Thursday, December 27, 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


The next morning they all awoke to rain. Bux, Halling and Yoj lay in bed together until 9:00, finding ways to pass the time. When they finally got up, everyone was out of the house -- Veida had been called to a birth on Faar, and Ng was in her studio. Yoj made ricecakes with apple butter, Halling scrambled eggs with more of the Yagi cheese, and Bux went out to the privy twice to throw up. She still ate, however, taking big sips of water between bites to keep her breakfast down.

It was too wet to work in the tillage. Halling went out to Ng's studio with scrub brushes and a bucket of hot soapy water to clean what she could of its dust-laden surfaces, and also watch her emma work. Bux took a long soak in the tub, then worked her way through the mending basket. Yoj holed up in her study and all but finished this week's song. They had a late lunch -- Halling carried a plate out to Ng -- and, after doing dishes and looking quizzically at each other, went back to bed. As Bux said, "Once the baby's here, days like this will be almost nonexistent."

The following day, it was clear enough to fly. Bux had Sheng Zhang work through lunch. Yoj finished her song and spent a few hours weeding, transplanting new lettuces, and building a trellis for another row of peas. She had beans baking for dinner, and two new recipes for bread rising in bowls next to the aga. When Bux got home, ravenous, Yoj made them a quick salad with ikan and was about to take a plate to Ng when Ng came in the back door, clay-streaked and cheerful.

"The firing I did yesterday is ready to be brought in, will you carry it for me?" she asked Yoj. Bux dished out lunch for Ng while she washed and Halling went to the studio. She came back with a metal tray stacked high with pale green cups, bowls and plates, all of them decorated in an interlocking design of purple hamsa and blue-green kelp.

"These are incredible" breathed Yoj, as she and Bux looked through Ng's work.

Ng said "I've deciphered the secret of that particular glaze. I'm going to do a series of bottles next, for kitchen oils, spices, you name it."

"They'll sell out immediately" predicted Bux. "Can we please keep this big bowl for us?"

"Of course" said Ng happily.

"Do you want me to take these to the shop for you?" offered Yoj.

"Not yet" said Ng, "I want everyone else to see them first."

"Listen, we're going for a walk" said Yoj. "If I put the bread in to bake, will you take it out when it's done?"

Ng nodded as Bux said "What walk?"

"I promised to show you that place on Sigrist Poke. And -- " Yoj looked at the clock " -- There's something else you should see."

They put on boots and gilets, since it was still cool from the previous day's rains, and started up the hill hand in hand. They sat for a quarter hour in the "talking spot", as Bux was calling it, discussing the fact that Bux would have to reach out to Culisa at some point. Ruptures in family had to be dealt with, however messy. Then Yoj said, "Come on, it's time" and led Bux around the perimeter of the Poke until they were on the ocean side, looking due north. They found another rock to sit on and Yoj pointed toward the horizon. They could see a few small shiny dots above a suspended lump, with even smaller specks zipping around them.

"That's Halling and the sinners!" exclaimed Bux.

"The forecast last night was massing in the north, so I thought they'd be flying home this way, directly over Bohaira and angling right to the docks at the last bit" said Yoj.

But just as Bux was going to comment on how taut the sinners kept the net stretched between them, how smoothly they moved, a monstrous pink shape erupted from the sea below them at a slight angle, its rictus of a mouth stretching visibly wide, even at this distance, as it snapped at the bottom of the net. It missed by what seemed like inches, although Yoj knew it was at least ten meters. Bux screamed and grabbed her throat as the leviathan slammed back down into the water with a white wave. The lighters were flying formation around the sinners but not descending lower than the net or doing any distraction maneuvers -- their risk was done for the day, unless something went wrong before the sinners reached dockside.

As they watched, every minute or so a leviathan made another try at the net, because that was the nearest target. Yoj knew if the lighters were singing and dipping, the leviathans would be focused on them instead -- she had seen it a couple of times, on lookouts like this when sinners were having difficulty bringing in the catch. It made her sick to her stomach to watch how the levis never gave up, not until they reached the shallows right before the atoll, when jumps were no longer physically possible.

