Saturday, January 12, 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


But as Halling's lethargy and disconnect continued, Bux and Yoj became increasingly concerned. That Shmonah, an end-of-school carnival was to be held all day on Pomar. Rark and Danaan offered to take the children since the forecast was rain until noon, and the Manage gladly accepted, giving them spending money and strict exhortations to mind the pilots no matter what. The adults spent the morning catching up on cleaning, weeding, and canning, ignoring the drizzle. After lunch, however, Yoj and Bux lingered at the table and raised the question of Halling's steadfast refusal to even try using the privy.

"This reminds me of Ng, before she came here" said Bux. "I'm scared that she's given up."

Veida, less concerned, said "She looked over the edge into the other side. She has to make sense of that."

"But Halling's always combined her best thinking with action" argued Yoj. "And she's not even interested in the children at the moment."

Qen said slowly "I don't imagine she's ever been as afraid of them -- leviathans -- as she is now. Perhaps she can't continue doing what she's done. Fear can keep people from doing what they know is right, or even what they ardently want to do." She didn't meet Yoj's eyes, and Yoj wondered if she was thinking of Rosz. Or maybe Yoj herself, who chose to be a dichter in part because she was too afraid to fly.

Veida said softly "She knows, now, everything that Xaya knew."

"Not everything" said Bux sharply. "Not the last."

Yerush said "I don't mean to criticize, but possibly she can't tell anyone -- especially you two, who are closest to her -- what she's feeling because your own emotions are in the way. I mean, you've not had a chance, either, to completely face the horror."

Yoj and Bux both went very silent. After a minute, Yoj said "She's stopped asking us to not leave her. But I still sense it from her every time I go out the door. I don't know how to make her feel safe again."

Bux began crying, with a frantic note in her voice as she said "And what if Mill had been with her? I don't think they'd both -- be with us now. I agree with Halling, no more flying for Mill, ever."

Veida said gently "You can't control the rest of her life. And I'm sure Halling knows that."

Bux leaned against Yoj as Yoj began crying, too. "Nothing makes the same sense any more" said Yoj. "Being smart or careful or generous isn't enough. I don't know how to help her. She's my beloved, my partner, and I don't know what to say."

It was a relief to admit, and to rest in the silence of the older generation. After crying, Yoj and Bux both felt better. Bux devised a way to tape plastic over Halling's casts, prop her left foot on an overturned bucket, and get her into a hot bath for a soak. Yoj changed the sheets and whizzed through five loads of laundry. The rain stopped and she was able to hang everything on the line.

Yerush and Qen stacked jar after jar of tomatoes, carrots, green beans, blackberry jam, and mango chutney in the larder. After Halling's bath, Veida kindly but firmly badgered her out the door and to the privy, and when Halling labored back into the house, Veida sat her at the kitchen table to drink yet another kind of tea, insisting she sit up for a few minutes after drinking it because "it's not a good idea to lie down with this tea in your belly".

When Halling complained that her shoulder was aching after using the crutches and asked for a pain pill, Qen instead pulled out Veida's ointment and offered to rub the joint. With poor humor, Halling finally consented, and it did in fact help. Yoj rewarded her with the first piece of a blackberry cobbler she'd made for dinner. Halling still wasn't talking, but being at the kitchen table with all the activity going on around her kept her from being able to return to her daydream state.

Not long before dinner, the carnival-goers returned, grubby and loud. The children thronged around Halling, Speranz trying to crawl into her lap and causing a sharp reprimand from Halling when Speranz tugged at her cast for traction. Unfazed, Speranz insisted Halling try opening a small magic box she had won at some game of chance, while Ndege began imitating a barker and Prl spun around the living room to demonstrate one of the rides. Halling looked rapidly overwhelmed.

Mill was the quietest of the lot, standing at Halling's right shoulder protectively, then turning to Danaan at the table and saying "See? I told you it was the battery."

Yoj said sharply "What about the batteries? What did you hear?" Halling's ears pricked up as well.

"Hush a minute, Ndege" commanded Bux. Mill, with a surprised smile, said "I reminded her about that thing she told me when I was younger. After Schla died, and I got so scared about emma being a sinner?"

Everyone except Danaan and Rark looked blank.

Mill explained, "Danaan told me about when she was still in school, the first time she and Rark got to fly with emma, it was on the school sinner and she took them out so they could see the morrie strati." Looks of recogniition came to the faces of her emmas. "Rark and Danaan already knew they were going to be pilots. Anyhow, Rark's siba got scared, I guess because of a lev, and emma told her that being scared was the right thing to feel, not to pretend she wasn't scared. 'Cause the best pilots let themselves have the fear. Fear means their brain is working, you know. Emma told her after you have the fear, you need to recharge your batteries and that's why good pilots have to have families. Your family gets you all right again. And that's the day Danaan and Rark promised to be each other's family, right?" she said to them.

