Saturday, December 29, 2007


(Mill la Bux na Halling + Yoj)
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 Faar and Lagoon
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


Since Mill's birth, Halling had taken to getting up half an hour early and giving Mill her dawn feeding, using milk Bux had expressed into glass bottles. She, Ng and Veida sat in the shadowy, warm kitchen, Mill sucking contentedly in Halling's arms, the two of them gazing at each other. Halling softly sang to her the lullaby every Skene baby heard, the Aga Song:
Aga, aggie, abba, emma
Which one warms your milk?
Aga, aggie, abba, emma
Which one warms your hearth?
Aga, aggie, abba, emma
Which one warms your heart?

Since Mill was not yet old enough to answer the riddle portion of this song, Halling would take her tiny fist and point for her, more than half the time to Halling's own chest, but also pointing out her abbas, the stove, or toward the bedroom of her sleeping emmas. Halling had no doubt Mill understood every word, and agreed completely. With this song, Skene children were introduced to the rich resources of their lives, and usually their first words were one of these endlessly repeated four.

It also gave them a chance to communicate before they could verbalize, answering the question with sign language. And there were no wrong answers -- it could be a different response every time, depending on how they felt -- an empoweringly open-ended give and take.

After a diaper change, Mill would be returned to sleep between Bux and Yoj as Halling headed off to work. This allowed Bux to sleep eight hours without interruption and quickly regain her strength. Halling began going to bed early, to keep her own rest unimpaired. In the afternoons, Mill and often Bux joined her for her naps. After Mill was grown, she would confide to her partner that she had believed Halling was her aggie until solidly contradicted by Bux when she was five.

Bux returned to work part-time when Mill was six months old, leaving Mill in the care of Veida and Ng, or Yoj and Ng two days a week. One day just past lunch, Bux popped into Yoj's cubicle with Mill and said "How's it going?"

"Good. What're you two doing out and about -- what happened to work?" Yoj took a crooning Mill from Bux and let her scribble in her notebook with a pencil. Mill's hand coordination at nine months was allowing her new grips that excited her endlessly.

"We are teething and got so stinking cranky I took the afternoon off, to spare Ng. We thought a walk on this fine day might be diverting" said Bux.

"One of the Manages behind the U has a new batch of baby chicks, let's go over there. Shall we, Mill?" Yoj began making peeping sounds, which Mill thought was hilarious.

They visited the chicks, and on the walk back toward the U, they noticed Halling's sinner buzz by carrying a load of empty pallets toward downtown.

"I bet she's done for the day" said Yoj, "Let's go to the jichang and wait on your flying emma, okay, baby beautiful?"

Yoj was right. Twenty minutes later Halling landed and she let Mill sit in the sinner with her, hatch sealed tight, as Bux washed it down. They could hear the shrieks of delight from Mill inside as jets of water hit the windshield. They walked to the Lofthall canteen, where Halling loaded a tray and Mill got passed from lap to lap among the pilots. Halling ate quickly, but just as she was finishing, Mill started to cry again. Bux took her back and lifted her shati to let her nurse. Halling was stacking her bowls together on the tray when Funa walked into the canteen.

The sudden silence was painful. She was still dressed in lighter blues, although Yoj knew she had not flown since Clun's death. Halling stood up and said "Come sit with us" and Funa, after hesitating, made her way to their table. Yoj let Funa have her seat, moving over one space to sit on her other side. Funa smiled, finally, at seeing Mill and Bux said "When she's done nursing, you can hold her and get drool over your nice clean gilet."

Funa relaxed a little at that. Halling offered to get her a tray but Funa shook her head. She was visibly thinner, and had dark rings around her eyes. Most of the other pilots in the room trailed out, heading for the showers, some of them stopping to say an awkward "Hi" to Funa. Halling looped her elbow companionably around Funa's neck, holding her tea with her other hand and saying "I sure miss seeing you around here."

Funa let herself lean against Halling. Yoj wondered if anyone had touched her in days.

"I went out to Rho for a while. My emmas' Fling" she said hoarsely.

"Been weeding and listening to the same conversation over and over?" said Yoj lightly.

Funa tried to grin. "That's about right."

"Well, I hope you're back to stay with us again" said Halling. "We can -- get you a different bunk, if you'd like."

