Friday, January 4, 2008


(Another two-chapter post today because they make a complete set.) 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 Yagi and Adjacent Flings
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


On Shmonah, the band of travelers burst in the front door, instantly filling the Manage with noise and bustle. Dinner preparation was halted long enough for the abbas to collect kisses and wonderful gifts from the children. The vacationers looked sun-bathed and bright-eyed. Ng noticed that Halling and Bux were kissing again, and quietly pointed it out to Qen.

Finally the children were sent to unpack and wash their hands. Their emmas jumped in to help with the work of this large meal, as their guests trailed in. With six extra at the table, the children had to be relegated to clothes' chests arranged in a square in the living room. One of the gifts, a round of lacy cheese from Yagi, was immediately sliced and placed on the table with dinner.

As it turned out, the children spent the meal traveling back and forth from their plates to stand beside some adult as stories about the weekend's events were told. Speranz climbed onto on a chair and acted out falling from the ronyang wall into the wild woods of Bosco, and Halling obligingly leaped to rescue her again while Yoj made wild pig noises in the background that made the children's eyes go huge -- a sound effect that actually had not occurred in the real incident.

Ndege leaned against Veida to hold the battered herb guide Veida had loaned her for the trip and point out which plants they had located on Ziza and Selva Secanos. Mill demonstrated the swimming stroke she had perfected at Sziklas Beach, and Dodd did her hilarious imitations of goat calls heard in the hills above Riada. When Prl was pressed to share her favorite part of the trip, she whispered to the other children for a minute. They gathered around her, their arms held over their heads, fluttering their fingers likes leaves as they blew breeze sounds through their lips. She stood raptly, gazing up at the imaginary green canopy above her, then closed her eyes and sighed, hugging herself. Qen led the applause that followed.

After the main meal, an oilcloth was spread on the damp grass out back and the children were sent to watch this weekend's meteor showers, the grandest all year, with a cookie apiece. The back door was left open, despite the cool night, so the adults drinking tea at the table could hear the frequent "Ooohs!" as a comet streaked across the clear sky. Yoj kept leaning over to check on katt presence until Petunia came and settled on Dodd's belly. Petunia was now the oldest of their katts, and a powerful hunter who had trained all the kittens added during her time. If Petunia was on watch, everything was fine.

During the first long lull in conversation, Halling leaned forward, both hands wrapped around her mug of tea, and looked around the table with an intriguing smile. She said "You'll be the first to know: I'm running for Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall."

The resultant chorus of exclamations were so loud that two of the children sat up in the yard and asked "What?" Yoj called the news out to them -- which was not news for them, they'd heard it the night before after dinner -- and they settled back down. Whoever spotted a streaking star first got to make a wish on it, far more significant to them than adult politics. Even for Mill -- of course Halling was going to be Sheng Zhang, it was way past time for that to occur.

Which was the concensus sentiment of the adults inside as well. Once the questions started, Halling got up to retrieve Yoj's notebook, where Halling had made several pages of notes. She began going through her planned changes one by one, listening attentively to the reactions and advice of her family and friends. It was 10:00 before they were done, they realized with a jolt when the muted voice of Sigrist radio announced the hour and signed off for the night, except for emergencies.

"Tomorrow's a school day and none of them have had baths" worried Yoj.

"We'll get them up fifteen minutes early and take turns sponging them down" said Bux. "But the pilots among us need to go to bed."

"When are you going to talk with Igoz?" asked Qala as she got to her feet.

"Not tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll just return to work and get my wings back under me" said Halling. "By the end of the week, though; the children won't be able to keep from spilling the secret very long. I'll give you a heads-up the day before."

Lawa and Qala left by the front door, their neighbors by the back. Halling, at Bux's insistence, went to the privy and then straight to bed. Bux, Yoj and three of the emmas carried sleeping children into the house and got them into schmattas. Ng seemed especially glad to have Prl and Speranz back. Yoj dropped extra fisk into the katt's bowls, murmuring to Petunia "You are so good to us, yes, you are".

The next day after work, Halling wrote letters to Moasi and Tu, as well as to Szebel's manage. Bux wrote a long thank-you letter to Culisa and let her in on the secret, then wrote Paha and Tlochin. Yerush stole an hour at lunch to sneak to Raisa's and share the news with her, and they swapped fragments of strategy while making hurried love.

