Friday, January 11, 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


When Yoj walked into the waiting room, all of the children were there and ran to her. Yerush, Qen, Veida, Lawa, Rark, and a very pale Danaan were there as well. Yoj picked up Speranz and hugged each of the other children one-handed. She sat down on a sofa and said "Emma just ate some soup and drank orange juice, and she's gone back to sleep."

"It's not nighttime, why she is sleeping?" asked Prl.

"They are giving her medicine for her hurts and it makes her sleepy. Sleeping is the best thing she can do right now, it lets her body heal faster" said Yoj.

"How is her arm?" asked Veida.

"They say it's fine, no nerve damage, and as long at it doesn't get infected, it'll heal like any other broken bone" said Yoj. "But it was exposed to -- all kinds of things. So she's on lots of antibiotics. The pain stuff has her definitely loopy. And she's -- terrified of being alone."

She turned to look at Rark and said "She keeps bringing you up, how you saved her. It's a miracle, plain and simple."

Rark said "Same as she'd have done. And it was her training made it possible."

"Still..." said Yoj.

"When she wakes up, can she come home?" asked Mill.

"Not tonight" said Yoj. "I don't know about tomorrow, I'll ask the curandera when I see her again."

Yerush stood close to Yoj and said "Bux mentioned she -- got touched. Is that -- can that be possible?"

Yoj looked at her children and wondered what was right. Then she said "Emma was in the water in West Tendril when she crashed, and there were leviathans all around her. Her arm was broken and she kept going down into the water, and one of the times she did, a leviathan touched her leg. It was right after that when Rark pulled her out of the water and brought her back to us."

Their eyes were huge, but not as frightened as the older women's faces. Only Mill seemed to register the real implications. The rest of the children looked impressed at their emma coming so close to a monster. Qen leaned heavily against Veida.

Yoj said "I'm going to the cafeteria because I haven't had lunch yet, who wants to go with me?"

All the children raised their hands. Yoj felt in her pockets for money, and instantly Yerush said "We'll go with you, I've got cash."

Yoj said to Rark and Danaan, "Gonna join us?"

Rark looked at Danaan and said "You should be in bed."

"I wanted to see for myself" said Danaan.

Yoj said "She's all right. I promise. You go home and rest, we'll need you a lot more in a couple of days than we do today. The children will need you, in particular. If anything changes, I'll get word to you right away."

Rark stood up and pulled Danaan to her feet. Yoj said to Rark "We're yours now. You just paid us back double."

Rark grinned and said "All in a day's work." They walked arm in arm toward the front door.

In the cafeteria, Yoj ate some potatoes and eggs while the children had apricot custard and their abbas had tea. It was even more restorative to her to listen to the children talk about school that day, argue with each other and try to talk her into a second dessert. As they walked back down the hall, Yoj pulled Qen aside and said "Mill almost went with Halling this morning. Hall keeps bringing it up, having heebie-jeebies about it, and I think it's going to occur to Mill, too, if it hasn't already. Will you keep an eye on her in particular?"

Qen nodded and said "I'm sleeping with her and Dodd in your bed. Yerush's taking the little ones into our bed, and Veida is going into the loft with Ndege. We'll make a party out of it."

"We'll need a change of clothes, toothbrushes, and some regular clothes for Halling if she's to be discharged tomorrow" said Yoj.

"One of us will bring them back up later" said Qen.

"Come on in the room, we've got a cot in there now, we'll both be with her."

Qen gave her some more money and kissed her cheek, whispering "Don't you have nightmares, not til you can get home and we're all together."

That helped. When Yoj lay down on the cot a few minutes later, Qen's admonition helped her go right to sleep. That plus the sound of Bux's breathing and Halling's soft snoring nearby.