They were both red-cheeked and grinning, and Danaan said "You got it in one, Mill."

Mill, with extreme gentleness, touched Halling's cast and said "I'm going to be a good pilot, too, because I've got the same batteries you do, emma."

Even Prl had stopped to listen, and the silence was now profound. Halling looked at Mill, then turned and faced Yoj and Bux. She said, in a very high voice, "It touched me. Don't leave me alone with it" and burst into screaming sobs.

As Halling's partners moved to either side of her, Qen began to urge the children outside, but Yoj said "No, it's all right. This is good for them to see. This is their emma recharging her batteries."

So everyone stayed in the kitchen as Halling jibbered her way through reliving the worst moment of her life, and came out the other side, finally. When she was done, her eyes were Halling's again. She blew her nose on Yoj's handkerchief and said "Thank you, everybody."

"You're welcome" said Speranz automatically, and in a whisper to Dodd "What did we do exactly?"

"We're ready to set the table" said Yerush. Rark and Danaan stood up and Yoj said, "Oh, no, you're staying for dinner. But would you please go get Iro and Ektr to join us?" Danaan headed out the back door, trailed by three of the children. Mill and Veida set the table, and Bux pulled two clothes chests into the living room to act as a childrens' dining area, putting cushions on the floor for them to sit on. Yoj began getting small hands washed. By the time everyone was clean and seated, dinner was ready.

As Yoj and Bux dished plates for the children, they and the pilots told the story of their day's adventures. Halling followed the disjointed narrative and laughed steadily. Later, when it became clear there was plenty of blackberry cobbler, she accepted a second piece for dessert. As Rark and Danaan cleared the table, Halling whispered to Yoj, who went to her study and returned with the two aluminum cases, handing them to Halling.

Halling said to Mill "This is from Nan Qala, so when you see her next, you must tell her in every way you can how much this means to you." Mill's eyes were wide as she accepted the top case from Halling. When she opened the lid, she froze for so long that the twins crowded in beside her, demanding to see. Finally Mill lifted out the guibba, saying "Is this really yours?" in an incredulous voice.

"It was. It shrunk, from being in West Tendril. It's yours now" said Halling.

The look on Mill's face was unalloyed, reverent joy. She slowly slid her arms into the sleeves, shaking her shoulders into the fit. It was just a little big on her, but that was good -- she had growing yet to do. She fastened the buckles, one by one, and then pushed her hands into the pockets, looking up at them with an expression so much like Halling's that everyone breathed out together. Rark stood up and said "Lighter Mill!" with a pilot's wave. Danaan joined her, and Mill began laughing wildly. Yoj and Bux did not laugh quite so hard.

Ndege said, with a tinge of hope, "What's in the other box?" Halling grabbed her crutches and got clumsily to her feet, then balancing on one leg, took her new guibba from the second box and gingerly pulled it on over her cast. Mill helped her buckle it and they stood side by side, Halling resuming her crutches and Mill's hand on Halling's left forearm. Everyone applauded, and Speranz asked Yerush, "Does this mean siba knows how to fly now?"

Halling took off her guibba and hung it on the back of her chair before sitting down, but Mill insisted it wasn't too warm to keep wearing hers. Qen brought over another pitcher of iced tea, and Yoj said "We've got something to tell you, Halling. Well, Iro should start it, since it's her that brought it to Qala's attention."

The four younger children, full of cobbler, went out back to play as Iro began her revelations. Yoj took it up from the point of Qala's investigation. By the time they were done, Halling's eyes were sparking black. "So..." she said, and her soft tone had a blade of steel in it. Mill, sharing Danaan's chair, said "What does this mean, emma? Does it mean Enyi is why your sinner went down?"

Halling hesitated, then answered "Basically, yes. Enyi and all those who don't want the Lofthall to make changes."

"Then I hate her" said Mill.

Danaan put her arm around Mill. "Hate will just drain you, Mill. But you can be as mad as you want. And your emma will take care of Enyi."

Halling said "I think it's time I return to work. If you three will come by in the morning and help me walk to the Lofthall -- "

"Be delighted to!" said Rark.

"Can I go with you?" said Mill swiftly. "School's out, please, emma?"

Halling looked at Yoj and Bux, and Bux said "No flying."

