Monday, December 31, 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 Exploit and Flings
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


Prl turned one and Bux weaned her with a deal to swap nursing for a cake. Prl didn't have the experience to know she'd get a cake regardless, and the older children didn't advocate on her behalf because, frankly, they simply wanted the cake. Every time Yoj looked at Prl, she was reminded of Bux as a toddler and felt a little lightheaded with emotion.

On the run following Prl's birthday, Halling found herself being easily distracted -- by the horizon and its question of other islands out there somewhere, by the miraculous individuality of her children, by the appearance of leviathans she could distinguish from one another, even by the lighter song which she'd be sorry to have to discard, it was memorable. The sinning went off without a hitch, and although it was a smallish to medium load, it was enough to take back home with pride. They were five minutes into their return trip when Danaan's voice came over the radio: "I've got a glitch -- something's wrong."

Halling answered "What glitch?" as she craned around in her view until she spotted Danaan's lighter, ahead and to the right.

"My charge -- it's dropping steadily, and fast. Like one or more batteries have gone dead. Or there's a break in the circuit. I'm -- I'm having trouble maintaining altitude." Danaan's voice was trying to stay even.

"Can you troubleshoot? Can you coast enough to turn off your engine and restart?" Halling's stomach had gone into convulsions. She could see Rark's lighter now right next to Danaan's.

"I -- I can't trace the problem. I've lost five meters already, Halling. The thermals aren't right, I don't feel lift if I coast."

No thought Halling. No, I won't let you go.

Rark's voice said "Don't you give up, Danaan. I'll get you, somehow I'll get you." She sounded desperate.

Halling said "Rark, I'm on this. I need you to maintain safe altitude no matter what."

Her brain was racing. She pushed away all thoughts of Xaya. Instead, Veida and Maszon came into her mind briefly. If nothing else, she could take home a body.

But no, there had to be another way. How could she cool off her wings enough to catch Danaan if she had to ditch?

Danaan said "I'm down to one array, Halling. I've lost another five meters."

Halling radioed "Sinners, we're going to try something different. We have to abort load, but I'm going to release my grapples and dive into the spill from the net. Continue formation until the net has emptied, then release your own grapples. Understood?"

Confusion in their tone, they all radioed assent.

Halling continued "Danaan, once I've coated my wings with fish, I'm going to level out underneath you. Put on your hat and gloves, button everything up tight. On my signal, exit your hatch onto my wings. Get centered and turn over on your back, rest as little of your body as possible on wing surface. I'll turn off my solars, I've got enough power to get back on battery. Do you follow?"

After a second, Danaan said "I got it."

Rark said "I'll fly interference."

"No" said Halling. "You stay above 30 meters -- you can divert but only from safe altitude. I -- have an idea."

The silence was profound. Halling said "On the count of three, I'm releasing my grapple."

She didn't know the actual weight of the load of fish, but it had to be tons. She would have to rely on speed and a skill she wasn't sure she possessed to keep from being downed by the torrent about to hit her topside.

"I'm coming, Danaan. Count -- three, two, one."

She hit the grapple switch and her craft yawed abruptly as the weight cut loose. She dove, accelerating at a steep pitch so the torrent of fish slid over her like a waterfall. The impact as writhing masses of fish hit her almost left her breathless against her seat restraint. She fought for control, pushing her way through the cascade, as the smell of seared iodine filled her cockpit. She flipped off her solar panels and climbed again briefly, banking to the right to avoid the other sinners.

Danaan was now below her and to the left. She radioed "Everyone stay clear of Danaan's craft, it's going to pitch and fall within seconds of her bail." She came around in a loop, diving the entire time, until she was approaching Danaan from underneath and behind. Her altitude was now 25 meters. Shit.

"Do you have a visual, Danaan? You'll have to tell me when I'm in position. Match your speed to mine." Halling read off her velocity. She left just a meter between her wings and Danaan's hatch. If Danaan's craft dropped abruptly --

But from the corner of her eye, on the left, she saw a leviathan in the water on swift approach toward her. Danaan said "You're directly under me, and we're in sync. I'm opening my hatch."

"Come on" said Halling. She kept her hands, her pulse, everything steady, steady. She felt a small thump above her, and an even smaller scrabbling sound.

