Thursday, January 3, 2008


(Brass tile on the door of Szebel's Manage, Yanja)

(Double chapter post tonight, because it's a bit of a cliffhanger otherwise -- Chapter 33 is below, start there.) 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


San on Yanja

The next day, Halling slept in while Szebel got up and worked on her commission until lunch. It was completely silent in the Manage. When Halling finally woke up, Szebel opened her curtains and they looked through a telescope at the Wasa South for a while, Halling locating levis and kelp fields to show Szebel. Because of the clarity of the day, they also had a view of Peisuo. Halling told her about the dinner they had with Z'bef when Danaan was rescued. Z'bef out there, unimaginably alone at this instant, and Halling felt a wrench inside her, thinking about it.

After lunch, Halling wrote another letter to Yoj and Bux, and she walked with Szebel to post it. Then they walked the road around Yanja's outer perimeter, Szebel acting as tour guide. When they reached the ferry landing that led to Isola Fling, they sat on a bench for a while, looking over the water at it, now a flat expanse of wheat, and Halling talked about Yoj's childhood. It made her miss Yoj intensely. Later, as they walked by the Qi Gong Center, Szebel asked her if she wanted to go in and say hello to Nilma and Owera. Halling hesitated, then said "No."

"Because you're with me, and you think they might not approve?" asked Szebel.

"That's part of it. Although I can't imagine Yoj caring. No, it's more -- they just don't treat me like kin, and worse, they don't treat Yoj like kin. I feel loyal to her, not them."

The manages on the rest of Yanja, away from Szebel's ridge, looked like those on Riesig. It was nice to have a paved road around the island, however. Several times Halling saw electric carts hauling loads or carrying people who had trouble walking. She expressed her wish that Riesig have this kind of road and transport.

"As I understand it", said Szebel, "Riesig was settled first of all the islands, with regard to Manages and families go. And land was so tight, they decided on narrow lanes to conserve territory, instead of covering over tillable soil with hard surfaces. Plus, we had to pave the area between our industry and the jichang because what we ship out tends to be heavy and huge, too much for humans to carry."

Halling insisted on leading the dinner-making efforts again that night, passing on techniques for seasoning and for keeping vegetables fresh to the palate. She made Qen's egg dressing for their salad but sidestepped a direct question about how it came together -- some secrets needed to stay in the family. Amya was watching her closely, however, and Halling suspected she understood the chemical principles well enough to sort it out on her own. It was all right with her if it became Amya's secret, too.

After dinner, the elder women went to the living room to visit with friends who had stopped by. All of Szebel's partners, however, after greeting the visitors politely, returned to the dining room with cups of tea and notebooks, settling in around Halling.

"We talked to various folks all day" began Wiaki. "Rongyangers, fadians, chemistes -- "

Amya interrupted her: "One of the vetristes on my crew used to work in a silkseaming factory on Verzin, and she was extremely helpful."

Wiaki continued "I also talked privately with the koukei." The vetristes looked startled. Halling said "I don't know who that is."

Szebel explained "Where our magma emerges from its vent in the earth is through a long chamber. We prefer to call it magma, by the way, instead of lava which is technically what it is once it reaches the surface. We call it magma until it's been killed into stillness. Anyhow, in the natural course of events, the vent would slowly clog up with cooling plugs of magma, until the flow stopped and it would have to find another route up through the crust. But we can't allow that -- not just our industry, but the safety of Yanja depends on localizing the vent. So, when it starts looking sluggish, the koukei reams out the tunnel again."

"How in the world does she do that?" asked Halling.

The partners looked at each other. "People outside Yanja don't really know about this" said Szebel. "Except for the Ethicist, and a couple of the Sheng Zhangs."

"All right" said Halling somberly. "I won't tell anyone except my partners. They're as trustworthy as I am, and I don't keep anything relevant from them."

The partners looked at each other again. Amya nodded, which confirmed Halling's suspicion about her leadership in this group.

Wiaki said quietly "We wait until the work shift is over and the district is quiet. In particular, we make sure there are no flights nearby. And no visitors. We clear the district, not just for privacy but also as a safety measure. Someone drives in our loader that has a telescoping lift, extends 20 meters into the air."

"Wow" said Halling. "Didn't know we had such things on Skene."

"We have one" said Wiaki with a wry grin. "The koukei is lifted in that basket, with all the shielding we can give her, and she has a -- modified laser."

There was a long silence. "How big is this laser?" said Halling softly.

"It's one of a kind" answered Wiaki. Halling realized it must be like the weapons mentioned in ancient Skene history, the kinds of terrible tools used during the Troubles by human beings warring with each other.

"She has special readouts of the condition of the vent, and a scope where she can see into it, more or less. I mean, it still takes a skill I don't possess" said Wiaki. "And -- she fires into the vent."

