Friday, December 14, 2007


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read Chapter One, go here. 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:
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Logically, it would seem that Flings were the last pieces of Skene soil to be occupied, because ferry commutes were difficult to establish and maintain. Isolation was a fact of life on Flings. But that had always appealed to some people, and although Flings were available only to Manages who raised children, even families could be anti-social.

The first Flings to be settled were those on a necessary ferry line anyhow, where the labor involved in building an underwater reef high and wide enough to forestall leviathan attack at low tide seemed an investment worth making. In the West Tendril, these routes were Bosco to Yagi (with Helle and Oase Flings plus Selva and Ziza Secanos in between), Argile to Seda to Byli (with Motu and Krk Flings along the way). Thus, Motu Fling, Halling's home island, was an ancient Fling which had been in her aggie's family for many generations.

But between Byli in the north and Yagi to the south lay a string of eight Flings, one of them a double, where the waters were deep and the tides strong. Morrie vaseo had been won late and at great expense. Children on those Flings were faced such a long commute to school that most of them were boarded at the dormitory during the week, flown back and forth for the weekends by the school sinner.

In the East Tendril, Juh to Abfall to Chloddia/Exploit (hopscotching Refugio, Inish, Ada and Eyja Flings) was an original passage. Similarly, Faar to Beras/Yanja by way of Escollo and Yanuyanu (double) Fling had been obvious. But in the East, Flings which extended beyond large islands out toward morrie strati territory -- Saari, Ostrov, Insula and Isola Flings -- were only included once the pressure for land had been overwhelming. Isola and Ostrov were the least desirable territory on Skene. Even Abfall, with its large fields of rotting compost, was a better place to raise a family.

Yoj was from Isola Fling.

Because during the Troubles, five centuries earlier, some islands had waged war on others, no island was allowed to develop its own government. Instead, spheres of endeavor elected their particular Sheng Zhang, who managed their details across all islands. When Sheng Zhangs clashed or bigger issues needed resolution, there was an Ethicist who could make a decision for all Skene on a temporary basis, until it could come up for a vote. Ethicists were elected every half year, and Sheng Zhangs were elected every year at the annual Vote which covered all ultimate issues of government. Ethicists who went against the will of Skene were soon out of office.

There was no newspaper, because even kelp paper was rationed. Sigrist radio was limited to community interest and general safety broadcasts. Postings at public kiosks on main islands were the main means of information-sharing. That, and gossip, which spread rapidly to even the most remote Fling. The mail service on Skene ran twice a day, dependent on ferry schedule to reach from one Tendril to the other, and most Skeners were good correspondents.

Likewise, despite the scarcity of books, Skeners were readers. The University library was available to all, and every main island had a local branch with a catalog whereby anyone could order books for delivery by the next post if it was in the stacks. Skene had its share of authors and poets. There was also a vast backlog of works from the past stored on disk, and every month a few of these were printed out and added to the library holdings.

The language of the original settlers required a course at the U to decipher -- bewilderingly, they seemed to have had more than one language, despite being such a small number of people -- so the books retrieved for publication tended to be more modern and accessible. Yoj, however, was most drawn to writings in dead languages, where not just the vobaculary but the attitudes and concepts themselves were often alien in the extreme.

Halling had come back from her work shift, eaten and laid down in Yoj's cubicle for her nap. Yoj went to the library to see if she could find some sort of idiom dictionary for the original settlers' language. She had barely reached the stacks when the tell-tale crackle and breath of a radio announcement froze her in her tracks. Every building in Skene had a live radio feed on during daylight hours. The Sigrist on the highest peak on Skene announced weather and time twice a day, tides several times a day, forecast the next day's weather at 5:00, births and deaths. But she also came on the air suddenly for emergencies.

Everyone else in the library was still, waiting. It wasn't the Sigrist's voice, however. It was a high, desperate jumble: "This is Tche of Krk Fling, oh, help, please, a leviathan has just attacked my partner Zra, she was gathering long xu from the cortices at the gabal -- it's a juvenile -- " There was strangled sobbing and screams, then she said "It's -- she's inside it, and it's jammed on the rocks, not back in the water, please, somebody save her!"

Yoj put her hand against the wall to steady herself. Sigrist said "We hear, Tche, pilots on their way."

Yoj broke into a run for the front door. She intercepted Halling before she reached the Lofthall, Halling's shati outside her ku and her cap forgotten. They raced into the dispatch room together, where a throng of pilots were listening to Qala, the radio operator, talking to the Sigrist on the private Lofthall frequency.

"Sheng Zhang is not here and we're not sure where she is, she's not called in yet -- Hang on, Sigrist, Halling's here, back in half a min -- " Qala turned and said "You willing to take charge?"

"Yeah. We need eight lighters, our most experienced -- " Halling turned and pointed to women in robin-blue uniforms. "Go right now and do a survey, no altitude lower than 30 meters unless you hear different from me or you see a person in direct distress. I'll be in the air shortly." The lighters pushed out of the room, their otos thudding down the hallway.

"I need to see a map of the West Tendril" Halling said, and Qala pulled one from the shelf beside her. Halling spread it on the nearby desk and leaned over it. The rest of the pilots in the room jostled beside her. "Okay, there's a deep right off Krk gabal there, I guess enough for a juvie to make a stupid try, the shitter." Halling looked up at Schla, her wrangler. "Schla, go pull out four sets of cables with loops and four with hooks, at least 40 meters in length. Lmape, help her." Halling looked at the sinners remaining and pointed to a third pilot in mustard-yellow, saying "You, too, Funa. Go distribute the cables between our four sinners. And add a stretcher to my sinner. Warm up, I'll be there in a minute."

To the remaining pilots, she said "Stay here on ready alert, and if Qala needs you for any sort of run, get in the air and radio me afterward. Understood?" They nodded.