Halling said "Agreed", then looked at Mill and said "All right. I may really need your help and cooperation."

Yoj stood and said "In that case, my dear, it's to bed with you" and walked with Halling to the bedroom to help her get into her schmatta. Bux and Yerush began the children on their bedtime routine as well. Their neighbors said goodbye and left by the back door. By the time Yoj and Bux joined Halling in bed, she was deeply asleep, and they dropped off easily as well.

The next morning, when Halling lurched into the canteen, breathless and sweaty, the room erupted into cacophony. Qala followed Mill in, beaming. Mill was of course wearing her new guibba, which went largely unnoticed until later. Halling accepted a plate of eggs and hotcakes, and listened to stories of the past week from the pilots as she ate. When she was done, she asked Qala to bring in all the jigongs and other Lofthall staff. She managed to sit on the edge of a table, with her feet on a bench, and waited until every member of the Lofthall had crowded into the canteen. She motioned for Mill to sit next to her, then looked out at her pilots.

"First things first. Rark dropped a grapple on the only try she had coming to her, at an angle under difficult circumstances. I was going down and in fact had already been rubbed up against by a leviathan. Her cool head and flawless action saved my life. Let's give her a cheer!"

The shouting went on quite a while, and Halling encouraged it. Finally she called for silence and said "Second, and no less: Qala stepped into my otos and filled them completely this past week, acting as Sheng Zhang with brillance and tirelessness. We are unbelievably lucky to have her." This round of cheers were just as boisterous, which Halling was glad to hear.

"I want to add, my eldest child's new guibba, made from my old one, is the product of an all-night effort by Qala. Stand up here, Mill, model it for them."

Mill's face was bright red by the end of her round of cheers, but she and Qala both were completely gratified.

Halling's face now went to stone, abruptly. "Lastly: The cause of my engine failed has been incontrovertibly documented by Qala. The new battery array was incorrectly installed, and despite my pointing out a warning of the problem the day before, it did not get fixed."

Halling turned and looked directly at Enyi. "Enyi, you are hereby fired and will never work at the Lofthall again. Your willful refusal to accept new procedures or to perform your duties competently was very nearly homicidal. You will receive no severance pay, and you are not to ever ask us for references. I demand that whatever work you pursue in the future, you accept no responsibility for the well-being or lives of others, because you are not fit to assume it. If I hear that you have accepted such responsibility, I will use the documentation we have to bring charges before the Ethicist of criminal recklessness. You will now be escorted off the premises by Qala, and you are never to return."

Enyi looked like she might pass out. Every pilot in the room stood, exuding menace, and Qala motioned to her from the doorway. Enyi had to brush past pilots who refused to move out of her way, and a constant deep hiss filled the room. Qala led her out of the canteen, and by the time the door closed, Mill was holding Halling's hand tightly.

Halling looked levelly around her and said "Let me assure you that the battery issues have been resolved, by Qala and Iro. The new arrays will now work without failure. We are about to make even more changes here. We are bound on a course of increasing our service to Skene while incurring no preventable loss of life. We can be heroes without becoming martyrs, and I will accept nothing less. Anyone who thinks they are going to have a problem accepting change, you are free to say so now. You can leave with my blessing, a generous severance and full recommendations. But you need to tell us now."

She waited. The silence was profound. When no one made a move, she said "Good, then." She finally grinned again. "We have a full day's work ahead of us. Tomorrow I'll have something very important to announce to you. In the meantime, carynn bye."

"Carynn bye!" came an answering chorus. Qala returned, and she walked with Mill and Halling to Halling's office.

"You think she's going to make trouble for us?" Halling asked her, once they were alone.

"Not openly" answered Qala. "Lev, but it's good to have you back."

Halling sank gratefully into her office chair. Qala said "Yoj told me I'm to make you take a nap in your office at least once today. You shut the door and I'll field your messages, you just say when it's time."

"All right" said Halling. "In the meantime, I've got packets of tea and tincture Veida gave me this morning -- Mill, would you go get me a pot of hot water and a cup from the canteen? Oh, and honey" she called after Mill's vanishing form.

While Mill was gone, Halling filled Qala in on her plans. Qala grinned and said "At long last. You just tell me what you need from me."

"First off, I should talk with Iro. And -- If we can get a double haul from the kelp sinners today, that would be ideal. You can tell them they likely won't be working tomorrow" said Halling.

"Will do" said Qala, turning to relieve the temporary dispatcher who had been filling in for a week.