Amya said "If she were to make an error, it could send the whole southern end of the island into eruption, either immediately or slowly. As you can imagine, it's a nerve-wracking time, waiting to see how it plays out."

"So far so good" said Szebel, and they all laughed tensely.

"Anyhow...the koukei is a rongyanger most of the time, who just has this special duty once every so often. We don't bandy her identity about. We trust her with our lives, and she lives up to that trust. She's inviolate" said Wiaki.

"But you went to her today -- on my behalf?" said Halling, cold inside.

"I talked to her, yeah. And I didn't get any promises, per se, but I didn't get a flat no, either" said Wiaki. Which again startled her partners.

"Now, where's that list of your obstacles from last night?" asked Amya. Szebel pulled it from her notebook and handed it to Amya. All of the women leaned toward Amya and Halling, and the discussion began in earnest, in hushed tones because of visitors in the next room. Halling was bowled over by not just the technical expertise but the willingness of these women to consider any idea, however outlandish or controversial. Szebel was taking detailed notes.

By the end, Halling had a slight headache. She said "I need more tea" and went to the kitchen to refill her mug. When she returned, she said "I can't believe all this -- you're -- we're talking about reshaping the world as we know it."

Amya grinned. "What we do every day on Yanja."

"No wonder everyone is afraid of you" Halling blurted out. The women roared and pounded on the table.

"We love Skene, too" said Szebel. Halling was still uneasy. She thought of Yerush, and how Yerush would insist her machinations and meddling were motivated by love.

Wiaki said "Looks to me like one thing that would really help is finding some unused land, and the only quick route I can see is the Exploit Lagoon proposal."

One of her partners snorted and said "Everyone on Yanja votes against that, just from spite."

"Yeah, well, we'll have to figure out a way to turn that around" said Wiaki. "Through the guilds first. We can scheme on that later, it'll take months."

Szebel had a fresh piece of paper and began covering it with math symbols. "I've been thinking about this all day, too, as an equation. If we assign symbols to the variables here -- " She began naming them off and arbitrarily coding them to symbols, until suddenly there was a long equation most of which Halling understood. One symbol, however, looked irresistably to Halling like a puckered anus, and she pointed to it, "I don't know what that one is."

Szebel said "That's Igoz", and the women broke out into raucous laughter. Szebel said "You can see that she's on both sides of the equation, and she's an unknown quantity. We can't solve for her. But you know what we do in that instance?"

Second grade math with Nan Qen flashed before Halling, the bright math student who was given extra work to do with Xaya. She had a sensory flood of Xaya at that moment, sitting next to her as children, chasing each other's minds. "You deduct it from both sides of the equation, and solve without it" she whispered.

Szebel kissed her exuberantly. Halling was too thunderstruck to enjoy it completely, however.

"You're saying, we have to get rid of her as Sheng Zhang?" she said slowly.

Amya crowed "Not just get rid of her -- replace her with the perfect woman for the job!"

Halling looked around the table. "You mean me, don't you?"

They couldn't seem to stop laughing at her. Halling wished she were home, at the kitchen table with her whole family there. She couldn't sort this through without them.

Szebel said "Stay one more day, Halling. You need to meet people here, let them have a face to put to the name. They'll like you, and it will make a huge difference later on. I'll introduce you around." She turned to Wiaki and said "Any chance of her meeting the koukei?"

Wiaki considered. "She can meet her, as part of the rongyangers, but not specifically as the koukei, she'd not appreciate being unveiled like that."

Szebel said "Well, let's start with initial contacts. And Halling's going to need time to consider this, right?"

"With Bux and Yoj" said Halling, her throat dry.

"So -- one more day?" grinned Szebel.

"You keep saying that" answered Halling, smiling weakly.

"It's your vacation, you get to do what you want" said Amya. Halling looked at her appreciatively, then said "Okay, one more day."

Szebel handed her the notes, including the sheet with the equation on it. "You need to write another letter home?" she asked.

"Not yet" said Halling. "I don't know what I want to put into the mails."

"Ready for bed, then?"

That Halling was sure about. "Yes."

Empat on Yanja

The next day, Halling walked the length of Yanja again, this time going into shop after shop, meeting dozens of smart, capable women who almost invariably said "Halling of the ballad?" It was unnerving, how popular Yoj's song was. After each visit, Szebel made quiet notes and explained to Halling what influence each woman had, putting that down beside her name in the notes. Halling was naturally gregarious, but by the time they got home for dinner, she was worn out.

The meal was being set on the table. Halling washed her hands quickly and sat down. Amya said "Oh, you got a letter today" and shambled to the living room to bring it back.