Funa's dark eyes went dull. "I don't know what I'd like. I don't know if I can do this any more."

"I remember going through that" said Halling in a soft voice. "It passes. Eventually."

Funa looked at her, then at Yoj, then down at her hands. "You found someone to help you pass through it."

"Not right away" said Halling.

Funa looked at Yoj again. "She had gotten over you, you know. Clun, I mean. She really did -- want you, and when you two broke up, she thought it was just that you didn't want to be with a pilot. And then, a year later, there you are with Halling so it wasn't about being a pilot, it was her you didn't want. She -- took it personally. But she did get over it, decided you were a dummy for not wanting her, and once she reached that point, well, I was waiting."

Yoj took Funa's hand and said "She was a good, good woman. And she loved you like nothing else on earth."

"We only had three years together" whispered Funa. "And how she went -- we'd been laughing on the radio about how come -- well, I shouldn't say, it's about someone in the Lofthall. But we were almost done, and we were going to a dance that night. And I was only a few meters higher than her, it could just as easily have been me..."

Yoj wished Funa would let herself cry, the effort to hold it back looked like it was slicing up her insides.

Funa looked at Halling, who now had both arms around her. Bux, across the table, had tears in her eyes. Funa said "If we'd seen it, if I'd seen it I could have done something."

"I don't know what" said Halling.

"Well, and that's the point, isn't it?" said Funa in anguish. "Maybe we're just kidding ourselves, that what we do has any real meaning." The canteen was now empty except for them, and her voice echoed in the room.

Halling said emphatically "We feed the world. We bring life every day."

"Have you ever asked yourself, Halling, what's going to happen when they stop playing the game with us? The levs, I mean -- when they figure out they can just ignore the lighters, shiny and buzzy as we are, and keep going directly for the sinners. Why haven't they done that already?"

Yoj felt slammed against a wall. She'd never considered that idea. She heard Bux's sharp intake of breath. But the look on Halling's face was not surprised.

"Yeah, I've thought about it. It does mess with sleeping soundly, doesn't it?" said Halling confidentially.

"What are we going to do, then?" said Funa. Yoj was glad to hear the "we"; she hadn't completely given up on piloting yet, then.

"Well, I'm pondering it" began Halling. At that moment, the sigrist radio crackled into life and they froze to listen.

"Leviathan breech of lagoon between Faar and Verzin! Repeat, leviathan breech of Faar Lagoon. Ferry currently in transit. All available assistance is requested!"

Halling and Funa were on their feet instantly. Yoj said "What? What are you going to do?" as they began running for the door.

Halling stopped only for a second. "This time of day, that ferry is full of schoolchildren" she said with an intent face, then kept going.

Yoj tried to run after them, but Bux's voice stopped her. "Wait, wait for us!" she cried. Mill didn't want to stop nursing. Yoj felt literally split in two for a moment, then she walked back to Bux and sat down beside her.

"Let her finish" she said almost inaudibly. Her pulse seemed to have dropped to almost nothing. She put her arm around Bux, who had begun wailing. After a minute, Mill stopped nursing and began crying, too. Yoj took her and held her against her chest with her other arm, murmuring "It's all right, darling, everything's going to be okay" into Mill's tight black curls.

When Bux was able to stop crying and blow her nose, Mill calmed down too. "Is there anywhere we can see what's happening?" said Bux.

"Not -- I don't think so. Only if we take a ferry to Verzin, and they won't be running now. Let's go to the radio center next door, we can at least hear the transmissions" said Yoj.

Pilots were still pelting out of the Lofthall, hastily dressed from interrupted showers, as they went down the hall to the radio room. Igoz, the Sheng Zhang was in there, along with a couple of other staff and Qala, the dispatcher. Yoj got chairs for her and Bux. The radio had been turned to broadcast into the room, and they suddenly heard Halling's voice saying "I'm over Verzin, levi spotted, proceeding almost due south from atoll gate on north end of lagoon. Speed is rapid. It's staying in the central channel. There's a crab boat near the Verzin shore, can anybody make contact with them?"

Qala answered "Alert went out on sigrist radio, but doubt if they have one on board. Can you buzz them?"

