Sunday, January 13, 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


It was Mchele, late summer, and every morning Sigrist radio reported whether or not eels had begun their migration back to the sea. Each Manage on Riesig had a patch of river assigned to them along North or South Rambla, and for a week now, their live boxes had been in place. The Lofthall had a prime territory, much larger than anyone else, but half the harvest by the pilots was given to the school and University cafeterias, so no one complained.

One morning the anticipated announcement was heard: Eels were on the move. That afternoon, children were forced into long naps, and their complaints were hushed with "Do you want to go eeling or not?" Pilots took longer naps than usual, too. After dinner, as dark fell, most of Riesig lined one of the rivers, wearing waders and canvas gloves tied at the wrist. Bright flashes and lanterns made the riverbank light as day, and at a blast from a horn, the fun began.

Mill had begged to go eeling with the pilots, and Halling let her go with Qala and Lawa. Rark and Danaan were eeling for their Manage with Iro and Ektr. Halling, Yoj, Bux and Veida were already in the river with long nets, while the children splashed behind them, and Qen and Yerush were on the banks to catch eels tossed them, keep everything but the breeding females, and store them in live boxes at the edge where river current ran continously through the mesh cages.

After an hour, it was just hard work, and younger children retreated to land to play other games. Manages kept at it until their live boxes were full. Size and number of live boxes allowed each Manage depended on the number of people in the Manage, and each live box was engraved with the name of that Manage. Eels would be kept in live boxes for a week, until mud and their last meals washed out of them. A child would be sent down to the river's edge twice a day, at least, to see if any of the eels had died. If it had, it was to be collected in a bucket and taken home for immediate brining and freezing.

Once the eels were ready for slaughter, Manages went into overdrive. The eels had to be cleaned and brined. Those above a certain size would be labeled and taken to the smoking house down near the docks. Smaller eels would be canned. It was a few days of all-out work, but eel was a prized addition to the diet, and a valuable barter item for islands without eel-bearing rivers.

The Lofthall's eeling went on far longer than anyone else, because of their enormous number of live boxes. When the Manage was done, they walked up river toward the sound of raucous laughter and singing. Mill was still in the water with her beloved pilots, and Oby had joined her. The Ethicist and her family were sitting on the banks, watching and laughing. Rark and Danaan were there was well, and Danaan came over to tell Halling that Mill and Oby had volunteered to be the daily live box checkers for the Lofthall.

"That'll help keep her busy until school starts" grinned Halling.

When at last their quota was reached, soaked and tired pilots scrambled up the banks and began trudging back to the Lofthall in small groups. The canteen would give them a late-night tea and cake repast before they dropped into their bunks. Mill begged to go with them, and when Halling said no, she then begged to walk Oby home.

"Oby's family is here" said Halling. "You'll see her in the morning, when you come to check on the eels. Say goodnight and come home with us."

Despite the canvas gloves, Mill had some small cuts on her palms that Veida treated with an herbal salve. Speranz fell asleep in Yerush's lap at the table without finishing her apple. The children were allowed to go to bed without baths -- it was Mchele, and Yoj could do their bed linens early that week.

The next morning, Ndege and Dodd went to check on the Manage's live boxes after breakfast. Mill was already gone -- Oby had arrived halfway through the meal and Mill had crammed her mouth with one last bite, then ran out the door without a bucket or her gloves. She returned a minute later to retrieve them and said "We'll be going up to the Lofthall after, I may eat lunch there". Bux called after her "Tell your emma when you arrive, immediately."

That night at dinner, Mill asked if she could have her own bedroom. Halling choked, and Yoj began laughing, saying "Where do you propose to build this room, out in the lane maybe?"

"No" said Mill, "The room that used to have abba's potting wheel -- in the corner, I could fit a bed and a chest. And it's warm in there."

"What about the shelves of starts and herbs?" asked Bux.

