Saturday, January 5, 2008


(Olive tree)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No -- I said that?!!"

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

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

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

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

"I still dunno" said Qala.

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

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

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

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

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

"Can't wait" said Qala.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bux giggled and said "Good."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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