She turned to Qala and said "Broadcast on the Sigrist frequency, so Tche hears it, that one of us will be landing at Krk within ten minutes. I'll land either there or Motu Fling, and I'll tell you the plan after we assess the scene."

Qala picked up the mic, but before turning it on, she said "Any chance Zra is still alive?"

"None at all" said Halling grimly, rolling up the map to take with her.

She began heading out the door. Yoj ran after her, and in the hall she grabbed her arm and said "Hall, let me go with you. I can squeeze in behind your seat, I won't get in your way, I promise."

Halling looked at her in astonishment. "You can hear what happens here, with Qala, it's not something you necessarily want to witness -- "

"No, it's not that. It's just -- if you go down, I want to be with you" said Yoj desperately.

There was no way to save a pilot who crashed in the ocean. The levs were too quick and voracious. And Skene had no weapons -- they had been outlawed since the Troubles.

Halling pulled Yoj into a brutally tight hug. "I'm not going down" she said into Yoj's ear. "I'm not leaving you." She kissed her and ran out the front of the Lofthall.

Yoj choked back a sob, then turned with blurry vision and went back to the desk beside Qala's. Qala was beginning the broadcast Halling had requested, her voice calm and steady. Qala was a year older than Halling and Yoj's closest friend, next to Halling. She was wide and a smidge taller than Halling, with pecan-brown skin and black curls that hung to her shoulders.

When Qala was done, the Sigrist reminded people that it was high tide for another few hours, there was no Morrie Vaseo, to stay away from cortices and low shorelines, and that ferries would not being running again until the all-clear was given after Morrie Vaseo.

Qala pulled a second map from her shelf and spread it beside her.

"Where is the levving Sheng Zhang?" burst out Yoj.

"Last I knew, she was going to a meeting with someone connected to lumber hauling from Bosco" said Qala tensely. "She's supposed to tell me if she leaves Riesig, especially if the ferries are about to stop running. Maybe she's in the woods or away from a radio -- "

Pilot voices came over the Lofthall frequency, Schla saying "The West Tendril just beyond Riesig is working alive with leviathans, they must know about the juvie in distress." Her voice sounded a little sick. Two seconds later, Funa said "I'm over Krk, oh, shards, it's completely beached itself and it's not moving."

"They die fast out of water" said Qala almost to herself.

Halling's voice said "Lmape, is the jichang at Krk large enough to hold a sinner plus a lighter?"

"No" said Lmape, "Just a school sinner, that's it's max."

"Then Schla, proceed on to Krk and set down. We can't leave the lev there, dead ones bloat and split open within a day." Yoj closed her eyes at this image.

Halling went on in a toneless voice, "Tche is going to be hysterical, deal with it as best you can. Tell her you have to look at the gabal and try to keep her from following you. They have children, keep the kids away no matter what. I need you to look over the edge and assess the chances of snagging that thing. I'm going to land at Motu but I'll stay in my craft."

"Got it" said Schla.

"The rest of you, do quadrant sweeps and give me concrete numbers of levs spotted. And if you see any idiots on cliff edges or exposed shores, you have my permission to buzz them and use your loudspeakers to tell them to get the lev back to safety. Just stay above leap height."

A chorus of voices gave their assent.

"Thank all that's good, Ng isn't on a ferry right now" said Yoj fervently. Ng was Halling's surviving emma and she worked as a faryaste every day on the ferry route between Krk Fling to Seda. Yoj was sure part of the reason Halling was landing at Motu Fling, her family's Manage, was to reassure herself about Ng's safety and give Ng the reassurance of seeing Halling. Ng and Halling were very close, always had been.

Halling came back on and said "Qala, will you use Sigrist radio to ask the Ethicist to join you there, and that the hospital be on standby?"

"Will do" said Qala. But the Sigrist must have been listening in on the Lofthall frequency as well as her own, because she immediately made the announcement before Qala could do it.

Qala leaned over to Yoj and said in a very low voice, "Did I hear you ask to go with Halling?"

"Yes" whispered Yoj. As Qala looked at her levelly, Yoj said "She's all the family I have."

"You have the Lofthall. You have me" said Qala, not wounded or critical, but emphatic.

Embarrassed, Yoj focused on the map. Immediately around the islands were depth markings, and of course along the ferry routes, but within 8 meters of an island's outline, the chart went blank.

"Why don't we know how deep it is, shit, all over both Tendrils and even here off Riesig?" demanded Yoj.

"Only way to take soundings is to throw a line from the shore" said Qala. "Lowering cables into deeps is like fishing for a lev attack."

"How did we construct the ferry lines, then?" Yoj was tracing them with her finger.

"Dump some rock from a high-hauling sinner, somebody inch out along the new ridge, take another sounding, dump some more. That's why it took over 100 years to link all the islands by ferry" said Qala, her brow furrowed, waiting for Schla or Halling to say something.

"People volunteered for that job?" asked Yoj.

"Not very often. Half died, from what I hear. Still, it was the only way to expand and still have contact with the rest of Skene" said Qala.

Foln, the Ethicist, came in the door. She was authorized to handle emergency decisions. She was a little bit older than Yoj's emmas, but her hair was still crisply black and she was a round, serious, light brown woman. Qala filled her in.

Schla's voice, breathless, suddenly came on line. "It's definitely dead. Its mouth is gaping partway open and the head is facing upward, tail not quite in the water. There's no sign of Zra." Yoj closed her eyes -- she'd been gulped down, then. Macerated along the way by the dentigerous leviathan gullet. "I'm thinking one or two cables looped through the mouth, trying to pull it literally backwards toward the surf, with a third hooked in the tail to help direct. Might work" said cautious Schla.

Leviathans had fins but they were placed in a spiral around their bodies, nothing snaggable. And their tails were not like regular fish, just came to an elongated point.

"All right. Lmape, you hear that?" said Halling.

"Yes" answered Lmape.