After dinner, Yoj began the grumbling children on a round of baths and resumed chores while she changed sheets and did two loads of laundry for overnight drying on racks in front of the hearth. Halling was kept at the table by Yerush, Veida and Ng, adding their latest thoughts to her notes. Bux and Qen took up the rest of the table with piles of fabric from this half-year allotment, collected by Qen over the weekend, considering which family garments needing replacing. Veida and Ng were now on the sewing roster -- even with hand-me-downs, the children went through garments rapidly -- but Bux and Qen were the original designers.

At one point when the Sheng Zhang cabal mentioned the Vote next winter, Bux jumped in to say "I think at the half-year election after that, I'd like to run for Sheng Zhang of Rahat. I think my Sheng Zhang is about ready to move on, and I've got a good shot at it."

Halling looked at her speculatively, but Yerush's reaction was immediate: "Out of the question. Halling will be up for re-election then as well, and we have to pool all our resources behind her for the time being. With Qen head teacher at the school now, my influence at the U and Yoj being the dichter, we'll have a hard time keeping even one additional member of this Manage in public office until she's proved herself for a couple of years. People will be afraid of concentrating too much power in one family. You'll have to wait."

Bux's anger was also immediately apparent on her face. Yoj, passing through with Speranz and Prl draped in towels, said "I have to agree. Halling's election will save lives, hers and -- others in the future." She nodded her head in the direction of Mill, who was doing the last of the dishes at the sink.

Bux couldn't argue with that, although her expression indicated she'd like to try. Halling added "Plus, Yoj has been waiting for years to apprentice as the Archivist. I'm worried her window of opportunity is going to close, and it's her life dream."

Bux turned on Yoj. "I thought your life dream was to write. You're already dichter."

"It is. I mean, I do love writing and I intend to keep on no matter what" said Yoj, flustered by the tone of Bux's voice.

"She can have more than one dream" said Veida. "She's also an emma and a partner, which for some folks is a full-time proposition." Yerush concluded with "All three of you are ambitious, and that's to the good. We just have to do things in order as the opportunity arises."

Yoj followed the youngest children into their room, escaping the sudden tension in the room. When Prl and Speranz emerged in schmattas, smelling clean, to brush their teeth and get goodnight kisses, Yoj occupied herself with running a second bath for the twins and rinsing the first load of laundry. She stayed out of all adult discussions the rest of the evening.

Qala told Halling that the sinner who had replaced her during her week off, Yalewa, had performed rather poorly. After multiple complaints from the sinner and lighter crew, Igoz had agreed to give her additional training and place her on strict commercial work in safe corridors. The new sinner on the kelp crew was likewise shaky, but promised to get better. Emboldened by Igoz's need for her, Halling opted to tell Igoz her decision about running for Sheng Zhang on Empat, a day of hard rain when sinning over the depths was canceled.

Igoz reacted with utter shock. Qala, sitting in the office with them, stayed very busy with the radio for several minutes. When Igoz was finally able to demand "Why?", Halling replied evenly "It's not personal. I just think it's time for someone with extensive pilot experience to be making life-or-death decisions for us."

This enraged Igoz, as Halling had anticipated it would. "It takes more than being able to fly loop-de-loops to run the Lofthall!" snarled Igoz. "This is about commerce as well -- "

Halling cut her off. "I'm well aware of that end, too. I've helped draw up the budget for eight years now. And I've heard a great deal from the various Skene industries about what's working for them and what's not, in terms of the service we provide."

Igoz's red flush drained away. "What have you heard?" she yelled.

"I think our information exchange will be public and thorough over the next few months. I just wanted to tell you myself about my decision, and that's enough for the time being" said Halling. She turned to leave the office, winking at Qala as she did.

She went to the canteen for lunch, where word had already leaked out -- either from Rark and Danaan, or some other source, she didn't know and wished she did. She was deluged with whispered questions, but waved them off, saying "When we're not officially on the clock any more -- at dinner -- if we have privacy, we can all talk then."

