Saturday, December 29, 2007


(Mill la Bux na Halling + Yoj)
This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future.

There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
NEW: Map of Faar and Lagoon
Map of All Skene
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not right away" said Halling.

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't know what" said Halling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stop it" said Igoz.

"Will do" said Halling.

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

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

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

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

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

Qala replied "Can you estimate passenger load?"

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

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

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

Yoj began shaking and couldn't stop.

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

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

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

"How close is the ferry to shore?"

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

Igoz began swearing softly but steadily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qala demanded "What is sinking?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halling answered "We're coming home."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What smell?" said Bux.

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

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

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

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

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

"But the other pilots?" asked Yoj.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Please" said Halling.

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

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

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

"I will" said Yerush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.



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.


Friday, December 28, 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


A week later, Yerush went to Yagi for the weekend, booking a bed at the hostel "so as not to crowd Culisa", as she put it. She took silk and bread, and returned with a pot of herbed goat cheese plus two velvety kid-skins to make shoes for Bux's baby. She said the first talks had been extremely hard, but it had gotten better. She declined to elaborate to the entire Manage: "It's for me, Qen and Veida to ponder." Still, she said she was sure the "rumors" about their Manage would end.

A few months later, autumn underway, Bux was approaching quickening and beginning to have trouble finding a comfortable position in which to sleep. When Yoj walked over from the University in early afternoon, she found Bux already at the jichang, her kaidang ku let out to the extent of its drawstring to accommodate her belly. Yoj thought maybe she looked bigger than she had when Yoj left the house after breakfast.

"How's life with your Sheng Zhang?" asked Yoj, giving her a kiss.

"She spends all her time talking with administrators" said Bux. "I'm doing the real work, and I keep telling her we have to have another secretary to take my place for six months -- but she's so worried about re-election, she can't think straight."

"Fake going into labor early one afternoon, see what that does for her priorities" suggested Yoj.

Bux laughed gaily, leaning rather heavily on Yoj's arm. Yoj wanted Bux to ask about how the song was going -- she needed to talk over one section with somebody -- but Bux said "There's Halling!" and instead they watched her circle in.

After she landed, Bux announced "I've got to find the nearest privy."

"That'll be the Lofthall" said Halling.

"You go on with her" said Yoj, "Go eat. I'll wash Xaya down."

They walked off together and she turned over her song problem in her mind as she ran the jet, hoping it would rinse out her blockage as well. When she got to the canteen, Bux had finished one bowl of chicken stew and Halling was getting them each seconds. "My second lunch" said Bux, a little embarrassed.

Qala was eating at the same table and said "Hey, no worries. Halling's baby knows a good meal when she sees one."

"Who's at the radio?" asked Yoj, sitting down.

"A trainee, with the Sheng Zhang standing over her" said Qala. They both grinned at what wasn't being said: The Sheng Zhang's hands-on experience with most aspects of work at the Lofthall was notoriously skimpy. A favorite lighter joke was that the Sheng Zhang was best at making paper airplanes.

"How goes the song?" asked Qala.

Yoj began explaining just as Halling returned. Bux and Halling broke into conversation about what fish to pick up at the docks, as if Yoj wasn't talking. Yoj lowered her voice and focused on Qala. Qala immediately understood the problem and began offering suggestions around it. None of them were quite right, but the fresh vantage helped Yoj see a different angle. Qala watched her face for a minute, then said "You got an idea?"

"Maybe" Yoj grinned. "Thanks."

"Glad to do it" said Qala. "I don't know how you pull it off every week. When they're in range, I hear the songs and I can see what they're doing on radar, and it's pure beauty, every single time. Not just saving their skins, which would of course be enough."

The sincere admiration in her voice brought tears to Yoj's eyes. She didn't know what was going on with her -- maybe she was having hormonal changes, too, along with Bux.

Having guzzled their seconds, Bux and Halling now stood up, saying to Yoj "Coming?"

Qala joined them, busing her dishes and walking to the front door with them. At the entry, Yoj said "I need to go work some more. I'll be home for dinner."

Bux and Halling gave her perfunctory kisses and walked on, arm in arm. Qala said "I'm heading back to dispatch, and everyone else is going to leave, I'll be on my own in there with the headset on listening to two last hauls and the scouter lighter. There's a free desk and it's kinda peaceful, after the rush. You wanna come work there? In case you need to run an idea past someone?"