Still, the evening and night offered only interrupted chances at rest for her and Bux. They took turns lying beside Halling, and the regular injections kept Halling fairly sedated. When she woke up, she would pee, drink juice, or say the same things over and over until the next injection kicked in. Veida came after dinner with a big salad, some cheese and bread, and a bag of clothes. Bux and Yoj shared the salad gratefully -- they had fed Halling her light hospital dinner but not yet swapped shifts to go to the cafeteria. As they ate, Veida checked Halling's pulses, sneaked a peek at her chart, and rubbed rosemary oil on her forehead.

When Halling told Veida "One of them touched me, it brushed against my leg", Veida said calmly, "You are the only person in the history of Skene who can say that." Halling said "Huh. That's right."

Veida went on, "You are the Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, they can't touch you." Halling grinned and said "Well, they can touch me, but they can't eat me." Which made Bux shudder, but Veida and Halling laughed together.

After Veida left and Halling dozed off again, Yoj told Bux about the sleeping arrangements for the children. Bux took a turn on the cot and Yoj curled beside Halling, kissing her cheek several times before closing her own bloodshot eyes.

By the next morning, both Yoj and Bux felt desperate for solid sleep. They took turns washing and dressing in clean clothes, which helped a little. The morning nurse took out Halling's IV and switched her to oral pain pills. Halling ate a regular breakfast and then had to use the bedpain for a bowel movement, which the nurse looked at intently, making Halling laugh again.

Ried returned and talked with Yoj and Bux, saying Halling could be discharged after noon if nothing went wrong. Yoj was so focused on the medical issues, she barely noticed how nervous Ried was around them both. She went to the cafeteria and got breakfast for her and Bux. Not long after they finished, Yerush came tentatively into the room.

"Hey, Yerush!" called out Halling gaily. Yerush chatted with her a few minutes, then told Yoj and Bux how the children were doing -- Dodd and Mill had both had nightmares but had been able to go back to sleep with comforting, and had eaten a normal breakfast. Neighbors had brought over all kinds of food, and Veida was saving some of the desserts for Halling.

Yoj asked Yerush if she would go to the Lofthall and arrange a contingent of pilots to carry Halling home on a stretcher in the early afternoon. Yerush left to run that errand.

The oral pain medication didn't relieve quite as much of the ache, or else it was just worse the day after surgery. Halling became less zany and more cranky. She complained about how Yoj fed her at lunchtime, and groaned bitterly when they helped her get dressed. At 2:00, Rark knocked at the door, then came in and said her ride was here. Ried had already cleared Halling to leave, and their overnight bag was packed, so Rark motioned the pilots in and they lowered the railing on the side of the bed to slide in the stretcher.

Halling refused help getting on the stretcher, even from Yoj, and every jostle on the way home made her cry out in pain. By the time she was finally in her own bed, the pilots looked drawn. Veida took them into the kitchen for tea and cake, and Bux helped Halling strip down to maillot and knickers. Yoj put a chamberpot under the bed, and Veida brought in cake and tea for Halling as well, which made her a little less grumpy.

After the pilots left, Bux and Yoj tossed a coin for who would try to sleep with Halling in their bed, who would go into Prl and Speranz's room for more uninterrupted slumber. Yoj wound up with Halling, and got gratefully into her schmatta, then stretched out with much more room on either side. Halling was restless but after the pain pill kicked in, she dozed off and Yoj was able to sleep almost three hours without waking. When she got up to use the privy, she was swarmed by her children in the living room.

"Is she awake?" demanded Mill in a loud voice.

Yoj shushed them, more for Bux's benefit than Halling's, and said "If you whisper and don't get on the bed, I mean it, no jostling, you can go in to see her. I'll be right there."

Halling didn't want to try getting to the table on her new crutches -- her right shoulder still hurt a great deal -- so Yoj brought her dinner and allowed the children to bring their plates into the bedroom and sit on the floor for their meal as well. She kept everyone away from the room where Bux was still asleep, and Qen saved a plate for Bux later. After dinner, she gave Halling another pain pill and got out one of Bux's calligraphy brushes with a pot of ink, allowing each child to sign Halling's arm cast.

When Halling began dozing again, Yoj took them into the back yard to sit on the grass and tell a round-robin story, carefully steering them away from frightening creatures or situations.