"I like those, it smells wonderful" said Mill. "I just want -- a place to maybe have a friend over. And to think by myself."

Bux sighed. She remembered exactly how Mill felt. She looked at Yoj, who nodded. Halling's face was red -- she did not care for the implications of this at all. She said "You have to promise you'll not sneak out at night, ever. And all guests will come through the house first."

Mill promised fervently, and Halling said "Well, we'll give it a try. But you'll have to earn the money for a bed with extra chores. We'll buy it for you and you can pay it off."

Mill leapt up to hug her emmas with deranged joy. Dodd said "Does this mean me and Ndege will eventually get our own rooms, too?"

"No" said Yoj. "We don't have the space. But you'll get to have a lot more room in your loft. And if Mill leaves the Manage when she graduates -- which I earnestly hope she does not -- but if she does, we'll talk then about one of you getting her new room."

Yerush cleared her throat and said "While we're on the subject..." When everyone looked at her, she said "It's getting a little hard for me to climb up and down the ladder. My hips are not working quite the way they once did."

Bux stared at her, suddenly noticing Yerush's hair was now completely white, no longer grey at all. She felt a clutch at her heart: She didn't want Yerush to be old. She turned and looked at Qen, then at Veida. "Oh, emmas" she said, her throat tight. "Of course -- we'll give you our bedroom. We'll swap out beds this weekend."

"Well, I don't know about that" said Qen. "You three need your privacy."

"We can move into Prl and Speranz's room, they're old enough to sleep in a loft now. We could give them the kitchen loft" suggested Yoj. Prl and Speranz's faces lit up -- they loved climbing into the lofts.

"But their room is only big enough to hold a three-person bed, nothing else, remember?" said Qen.

"That's okay" said Yoj. "We can put our clothes chests in my study, along the far wall of shelves -- those bottom shelves hold books I only use once a week, I can handle having to move a chest once a week."

"And our bed doesn't have a footboard, so we can easily crawl into bed over the foot" pointed out Halling. She grinned at Bux and said "We'll be back where we first started!"

"All right then, it's settled" said Bux. "Next weekend we'll have a day of moving beds. Yoj, will you have time tomorrow to go to the used furniture store and look at metal beds for Mill? They'll be a lot cheaper, and we won't have to wait on one."

"I reckon we should give her a double -- just thinking about the future" said Yoj, making Halling's face go red again.

Dodd said to Ndege "This way, we can have a friend overnight sometimes too." Ndege nodded. She was tired of how Mill kicked in her sleep, and was ready to see her go.

But once canning season was over, and Yerush could get into bed without a painful climb, her energy still remained low. She lent her expertise to Bux's campaign for Sheng Zhang of Rahat, but did not travel around Skene with them for Bux's meetings and speeches. Even after Bux won the election by a slim margin, Yerush was unusually quiet at the New Year celebration, and ate only one slice of apple dippled in honey, preferring to sit quietly in her chair and listen to the children's grand plans for what new and wonderful things they'd accomplish this year. It was that night in bed, because she was looking for it, that Veida found the lump in Yerush's breast.

School had begun again, and Yerush insisted Qen did not need to take off to accompany her to the hospital, she had Veida and Yoj, and at any rate, it was just tests. But three days later Qen did walk to the hospital with Yerush and Veida, when Yerush went to have both breasts removed, and a bone biopsy of one hip as well. Yerush was still in the hospital, having trouble regaining her strength after the surgery and being tended round the clock by at least one member of her family, when the pathology results came back.

Chemotherapy was very limited on Skene, and saved for only cases where a cure was likely. Bone metastases was not one of those cases. After another few days, a quartet of new lighter pilots carried her home, where a wheelchair had already been installed in her place at the head of the table. Veida had an arsenal of herbs, teas, tinctures, compresses, and she officially restricted her comadrona calls to Riesig only. Yoj took over teaching Yerush's classes for the rest of the semester, until a replacement could be arranged, in addition to her own limited teaching roster as a new gakusha.