Yoj was again touched by the interest. "You know, I'll give it a try" she said gratefully. She put her arm over Qala's shoulder and they turned together, heading back into the Lofthall. She didn't see Bux at the corner stop and turn back to wave one last time at Yoj, or the expression on Bux's face when Yoj disappeared into the Lofthall with Qala.

Yoj was late for dinner. She came in singing, her spirits high -- she'd broken through and all but finished the song. Qala's occasional murmur at the radio had been comforting rather than distracting, and the big clear desk was a nice change.

She washed quickly and slid into her chair, accepting the basket of riceballs Qen handed her. "I apologize for being late" she said, serving herself.

"What kept you?" asked Bux, a slight chill in her voice that Yoj didn't notice, but Halling did.

"I was so stuck, and Qala helped me. I hung out in the dispatch room while she worked, and it made all the difference, I tell you. I'm going to try that again" burbled Yoj. She took a bite, and after swallowing she intended to go on with an explanation of her breakthrough, but Bux interjected "I don't like the way she looks at you."

Everyone went still. Yoj stared at Bux. "Who -- Qala?"

"Who else?" said Bux.

"What's wrong with how she looks at me? She's extremely nice to me" objected Yoj. Halling was trying to catch her eye, but Yoj was focused on Bux in her surprise.

"That's pretty much the point. I think she's got her eye on you" said Bux bitterly.

"Oh, that. Yeah, she'd like to have an affair" answered Yoj matter-of-factly. She pointed to the salad dressing by Veida, and Veida handed it to her with wagging eyebrows whose meaning Yoj didn't comprehend.

Bux's shock registered on Yoj. When she looked at her, Bux said "She told you? Just like that?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Yoj belatedly decided to leave out the small kiss.

"Today?" Bux's voice had gone up several tones in pitch.

"No, a couple of months ago" said Yoj, dressing her salad. "I told her 'No, thanks.' She's fine with it" she added reassuringly. But Bux was definitely not reassured.

"Why, may I ask, didn't you see fit to mention it to us?" demanded Bux. Yoj looked across at Halling -- she had told Halling. But Halling wasn't going to meet Yoj's eyes. Her face begged Leave me out of it.

"I guess I forgot. It's no biggie, Bux" said Yoj.

Now Ng was trying to get Yoj's attention. Bux did see that, which made her even madder.

"And why, exactly, did you turn her down?" Bux asked, deathly quiet.

Halling and Veida, had they only known it, were saying the same prayer inside their heads.

"My plate is full" said Yoj simply. If she had left it at that, Bux would have interpreted it in a way that gave her ease. But Yoj was verbal before all else. "I mean, she's extremely attractive, and another time or place, who knows? But I'm barely meeting my obligations as it is."

Bux rose a trifle clumsily, dropping her fork onto her plate, and strode from the kitchen. The slam of the bedroom door was deafening, solid metal on metal frame.

Halling leaned forward and put her head in her hands. "Sometimes you are dim as a shu" she said to Yoj with resignation.

Yoj began to realize what might have gone wrong. Her emphasis on extremely and use of the word attractive, for one thing, to a woman seven months pregnant. Plus describing the richness of her life as obligations.

"I thought the three of you had no promise not to sleep with others" said Yerush acerbically.

"We don't" said Yoj. "I mean, none of us has, not yet, but the option is there."

"Then she's being unfair. Let her figure it out for herself" said Yerush. "Eat your meal. When she gets hungry enough, she'll come back out."

Qen gave Yerush a furious glare. Halling kicked Yoj hard under the table.

"That's not how we do things" said Yoj gently. She excused herself and went to the bedroom. Qen got up to put both their plates in the warmer.

When Yoj and Bux emerged half an hour later, both had been crying but were now grinning in relief and bumping against each other as they walked. Halling jumped up to get their plates from the warmer, serving them with a soft "Thanks for whatever you did" and a kiss on both their heads.

The emmas were done but had not managed to leave the table. Bux looked at them and said with a laugh, "Qala may be attractive but I am the star in the West and a double full moon. I am a reason for existence and the hope of all tomorrows."