Mill returned with a tray outfitted by the canteen, containing not only tea makings for them both but a plate of assorted cakes and fruit. "One cake right now" said Halling, "Otherwise you stick to fruit. We've got a long day ahead of us."

Halling stayed very busy, drawing up schedules, overseeing equipment requests, talking with manufacturers, and doing her best to deal with the stack of papers on her desk. She let Mill run messages for her and bring them both lunch from the canteen.

Right after lunch, as per arrangements with Asha the Sigrist made that morning, Halling went on Sigrist radio and told the story of her crash and rescue. Her account was straightforward and simple, leaving out both her torment afterward and any accusation against Enyi by name. Yoj, Bux and Veida listened to it at home. Yoj felt goosebumps rise on her arms. It was a first for Skene, a watershed event in their long history with leviathans -- and it was her Halling who had experienced it.

Halling never did get a chance to lie down, and when Yoj arrived at 3:00 with the rest of the children, Halling said "I'm going to call it a day. I need another hot soak, every muscle in my body aches."

Prl stared at the tea tray and said "Did you eat cake all day? Did you save some for me?"

"I had fruit" lied Mill. "Emma ate the cake, 'cause she's injured."

They walked slowly home, Halling drawing glad hellos from people on the street. She collapsed on the sofa, looking utterly spent. After a minute she said "I'll have to wait on the bath. Really, all I can manage at the moment is bed." Yoj helped her get under the sheets and shut the door. Heading into the kitchen, she said "Mill, have you taken that guibba off at all today?"

"No" mumbled Mill.

"Well, we've all seen it and it's warm in here, what say you hang it up for the time being?"

Veida was packing her comadrona bag, saying she'd gotten a call and she felt it was now okay for her to leave the Manage. Yoj kissed her goodbye and wished her a good birth. Qen and Yerush were out in the tillage, scrubbing down the duck tank and refilling it. Yerush, as usual, had a pot of harvest cooking on the aga and another pot of water boiling jars for canning. She came back in to put up another half-dozen jars as Yoj began thinking about what to make for dinner.

Halling got up in time to eat, and Bux helped her take another long bath. As she got into bed, Mill came to the door and said "Can I go with you again tomorrow, emma?"

Halling looked at Bux, then at Yoj who came in from her study. Finally Halling said "Tomorrow is a very big day, Mill. I'm going to fly out in the training sinner as a passenger with Lmape, and you cannot go with me, no way. Danaan and Rark are going to be extremely busy, too. And Qala. But -- it's a significant day, and I know you'll regret missing it. So, I'll say yes if you promise to stay in the dispatch room, and help Qala however she needs you."

Mill eagerly agreed.

"Then early bed for you too, sweetheart" said Bux. "You seem to be keeping pilot's hours." Which pleased Mill immensely.

The next morning, Bux and Yoj got up with Halling and helped get Mill dressed for tea. As they all sat with Veida, silent or occasionally whispering in their slowly lightening kitchen, Halling turned to Veida and said "That lev is still out there."

Veida looked at her over the rim of her mug. "The one who brought down Maszon?"

Halling said "That mark on it, which I think of as a sideways H -- I interpret that to mean the wings hit it, searing one arm of the H, then flipped over with a contusion rather than an outright burn making the middle bar, and landing for a second long wing-burn as the second arm of the H. Is that right?"

Veida's face showed sudden memory. "Yes. Is it -- did it kill Xaya, too?"

"No, but it was there that day, I remember. The kelp crew say it did kill Schla" said Halling. Yoj glanced at Bux, but Bux was scanning Mill's face, making sure she wasn't hearing too much.

After a long pause, Halling said "If things go as planned, I'll be on Sigrist radio again today. This time, not until after school lets out."

Yoj felt an old fear creep back along her bones. Bux said "We'll bring the children to the Lofthall to watch you broadcast."

"Good" said Halling. "I'll come home with you afterward." Their carynn byes as Halling and Mill left were charged.

At the Lofthall, Iro was waiting in the dispatch room with Danaan and Rark.

"How's it look?" Halling asked her.

"Like the real thing" said Iro. "I asked Ektr to draw it and pick the paint, she's got an eye for such. Plus -- she wanted to be part of it."

"Let's go have a look" said Halling. They all, including Qala, walked out to the jichang. A few wisps of dawn fog still eddied around their feet. They went to the lighters of Rark and Danaan, parked side by side. On the underside of each wing, four in all, was a jagged, crackling lightning bolt in scarlet and metallic gold.

"Wow" marveled Mill.

"Wow indeed" said Halling, putting her hand on Iro's shoulder. "Please tell Ektr it's perfect."

