirmed her resemblance to Halling at birth, which everyone took as a powerfully good sign.

After Bux was cleaned, clad, and repositioned on fresh sheets, she fell into an exhausted sleep, held on either side by Halling and Yoj. Mill was passed from abba to abba for several minutes.

Qala woke up in the living room and came to the door, asking if she could see the baby, and was also allowed to hold her briefly. Then Mill was put to drowsy Bux's breast, and she nursed like a champion, as if there was no trick to it, one of her emma's hands behind her head, another holding her rump.

At 4:30 in the morning, Qen and Yerush made a huge breakfast while Veida radioed the Sigrist and informed her of the birth in whispers. The main announcement would go out after people were awake: The arrival of Mill la Bux na Halling + Yoj, a Green 60, to the Manage of Yerush, Qen and Veida in Riesig Pliss.

The pilots were awakened, went to the privy in relays and ate quietly but heartily. Halling and Yoj had fallen asleep next to Bux, Mill cradled between pillows on Bux's belly, and did not wake up when Veida came in silently to pick up Mill and introduce her to the pilots. More than one pilot wept, and every one of them exclaimed "She's exactly like Halling!"

After they left, the house breathed out. Jyoti was long asleep. Veida sent Qen and Yerush up to their loft, saying she'd take the first two-hour shift. After Halling woke up, in full daylight, she sent Veida up to bed as well and handled diaper changes (with Ng's instruction) and receiving neighbors with more gifts of food, holding Mill in her arms with incandescent pride.

When Mill was returned to Bux to nurse, Yoj got up and quietly cleaned the kitchen while Halling grabbed a nap with Bux. Bux was in a haze, starting to feel residual pain but mostly not able to look at anything except Mill when she was awake. She ate whatever was brought to her and continued to use the chamberpot. She showed Mill, with an incredulous expression, to the steady stream of visitors who came by. Paha and Tlochin arrived from Beras, and Lawa took the day off from the ejida to visit.

That afternoon, Yoj was doing her first load of diapers and the linens used in delivery when almost every pilot in the Lofthall showed up to meet what they were calling "the most famous newborn flyer on Skene". The pilots who had been in the Manage during the birth lorded their status over the rest. Mill's blinks, sighs, and one hiccough were treated as signs of genius. When Halling changed a diaper in front of them, they didn't laugh or tease, but instead acted like they were watching a new aerial technique. They all had sibs, diaper changing was not new to them -- but this was Halling's baby, and Yoj's baby, and Bux their secret sweetheart's baby, an exalted presence.

Over the next few days, Moasi, Ktiva and Tu visited from Seda, and even Culisa came for a day. Nilma wrote Yoj a congratulatory letter and asked for a photo. Yoj did not hear from Myrd or Owera, although she wrote them and sent them photos as well.

After five days, Halling reluctantly returned to sinning and Yoj discovered she had a song inside her head, a hymn to new life. Bux got out of bed and spent her mornings with Yoj, Ng and Mill, a peaceful, joyous existence of baby-watching. The extra work was easily absorbed among the Manage, even when Veida had to leave for two days for a birth elsewhere. Mill was almost never placed in her cradle; she slept in the arms of an emma or abba, and when she was awake, she was talked or sung to with adoration. She still cried at least once a day, long spells of screams that left the younger women besides themselves with worry. The older women knew crying is just what babies need to do sometimes, and if nothing else was wrong, the best course was to hold her and let her scour it out. Ng and Qen were especially relaxed with a wailing Mill.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Delicious, Maggie!! I am enjoying every word of GB and of Skene!

Thank you for sharing with us.


Blue said...

Brings back lovely memories.