Qala jumped in to say, "Halling, the Ethicist's here."

"Good" said Halling. "Here's the plan I want to try: It'll be us three. Schla, you do the first loop, because that needs to go furthest down on the -- trunk. Lmape, you snag the tail, and I mean it, no altitude below 30 meters. I'll take the second loop." Halling, of course, was leaving the most difficult and potentially dangerous part for herself. She went on, "At the first sign of a lev connecting with cable, release your grapples and we'll start over. No heroics. Funa, you stand sentry."

The trio agreed. Halling said, "Nan Foln, as Ethicist, can you give us leave to jettison a leviathan from the cortice of Krk Fling, knowing there's a body inside?"

Foln said bleakly "I so give leave. I'll write a death report to that effect and get it cleared through the coroner. We'll need your signature, though."

"You'll have it" said Halling. "Qala, Tche's siba lives on Ikrus Fling. Will you please send the school sinner to pick her up and land her on Krk as soon as Schla's in the air? Once it becomes apparent we're gonna dump the lev, Tche's going to fall apart, kids or no kids" said Halling. "Her siba can help get them packed up and take them home with her until she figures out how to go on."

Qala pointed to a pilot already standing at attention across the room and jerked her thumb toward the door, calling out "Clun, tell her there's no hope, but be kind about it".

The next half-hour was nerve-wracking, as Schla and Halling improvised lassoing a massive, slimy, ovoid creature. Halling's voice was non-stop, giving encouragement, issuing patient instructions, expressing no fear or haste. Finally she said "That's 8 meters from the edge, at high tide that's enough, release your grapples!" There was a clank, and a hoarse cheer from all the pilots.

"Sunk like a stone" said Halling. Then, "Look at 'em, watch out, they're so worked up they're gonna jump no matter how high we are. Listen, everybody besides Clun, go back to the jichang, stay collected, no rush. Good work. Clun, you at the radio?"

"Yeah. Tche's siba has just gone in the Manage" answered Clun.

"You lift off and go wait at Motu, it's nearest. I know Tche, I'll land there and help deal with -- the news. When they're ready to go back to Ikrus, I'll call you. Get my emma to give you some of her spearmint tea and a soy bar" said Halling.

Qala asked, "All right if we release this to the Sigrist, to let everyone else know it's over?"

"Wait ten minutes until I can get inside and with Tche, she should hear it from me first and -- we'll need to turn off their radio inside, maybe, so the children don't have to listen to it."

Two minutes later, Igoz, Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, bustled in the door and said "Give me a status report immediately!" Igoz was the same basic build and coloring as Qala, though a generation older and somehow on her, Yoj thought, the skin was dull, the set of her shoulders guilty.

Qala, managing to keep her tone completely neutral, gave a succinct reporting of the events. The first thing out of Igoz's mouth was "That stupid woman, what was she doing gathering long xu at high tide next to a known deep?"

"I guess she's learned her lesson" said Yoj, not holding back her venom. Igoz recoiled as if stung, and said "Of course, I didn't mean to speak ill of the -- " She halted, and Yoj, unable to control herself, said "Not yet digested?"

Igoz sucked in her breath. Qala looked at her and said "You're spent, Yoj. Go to the canteen, drink some tea yourself. You can lie down on Halling's bunk until she's on her way back, I'll come get you before she lands."

Yoj accepted this suggestion and left the room. Two hours later, Halling was back, looking ashen from exhaustion. They ate dinner in silence at a table of subdued pilots, and Halling consented to lean on Yoj as they trudged back to their cubicle.

"How was Ng?" said Yoj, as they undressed.

"Glad to see me. Horrified about Zra -- she and I rode emma's ferry to school together every day, you know" said Halling.

"No, I didn't know that. Oh, Halling, I'm so sorry" said Yoj.

"And emma -- she's given up her cane in favor of forearm crutches. Shiny new metal ones. Says it's much easier on her hips, and she did seem to be moving faster on them" said Halling. But her face showed grave concern.

"Lie down here and let it all out" said Yoj, pressing against the wall so Halling would have as much room as she could spare. Halling cried herself to sleep, and Yoj dropped off right after.

A week later, Halling got a letter from Ng, saying that Tche and her two children had returned to Krk Fling, joined by an unpartnered cousin who had offered to stay with them indefinitely. Halling and Yoj both went to the memorial service on Seda for Zra. There was no funeral because there was no body to bury.

A couple of months later, Halling had, as usual, left for work just before dawn. Yoj always woke up in her cubicle bed long enough to kiss her goodbye, then went back to sleep. This morning she woke up again at 7:00, went to the Lofthall for tea, toast and a shower, and got to the University library by 7:45. She was usually the first one there, but this morning someone else was seated at a table near the stacks, bent over a notebook. When she walked by, she saw it was Bux, now noticeably grown up. Her womanly ass was clearly visible through the back of the chair. She looked up and saw Yoj, and Yoj gave her a nod as she passed by to the stacks. Bux's notebook page gave a tantalizing glimpse of a genealogy, and a sketch of a face that Yoj thought she recognized from Skene history.

Yoj found herself repeatedly distracted while she was scouring the shelves for what she needed. Finally locating a couple of books, she returned by the same path, hoping to get another glimpse of that sketch. She slowed down behind Bux, enough to tell that, yes, it was a drawing of Pearl Goldfarb. Now, why would Bux be drawing the face of a woman dead nearly 500 years?

Yoj didn't realize she had stopped until Bux turned around in her chair and looked at her quizzically. Yoj stammered "Oh, hi. You're Bux, aren't you?"

"Yes, Yoj" said Bux with a voice that was now very grown up, too. She continued to level her bright blue eyes on Yoj. Yoj realized Bux had eyes exactly like her emma Yerush.

Yoj got to the point. "I see you're drawing Pearl Goldfarb, and I can't help wondering why" she said.