Oby began spending most evenings at the Manage, where she and Mill would perform much of the work of the tillage until dark, eat together and then do homework last thing before bed, freeing up Mill's emmas and abbas for other tasks. Yoj had a quiet conversation with the Ethicist and they agreed on which nights Oby would be sent home to sleep, which nights she could lie down with Mill. More often than not, Oby was there for breakfast in the morning.

Bux no longer had dinners away from home on Sheng Zhang business. Even if she could not cook, she made it home in time to sit down opposite Yerush, smiling at her down the length of the table. If she had to leave for a meeting after dinner, she made sure to spend five or ten minutes before her departure sitting next to Yerush, conferring with her about the business she was about to address, asking Yerush's opinion or advice. Some of the old color would come back to Yerush's face when her head was bent next to Bux's, strategizing or gossiping.

Paha and Tlochin began coming every Shmonah for the midday meal and a long visit afterward. Halling arranged lighter transport to and from Beras so they did not have to worry about the ferry schedule. She offered the same to Culisa, but Culisa only came once a month, and seldom brought her partner.

Yoj was as worried about Qen as she was Yerush. Qen lost weight as steadily as Yerush, and her eyes had dark rings around them. After three months, Yerush's occasional pain became constant. Qen began massaging Yerush's hip and low back for an hour at a stretch, and Veida altered her tinctures. After another month, nothing helped except small white pills from the hospital, which left Yerush fuzzy and uncharacteristically clingy.

Speranz began having nightmares. Finally, they put her in with Bux and Halling when she woke up screaming, and Yoj would climb the loft over the kitchen to sleep with Prl. The nightmares stopped, and both of the youngest children began to look a little less terrified. Yoj took comfort from it as well -- holding Prl felt like she was actually able to protect at least one person, keep this child from harm.

One night, during a downpour, a knock came at the door. When Mill answered it, there stood Raisa, in a dripping burzaka. Yoj went to ask her in. Raisa stopped in the living room, staring at Yerush, now thin and frail in her wheelchair. Yerush's white hair had streaks of yellow in it, and her hands had a noticeable tremor. Raisa's face was tragic.

Veida came to stand beside Yerush, and then Qen sat down on Yerush's other side. Yerush's hand slid into Qen's. Bux offered Raisa tea and a seat at the table, but still Raisa did not move or speak, looking only at Yerush. Bux noticed her staring children, and said "I introduce to you the Genist of Skene."

Prl, at the table doing homework, showed high interest. "Oh" she said, "Abba has talked about you often. She told us all the things you do, the science and the lineages, and how you help people have families. I think that's what I want to be when I grow up, the Genist."

Raisa's gaze now transferred to Prl, and took in her clear blue eyes, her heart-shaped face and short, stocky build -- the picture of Bux at that age, but also, Yoj now realized, likely the image of Yerush as a child as well. The hunger on Raisa's face made Yoj involuntarily step toward Prl and put her hand on Prl's shoulder. After a long minute, Raisa said "When you are ready to graduate, come visit me and we'll see about apprenticing you."

Over my dead body, thought Yoj.

But then Qen stood up and said "Raisa, come here and at least kiss Yerush's cheek. She can't come to you."

In the hush that followed, Raisa, still dripping rain, came slowly to Yerush, lifted her hand and kissed her palm, then bent and kissed Yerush lightly on the mouth. Yerush never let go of Qen with her other hand. Raisa stepped back and said "I have so missed you." Yerush did not say a word, but Yoj saw her grip on Qen grow tighter. Raisa took another step back, and looked around until she found Halling, standing in the kitchen.

"I have something for the Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall" she said to Halling, and pulled a long leather tube from underneath her burzaka. Halling came forward to take it from her, and Raisa said "You did not get it from me. You found it in your archive. Are we understood?" Halling nodded, surprise on her face. Raisa looked at Yerush again and said "Morrie vaseo." Then she turned and strode from the house.