Thus, she returned to the Lofthall for dinner with them instead of her family, carrying her notes, now typed in a crisp, edited format and copied for sharing. Rark, Danaan and Iro went with her. Mill had been left behind, protesting and finally erupting into tears on Ng's shoulder. Halling was gratified to see every pilot in the Lofthall present, although she was savvy enough to guess that some of them had not yet made up their minds about her.

She was also gratified to notice that almost none of her proposals for change came as a surprise to the pilots. She thought grimly Things are this long overdue. The only idea that brought a startled response was the creation of parachutes. Yoj had done the research for her from ancient records and Bux had created a beautiful full-color schematic of their appearance, how they worked, with Halling's additional notion of snagging the chute and dangling pilot mid-air by lighters with grapples before it became lev bait.

Halling said "I have to be honest, this reform will mean more work for you all. And no increase in pay."

To which Lmape drawled, "Well, strictly speaking, getting to live out our full years at our current pay will be an income hike. Aside from the not being eaten aspect." There was a roar of laughter, and several voices chorused "Count me in."

Finally someone asked "What's in the tube?" Halling made sure the table was clean, then unrolled a copy of the Sector 53 map where the islands had been inked in by Bux. The crush to look at it was intense. After a couple of minutes, Lmape looked up at Halling, standing next to Qala, and said "Where in the lev has been this all these decades?"

"Not sure" said Halling. "It's possible there's a copy locked in the Lofthall safe." Qala nodded confirmation.

"This needs to be posted in the main hall" continued Lmape in a fierce tone.

"It'll just get ripped down. For now" said another pilot meaningfully.

Halling said "Daylight's on its way for us here, I promise you. I can't leave this with you yet, but study it for the next hour, memorize what you can, and any time you need to consult it, feel free to drop by my Manage."

Iro said "I don't know if this is out of line, but -- could you get copies made, now, for every open-water faryaste? And people who work the cortices?"

"That's a great idea" said Halling. She thought silently And a brilliant campaign tool. She said aloud "I'll get the printing done tomorrow."

Over the next few months, Halling's campaign gathered momentum. Dinnertime conversation was so often dominated by it that the children complained, even Mill, so Halling changed her strategy sessions to after dinner. Which placed an additional load on Yoj and Bux, but Yoj, at least, did not mind, and Bux didn't complain. Halling promised them, more than once, that if she was elected, she'd set a predictable schedule with at least one day off a week for herself. Yoj wasn't sure this was a promise she could keep. It didn't matter, anyhow -- Halling needed to do this.

Yerush was thoroughly in her element, cheerful and rushing home after work. This put Qen in good spirits as well. Halling made sure to spend time with Ng alone in her studio, parsing Yerush's advice with a critical eye together. Halling's busyness kept her from making even a brief visit to Yanja. Bux, however, kept track of the weekly letters Halling received from Szebel, thick and addressed in a sprawling red ink. She asked Halling, tight-lipped, if Halling was answering them, and Halling said "Of course." Halling then offered for Bux to read some of them, and Bux declined. Yoj secretly took Halling up on the offer and read one letter before stopping, saying it brought up insecurity she didn't need to have.

Igoz's time at the Lofthall was briefer than ever, mostly to oversee the weekly schedule, and to administer the budget which she increasingly kept hidden from even Qala. Qala and Halling strongly suspected Igoz was trading commerce favors for election support, but there was no way they could prove it until the past budget came up for review, which would only happen after the Vote.

As Vote Day approached, only Yerush remained certain about Halling's election. Halling knew she had the support of some key segments of Skene, but not all. She began to wish it were all over. She was tired of wondering whether people liked and trusted her.

The Lofthall Sheng Zhang speeches were scheduled for 2 p.m. on Vote Day, which Yerush said was excellent timing for last minute persuasion. Privately, Yoj worried that people would be distracted by anticipating the tasting, which was to occur immediately after. She was relieved to see the main room at the Lofthall, where the speeches were to take place, so crowded that she and her family had trouble threading their way to the front. A temporary stage had been erected, and Halling was already up there on one side, Igoz on the other.

A neutral party, agreed to by both Halling and Igoz, kicked things off by reading their basic platforms out loud in a dispassionate tone. This was followed by alternating advocates for each candidate, chosen by them, a total of five for each side, who were given one minute to speak their support. Halling had asked Yoj to be one of her five, along with Qen, a friend of Ktiva's who headed the biggest guild on Seda, Veida's cousin who headed the Ricegrower's Guild on Beras, and the manager of the fish docks who had surprised Halling with her backing.