Bux was leaned against her heavily. As Halling's craft, now easily distinguishable, crossed over the atoll into the safe zone of Bohaira, Bux let out the breath she had been holding and said, in a thick voice, "They hate us, don't they?"

Yoj nodded. "That's what Halling faces every day. Every sunny day, at least."

Bux stood up and said "We're going to be late, meeting her."

"She may have seen us up here" said Yoj, following Bux down the trail. "She's awfully good at spotting things on the islands."

When they reached the main street, Bux stopped suddenly and turned to Yoj. "I've never asked anyone this, and I don't think I can ask Halling -- do they -- the levis, I mean -- do they eat the pilots they bring down?"

With revulsion in her mouth, Yoj said "Yes. We think so. The few times wreckage has washed up on shore, the craft has been -- ripped into."

Bux closed her eyes and swayed. Yoj put out arms to hold her up. "But usually the impact kills the pilot first, or at least knocks her unconscious." Small comfort, and yet it was critical to know a living, alert woman did not go down those enormous gullets.

They ran into Halling walking back to the fish docks from the jigang, her guibba slung over her shoulder, sweat stains under her arms. Bux gave her an ardent series of kisses, which Halling, laughing, accepted with increasing response. When she turned to kiss Yoj as well, Halling said "You took her up to watch us fly in, huh".

"Yep" said Yoj. They walked together to pick out fish for the Manage. Bux took their gleaning home, while Halling and Yoj returning to the Lofthall, Halling to eat, Yoj to post the new song. Afterward, they went to Yoj's cubicle and lay down on her bed for a nap. As Halling was pulling off her boots, she said "One of the grapples slipped today."

Yoj's blood went clammy. "How did that happen? What did you do?"

"I don't know what malfunctioned, I told the jigongs at the jichang about it, they were taking apart things as I left. I told everybody to release, and we dropped the entire catch. Had to start over from scratch. By that time, we were surrounded. The lighters worked their asses off today."

Halling lay down, naked and exhausted. Yoj pulled her onto her shoulder and used one hand to rub Halling's shoulders.

"There's been no loss all year" said Yoj softly. "You're doing a great job, leading that crew."

"Longer than a year" answered Halling. "Since before we partnered with Bux. Don't tell her about today, by the way."

"Oh, Hall -- I'm not going to lie to her. That's why I took her up the Poke today. She can handle it, she's as strong as we are" answered Yoj. "And she wants to know, just like I do."

Halling sighed. "Okay, you're right. It just -- "

"I know. You want to be able to leave it behind, right? You can, but only if I take it on my shoulders for the time being. You sleep, and I'm here doing the remembering. Deal?" whispered Yoj.

"Deal" said Halling, already starting to drop off.

A few days later at dinner, Yoj said quietly to everyone busily eating "I went to visit the Ethicist today."

The effect was comical. Every eye turned to her as if on the same swivel. Bux and Yerush said in almost the same voice "What for?"

Yoj said slowly, "I took her a loaf of my bread. And I asked her to raze Isola Fling for planting wheat."

Qen gasped. A small, tight smile came onto Ng's face and she found Halling's eyes.

Yoj leaned her elbows on the table and rested her weight on them. "I said it was too isolated to raise healthy families, too overrun by shu and leviathans. I told her the only reason I am who I am is because of the intervention of others in my childhood." Here she looked up directly at Qen, and they could see she was fighting tears. "I said it was too risky to leave to chance. Not when we had the option of using that land for the good of Skene. We sliced the bread and ate it with tea. She thanked me for my candor, and said I'd be the first to know of her decision."

Then Yoj did burst into tears. She lay her face in her hands as her shoulders shook. Qen and Bux closed in on her from either side. From behind her palms, they heard Yoj wail "You're all I have now! This is all I have!"

Halling got up and came to stand behind her. She whispered "You have us forever. You're on solid ground, now. And you did Rosz proud. You did what someone should have done for her."

