Saturday, December 29, 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 Faar and Lagoon
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


It was a gorgeous late summer day, when light reflected off all smooth surfaces and the garden smelled every kind of ripe. Yoj had been sitting by Yerush's tomatoes, letting four-month-old Mill crawl around on their patch of grass and snatch at the tails of curious katts. It was Iki already, and she had an idea for this week's song, a few lines of possible lyric and several different ways the meter could go, but the melodic line was so far eluding her. She hoped letting sun bake her brain would give her inspiration.

Shortly before noon, Bux poked her head out the back door and announced lunch was ready. Yoj waved okay, then picked up Mill against her protests, saying "Lunch, sweetest. We're having baked zucchini, and I'm going to mash some up with a little bit of milk, see if you like eating that." Mill's face registered interest. Yoj walked around the back of the tillage to Ng's studio and, leaning against the doorway, said "You at a stopping point? It's lunchtime."

Ng looked up at her, smiled hugely at Mill, and began struggling to her feet. Yoj and Mill waited on her as she got both canes in her hands, then walked with her slowly around the house, Yoj leaning Mill over so she could put chubby fists on her abba's arm and burble gibberish at her. Despite shortness of breath from the effort, Ng always answered Mill, acting interested and entertained. Mill pulled from Ng social niceties no one else in the Manage ever witnessed.

Inside, Ng struggled on to the bathroom to scrub the slip and dust off her hands. Yoj floated her zucchini idea to Bux, who agreed and gave Yoj a small bowl of the steamed squash to mash for Mill. Qen set a big tureen of soup on the table. A plate of fried ricecakes and a luxurious salad was already out. Veida carried in a massive jug of tea which had been chilling at the back of the larder, and as Ng returned from the bathroom, Yerush came in the front door, her linen shirt loose over her breeches, no gilet today because of the wonderful warmth.

As they all sat down, Mill already trying to reach for the small red saucer of squash she knew was her feeding dish, the radio crackled and the sigrist's voice began "It's noon up and down. Temperature -- " The transmission ended abruptly, and everyone turned to stare at the radio. Veida stood to go turn the knob, but before she had taken a step, the sigrist said in an urgent voice "Lighter down, lighter down. Crash in the East Tendril!"

Yoj thought she might pass out. She tightened her grip on Mill, closed her eyes for a second, then opened them again to look at Bux. Halling would be running loads by now around Skene, and she often got switched over to a lighter, depending on that day's schedule and needs. Bux scooted her chair loudly over right next to Yoj, and Mill crowed delight. Everyone else at the table was frozen, as if sheer will could resurrect the fallen pilot.

The radio crackled again. The sigrist's voice was ragged. "The craft is lost, under the water. The lighter is Clun. Repeat, the lighter is Clun. Carynn by." Then, after a pause, "Details in a minute."

Yoj still thought she might pass out. She handed Mill to Qen, on the other side of her, and wrapped her arms around her middle, her stomach roiling in a terrible mixture of relief and grief. She could feel Bux weeping against her.

Qen said "Are they all hearing this announcement? Wherever they are?"

Yoj answered "No, their radios on a different frequency. It's up to the Lofthall whether this gets broadcast. Depends on -- " Her voice failed. Veida finished for her "If...Clun's radio was on when she went down, then they will have heard." The horror of that sunk in on everyone else. "If it wasn't, they may not tell the pilots until they land. To avoid -- accidents."

"But they will call them all in" added Yoj. She stood up suddenly and got her boots and pack from the front room. Everyone else began adjusting their clothing, preparatory to leaving the house. Bux washed her face and strapped on her kayeem, then slid Mill into it. Mill was confused, pointing at her red bowl of squash.

"We need to wait for the next announcement" said Yoj, as Qen rushed to put soup back in the pot on simmer. Yerush stashed salad and ricecakes in the larder, and Ng fed Mill a bite of squash. Mill expressed smacking approval and smeared squashy saliva across her own cheek in excitement.