Everybody cracked up, even Yerush. She stood up and began clearing their end of the table.

Bux's due date came and went. By working herself ragged, Yoj had two weeks' worth of songs ready for when the baby came. Every morning when Halling left for her job, she made Veida promise she'd call on the radio to the Lofthall the instant anything began. Veida stopped answering requests for her services elsewhere.

Four days past her due date, Bux was headachy at breakfast and asked Veida for something to help it. Veida looked at her closely and said "I don't feel good about giving you any herbs at this point. Drink two glasses of water and go for a long walk. Yoj, you go with her."

"Is it time?" said Yoj urgently.

"If it was time, I'd tell you" said Veida. "Exercise will help, and fresh air. If it was warm weather, I'd have you go wade in Bohaira. That baby will come when she's ready."

Yoj handed Bux her manteau, the only coat that would fit her now, and they walked up the lane toward one of the two bridges over North Rambla. At the middle of the span, they stopped to look down into the water. Bux leaned heavily on the stone railing and said "I get so short of breath these days." Yoj stood beside her, one arm around her.

After a minute, Bux said "She keeps rolling over in there, banging against my bladder. It feels like I might need to pee again."

Yoj looked around. "I don't see a privy nearby. We could head back down the lane for home."

"No, that's five minutes away. Maybe it'll pass. Let's go up the trail toward the Poke" said Bux, pushing herself off the stone. But at the end of the bridge, she said "Oh, no, I guess maybe I can't wait." She looked urgent.

"Here -- there's no one looking, and a bush, you can squat here" said Yoj. "You're a woman about to give birth, it's all right."

She helped Bux untie her kaidang ku, but before Bux could squat, a torrent of hot liquid gushed from her over Yoj's hand and down the inside of her pants.

"Whoa" said Yoj. Bux stared down at herself and said "That wasn't pee. It came from -- a different place."

Yoj grinned. "Here we go, then. How are you feeling?"

"Scared" said Bux. "And -- weird."

"Heading home" said Yoj. They walked slowly back down the hill, Bux leaning on Yoj. As they went by the schoolyard, children poured out the doors for play period. Qen was one of the teachers who followed them. Yoj waved at her and Qen came to the fence. When she got close enough to see the stain on Bux's pants, she registered first shock, then her face lit up.

"My water just broke" said Bux unnecessarily.

Qen leaned over the fence to give her a smacking kiss. "I'll be home right after work" she said in a thrilled voice, "Don't you dare have it until I get there. If it's really coming, you send a neighbor to get me."

"We will" said Yoj. They walked on. At the Manage, Veida had gone out to the tillage. Yoj sat Bux down at the table -- "Don't worry about the chair, it'll wipe off" she commanded -- and went to the back door, calling Veida's name. When Veida came in, she sniffed the stain, pulled down Bux's pants and examined her, and said "Yes, she's knocking at your door. Come lie down, I need to see where she is."

But after putting her fingers inside Bux, with no embarrassment that Yoj could see, and pushing on her amazingly bulbous belly, Veida's face grew serious.

"She's breech" she said, standing back and wiping her hands on a towel. She thought for a minute, then said "You want to have her at home, if at all possible, right?"

"Yes" said Bux, her face frightened.

"All right, then, let's get some help. Yoj, get her some tea while I use the radio."

Yoj left the door open and when she got back with the tea, they heard Veida rouse the Sigrist, saying "We're going into labor here at the Manage of Veida, comadrona on Riesig, and I'm requesting Jyoti of Verzin to come assist me in delivery. Also, please notify all family members listening to this."

Veida had their radio turned off, to make the call, but then she turned it back on and they heard the Sigrist say "We hear you, Veida. Good luck on your new arrival. Please call to tell us when she's here."

Veida came back to the bedroom and said "Jyoti won't make it for at least an hour. When she arrives, we're going to turn that baby. In the meantime, you go take a bath while you can. I'm going to put together a tincture for you, and start some soup. Yoj, you need to stock this bedroom with towels and a chamber pot."

Ten minutes later, Yerush came in the door, breathless. She barged into the bathroom and said "How are you?" Yoj had never seen Yerush this flustered.

"I feel like I need to move my bowels, but that doesn't work" said Bux. "Otherwise, I'm fine."