Bux looked surprised. "We'll, I can't help wondering how on in the world you are able to recognize her" she replied. She patted the chair beside her, and Yoj sat down without hesitation.

Bux pushed her notebook toward Yoj. "I'm commissioned to re-do a mural in a Manage that's moved. Their lineage goes all the way back to Pearl, and I'm here to make sure I do at least as good a representation as the original artist. That's my story, what's yours?"

"I'm fascinated with her, with the three of them who created our first Archives -- you know about that, right?" said Yoj. When Bux nodded, Yoj said "Well, of course you do, I learned about it from Nan Yerush in one of her classes, you must have heard about it at the dinner table growing up."

"They taught us in school, too, Yoj -- at least, I got it in second grade from my emma Qen. But yes, I did hear about it at home, too. Those three -- Pearl, Kenneth Chen, and Elaine Yoshimura, who carried the temperature-controlled cases of irreplaceable records and seedstock, plus the 51 Contributions that keep us able to have children, and hid them in the caverns on Seda until the Troubles were over. Emma says we, too, are descended from Pearl."

"Really?" said Yoj, very impressed. "Is she on your mural?"

"Yes, although the painting of her is poor, if this photograph is any judge. I think I'll have to re-do our mural as well" said Bux, pointing to the history text open in front of her.

"Is that what I see you in here doing, studying history books for murals?" asked Yoj.

Bux was thrilled to the core to hear that Yoj had actually been noticing her. "Yes. And you -- do you come here to study history for your songs?"

"Partly" said Yoj, also making the connection that Bux had registered her presence in the library. She couldn't quite stop looking at Bux's blue eyes. "I also need to study meter and past poetic usages. I have to come up with something really different each week."

"To keep Halling alive" said Bux. This simple comprehension moved Yoj deeply. After a minute, she said "Is it okay if I sit here with you?"

Bux laughed and said "I invited you, remember? Seems to me like we already covered this ground."

Yoj was a little flustered, and didn't understand why. But she was extremely glad to be near Bux. She open her books and pulled out her own notes, trying to focus. Within a minute, however, she had begun talking to Bux again, pointing out that Pearl's blue eyes were very like her own, did Bux think this was an indicator of the lineage? Bux was all too glad to converse, and they got so engrossed in talking history that the librarian at her desk cleared her throat loudly, reminding them to keep their voices down.

"Even though we're the only ones here so far" whispered Yoj, leaning over near Bux, close enough to smell lavender in her hair.

Bux continued whispering in return, asking "So, Yoj la Rosz, what illustrious ancestors appear in your mural?"

Yoj closed her eyes momentarily at the mention of her aggie's name and the fact that Bux knew it. An unknown ache came over her. She answered, with this emotion naked in her voice, "I don't know. We don't -- didn't have a mural at our Manage. On Isola Fling."

She was somehow not surprised to see that Bux knew which Fling she came from. Bux leaned her mouth very close to Yoj's ear to say "I could research your lineage for you, if you like. It would be interesting to know, I think."

"I'd love it" said Yoj. "I'd -- like to see yours, too."

"There's a copy here, as far as Yerush's aggie, on the ancestry shelves" said Bux.

"I'll get it" said Yoj, scrambling to her feet and walking swiftly into the stacks. It felt almost as if she were fleeing something. Her body felt strange. Once in the ancestry section, however, she realized she hadn't gotten the name of the book from Bux. She stood for a minute, leaning against the end of a shelf, her eyes closed, trying to figure out if she were coming down with something.

Bux's voice right beside her make her jump. "Are you all right?" she asked with concern. Yoj looked deep into those wide blue eyes and said "I don't know. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Do you need to lie down? Or drink some tea?" asked Bux. "Where's Halling, at work?"

The mention of Halling helped ground Yoj a little. "Yes, she won't be back for hours." Then, for no reason she could have named, she asked Bux "What about you? Are you partnered? Or -- seeing some one?"

Bux's face went slowly red, and when she didn't answer immediately, Yoj began "Oh, lev, I'm so sorry, I have no idea why I thought I could pry like that -- "

Bux put her hand on Yoj's arm, effectively stopping Yoj's ability to speak, and said softly "I'm not partnered. I'm not dating. But I do have someone who is my heart's desire."

Yoj had to close her eyes again, and this time she definitely thought she might pass out. She felt cold all over. Bux slid her arm underneath Yoj's and said "Let's go sit down, you've gone completely pale."

Yoj resisted, however. She opened her eyes and, looking away from those blue eyes, said "'re being very kind, Bux. Your heart's desire is an extremely lucky woman."

"She doesn't know, yet, she is my heart's desire" whispered Bux. Something in her tone made Yoj risk looking at her.

"Why not?" said Yoj. "I mean, why don't you tell her? She'll want to know, believe me."

"Well, then" said Bux, with an extraordinary smile lighting up her face, "I suppose I just did let her know."

It took Yoj several long, confused seconds to understand. By the time she did, Bux was leaning the last few inches toward her. When Bux's mouth met hers, Yoj gasped and pulled back briefly from the intensity. This wasn't like any kiss she had ever felt. The hunger in her was not like any desire she had ever felt. Then she pulled Bux to her and kissed her with abandon, making wild sounds and clutching Bux for whatever stability she could grab.

After a few minutes, Yoj sucked in air and pulled back so she could look at Bux again. "Really, you really love me?" she said.

"I do, Yoj" said Bux.

"I think I must love you, too. I mean, I don't know what else this could be. I've never felt this" babbled Yoj. Bux shushed her and whispered "I want you, Yoj. I want to be partnered with you."

Yoj stared at her. "Me and Halling, you mean. Because I'm already -- "

Bux interrupted. "Yes, both of you. I want to be with you always."

"Oh, Bux, I do too. I mean, this is crazy, how can I be saying this? But I feel it, I do." They began kissing again.