A little past seven, a just-awakened Bux poked her head out the back door and said Qala was here. Yoj corraled the children and told them to wait, Qala would need to visit Halling alone first and she'd bring her out to see them all afterward. Bux was making herself a plate, so Yoj led Qala into the bedroom and woke Halling gently.

Qala had with her two of the flat aluminum cases the Lofthall used to store used fish survey maps. She sat down on the edge of the bed and checked in with Halling. Yoj noticed that Halling was not really asking questions about the functioning of the Lofthall. Bux came in with her dinner and sat on a clothes chest to eat.

Yoj pointed to Qala's boxes and said "What do you have there?"

Qala's face lit up. "Ah. Well, Rark brought me the bag of clothes they pulled off you, Halling" she said. "And we threw everything away except your guibba -- I just couldn't bear to toss that. So I took it to the people who make our guibbas, and they said it could be saved. Except -- the leather had shrunk, and the sheepskin lining was bulging out of it. They picked away the seams, and I peronally helped them clean the leather inside and out. They put in a spanking-new sheepskin, sanded down the buckles so they won't corrode, and were even able to repair the hole in the right sleeve" said Qala proudly.

At the last remark, Bux set down her fork, looking a little queasy.

Qala opened the top box and pulled out a guibba that looked virtually new, except the shiny leather was noticeably softer and most lustrous than new guibbas. Halling stared at it, her eyes flat, and said "But -- it's way too small."

"I know" said Qala. "I thought you'd want to give it to Mill, she's planned on having it her whole life, from what I remember. It should fit her very well now."

Halling clapped her hand over her mouth and began heaving. Yoj got her the thankfully empty chamberpot just in time. Halling threw up her entire dinner. Bux left and returned with a wet washcloth to wipe Halling's face. Qala was stricken, and Yoj put the chamberpot on the floor, then led Qala next door to her study, taking the boxes with her.

"I'm so sorry" said Qala, "They were up all night with it, I thought it would be the best gift ever."

"It is" said Yoj, "It will make Mill the happiest kid on Skene. But Halling's not -- quite back with us yet. She's still floating with the levs, and the medication she's on is not letting her move through it very fast. She'll recover eventually, and when she does, she'll want to give her guibba to Mill, I'm certain." She hugged Qala, then asked "What's in the second box?"

Qala pulled up the lid. "A new guibba for Halling. They still had her measurements, but we went up a size because she's a mature woman now." It was beautiful, and smelled heavenly. Yoj hugged Qala again and said "You're an incredible friend. How did you manage this plus all the duties of the Lofthall?"

Qala smiled, and Yoj suddenly saw the exhaustion in her face. "Oh...I wasn't going to sleep last night anyhow" she said. "Everybody is pitching in, and tomorrow should be easier."

"Well, any time you want to stop in here for a meal, some conversation, anything you need, don't hesitate" said Yoj. "Now, the children are out back and wild to see you. But let's limit it to ten minutes, okay, so you can maybe get an early night's sleep." Yoj stored the boxes on a top shelf in her study and put some stacked books in front of them so nosy little eyes didn't discover them.

She sat with Qala and the children in the back yard, bringing Qala tea and a piece of pie. After ten minutes, she said firmly "Qala is having to be Sheng Zhang while emma is injured, so she has to go back to the Lofthall now. We'll see her again soon, I promise. Mill, would you do the courtesy of escorting the interim Sheng Zhang back to her offices?"

Mill stood up with pride and tucked in her shati. After they left, Yoj said "It's a bath night. Prl and Speranz, you're first."

An hour later, all five of them were in bed. Bux had scrubbed out the chamber pot and said Halling was asleep again. They decided to leave her on the side of the bed, her casted arm away from them to minimize jostling her, and Bux offered to sleep next to Halling in case someone needed to wake up with her.

The next morning, Yoj and Bux both felt more able to handle the new routine. Yoj insisted Bux go do her Sheng Zhang work -- she and Veida could handle looking after Halling. School would be out in four more days, which meant the children and Qen would be home all day, and the week after that, the University let out for the summer. Yoj thought by that time, Halling would be itching to return to activity.