Yoj told Yerush the facts so far. Yerush sat down on the cabinet and said "I stopped by the Lofthall, Qala's going to call Halling once she's safely on her way back from sinning."

Ten minutes later, Qen burst in the front door. "I got the third grade teacher to take my class into hers" she said. Then, "Where's Ng?"

"Oh my word" said Yoj, "We forgot to tell her. She's out in her studio."

"I'll go get her" said Qen. She helped Ng back into the house. Bux was now out of the bath, in a schmatta and sitting wide-eyed at the table. Ng walked to her, using both canes, and kissed her sweetly on the forehead. "By this time tomorrow, we'll have a baby in this Manage" she said softly. Bux's face flushed, and she hugged Ng.

"Do you have a name picked out yet?" asked Qen.

"We do, but we want to wait until she's here" said Bux.

Yerush turned to Veida. "All right, my love, what do we do now?"

"We wait on Jyoti. If this goes long, we're going to need a bed for her -- can we set up a cot in the living room?"

"I'll take the cot" said Ng, "Give her my bed so she can rest in peace."

"I'll change your sheets" said Qen.

"I'll get the cot" said Yerush.

"Should I make more food?" said Yoj.

"My guess is that neighbors will be dropping dishes by, and we've got soup and bread for the moment, let's hold off on cooking" said Veida. She came to Bux and put a few drops of something from a bottle under her tongue, then cupped Bux's face between her hands, smiling down at her with utmost tenderness. "You have your aggie's hips, this is going to be a good birth" she said reassuringly.

Bux kissed Veida's palms, then shifted in her chair uncomfortably. "I feel like I might have pulled a muscle somewhere along the way" she said, "I have a slight backache."

Veida grinned at her. "That's your first contractions" she said.

"Oh, wow" said Bux, her expression one of wonder.

Veida turned to Yoj. "I know you don't want to leave her side, and except for this errand, your job will be to stay with her in every way. But right now, I need you to go to the Lofthall and tell the Sheng Zhang or Qala or whoever's appropriate that we need a standby crew of six strong women. In case we have to rush her to the hospital. It may be an all-nighter. Tell them to eat and shower before they come over here."

"Okay" said Yoj, a little reluctant. Bux kissed her fiercely and said "Hurry back."

Yoj began running once she was out the front door. Qala thumped her on her shoulders repeatedly, her face beaming, while she relayed her request. "You got it" she assured her. "And I expect to be talking with Halling in another half hour. She should be home in, oh, an hour or so."

It was actually an hour and a half. By that time, Bux had had her first real pain, a short spasm that surprised her and left her a little pale. It wasn't the intensity of the pain, she said, just the inevitability of it.

Halling literally hurtled in the front door, almost running down Qen who was coming out of Ng's room which had been turned into a guest room. Qen set some clothes and Ng's pillow on her cot in the corner of the living room as Halling barreled by her toward the kitchen. She kneeled in front of Bux's chair and said, out of breath, "What's happening? Are you okay?"

"Give me a kiss" said Bux. Halling leaned up to kiss her, breathless, and then kissed Yoj sitting next to Bux.

"The baby is breech" said Yoj, "But Veida and another comadrona are going to turn her around."

"I just had a real labor pain" said Bux, still impressed with herself. Halling looked around for Veida, a little wall-eyed.

Veida laughed and said "Pace yourself, it's early days yet."

Ng put her hand on Halling's shoulder and said "You know, your aggie was in hard labor with you for 26 hours." After a horrified pause, Veida and Yerush both burst into laughter.

"What is so funny?" demanded Halling. Then, to Ng, "That didn't reassure me, you know."

Qen, coming into the kitchen, said "Do you want soup or some of this potato-cheese custard the folks next door just brought over?"

After a few seconds, Halling stood up and said "Both." She shrugged out of her guibba, hung it over the back of her chair, and pulled it over next to Bux's other side. Yoj told her about their walk, Bux's water breaking and every minute so far as Halling ate quickly. Bux sat with her eyes closed, her hands on her belly.

Just as Halling was finishing, Bux said "Oh -- oh, I think it's another one."

Veida glanced at the clock as Yoj and Halling each took one of Bux's hands. The contraction rolled on through, and Bux said "All right, then. I think I can do this."