They were interrupted by the outraged librarian, who said loudly "Of all people, Yoj, I can't believe you're using the stacks as a place to grope someone -- "

"Forgive me" said Yoj, mortified. "It just happened. We'll go sit down now."

She and Bux scurried back to their table, not able to resist touching each other the entire way. Once seated next to each other, Bux began giggling and had to clamp both hands over her mouth to keep from making an unseemly racket. Yoj leaned against her, whispering things in her ear, which didn't help. Finally Bux looked around, didn't see the librarian, and kissed Yoj again, cutting it off before they lost control.

Yoj had trouble catching her breath. When she did, she whispered "I haven't been with anyone but Halling in ages, Bux. This is -- I can't have an affair with you, what I'm feeling is not an affair kind of thing."

"Good" said Bux. "Me, neither."

Yoj looked at her, now allowing herself to wallow in those blue eyes. "Me and Halling, we put up a slate, we're looking -- "

"I saw it" said Bux, noticeably cooler. "I didn't feel like being advertised for."

"What levving idiots we were" whispered Yoj.

"Agreed" said Bux.

"So -- oh, Bux, if you don't want to aggie, then one of us will, I don't care, I just want you" said Yoj in a torrent.

"Good" said Bux. "But as it happens, I've wanted to aggie all my life, and your babies are the ones I want to have."

Yoj was lightheaded again. "Listen, Bux, could we go someplace else? I have a cubicle at the U, we could be private there -- "

"I have a bedroom. All to myself" said Bux.

"Okay" said Yoj, standing up.

"Get your notebook, darling" said Bux with a laugh.

"Oh, right. Oh, I've got books out -- "

"The librarian will put them away this once" said Bux, tugging Yoj toward the door.

Bux's Manage was within a ten-minute walk from the University, along a lane of Manages above the main shop street in Riesig Pliss. Behind her home were another two or maybe three lanes of Manages, it looked to be, and then the rongyan wall which meant cliff and beyond that Bohaira Lagoon. The lane to her house was slightly uphill, and at the crest of the hill was the school where Yoj had gone for 13 years without taking the kind of notice of Bux she now felt setting her body alight. Partway up the hill, once past the view of shopkeepers, Bux had reached out to take her hand. Bux's hand was wide and strong, though not calloused like Halling's. Yoj began walking more quickly, wanting the privacy of walls to kiss Bux again, a kiss that didn't have to end.

Bux's copper front door, ancient with patina, was carved with mythological creatures such as caos and horses. They tumbled down the two steps into the front room and in the sudden warmth, Bux turned and slid into her arms. But over Bux's shoulder, Yoj saw three middle-aged women, one still in her schmatta, sitting at the broad polished stone table in the adjoining room. They were staring at Bux and Yoj, and one of them blinked twice, then said "You're back early."

Bux wheeled in Yoj's arms and gave an exasperated sigh. She snaked one arm behind her and took Yoj's hand again, squeezing it hard. She said "Emmas, this is Yoj." She led Yoj into the kitchen.

Yoj put on her best manners. She'd never come to a Manage at this time of morning on Market Day and found all the elder half of the household at home like this. She'd seldom been introduced to the emmas of any of her sweethearts, except for Halling. She suddenly wished she'd washed her hair this morning. "Hello" she said as confidently as she could, taking in the three formidable looking women who were not standing up, but waiting for her and Bux to come to them.

Two she knew well. The one who'd spoken was Yerush, Bux's aggie and a gakusha, scholar, at the University in history and texts. Yoj had taken as many courses with Yerush as she could when she was in University, because while Yerush could be severe and demanding as an instructor, her knowledge seemed limitless. She was light brown, the same shade as Bux, with short iron grey hair and those astonishingly blue eyes. She wore a stark white linen gilet over another plain linen blouse and the ubiquitous ku, thick linen breeches of a faded brown. A pair of grey wool sokken disappeared into pantuflas, the split-toed greeny-brown canvas slippers favored by scholars and all sedentary types of occupations. Yoj tried to squelch her sudden memory of how she and the other students would listen for the measured slap-slap of Nan Yerush's plastic soles down the corridor toward the lecture hall, and their nickname for her drab style of dress -- "The Brown Frown." Well, with those rare blue eyes, all other adornment was tangential.

Yoj stepped forward now and, extricating her hand from Bux's and wiping it quickly on her own ku, she extended it to Yerush, saying "Nice to see you, Nan Yerush."

Yerush took her hand coolly, saying "Seems like this time of day I always see you in the library, reading books on an unpredictable array of subjects."

Yoj was startled, both by the notion that Nan Yerush paid enough attention to her to track her movements and also by the implied question in her comment -- "Why are you here, now, with my youngest child?"

Before Yoj could answer, Bux said, with a hint of triumph, "That's where we just ran into each other and began talking." She put her hand on the small of Yoj's back, and Yoj felt a flame begin there, wanting to spread down to her ass. She clenched her muscles unobtrusively: Not in front of the emmas.

The woman next to Yerush was Qen, who had been Yoj's leraar in second grade, from ages 9 to 11. Qen was overtly caretaking, the same ample build as Yerush but somehow it seemed soft on her. By the time Skene children finished first grade, from ages 3 to 8, they felt they were ready to be treated with a maturity which marked their transition into the upper grades. But after a week or two of second grade, Qen's kindness and welcoming lap always proved a haven against the unexpected bumps of getting older. Qen was toast brown, with sweet black eyes and still-red hair cut the width of a finger all over her head. Her nose was enormous. She was dressed also in ku, but these had been dyed mulberry, and her pulled-out blouse was pale blue embroidered with horizontal vines of flowers. She took Yoj's offered hand in both of hers and grinned hugely into Yoj's face, saying "I've been wanting to tell you, that hopping song you came and shared with the school last week was the most popular ever, they haven't stopped singing it."

