Saturday, January 5, 2008


(Olive tree)

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 Isola Fling
Map of Yanja
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


When the entire Manage arrived at the Yanja jichang on Roku shortly after lunch, they were met by Szebel. Bux saw her through the window of the sinner as they were circling to land, and nudged Yoj stiffly. Szebel, however, kept her greeting of Halling sedate and in line with how she welcomed everyone else. She turned and waved to a wheeled vehicle nearby, saying "I've borrowed an electric cart for the weekend, so Ng can go where she wants without stress." Which definitely won her points all round.

After a quick lesson in how to run the cart, Ng jerkily set it into forward motion, Speranz wedged in beside her. They dropped their luggage at their hostel, then set out eastward to make the circuit of Yanja on its paved road. Every hundred yards, Ng squeaked to a stop and let another child have a turn next to her. The novelty of the cart overrode everything else for the youngest members of the Manage.

They went as far as Szebel's Manage, where she showed them around and Bux immediately recognized Wiaki's emma. Bux opted to go look at her former mural rather than see Szebel's bedroom and office, but Yoj took in the latter with an expressionless face. After tea and small talk, they retraced their steps as far as the ferry landing from Beras, where the ferries had just begun running again. On the first load from Beras were Paha and Tlochin, joining them for the afternoon and evening.

On the way back around, the ferry to Isola Flng sat with its motor running at its landing, and Yoj turned to her partners, saying "Do we have time to make a visit? I'd love for the children to see where I grew up."

Halling looked at the ferry, then Ng, and said "I don't think emma can get that cart safely on board."

"I'll say here" said Ng immediately, and Qen followed with "Me, too. There's a row of market stalls still open over then, I'd like to see what Yanja has to offer." In the end, only the trio of partners and their five children, plus Szebel, walked down the dock to the ferry.

The faryaste looked askance at her sudden influx of passengers. Yoj explained "We're visiting where I once lived. My aggie used to be the faryaste for this line."

"Oh, really?" said the faryaste. She pulled the ferry away from the dock, chatting with Yoj the entire time, and they headed out a perilous-looking morrie vaseo marked with battered buoys.

The closer they got to Isola, the more quiet Yoj became. Bux slid her hand into Yoj's, and Yoj said "Only the landing looks familiar. The outline is so different." At the dock, Halling said "Can you wait for us?"

"Sure" said the faryaste, clicking off her motor. "I'll go visit with the ejida worker, she'll be ready for a break this time of day. She's always looking for company."

With the leveling of the island, the rocky path upward was gone, but the general direction of the lane between fields of wheat was the same. As they strolled, Yoj still holding onto Bux's hand, she pointed out where things once were. Waving over a field of solid green, she said "That's where our Manage was, children. That spot, right over there, is where I was born. And your abba Veida was there to see me come into the world."

The privy was in the same spot, and the small jichang, which helped orient Yoj. As they drew level with the jichang, a burst of leviathan song washed around them. Bux stopped in her tracks, and Speranz scrambled into her arms.

"It's so loud!" said Speranz, startled. Yoj looked down at Dodd and Ndege, saying "This is what I grew up hearing, all day and all night. This is life on Isola." Her voice was thick with emotion.

"Is this the smallest of all the Flings?" Szebel asked Halling. Yoj answered her: "Second smallest. Even now with levelling, although that's made it spread out a bit."

They continued across the island until they reached the promontory on the far, open ocean side. This was no longer a gabal, since the levelling, but it was still rocky at the flat edges with no arable land. Yoj stopped and commanded her children to do the same. She dropped to her knees and said "We're going to crawl to the edge from here." Everyone followed her; she made sure Prl and Speranz were close by on either side of her.

At the cliff's edge, they poked their heads cautiously over to see roiling breakers against the rocks 20 meters below. Bux found she was trembling. Yoj said quietly, "See the morrie strati?"

"Which one?" asked Mill. Indeed, on this clear day, four patches of red ocean were visible, not nearly far enough away.

Yoj continued in a near whisper "It's very deep right here, and a major current flows to our left into the East Tendril. Between here and the morrie strati are untold numbers of levs." As if to illustrate her point, a cluster of five surfaced about a hundred meters in front of them, lying perpendicular to them and beginning to sing as soon as they hit the air.

Halling was looking at them keenly. She said to Yoj "I recognize at least one of them."

"Shall I try singing an answer?" Yoj asked her children. Ndege said "Yes!" Yoj drew in a long breath, and the eerie bellows and clicks that came out of her throat seemed much louder than Bux would have thought possible.

In an instant, the levs turned silkily and came their direction. Prl scooted her head back over the edge and pressed her face into Yoj's side, hiding it. Yoj pulled her close but kept singing. In the next minute, a dozen more leviathans rose pinkily up through the indigo depths and floated, the largest of their rows of eyes uppermost and turned in Isola's direction.

When Yoj finally trailed off, she saw that Speranz had crawled on top of Bux and Dodd had her arm over Prl. Mill, however, looked at her with excitement and said "Can I try that, emma?" Beyond her, Szebel's face was in shock. Yoj thought Yeah, we're not just Halling's house kittens, are we?

Yoj taught Mill, as well as Ndege and Dodd, how to make some of the sounds and what sequences to observe. After a while, Prl uncovered her face and watched Yoj silently. The leviathans never left. After several minutes, Yoj was interrupted by a voice behind them demanding furiously "What in lev do you think you're doing?" The faryaste stood well back from the edge, her face enraged.

Yoj stood up, saying "I am the Dichter of Skene. This is the Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, and the secretary to the Sheng Zhang of Rahat as well as wandmaler. I am teaching my children about leviathans."

It didn't abate the faryaste's anger, but she now appeared uncertain about her right to express it. She said "I don't want you calling those bastards down on us. We need to get back to Yanja while we can."

"They won't follow us" assured Yoj. "And none of us will be singing on the ferry."

The faryaste turned and strode back across the island, muttering to herself. As they followed, Yoj extracted a solemn oath from her children that they would never sing levi without one of their emmas present.

On the ferry, the faryaste was jittery and pushed the throttle all the way to its maximum. Once underway, she turned to Yoj and said bitterly "This is the most dangerous route in all of Skene, you know that, don't you?"

Yoj was startled. "No, I had no idea."

"Some folks say it isn't really morrie vaseo except for about an hour at lowest tide. I don't know, I can't get a straight answer from anyone" she complained.

Halling spoke up. "I can find that out for you, I can get you exact readings. And if the underwater atoll needs augmentation, I'll get you pilots to drop material here."

The relief on the faryaste's face made tears prick at Yoj's eyes. She wondered if Rosz had felt this fear as well, and thought she must have. Halling got the faryaste's name and address, and promised to contact her within the week.

Back on Yanja, they reconnected with the rest of their family and did more exploring of Yanja's shops and businesses before meeting Nilma and Owera at a large, bustling restaurant full of workers fresh from their shifts. The food was hearty and plentiful. Bux whispered to Yoj, though, that it lacked the flavor of Riesig's crops, and Yoj agreed. Nilma and Owera were amiable but not especially interested in deep conversation, and after dinner they left.

The family walked Paha and Tlochin back to their ferry. Halling and Szebel took their leave at that point as well, walking in the direction of Szebel's Manage. Nilma had told them about a puppet show that evening in a warehouse, and the rest of the family found it, bought tickets, and laughed hard for an hour. Even Mill stopped sulking about Halling's absence.

Back at the hostel, Bux insisted on baths for the children, so she and Yoj took turns getting them ready for bed. New surroundings made it hard for them to go to sleep in the hostel dorm, even though there were no other travelers present. Yerush and Veida had a private room, as did Qen and Ng. By the time Yoj and Bux shut the door to their own room, Yoj felt ready to drop off immediately.

However, as Bux came into her arms in the smaller and unfamiliar bed, Bux began weeping. Yoj thought it would be about Halling sleeping -- well, more to the point, not sleeping -- in Szebel's bedroom for which Yoj now wished she had no visual image. Instead, Bux sobbed "I hate it that you suffered so. When I looked at Prl and felt how terrified Speranz was, all I could think about was you as a tender babe, trying to deal with being so alone, surrounded by that sound." Yoj felt her own tears begin, and they cried themselves to sleep, drawing complete comfort from one another.

Too early in the morning for Yoj's taste, the door to their room burst open, admitting Speranz and Prl who scrambled into their bed, wedging in between them and talking at the tops of their voices about the coming day. In a minute, the other three children had joined them, and then Ng appeared in the doorway, apologizing for the interruption. Yoj sat up, pulling her knees to her chest, and motioned for Ng to sit at the foot of the bed. The other three abbas joined them in short order, and this was how Halling and Szebel found them, 11 crammed into one small room talking across each other.

The children rushed Halling, and Yoj noted the bemused expression on Szebel's face. Yoj said "They're all yours to get ready for the day", which got a giggle from Ng and a questioning glance from Halling. After the room cleared out, Bux kissed her a little before they too got up and dressed.

They walked to a next-door cafe for breakfast. Once inside, Halling pointed to a table across the room and said "Right there is where is I met Szebel." Bux, exerting amazing control over her voice, replied "Well, for the family we need more room" and directed the children to sit down at a large trestle next to them. Mill slid into the chair next to Halling, her quick rump displacing Szebel, and Halling let her.

With the meal, Halling ordered a portable picnic lunch that she and Szebel stashed into their packs. After eating, Ng resumed her cart and they all traipsed to the valley of olive groves. The central lane was level and hard-packed enough to offer passage for Ng's cart -- it was used by the grove workers to haul out harvest on motorized trucks. The children were allowed to run on ahead or splinter off, with instructions only to not bother the workers. Qen squeezed in next to Ng, who looked completely rested and more agile than usual.

"The cart is making life much easier for you, eh, emma?" asked Halling.

"Yes, but it's also the air. It feels drier here, down to my bones. I suppose from the magma" said Ng.

Halling and Szebel were not walking hand in hand or kissing in front of the others, but their physical awareness of one another was still palpable to Yoj. Dodd, who had been running from tree to tree and putting her hands all over them, darted back to Ng and said "The roots and branches, they're like your hands, abba, aren't they beautiful?" She dashed off again, missing Ng's delighted smile.

Yoj slowed down to a crawl, relishing every sensory attribute of this environment. It felt like the polar opposite of Isola. Bux noticed her lagging behind and walked back to slide her arm through Yoj's, saying quietly "She's so very big. And vivid. And she never runs out of things to talk with Halling about."

"She dazzles, yes" Yoj answered. "But she doesn't like sharing her life with children, she hates cooking, she does nothing at their tillage, she has lost touch with her emma and sibs, and she could never run for Sheng Zhang because only a few people here know of her."

Bux smiled at her gratefully. "Like those popovers you make -- deliciously crunchy and golden on the outside, but when you bite into them, the middle is hollow?"

Yoj didn't think that was actually a fair analogy -- Halling liked Szebel's middle, that was clear. Still, she nodded at Bux and said "We're her nourishment and her favorite meal."

"She's always had that sweet tooth" murmured Bux, leaning for a kiss. It turned lengthy, and when they finally pulled apart, Prl was standing at their knee, watching them curiously. "What does it taste like, that kind of kiss?" she asked brightly.

Bux cracked up, and Yoj swung her into her arms. "You'll find out when you grow the taste buds for it, after you're sixteen" she told Prl. They walked a little faster to catch up with the others.

After a couple of hours, they left Qen and Ng under a spreading tree to walk west over rough ground to where Halling said there was a spring. They refilled their water bottles, then the children were allowed to remove their kiatu and sokken, soaking their feet with shrieks at how cold the water was. This brought a mild frown to Szebel's face. Keen-eyed Ndege pointed through the woods and said "Is that a house, does someone get to live in here?"

Szebel answered "No, it's just a storage shed". She and Halling gave each other a look that made Halling's cheeks go red. Bux looked away, and when Ndege asked if they could go explore the shed, Yoj told her no. Once the children's feet were blue from the chilly water, they dried off and return to Ng and Qen.

They ate lunch when they reached the end of the valley, under the cliffs. Halling had bought a large pot of mixed olives, which the children ate greedily, savoring the salt and oil. The walk back was more focused: They were going to drop in briefly on Amya at work, each child in the custody of an adult because of the hazardous environment, and then Wiaki had promised them an exhibition of actual yanjanging while Halling went to her appointment.

Ng could have spent the rest of the day, it was clear, with Amya and her colleagues. Amya offered for her to stay, but Ng, after a pause, said she wanted to stick with the children. At the yanjanger factory, Wiaki came out to meet them, her hair soaked, her garb a fascinating set of overlapping armor. Inside, she pointed to a flight of stairs that she said led to a viewing gallery. Asking Ng's consent, she picked her up as if she were a child and carried her lightly ahead of the rest. They went through heavy metal doors onto a balcony overlooking a room that smelled of sulfur and scorched rock. Extremely thick glass with a layer of almost invisible silver mesh in the middle gave them a clear view of the room. A chair was available for Ng. Wiaki turned to them and said "Make sure the blast doors stay closed up here."

"Blast doors?" said Yoj. "This is safe to watch, right?"

Wiaki grinned at her. "There's always the chance of explosion." Yoj turned to look at Bux -- Halling and Szebel were long gone -- but Bux was grinning back at Wiaki and simply said "We'll trust your expertise" in a slightly flirtatious tone.

Yoj held Prl and Bux held Speranz so they could see clearly over the railing and, Yoj murmured to Bux, so they could turn and shield the little ones with their bodies in case of accident. Bux laughed briefly. But once the "glow was on the flow", everything else left their heads. The spectacle was indescribable, and the heat, even with roaring exhaust fans blowing it away from human contact, made Yoj feel like she was in a pressure cooker. Prl's arm around her neck was tight enough to reduce her breathing a little, and Yoj had to reach up to pull it loose. Yoj was trying desperately to memorize the sounds she was hearing, and the rhythm of the scene -- this was definitely going to become a song.

Despite the workers' urgency, it actually took half an hour for the entire cycle to wind through. When it was finally done, everyone on the balcony joined in the roars of triumph. Wiaki thundered up the outside stairs and burst in among them, picking Bux and Speranz up together in an exuberant hug, then carrying Ng back down to the cart. "C'mon!" yelled Wiaki, "We go for a dip now!"

They ran after her to a room at the edge of the factory that was filled with a giant pool of constantly circulating seawater. The other workers were already there, stripping or stripped and diving into the pool. Wiaki began pulling away her armor, saying to the family "You're free to join us."

Ndege and Mill didn't even wait for consent, all but ripping their clothes off. Yoj and Bux helped Speranz and Prl get bare, Yoj asking Bux "Do you want to get in, too?" After a moment's hesitation, Bux said "Not really."

Wiaki appeared before them, gleaming with sweat, swirls of golden hair all over her body. Yoj had never seem muscles like this on anyone. She was a Y, and her ginny was bright magenta. Dodd stared at her in rapture. Bux's face went red and she refused to look down after her first glance. Wiaki grabbed Speranz and they leaped into the pool together. Speranz came up spluttering, but Wiaki held her safely above the surface and instead of crying, Speranz began screaming with joy.

The swim was raucous, and the children had to be ordered firmly out of the pool several minutes after the workers had emerged to dry off and gulp down large glasses of tea. Wiaki went to stand under some open showers, saying the salt water played havoc with her fair skin if she didn't wash it away. Once Speranz was pulled to the tile, she said "My mouth hurts inside." Wiaki walked over, dripping, to pick her up as Bux inspected Speranz's mouth, all but leaning against Wiaki. Bux was saying "I think you bit the inside of your cheek a little when you jumped in, honey" when Halling and Szebel returned.

Halling stood stock still, gaping at the nudity tableau. Yoj couldn't keep from giggling. Dodd and Ndege were flicking towels at some of the other workers, one of whom was also a Y. Mill was demonstrating her own interpretation of fansha to another massive yanjanger. Prl had wandered into a shower where, from the looks of things, she was taking a piss. Nobody rushed to say hello to Halling.

Yoj went to make sure Prl washed with soap, then decided to order all the children into the showers for a quick rinse. Halling eventually joined her to help dry them and get their clothes back on, the children giving her a non-stop jumbled description of what they had seen. "Let's go watch again, so emma can see!" said Mill.

"No" said Halling firmly. "This is hard work for them, we've intruded enough." When she heard Bux saying to Wiaki gaily "We'll see you later, then", Halling demanded "What are you talking about?"

Szebel, trying not to laugh, explained "There's a big dance tonight here in the magma district. Amya's band is performing, I know I mentioned it to you."

"I guess so" said Halling. Bux did a small twirl and said "I am so ready for a good dance!" Yoj caught her at the end and they waltzed across the tile to the doorway.

They walked back to the hostel and insisted the children take short naps while the adults sat in the back garden and talked. Halling and Szebel disappeared again, promising to meet them at the dance. They ate at the cafe. Qen and Ng said they would rather stay at the hostel alone, and from the glow on their faces, Yoj didn't feel like they were being left beind. The rest of the family followed directions Szebel had left them to a cavernous two-story building right on the ocean, the last block drawn easily through the dark by the wonderful music coming out its double doors.

Amya's band, called Kaji Onjun, was remarkable for having a piano among its instruments -- indicating it must play locally most of the time. There were also clarinets, saxophones, mbiras, a viola and and a bass. Its sound was rich and lacked the driving beat of many Skene musical groups, but it made for lovely dancing nonetheless. Every three or four songs had lyrics, and for these Amya would climb into a stool, hold a mic and enchant them with her extraordinary voice.

Halling and Szebel were seldom dancing with anyone but each other. Yerush and Veida were having an extremely romantic time, from the looks of it. After the first half hour, Prl and Speranz lay down on the pallets surrounding the perimeter with some other children and were asleep within minutes. When Yoj checked on them, Prl had her arm slung across Speranz. She made sure they were warm enough and went to her table.

Ndege and Dodd were mostly dancing in a group with some other children their age. Mill was enjoying the steady attentions of a tall, already approaching puberty Yanja child whose extreme lack of dancing skill was being compensated for by her apparent ability to make Mill laugh nonstop. Mill had finally stopped scowling in Szebel's direction and instead was trying to teach a basic two-step to her Yanja smitten. Yoj thought Ng and Qen would really have enjoyed watching that. But, no doubt, they were having a good time on their own.

Yoj was having to share Bux with Wiaki, increasingly, it felt to Yoj. Wiaki was just as light on her feet dancing as she was yanjanging. After one lively reel, Bux and Wiaki were headed back to the table but Amya came to her stool and they turned to listen for a minute.

She said sweetly "It's a honor to us here tonight to have among us the new Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, Halling, who is the same woman written about in the Ballad of Halling and Xaya. Thus, to honor her in return, I'll dedicate the ballad to her now."

Yoj had never heard her song done this well. Wiaki looked at Bux, and they returned to the dance floor. Halling made eye contact with Yoj, but then melted in Szebel's arms. It was a slow dance, and although Bux was not behaving romantically with Wiaki, it still tore at Yoj to be alone at her table during this song in particular. She felt suddenly desolate. And, given how slowly Amya was singing it, her abandonment would not be over soon.

She was thinking about going out to get some air when a hand clapped on her shoulder and she looked up into the face of Qala. She leaped to her feet in gladness, saying "How in lev did you get here?", but not waiting for the answer before she hugged her tightly.

"It's a clear, double-moon night, where even a rusty pilot like me can fly safely, and I just couldn't stand to miss this dance. I figured the Sheng Zheng would not mind me using an old lighter for the evening" said Qala, her eyes mischievous. "And lo, just as I walk in, what song do they start up? Shall we trip the light fantastic?"

"Ah, I'd rather get out of here for a bit" said Yoj. "Let's go find out where that stairwell leads."

Holding Qala's hand, they skirted the dance floor and went up into blackness and quiet. Yoj saw moonshine at the end of a hall and headed in that direction. A balcony was visible beyond a glass door, and when they walked out onto it, they both gasped at the view. Below them, to the right, was the magmafall and bluff where Skeners conducted funerals. Ahead of them was black, sparkling ocean, and half a mile into it, the upwelling ring of lava and sizzle that was an underwater vent. Moonlight made the steam seem entirely alive. Strains of music drifted up from below. It was as if they were on the brink of the world.

They sat side by side on the edge of the balcony, leaning their arms over the metal railing, and looked in silence for a long time. When the song changed, Qala said "Is Bux getting a crush on that woman?"

"No" said Yoj. "I think she's some enjoying being admired, and more having fun rubbing Halling's face in it. And I can tell it is bugging Halling, although she doesn't want to show it. But their game is leaving me high and dry for the moment."

"Funny, when I imagine having two partners instead of none at all, I never consider that I might still be lonely sometimes" said Qala.

"Are you lonely, sweetie?" said Yoj, taking Qala's hand.

"Not often. And not like -- I was growing up" Qala answered.

"Do you ever go visit your family on Chloddia?" said Yoj.

"Once a year I make myself. Just to keep my sibemma's kids from forgetting I exist" said Qala, not bitter but with a hollow sadness.

"Well, they're missing out. As my children could and would inform them" said Yoj. "What is it with your emmas, anyhow? You're one of the most remarkable women on Skene."

Qala squeezed her hand and said "I dunno, what is it with your emmas? I mean, I was at your aggie's funeral, right over there, and Nilma -- she wasn't cold, she just wasn't present. If that makes sense."

"Sums it up perfectly" said Yoj. "Is that how yours act, vacant?"

"No" said Qala slowly. "It's a little more pointed, with them. I mean, I'm way taller than anyone else in my family -- they're all miners, you know, and my height and bulk seemed to be offensive to them. And, well -- " Qala hesitated.

"Not you're being a Y? Not that?" said Yoj, heat in her voice.

"Yeah. There weren't any others in the immediate family. So I just tried to avoid the remarks and all until I got to school, where I found out I wasn't the only one, and I was smart on top of that. Never looked back."

"I hear ya" said Yoj. "I mean, I'm what, four years younger than you? Just barely in your sui, never in your grade, but I still remember hearing about how smart you were, across the board, not just one or two subjects."

"Aw, that's nice" said Qala. "Well, you made quite the impression too, you know. I'll never forget your comeback to Gusu."

"Oh, I loathed her" said Yoj. "But I don't remember what comeback you mean."

"You know, when she called you -- maybe I shouldn't tell you this, if you've put it away" said Qala.

"No, it's okay. What did that levsucker call me?" said Yoj. They both laughed.

"This was when Gusu was nine, my age, and you were five and still really small. And you were inventing games with us, good games, and she got all upset because you weren't making her the center of attention. So she turned to you and said right out, 'Ewww, you smell like shu.' -- Don't you remember that?"

Yoj had gotten very still. "I don't. But it fits."

Qala put her arm around Yoj's shoulder and said gleefully "And then you, without missing a beat, you whipped back at her 'Shu odor washes off. But shu brains blight you for all time.'"

"No -- I said that?!!"

"Kids screamed and fell on the ground in hysterics. I mean, it was this perfect moment." Qala was laughing hard. "And not only did she never mess with you again, but her bullying days were over. We had a line to use against her if she picked on us, and use it we did."

"You, too?" asked Yoj, thrilled with this story.

"Me, too. That may have been the first time I -- we -- all found out that being mean or unfair around you, not just to you but to any kid, was going to have painful consequences. You were sweet as honeycakes unless somebody was mean, and then you tore into 'em. Always looking out for others. I mean, no wonder you became Dichter" said Qala.

"How is it that we were that visible and, well, good as children, but our own emmas didn't see it? Some emmas do" said Yoj.

"I still dunno" said Qala.

"I grew up just a few miles from here, and here's this extraordinary island full of sights like what we're watching right now, and glassblowing, and olive groves, and my own levvin' emma worked here, and yet in all my childhood, I never saw any of it. Not until this weekend, when I'm close to 40. By the time I was six, when aggie had to go to Market -- which she put off as long as she could, she really hated being around crowds -- she'd leave me at Isola with Myrd, who was 3 or 4 and a pain in the ass, and take the baby only 'cause she had to. Only a ferry ride away, but it felt awful to be there all by myself, just leviathan song and shu and this angry sibu..." Yoj suddenly burst into tears.

They'd dropped Rosz's wrapped body into that vivid firefall, right over there, without Yoj ever hearing from her why she'd been such a disappointment.

Qala held her snug and let the hot wretched pain of it scour out of her. It didn't take long. She was much freer of it than she used to be. She wiped her face with her palms and said "What a swell dance you snuck off to, huh."

Qala said quietly "It felt like my family -- my real family -- had all vanished. I actually probably shouldn't have flown myself here, but..."

Yoj turned and kissed her, on the mouth, sweetly. "We are your family. For ever. And our kids are going to make you an abba, how's that?"

"Can't wait" said Qala.

"Speaking of which" said Yoj, although the thread would only have been apparent to her, "How do you think Dodd is? Is she suffering crap out there from being a Y? Will she tell us about it, if she is?"

"She'd tell me" said Qala, "But she's fine. More than fine. She told me a while ago that she's well aware you love her best because she is the only Y out of all the kids, but she keeps it quiet because she doesn't want the others to feel bad."

Yoj lost it, then, a mixture of relief and love and release. She was still chortling when Bux walked up, saying "There you are. I saw you arrive, Qala, and then you two disappeared, and it took quite a while to find you -- oh, how unbelievably beautiful this spot is!" She stood staring at the view.

"Where's your dance partner?" said Yoj lightly.

Bux sat down next to her and kissed her cheek. "You've been crying, haven't you? As well as laughing like a maniac. Oh, Yoj, I'm sorry I've been neglecting you. I'll dance the rest of the evening with you, I promise. Wiaki can go sniff elsewhere."

Yoj let Bux's arm slide through hers and said "Well, just to tell you, I'm pretty sure it's making Halling's blood boil."

Bux giggled and said "Good."

Yoj added "And you'll only get half my dances, 'cause the other half are going to my buddy here."

"Fair enough" said Bux. "I'll brazenly go cut in on Szebel, won't that be fun?"

"Won't have to" said Halling's voice behind her, "We already decided to stop being piggy." Halling nudged her way in between Bux and Yoj. Szebel scooted behind Qala, pulling her back into her arms and saying "I was so glad to see you show up, you beauty, you."

"Does the Sheng Zhang know you borrowed a lighter?" said Halling, mock-serious, leaning past Yoj to look at Qala.

"She's chasing ginny tonight, doesn't know one end from the other" scoffed Qala, which sent Yoj off into hysterics again, this time joined by Bux.

A while later, Halling again leaned over to talk to Qala, this time asking seriously "Was it okay for you? Flying here?"

"I memorized the map, thinking about what would be lit up, and I taped little notes to the controls" said Qala. "No problem." Sensing the confusion of the others, she said "I'm color-blind. That's why I'm a dispatcher instead of a pilot."

"Well thunder me down" said Yoj. "The things I keep learning about people."

They sat for a while, in velvety peace. Szebel remarked "Everybody on Yanja believes sooner or later that underwater cone out there is going to rise up and make a new island. But we're not very happy about it, because it could set off terrible earthquakes here. Not to mention altering the flow."

Yoj pointed toward the invisible horizon, just right of the faint pink that meant a morrie strati, and replied "There is another island out there. And there's more beyond it."

Halling cleared her throat and said "I met with you-know-who before the dance."

"That's right" said Bux. "Did she talk with you like you'd hoped?"

"More than that" said Halling. She began telling them about the conversation.

At the end of the dance, after Yoj was happily tired and feeling popular again, they all walked back to the jichang together, Wiaki and Szebel insisting on carrying the twins. Veida and Yerush had the little ones, who never woke up. Halling had her arms around Bux and Yoj. Mill had been parted from her Yanja suitor, turning to walk backwards a few steps so she could wave at her new friend. Bux glanced at the smitten youngster left behind and thought Eat your heart out, she belongs to Riesig.

Halling did a systems check with Qala and said "Who's going to know if you don't turn up all right?"

"Lmape" said Qala. "I'm not careless enough to fly without someone at the radio, not with the hardass Sheng Zhang we've got now."

When Yoj hugged her bye, she whispered "Don't let Szebel's ways sweep you off your feet, we need you to be our Qala." Qala whispered back "Not to worry. The one I could get sweet on is Amya."

Back at the hostel, Dodd and Ndege were taken sleepwalking to the privy and then climbed into a bunk together. Prl and Speranz were also sharing a bunk. Halling tried to join Bux and Yoj in their room for a private goodnight kiss, but they pushed her back into the hall saying cheerfully "You have your cake for tonight, we're not available."

Despite their long day, Yoj and Bux lay in bed talking, cuddled together.

"Did you see that child who latched onto Mill? What gives with these big, pushy Yanja types?"

"Mill had fun but she kept her head" said Yoj. She didn't need to add "Unlike her emma" -- Bux was laughing anyhow.

"Can I ask what you and Qala were talking about so intensely?"

Yoj told her as much as she could recall. They enjoyed Dodd's remark, and Bux crowed out loud at Qala's memory of how Yoj had defended herself against Gusu's scorn. A minute later, Bux got up and locked their door, saying as she got back into bed "Just to keep our multitudinous children from waking us up too early!"

"How tired are you?" said Yoj slowly. Bux breathed in and out, then said "Never that tired" and rolled into Yoj's arms.

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 Chloddia and Exploit 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


The rest of Halling's week went like this, her trying to clear out the backlog, construct concrete plans for implementing change, and accepting help wherever she could. Mill kept begging to come to the Lofthall after school, to glory in Halling's new position, and Halling kept putting her off, saying things were too hectic. But finally on Sju, when they woke up to driving rain, Halling told Mill to get dressed and go with her. She looked at the rest of her family and said "I'm going to talk to the pilots after breakfast, you might want to come listen to that."

Everybody except Qen and Ng accompanied Mill and Halling. They joined the pilots gathered in the main hall, a palpable sense of expectation among the blue and yellow uniforms milling there. All of the other Lofthall workers were present as well. Halling walked to the far end, to the table underneath Mayim's map, and sat on the edge of the table, her cap tucked into her gilet. Yoj held Mill back, whispering "Just her. She's the one and only Lofthall Sheng Zhang at the moment." The room fell quiet.

Halling grinned at them and said "I asked Qala to not schedule anything for this first hour today, so we can all be together. I'll begin by saying I think it's time the Lofthall was governed like the other public service areas of Skene, with a Sheng Zhang and a secretary. We need that balance. I've asked someone with legal expertise to draw up a change in our code to give us an official secretary, and that will be voted on next election. I'm certain it will pass; I think the larger community has resented our special status. In the interim, I'm appointing Qala my secretary. If you have issues with something I'm doing and you feel you can't come to me, you can take it to her and she will be ethically bound to consider it as a secretary would. I'm paying for her promotion from my own salary increase as Sheng Zhang, until the law makes it permanent."

There was a stunned silence for a moment, followed by loud cheers and much thumping of Qala's back. Yoj and Bux beamed at each other -- the secretary idea was Bux's contribution. And it was Yerush who was creating the new legal wording. Halling's first act being one of opening her position to public oversight would go a long way toward her re-election.

Halling went on to discuss schedule changes -- that she intended for every pilot to have an agreed-upon day off once a week, regardless of weather; that shifts might be longer to compensate for that plus contract revisions; and that pilots who worked open wasa vs. local commercial would be trained separately and not switched out with each other. This latter drew some rumbling, and she promised to talk it over more, saying "We're not creating two different ranks here. Pay and respect will remain the same. Both kinds of piloting are hazardous and carry heavy responsibility. But the mental and emotional challenges are distinct, and it's time we directed women into what challenge suits them best individually. For the good of Skene."

She went on: "We're going to create means of rescuing any pilot who runs into peril over open wasa. Our training demands will go way up for a while, and I expect you to embrace this enthusiastically. I intend to keep pilots going until they are elderly and retire happily to their own tillages. We'll be taking in fewer trainees, but we'll still get the brightest of Skene knocking on our doors."

"Toward that end: I'm going to institute a policy of loaning lighters to pilots on their days off if they want to fly home and visit their families. I'll do everything I can to encourage you to not only keep in touch with your home Manages, but create new ones of your own. I want you to know the joy of having children and tillages. Let's work that out together."

This drew screams of approval, and several pilots turned around to grin at Halling's family. The children preened a little.

"I myself" said Halling "will be taking off every Shmonah afternoon and evening, unless emergency intervenes. Right before I leave on those days, I will broadcast a weekly Lofthall report on Sigrist radio, announcing our quotas for the week and any other relevant news, so greater Skene has first-hand knowledge of what we're doing for them. I'll begin this weekend."

This was Ng's idea, and a stroke of genius, Yoj thought. In six months, people wouldn't be able to imagine anyone but familiar Halling as the Sheng Zhang.

"We have enormous technology demands ahead of us, not just with the parachutes but also the development of underwater sensors that will tell us where leviathans are in any of the waters around Skene. These once existed here, and I intend for us to rediscover how to build them. We'll need a new training facility for the parachutes. I also intend for us to claim Danaan's Secano, modify it to serve as an emergency haven for pilots who face trouble in the Southern Wasa, and possibly serve as a jumping-off point for the rest of Skene. We have reason to believe there are other islands out there. To reach them, we'll need different craft that can fly longer distances, possibly new energy sources. If you know anyone who's bright and inventive, yearning to expand our scientific base of knowledge, please direct them to the Lofthall. Tell them to ask for me or Qala."

Now the room was electrified. Yalewa cleared her throat and spoke the question almost everyone else was thinking: "Other islands? You mean, more than just the legend?"

"More than just the legend" confirmed Halling. "I'll give you the tangible evidence next week, when it's ready." She pushed herself upright and said "That's enough for now. I'll keep you all informed as things progress. I'm proud to be one of you, a member of the Lofthall sibaste, never more than ever now. Let's start our day and give our best to Skene."

They rushed her, and Yoj let go of Mill's shoulder so she could join them. She was sorry Ng had not been here; she turned over phrases in her mind, memorizing Halling's words so she could repeat it verbatim for Ng.

On the way home, Bux peeled off and stopped at the small shop that made uniforms for the Lofthall. She had arranged for them to make a new dress uniform for Halling, using glittery maroon thread for the visible seams instead of mustard or brown, silver laces for the gilet and an embroidered Sheng Zhang flower symbol on the cap. They intended to give it to Halling after dinner.

At dinner, Halling said "I met with Api today". Yerush looked up with interest. "The Ethicist?" she said.

"Yep. I had a proposal for her. I offered the labor of sinners to fill in Exploit Lagoon for free."

Now all the older women were staring at Halling. "Whyever would you do that, it means considerable income for the Lofthall, doesn't?" said Ng.

Bux and Yoj were smiling. Halling said "I bartered it for two things: Enough land in the reclaimed territory to set up a parachute training base, right in the middle so lighters will be out of reach of levs at the shoreline deeps, and training for two of my pilots in laser use during the land leveling that will go on after we dump in fill."

Veida whistled, which Speranz and Ndege immediately began trying to imitate. Over their spitty efforts, Veida said "That must have rocked her back in her seat. What did she say -- especially about the second one?"

"Well, she of course got very serious" said Halling, between bites of salad. "I told her the training was necessary if we are to convert the new remote island, or islands, into rescue zones for pilots. We'll have to shape them, and it doesn't make sense to risk hauling out a laser operator for that purpose. I promised we'd use only the lasers from Yanja industry, renting them with the proper paperwork and returning them when we're done. That helped allay her fears that we intended to arm the Lofthall."

Yoj grinned widely. "Did she really buy it?"

"Yeah, because I made it clear it was no skin off my nose if she'd prefer volunteering someone from Yanja to be hauled out over morrie strati out of radio contact to do the work for us. I was very casual about it, and I could see in her eyes that she didn't want to be the one to ask Yanja for that favor. My solution looked less threatening." Halling was laughing now, as were all the older women.

"I don't get the joke" said Mill.

Bux explained "Emma was playing off people's fear of Yanja against people's fear of the Lofthall becoming militaristic."

"People are afraid of Yanja?" asked Prl incredulously.

"Silly, isn't it?" said Yoj. "That's why is so important to know your fears and conquer them if they don't make sense. Otherwise they govern you without you quite understanding it."

She wasn't sure Prl completely grasped this idea, but she could tell the three older children did.

Halling continued, "The trickier negotiation was over the land. Exploit and Chloddia are both desperate for residential area. The miners' dorms are full, and none of those folks can start families. At least half the population of Abfall plus all the nearby Flings are already employed in the mine industry, so they are counting on that new expanse to set up tillages and Manages."

Qen snorted. "I can't believe anyone bothers to till on those islands, the air and water is foul, and all the produce has an aftertaste."

Yerush grinned. "We went there one weekend after the kids were grown, just to see what the place was like because neither of us had ever been. Qen complained constantly about the food."

"And their eggs are tiny" Qen went on indignantly. "The lettuce had a sulphurous film on it. No wonder all the children from Chloddia and Exploit are smaller than average."

Yerush patted her hand, but she was focused on Halling. "So, how did it go?"

"I was very sympathetic to the needs of the local inhabitants, and indicated I knew it should be their decision to make. But I pointed out that training to save the lives of pilots would directly affect their children's future -- "

"Not really" interrupted Veida, "Every child born on those two islands seems to stay there, mining is the end-all be-all, they think."

"Qala" pointed out Yoj.

"And Cholt, who's in my grade right now" said Qen. "She's got Lofthall fever bad."

"Amba's oldest?" said Yoj softly. She turned to Halling and said "Next time you come to join me for singing on Ot, why don't you talk with her directly?"

Halling nodded, ignoring Bux's sudden stiffness. She said "I also suggested they could use a public park of their own, a clean green place for their children to play, for community gatherings, and for kickball."

Ng began laughing. "Ahh. You played the kickball card."

The inhabitants of Chloddia and Exploit were ferocious players of kickball, with games every weekend, currently held on makeshift courts between mine entrances in the paved central areas of the islands. Despite padding, the injuries from playing on concrete were constant.

"I said we'd need our training area to be grassy, for softer landings, and the dimensions of it would be perfect for a couple of kickball fields" explained Halling. "We'd be building a tower, which could be used for game observation and reporting over Sigrist radio. We could arrange to be off the field every day by 5 p.m. and never there on the weekends. And behind the tower could be an area for playground equipment and picnic tables, away from the jump site. Her face lit up. I'm willing to bet they'll go for it, especially since the cost of construction will come from our budget." Halling looked smug.

"Well, speaking of budget, how will you play for all this?" asked Yerush.

"By contracting out the commercial pilots" answered Halling. "The schedule is being revised, anyhow, because it was archaic. If they all work longer hours, with different kinds of breaks, we can generate almost enough additional hauling income in a year to pay for it. Amortized over two years, we can easily cover it."

"That means you'll go into the next election with a budget deficit, though" said Yerush.

"Yes, but I'm counting on the negative aspect of that being offset by all the goodwill of industry and commerce, plus the flashy visuals of parachuting. We're commissioning scarlet and royal blue silk for the chutes, and every time a pilot completes training, she'll get a vivid patch for her cap. I'll play it up in my radio reports as an investment in human capital" said Halling.

"Can I get one of those patches?" said Mill breathlessly.

Halling grinned and said "See?"

"Oughta work" said Veida.

The following evening, as they were making dinner, Qen said with merriment in her voice, "One of the other leraars asked me today in a whisper if it was true that Igoz had been a brandynose."

Yoj said "Ah, then the gossip circuit is working."

"What did you tell her?" asked Halling.

"I said it would be unethical for me, with my insider's knowledge, to confirm such a thing" answered Qen, waggling her eyebrows. They all began laughing. Yoj said "She'll be quoting you up and down Riesig. Oh, deftly done, emma!"

Yerush, shredding red cabbage, said a touch acerbically "This may be neither here nor there, but all three of the definite drunkards I've ever known, including Igoz, were Y's."

The room seemed to go into suspended animation except for Yerush's chopping. After two seconds, her hands stopped moving, too, although her gaze remained fixed on the cutting board. Yoj looked around to make make sure none of the children, especially Dodd, had come in the front door. Then she glanced at Ng, but Ng's eyes were on Qen, and Qen was looking at Veida in disbelief. Yoj began to think she was missing something aside from the subtle slam at Y's.

When she looked at Bux and saw the horror on her face as she stared at Yerush, she suddenly realized: How would Yerush know Igoz was a Y? She slid her eyes sideways and saw a matching distaste on Halling's face.

The spell was broken when Ng said something under her breath at the table, sending Qen into choking laughter. Even Veida began giggling. Yerush, ramrod stiff, said "I'll see to the chickens" and walked out the back door.

Bux went to finish Yerush's cabbage preparation, kissing the top of Qen's head on her way. Ndege clattered in the front door, complaining that a child two manages up had thrown a rock at her. Halling set down the carrots she was peeling and went out front with Ndege to referee.

Yoj turned off her skillet of dogefish in leek cream sauce and said "This is ready. So is the rice." She wiped her hands and headed for the back door. A memory popped into her mind of morrie strati, one of the few times she had flown over its perimeter with Halling, the turbid crimson sea there dampening any waves which approached it. She thought suddenly that whether those environments were produced by the involuntary ooze of leviathans in groups or they were beckoned by such water because it felt safe to them would be irrelevant to the levs: They did what they did and sought comfort as any creature would.

In the chicken run, Yerush was judiciously trying to distribute the feed so the smaller, lower-status hens and bullied capons had an equal chance at what the dominant hens believed was theirs by rights. Yoj did the same thing when she fed them. She took a handful of feed from Yerush's can and helped out. Every now and then, over the bickering chickens, she could hear gusts of laughter coming from the kitchen. The sky was overcast and a wind was picking up. She saw Dodd at the back door, looking for her, and called out "Your night to feed the katts, I think."

"Yes, emma" she answered, fading back into the kitchen.

Yerush remarked "When I was a child, if I misspoke, as aggie put it, which meant anything from using incorrect grammar to swearing to telling a fib, a cloth rag was tied around my mouth for an hour. To teach me the value of using my words wisely, she said."

Yoj looked at Yerush. Her lips were pressed tightly together in that way she and other students had once mocked, and suddenly it had an explanation.

Yoj said "I don't know why I didn't sleep with Culisa. It wasn't good sense on my part, I can say that for certain, because I didn't show good sense at other times. I mostly put it down to dumb luck. If I had, I doubt Bux could ever have gotten past it."

Yerush met her eyes, then, a bruising in her blue. "Bux is like Qen, she loves whom she loves and reason comes after. Not that you weren't exactly right for her -- that's one thing I can be proud of, raising a child who had enough sense to choose you as a partner."

With all the seed consumed but chicken tempers still flared, Yoj began gently herding them into their house, Yerush flanking her. It was always easier with two people. As Yerush slid the bolt into place on the chickenhouse hatch, she said "When you were at the U and came to my office to talk with me, I always knew it was you at my door, even before you knocked. You have this way of clearing your throat right before you do something that frightens you. I'd feel my heart leap every time, knowing I was about to hear the most interesting question of the day."

Yoj slid her arm through Yerush's and said "Let's go back into the warmth, sit at that table of family you've created." Yerush squeezed her arm as they walked along the path.

Halling's weekly radio reports immediately become popular. Bux told them her Sheng Zhang was thinking about asking for air time as well. Halling took to wearing her dress uniform as often as she could, and she was increasingly recognized on the street, with people calling out greetings to "Nan Sheng Zhang". She had not mentioned the proof of other islands to anyone except the pilots.

However, word was leaking out. The day she flew a sinner to Verzin to pick up the copies, taking two pilots with her to help carry them, people watched them with avid curiosity as they walked back to the jichang, one woman calling out "Are those new maps?"

"Yes. Drop by the Lofthall if you want to see them" answered Halling.

A dozen or so folks were hanging around the Lofthall when they returned. Yoj and Bux were there as well, to help hang the maps. Bux took charge of the layout -- the area they would cover was more than the area of far long wall of the main hall, under the clerestories, so she began the hanging on the front wall as one entered the hall. They used small steel brackets designed to be driven into yanja walls. It took them all afternoon, and by the time they were done, every pilot was in the main hall, walking from spot to spot, carrying chairs in from the canteen so they could stand on them and look at the high maps. The crowd of Riesigers had grown to at least 50. Qen brought the children following school, and after their shift, Rark and Danaan walked to the Manage and returned with Ng on a carry chair.

At 5:00, the newly elected Ethicist, Api, arrived. She went directly to Halling, and Halling gave her a tour that everyone in the room tried to overhear. Halling reeled off directions and distances, showing the hopscotch progress of secanos across wasa expanses. Api chewed her lower lip and said "You're certain about the accuracy of these?"

"Well, I didn't make these maps, so I can't vouch for them all, no. But Sector 53 has been proven correct, so there's no logical reason to doubt the rest" said Halling.

"And these were locked away here, in the vault?"

"Gathering dust" said Halling neutrally.

"I've looked through the Ethicist records, and there's no mention anywhere of these maps. Does the Archivist know their origin or meaning?" said Api.

"You'll have to ask her" answered Halling. "We intend to give her the originals for safekeeping."

"What are your intentions for these? The information on them, I mean?" asked Api.

"I have no intentions beyond the sharing I just did. It's up to Skene to come up with a plan" said Halling, a slight grin on her face.

Api grinned back, more widely. "But if exploration turned out to be a public wish, you'd be glad to lend the Lofthall's efforts, maybe?"

"I can't imagine otherwise" said Halling. She heard Yerush snort behind her, and turned to see her standing with Veida. Api saw Yerush as well, and said "The questions this raises seem limitless."

"It will have to be addressed in an incremental fashion" said Yerush. "Unfortunately, they do have to be addressed. Skene can't just wait this one out." When Api looked at her quizzically, Yerush said in a voice low enough for only them to hear "The possibility exists that this leads to the mythical other island chain in another hemisphere."

Halling reached an arm out to steady Api because she thought the Ethicist might fall over. "Oh, lev" said Api.

"Which is why I consider it bordering on criminal that these were kept from public knowledge" added Yerush. Halling thought, not for the first time, that it would be a good idea to never make Yerush into an enemy. Igoz was toast, now.

Api said "I'd like to pull together a few folks to discuss this quietly. Would both of you be willing to be in that group?" She pointed to Yerush and Halling.

"I'd be honored" said Yerush. Halling nodded, adding "I'll want to either include Qala or be able to report to her."

"All right" said Api. "I'll send you word when it's arranged. Until then, please don't -- share your speculation with the public."

"I won't" said Yerush, "But others will reach that conclusion on their own."

Api rubbed her cheek with her palm, and Halling said "Let's go to the canteen and get a cup of tea before you go."

"No, I need to get home for dinner" said Api. "I won't be able to see my children the rest of the evening, I at least want to eat with them." She shook their hands and left.

Halling asked Yerush "Who else will she ask, do you think?"

"The Archivist. Asha, maybe all three Sigrists. The Sheng Zhangs. A few past Ethicists. Raisa" listed Yerush. Veida had moved in closer to hear this, and said "What about the head of the hospital? Or Qen as head teacher?"

"Depends on if Api's intelligent enough to understand that involving the public in planning for exploration is the best way to reassure everyone" answered Yerush.

"One of Igoz's sibs is a Sheng Zhang" said Halling. "She's going to oppose any kind of action."

"She'll be outnumbered" said Yerush. "In fact, once the implications of this gets out, commerce is going to be furious with her and she's likely to lose her next election if someone presentable runs against her."

Qen, Ng and the children arrived beside them. "We're all hungry and need to get dinner started" said Ng.

"Let's eat here" suggested Halling. "I'll go warn the canteen they'll have a dozen extra." The children began cheering, and Halling added "But straight home afterward and homework as soon as we get there."

All of Halling's requests for land use on Exploit Lagoon and laser training went through in rapid order, facilitated by Api. Halling wondered if Api suddenly felt a secret need for pilots who were somewhat familiar with a possible weapon. Two sinners a day were diverted to endless dumping of yanja debris and non-toxic mine tailings into the lagoon, starting at the non-ferry end. It would take months to complete the fill-in, but long before that, Halling intended to send Rark and Danaan out onto the first rim of fill and begin levelling it. She had already talked with Iro about taking apart a laser and drawing a schematic of how it was constructed. They were going over specifications in her office once a week.

Halling had her Shmonah afternoons off, which they used for family outings whenever weather allowed, but she increasingly had to schedule meetings during dinner or after dinner. She still went in to the Lofthall at dawn, to eat with the pilots and send them off each day, and made up her rest with a nap in her office most afternoons. The Manage was busy preparing for spring planting, so Bux took over Halling's share of that work and Yoj spent ever more time with the children.

In the warm drenches of Yaomur one night, Halling said "Let's all go to Yanja this weekend. Stay at the hostel, see the sights. I have a meeting there on Sju afternoon, so we could fly there on Roku after market and stay until Shmonah evening. I'll take off work."

Bux looked at her suspiciously. "A meeting with who?"

"A laser specialist" said Halling glibly. Bux suddenly remembered what this was about -- Halling had told them. Still, she asked "Will you be staying at the hostel with us?"

"That's up to you" said Halling, meeting her gaze, then looking at Yoj.

As if reading minds, Prl asked "Will we get to see Wiaki?"

"Yes" said Halling. "I'll see if she'll give you all a yanjanger tour. And we could have dinner with your emma and sibu" she added to Yoj.

Yoj nodded to Bux, and Bux, with a sigh, said "I'll make the hostel reservations."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


Friday, January 4, 2008


(Choir LaBelle performing on first night of Clash of the Choirs)

Today, for the first time, I have a guest blogger, Kat from Berkeley who comments here frequently. Kat has many talents and interests, one of them being choir/chorale singing, another opera, and a third ranting about her interests. She had a strong response to an earlier post of mine about the recent Clash of the Choirs on NBC, and our exchange led her to write the post below. Even more exciting, this has been cross-posted at Choralista, a wonderful blog of "Guerrilla choir-nuts in action" dedicated to chorale and classical music, run by Celeste Winant and Lisa Hirsch. Hop back and forth, and enjoy! Many thanks to Kat for her effort and clarity. -- Maggie


"But: I broke my oath last week to check out the first night of Clash of the Choirs. Because, my god, it was Patti LaBelle heading up one of the choirs. I have to say, she definitely did not disappoint. Michael Bolton and his Connecticut milquetoasts were an embarrassment, and at least the country-western guy was honest in admitting he didn't have a fucking clue about anything except kicker music. But Patti blew them out of the hemisphere. I got hooked, in spite of myself. I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons), and I was fascinated with the all-too-brief glimpses of how Ms. LaBelle formed her musical judgments and pushed her pupils to perform dazzling displays above the rest.

"I wound up taping and watching all five nights (taping was essential because I really couldn't sit through Bolton & Co.) And every single night, LaBelle's crew mopped up the floor with extremely original, ambitious, outrageously moving performances. But: the format relied on the standard "let the idiots with cellphones make the final decision" and even my cynical self could NOT BELIEVE IT when Nick Lachey (Mr. Jessica Simpson) was named the winner.

"Gag me with the patriarchy. Gormless white boy beats out Patti LaBelle? Yeah, you just convince me it wasn't all those hip-hop-lovin' racist pasty-skinned suburbanite testosterone-poisoned BOYS who couldn't bring themselves to vote for a 50-something black WOMAN. I was utterly disgusted, most of all with myself for giving it a try.

Back to my oath."

(Patti LaBelle after hearing her choir had lost -- (Thanks to LogandLiz blog for the image)


Hey there, Kat here, taking over other people’s blogs in order to rant. I like ranting, just so you know, and often wonder why it seems like I’m ranting alone. I firmly believe that “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I’m not actually outraged, today, though, so ignore the last couple of sentences.

Anyway, Maggie recently offered a searing review of NBC’s Clash of the Choirs. I raked Mags over the coals for one sentence: “I learned that choirs don't have to sound like badly homogenized eunuchs (or Mormons)”.

Anyway, after demanding an explanation (which was really rather rude of me, but I hope Maggie will forgive), Maggie asked some really interesting questions about the nature of choral music and its origins. I thought it would be interesting from choral and non-choral perspectives because I think a lot of musicians exist in a somewhat sheltered bubble of other musicians, and we forget that the outside world may not look at things the way we do. It’s important to look at things from the other side.

Choralista has considered the shift/decline in interest in choral music, and how that will work with the growing number of choirs (particularly in the Bay Area), and looking at Maggie’s thoughts could be really valuable to us as we plan concerts.

Here were Maggie’s questions:

"One thing I realized as a result is that the groups I was comparing the TV shows' groups to, that I've heard in person, were either church-based (which probably have cultural and religious strictures on their sound that have nothing to do with music) or, in fact, actually labeled as choruses or chorales. Without hitting Wikipedia, I'm willing to bet I'm mixing apples with oranges, aren't I?

"In addition, after thinking about it, I realize 'eunuch' is an extremely poor choice of words. Partly because, on looking it up, I see it refers only to the castration of males instead of what I was (vaguely) aiming for, the removal of earthiness from human voice. Sex is not really the issue. Except -- I'm still confused here, clearly -- it does seem to me that the glorification of boy choirs has a great deal to do with seeing them as pre-sexual males. My mother went gaga over the Vienna Boys' Choir and her comments focused on how 'sweet' they sounded, how 'pure' and 'untouched'. Yikes. When, in fact, they sounded to me exactly the same as girls' choirs. What was so special about boys sounding like girls?

"I DO want to hear choirs giving me a sound I can't experience another way, but still clearly human, rich, evocative. I'm not sure I know what 'one voice' means to you. I felt like during the first performance by the LaBelle choir, where there was a sort of call and response, two halves of the choir singing back and forth to each other, that I was hearing something radically different and vibrant, enough to make me sit up and my blood start pumping. I kept looking for that every time they performed, and found it in between the sections where, yes, it was a soloist doing their shtick and getting back up.

"I don't have the language to describe it, but I'm hoping you can elucidate further. Educate me, if you will. America idolizes the perceived 'amateur' but, well, they wind up sounding like Nick Lachey instead of Patti LaBelle, don't they?

"But if I'm going to see a nationally televised show, I want to see professionals knocking my socks off." (end of Maggie's questions)

Sooooo much good stuff to think about and consider. I hope I can shed some light into this, and I’ve taken over Choralista as well in the hopes that if I leave anything out (or get it horribly wrong), I’ll be corrected.

Let’s start with definitions. In a strict sense of things, “Choir” refers to a group of people singing together, but also refers to the part of the church from which they sing (also spelled “quire”). Hence, choirs are church ensembles. The word doesn’t always get used that strictly anymore….A chorus or chorale is the same concept, of an ensemble of singers, but is more general and does not have the church connotation.

This is a technical description, though. Generally, chorus/choir/chorale are all pretty interchangeable, and refer to groups in which there is more than voice on a part.

The big question seems to be: Does choral music have to be classical or religious. The adverts for Clash of the Choirs said something about wanting to move choral music beyond those definitions. The trouble is that that’s not possible. In the context of Western music (which is the only kind I’m qualified to write about), the Church invented choral music. It grew out of Gregorian chant, in which all the monks/priests/whoever would chant in unison. In the middle ages, a second sung line was added, then another, then another, and eventually you get polyphonic choral music, which is made up of multiple lines all functioning more or less independently while singing at the same time.

We know about multi-part secular music, but off of the top of my head, I don’t know whether there is any evidence of Mediaeval/Renaissance choirs singing it. As far as I’ve read, it would have been printed for home use (got 4 people over for dinner, why not sing some madrigals!).

With all of this polyphonic music, all of the voice parts get more or less equal treatment. What Celeste and I were annoyed by in Clash of the Choirs was that the groups would give all the interesting music to one or two singers, and everyone else would stand behind and fill in the blanks. The precedent for that is in doo-wop or girl groups, not choral music. We’re not saying that this style is not legitimate, just that it’s not an accurate representation of choral music. The title conflates two very different styles.

In this modern day and age, do we have to have choral music that is religious or classical? Well, actually, yes. You’ve either got classical (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the 9th symphony, Mahler symphonies, etc) or religious (the masses of Mozart and Bach, most Renaissance polyphony, Gospel). Pop music has really not created any real choral music. There are ensembles, but mostly small ensembles of soloists, not lots-of-folks-on-a-part choirs.

What has happened, as “classical” and “popular” music have grown apart and the audience for “classical” has shrunk, is that choruses have tried arranging pop music for their purposes. In high school the directors always give you Billy Joel or someone, arranged for 4 part harmony so that you’ll stop complaining about all the god references. There’s a ton of pop songs that have been taken apart and reworked for a choir, which has always struck me as kind of strange. If I want to listen to Billy Joel, I’ll do that. I won’t put on Chanticleer-singing-Billy-Joel….

Moving on to the issue of homogeny within a choir: Ideally, you want each voice part to be made up of singers who sound similar. You want voices that “blend.” This usually means voices that are clear in tone, “pure” as opposed to dark or muddy. Generally, you also want voices that have little vibrato, which supposedly obscures the purity of a note (I’m more opera centric, and may or may not agree with this, so I’ll just move on). Why do we need this?? Well, if you have people with really individual, unique (not eunuch!) voices, that’s what you’ll hear. The effect will be of the voices themselves, which will obscure the over-arching lines and effects that the composer wants from the group as a whole. The best choirs seem to be made up of colorless voices, so that the color and tone of the group as a whole, and of the composition, can come to the forefront.

In my opinion, the modern Scandinavian groups are tops at this. There are some really innovative, avant-garde composers up there who take choral sound to the outer reaches of what you thought possible with vocal music.

The Anglophile Cambridge lovers will undoubtedly flog me for that last paragraph. I’m an alto, though, remember that before you try to beat me down!!!!

You listen to an opera chorus (group o’ big voiced opera singers singing something like the “Anvil Chorus”) versus any group directed by Eric Ericsson for the differences between ensemble singing and choral singing.

This is what your Mum was probably referring to, Maggie. The Vienna Boys Choir (and just about any other boy choir) tout their singers “pure” voices as a way to convey the composer’s brilliance, rather than the brilliance of a particular performing artist. The focus is on the creation rather than the interpreters.

(Vienna Boys Choir)

So, the boychoir issue. I saved this one for last, so as to rant more. Originally, in the early days of Catholicism, women were forbidden from singing in church. The exception would have been convents, but for the outside world, it was “screw you and your X chromosomes.” This presented music-minded clergy and choir directors with a problem. They wanted multi-part music, but couldn’t get women to sing the higher parts. So, in order to replicate the high voices of female singers, they brought in young boys.

This started a really long tradition of boys singing in church. It spawned the British Cathedral School tradition, in which the large churches would use students from their schools in the choirs. I know several male singers who grew up in cathedral choir schools and are still dealing with the consequences as adults. We all know about the horrors committed at many a British boys’ school right? Well, add to that being in the choir and getting special treatment from all the teachers (like not having to take sports and having loads of free time while others are in classes), and imagine how they were treated by their fellow students. Loads of bullying, to say the least. Plus, the choir traditions don’t do anything in the way of actually teaching vocal technique, so these guys have tons of vocal problems, as well. They’re held up as having been professional singers since they were kids, but are not nearly as good, technically, as singers who started as teenagers or even young adults.

Anyway, aside from my friends’ experiences, there’s the sexism issue as well. Supporters of boychoir traditions insist that somehow boys’ voices are higher, purer, generally more special than girls’. And yes, Maggie, they frequently sound exactly the same. The first British cathedral choir to include girls (and even then, I think there are separate girls’ and boys’ groups, I don’t think they’re mixed) only did so in 1991.

“Tradition” is a great excuse, and gets attached to all sorts of silly practices. At some point, and I’m not sure when, some church dudes realized that if you castrate little boys, their voices never change, and they can sing high for all their lives…..don’t ask me how they decided this was a good idea, I’d rather not think about it…..anyway, castration prevented the larynx from doing whatever it does when boys go through puberty. The voice would stay high, but would change in other ways. Apparently, castrati had the small, very flexible vocal chords of children, but would grow to be very tall and barrel chested, so they would have lung capacity for days as well as high notes….their voices were said to be quite unique and interesting, which would have been a far cry from the colorless, “pure” sound of boys. So you do get your eunuchs, Maggie, but apparently they were really thrilling to listen to.

Basically, I think that children’s choirs are great as an activity for your kid, but there is no surviving reason to maintain the overly glorified boychoir stuff, with all its anachronisms. Oh wait, religions love anachronisms, don’t they…..oops….

So, wanting to hear a unique choral sound that still has a warmth and humanity…..Patti LaBelle’s group seemed to take its style from Gospel, which does use call and response as a device. I’m not a connoisseur of Gospel, so I can’t give you specific examples to look for. I think that this is where I’ll open the floor for suggestions. What recordings get you all hot and bothered, folks?

My favorite pieces are from the Renaissance, and are polyphonic. Renaissance polyphony allows for some really cool word painting and other effects. Look for Italian madrigals if you want secular. Lots of sexual innuendo will ensue (“The sweet and white swan dies while singing….”)

I hope that I’ve managed to answer some of the questions, and look forward to hearing more from anyone who’s got more info.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming….

Original commercial touting Clash of the Choirs
LaBelle Choir sings "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands", stealing the show at the end of the first episode -- check out the "call and response"!
LaBelle Choir on day two of Clash of the Choirs singing "We Are The Champions"
Patti LaBelle and her choir singing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"
LaBelle Choir on day three of Clash of the Choirs
Finale from Clash of the Choirs on YouTube



(Glow on the flow)

(Another two-chapter post today because they make a complete set.) 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 The Lofthall on Riesig
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


Half an hour later, with Igoz vanished and people clearing out but a thick crowd of well-wishers pinning Halling to the front of the room, Yoj and Bux made their way to the yanjangers to introduce themselves. Szebel gave them each a huge hug and whispered to Yoj "I recognized you, of course, but I'm being discreet. She showed me photos of you two every chance she got."

Bux's face lit up. She asked "Which one of you is Amya? Halling talked about her a lot."

"She has trouble with the long walks across islands on the commute" said Szebel. "So she's home, but she helped get all this together for Halling.

Prl, pressed tight against Yoj, said "Are you a real giant?" Wiaki answered "I guess I am. Would you like to try on one of our giant bracelets? It's made of blood from the planet's core." Prl nodded breathlessly and Szebel slipped off the shiny black wrist cuff carved with math symbols, then balanced it on Prl's small wrist. Prl had to use her other hand to keep it on. She was clearly dazzled, and said "From where did you get it?"

Wiaki, standing beside Szebel, said "I gave it to her. I'm the one who tamed the lava and shaped it into a piece of jewelry." Prl eyed her, and Wiaki added "I'm a giant too. We live together in a house full of giants that your emma came to visit last year." Prl was mute in admiration.

Qala approached and said to Wiaki "You can't possibly take the ferries back after the tasting, and the hostel is full -- let us find bunks for you at the Lofthall, all of you. And our breakfasts are stupendous." Prl asked Bux in a stage whisper "What do giants eat?"

Szebel answered solemnly "Huge octopus eggs seasoned with lightning. And for toast, we uproot a tree and slice off boards. Yummy." Prl said "You'd need a lot of jam on that, I bet." Everybody laughed, and Wiaki said "We make jam just by squeezing fruit in our giant hands."

Szebel said to Qala "We happily accept your offer." Halling finally reached them then, and she shook Szebel's hand sedately, conscious of watching eyes. Bux leaned up to whisper in Halling's ear, and Halling looked at her keenly, saying "Are you sure?" Bux nodded, and whispered to Yoj "I told her she and Szebel should go sleep tonight in your cubicle." At Halling's questioning face, Yoj also nodded with a generous grin.

It was time to go to the canteen for the annual tasting. Pilots clustered to carry Ng, and Qala led the way toward the rear door which would spare them the long, choked hallway. As they walked, Yerush carrying Speranz next to Yoj carrying Prl, Yerush said to them quietly "There are so many things that worked right for Halling today, but I would guess that the best help she had were from you two children. You may have won the election for her."

Speranz said "Do we get dessert, then?" and Prl gave her usual "I know."

At the tasting, the extended family of the Manage -- including Moasi and Ktiva's three children as well as all the sibs, Qala, Rark, Danaan, Iro and Ektr -- took up an entire row of tables. The Yanja contingent had the table next to them, and there was enough interchange between the two that by the end, all of the children except Mill were in the lap of or leaning against a yanjanger, chatting away. Mill stuck very close to Halling, and every time she looked at Szebel, her face grew suspicious. The highlight of this year's tasting was a white variety of corn, presented on the cob, as hominy with pork, and in corn muffins.

"I want this bread!" Dodd announced. "Can we get this flour?"

Yoj sighed and said "Skene just doesn't have the acreage to grow corn in bulk. We might be able to squeeze a few plants into the tillage, but it will only give us cobs, not enough for muffins."

Dodd looked hopefully at Qen, who shared her love of corn. "We'll see" she said.

After the tasting, Qala begged them all to come with her to the training room adjacent to the jichang. "We get a sandwich spread from the canteen instead of dinner, and there's enough to share."

"Will Igoz be there?" asked Yerush pointedly.

"She's never come before, and this year in particular, she'll be off politicking" said Qala.

Halling said "I need to do some politicking of my own, and I think it would be better if I didn't linger here. Not until after the Vote. I'll catch up with you tomorrow." She kissed her family goodbye and headed out the back door.

Everyone else, the Manage, a big group of pilots, and the Yanja folks, walked over to the training building. Ng was given the sole settee, and Qen settled in snugly beside her. In all the rearranging of chairs, no one not in the know noticed Szebel slip out the door, or if they did, they assumed she was going to the privy. Except for Mill, who did see her leave and smelled a shu.

Prl still had Szebel's black bracelet. To keep from losing it, Veida had tied it into the laces of Prl's gilet, where it caught the eye as a singular adornment. Prl seemed bent on making Wiaki her pet giant, claiming her lap and, as she chatted away, frequently lifting her small hand to delicately finger Wiaki's yellow curls.

Yerush had zeroed in on the member of the Yanga contingent who was linked by birth to Exploit and who had brought the Confederated Miner's testimonial to Szebel. She was clearly a power-broker of some sort, and Yerush wanted to plumb those depths. The yanjangers were grilling the pilots about flying, and the pilots were equally interested in the mechanics of Yanja crafts.

Wiaki was on the edge of several conversations. Finally, she raised her voice and said "How about if we give you a visual demonstration of how yanjanging works?" Receiving a clamor of 'Yeses", she and her friends stood, lining up chairs to create a long clear space between their straight backs, as they conferred in terms that sounded like a foreign language. At either end of the imaginary chute, but separated from it, Wiaki placed chairs crosswise.

"All right" she said. "This first time, we'll act it out for you. I am the touzi of my gang, the boss, and I'll play that role. We have a mending, who controls the inflow level -- " she pointed to the head of the chute, and a woman stepped into place there. "We have checkers, who make sure the sluice is conformed correctly and without a gap. We have fansha, who shape the magma in the sluice. And, once it's poured, we have the zayaste, who controls the flow of the coolant in the sidewalls. A tiny mistake anywhere along the way will mean, at best, a terrible burn, at worst an explosion that kills everyone in the chamber."

The children were transfixed, staring at the row of chairbacks as if it really was a sluice.

Wiaki continued, "Now, here's something you might not know. Magma is noisy. It talks as it moves. We can tell what it's feeling by what it says to us. When it's just flowing the way it likes to go, it sounds like this." She made a sound with her mouth that was utterly inhuman, a kind of crackling urgency that Yoj found fascinating. "But when you start messing with it, it fights back. And you can hear the argument, as it hits the sluice and wants to climb out." She made a new sound, higher-pitched and definitely angry. "Then, when we dare to try quenching the molten blood of the planet, when we presume to tame it, its fury comes out in a scream." And it was a scream that emerged from her throat. Speranz backed up into Veida's legs and stuck there.

"But it's not just the magma talking. It's also the poor abused metal and quartz of the sluice, being attacked by this hottest of all heat. It screams, too, when the magma hits it, but in a different way." She imitated that sound, and it was indeed metallic.

"So, there's a lot of racket going on, with waves of heat and clouds of steam, and we have to communicate with each other through it all. That's why yanjangers are so loud, and make great orators. We need some of you to be the magma voice, who can do that?"

Yoj instantly raised her hand, followed swiftly by Dodd and Ndege. Bux and Moasi joined them. Ng, Qen, Lawa and Veida volunteered to be the sluice voice.

"All right, then, here goes" said Wiaki. The other yanjangers, six of them besides her, took up positions along the sluice, one at either end. Suddenly their faces were deadly serious, and they seemed to be standing on the tips of their toes, despite their bulk.

Wiaki called out "In position?"

"Yes, Touzi!" came a bellowing reply. Wiaki pointed to Yoj's group, who began the crackling flow of magma. She said to the woman at the head of the chute, "Mending, let it go!"

As the mending pulled slowly back on an imaginary level, she called out "Glow on the flow!" This cry was taken up by all the other yanjangers, with a mixture of fear and exultation that sent Speranz up into Yerush's arms. They repeated it, new yells meeting an echo of the old, their eyes on the magma filling the sluice. From the looks on her children's faces, Yoj could tell they actually saw it, too. As it reached the top, the mending pushed with all her might on the lever and stopped the glow.

The yanjangers danced about on their feet, holding invisible paddles in either hand that they used to smooth the lava at the top of the sluice, ducking flecks and spits of magma reacting to confinement. Yoj's bunch created the furious protest sound as best they could remember it. At the same time, Qen and Ng were crying out the metal's response. Yoj saw Prl's lips moving, with a joyous grin on her face. Yoj wondered which she was doing, the magna or the metal, but it was too cacophonous around them to tell.

After a couple of minutes, Wiaki stepped over to take a look and said "Ready for coolant?"

"Yes, Touzi!" came the answering shout. Wiaki looked at the woman at the end of the chute and said "Zayaste, what's your reading?"

The zayaste looking at a gauge and called back "100%", Touzi!"

"Release!" said Wiaki. She began flailing her hands in the air as if they were billows of steam, and Yoj's group switched to the scream of angry magma. Ng and Qen's wails went so high that their voices broke and they began laughing. Yoj directed her chorus into a slow diminishment until, with a final sizzle, the magma was tamed.

The yanjangers broke into riotous congratulation, and the children were the most excited of them all. Wiaki, coming to stand near Yoj, said "This is when we strip down and go take a plunge in the seapool, because we're drenched in sweat. Then we have a snack, stoke back up, and go again. While we're doing that, the checkers and loaders will let down the sides of the sluice and haul away whatever piece we've just formed. Then the checkers'll read the specs for the next piece and start setting it up."

"What's in the coolant -- surely not just plain water, or else the metal would burst" said Yoj. "For that matter, what kind of metal can take this abuse?"

"Trade secret" grinned Wiaki. She stepped back to the center of the room and said loudly, "Okay, this time, the children get to be the yanjangers. Who wants to be the mending?"

"Me!" yelled Prl, running toward Wiaki.

"That's my yanjanger!" crowed Wiaki. She set Prl standing on the chair and the former mending rested her elbow on the chair-back. Wiaki put Prl's hands around the wrist of this woman and said "You pull down on the lever, here, when I give you the order. But slow, mind you, or else we'll all burn to death."

Prl's eyes were huge. She clasped the woman's wrist tightly.

Wiaki looked around and spotted Speranz. "How'd you like to be the zayaste, and tame our magma for us?"

Speranz nodded and let Wiaki set her on the chair at the other end. The former zayaste obligingly cocked her elbow as well into a lever, and Speranz grabbed it confidently.

Wiaki turned to the rest of the children. "You six are all fansha. And here's what you must remember: Never let the magna touch you. If it touches you, you're marked for life." She pushed up her sleeves, showing a vivid network of bulging white scars. Dodd looked a little sick.

"Now, you'd be kitted out in serious protective gear. We wear helmets that come down to our collarbones, with a visor for viewing. Here -- " she reached toward Rark's cap and scarf, which Rark handed over to her. Wiaki put the cap tight on Dodd's head, then wrapped the scarf loosely around the lower half of her face until only her eyes were showing. Yoj thought she could see relief in those eyes -- Dodd now had on protection.

Other pilots put "helmets" on the rest of the children as Wiaki explained "Every other inch of us is covered with extremely thick, specially treated leather, that's so stiff it's a lot like wearing metal. Except our hands -- the gloves on our hands and wrists have to be flexible enough to allow us to move them freely. Which means it's easier to get burned there." Wiaki showed her arms again. "So -- " she looked sternly at the children. "What must you remember?"

"Never let the magma touch us!" they answered in voices muffled by the scarves.

"One last thing" said Wiaki. "We need the magma this time. Who wants to be magma?"

Danaan and Rark immediately volunteered, followed by Bux and Qala. Wiaki gave them whispered instructions, and they lined up, hips and shoulders touching but every other woman facing a different direction, behind the chair/gate controlled by Prl. They writhed and made magma sounds, and Yoj thought Prl would have abandoned her post except for her determination to live up to Wiaki's faith in her.

Suddenly all the children were as serious as the yanjangers had been before them. Wiaki let the magma crackle be all that broke the silence for half a minute, then called out "In position?"

"Yes, Touzi!" shouted the children. Wiaki looked at Prl, who gulped visibly, then said "Mending, let it go!"

Prl had a hard time moving the lever -- the woman's arm was stiff and uncooperative. But she put all her weight on it, a sweat already on her face, and slowly the gate opened. The stream of magma surged into the sluice, loud and terrifyingly alive. The six fansha used paddle hands to poke at it, but the magma poked back, eight deft hands trying to land on the darting fansha. They were all shouting "Glow on the flow, glow on the flow" in frenzied tones through their scarves. It was Bux who finally managed to land a finger on Ndege's arm, and Ndege shrieked in frustration and imagined pain.

"Keep going" bellowed Wiaki, "We'll treat the burn later!"

Ndege's eyes showed rage but she stuck to her post. Finally the magma sound became lower than the metal cries, and Wiaki came to inspect the sluice. She asked the fansha "Ready for coolant?" and their returning "Yes, Touzi!" was triumphant.

Wiaki turned to Speranz, who had gone very pale. "Zayaste, what's your reading?"

Speranz's face was blank. She couldn't remember what to say. The woman beside her whispered something, and Speranz cried out "99.5%, Touzi!"

Wiaki face went grave. "Ah, there's impurities in the coolant. If we use it as is, we'll go up like a pinwheel." She flung her arms out as she made an immense explosion sound, and everybody flinched. "Zayaste, good catch. Please jettison that tank of coolant and redeploy."

The former zayaster whispered to Speranz as she mimed a series of solemn motions. Finally Speranz said, "Ready with coolant again, Touzi."

"And what's your reading?"

"100%, Touzi!"

"Release!" shouted Wiaki, and the metal screams mixed with magma rage tore up to the rafters. The fansha backed up a step involuntarily. Slowly the magma was reduced to silence. When Wiaki let out a whoop, the children ripped off their helmets and went berserk.

They of course had to go through it two more times, each child switching out positions. The last time, Wiaki held Prl and talked her through being Touzi. When the adults said they were too tired to do it again, the children invented a version of tag involving glow on the flow and fansha. Everyone else drank tea and talked until almost midnight, when exhausted children were carried to hostel and Manage.

At home, Mill ran to the bedroom door and wheeled, demanding "Where's emma?"

"She's going to be out all night" said Yoj. "She'll be here in the morning, no doubt bringing us the results of the Vote."

"Is she alone?" said Mill.

"No, she's not" said Bux. "Now brush your teeth and go to bed, we're all knackered."

When Halling arrived early the next morning with Szebel beside her, Mill's suspicions were verified. Halling was shouting, however, waving a slate from the kiosk and screaming "Landslide! It's a levvin' landslide!"

Everyone clustered around her chanting "Sheng Zhang! Sheng Zhang!" Halling picked up Bux and kissed her passionately, then tried to do the same with Yoj but managed only the kiss with her. They dressed quickly and were about to go out the door when all the sibs arrived from the hostel. They marched in a jubilant throng to the Lofthall, where pilot cheers threatened to wake all of Riesig. The canteen had prepared a celebratory breakfast.

Before they went in to eat, however, Halling led them to the main hall, carrying a long metal tube. Yoj helped her extract Mayim's map and pin it up on the wall. The pilots pushed forward to read it, and a deep silence came over the room. Fingers pointed to names and locations, but no one spoke. Halling waited until they turned to face her again, more than one face wet with tears.

"My number one goal this year: No new names on that map" she said simply.

Breakfast was the best ever held in the canteen. There was no sign of Igoz, although Halling had a lovely honorary speech she meant to make to Igoz should she show. Bux pushed Szebel to sit beside Halling, and she herself took a chair between Wiaki and Yoj. Many times, people rose to say a few words about Halling, including Mill who said "I hope you're Sheng Zhang until you retire from the Lofhall -- and by that time, I'll be ready to be the Sheng Zhang!" Which roused a cheer that Mill found most gratifying.

After breakfast, the Yanja crew said they really needed to get home. Halling offered them a passenger sinner, which they accepted, but Qala intervened when Halling said she'd fly them. "We need your attention elsewhere, Sheng Zhang" said Qala quietly.

"Huh" said Halling.

"I'll take them" said Danaan. Halling did manage a private goodbye kiss with Szebel in the dispatch office. Wiaki hugged each of the children happily, and gravely accepted the return of Szebel's bracelet from Prl. She whispered "I'll send you one that will fit you especially", and Prl said "I know." With Ndege, Wiaki said "Your burn mark may be imaginary, but not your courage -- you did your duty like a true yanjanger."

When she got to Bux, Wiaki said "If you ever decide to come to Yanja yourself, on a -- 'vacation', I sincerely hope you'll call on me first." Bux roared, not just at the offer but also at the expression on Halling's face.

The rest of the family returned to the Manage for visiting and play. Halling remained at the Lofthall, sitting with Qala at her desk for now to make plans, until Igoz came in and formally handed over her tenure. The other big news of the Vote was that, at long last, Exploit Lagoon was okayed to be filled in. Halling had ideas related to that as well. On the walk back to the Manage, Speranz told Yerush "I'm going to be a yanjanger when I grow up."

"Really? Well, then, you'll have to live on Yanja, not our Manage" pointed out Yerush. Speranz looked stymied for a moment -- she intended to inherit that Manage, she was clear. Then she said "No, I'll have emma fly me back and forth to work every day. That way I can live here, still."

The adults all laughed. "It's an idea" said Yoj. Speranz took that to mean it was settled.

On Halling's second day as Sheng Zhang, she met with Lmape first thing, promoting her to head of the sinning crew and asking her recommendation for replacement wrangler and a fourth sinner. When she announced these changes to the pilots, she watched them sharply for their reaction and found only universal approval. Lmape had her finger on their pulse, then. Even Yalewa looked all right with it.

Once everyone was in the air, Halling took the ring of keys Igoz had left her and went into her large office. She stripped the bed of its linens and dragged the mattress to her former bunk in the dorm area, swapping it out. She carried the linens to the laundry and exchanged them for new sheets, blanket and pillow.

Then she sat down at Igoz's desk and methodically went through every drawer, creating prioritized piles to be examined. Budget and contracts were on top. Schedule was next. There was a tray full of unopened correspondence which she took into the dispatch room and asked Qala to sort through when she had spare time.

When Halling opened Igoz's personal effects cupboard, she found a grey-looking toothbrush and a half-dozen bottles of brandy and wine. She took the liquor to the canteen and told them to do whatever they wanted with them. The canteen manager who accepted them from her raised her eyebrows at the stash, but made no comment. Still, Halling was certain the rumors about Igoz would begin that night.

On her way back through the dispatch room, she said to Qala "If you have a stopping point..."

Qala said "I can turn it up high, so I can hear anything coming in from the next room." She did so and followed Halling. Halling pulled out the key for the closet off Igoz's office and opened the door.

It was enormous, really another room, lined with shelves and stacked with heaps on the floor. Dust was everywhere, and there was a faint pong of shu. Qala wrinkled her nose in distaste.

Most of the piles were old equipment, the unclaimed effects of dead pilots, or metal crates of old papers. More boxes of papers filled one shelf. Another shelf was crammed with log books and bound records in no discernible order. But the far wall of shelves is what claimed Halling's attention: It held countless metal tubes, all of them grimy with dust. She strode to it, pulled out the top tube, and carried it back into the dispatch office.

Wiping down the tube and then washing her hands first, she gingerly unrolled the thick curl of real paper from inside the tube. On its back, in pencil, was a series of words in the language Halling could not read except for one familiar term that she knew meant Sector and the numbers 21. She felt a rush of heat through her body.

Carefully returning the map to its tube, she went back into the storage room and counted the tubes. Including the one she'd already looked, there were 77 of them. Maybe 78, if the one she had already was not duplicated here.

Qala was back at the radio. Halling sat on the edge of Qala's desk, trying to calm her mind. When Qala pulled off her earphones briefly, Halling said "There's 77 of them. I'm going to need a lighter late this afternoon, following the sinning shifts."

"Got it" said Qala, pulling the headphones back to answer a pilot.

At that point, Yoj and Veida walked in. Halling stood to greet them, saying "I surely hope you are here to help."

"We are" said Veida. "Until the kids get home from school" added Yoj. Halling led them to the storage room and said "I need each of those tubes cleaned and its contents catalogued. You can use the table in the dispatch room. I think they're likely all maps, looks like sector maps. Any translation of the labels you can offer, Yoj, would be wonderful, but we don't have time today to examine them more than that."

"Emma of us all" swore Veida, and began counting. Halling said "77."

Yoj's eyes were big and her nostrils flared. Halling said "Yeah, I smell it, too." Yoj turned abruptly and went out to the tillage, gathering three katts into her arms and carrying them back to the storage room, where they immediately began prowling into corners. Veida said "I'll carry the tubes to you and you can clean them, all right?" Yoj gladly accepted this division of labor.

Halling went outside, where a group of trainees were raking the tarmac and turning the fallow beds in the tillage. She recruited three of them to carry old equipment to the jigong for recycling, to sort through the pilots' belongings and put them in individually labeled boxes where possible, to find and repair the break in the air ventilation screen where shu had been able to get in, and, the one with best handwriting, to make a list of every bound volume on the shelves. She warned them about the possibility of shu as they pulled off their guibbas and set to work, cheerful with curiosity.

Halling returned to Igoz's desk -- No, my desk, she corrected herself -- and opened the budget book.

By the time they all broke for lunch, eating from trays carried into the dispatch room to keep Qala company, eleven shu had been found and killed, leaving Qala blanched with fury. "These are my living quarters" she said, "I can't believe they were allowed free rein just a door away."

All of the tubes had been cleaned and stacked neatly against the wall, and Yoj had read a third of the labels aloud to Veida, who typed a neat columned list as they went. The equipment had all been cleared -- Iro popped in to say a great deal of it could be salvaged for parts, why on earth had it been put in storage? The pilots' effects were separated into those could be identified and returned to families or were anonymous and would be given to charity. Except for the three old guibbas: Halling decreed they should be taken to the school and presented to Qen for use in theatrical productions. She was mystified about how a guibba could have been separated from its pilot.

Halling had eventually found herself stymied by some of the entries and bookkeeping in the budget records, and finally decided to take it home, to get help from Bux and Yerush. She answered the mail Qala had deemed most pressing, and was ready to start revising the Lofthall schedule next.

Yoj was feeding morsels of her broiled fish to the katts at her feet. "They won't hunt if they're full" remarked one of the pilots.

Yoj looked at her indignantly. "Of course they will, that's just superstitious rubbish. They hunt better when they're well-nourished. They like to kill, that's more important to them than the meat."

Veida nodded, saying "They've not eaten most of the shu they've caught in there, haven't you noticed?"

"Unlike levs" said Halling, sending them all into horrified laughter.

After lunch, two of the three pilots began collaborating on the record-book catalogue, while the third began dusting and washing every surface of the storage room. The katts wandered off. When pilots began returning from sinning, Halling joined them at their meal and listened to their stories of how the day had gone. She quietly told Lmape, Danaan and Rark about the maps they'd found, and the bottles of alcohol, feeling her own anger surge briefly as she saw it on their faces. Rark and Danaan offered to stick around and help, but Halling sent them home to bed, saying she'd rather talk to them after dinner for a bit.

Yoj and Veida finished their list and went over it with Halling. Number 53 wasn't on it, which meant their map was also an original and the total was 78.

"Do you think this was done by the original survey craft, this mapping, and these were brought to Skene from that original planet?" asked Halling.

"I think it's possible" answered Yoj. "Which gives me chills when my hands touch that paper." She left soon afterward with Veida, to pick up fish at the docks and go home to meet the children. Halling said she would be on time for dinner, but just barely.

When the pilots finished their cataloguing, Halling enlisted their help in carrying all the tubes to the lighter Qala had assigned to her. She flew to Verzin, to the industrial jichang nearest Yoj's favorite cartagen, and loaded her arms with as many of the tubes as she could manage. The list was tucked into her guibba. The print manager understood the significance of the maps immediately and promised to treat them with extreme care. Two of her assistants walked back to the jichang and retrieved the remaining tubes.

"I need not only two copies of each, but I'd like to have an additional copy printed on something durable for mounting on a wall" said Halling.

"We can do that" said the cartagen.

"You can roll the rest of the copies up together, but the originals in the tubes will be going back into the Archives" said Halling. She arranged to pick them up in a week, and as she walked back to her lighter, she wished for no freak fires in that region of Verzin.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.