Saturday, January 5, 2008


This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
NEW: Map of Chloddia and Exploit Lagoon
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


The rest of Halling's week went like this, her trying to clear out the backlog, construct concrete plans for implementing change, and accepting help wherever she could. Mill kept begging to come to the Lofthall after school, to glory in Halling's new position, and Halling kept putting her off, saying things were too hectic. But finally on Sju, when they woke up to driving rain, Halling told Mill to get dressed and go with her. She looked at the rest of her family and said "I'm going to talk to the pilots after breakfast, you might want to come listen to that."

Everybody except Qen and Ng accompanied Mill and Halling. They joined the pilots gathered in the main hall, a palpable sense of expectation among the blue and yellow uniforms milling there. All of the other Lofthall workers were present as well. Halling walked to the far end, to the table underneath Mayim's map, and sat on the edge of the table, her cap tucked into her gilet. Yoj held Mill back, whispering "Just her. She's the one and only Lofthall Sheng Zhang at the moment." The room fell quiet.

Halling grinned at them and said "I asked Qala to not schedule anything for this first hour today, so we can all be together. I'll begin by saying I think it's time the Lofthall was governed like the other public service areas of Skene, with a Sheng Zhang and a secretary. We need that balance. I've asked someone with legal expertise to draw up a change in our code to give us an official secretary, and that will be voted on next election. I'm certain it will pass; I think the larger community has resented our special status. In the interim, I'm appointing Qala my secretary. If you have issues with something I'm doing and you feel you can't come to me, you can take it to her and she will be ethically bound to consider it as a secretary would. I'm paying for her promotion from my own salary increase as Sheng Zhang, until the law makes it permanent."

There was a stunned silence for a moment, followed by loud cheers and much thumping of Qala's back. Yoj and Bux beamed at each other -- the secretary idea was Bux's contribution. And it was Yerush who was creating the new legal wording. Halling's first act being one of opening her position to public oversight would go a long way toward her re-election.

Halling went on to discuss schedule changes -- that she intended for every pilot to have an agreed-upon day off once a week, regardless of weather; that shifts might be longer to compensate for that plus contract revisions; and that pilots who worked open wasa vs. local commercial would be trained separately and not switched out with each other. This latter drew some rumbling, and she promised to talk it over more, saying "We're not creating two different ranks here. Pay and respect will remain the same. Both kinds of piloting are hazardous and carry heavy responsibility. But the mental and emotional challenges are distinct, and it's time we directed women into what challenge suits them best individually. For the good of Skene."

She went on: "We're going to create means of rescuing any pilot who runs into peril over open wasa. Our training demands will go way up for a while, and I expect you to embrace this enthusiastically. I intend to keep pilots going until they are elderly and retire happily to their own tillages. We'll be taking in fewer trainees, but we'll still get the brightest of Skene knocking on our doors."

"Toward that end: I'm going to institute a policy of loaning lighters to pilots on their days off if they want to fly home and visit their families. I'll do everything I can to encourage you to not only keep in touch with your home Manages, but create new ones of your own. I want you to know the joy of having children and tillages. Let's work that out together."

This drew screams of approval, and several pilots turned around to grin at Halling's family. The children preened a little.

"I myself" said Halling "will be taking off every Shmonah afternoon and evening, unless emergency intervenes. Right before I leave on those days, I will broadcast a weekly Lofthall report on Sigrist radio, announcing our quotas for the week and any other relevant news, so greater Skene has first-hand knowledge of what we're doing for them. I'll begin this weekend."

This was Ng's idea, and a stroke of genius, Yoj thought. In six months, people wouldn't be able to imagine anyone but familiar Halling as the Sheng Zhang.