"I'll do it" said Funa's voice. Igoz reacted with surprise; she hadn't known Funa was around today. She took the transmitter from Qala and said "Who else has a visual of Faar Lagoon?"

Another pilot answered, then a second. Igoz said "Go check the northern atoll wall and gates, find out where the breech occurred. Canvas for other levs." After she got a confirmation from them, she pushed the button again and said "Halling, you're in charge there. Can you see the ferry?"

"Yes" said Halling. "It's only halfway across. Trajectory of the lev is on a direct line to intersect with the ferry."

"Stop it" said Igoz.

"Will do" said Halling.

Yoj didn't think she could bear this. She was frantic for an alternative to what was unfolding. Bux's hand was digging into her knee, and that kept her from running somewhere, anywhere. Mill's face swam into view, sober, a little frightened. Yoj reached with her sleeve and wiped the drool from Mill's mouth, saying with infinite tenderness "Emma loves you." Mill reached out her arms toward Yoj, and Bux reluctantly let her go. With Mill standing on her lap, patting her face, Yoj's dizziness passed.

The Sigrist's voice came in over the pilot's frequency. She said "Sheng Zhang, I witnessed the breech of the lagoon. Tide is not high enough to enable access over the ripwall or gate. The leviathan actually swam back and forth on the surface of East Tendril outside the lagoon three times, which is why I was watching. It then made a submerged run and leaped into the air, clearing the wall with meters to spare. I have seen no other levs in the vicinity, but all ferries have been called in."

"Emma of us all" swore Igoz. "Never in the history of Skene..."

Qala radioed the pilots at the northern end of the lagoon to call off their survey and head south toward the ferry. Funa radioed back in and said "Crab boat is headed for shore. They don't have a trolling motor, only paddles. It doesn't look like the lev is aware of them. Proceeding to assist Halling."

Ten seconds later Halling's voice said "Flyby visual of ferry boat. All passengers are in the interior cabin, only faryaste on deck, full throttle. Clearly they know what's up. Lev still quarter mile off and closing fast."

Qala replied "Can you estimate passenger load?"

After a few seconds, Halling said "At least two dozen visible through the windows, at least half children." Then "Attempting diversion maneuver."

"Is she in a sinner or lighter?" asked Igoz.

"Lighter" Qala answered, glancing at her roster for the day.

Yoj began shaking and couldn't stop.

Halling's voice began singing that week's song. Funa's voice joined her, then the other two pilots. Another dozen voices joined, although they were not yet in range to fly the pattern. Despite the chorus, Halling's lovely tenor was clearest and loudest. Bux began crying again. Mill was listening intently, staring at the radio. Yoj sat Mill down in her lap. If she had to cover Mill's ears suddenly...

Qala radioed quietly "One pilot peel off and assume position to report."

After a few seconds, another voice said "Lmape here. Lev has not altered course."

"How close is the ferry to shore?"

"Still a quarter of the distance to go, still over the deeps" Lmape answered. "Halling and Funa are now flying at the 15 meter level, high speed, on a line directly parallel to the ferry and in front of the lev."

Igoz began swearing softly but steadily.

Ten seconds went by, then Halling said "Diversion is failing. Repeat, diversion is failing."

The song broke off, and there were broken sentences from various pilots. Halling said "Lev has rammed the ferry boat. It canted at a 45 degree angle, taking water over near side, but righted itself."

Yoj closed her eyes, imagining what was happening inside the passenger cabin. Halling's voice, now breaking, said "Faryaste washed overboard, swimming for rear of boat. Boat going off course...oh, please, oh, no...The levi got her." A terrible silence, then "A passenger has emerged from the cabin and resumed the tiller."

Funa's voice said "Halling, it's circling back around. Get out of the way, get away from the boat."

Qala pushed her button and said "No risk, Halling. No risk, that's an order."

Halling said "Climbing." Then, suddenly, "What the -- Funa, pull up, pull up!"

There was a momentary something, like a grunt, then static, then yells of anguish from various pilots. Lmape said "Crash and did she do that?"

Another pilot said "It's mortal, I think. It doesn't seem to be able to control its movements."

Halling's voice started Yoj's heart again, saying "Stay back, it's going under, may be preparing to leap."

Lmape said "No, it's done for, Hall, it's sinking."

Qala demanded "What is sinking?"