Veida grinned to herself. A knock came at the front door, and Veida went to answer it. Leading a 40-something brown woman into the kitchen, she introduced Jyoti to Bux, then the rest, and began telling her details of Bux's condition. Yerush served Jyoti lunch as another knock came at the front door, which Qen answered. She returned with a dish of fried fish cakes. She set it on the table, and Halling took one to eat, watching Bux intently as Bux began talking with Jyoti about what she was feeling and what she hoped for in the birthing.

"Halling, honey, you need to bathe" said Ng with a pointed sniff. Halling looked at Veida, who said "You've got time, we won't do anything until you're with us again."

Halling got a fresh set of clothes and went into the bath room. When she emerged, Bux was sprawled back in her chair and Yoj's mouth was in front of her crotch, singing lighter songs. Halling stopped in mid-step, and Veida walked over to her to explain: "We're trying to persuade the baby to turn back around, put her head down at the birth canal. Singing often lures them."

Halling said "I want a turn", and at the end of her song, Yoj stood up and gave her place to Halling. After one song, Bux said "She's moving around in there, I can feel it." Jyoti put her hands on Bux's belly and examined her, then said "Not quite." Yoj kneeled beside Halling and they did another song together, beginning to laugh halfway through, Halling's arm slung over Yoj's shoulder.

"Oh -- wow" said Bux. "I'm having another contraction, but something else is happening."

Veida kept her hand on Bux's stomach through the contraction, and afterward she grinned and said "She's turned. She's trying to get closer to her emmas."

Tears were standing in Yoj's eyes. She and Halling looked at each other, a new emotion gripping both of them, then they leaned up and kissed Bux's cheeks tenderly. Qen emerged from their bedroom, telling Veida "I put down protection under the sheets, she can go in there if you need."

Veida gathered up several of the pillows on the couch, plus towels to cover them, and called Bux to follow her. On her bed, Bux was positioned with her head at a 40 degree angle lower than her feet. "This will encourage the baby not to turn back" said Veida. Jyoti added "Tell us right away if you feel her shift again."

There was a knock at the front door, and it was another neighbor from the street with a dish for the Manage. The woman came in and chatted with them all for a bit. As she was leaving, an expanse of blue and yellow uniforms filled the doorway: Pilots come to carry Bux if she needed to be rushed to the hospital. They had a stretcher from the Lofthall. Qala was among them, saying she had turned over the radio to the Sheng Zhang, she wasn't going to miss this.

Awkward and excited, they clustered around Bux and took turns feeling of her belly, stealing glances around them at the bedroom: This was where Halling and Yoj slept. Eventually Yerush chased them all into the kitchen, where they sat at the table with Ng and ate a great deal of the food already brought by neighbors. But more food kept appearing, and the singing and laughing from the kitchen seemed to help ease the slow, inevitable progress toward pain in the bedroom.

Bux kept drinking the teas Jyoti and Veida gave her, and after the first couple of hours, she gave up trying to reach the privy when she needed to pee, instead leaning on Halling and Yoj to balance over the chamberpot. Dinner was a vast buffet where Halling and Yoj ate in hurried shifts and Bux did not eat at all. After dinner, the pilots went to their dorms and returned with rolled mattresses, blankets, pillows, and fresh clothes for the morning. They lined up along the living room floor, leaving a path for the comadronas and going completely silent when Bux's moans emerged from the bedroom. Ng settled on her cot among them and listened to their stories as they drifted off to sleep, one by one.

By midnight, Bux was having contractions less than three minutes apart and was soaked in sweat, her face contorted in pain. Yoj and Halling sat on either side of her, murmuring love and encouragement. Ng had a cushioned perch on a clothes chest. Jyoti sat between Bux's legs, and when she said "She's dropped", Veida bent over to look with her. Then Veida said "She's crowning" and motioned for Yoj, then Halling in turn to come look. Yerush and Qen stood behind Veida, arm in arm with tears on their cheeks. Halling saw her child tumble out of Bux with a gush of fluid and a flail of her tiny arms. At Bux's scream, she moved back to her side, but everyone was looking at the baby, even Bux.