She couldn't bank, or climb, or even accelerate because of the risk of blowing Danaan off. The lev to her left was now in jump range.

Halling flipped on her loudspeaker and began singing Yoj's leviathan song.

The lev stopped, stock still in the water. Every other lev within her visual range halted, too. She heard exclamations of disbelief come over her radio, but she didn't answer or lose focus.

She turned cautiously, evenly to the right and kept turning until she could see Danaan's lighter out her left window. Abruptly, it tilted and started a downward arc which turned into a spiral. She didn't see it hit the water, although she heard somebody yell "Impact." Then somebody else said "They're not following. They're not moving. They're just -- listening."

Halling kept singing for five more minutes, until she had reached safe altitude again. She slowed down even more then, and radioed Rark, saying "Come over us and check on Danaan."

She saw Rark's shadow blend with hers on the surface of the water. Rark said "She's alive, on her back, arched upward. Conscious -- she looked at me." Rark's voice broke at the end.

"We're heading for the nearest landing field, which is Exploit" announced Halling. "Ten minutes out." She began trying to raise Qala. After three hails, Qala answered.

"We've aborted the load and lost a lighter but not the pilot. I have Danaan on my upper wings, still alive. Don't know the extent of her burns. We need to make an emergency landing at Exploit, please tell them to have medical personnel and heat-shielded rescue equipment available" Halling said.

"Will do" said Qala, her voice deadly serious.

Halling heard Rark's loudspeaker nearby, saying "Danaan, less than ten minutes to go. We're landing at Exploit, help will be there. You hang on. I love you, I love you all there is."

Halling called "Rark, you land at Exploit, too, second in rotation. Everybody else but Schla, return to the jichang, people will need to see some of us coming home. Schla, you land third, we'll need to rig your sinner for an ambulance run, I'm not sure what condition mine is in."

Everybody radioed their understanding. Halling could see Skene at an angle stretching south and west in front of her, and she suddenly wanted to cry. If only she could have brought Xaya back home --

She forced herself into focus. She couldn't cut altitude quickly, so she came in over Exploit's small lighter field slowly and hovered, then turned her flaps to go straight down at a slow, descending hover. Dozen of miners and other workers were at the nearby loading shed.

As soon as she could cut engines, she was out of her hatch and yelling "Danaan, you still with us?"

"I'm here" came a voice thick with pain. People with ceramic-lined rectangles, a ladder and a first-aid kit were there in an instant. One of them scrambled up the ladder, took a shield handed up to her, and laid it beside Danaan.

"Can you roll over onto this?" she asked. She had on protective gloves and even so, she was trying not to touch the top of the lighter as she held the shield steady. Someone with a second ladder was running from the shed. Halling could see a two or three inch crust of blackened flesh coating the entirety of her wing surface, reeking of burned fish. She hoped none of it was Danaan.

Danaan had the thick-capped top of her head pressed against the wing, her hips jutting upward, her otos flat on the lower wing. Her shoulders touched the surface, also, despite her attempts to keep them clear. The side of her face that Halling could see was red from effort but not burned.

Danaan gave herself a final shove up, with a grunt, and collapsed in a roll into the shield. She grabbed it with her hands and cried out in relief. Another worker at the top of the second ladder, also heavily gloved, took the bottom of the shield and slid it out into air. Workers underneath reached up, six of them, and balanced the shield on their outstretched palms. The first worker slid Danaan's makeshift stretcher off the sinner altogether. The workers took the weight and then, carefully, lowered her down to the ground.

Rark came pounding up as Halling bent over Danaan. The back and top of her leather cap was burned through, and some of her thick dark hair was gone, but the sear had not reached her scalp. Her guibba likewise had gaping burns through to the sheepskin lining, but not to her uniform underneath. Her gloves were scorched but intact. The soles of her boots smoked a little.

However, on her hips, where she must have landed briefly at first fall, big patches of her kalsongers were gone and her flesh was charred, down past the first layer of skin.

Rark was on her knees, kissing Danaan's cheek, weeping with relief. Danaan said "It's starting to hurt."

One of the workers broke open the first aid kits and poured anesthetic jelly onto the burns on Danaan's hips. Covering it with gauze, she then offered Danaan a pill, which Rark slipped between her lips. Schla appeared next to Halling.