Halling answered "The lev...Not the ferry boat, the ferry boat is continuing on. Funa -- Funa dived into the lev, directly at it. And then her lighter exploded. She must have reversed the battery polarity at the last second, that's the only way she could have -- she blew up her own engine as she made contact with the lev. She killed it."

Qala said, in a tight voice, "Survivors?"

After a very long pause, Halling said "No. Not Funa. Her lighter is -- burning pieces."

Yoj could hear the shock in Halling's voice starting to give way to anguish.

The Sheng Zhang took the radio and said "All craft except Lmape, return to jichang. Lmape, continue surveillance until the ferry docks safely. Report immediately if the lev is sighted again."

Lmape replied "Clear. But that bastard is gone, Funa got it."

Igoz said "Halling, lead the crew back." After a second, she said "Your partners and child are here with me, listening."

Halling answered "We're coming home."

Mill understood that part crystal clear. She clapped her hands together and turned to look at Yoj with a huge grin, pointing her finger toward the door.

Yoj wasn't sure she would be able to stand and walk, but Bux wiped her face and took Mill, saying "Yes, we're going to go watch emma land, and take her home." She kissed Mill's cheeks, then bent over and kissed Yoj on the mouth.

Yoj got to her feet and said quietly "Carynn by." All the others in the room closed their eyes and repeated "Carynn by." The sigrist began broadcasting an account of what had just transpired over her frequency. Lmape broke through on the Loftfall radio briefly to say "Ferry docked."

Qala was answering "Thanks. Continue surveillance for another half hour, please" as Yoj, Bux and Mill left the room, going to meet Halling.

At dinner that night, Veida turned to Halling and said "What's going on out there?"

Halling understood instantly, though the others had to pick it up from her reply.

"We've had a long stretch without any losses" said Halling slowly. "They're not bringing us down, and -- I think it matters to them. The hunt matters. They're looking for other ways to get at us."

Yoj and Bux stopped eating. Yoj felt like her blood had turned to slush.

"You're assuming, then, that they collaborate in some way. Have some kind of -- culture?" Veida asked Halling.

"I think they do. Not like ours, but it's not just animal response or serendipity." Halling paused, then said "I mean -- songs stop being effective after a week, because they memorize what line goes with which motion and begin anticipating what's going to happen next. That means memory, and analysis of some kind."

Qen said quietly, "I never, before now, realized what that must mean."

Yoj said to her "It's more than that. It's not just one cluster of leviathans who figure out a song. Once one group gets wise, they all do, at the same time."

Bux's eyes were huge. "That means -- they can talk to each other."

"Oh, they talk, all right" said Yoj meaningfully. She glanced at Halling.

Veida said "I can remember their wails, coming up into my hatch." She looked haunted. "And that smell..."

"What smell?" said Bux.

"They have the odor of ketone" said Halling. "Part of the reason why their flesh is inedible."

But not the biggest reason, thought Yoj, with a touch of revulsion.

"The more serious question in my mind" said Halling, "is did the one who figured out how to jump the atoll wall do it on its own, or is this a general idea out there among them now? Did it communicate with the others while it was in action?"

"We should be having this conversation with the Sheng Zhang" said Yerush emphatically. "This is -- it threatens us all."

"I'll try" said Halling. "But she adamantly denies they communicate with each other, or that they have anything beyond a chase instinct. She won't hear it, and she forbade me to mention it away from the Lofthall, said it would panic people needlessly."

"But the other pilots?" asked Yoj.

"Yeah, we talk it over. We all agree. And the one bright spot is, if it was in communication with others, then they are going to know that Funa -- killed it. On purpose. Maybe that will act as deterrent. If it was up to me, though, I'd stop the ferries for a few days, handle essential runs between islands by lighter."

"She won't do that, because it would expose the bigger threat" said Yoj. She looked around the table, then at Veida. "So, no ferries for a while, okay? And write letters to our sibs, advising them to lie low for a bit."

"That will dump it into the rumor mills" said Yerush. "But that's a good thing."

"Until I get hauled into the Sheng Zhang's office" said Halling bitterly. "But yes, it's still a good thing, we have to do it."

Ng said "We need a way of tracking them. Can't we install radar under water, such as in the Tendrils?"