At that, Yoj's cries became shrieking. But the purge was effective. A few minutes later, Veida got a wet washcloth and Bux took it from her, determined to tenderly wipe Yoj's face herself.

Ng cut a fresh slice of bread, buttered it the way Yoj liked it, and leaned across the table to set it on Yoj's plate. "Here's to the goodness of life, in all its forms" she said, winking at Yoj.

Yoj lifted the bread, laughing, and everyone joined her in repeat Ng's toast. They resumed dinner.

Not quite a month later, Bux and Yoj were about to leave for work when a call came over Sigrist radio in Ktiva's voice, saying for Veida's services needed on Motu Fling: Moasi had gone into labor. Bux immediately looked at Veida in consternation. "Isn't this early?"

"About a week" acknowledged Veida. "But that's not uncommon for a first birth. And if there were troubles, Ktiva would have said. Her emmas are there, and they are well-experienced. Yoj, go get Ng from her studio while I pack quickly."

When Ng sat, breathless, at the table, Yoj said "Bux and I can take off work and carry you to Motu, I think." Veida glanced at Bux and said "No, I'd rather she not exert herself that much. And I'd offer to help, only I have to run the overland parts."

"Then I'll go get pilots from the Lofthall" began Yoj, but Ng held up her hand and said "No. I'll wait on Halling. The ferries will stop in an hour, anyhow, it's going to be all Veida can do to make it. If we get there in six hours, we'll either be in time or we'll be the first visitors to see my grandchild." She was still breathless, and Yoj realized much of it was excitement.

"I have to rush off" said Veida, shouldering her bag and grabbing her burzaka at the front door. Once the door was closed, Ng said "Go tell Lawa, she's likely out in the fields already. Tell her she can come here and carry me to the jichang with you to meet Halling, and we'll fly out together. Tell her it won't be overnight -- they don't have room for us all, and new emmas are overwhelmed enough as it is. We can go back this weekend and stay at the hostel on Seda."

Bux and Yoj left soon afterward. When Yoj found Lawa in the avocado greenhouse, she yelled across the steamy room "Hey! Sibemma! I'm a sibemma, too!"

Moasi was still in labor when they arrived at Motu Fling, her face haggard, her body wracked in pain, but Veida reported progress was good and the baby was fine. She finally arrived just past 7:00, dark and loud, with an immediate will to nurse and an irregular blue spot on her lower back. They named her Mwiva.

By the time Halling said she really had to fly them home, clouds were piling up, it was 10 and Moasi was exhaustedly asleep. Veida decided it was safe for her to leave with them -- Ktiva's emmas promised to call for any change, and Tu was there overnight from Seda. The rain arrived just as Halling was landing her sinner. She took Ng on her back, under her burzaka, saying it was easier at this level of tiredness. She had had no nap and was looking exhausted herself.

Lawa stayed the night with Ng. The next dawn, Halling awoke to torrential downpour, gave thanks out loud and rolled over to sleep again in Bux's arms. When they all got up for breakfast, they kept referring to Ng as "abba", which never stopped making her laugh.

Veida, her hair not yet combed, asked Bux from over her porridge "How was it for you, seeing that delivery? Now that you are on the same ferry line, so to speak."

Bux considered, then said "I've seen many births before but you're right, this felt -- personal. Not just because I'm a sibemma to this little one. The thing is, though: I feel ready. I don't relish the pain or the test of my endurance, but I think I'm up for it."

Veida beamed at her and said "Put more strawberries in your cereal, here, take my share. And sprinkle on some sunflower seeds. We need to make sure you eat an egg every day, and the chicken livers we've been freezing are going to you alone until you deliver."

Bux had begun receiving the extra allotment of milk and cheese given to pregnant women. Even so, her partners gave up part of their shares as well, and she ate it gladly.