Yoj couldn't help but relax. Every Ot after lunch she went to the school and taught retired lighter songs to the assembled grades. She began with exuberant ditties, such as the "hopping from wave to wave" song Qen was referring to, then wound her way into increasingly slower and more complicated melodies. This helped the younger children prepare for their midday nap, and it enabled her to search the older children and teenagers for the kind of response that might mean a future dichter.

It now occurred to her that Qen's status as a leraar might be part of the reason she'd not noticed Bux when they were both at school. Leraars' kids had the reputation of being either hellions or prissy, and she'd thought Bux was the latter because of her quiet attention to studies. Although Yoj herself had been just as studious. Still, she'd unconsciously put Bux into a "do not touch" box.

Until now. Now all she wanted to do was touch Bux. Every way she could imagine.

Yoj turned to the third woman, sitting across the table from Qen in her schmatta, her long white hair still unkempt from bed. Yoj knew her name was Veida, and that she was a comadrona, but she had not known she was Bux's emma. Veida was almost as dark as Halling, with large brown eyes that at the moment looked tired. Her face was wide and serious, and her frame was lean and tall. She shook Yoj's hand -- with only one hand, kept the other wrapped around her mug of tea --and said "Please excuse the schmatta, I'm just getting up. Had a 30 hour labor that ended in the wee hours."

Bux said "Who? Did it come out alright?"

Veida said "Amba, on Chloddia. And yes, aggie and baby are fine. Beautiful child, with a thick head of hair already. They named her Cholt."

Yoj had lost all the ease she'd found temporarily with Qen. She knew Amba, had had a passionate affair with her several years ago, and was certain Veida was aware of this fact, from a subtle change in her expression. She was afraid to look at Bux's face.

How unnerving, to find that Bux had grown up with this trio of highly-educated, community-oriented emmas, each of them impressive in her own right. It occurred to her that, once again, she'd not known what she was getting into.

Yerush said, with a dry brush of humor in her voice, "Shall I make you two some tea? Are you interested in something to eat, Yoj?"

Yoj's face, which had never stopped showing flaming cheeks, went red all over as she looked back at Yerush, unable to answer. But Bux was used to this family, adept in its maneuverings, and not inclined to wait any longer. She took Yoj's hand back firmly into her own and answered "No, thanks, we're fine. I'm just going to show Yoj my room now." She pulled Yoj into the front room, Yoj giving only a backward glance at her possible future emma-in-laws. Bux said "This is the living room, as you can see. That door is the bath room, and this door is my room."

She pushed Yoj through into a room which held a double bed and a clothing chest, nothing more. The bed was neatly spread with a vibrant quilt. The clerestory windows on two sides let in angled light. Bux clicked the door shut and said "I'm so sorry, I never thought they'd all be here on Market Day, they must have waited for Veida to get up."

"Oceans, Bux, I feel like an egg that's just been candled" said Yoj. "How soundproof is this room?"

Bux pulled her gilet and undershirt off in a single motion, revealing the most magnificent pair of breasts Yoj had ever seen. Where had those been hiding all these years? Bux said "Take off your boots." Yoj sat down on the edge of the bed and began stripping.

Back in the kitchen, the emmas looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Veida said "Well."

"Indeed" replied Yerush.

"I've never seen Bux look so determined" said Qen. "When did this come up, out of the blue?"

"Oh, she's always been like that" said Veida. "Remember how she didn't say a word until she was one, and just as we were beginning to worry she was slow, suddenly she's speaking in full sentences?"

"This is quite a declarative sentence" said Yerush.

"Yoj has been partnered with Halling for four years" said Qen with growing dismay. "I thought she was done with all her katting around."

Yerush gazed at her with mild amusement. "I don't think this is one of her adventures" she said. "I can't see Bux saying yes to that."

Veida pointed out "They've had that slate up two years, Yoj and Halling. Looking for an aggie."

They all stared at each other, pieces falling into place. "Our Bux" whispered Qen.

A sharp moan from the front bedroom broke their reverie. "Okay, then " said Yerush briskly. "It's Market Day, I need to get there before nothing's left." She stood up and grabbed a large basket from a nearby shelf.

"I'm going with you" said Qen hurriedly, standing also. She looked around at Veida. "Do you want us to wait for you?"

"No, I'm still knackered" said Veida. "I'm going back to bed for a bit. With a pillow over my head."

They all giggled. "Wake me when you return" said Veida. "Amba's Manage paid me in salt, soda and washing powder, a good fee, so we don't need any of that. And, oh, get distilling oil if they have it."

Qen pulled a basket of eggs and long dark eggplants from the larder, their barter offering at market. Giving Veida a quick kiss, she followed Yerush out the back door, both of them choosing to walk around through the side yard rather than pass by the bedroom next to the front door. Veida finished her tea with a gulp and began climbing the ladder to their loft bed.

A couple of hours later, Bux and Yoj were lying entwined, drifting for the moment in bliss, and talking with a hunger that matched their prior physical appetite.

"You're who've I've wanted, you know" Bux said.

"Your heart's desire, you said. For how long?" said Yoj, pulling back so she could see Bux's blue eyes.

"Long as I can remember. When you were in the last year of first grade, I remember trying to catch up to you in reading level so we'd maybe share a book. But I was always behind you, until finally you graduated and went to University. And began sleeping with every woman in your sui." Bux's voice was not bitter, not when she had Yoj in her arms now.

Yoj rolled halfway onto Bux and kissed her thoroughly, then said "I'll have to catch up with you, I guess. In the wanting department."

"Silly, you can't want what you've already got" said Bux, delighted.

"Then how come I feel so raw in my heart, like suddenly I'm at risk of losing a love I've never known?" Yoj's voice was a little ragged.

"You're not at risk" Bux whispered. She added, "A love you've never known?" She knew she was asking something she shouldn't ask, but she couldn't help herself.