Yerush said "I've read, in the original settlers' records, that they did have such a thing. Before we had ferries and morrie vaseos, they used sensors to determine if it was safe to boat between islands."

Halling was astonished. "I never knew that -- what happened to them?"

"I'm not sure" said Yerush. "Perhaps we lost the technology to maintain them? But I can get copies of the records for you, if you'd like."

"Please" said Halling.

"What Sheng Zhang would that sort of a project fall under?" wondered Veida. "Because if it's left up to Igoz, it won't happen."

"Potenza, maybe?" said Bux. "She handles utilities but also radio and ferries. This could go through the Sigrist."

Veida turned to Yerush. "Would you ask the current Ethicist what she thinks about this idea and how to bring it about?"

"I will" said Yerush.

At the end of the meal, Halling said "I need to go back to the Lofthall. They'll all be sharing memories of Funa. Plus we need to talk over -- ideas. And two new lighters are starting on my crew, I want to help them through this transition."

"Can I go with you?" asked Bux uncertainly.

"Of course" said Halling. "You lived through it today, too."

"Let's take Mill" said Yoj. "We may be late, and she'll want nursing, but she'll go to sleep in our arms when she wears out."

Halling looked at Veida and asked "You want to join us?"

Veida hesitated. "No, my time is past. But if there's ever an event that includes pilots from my era, let me know."

"Your time is not past" said Yerush staunchly. Veida smiled at her and said "All right. You know what I meant."

When Halling walked into the main meeting room of the Lofthall, the presence caused a stir of greetings and relief. All the pilots, plus most of the mechanics, were sitting in a circle of chairs. Halling sat down next to Qala and said "Igoz coming?"

"Nope" said Qala. There was a heavy silence after this. Then Lmape leaned toward Halling and said "Funa's emmas are having a memorial service three days from now, here after our shift. We'll walk up to the Shatters together afterward to place her plaque."

"What about the faryaste?" asked Halling. "Has her Manage planned a memorial yet?"

"Her name was Konr, from Verzin. And no, we don't know yet" answered Qala.

Halling thanked her, then said "Before we remember Funa, I'd like to talk for a minute about some implications of what happened today."

Their conversation covered the same ground as had been broached at the Manage dinner. Bux noticed that most of the other pilots had reached the same conclusions Halling had. The only surprise was the news that underwater leviathan sensors had once existed.

Halling asked Qala "Have you ever been allowed access to the Lofthall archives?"

Qala shook her head. "They're under lock and key. To be honest, I haven't seen Igoz go near them in at least half a year."

After a long pause, Qala added with a grin "And no, I don't have a key."

Everyone laughed. Qala stood up then and said "I'd like to officially introduce the two lighters are moving up from training and standby into full duty, on Halling's crew. Please show yourselves, you two."

Hallling had met them both when they started training last year after graduating from school. One, Danaan, was almost as dark as Halling -- Yoj had called her skin "Halling's with a splash of milk in it." Her hair fell in tight ringlets to her collar, and her brown eyes were large and laughing. She was unusually small for a pilot, and at first Halling had wondered if she'd pass the physical. Once she saw her with just her maillot on, however, doing exercises, Halling had realized this 16-year-old was more muscled than she was. Her arms, hands and shoulders were ropy with sinews. Halling eventually asked her about it, and Danaan told her she'd been driving a crawler on Abfall with her aggie, who worked in the compost fields, since she was very small. This gave her not only strength but a head start on the head-hand coordination essential to piloting. She'd turned out to be markedly good at lighting.

Her partner, Rark, also still 16, was tall and lanky, with skin so pale it seemed pink. Rark had blue eyes, though not as blue at Bux's, and short spiky red hair. She and Danaan were not just in love, but had the kind of love that meant they were almost always in some kind of contact, a fierce raw love. They could not officially partner for another two and a half years, yet already their emmas were treating each other as in-laws.

Halling was glad to have these two on her crew. They were good pilots and quick to learn, and they got along well with everyone else. Danaan, in particular, brought out a maternal impulse in Halling. Now, being introduced, they did not demonstrate any particular awkwardness or apprehension. They both made a point of shaking hands with Bux, as if she was especially important to the Lofthall. Which Halling thought was only proper.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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