Qen went first. She was sweet and eloquent, and clearly devoted to Halling, which persuaded no one who wasn't already convinced, Yoj thought. Distracted by this, and by the presence of clusters of people who looked at her stonily, her own turn at speaking was also lackluster. In the back of her mind, she was thinking with disbelief How could anyone not see Halling was a gift to Skene? Yoj linked her role as dichter, serving the Lofthall, to the need for Halling's expanded service. She received polite applause and left the stage bitterly disappointed in herself. She took Speranz from Bux, drawing comfort from the imperturable love of her youngest.

Ktiva's friend did a much better job, making the crowd laugh often. The mood picked up steadily, and the fish dock manager concluded to enthusiastic applause.

But Igoz's roster was very impressive, and their speeches were biting. Yoj tried not to hate every one of those women forever after.

The floor was now open for spontaneous speeches from those present. As a result of a coin toss, Halling had won the right to go last. Consequently, there was a long string of business managers and solid citizens streaming up the steps to speak on Igoz's behalf. They were brief and frequently dull, but they carried weight. Two of Skene's sitting Sheng Zhangs also expressed their solidarity with Igoz, though not Bux's, Yoj was glad to note. Yoj didn't know if any of the other Sheng Zhangs would come forward to speak on Halling's behalf.

Mill slipped away from her family and suddenly Yoj saw her on stage, having reached Halling. She started up the steps after her, but Halling took Mill's hand and Yoj suddenly thought maybe Halling was glad to have company up there. Yoj went to join them, standing behind Halling and breathing reminders into Speranz's ear to keep her silent. She was still there when Igoz came to the middle of the stage to make her case for why she should remain Sheng Zhang.

Igoz's tone was often mocking or condescending when she referred to "the pilot running against me". Bux, who had considered joining Yoj on stage, was now glad her own face was not visible to the throng behind her because she was sure she looked furious. Yoj showed no expression at all.

Before Igoz had reached her conclusion, Bux slowly became aware of a restiveness in the crowd around her. She sensed movement, and eventually it reached all the way to the front as the jammed room squeezed itself in just a little more in order to make passage for a large group of women pushing their way politely to the front. Bux saw Yoj's face register amazement. A few seconds later, Halling looked up and began grinning hugely. Bux turned and tried to see who they were looking at.

As the newcomers passed by her to the steps, single-file, murmuring "Please excuse us, thanks ever so", her first impression was simply of bulk -- every single woman in this group of a dozen was taller and wider than Halling. The woman leading the line had bright red hair in a thick braid, majestic breasts and a wide taut ass. Several of those behind her had on the ochre coveralls of yanjangers, and as Bux realized what that meant, Igoz began fumbling for her words, too distracted to remember her arguments.

At the steps, an electric signal passed between the red-haired woman and Halling, but they did not touch or speak. Yoj raised her eyebrows at Halling, then came to join Bux. Ng, in the chair next to Bux, motioned to Yoj and breathed "That must be Szebel." Yoj nodded.

Ng said "She's a giant." Bux said "They're all giants."

Speranz looked seriously worried, and Yoj whispered in her ear "The giants are friends of your emmas, they're here to help her, isn't that wonderful?"

Igoz finally gave up, but despite a poor finish, the applause for her was still too enthusiastic to Bux's ears. Szebel stood to one side at the top of the steps and made a graceful "After you" motion down the steps to Igoz, thus neatly persuading her off the platform. Szebel then strode to the center of the platform, and her cohort spread out behind her. Two of the women were holding sheafs of paper. Szebel looked out over the crowd, and an extraordinary grin lit up her face. Bux sucked in her breath -- this woman was enchantingly beautiful.

When she spoke, her voice was clear and rich. "Hello, gathered citizens of Skene. My name is Szebel, and I am a mathematician on Yanja. I am also secretary for the Vetriste Guild of Yanja, and they have sent me here to speak on their behalf concerning leadership of the Lofthall. As you know, our trade depends entirely on the Lofthall for distribution of our goods. As I am also sure you know, there have been many rumors that we of Yanja would prefer to create our own fleet of aircraft and remove distribution of our essential products from the hands of any but our own."