Yoj stared at her for a while. "Don't ever tell anyone. Especially Halling. Hall and I are -- forever, you know? I'm crazy about her. But -- this, with you -- I think it must be what she had with Xaya. I'm falling for you, Bux. Like I never have."

Bux wriggled in happiness, coaxing Yoj all the way on top of her. "Well, you're my first, too. Not just feeling this way, but..."

Yoj was startled. "You haven't made love before? Surely that can't be true."

"No, I've made love. But I haven't -- come. It takes me a while, you know" said Bux, trying not to be apologetic.

"I noticed, and so what? You mean someone didn't feel like doing whatever it took?" Yoj's brown eyes flashed in indignation. "The rockwits! Well, their levvin' loss, is what I say." She kissed Bux again.

Bux said "Is Halling going to -- like me, d'ya think?"

Yoj laughed. "She's going to flip over you. She and I are more alike than people realize. And you, my shooting star, are the catch of Skene." Her face grew serious, and Bux asked "What?"

"I just realized...I'm going to have some difficulty in -- well, sharing you. Even with Halling" confessed Yoj. She wanted Bux to say something like "I'll be yours" or an equally impossible promise.

But Bux didn't. Bux had found a way to open the final doors in her life, and she was not about to shut one again. She wanted Halling, too. Instead, she said "I promise to keep you satisfied, 'cause I want you as much as you want me."

Which was a good place to start up again.

An hour or so later, at a stopping point and a little breathless, Yoj said "I need to piss."

"I'll show you where the privy is" said Bux, sitting up.

"I don't have a schmatta to wear" said Yoj. "And I cannot parade around naked in front of your emmas, I just can't."

"Put on your shati, it'll cover your ass. I'll put mine on, too" said Bux. When they went out into the house, no one was present. Bux pointed to the privy through the kitchen window and said "I'll wait for you here, it's cold out there."

Yoj bolted for the privy and relieved herself. As she came back out, she was startled to see Veida standing on the flat roof of the extension that held Bux's room. Veida said "Are you up for good?"

Yoj pulled her shati down as far as it would go, her cheeks going red, and said "Uh, not really. What are you doing up there?" She walked toward the ladder leaned against the house.

Veida said "We've got coldframes up here. The heat from the roof keeps 'em going all year. We grow eggplants, strawberries and peppers even in winter."

"Wonderful!" said Yoj.

"You wanna come up and get the tour?" offered Veida with a grin.

"No, I -- don't have underwear on" said Yoj.

"Or shoes, I see" said Veida. "You better scoot back in, your feet will go blue."

Yoj backed away toward the door, not willing to risk flashing her ass at Veida. She could hear Veida chuckling as she bent back over the coldframes.

In the kitchen, Bux had dipped water from the always simmering cistern on the aga and started tea brewing. She had sliced thick haidan bread and placed it on the rack to toast. She was now grating carrots into a bowl which already held dried apples and a ginger dressing. Yoj came to her and put her arms around Bux's middle.

"Veida is on the roof of your bedroom" said Yoj.

"Your hands are like ice through my shati!" said Bux. "Don't worry, Veida's not nosy. None of them are, really. Would you rather have bean paste or butter on your toast?"

"Butter" said Yoj, warming her hands at the aga. "I'm so hungry I can hardly think."

"Grab us plates and chopsticks" said Bux. She set their hasty lunch on the table as Yoj located plates on the open shelves beside her.

They ate in big bites. Her mouth full of food, Yoj said "I usually go meet Halling at the jichang when she lands after her shift. But that's right about now, so I'm not going to make it today, I guess."

"Are you going to leave soon?" asked Bux, stricken.

"No, that's what I'm saying. I can't bear to go yet. Halling always eats and showers after her shift, then takes a nap. She gets up in time for dinner, if not before. So I think I can stay until dinner. I'll have to go, then. And talk with her tonight, just me and her" said Yoj, putting her hand over Bux's to soften the blow.

"I can understand that" said Bux. "Can I see you tomorrow, though? Or do you need a lot of time with her, to, I guess, talk her into it?"

Yoj laughed. "I won't need to talk her into anything. This is what we've wanted. And yes, tomorrow you can see both of us. You and she can -- start getting to know each other. If it's sunny, she'll have to work, but you and I can go together to meet her at the jichang -- she'll show you her sinner."

Bux was both excited and apprehensive. She scraped the last of her carrot salad into her mouth, considering Halling.

"Where are your sibs?" asked Yoj suddenly. "I mean, I know Paha is partnered and living on Beras, right? But what about Culisa?"

"She's apprenticing as a capriste, up in the hills of Yagi" said Bux. "I thought she was never going to move out -- I was determined to be the one who got the Manage -- and finally she got sweet on someone up there, decided to milk goats and stand out in the weather all day for the sake of love. I don't think she'll be back. So this place is all ours."

"You want to live here, for sure?" asked Yoj.

"Yes. Why, don't you?"

"No, it's great. It's an ideal location, and it's a beautiful Manage. But what will your emmas have to say about that?" worried Yoj. "I mean, two of us at once..."

"I'll talk to them tonight while you're talking with Halling" said Bux confidently. "They'll be happy for me, for us. Qen was always talking about you when you were her student, how brilliant you were -- Halling, too, actually. And Yerush told us all kinds of stories about you when you were at University. Good stories, I mean" she added hastily. Yerush had also occasionally passed on the gossip of Yoj's shenanigans, but she didn't need to say that at the moment.

Yoj was extremely pleased. "I've always been in awe of them both, you know."

Bux made a dismissive sound. "They piss yellow just like anyone else. And Veida -- well, she hasn't said much about you, but she's kept close track of Halling's career, can't say enough good about her. And they all want children in the house again, they've made that clear. Which is another reason I should get the Manage, because all my life I've intended to aggie at least four children."

Yoj laughed. "That means you had to have a three-partnership, then, to get Leave to have four. Good thing we were available."