Veida cut the cord and handed her to Qen, who cleaned her. Yerush wrapped her and returned her to Bux's belly. Jyoti was delivering the afterbirth, and she and Veida were discussing whether to stitch up two small tears in Bux's vagina. Finally deciding yes, Veida gave Bux an injection of local anesthetic, then Jyoti did the suturing while Veida held a flash so she could see.

But even Bux didn't notice their activity. Everyone was meeting the newest member of the Manage, who was yelling loudly and protesting even the dim light in the room. Yoj announced, "Emmas, this is Mill", and her abbas cried joy at her name.

Mill was creamy dark, though not as dark as she would become in a few days. She had a coating of vernix on her face creases, knuckles, elbows and knees. Her eyes were unfocused but hinted at darkness, too. Her hair was black and lay in thick tight curls to her beautiful head. She looked amazingly like Halling. Ng confirmed her resemblance to Halling at birth, which everyone took as a powerfully good sign.

After Bux was cleaned, clad, and repositioned on fresh sheets, she fell into an exhausted sleep, held on either side by Halling and Yoj. Mill was passed from abba to abba for several minutes.

Qala woke up in the living room and came to the door, asking if she could see the baby, and was also allowed to hold her briefly. Then Mill was put to drowsy Bux's breast, and she nursed like a champion, as if there was no trick to it, one of her emma's hands behind her head, another holding her rump.

At 4:30 in the morning, Qen and Yerush made a huge breakfast while Veida radioed the Sigrist and informed her of the birth in whispers. The main announcement would go out after people were awake: The arrival of Mill la Bux na Halling + Yoj, a Green 60, to the Manage of Yerush, Qen and Veida in Riesig Pliss.

The pilots were awakened, went to the privy in relays and ate quietly but heartily. Halling and Yoj had fallen asleep next to Bux, Mill cradled between pillows on Bux's belly, and did not wake up when Veida came in silently to pick up Mill and introduce her to the pilots. More than one pilot wept, and every one of them exclaimed "She's exactly like Halling!"

After they left, the house breathed out. Jyoti was long asleep. Veida sent Qen and Yerush up to their loft, saying she'd take the first two-hour shift. After Halling woke up, in full daylight, she sent Veida up to bed as well and handled diaper changes (with Ng's instruction) and receiving neighbors with more gifts of food, holding Mill in her arms with incandescent pride.

When Mill was returned to Bux to nurse, Yoj got up and quietly cleaned the kitchen while Halling grabbed a nap with Bux. Bux was in a haze, starting to feel residual pain but mostly not able to look at anything except Mill when she was awake. She ate whatever was brought to her and continued to use the chamberpot. She showed Mill, with an incredulous expression, to the steady stream of visitors who came by. Paha and Tlochin arrived from Beras, and Lawa took the day off from the ejida to visit.

That afternoon, Yoj was doing her first load of diapers and the linens used in delivery when almost every pilot in the Lofthall showed up to meet what they were calling "the most famous newborn flyer on Skene". The pilots who had been in the Manage during the birth lorded their status over the rest. Mill's blinks, sighs, and one hiccough were treated as signs of genius. When Halling changed a diaper in front of them, they didn't laugh or tease, but instead acted like they were watching a new aerial technique. They all had sibs, diaper changing was not new to them -- but this was Halling's baby, and Yoj's baby, and Bux their secret sweetheart's baby, an exalted presence.

Over the next few days, Moasi, Ktiva and Tu visited from Seda, and even Culisa came for a day. Nilma wrote Yoj a congratulatory letter and asked for a photo. Yoj did not hear from Myrd or Owera, although she wrote them and sent them photos as well.

After five days, Halling reluctantly returned to sinning and Yoj discovered she had a song inside her head, a hymn to new life. Bux got out of bed and spent her mornings with Yoj, Ng and Mill, a peaceful, joyous existence of baby-watching. The extra work was easily absorbed among the Manage, even when Veida had to leave for two days for a birth elsewhere. Mill was almost never placed in her cradle; she slept in the arms of an emma or abba, and when she was awake, she was talked or sung to with adoration. She still cried at least once a day, long spells of screams that left the younger women besides themselves with worry. The older women knew crying is just what babies need to do sometimes, and if nothing else was wrong, the best course was to hold her and let her scour it out. Ng and Qen were especially relaxed with a wailing Mill.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


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.