Yoj had her notebook and fountain pen out. When the radio crackled again, everyone stopped breathing and the sound of Yoj uncapping her pen was very loud. The sigrist said "Clun, in her 6-year-old lighter, was making runs with her partner Funa, carrying loads of glass between Yanja and Verzin. They were on their third run, over the deep section of the central waters of the East Tendril, when a leviathan submerged below visibility leaped and caught the landing gear on Clun's craft. There was nothing her partner could do. The estimated altitude for Clun's craft was 27 meters. All coastal areas and faryastes are now advised, known leviathan activity within the East Tendril. All flights have been cancelled. Point of impact was -- " and the sigrist read off a series of numbers which Yoj jotted into her notebook. She recapped her pen and said "Okay, that's it. Let's go."

They all started for the door, except Ng who said, with real anguish on her face, "I don't think I can make it."

Yoj turned back to her and said "We'll carry you. Me and Veida, we'll do a basket carry -- "

"No" interrupted Ng. "You need to worry about Halling. I'll wait here."

Yoj, then Qen, gave Ng a tender kiss. Yoj said "She'll be all right, I promise."

"I know" said Ng. "You make sure of that."

They scrambled out the door, finding the streets full of people also heading for the jichang. A small lighter buzzed the main street as they walked urgently past the fish docks. A jam of lighters and sinners circled overhead, and hundreds of people ringed the tarmac. Yoj pushed through the crowd, claiming right of sinner's Manage and clearing a path for Bux and the rest of her family. They reached the front and watched as a young lighter set down, a trifle clumsy. A group of about ten already-landed sinners and lighters stood knotted together, weeping and hanging onto one another. The young lighter yelled "What happened?" to them as soon as she was free of her craft. Someone yelled back "Clun!" and she ran to them, crying "No, no, no!"

They weren't telling the pilots until they were on the ground, then. Bux and Yoj found Halling in the sky, and Yoj gave her a big wave. Halling must be frantic; she would know what the crowds meant. Yoj kept alternating her gaze between Halling and the throng of pilots grieving beside the watertanks. She could see, sometimes, a glimpse of Funa's face in the middle of the group of pilots.

Bux saw her, too. "How will her partner bear this?" she whispered to Yoj. Yoj answered "I don't know. They'll put her on suicide watch."

Bux looked at Yoj. "Did Halling, after Xaya -- ?"

"Yes" said Yoj. "I was one of the ones who sat with her, slept with her. We were still just friends, of course."

"What about Clun's Manage?" asked Bux, looking for non-pilots in the grieving cluster.

"She didn't have one" answered Yoj. "I mean, she came from a fling on the far edge of the West Tendril, and I'm sure they're on their way in. But she wasn't close to them any more. What she had was the Lofthall." Yoj wasn't sure why the tears weren't coming for her yet. Probably because she was too concerned for Halling.

Finally Halling's turn arrived in the landing rotation. They kept the most experienced pilots for last, because maturity meant they were safer in the air. She set down with her usual effortless perfection, but before the engine was turned off, Yoj had broken into a run across the tarmac, dodging the exhaust of another sinner angling in to land. Halling jerked open her hatch, her face on Yoj, and as her feet hit the ground, she said "Who?"

Yoj reached her then, and answered "Clun" as she put her arms around Halling. Halling's body arced backward in pain, her face contorted, and a wail burst from her. Yoj held her tight as Halling pounded on her shoulders and back, rage and agony making her momentarily oblivious. Yoj helped her over to the crowd of pilots, who absorbed them both into their ranks. Halling made her way to Funa and they wept together. Yoj thought Funa drew a little comfort from Halling's arms; Halling knew what Funa was feeling.

Bux stood with her rest of her family, holding Mill, a tortured expression on her face. She had been told she was a part of the Lofthall, but she knew she wasn't, not at this moment. Mill had spotted Halling as soon as she landed and kept saying her version of Halling's name now, waving her small open hand in her direction, clearly asking Bux to take her to her emma. Bux tried to reassure her, saying "Emmas will be here soon." She didn't actually know that, though.

When the last sinner had landed, the pilots began shuffling toward the Lofthall. Yoj and Halling were moved along in the crowd. Then Halling said suddenly "Bux -- and the others, where are they?"

Yoj pointed, and Halling tried to see through tear-swollen lids. Pilots jostled past them. Halling said "I want to go home."

"You sure?" asked Yoj.

"Yes" said Halling, turning back toward the tarmac. Yoj put her hand in Halling's and they went to join Bux.