A loud hubbub broke out. No one had ever given public voice to these rumors before. It was a shocking admission. Szebel kept grinning, and when she had silence and attention once more, she said "My sibaste wishes to convey to all others on Skene, we support the candidacy of Halling for Sheng Zhang of the Lofthall, and with her handling our deliveries, we would never see a need to alter things as they are now."

The reaction was tumultuous. Her charm and ease were all that kept it from being a clear threat. Yoj heard Yerush chuckling appreciatively nearby. Szebel turned and took one of the papers from the woman behind her. She held it up into the air and yelled "So say we, the Vetriste Guild of Skene, and here are our signatures attesting to our oath!" She blew the crowd a kiss, which caused a wave of laughter, and during this, she melted back into her group and the woman holding the papers stepped forward.

When there was enough silence to be heard, she said "I am Wiaki of Yanja, secretary of Yanjanger Guild Primus. I, too, have been sent by my colleagues to indicate our unanimous support for Halling as Sheng Zhang. I, too, have seen asked to convey to you our intention to remain in contract with the Lofthall as it would operate under Halling."

The tension the room now as almost incendiary. Was this or was this not talk of revolution? The shock on Halling's face was genuine, and helped her cause. Wiaki waved the papers in her hand and said "I have here the signatures of not only my guild, but that of Yanjanger Guild Secundus as well. I have testimonials from owners of every olive oil press on Yanja, of the Rongyanger Sibaste, of every qi gong, and of the Director of Funerals for All Skene -- every one of these voters believe a Lofthall lead by Halling would be the right choice for Yanja."

Yoj had turned to look at Bux when the qi gongs were mentioned: That meant Nilma and Owera. Bux was now pressed against Yoj. How had Halling won the hearts of so many people so far away?

Szebel assumed the lead again. She took one last paper from the second woman and held it up, showing ornate calligraphy and a glittering seal. "It is my great honor, finally, to speak on behalf of the Confederated Mining Guilds of Chloddia and Exploit, a total of 17 different mining organizations. Their representatives sent this to our Guild by mail yesterday. This petition states their intention to support the candidacy of Halling. Between their islands and ours, the entirety of heavy industry and commerce for the far edge of the East Tendril have thrown their support to Halling. This is not revolution -- far from it. This is just a glad step toward management that best understands how to foster balance and neighborly respect."

This last was a brilliant stroke. By naming the fear in everyone's heads, and using the Skene code words of "balance" and "neighborly", she had plunged the room into relief -- a relief necessary only because of her earlier bluntness, but no one was going to notice that now. Thunderous applause erupted.

The group began making their way down the steps. As each passed by Halling, they shook her hand. Szebel was the last, and upon taking Halling's hand, she made the same gesture to Halling she'd made to Igoz, only this time it was to motion her toward the center of the platform. Halling, red-cheeked, did as she suggested. The Yanja crowd found places to stand along the side wall. Mill remained on the platform, leaning against the wall with her hands folded behind her back, her face aglow as she gazed at her emma. Her brightness drew many of the eyes in the room.

Halling glanced down at Yoj, Bux and the rest of her family and gave them a slow wink. Speranz erupted into burbling laughter and reached her arms up toward Halling. Yoj whispered to her "Not yet, she needs to talk to the crowd first, sweet baby love."

Halling took her measure of the crowd, her blush fading, and finally said "Well, then. I'm Halling. I've been a pilot since I was 16, first as a lighter, then a sinner for the last 15 years. There's no aspect of Lofthall function I've not done, including budgetary and contract work." This caused a ripple of sound -- why would a Sheng Zhang give that kind of duty to a pilot? "I have gladly accepted every responsibility asked of me, and I consider myself to have a commitment to every person on Skene. It is my job to feed you. It's a good job. I sleep well at night."

Her simple phrases and earnest tone were welcome to all the ordinary workers listening to her. As Halling paused between sentences, Speranz reached up her arms again and said "Emma!"