At noon, when Yoj answered a knock at the front door, there stood Szebel and Wiaki. Szebel had on silks and her long red braid was frizzed thick from ferry rides. She said "I hope this isn't intrusion, but I've been little too frantic for just letters."

"Come in" said Yoj, hugging them both. She warned them about Halling's state of mind, adding "If you can get her to process any of what happened, it'll be a good thing."

Halling's face registered recognition and gladness to see Szebel. She refused a hug, however, saying "Everything hurts." Szebel sat on the edge of the bed, and after a brief visit, Wiaki came into the kitchen to talk with Yoj and Bux.

After half an hour, Szebel joined them, saying "She went to sleep." Her face was troubled. "She seems so -- passive. I don't know her well enough, honestly, to know if this is as strange as it feels to me."

"It is" said Bux shortly. "We're just trying to follow her lead at the moment."

Yoj said "We don't have extra room at the moment, but we can use my cubicle or we'll get you bunks at the Lofthall if you want to stay a while. Maybe tomorrow she'll be more receptive."

Sjebel thought for a moment. "No, I think I'd rather give her a chance to heal. She needs you all more, you're the ones deep inside her heart. We have business in Verzin, and from what I've seen in other injuries like this, she likely won't remember I was here at all. Please write me and keep me posted, and let me know when a visit will mean something to her. I just had to see for myself, that she was really alive."

The undercurrent of emotion in her final sentence prompted Bux to give Szebel a hug. She said softly "We almost lost her. When she can retain it, I'll make sure she knows you came."

Szebel and Wiaki took their leave. Yoj said to Bux "That was nice of you."

"Everything seems changed now" said Bux. "All I really need is for none of you to die."

But even when the pain pills stopped and Halling was not sleeping all the time, she refused to leave the bed, for meals or using the privy. At Veida's insistence, she gave a brief try on her crutches but after two steps, hopped back to the bed and said it was too hard on her shoulder. She refused to see any visitors except, briefly, Rark, Danaan or Qala. She remained incurious about the Lofthall and turned down all Yoj's offers of books, preferring to lie on their bed and stare at the sky through the clerestory.

She let Bux give her a sponge bath each evening, and she ate every meal, though not with her normal appetite once the pain pills stopped. Veida began giving her tinctures and special teas, and her breaks were knitting well enough, no sign of infection anywhere. She simply wanted to be left alone.

The day after Qala brought the guibbas, Iro returned to the jichang and at lunch, she appeared in Qala's office asking for a word. When Qala agreed, Iro closed the door and stood in front of her desk, clasping and unclasping her hands together.

"Rumor has it that the Sheng Zhang -- Halling, I mean -- has said her battery failed and that's why she went down" began Iro.

Qala felt suddenly acutely interested, but tried to mask it. "Yes, she told me and Yoj both that the indicator went flat and she was unable to restart her engine. It had happened the day before as well, though that time it recovered without a problem."

"And -- apparently she asked Enyi to check it out. Enyi says she installed those batteries the week before, a new array" continued Iro without emotion.

"Yes, that's correct. I've checked the records, and it was a brand new array. Enyi documented her work, both the install and the recheck. She thinks it was a loose connection that recurred because of motion" said Qala. "I've requested that every wire in every battery array be double-checked today before any of the sinners with new arrays are used."

"Well, that's what we're doing right now" confirmed Iro. "'s the thing. We've found two more arrays with the same problem."

Qala leaned forward now, staring at Iro, and said "You mean the same loose wire? Possibly leading to a crash?"

"Well,'s not a loose wire. That's not the problem" temporized Iro.

"What is the problem, then?" demanded Qala.

"A while back, one of the fadians at the plant where we get our batteries...well, she and I got to talking about voltage and the like, and she said we could increase the longevity of our batteries by changing the load of the wiring we used. Both by altering the metal composition and -- well, it's all technical, but we drew some diagrams and eventually we took it to the Sheng Zhang" said Iro.