When she entered her fourth month, she was no longer sick in the mornings, and her energy was high. She was working full-time as assistant secretary for the Sheng Zhang now, saying they'd use the extra income when she took off six months after the baby was born. Whenever she had a wandmaler job, Halling insisted on flying her there and back, to avoid long commutes and lessen her time away from home.

Veida was weeding and aerating in the tillage one afternoon when a young woman motioned to her from the wall beside the lane. Veida walked over and the woman introduced herself as Sonne, working for the water and drainage section of the municipality. "I knocked at your door, but no one answered" Sonne said. "I need to check your gauges and drainage system."

"Nobody inside" answered Veida. "You want to come through the house or just climb the wall?"

Sonne had on work overalls, so she opted for scaling the wall and went directly to the grey water tank. She had a small tool kit but also a notebook, and Veida noticed she was writing down figures more than she tinkered with dials.

"Do we have some sort of blockage we've not noticed?" Veida asked.

Sonne didn't answer her directly. Instead she said "Have you ever disconnected one of these pipes or altered the configuration?"

"Why would we do that?" replied Veida, feeling unease. "Check 'em yourself, looks to me like they're rusted shut."

Sonne did, in fact, use a wrench on the connections, establishing they could not be easily turned. She also inspected the freshwater hydrant, which was only used for refilling drinking water for fowl or other rare circumstances. She then asked to look inside the house and Veida led her into the kitchen and bath room, where Sonne made more notes in silence. Veida was standing by the table, wondering whether to be more confrontational, when the front door opened and Bux, Halling and Yoj came home. Sonne had just emerged from the bath room, and when she looked up and saw Yoj, they both reacted with surprised recognition.

"H'llo, Sonne" said Yoj. "What're you doing here?"

Halling glanced at Bux, who was already stiffening.

"I work for the municipality now, water department. Just doing a routine inspection" Sonne said. "You and Hall live here?'

"Yes" said Yoj. "We're partnered with Bux now, about to have our first child."

Bux thought if Yoj reached out a hand and cradled her belly, she would slap it. But Yoj didn't seem very nervous, and behaved herself. She wondered if her suspicions were off, then, about this being one of Yoj's past affairs.

Sonne looked genuinely pleased. "How wonderful for you all!" She shook their hands, then turned to Veida and said "Thanks for showing me around."

"Don't you need me to sign something?" asked Veida. Bureacracy was thick on Skene.

"No, all done" said Sonne, again with a hint of evasion. Yoj seemed to notice it, and the expression on Veida's face. After a second, she said "I'll walk you to the lane, Sonne." She didn't look at Bux as they went out the front door.

Once they were in the lane, Yoj said in a low voice "Are we in some kind of trouble? This Manage is run with integrity, Sonne. Why are we being inspected?"

Sonne hesitated. Yoj met her eyes. Theirs had been an easy break-up, and an easy sweetness before that. She still liked Yoj. Finally she admitted "There was a complaint lodged against you. A claim that you were dumping grey water into the rain run-offs, deliberately contaminating it, and also using way more than your share of fresh. The monitors did show a dramatic increase in fresh usage this year, so..."

"Yeah, me and Halling moved in, plus her emma, and we expanded the tillage. I imagine we doubled our usage" said Yoj.

"Well, everything checked out, so there'll be no further action" said Sonne.

"Who would say such a thing about us? Was it a neighbor?" asked Yoj.

Sonne set her jaw. "I really can't tell you, Yoj. Just that it seemed -- credible."

"Oh, come on, Sonne, this is a problem for us. If someone is registering false reports against us, it's going to crop up elsewhere. Give me some kind of a lead" begged Yoj.

Sonne took a deep breath, then said "The letter came from off Riesig."

"Which island?" urged Yoj.

"That's it, that's really all I can give you" said Sonne. Yoj could tell she'd reached her limit.

"All right, then. Thanks for the tip, Sonne." Then, changing her tone, Yoj asked kindly, "How are you? I mean, aside from work."

Sonne's face relaxed. "Happy. In love, about to partner. And I do love my work, too."