Giggles ran through the crowd, and Yoj whispered to Speranz it was still time to wait. Speranz wriggled in her arms, beginning to feel warm and confined by the mass of people. Yoj sang a barely breathed tune in her ear, hoping it would last long enough to give Halling time for her speech.

"I'm moved, and honored, by the pledges of support just offered me. I -- I didn't know they'd be coming my way. But I always try to deal with folks honestly and decently. I do my share, and I don't lie. I think that's what Skeners expect of each other, and if that's appreciated, well, that's only right." Halling was not one for false modesty. Again, this went over well.

"When I became head of my sinning crew, we went six years without a death. Before that, the average for the Lofthall was four or five deaths a year. More than anything else I do as a pilot, that's what I'm proudest of: The saving of lives. You all know I lost my partner when I was 19. It's a hard loss at that age, but it's a hard loss any time, any where. On my crew, we do the job without taking undue risks. As Sheng Zhang, that would be true for the entire Lofthall. My goal is to stop the loss of human life while we feed Skene."

Halling paused again, and again Speranz shouted "Emma!", trying to launch herself forward from Yoj's arms. Yoj turned, looking for a path out of the room, and Speranz, sensing her intent, began saying "No, emma, I want emma, I need to talk to emma!"

Halling stepped to the front of the platform and squatted down, saying "It's okay, hand her to me." Yoj complied, and Speranz clutched at Halling joyfully. As Halling stood back up, her face was alight, looking into the eyes of her youngest. Speranz patted Halling's cheek and said "Where did them giants go, emma?"

It took a second for the meaning to sink in. The room roared with laughter, startling Speranz who turned to look at the throng and screwed her face up to cry. Halling whispered in her ear, and the upset transformed into Speranz's gorgeous giggles. Halling was completely relaxed now: She was never happier than with one of her children in her arms.

Turning Speranz so her ears were not near Halling's mouth, Halling said "So, my intention as Sheng Zhang will begin with safety. Not just for pilots, but for all the people who live under our flight paths. I have lots of ideas which I'd like to see implemented, things that will increase efficiency without undoing the budget or compromising safety. I have a point by point plan which I can hand out to those of you interested in details -- "

Prl, being held by Qen by the steps, now raised her voice and said "I want to go see emma, too!" Yoj began moving their way. As Prl kept complaining loudly, the crowd was not quite as amused until Prl said emphatically "I am her baby too, don't say I'm four because she still tells me I am her darling baby!" Yoj had Prl in her arms by now, and Prl said "Emma, please take me to emma, I'll be quiet, I just need for her to hold me a minute." Amid the laughter, Halling began walking down the platform toward them, shifting Speranz to one hip. Yoj climbed the steps and handed Prl to her, and Prl clamped herself into Halling's other hip. Speranz put her fingers in her mouth, then pulled them out briefly to lean over and give Prl a light kiss on her cheek. Prl said "Fank you" sweetly, then shushed herself and leaned her head against Halling's neck, looking out at the crowd with her big blue eyes. The contentment on her face created an audible sigh in the audience.

Someone at the back of the room, in the area where Igoz had treated, called out belligerently "How are you going to handle the responsibilities of Sheng Zhang when you have so many other commitments?" Halling looked like she couldn't believe the question. Yoj stepped to the center of the platform and said "Same way she does now. She gets up before light and flies out to face monsters. When she's done with a grueling shift, she comes home and helps our children with their homework, helps make dinner, does her share of keeping our tillage fecund, and makes her partners extremely happy." There was a titter through the room. "We have a vibrant family life, four abbas in our Manage as well as the three of us. We make sure Halling's work get the attention it deserves; as a family, we're committed to her commitment. And, let me say -- I really hope you're not suggesting that only single, childless people should have positions of responsibility on Skene, because if we followed that ideology, we'd be in deep trouble."

Dodd and Ndege had sidled up the steps and were now standing on either side of Mill, who had looped her arms over each of their shoulders. They were not drawing attention to themselves, but they were getting it all the same -- not just because they were twins, but because all five of Halling's children were on full view. Bux, taking them all in, thought they were unusually beautiful, intelligent, and healthy-looking, what any emma would hope for in a child.

Another voice from the same back region said belligerently "You've already spoken, we know what you think." Yoj saw Bux's jaw set and she swung around, trying to track down the source of the voice.