Qala just waited.

"See, it wasn't a brand new idea" continued Ior, "The fadian is about to retire and she said they'd brought it up in the past, the idea of increasing battery range. But it would mean retooling, and expense, and the previous Sheng Zhang decided against it because she said we didn't need longer-range batteries, we weren't having problems getting craft back in time and everybody was used to the parameters we had. The fadian explained all that to Halling, and they talked over the new ranges possible, and, well, Halling said to retool, the Lofthall would foot the bill, she wanted the new batteries" said Iro.

"I remember Halling telling me about it, and it's certainly included in this year's budget" said Qala. "Are you trying to tell me the new batteries aren't working right after all?"

"No -- they're working like a charm. As long as they're installed right. See, there's a crucial wire change, that's different from anything we've ever done. It's actually a reversal of two wires. And if you don't do it that way, they work okay until enough cells die, and then -- well, the battery is gone. All of a sudden" said Iro.

Qala looked at her for a long minute and said "Who's installing the wires wrong, then?"

"I couldn't say" hedged Iro. "There's a diagram in every new case, and the change is marked in red. The two jigongs and I who're doing the review things today -- we talked it over when the first array arrived, and we've been double-checking each other's work, with a double signature. Just in case, like. Because it's -- well, you saw what happened if it gets done wrong."

"I see" said Qala, and she was beginning to see. "Did you happen, today, to bring this to the attention of Enyi, your chief?"

"One of the others did, yes" said Iro, her hands now frankly wringing each other. "She got -- angry, Sheng Zhang. She blew her stack about how changes are sneaked in behind her back and the old ways were good enough, things like that. And she left for lunch still mad. So...I decided to come tell you about it." Iro's voice wasn't quite anxious, but there was an edge to it.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate your confidence, Iro" said Qala. "I'll come down to the jigong shed later and have a look around. After Enyi is back."

"I'd appreciate it, Sheng Zhang, if you wouldn't -- " Iro paused.

Qala said "This is between you and me, Iro, don't worry. And Halling, of course. Before you leave for the day, would you stop by and give me a report on what you think the status of the battery arrays are?"

Iro finally met her eyes completely. "I will. My child flies those craft, and there's not a one going out until I can risk her life on it."

"Good enough" said Qala. She stood up and shook Iro's hand. "Go get something to eat before you return to work, don't worry if you're a little late."

Qala herself got only a cup of tea and sat at her desk, trying to calm down. The rage inside her was as great as anything she'd ever felt. Mill's face kept coming into her mind. Finally she walked down to the fish docks and waited until the sinners dropped today's load, sitting near the cliff edge and looking out over West Tendril. She could see the spot where Halling had crashed, knew it to the yard from charts although there was no sign of it now.

She stopped at a stall and grabbed a sandwich, eating it standing nearby. She brushed crumbs from her gilet, retied her yellow scarf, and walked casually to the jichang. Enyi was standing over Iro and two other jigongs as they pulled batteries from a lighter. Qala walked up behind her without greeting and said, almost at her shoulder, "How's it going?"

Enyi jumped and wheeled, saying "Lev -- I mean, oceans, you startled me, Qala. I mean, Sheng Zhang."

"Is that one of the new battery arrays, then?" said Qala with interest, leaning over and fingering the shiny panel on its side.

"Yes" answered Enyi, "And we're finding and correcting problems as we go" she said officiously. "I'll have a full report for you at the end of the day."

"Problems with what?" said Qala innocently.

"Well, these are configured differently, turns out" said Enyi. "The manufacturer has changed things around, the usual way apparently wouldn't do any more, but we weren't notified of some important new elements."

Qala looked serious. "That's a grave problem, Enyi. Did you keep the cases they came in, and all the paperwork that accompanied them?"

"Of course" said Enyi, "It'll all be in my report, but I haven't had time yet -- "

"Are they in the shed, then?" interrupted Qala. "The cases and whatever diagrams came with them?"