Everyone seemed to breathe out at once. Prl stood on her chair and Yoj picked her up in a hug, as Prl said "She seemed to have lightning in her hair." Yerush laughed at that, and then everybody began laughing.

"Let's see what she brought you" said Yerush. Prl and the other children cleared the table, and Yoj washed it down as Veida brought Yerush her next pain pill. But Yerush said "Not yet. I want to be sharp for this." Her breathing was a little ragged, and her cheeks were pale -- bone pain was extreme. Veida set the pill on the sideboard behind them, and sat next to Yerush, rubbing her thigh.

As Halling carefully started to pull a long roll of paper from the tube, Yerush suddenly said "There's a mark on the end, etched into the leather -- hold it in the light, what is that?" Yoj came to read it with Yerush, and they said in unison "This is from the Archive!" Yerush grinned tightly at Yoj and said "Well, this answers the question of whether they have keys to one another's vaults. She's stolen it, hasn't she?"

"How long has it been since you've seen her?" asked Qen quietly.

"I can't remember" said Yerush. "Before Halling's crash, well before that. Actually -- since Ng died." Qen's eyes locked on Yerush tenderly.

Halling was unrolling the paper, with Bux's help weighing down the corners. It was, of course, a map, similar to the sector maps now covering the main wall of the Lofthall, inscribed with countless numbers and symbols. But the colors were not so faded, and Halling could tell instantly it was not one of the maps she already had.

"Look on the back" urged Yoj, "See if it's labeled." They turned it over carefully and could find nothing on the reverse. Replacing it, Halling used a practiced eye to scan it and said "It's a cluster of islands -- this is a smaller scale than the Lofthall maps, I think it shows the entire chain."

Bux said to Speranz "Go get the tracing paper, you remember where it is?" And Yoj sent Dodd to her study for several pencils and the magnifying glass. They handed paper out to everyone at the table, with a pencil, and the glass to Yerush. Halling explained again how to read the numbers and symbols, and each person at the table found an island in front of her and began tracing it laboriously on a sheet centered over the map. Halling and Bux were able to do several islands in the time others took to do one.

When they were all done, they left the traced shapes in place and stood up to look down on it. Yerush spoke first: "This is not Skene. Even with the changes we've wrought, and the effects of time -- it's an island chain that is not Skene."

Halling's face was glowing and she said "I agree."

"But it has morrie strati" said Veida.

"Which means it is on this planet" confirmed Yoj. Even Speranz understood what this meant.

Halling was doing math in her head. "If the same system of measurement is used for the elevation demarcation on this map as the others, then the width of this central island, here, for instance, is twice the width of Riesig. There are -- " she counted under her breath "27 large to medium islands, and at least 40 small islands or flings."

"Land" breathed Bux. "Three to four times the land that we have now."

Yoj looked at Yerush. "If a bigger set of islands exists elsewhere, why would the original settlers have chosen our chain?"

Yerush said "They came here originally to mine. Perhaps the minerals available in our chain were what they wanted most."

"Or -- " said Halling slowly, "...maybe they settled both chains."

Qen gasped, and Yoj pulled both Dodd and Prl close to her reflexively.

After a very long silence, where Yoj could hear Dodd's mouth-breathing clearly, Veida whispered "What do we do with this?"

"We study it" answered Halling. "We think about it, and we talk it over as a Manage."

"Plus Oby" said Mill.

"Not yet" said Bux. "I know this will be a hard secret to keep, but Oby's emma is the Ethicist and once she finds out about this, she will be compelled to act, she has no choice. So we wait until we agree with what action she's like to take." She looked at Mill sternly, and Mill finally nodded.

"But we do tell Danaan and Rark, and their emmas" said Halling.

"And Qala" added Yoj.