Yoj grinned and said "You know what I think as Dichter. And you can guess what I think as Halling's partner, I'll spare you my gush there. But I do have one more thing you've not heard. And that's from me as an emma. Even if Halling's children were not my own, I'd want a Lofthall Sheng Zhang who treasured my children first and foremost. It's true, we have 500 years of sinning tradition on Skene and so far we've not starved. I've heard here today what I hear often all over Skene: If it's working, it's working. But the piloting tradition we have at the moment, which is working, I admit, works because built into it are a certain number of deaths each year. The Lofthall attracts our children, our brilliant, brave, big-hearted children, the best among us. It sends them out to horror, and every year except when Halling has her way, a certain number of those precious children don't come home. It's not simply that we have to bury them: It's that they don't come back at all." She paused to let the implication of that assert itself.

"I adore Skene. I write a new song about life here every week, and almost every song is a love song. So I'm not asking to abandon what has worked. But as an emma, with five children I don't ever want to have to face -- " Her voice abandoned her for a minute. Swallowing hard, she continued "I want a piloting tradition that is not afraid to make change if the change means my child will come back home, when she grows up and joins the Lofthall. None of us wants our children to become pilots. Ask Halling's emma, she's right down there: She pitched a fit when Halling first mentioned the idea. As have any one of you who now has a child in the Lofthall, and as will any of you whose darling comes to you at some point in the future and says 'Emma, I want to fly.' Your heart will stop for a few beats and your vision will go dim. So, as an emma who shares that reaction with you, and who knows firsthand that Halling feels the same way: Who do you want protecting the life of your children? Whose Lofthall do you want them to enter, when that time comes?"

Yoj stopped, her heart pounding. Two beats went by, then the room exploded. She could see Bux's face, then Ng's, and both were wet with tears. Through the clamor, she heard Prl saying "I go to emma, now, please" and Halling was beside her, Prl transferring herself into Yoj's arms. Yoj squeezed her tight and said "You always smell so good to me, Prl, like caramel." Prl answered, "I know." Yoj found her way down from the platform, Halling behind her and the three older children in her wake.

Forswearing the now-crowded steps, Qala vaulted onto the platform and waited for the cheering to die down. She took off her cap, folded it crisply and tucked it into the laces of her gilet. When she could be heard, she said "I'm Qala, dispatcher for the Lofthall, and first off, I'd like to say I talk with many of you here over the radio every week. Here I am -- here's what I look like, unruly curls and all. So, if you get a chance, come look me up later and let me set eyes on you. That way, when we're on the radio next week, we'll have a face to put to the name."

Several voices called out greeting. Qala laughed and said "I'm better one on one. Now, the second reason I'm up here -- I'd like to ask any pilot in the Lofthall who's decided to vote for Halling, to please join me up here. Just so we have an idea of how it's leaning."

Motion broke out in every section of the room. Robin's-blue and mustard-yellow uniforms began streaming through the mass of people, and a long line entered from the entryway as well. At least half of them didn't bother with the steps at the side, instead jumping easily up with a thud of otos onto the platform. As the platform filled, a murmur began. The crush in the room became eased, because so many of their number had been pilots, now up on the platform. Yoj saw Iro climb the steps, and behind her were a long stream of jigongs. Behind them were the canteen workers. She began crying, and Prl said "You okay, emma?"

"Very okay, sweetheart" she choked out.

With the ability to turn and move now available, people in the crowd began looking to see if there were any pilots not on the platform. None could be found. The only two people not up there were Igoz, conspiciously in dress silks instead of a uniform, and Halling, still holding Speranz. Qala beckoned to Halling, and Speranz allowed herself to be handed off to Yerush. As Halling walked self-consciously up the steps, Mill ran up behind her and took her hand. They were pulled into the mass of uniforms between Rark and Danaan. Just before the room would have begun cheering, Qala closed her eyes and sang the first bar of the Going Home song, the lilting ballad every pilot knew best and often sang together over the radio as they approached Skene by air. Within seconds, each voice on the platform had joined in, and the sound literally shook the walls. Yoj, Bux, Veida and Dodd also sang along. It was a community sharing beyond what Yoj had ever experienced.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Sigh.....beautifully written and beautifully expressed.