Enyi now looked nervous. "I imagine, unless someone's been stupid enough to throw them away. I'll have a good search and tell you later -- "

"I'm walking on to the Lofthall, the shed's on my way. Coming back from a lunch out. Sometimes having lunch elsewhere is a nice change" said Qala blandly. "Anyhow, if you're too caught up here to help me out, I'll just stop in at the shed and take a peek for myself, see what I can find."

"No, no" said Enyi, "They've got it under control, I'm sure, I"ll check their work later. I'll be glad to walk back with you."

In the shed, Qala immediately strolled over to a case and said "I recognize the serial number, this is one of the new ones, isn't it? I remember when Sheng Zhang put the order through. If you don't mind, I'd like to take this case with me, because we may have to present this foul-up to the Ethicist. Since a life was nearly lost, and the failure occurred on a sinner about to pick up schoolchildren. This could mean exile for whoever is responsible" she said in a confidential tone.

Enyi was now sweating. Qala continued "And the files you've got, showing shipments and receipts? May I see those?"

Enyi led her to her desk, stacked with papers and tools. She found the file and began pulling out bills of lading. But Qala reached out her hand and said "May I?" Enyi, with desperate reluctance, finally gave it to her. Qala flipped through it and said "Oh, good, there's installation records in here as well. Perfect. I'll take this, then, and put it under lock and key. Just so we're covered here."

"But what about today's review, I'll need the file to add that paperwork -- " began Enyi.

"Just start a new file. Be sure to keep meticulous records, of course" said Qala. "Thanks for your help." She slid the file under her arm, next to the battery case, and strolled back to the Lofthall. She did, in fact, lock them both in the archive cupboard, but only after she went over the work orders in great detail and confirmed Iro's story.

After dinner, she walked to the Manage. She visited briefly with Halling, then played with the children in the lane for an hour, working out the tension in her body during a vigorous game of tag. Begging for a chance to rest, she went back in and asked to speak with Yoj alone. After glancing at Bux, Yoj took her into her study.

Qala gave her the whole story. She saw Yoj become as dangerously angry as she had been. Yoj took Qala's hand and said "Do we go to the Ethicist right now?"

Qala grinned, showing her canines, and said "Or just track Enyi down and throw her over the cliff into West Tendril?"

"Even better" said Yoj, not smiling.

"I thought about it all afternoon" said Qala. "And I think the right course here is to let Halling deal with it, when she returns. From how she's functioning at the moment, I think we shouldn't tell her yet. In the meantime, Iro has signed off on all the new batteries, and I've asked her to give me a daily report, on the quiet, of what's going on with the jigongs. If Iro had not been out sick, this would have been caught in the first place, I think. So -- we can wait to give Halling her satisfaction."

"I'm going to need to tell the rest of my family" said Yoj.

"I imagined you would" said Qala. "Rest assured, all the paperwork is out of Enyi's reach."

Yoj leaned over, then, and kissed Qala on the mouth. It wasn't a romantic kiss, but it was something more than merely a friend. "You are a prize" said Yoj softly. "If I hadn't found Halling and Bux, you would have made me very happy."

"In that case -- got any dessert?" grinned Qala.

Yoj stood up and walked her, arm in arm, to the kitchen. The children were still playing in the lane, and after getting Qala some cake and tea, Yoj repeated her story to the rest of the adults. The shared outrage was cleansing. They discussed it until Dodd and Speranz darted through to use the privy. Then Qen went to the door and called the rest of the children in because it was getting too late for loud play in the lane, some people were going to bed.

Mill was again allowed to walk Qala back to the Lofthall, while the other children were set to their chores. As they got ready for bed later, Bux whispered to Yoj "I miss being able to sort this out with her", nodding at Halling lying with her eyes closed.

"I know" answered Yoj. "I have more feelings inside me than I quite know what to do with. I reckon she must, too, a different set of 'em."

"Will you spoon me tonight?" asked Bux.

"Mm-hmmm" said Yoj.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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