Halling's appetite disappeared. "I think I need to read this in private" she said, and went to Szebel's bedroom. She didn't know what to make of how thick the envelope was.

When the drawings poured out onto Szebel's quilt, Halling began crying. She looked at each of the pictures twice, being careful not to drip tears onto the bright colors. Then, taking a deep breath, she read Yoj's letter.

It was worse than she had thought it might be. Nothing from Bux, or any of the other emmas, especially not her own. And Yoj was clearly struggling to be fair. Oh, lev, what had she done?

She put the letter in her bag and returned to the dinner table. They all looked at her silently, noting her tear-stained cheeks. She sat down and said "I need to go home. Tomorrow."

"Of course" said Szebel softly.

"My children sent me some drawings" she said, holding out the envelope. Amya grabbed it excitedly and said "Me first!"

Halling managed to eat a little. Szebel, who was left-handed, ate with her right arm draped around the back of Halling's chair, which was comforting. After dessert, Amya said "Some of us play musical instruments -- do you need to be alone, or would you like to walk down to the cafe and listen to our band?"

Halling looked at Szebel, who said "Whatever you need."

"Music would be grand" said Halling. And it was. It reminded her, shatteringly, of dances with Bux and Yoj, especially of Yoj, but she was headed home, she could just bear it.

When she put Yoj's letter back into the envelope that night, as she packed, she opened her box of photographs. The one of the three of them after partnering was now on top, and she lifted it to kiss their faces. Szebel was watching, and said "I can't wait to meet them."

Halling laughed warily and said "You will have to wait on that. At least until Bux stops wanting to murder you."

"You got a letter from them, then, not just the drawings?" said Szebel.

"Only Yoj" said Halling.

"Ah. Well, I'm sorry for any trouble this has caused, but I'm not sorry for what I've had with you" said Szebel.

"Me either" said Halling, looking deep into her eyes.

"What time do you need to be at the jichang for the school sinner?" said Szebel, picking up her alarm.

Ot on Yanja

The next morning, just as all five children were putting on shoes to head for school, the front door opened and Halling stepped in. Screaming pandemonium ensued. Eventually Speranz was on Halling's shoulders, Prl was in her arms, and one twin was clinging to each side of her. Halling gazed at Mill, and they had on matching grins of wild delight. Halling finally restored quiet by saying "Listen, today is Ot and emma comes to teach singing, right? So I'll come with her, and wait around until school is out, we'll all meet up then. Okay? Now, you're going to have to run up the lane or you'll be late." She disentangled herself child by child, but before Mill went out the door, Halling pulled her back into a tight hug and whispered "I missed you something awful."

Her face buried in Halling's shoulder, Mill murmured back "Me, too." Halling walked outside and watched them sprint up the lane, Dodd holding Speranz's hand. When she came back in, Yoj was waiting with a long embrace and passionate kiss. Bux watched from the kitchen, smiling broadly but hurt in her eyes. Halling looked at her over Yoj's shoulder and said "You gonna keep your distance?"

"I don't know" said Bux. "Why are you back so early?"

"Couldn't stand to be away any more. And I got Yoj's letter" said Halling.

"But you had Szebel" said Bux, a wounded note creeping into her voice.

Halling corrected the pronunciation of Szebel's name automatically, and saw Bux stiffen at that. Yoj said "Hall, go say hi to your emma, she's in her studio. We'll finish the breakfast dishes and then you come back so we can all talk."

Halling agreed, walking by Bux and giving her a soft kiss on her forehead. Bux leaned into it a little but did not unbend. After Halling returned to the house, they all lay on the bed together until noon, sorting through pain and tripwires. Finally Bux, who had warmed up to the point where she had taken Halling's hand and was playing with it, said "Did you wear your ring while you were gone?"

"Of course I did" said Halling, surprised.

"I mean -- while you were -- you know, with her" said Bux, miserably.

"While we were making love? Of course I did, Bux" repeated Halling. "What, you'd rather I took it off? That would mean what I did with her meant I was somehow altering my commitment to you, which is unthinkable to me. When I said I was yours for all my days, that means no matter where I am or what I'm doing. No change, Bux."

"But you love her" pushed Bux.

"I do love her. I'm not in love with her -- I don't have room to be in love with anyone else. You and Yoj are my heart's desire, and I'm also in love with all our children, and our emmas, and this house..." Halling's voice grew thick. "She reminds me of Xaya, of what I had with Xaya, and I want to keep that in my life. But my promises are to you, the two of you. If there's room in my heart for both, that's a good thing."

"That's what Yoj kept saying." Bux ached to be in Halling's arms. As if sensing it, Halling finally reached out and offered an embrace, and Bux threw herself onto Halling, letting herself cry one more time. Afterward, Halling wiped her face clean, although Bux was still refusing to kiss her. They all lay in relieved silence for a while.