"I can move my seat up enough for someone to lie down behind me in my cabin, but not on this stretcher" she said.

"We'll put down blankets, and she can rest on that" said Halling, starting for Schla's sinner with her. Miners brought them blankets and pillows, and they made a nest for Danaan. She was carried over on the stretcher, Rark holding her hand, and by that time the pain pill was having an effect. She was able to get to her feet, shaky but strong enough to climb into the hatch and lie down on her belly again.

"Rark, you'll have to fly your lighter back alone" said Halling. She took Rark's chin in her hand and got her attention. "Go slow, stay calm. The last thing we need is something happening to you, hear me?"

Rark's eyes cleared, and she nodded. "I can't believe -- I can't thank you enough for -- "

"Anything else was unthinkable" said Halling firmly. Schla was climbing into her seat and said "What about you?" to Halling.

"I'll check out my craft. If it's safe, I'll fly back. If not, I'll radio for a pickup. Call Qala and give her a report." Halling shut the hatch and rapped on it, saying "Carynn bye" loudly as Schla started her engines. Rark was already running for her lighter.

Workers went back to Halling's sinner with her, where one woman had stayed on the ladder, trying to scrape baked-on fish from the panels.

"Leave that" said Halling. "We'll have to replace them. Let me see what kind of charge I have left."

She turned on her instruments and heard Qala saying "Best news I've ever heard in my life. We've got an ambulance here on standby, and the hospital is waiting. See you in five."

Her batteries still had a quarter charge left, more than enough to get back to the jichang. She leaned out and thanked the workers fervently, saying "You just made history. Please send your names to the Lofthall, we want to mention you individually in our report."

Her engine turned over without a pause. Her cabin smelled ghastly, but she shut the hatch and waved to the rescue team as they backed away. On her flight back to Riesig, Qala called her to say "I've let your family know, they'll be there waiting on you." Then "The other pilots are saying you talked to the leviathans."

"It's a long story. I'll fill you in later" said Halling. She was over Verzin now. She could see Pomar to her right and the white two-storied bulk of the University. The tarmac of the jichang was ringed with people. Suddenly she was exhausted. She reminded herself to stay focused, just this last little bit, as she came in with her usual elegant glide and settled down into her spot. Yoj had the hatch open as soon as Halling could turn off the engine.

She emerged to thunderous cheers. Every pilot from the Lofthall except for Rark seemed to be standing nearby, yelling her name. A pregnant Bux swept into her arms, and Yoj was pounding her on the back.

Halling let her lovers' bodies restore some of her energy. Waves of relief swept through her. She turned, looking for the rest of her Manage, and found everybody but Qen and Ng approaching. She grabbed her children into a group hug, kissing them with tears starting to flow down her cheeks. Then she found Veida's face.

Veida was weeping, hard. Halling grabbed her hand and said "You made this happen. You gave me the idea. Danaan is alive because of you." She looked at Yoj and added "And you gave me the tool that kept us from going down."

After more kisses and hugs, Halling said "Where's Qala?"

Schla said "The transport sinner's gone to Abfall, to pick up Danaan's emmas and get them here fast. Qala's on the radio."

"Then let's go to the hospital, shall we?" said Halling. The pilots turned and began walking up the nearby sidewalk. Two mechanics were at Halling's lighter and waved her on, saying they'd report later about what damage they found. Veida and Yerush announced they were taking the children home. When Mill protested loudly, Halling said "Let her come with us. The rest of you, we'll see you at dinner and you'll get the whole story then."

Mill grabbed Halling's hand in triumph and pulled her forward.

At the hospital, they filled the waiting room and overflowed into the hall. Rark was in with Danaan, and the curanderas were still examining her. Yoj slipped away, down the hall to the worker's cafeteria, and paid the staff there to make sandwiches for all the pilots. Halling was given a chair, and she sat down gratefully, pulling a gangly Mill onto her lap. Bux got the chair next to her, and Halling's arm rested against the bulk of their unborn child.

Everyone wanted the details of what had happened, however had Halling done what she'd done, but Halling held up her hand and said "I'd rather wait until we hear about Danaan. And her emmas get here, so they can hear it, too." After looking around, she said "Where is the Sheng Zhang?"