The Manage stood together for a few minutes, Halling hugging everybody, starting to cry again, and dragging the details from Yoj one more time. Finally she asked "Where's emma?" and then, before Yoj could answer, "Oh, crap, she couldn't walk it, could she? She's at home alone?"

When Bux nodded, Halling plunged into the bystanders around them, heading for home. Her Manage followed. People reached out to pat Halling on the back, saying "I'm so sorry" over and over. Halling acknowledged them but didn't slow down until she reached the street and the rest of her Manage caught up with her.

They walked back home in a quiet cluster. People on the main street looked at Halling with compassion, then looked away. Yoj had her arm tight around Halling's waist. Bux carried Mill in her yameen, pressing her close. At the house, Ng was still sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes on Halling's face as Halling went to her and hugged her fiercely. Veida retrieved the jug of tea and began pouring glasses for everyone. Halling stood upright and looked around her, taking in the colors and comfort slowly. Bux said "Shall I draw you a bath?"

"Not yet" said Halling. Her gaze finally settled on Yoj, and Yoj said "Now?" Halling nodded.

Yoj went to the sink and got a soapy dishrag to wash down their big dining table. She rinsed it and dried it carefully as Halling retrieved a long plastic tube from Yoj's study. In her other hand she had her fountain pen. Qen had begun warming up their interrupted lunch, but Yoj said "Please leave that for the moment". Everyone else came into the kitchen to see what was going on. Bux pulled up her shati and let Mill nurse.

Halling slid a large roll of paper from the tube. It was yellow, not pale green, and Bux realized this was old-fashioned paper, made from wood fibers and silk, fabulously expensive. It was almost as wide as the table, and when Halling unrolled it, weighing down the corners with heavy mugs that Yoj handed her to keep it flat, it was a bit longer than it was wide. Inside an ornate black border was a map of Skene -- not just the islands, but all the charted ocean beyond it, as far as lighters had been able to fly. Yerush let out a low whistle. This was as good a map as she had ever seen.

Yet it was more than a map of Skene. Colored in scarlet on the open ocean were all the known Morrie Strati, the reddish, viscous patches where leviathans congregated. These patches of red were outlined in blue ink, and had apparently been updated every few years, so the Morrie Strati's movements were notated. Bux was appalled to see that they were a circle of bloodstain blotches around the islands, like a perimeter, and while their borders shifted from side to side, they had never been noted to move farther away from Skene. Only narrow margins of blue ocean existed between them, safe paths that Halling must have to fly every day. Bux had had no idea they were so surrounded; she wondered if anybody besides pilots did know.

The second most striking feature of the map were hundreds of small blue X's that dotted the seas, both outlying and within the skein of islands, a few of them over land masses. Each X had a name next to it, and Bux realized these were the places where pilots had gone down. Following each name was a number.

In the one-inch margins of the map, beyond the black border, written in three different sets of minute handwriting, was each number attached to an X, with a date, a set of coordinates, and a brief description. Veida had come to stand beside Halling, her arm over Halling's shoulders, her other hand not quite touching the map as she traced some of the X's. After a minute, she looked into Halling's face and said "This goes back well over a hundred years. Where did you get this?"

"Mayim" answered Halling. Mayim was the sinner whom Xaya had died saving. Mayim was also who had tracked Halling down on Abfall and persuaded her to reel in her kite, return to flying as a sinner. Halling explained "She retired not long after -- I started sinning. This map had belonged to her habibi, a lighter and sinner, and she'd kept it updated when her habibi retired. She handed it on to me after I promised to keep it going."

Bux was trying to find Xaya's name on the map. Yoj followed her eyes, and came to stand next to Bux, pointing gently to a spot beyond the outermost fling where Yoj had grown up. Xaya's name was in black, not blue.

Halling looked at Yoj, and Yoj picked up her pack, pulling her notebook. "I wrote it down when it came over the radio" said Yoj, opening her notebook and reading a set of numbers to Halling. Halling used faint lines gridding the map to locate the exact coordinates. The spot was three squares on the grid north of Beras and one square east. Only a mile from a ferry line. Bux shuddered as Halling bent over the map with her uncapped fountain pen and made a neat X in the new spot, writing "Clun" and the next unused number. She then inked that number in the margin -- two sides of the map's margins were already filled -- and today's date, the coordinates Yoj had given her, and the words "Ambush from depth, routine haul". Her hands were shaking a little, and the letters were not quite true. But none of the entries were in a firm hand.