"Do you supposed Raisa knows what this map shows, or means?" asked Bux. Everyone looked at Yerush, who grinned and answered "No. It's too much power for her to have handed over. It was just a good excuse to see me. Possibly the Archivist knows, however. And if she does, she'll notice it's missing."

"Yet another reason to delay telling the Ethicist" said Halling. "I don't want anyone arrested for theft. Not until we can get copies and conceal its origins."

"Here's the thing, though" said Yoj. "We don't have any marks on this map to show where on Skene it represents. And we can't go flying around the globe to search."

The electric elation that had been in the room now noticeably diminished. Halling said "Huh." She took another sheet of tracing paper and began searching the very edge of the map for positive numbers which would indicate a small island or portion of island away from the main chain.

Understanding her intent, everyone focused again on their edge of the map, and after a minute, Dodd, standing at the northwest corner, said "I've got something".

Halling came to where she pointed and laid the tracing paper down, marking the edge of a land mass as it came in from the margin and disappeared a little while later. She held it up to the light and thought hard for a minute. Then she said softly "I've seen this before."

"I have copies of the other quadrants in my study" said Yoj, hurrying to get her map case. Halling told her what numbers it might be, and after trying several, they found the sector map with an island whose lower southeast outline matched the fragment on the new map exactly. Halling laid that sector map down and indicated with her fingers the hops from small island to small island that would be required to reach its upper northwest corner. All of the distances could be done with a sinner outfitted with double battery arrays and a light load.

They found the next corresponding sector map, and island-hopped across it as well to the northwest. On the fourth sector map laid down, they reached Yanja. Halling looked up at them and said "It's reachable, if it's done in stages like this."

"How far?" urged Yoj. Halling worked back through the maps, calling out distances and vectors to Veida who wrote them down. At the end, Veida read the totals. Yerush said "That's halfway around the globe, and in the southern hemisphere."

"But reachable" echoed Yoj.

"It would take a great deal of resources, and a coordinated effort" said Bux.

"And -- who knows what kind of people we'd find, if there are people there?" said Qen. "Maybe their Troubles didn't resolve as intelligently as ours did."

"What's to say they aren't looking for us as well?" posed Halling. Into the electric silence following this comment, she added "Which means, actually, we do have to take this to the Ethicist. Sooner rather than later. But -- " she looked at Yoj, " -- If you get copies made tomorrow, and we transport this in a different tube, I can claim it just turned up at the Lofthall. So no one gets into trouble."

Bux looked at the children. "No breathing a word of this for two days, or you will hurt this Manage dreadfully. After that, we'll tell the secret ourselves and you'll be off the hook."

"Except for the part about Raisa" pointed out Prl.

"Yes, we must protect Raisa" said Qen firmly.

Yerush gazed into Mill's eyes and said "Who knows how long it will take to decide what to do, and how to do it? But I can imagine you being one of the pilots to land on the other half of Skene."

Mill's face flushed, and Yoj felt a stab at her heart. Of course Mill would volunteer to go.

Yoj looked at Bux, to share her grief, and Bux's eyes were full of tears but she was fixed on Yerush's face: Yerush would not live to see what was discovered.

Yoj said "This is your doing, you know" to Yerush. Yerush looked shocked. "You created this Manage, you chose these women to love, you bore the child that brought me and Halling in, you've encouraged us to think fresh every step of the way, and then this Manage gave us our incredible next generation -- this all began with you, Yerush. You are the aggie that will give Skene another hemisphere to explore."

Bux began crying, and Yerush motioned for her, pulling Bux down beside her and murmuring comfort. Yoj went to the aga to make tea for everyone, as Halling put the map away and Veida gave Yerush her pill.

With the return of warm, sometimes dry weather and new crops to sow, Yerush's decline slowed and she sat up at the table often to plant starts with Veida or talk over class outlines with Yoj. It clearly pained her to have Speranz on her lap for long stretches, but she refused to ever say no, and Speranz's warm, plump body seemed to give new energy to Yerush at times.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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