"Off politicking somewhere" a lighter said bitterly. "She'll get here in time to claim some of the credit."

Once food and drink arrived, they fell into silence, eating ravenously and starting to relax tense shoulders and calves. Halling found herself getting sleepy. Mill had settled onto the floor in front of her, leaning against her legs.

Half an hour later, a pilot in yellow and brown came through the crowd, clearing a way for two middle-aged women with frantic faces. Halling stood up and introduced herself. Danaan's aggie, Ektr, looked remarkably like her except she was taller and her hair was going grey. Her other emma, Iro, reminded Halling of Veida, tall, dark and white-haired. They clasped Halling's hands and Iro said "Is she really going to live? Please be honest with us."

"I really think she is" said Halling. "She's got a couple of bad burns on her flanks that will take a long time to heal, but they won't stop her from doing anything once they do heal. At least, that's what I saw."

This was confirmed a minute later by the curandera who emerged from the treatment area and came to find Danaan's emmas. She led them back to talk to her before she fell asleep from the sedative.

Ten minutes later, they returned, their faces transformed in relief. They went directly to Halling again and Ektr put her arms around Halling, kissing her cheek and saying "Rark won't leave her, asleep or no. But she told us what you did. You -- she's our only child, we couldn't have borne -- " She was not able to go on.

Bux said, "Okay, now, tell us the whole story."

Halling gave her chair to Ektr and another one was found for Iro. She motioned for the other sinners and lighters on her crew to come stand next to her, and she began the story. They interrupted her constantly to heap praise on her, at every turn of events, and there were many gasps. But when she got to the part where she turned on her loudspeaker and began singing leviathan, the room went into incredulous silence.

Halling said "It's not my song. It's one that Yoj wrote, from being a little girl on Isola Fling and listening to them all around her. She gets the credit for it."

All eyes turned to Yoj, including Bux who said "You never told me."

The Sheng Zhang's voice came from the hallway. "It's not something to brag about" she said coldly.

An angry murmur met this, and Yoj stared her down as she approached.

"There's a reason we don't traffic in leviathan ways" began Igoz. But Iro interrupted her and said "I think those reasons have just been brought out for re-examination. If Halling -- both these women -- had obeyed blind rules, my child would be -- " She couldn't say what would have been Danaan's fate, it was too vile to put into words.

Mill's voice came from the floor. "Will you sing us the lev song, emma?"

From the looks on the pilots' faces, Yoj could tell they wanted to hear it, too. But she answered "Not here, not in a place of healing. Another time." She helped Mill to her feet and said "We need to get your emma home, she's completely spent." Bux moved in beside Halling, putting her arm around Halling's waist and starting to walk with her to the door.

Halling turned to Iro and Ektr to say "Do you need a place to stay tonight? We can put you up at our Manage."

Iro grinned at her, the first time she'd smiled. Her grin, now, her grin was pure Danann. She said "We'll be staying here, but thanks." She kissed Halling's cheek and whispered "I know you know what you've done."

Halling nodded at her, grinning back. Then she left with Bux, Yoj taking Mill's hand and following them.

At the Manage, Halling drank a glass of tea, then stripped down to her underwear and lay down on their bed. Bux laid a quilt over her and Halling was asleep instantly. After a few minutes, Bux took Prl, overdue for a nap, with her and lay down beside Halling.

Yoj and Veida collaborated on a cake for dessert, made from almonds and a precious half-cup of sugar. Yerush made an egg and potato casserole, larded with spinach, and steamed carrots.

Halling told her story again as they ate, Mill adding details from her imagination that Halling left uncorrected, with a grin. As Yoj cut slices of cake, Mill said "Can we sing the leviathan song now?"

The emmas looked at each other, conferring, and then Halling said "All right. But Yoj, please, let's do it together." They stood, arm in arm, and began.

The ululating call, interspersed with clicks and undertones, raised hair on the back of Bux's neck. Prl's eyes were huge and she pushed back into Ng's lap uncertainly. Halling did not go on for long; she was concerned about how this would affect Veida.

When Veida spoke, she said "So -- they understood you. Or at least recognized what you were saying, you think."