Bux looked at her seriously. "It was always going to be you, Yoj, haven't you heard me? I had a jolt when you got serious with Halling, but then I realized I liked her too, so it would work out just fine. As long as we can get Leave to aggie, of course."

Yoj picked up toast crumbs with her thumb and looked at Bux tenderly. "Thanks for waking me up, Bux. And getting Leave will be no problem. Halling, as a sinner, is almost automatically granted Leave -- because she can't aggie herself, you know, pilots are prohibited -- and I'm high up on the list, too, being a dichter. They'll jump at the chance to give us Leave."

Bux looked speculative. "Well, you think your special status will extend to something extra?"


"Five children. Honestly, I've secretly wanted to have five."

Yoj sat back in her chair, grinning.

"Waves and ripples, Bux -- five!"

"I'm young" said Bux earnestly, "And healthy. And Yerush only had three, I know, but she was almost 40 when she had me, she was pushing it, so I think I'm going to be very fertile. And the curtilage that goes with this Manage is not that big, but we farm it brilliantly, we eat well here. Qen makes 25 eks a year as a teacher, and Yerush makes 15, and I get 5 right now as secretary to the Sheng Zhang of Rahat. If Yerush ever decides to run for Ethicist again and gets re-elected, which she will, she'll make another 10 eks a year there. I don't get paid for my murals -- "

Yoj interrupted this torrent, exclaiming "Wandmaler is not a paid position?"

"No, but I get barter and it's fair. Plus Veida gets about 10 eks a year currency in birthing fees plus really stupendous barter, so all in all, I think we could afford five more mouths. Besides you and Halling, I mean" finished Bux.

"You've had time to think this over" grinned Yoj. "Well, honeycomb, I've wanted a Manage full of kids all my life, too. And so has Halling. We have incomes, too. I'm shocked that Yerush only gets 15 -- they pay me 25 eks a year. Halling gets 50."

"You save lives every single day" said Bux. "Halling feeds the world. You earn it."

"We all earn it" said Yoj. "Anyhow, I'll tell Halling, unless you want to bring it up yourself."

"No, you do it" said Bux, standing up. "Let's do the dishes before emmas come back."

At dusk, they emerged from Bux's room, Yoj fully clothed and Bux in her schmatta. The emmas were in the kitchen, making dinner or doing chores. Yoj went to the bath room and scrubbed her face and hands, then went to each emma and took her leave. Both she and Bux had flushed faces and sensual movement of their bodies. Bux walked her to the front door and gave her a long kiss goodbye. They whispered a minute, then Yoj scrambled up the steps and out into the cold air.

Bux returned to the kitchen, looking smug and radiant. She sat down at the table, studying her hands. She didn't seem to know what to say. Qen, chopping vegetables beside her at the table, set down her knife and put her hand on Bux's, saying "I don't think I've ever seen you look so happy."

Bux met her gaze then, and her eyes were full of tears as she said with thick passion "I love her." The raw vulnerability on her face made up the mind of each emma on the spot, if Bux had only known.

Veida and Yerush joined them at the table. Bux noticed with all of them here, there were still two empty seats. The thrill of filling those chairs gave her courage to speak:

"She's gone to talk with Halling. Tomorrow we're going to meet her after she's done sinning, and we'll come back here. And -- I'd like for us all to have dinner together tomorrow night, here, if that's all right with you."

"Sounds good to me" said Veida, and Yerush just nodded.

"Does she -- love you back?" asked Qen. She had to ask.

Bux's face lit up even more. "She does, oh, she does, emma! And Halling will too, she swears she will."

"Of course she will" said Veida loyally.

Yerush, her tone less effusive, said "It is to be presumed, then, that you are the aggie?"

Bux looked at her a little defiantly. "Yes. And if Halling agrees, which again Yoj says she will, we want to have five children." She had the satisfaction of seeing this shock Yerush.

"Five?" gasped Qen.

Veida said "You'll have to get special Le---"

"We know" interrupted Bux. "But they have pull, and they make good money, and you three wanted four, I know, so just imagine one more here running around between us."

Qen began crying. "I can't think of anything better" she said. She squeezed Bux's hand.

Bux looked at Veida, who was grinning, thank heavens. She looked at Yerush last.

"If you can pull it off" Yerush said, "I know what joy it will bring you." Which for Yerush was a ringing endorsement. She added "But we'll have to think about space issues here. When it comes to that." She stood up and went back to the aga.

Bux stood and went to Yerush, hugging her. "Thanks" she whispered.

"We're very proud of you" Qen said from behind her. Bux turned to give her a hug as well, then Veida.

"The soup is ready" said Yerush. "Somebody get the fishcakes from the oven, and we can eat."


Jesse Wendel said...

Wow, wow, wow...

This is amazingly good stuff, Maggie.

Furthermore, it has an entirely different feel than Ginny Bates. Having made the leap -- the one major presumption to buy your world as valid -- I'm there. The whole thing feels true to me, and it did by the end of Chapter 1.

Now, by the end of Chapter 2, I'm no longer even noticing your world building. I just want to know what happens next. And I care about the characters. Even this scheming one I thought I wasn't going to like, and all of a sudden I do.

Good stuff. And not, really not at all coming from the same voice as Ginny Bates.

Maggie Jochild said...

I just couldn't get better news, Jesse.

The reason why it's a different voice? Because MYRA wrote Skene, while I'm writing Ginny B.

That's not entirely a joke.

Who is the scheming one you thought you weren't going to like -- Bux? Or Yerush? Yerush is the character I thought I'd let be a nasty 'un, and damn if she didn't wriggle her way into my heart eventually.

Just so's ya know, by the second draft of Skene, when the relationship stuff (especially the sex) gets down on paper, Ginny goes ballistic and Myra has a tough time of it as the author. I'm sure you can imagine.