"Congratulations to you, too, then" said Yoj. They hugged, a trifle awkwardly, and Sonne went on down the lane.

Back in the house, Bux had been counting the seconds and was trying to quiet her agitation by vigorously chopping spinach. Halling had gone to see if Ng needed anything lifted, and they were both back at the table. Halling didn't want to nap just yet.

Yoj sat down opposite Halling, looked at Veida and said "Someone lodged a complaint against us." She told them what Sonne had said. Veida and Ng were both instantly furious. This was as serious as it seemed, then. They were still ranting when Qen and Yerush came home at the same time.

Veida went through her account of what Sonne had looked at, and Yoj again repeated most of what Sonne had told her. Before she could finish, Yerush exploded, saying "If this is sour grapes on the part of some levving neighbor who can't grow as much as we do because she's too levving lazy to work as hard -- "

"It's not a neighbor" interrupted Yoj.

"What do you mean? She told you who it was?" said Qen. Bux's knuckles tightened on her knife.

"No, she wouldn't go that far, although I pressed her. But she did say the letter came from another island. She wouldn't say which one." Yoj had been lodged in the sick fear that perhaps some member of her family had snapped and was retaliating against her for giving up Isola. When Yerush's face registered a click, however, and then Qen's, Yoj realized it wasn't what she had dreaded.

Yerush said softly, "Like when she ripped up Paha's graduation outfit."

Qen answered "But this is far, far worse."

Veida's face now showed comprehension, too. She said "One of us has to go talk to her. This has to be stopped."

Bux had set down her knife and come to lean against Yoj's back.

Qen said "I'll go. I get through to her better." But Bux spoke up: "Pardon me for disagreeing, but I think this time, it has to be you, aggie", looking at Yerush.

Yerush's face flushed. "Why me? Are you blaming me somehow for this?"

"Not blame, aggie. None of us deserved this" replied Bux. "Still -- it's you she feels most wronged by. She thinks you never loved her enough, not as much as you loved Paha or, in particular, me. I don't know how to heal an old wound like that, but if anybody can, it will need to be you."

Qen expostulated "I am so tired of hearing that, all three of you were loved equally, and yes the oldest matured earlier, and you were the baby, so we had to treat you differently, but she's a grown woman now, she should know better!"

"But clearly she doesn't" said Veida softly. "And this could have made lasting trouble for us. If she goes further, it isn't just us who could run afoul of the Ethicist. It's her in jeopardy as well, if it gets out."

There was a long silence. Yerush had been biting her lip, something Yoj had never even imagined she could do. Finally she said "We do love them all equally", looking at Qen. "But Culisa always -- rubbed me the wrong way. Much more easily than the other two. And -- I was so relieved when she moved out, leaving just Bux here. I did prefer Bux in the Manage. I'll admit it."

It was shocking to hear. No one argued with her, though, not even Veida.

"Well, then. After Market this weekend, I'll go to Yagi. There's a hostel, I'll take a room for overnight, just to give her breathing space" said Yerush. Halling offered to fly her after her shift, and Yerush accepted.

Qen went to look in the larder. "Take her some of our strawberries, we'll skimp by, and -- " she turned to look Yoj. "Would it be all right if we gave her some of your bread?"

"Not only that" said Yoj, "But go into the crates of Rosz's silk and pick out the lengths you know she'd like."

"Oh, no, Yoj, that's your inheritance -- " began Bux.

"Yes, and it's meant for my family. She's my sib-in-law. I'll give the same to Paha and Tlochin. And Halling's sibs" said Yoj. Bux kissed Yoj's temple.

"Okay, then, I'm going to sleep a bit" said Halling, standing.

Yoj began helping Bux with dinner, while the emmas sat at the table, drinking tea and talking over the pitfalls of childrearing. As Yoj mixed beancakes with pepper sauce, Bux asked her quietly "You and Sonne, were you -- ?"

"Yes. Briefly. Friends now" answered Yoj.

"I'm glad it was her who came to inspect" said Bux. Yoj kissed her, and they were at peace.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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