"So..." began Halling. "I still have three more days off. And we could use some vacation together, and time to talk more. And I missed those children like I'd lost my fingers. How about if tomorrow, after Market, we head to, say, Bosco? Let them run amok in the woods, stay at the hostel, then go on to Selva Secano the next day, none of us have ever explored it. In the afternoon, there's a legendary beach on Yagi Lagoon. We could stay the second night on Yagi, visit with Culisa, walk the hills and play with goats on Shmonah before heading home. Just us three emmas and the kids. Give the abbas a weekend home alone."

"It'll cost hard currency, all those hostel rooms and eating out" said Bux.

"But we'll remember it forever" said Yoj. "Count me in."

Bux hugged Halling again and said "All right. I'll have to use this evening, though, to finish up all the work I've not done this morning."

"And I've got a song to set" said Yoj.

"You do that. Let's get ahead on chores around here, too, for the abbas" said Halling. "I'll keep the kids busy until bedtime."

Yoj rolled over to look at the clock. "I could get in laundry and start bread before it's time to go to the school, finish baking it when I get home."

"I need to eat" said Halling, "I skipped breakfast to make sure I got on that sinner home."

They got up and began moving at a clip.

That night, Halling went with Yoj to the privy before bed. They settled onto the seats companionably side by side, and Halling said "You know, Szebel's Manage has indoor toilets."

"Wow, fancy" said Yoj.

"Yeah. But the truth is, I didn't enjoy looking down at my business after I'd done it. And the odor was a lot stronger, I guess because it's an interior room. She thought it was funny that when I went at night, I never turned the light on. But it's supposed to be dark in here, you know?"

Yoj laughed. Halling said, suddenly serious, "Yoj...I know I owe you. You carried me this last week on your shoulders."

"Not the way I wanted to" said Yoj softly. "I can tell, just by how your face looks, that you got what you needed there on Yanja. But it hurts that I couldn't be the one to help you."

"You did, though. I thought about you and Bux all the time. You're part of me, can't separate it out."

"Still, Hall..."

After a silence, Halling said "I did feel like a teenager again. In a good way."

"Is this going to be a regular need, then?" Yoj struggled to keep her voice away from anxiety.

"I want to keep Szebel in my life, yes, but haring off across Skene? No. This was one of those before and after events, I can tell" said Halling. Yoj reached for the waterjet wand to rinse herself, and asked "What's she like?"

"Szebel? Well, she's two inches taller than me and 40, maybe 50 pounds heavier."

"Thunder me down, Halling! What -- was it okay when she was on top of you?"

Halling laughed. "More than okay."

"What else?"

"She's got red hair, deep and dark red, not carrotty like Qen's. It's almost to her waist, and when it come out of the braid, it's like magma itself."

"Wow" said Yoj softly. Halling added "And her hair is red -- everywhere."

They were both giggling. Yoj said "Does it taste different?"

Halling gave her a shove. Yoj said "Best not to share those kinds of details with Bux for a while, even if she asks you."

"I'll give her all the time she needs. The truth is, though, I'm wild for you both. I wish we could go to bed for the next three days. I don't know what that says about my capacity, but there it is."

"Says your capacity matches mine. I want you too, Hall."

They were now walking back to the house. Halling said teasingly "We could sneak off to emma's studio and bring each other off in a jiffy."

"I want more than a jiffy, and besides which -- " They came back into the house laughing. As Halling passed through the living room, she looked up into the loft. Sure enough, Mill's face was peering down through the railing. Halling blew her a kiss and whispered "I am so glad to be home." Mill's face beamed.

The next morning, they were woken up by Prl and Speranz bursting into the bedroom just past dawn, yelling "It's time to get up! We have to catch the early ferry!" They crawled onto Halling, in the middle, and began chattering about all the adventures they had planned for the next few days.

Veida and Ng had breakfast ready. After a quick meal, Bux and Yoj did last minute packing while Halling starting getting children into travel clothes. Dodd and Mill were dressed first. Halling paused to write a couple of notes and sent them off to deliver them, Mill to Qala at the Lofthall and Dodd to Danaan and Rark's Manage -- invitations to a welcome home dinner on Shmonah.

Qen and Yerush got up in time to see them all off. "Buy us a surprise at Market!" said Ndege.

"No, you bring us back a surprise from your trip!" answered Qen. Halling had to keep shushing the children on the dash to the ferry -- lots of people were still in bed, she told them. They made the last ferry that would run to Bosco for several hours, and once on deck, the children believed their trip was actually occurring, no last minute changes, and gave themselves over to screams of happiness.

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Thank you, Maggie. I love your writing.