"She'll be here when you fly back in, you can tell her yourself" grinned Iro.

Halling turned to Rark and Danaan. "Listen, I've thought it over, and I can't let you be the ones to take this step. Even on my command, you'll still be liable, culpable -- I can't risk you being sent into exile. It's my decision, and I need to be the one who does the deed."

Rark's pale face flashed blue-eyed indignation, but Danaan spoke first. "You can't decide that for us. I mean, yes, you can command us not to, but you can't decide what our risk should be. Not when it's us flying lighter patterns day after day. If it's all right to ask that risk of us, then -- I never wanted to do anything more, since I began flying. Me and Rark, we've prepared for this for months. We know what we're doing."

Rark added "Besides, it'll go much worse if there's a miss, or it hits another craft. We know how to use the laser, and frankly, you don't."

Halling still looked stubborn, and Iro faced her. "This is not my child, or your adopted sibemma talking, Halling. This is a woman of Skene, a pilot who wants to execute her full responsibility to the Lofthall. These two, they are the morrie vaseo for this journey."

Halling looked levelly at Danaan, and realized for the first time that when she thought about who would become Sheng Zhang after her, it was Danaan she imagined, not Mill.

Halling's hands where they rested on her crutches were trembling, Qala could see. "Let's get you off your feet. Time to talk to the pilots. If there's a mutiny, the question will be moot." They started back into the Lofthall at Halling's pace.

But there was no objection. After breakfast, after her speech, Halling took care to scan every face in the canteen. She found only relief, anticipation, a kind of righteous determination.

"All right, then" she said. "Let's go."

Mill walked with her to the sinner, carrying the video camera Halling would use. Danaan's and Rark's cameras were already mounted inside their sinners. Halling stood between their lighters for a last word: "Not until I give the go-ahead, right?"

"Yes, Sheng Zhang" they said in unison. Iro opened the case she'd been carrying and handed each of them a modified laser, a kind that didn't exist on Skene outside of Yanja. They each checked to make sure it was fully charged and the safety was on before placing it in their lighters, kissing each other, Mill and Iro, and climbing into their craft.

Halling pulled Mill into a long hug before she got clumsily into her side of the double sinner. She whispered "You'll never forget this day. This is the dividing line between before and after, and people will want to hear your memories of this for the rest of your life. You stay close to Qala, you hear? She'll need you today more than she ever has."

"Yes, emma" whispered Mill, kissing Halling's cheek fervently. She didn't stay to watch them all take off, though she wanted to see the lightning-bolt wings in the air, because Qala was striding back to the Lofthall to be on the radio. She stuck with Qala as she had promised.

However, several hours later, she was part of a small crowd at the jichang, watching the lighters with their gleaming new insignia buzz overhead and circle in for a jaunty landing. She stood with her emmas and sibs, her abbas and Lawa. When Halling's sinner landed, Yoj and Bux both moved to help her from the hatch and onto her crutches.

"Where's Api?" asked Halling, looking around.

"The Ethicist was informed, Qala said, but turns out she's on Exploit today for a meeting. She's started back by ferry, before Qala could offer her a direct flight" said Bux.

"Who are all these people?" said Halling in a low voice, looking at the two dozen or so others around the jichang.

"I'm not sure" said Yoj. "I'm thinking maybe some folks besides Z'bef have figured out the way to set their radio to pick up the Lofthall frequency." Halling raised her eyebrows at that.

Yerush said, also in a quiet voice, "Sigrist reported to Qala that leviathan activity is the lowest they've ever seen." But none of them looked completely reassured at this news.

Rark and Danaan had now landed, and a crowd of exuberant pilots surrounded them. Their rowdy walk into the Lofthall was led by a protective Iro and Ektr.

Everyone gathered in the canteen, where the staff had made stuffed goose and baked ham as if it were a holiday. Once plates were loaded, Halling stood, in obvious pain, to start off the story. All those who had been part of that day's sinning jumped in to help with the recount, and everyone who worked at the Lofthall -- jigong, canteen, and tillage -- crowded into the room to listen.

The cheers were deafening.

After dessert was eaten down to the last crumb, Halling walked with her family back to the dispatch room and sat in the second chair in front of Qala's radio. The children were reminded to stay completely silent while their emma was speaking to all Skene, and the younger ones were pulled onto laps to help remind them if necessary. Qala spoke briefly to Asha on the Lofthall frequency, then set the Sigrist radio mic in front of Halling and whispered, "She's going to announce you now."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

nothing like leaving your readers in suspense, Maggie!! can't wait for the next chapter.