"It seems that way" said Halling. She looked at Yoj and said "You with your gifted ear, you must have replicated it exactly."

"That's what you listened to at night?" said Bux, in a near whisper.

"Not just nights. But yes...I didn't know enough to be horrified until I was older" said Yoj.

"Why horrified?" asked Dodd, licking cake from her fingers.

Yoj didn't want to answer, but Mill said "Leviathans eat people, every chance they get."

Prl began crying, then, and Yoj said "Okay, that's enough of that. The important thing is, your emma fooled them and she saved Danaan, brought her home alive and in good shape."

"Tomorrow at school" Qen told the three oldest children, "Other kids are going to ask about what happened. You are not to sing the leviathan song, do you hear me? But you can verify that your emma Halling is a hero. A real hero, one of the biggest that Skene has ever had."

Ndege's eyes were bright with happiness. "Will you stay home from work and come visit us at school?" she asked Halling.

Halling looked at Veida, who said "The forecast was clear." Halling shook her head, regretfully. "I need to work. But first rainy day we have, I'll come visit your class, I promise."

Draining the last of her water, she said "I want to walk back to the hospital, check on Danaan."

Yoj and Bux said simultaneously "We're going with you."

"And me!" said Mill. Halling said "No, just grown-ups this time of night. But I'll tell you how she is when I get back."

"Tell her I love her" said Mill unreservedly. Halling's face glowed and she said "I certainly will and she'll be glad to hear it."

Ng said "You children do your chores, then we'll play a game in the living room." She kept Prl on her lap as the other three older women cleared the table.

After goodbye kisses, Halling, Yoj and Bux put on coats and left the house.

At the hospital, Iro and Ektr were in the cafeteria, cadging a meal. Rark was in Danaan's room, sitting beside her on her bed, one leg off on the floor. Her face was weary but at peace. Someone had put a cot in the corner. Yoj suspected Rark would not be leaving Danaan's side to use the cot.

Rark stood up to hug them all, especially hanging on to Halling. She told them in a quiet voice "They say her blood work looks fine, they've pumped a lot of fluids into her. She's mostly sleeping, except every few hours when the pain pills wear off and she wakes up moaning, but they give her more right away. She asked to see you, Hall."

Halling leaned against the side of the bed and took Danaan's hand in her own. It was callused and surprisingly small for a pilot. Danaan was face down, one cheek pressed into her pillow. A small brace kept the covers away from her hips. After a minute, Danaan's eyes fluttered open and she tried to shift, then stopped herself. Her gaze focused on Halling, and her face lit up.

"Hey" she whispered.

"Hey back. Mill wants me to tell you that she loves you" said Halling.

"Tell her...good. Her love will make me better" breathed Danaan. Then: "How did you know what to do?"

"I'm not sure" answered Halling. "I put together every last scrap of what I'd heard, and then I just -- I don't know. I wasn't going to let them have you, and that's the facts."

"I'll..." Danaan's eyes drifted shut again. Halling, then Yoj and Bux, gave her soft kisses on her upturned cheek. She looked like a child, not a woman.

Rark asked quietly, "What's the forecast?"

"Clear" said Halling. "We'll replace you both temporarily from the standby pool. I'll be flying a borrowed sinner, and we'll keep your lighter on the field, give them other craft. You take as long as you need with her here, that's our first priority."

Rark looked at her steadily, then said "We're yours, now. We're your pilots forever. I hope you understand what that means."

Halling was embarrassed, but nodded her head. "Clearly I feel the same way" she whispered. "Tell her emmas we were here. I'll check back tomorrow after my shift."

"Carynn bye" whispered Rark. "I want to learn that song, by the way."

Halling nodded again.

On the walk home, she asked Yoj "Do you think we should teach it to every pilot?"

"I'm thinking yes" said Yoj. "But we have to save it for emergencies, because we don't know how it will work again."

"I want to learn it, too" said Bux.

Yoj pulled her in tight as they walked. "Of course."

Back home, Halling took a bath as Bux and Yoj told the children stories and got them into bed. When Yoj went into the kitchen for one last drink of water, Qen, sitting at the table, smiled at her and said "I can guess what next week's lighter song is going to be about."

Yoj grinned back and said "Already got a couple of the lines in my head."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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