Yerush, who had been intently studying the map, asked "Why are there so few -- losses -- on the western side?" She pointed to the relatively clear ocean beyond the West Tendril.

Halling began tracing features she could see in her mind's eye onto the map with her forefinger. "The main fish migrations go here, from north to south along the eastern edge. The best fishing zones are north and especially east. The best kelp beds are south, with only a few west."

"So, you have more craft going down there in the east because you simply have more craft there?" persisted Yerush. Qen moved to stand on the other side of Bux and put her arm around Bux's waist. She looked down into Mill's face, pressed against Bux's breast, and gave her a reassuring smile.

Halling didn't answer immediately. Ng was sitting in the chair on Halling's right side, and Halling put her hand on Ng's shoulder for a moment, as if to steady herself, before she said "I think there's more leviathans north and east, and that's why we die there. The east is just crawling with them. Maybe because of the fish, maybe because we go there. Or maybe just -- the Morrie Strati is thickest there. I don't know for sure."

Veida said "This should be on the wall of the Lofthall. Does the Sheng Zhang know about it?"

"I showed it to her, yes" said Halling. There was bitterness in her tone, and she looked at Yoj, a shared anger in their glance. "She told me it was macabre and would just upset people, to keep it to myself."

Yerush made a clicking sound with her tongue against her teeth. It reminded Yoj of the scuttle a shu's claws made just before it lunged to bite.

Ng said "Halling, you need to eat. The ink is dry, can we roll this back up for now?"

Yoj helped Halling return the map to its tube. Qen began setting the table and Veida brought tea to everyone. Mill was done nursing, and when Halling saw that, she offered to take her from Bux. Bux handed her over, then helped the emmas get lunch served again. She sat down close to Halling and fed her bites while Halling murmured to Mill. Yoj sat down across from them, watching them with a full heart.

All of a sudden, Yoj remembered when she and Clun had been lovers, Clun delighted in bringing her honeycakes from a shop on the main street and feeding them to her bit by bit. She could recall the teasing look on Clun's face, the feel of Clun's fingers on her lips. Caught unaware, she burst into tears.

It was Yerush who reached her first, Yerush the distant who put her arms around Yoj from behind and held her close, whispering "It's as wrong as it can be. A wrong way to die, and a wrong reason to die." Yoj couldn't stop her sobs, and didn't try. When she finally calmed again, Yerush stepped away from her and went back to her own plate as if she'd never touched Yoj.

Halling finished eating, her face increasingly exhausted. She smiled sweetly at Yoj and said "I'm going to take a bath now, then rest. You need to lie down with me?"

Bux clearly wanted to be with Halling. Yoj, feeling better since her cry, said "No, you and Bux go nap. I'll stay with Mill." She knew the fear Bux was contending with. Bux went to fill the tub, then stripped down and joined Halling in the hot water, scrubbing her back and pulling Halling to lean against her, solid and alive in her arms. Yoj played with her baby and chatted with the emmas about the garden as dishes were washed and leftovers stored. Ng did not return to her studio; instead, she labored to Mill's toy basket, returning with Mill's favorite stacking rings and focusing completely on Mill's experiments with coordination. Veida went out to harvest green beans, more squash, and some chard for dinner. She sat at the table with Yoj and they snapped beans together. Yerush asked to use the study, and Yoj nodded. Qen did a load of diapers, then a load of shati, hanging them out in the still perfect sunshine.

When Qen came back in the house, she had an armload of new potatoes she'd just dug. Halling's favorite non-dessert dish of all time was potatoes baked with milk and cheese. Qen began scrubbing their pale red skins at the sink. Yerush returned from the study, her fingers ink-stained, and stood in the larder door for a moment, then turned to look at Ng and Yoj, asking "Shall I bake the last ham?" Yoj nodded at her. After tonight's meal, there would be enough left over to make sandwiches for Halling for the next two or three days. Bux and Halling did not emerge from the bedroom.

At 5:00, when the radio crackled into life, everyone went silent to listen to the forecast. It was a double crescent moon tonight. Tomorrow was going to be clear, with massing in the east. Yoj met Ng's eyes for a moment. Then she returned to playing with Mill.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

No comments: