Monday, January 14, 2008


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


The month before school let out, it was a burnished blue-sky day, warm and gentle. Bux had promised to harvest tomatoes and can them per Yerush's instructions, while Yerush basked on their patch of grass and let the katts claim her lap in succession. Yoj walked down to the general store to buy more lids for the jars they already had. She had placed them on the counter and was fishing in her pocket for coins when Sigrist radio came on, Kint's voice saying with a tone of disbelief:

"Ethicist to the ferry landing by Bohaira atoll! And -- Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall! There's a -- watercraft -- en route to Skene from Peisuo. Leviathan activity strong, tide is moderate and coming in, all ferries should be stopped and cortices avoided."

Yoj broke and ran out the door, followed by the storeowner. They were immediately part of a throng in the streets, everyone thudding along the cobbles past the U and Lofthall, turning right at the jichang and coming to the rear of a crowd collected by the sewage tanks overlooking the Southern Wasa. Yoj was searching for Halling, not sure if she'd actually come to the edge or stay at the Lofthall to direct activities. She didn't find her, but she saw Veida and they joined arms, pushing their way to the front.

Halling was there, flanked by three off-duty pilots, her binoculars trained on the Southern Wasa. Even from this distance, Yoj could clearly see an impossibly small boat with outriggers on either side and a big square sail billowed out in front. On the sail was reproduced, in vivid color, the lightning-bolt insignia which was painted on the underside of Rark and Danaan's lighters. The figure in the boat was too small to make out, except with that wild white hair and her point of origin, who else could it be but Z'bef?

Z'bef, trying to sail back to Skene.

The water around her was so thick with leviathans, it was already turning ruddy. She looked straight ahead, trying to adjust her sail with some kind of pole. There was a small chop, and Yoj couldn't tell if the bobbing of the boat was due to that or, sickeningly, levis bumping against it.

Halling looked at Yoj, handed her the binoculars, then said to two of the pilots: "Get in the air. Escort her. Light for her. But no lasers." They plunged into the crowd behind them.

Yoj was gazing through the glasses at Z'bef's face. Terror and grim determination were there in equal measure. Yoj could see that stretching from each side of the boat to the pontoon were other pieces of cloth, and from the bleed-through on the back of it, she realized the lightning-bolt symbols were also displayed there, facing down into the water: Z'bef was making the bluff of a lifetime.

Yoj handed the binoculars to Veida and said to Halling, "I -- how has she made it this far? How did she do this?"

"Desperation" said Halling. "Listen, I think I need to be on the radio with those two in the air, I'm sure the Sigrist will give me a running description. Can I leave you here?" Just then, the Ethicist reached them. Veida handed over the binoculars to Api, and Yoj said "We've got it covered. Go be Sheng Zhang."

The Ethicist studied the boat for several minutes. Finally she said "It's corrugated metal sheets from the chicken coop, folded and pinched. I have no idea how she's made it watertight. The sail is one of her bedsheets. I don't see any weapons; indeed, there's nothing in the boat at all except her."

"It looks to me like she's trying to get it to come in this direction, but something's fighting her -- the tide, I guess" said Veida. She looked to their left and said "There's a strong current going into the mesh gates at the atoll, I bet that's got ahold of her."

"At what point will it be too shallow for the levs to keep beside her?" Yoj asked Api.

"Usually it's ten meters out from an atoll. But -- " She didn't need to finish. That wouldn't stop a reckless juvenile. And they were also less likely to be intimidated by the lightning bolt.

Yoj turned and began threading her way toward the atoll wall. She could feel Veida right behind her. She heard Api say "What do you have in mind?" but neither of them answered.

When she got to the atoll, it was a 1.5 meter drop to its surface from where she stood on the paving, and the wall's top surface was covered with lichen and sea-lice. Wavelets regularly splashed over it, and it was only half a meter wide. But Z'bef was now 15 meters away from the center of the atoll, and it was clear she was going to bang up against it, hard. Yoj saw Z'bef's face turned toward her. Two glittery lighers suddenly dropped into view, buzzing the water behind the boat and doing a tail-flash away from Skene. A few leviathans were seen to give chase. But most did not.

Yoj pointed to the atoll wall and said to Veida "Help me get down there."

Veida's strong arms wrapped around her wrists, no questions asked, and Yoj slid down facing the yanja wall of the jetty until she felt the atoll under her otos. She got her footing and turned to look at her path. The smell of ketone was strong. She heard Veida say "Hey, give me a hand, too." She turned back and saw Veida preparing to scramble down, to join her. She put her hands on Veida's ass and balanced her, until they were standing together on the wall.

"We're gonna make a giant mouthful" said Veida. Pilot humor thought Yoj, but she laughed and felt stronger. She began walking, carefully but steadily, toward the point where Z'bef was going to reach the atoll. Veida had one hand on her back waistband of her ku. She was glad Bux and the children were not here to watch this. She laughed again, thinking she was just as scared of Bux at the moment as of the leviathans.

Z'bef's small, irregular prow hit the atoll with a metallic crash, and the boat was immediately swept sideways, repeatedly banging the rock and tilting the outrigger up so that Z'bef almost fell out the other side. She leaned toward the atoll to balance herself, but the current was relentless and it was all she could do to stay more or less upright on her knees. When Yoj got level with her, she sat down on the wall facing the side of the boat. Z'bef was three feet away. She reached out a hand, and their fingertips touched.

"You're going to have to jump for it" she said.

Z'bef looked crazed. She glanced to her left, and Yoj saw a baby lev was in the water right next to the atoll. It was a foot longer than she was, and much thicker around the middle. She could see its eyes, two slanting rows of them, looking at her keenly. Veida said "Let me get past you" and she came to straddle the wall on Yoj's other side, away from the lev, lowering her legs into the water a foot and anchoring herself with her thighs.

"Okay" Veida said to Z'bef. "You've come this far."

Without warning, Z'bef lunged herself upwards and leaped toward them. Yoj caught her just as she used to catch her children jumping from the ladder. Z'bef's legs went into the water past her knees, but she flung her arms around Yoj's waist and Yoj pulled her upward, Veida's powerful arm grabbing Z'bef's pants at the back and almost sending them all tumbling over the other side. It took a few terrifying seconds for Z'bef to get stable, sitting between them as Veida scooted back. The baby lev was motionless, still watching.

Yoj leaned on Z'bef to stand up, then pulled her shakily to her feet. Yoj said "If we move slowly, maybe its pursuit instinct won't get triggered." Veida said "Go on, give me a few feet clearance." Z'bef now holding onto Yoj's waistband, they began walking back to the landing. Yoj could tell there was a huge, silent crowd there, but she dared not look up and meet their gaze. After several steps, Veida said "Hang on." Yoj looked carefully around and saw Veida muscle the boat up over the wall, into the atoll, and drop it in Bohaira. Then she stood and came to meet them, her hand on Z'bef's back. They continued their linked progress to the landing.

The baby lev turned around effortlessly, with a single rippling sound, and glided along beside them. Yoj was aware of it as a pinky-grey fluidity in her left peripheral vision. She kept focused on the surface beneath her feet, and her own breath. Suddenly, the yanja face of the landing was in front of her. She was able to look up, then, and Halling's eyes filled her with light.

Halling was lying down, both arms over the edge, and said "Give me your hands." Yoj gladly reached up, and Halling pulled her onto the landing with a grunt. Yoj got to her feet and turned to help, but Halling already had Z'bef halfway up. Yoj got out of the way. There was a clear space around them; except for Api, no one wanted to get near the edge of the landing.

Yoj turned to look at the baby levi. What she had thought was waves lapping at the edge of the baugey, she now realized, was the sound of water being moved in and out of the leviathan's mouth: She remembered Halling once telling her it was something to do with how they treaded water. A few meters beyond it were several huge leviathans, also watching her. She stayed near the edge, not afraid.

Veida used her otos on the yanja wall to help lift herself, and she arrived beside Halling, upright and grinning ferally. Halling stood, also, and locked an arm around Yoj's neck, whispering "Lev you, that was magnificent, don't you ever do that again without me!"

Api, too, was right there among them. Z'bef faced her and looked her in the eyes, then dropped to her knees with an audible impact. She put her hands on Api's feet, and burst into tears.

The crowd behind them exhaled in unison, as if everyone had been holding their breath. Api put her hand on Z'bef's hair, bent over and said "Stand. You're back on Skene, we stand on Skene." She helped Z'bef upright again, and put her arm through Z'bef's -- not in a custodial way, but supportively.

The baby levi suddenly leaped, in an arc away from the landing and toward the row of adult levs, almost coming down on top of her elders. The height of her jump made it clear she would have found it easy to attack them. The crowd screamed and some of them actually fell down backwards. Yoj was still not afraid.

"Let's go to the Lofthall, it's closest" offered Halling. The crowd parted, and they began walking. Halling said to a couple of jigongs nearby "Please pull that boat out of Bohaira and bring it to the jichang, intact. No risks, mind you." The two lighters buzzed the crowd on their way back to the jichang, landing seconds later.

A kelp sinning crew had come in, and by the time they got to the Lofthall, they were entirely surrounded by yellow and blue uniforms. Z'bef was visibly shaking. Halling directed her contingent into the dispatch room but closed the door on everyone else except to ask one pilot to bring them a tray with tea and food. Qala stood from the radio to present a chair to Z'bef, and she sat down, her eyes showing a great deal of white.

Yoj was the first to speak. She said "Nice painting on that sail. Apparently as good as the real thing."

Z'bef met her eyes, and the wildness of her expression vanished as she burst into laughter. Everyone else laughed too, in hysterical release. Api stepped toward Z'bef, and Veida came up behind her chair in a protective stance. Api, however, shook her hand and said "I'm Api, Ethicist of all Skene."

"I know" said Z'bef. "I am Z'bef, exile of Peisuo."

"Not really any more" said Api, and they all laughed again.

Api pulled a chair beside her and said "Well, the question now is, what do we do with you? There is no provision in the law for this. No one has ever escaped from Peisuo."

"I know" said Z'bef, her voice rusty. "I read the entire legal code of Skene. You can make an interim decision but it will have to come to a Vote. In the meantime, technically I'm not a citizen so I can't be detained under any legitimate authority. However, in my own best interests, I'd rather surrender to your judgment, let you reassure the populace, and find safe haven until the next Vote is due."

Api gaped at her. "You prepared well" she said, finally. "But the Vote isn't for months."

"My cousin's offer still stands" said Z'bef. "Bosco is sparse, and is my home community. If I can make it there, I'll pose no risk to greater Skene."

Api began laughing again. A knock came at the door, and Halling answered it, bringing in the tray. She began pouring tea and handed Z'bef a plate with a lamb and tomato sandwich. Qala continued to answer radio calls, terse and unflappable.

Yoj said "She can come home with us tonight. We'll get you some clothes and a haircut, you look like a storm ghost. We'll vouch for her until her cousin gets here" she said to Api. Halling and Veida nodded.

"Impressive allies" Api said to Z'bef, who was eating her sandwich with intense relish.

"I leave it to you. If you'd rather lock me up here, I'll be fine" said Z'bef, her mouth full. "I do ask, however, that someone go to Peisuo and feed my katts, put away the chickens tonight. Their roost is, for the time being, in the storage shed."

"I'll find a caretaker" said Api. "Eat your fill, and let think a minute."

Qala said "We actually have a pair of new pilots we could send out there. They're trained enough to fly, but we don't have craft for them to use this week because two lighters are in the jigong shop. We could drop them off by sinner."

Api looked at her, then Halling who nodded, and said "That would be ideal."

As Halling went to the door to notify the trainees of their new posting, Z'bef said to Qala "You're Qala, I recognize your voice. You are a real comfort, you'll never know."

Qala's eyes grew soft. Yoj said "She is a comfort, to all of Skene."

After Z'bef was done eating, Api stood and said "Is Yerush able to receive visitors at the moment?"

"She will be for this" said Veida, smiling.

"Let's go to your Manage, then. Yoj, I like your suggestion of making Z'bef look more like a citizen, less like -- an exile. And I could use Yerush's insight" said Api. Qala arranged a replacement for her at the radio; she wasn't about to miss this. Api requested a passenger lighter be sent to pick up Z'bef's cousin -- "Just the cousin, mind" -- and bring her back to the Lofthall.

When they emerged from the Lofthall, a crowd was still gathered, staring at the outrigger boat which was dripping seawater onto the jichang. Halling instructed a few pilots to put it into the main hall and keep hands off it until Api could investigate it. Api said to Z'bef conversationally, "How did you know to build it?"

"Years of reading" said Z'bef, jittery at all the people lining the lane to watch her pass by. "You'd be surprised what details are available in ancient poetry."

"What surprises me is your ability to put it all together. Not to mention the courage" said Api.

"I didn't really think I'd make it" said Z'bef faintly. "It just reached the point where I had to try." Api glanced at her sideways, and put her arm through Z'bef's again.

When Veida walked in the front door of the Manage, Yerush was sitting at the dining table in her wheelchair, arguing with Bux that Bux should go to the Lofthall, she'd be fine on her own. Bux heaved a sigh of relief and raced across the room when she saw Yoj, throwing herself into Yoj's arms. She whispered to her fiercely, "Did you really go out on that baugey with leviathans at your fingertips?"

Yoj said "I did. Guess I'm not as afraid of them as I thought I was." Bux's grip on her was almost painful. Yoj added "I was thinking about you the whole time -- I think you were my safety rope."

But their attention was caught by Yerush's face, illuminated with delight and interest, when she saw Z'bef with Api. "Come here and sit down, welcome" called out Yerush. Veida kissed her before she began assembling tea -- no matter what, Skeners made tea.

Z'bef sat down in Qen's chair and said "You are the famous Nan Yerush, I recognize you from your photos. I hope Yoj conveyed to you my gratitude for the law revision you attempted years ago."

"She did, but it was my honor to perform. I'm sorry it didn't pass; it's a change Skene needs to make for its own good" answered Yerush.

A knock came at the door, but before anyone could answer it, Rark and Danaan let themselves in, their hair unkempt, their eyes huge. "We thought you might want us" Rark said, trying to be apologetic even as she stared at Z'bef.

"Come on in" said Halling. Api sat on the other side of Z'bef. Halling, Bux and Yoj took their usual places. The pilots opted to stand in a row behind Halling. Seeing Yerush more closely, Yoj could tell she had not taken any pain medication lately. The veins of her neck and forehead were clearly showing, an indication of strain.

Veida set down plates and a cherry pie she'd been saving for the weekend, as well as tea. Z'bef looked at the pie, and Yerush said "Cut yourself a piece, don't wait for us." Under Z'bef's baggy and threadbare clothes, she looked painfully thin.

Api repeated to Yerush the legal assessment Z'bef had given her, adding "I can't find fault with it. How about you?"

Yerush was having the time of her life. "I agree. But when law goes against public sentiment on Skene, the dissonance is extremely problematic, and will undo the good work of any Ethicist who ignores it." Api grinned and cut herself a piece of pie as well. Yerush continued "So the puzzle is, how to determine the will of Skene, how to balance that with the law, and how to do justice by Z'bef in the process. Correct?"

"In a nutshell" said Api.

Yerush said to Z'bef, "Are you truly reformed, or merely at the end of your wits?"

Z'bef laughed explosively, blowing a crumb toward Yerush, who ignored it. "I believe I was reformed within my first month on Peisuo. But I'd say that in any event, wouldn't I?"

Yoj looked down the table at Yoj and said "What do you think?"

"I trust her to be in this Manage when my children come home" said Yoj.

"And you waded lev broth to go pluck her back among us" mused Yerush. "How many people saw you do that?"

"Most of Riesig" said Api. She told Yerush what Z'bef had done when she reached solid land as well.

"Well-played" Yerush said to Z'bef. "Not that it was playing, necessarily." Yerush picked up a spoon and helped herself to a mouthful of pie from the dish, something they hadn't seen her do in weeks. Her appetite was whetted.

"What day is today?" Yerush asked Veida. It was a minor jolt, realizing Yerush had lost track of time.

"Empat" Veida answered tenderly.

"Good" said Yerush, speaking with crisp collection. "I suggest you announce on Sigrist radio that you will conduct an open forum on Sju, starting at noon, for anyone who wishes to argue for or against reinstatement of citizenship for Z'bef. Hold it here, at the U or Lofthall, to dissociate it from her previous trial and to give it a different kind of authority. In the meantime, announce she is residing here with us until noon tomorrow, which will give residents of Bosco time to register a protest against her returning there to stay with her cousin. If there is no objection -- and there won't be, because Bosco will be overcome with curiosity and will want to lay eyes on her, they'll relish the fame of housing her and that will win out over any residual worries -- be sure to announce over Sigrist by Roku that Bosco has accepted Z'bef living among them. It might be prudent to place her on some kind of trial, a six-month period of accountability, to be reviewed at the end of that and decisions made final. How does that sound?" Yerush was clearly pleased with her mind's abilities. She took another bite of pie.

Before Api could answer, Veida said "We can't ask her here until we consult with Qen. She'll say yes, but -- "

"Oh, of course" said Yerush. Danaan said "I'll run to the school and ask her, if you wish. She ought to be informed about what's occurring, anyhow, she'll be avid for information."

"Thanks" said Halling. "And if you see any of the children, tell them we're all okay and to come straight home after school."

Qala headed out the door.

Z'bef cleared her throat again and said "I have -- an amendment. I'd like to stay here, meet the children, have dinner with you. But -- I'm overwhelmed with all the -- liberty and faces. Could I possibly sleep somewhere enclosed and private tonight?"

"I'll give you my room at the Lofthall, it has a cot and a locking door" offered Halling. "If that's agreeable to Qala, her room opens off the same office."

Qala grinned and said it was fine by her. Api put down her fork and said "It's an excellent plan. If you are reformed and pull this off, it will coax Skene into a change of view. If you misbehave, I'll be voted out of office swiftly and the next Ethicist will deal with you extremely harshly." She was smiling to take some of the bite from her words, but Yoj knew she was quite right.

Bux stood up and said "We're going about this meal backwards. It's past lunch, I'll get us something solid to eat." Yoj went to help her. Veida reached to the sideboard for Yerush's pills, but Yerush said "Not yet. I want a chance to talk with Z'bef, if she's willing, about the reality of exile." When Z'bef nodded, Veida grabbed the ointment instead and said "Let me at least massage the worst places." However, Z'bef offered "I'd like to do that, if I may. I'm rather good at -- touch."

"How you have been wasted" said Yerush softly. She handed the ointment to Z'bef and rolled up her sleeves, saying "Wrists first. They're in agony."

Qala returned to the Lofthall to escort Z'bef's cousin to the Manage. Danaan returned with Qen's consent and a plea to not let Z'bef leave until she got home, which tickled Yerush. After lunch, Api aired a smoothly-worded announcement from the Manage over Sigrist radio. Yoj and Z'bef's cousin collaborated on cutting her hair and choosing clothes for her from Yerush's chest, at Yerush's insistence.

When Z'bef emerged from the bath room, she looked ten years younger. But the hurt in her eyes was still unlike anything Yoj had ever seen. Halling and the pilots returned to the Lofthall, removing public perception that Z'bef needed to be guarded while at their Manage. The rumor mills were in overdrive.

As Yerush had predicted, Bosco escorted Z'bef home in grand style. On Sju, Z'bef was reinstated as a "newborn citizen", the only objection coming in written form from a crank on Juh who wrote angry letters about almost everything that happened on Skene. Their children, plus Oby, basked in glamor for weeks at school with stories of how the exile knew them all by name, how their emma and abba had walked the atoll next to leviathans, and how they would be going to Bosco monthly to visit Z'bef.

The chickens and katts of Peisuo were delivered to Z'bef on Bosco, along with crates of her drawings and journals. She had requested that all the books and art supplies remain on Peisuo, for whatever unfortunate arrived there next -- except Yoj's volume of songs, she asked for that returned to her. Yoj was the one who flew out to Peisuo and boxed up her belongings -- Z'bef fell into severe trembling at the mention of her returning to sort through her things. Yoj also harvested all she could from the fine tillage Z'bef had created and donated the food to the school. Z'bef herself began to eat and put on weight.

Yerush, once the challenge was over, did not.

Yoj had a private conversation with Veida about nutrition and the favorite dishes of both Yerush and Qen. She began writing out a weekly menu for all 24 meals at the Manage, with lists of what they didn't grow themselves. She gave copies to Qala and Lawa, as well as herself, and rarer items began appearing regularly: Avocado, pork roasts, goose livers, whole milk custards, strawberries, hazelnuts, plus fresh oranges every day. Yoj walked the kids to school and on the way talked about how Qen and Yerush were going to be given first and extra helpings to "help their bodies", enlisting their secret help.

The regimen worked with Qen. Her gaunt cheeks, emphasizing her large nose, began slowly filling back in. Her color was better, and although she rapidly caught on to the ruse -- Speranz and Prl's whispers about "give abba the avocado salad bowl first" were loud and clumsy -- she didn't fight it. She was using everything she had on Yerush's behalf, which was a just excuse in her opinion.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


shadocat said...

Spring Byington and Marjorie Main? Holy crap!!!

Maggie Jochild said...

I know, Shado. Were you as hooked on the Ma and Pa Kettle movies as I was in my adolescence? I keep trying to get past that image of her when I think about them together.

shadocat said...

What's really weird for me is my paternal grandparents looked AND acted just like Ma and Pa Kettle (complete with the large family).Next time I see my mom, I'll try to dig up a picture.

When I imagine Spring Byington in that mix...well, it just rattles the senses...