"We have enormous technology demands ahead of us, not just with the parachutes but also the development of underwater sensors that will tell us where leviathans are in any of the waters around Skene. These once existed here, and I intend for us to rediscover how to build them. We'll need a new training facility for the parachutes. I also intend for us to claim Danaan's Secano, modify it to serve as an emergency haven for pilots who face trouble in the Southern Wasa, and possibly serve as a jumping-off point for the rest of Skene. We have reason to believe there are other islands out there. To reach them, we'll need different craft that can fly longer distances, possibly new energy sources. If you know anyone who's bright and inventive, yearning to expand our scientific base of knowledge, please direct them to the Lofthall. Tell them to ask for me or Qala."

Now the room was electrified. Yalewa cleared her throat and spoke the question almost everyone else was thinking: "Other islands? You mean, more than just the legend?"

"More than just the legend" confirmed Halling. "I'll give you the tangible evidence next week, when it's ready." She pushed herself upright and said "That's enough for now. I'll keep you all informed as things progress. I'm proud to be one of you, a member of the Lofthall sibaste, never more than ever now. Let's start our day and give our best to Skene."

They rushed her, and Yoj let go of Mill's shoulder so she could join them. She was sorry Ng had not been here; she turned over phrases in her mind, memorizing Halling's words so she could repeat it verbatim for Ng.

On the way home, Bux peeled off and stopped at the small shop that made uniforms for the Lofthall. She had arranged for them to make a new dress uniform for Halling, using glittery maroon thread for the visible seams instead of mustard or brown, silver laces for the gilet and an embroidered Sheng Zhang flower symbol on the cap. They intended to give it to Halling after dinner.

At dinner, Halling said "I met with Api today". Yerush looked up with interest. "The Ethicist?" she said.

"Yep. I had a proposal for her. I offered the labor of sinners to fill in Exploit Lagoon for free."

Now all the older women were staring at Halling. "Whyever would you do that, it means considerable income for the Lofthall, doesn't?" said Ng.

Bux and Yoj were smiling. Halling said "I bartered it for two things: Enough land in the reclaimed territory to set up a parachute training base, right in the middle so lighters will be out of reach of levs at the shoreline deeps, and training for two of my pilots in laser use during the land leveling that will go on after we dump in fill."

Veida whistled, which Speranz and Ndege immediately began trying to imitate. Over their spitty efforts, Veida said "That must have rocked her back in her seat. What did she say -- especially about the second one?"

"Well, she of course got very serious" said Halling, between bites of salad. "I told her the training was necessary if we are to convert the new remote island, or islands, into rescue zones for pilots. We'll have to shape them, and it doesn't make sense to risk hauling out a laser operator for that purpose. I promised we'd use only the lasers from Yanja industry, renting them with the proper paperwork and returning them when we're done. That helped allay her fears that we intended to arm the Lofthall."

Yoj grinned widely. "Did she really buy it?"

"Yeah, because I made it clear it was no skin off my nose if she'd prefer volunteering someone from Yanja to be hauled out over morrie strati out of radio contact to do the work for us. I was very casual about it, and I could see in her eyes that she didn't want to be the one to ask Yanja for that favor. My solution looked less threatening." Halling was laughing now, as were all the older women.

"I don't get the joke" said Mill.

Bux explained "Emma was playing off people's fear of Yanja against people's fear of the Lofthall becoming militaristic."

"People are afraid of Yanja?" asked Prl incredulously.

"Silly, isn't it?" said Yoj. "That's why is so important to know your fears and conquer them if they don't make sense. Otherwise they govern you without you quite understanding it."

She wasn't sure Prl completely grasped this idea, but she could tell the three older children did.

Halling continued, "The trickier negotiation was over the land. Exploit and Chloddia are both desperate for residential area. The miners' dorms are full, and none of those folks can start families. At least half the population of Abfall plus all the nearby Flings are already employed in the mine industry, so they are counting on that new expanse to set up tillages and Manages."

Qen snorted. "I can't believe anyone bothers to till on those islands, the air and water is foul, and all the produce has an aftertaste."

Yerush grinned. "We went there one weekend after the kids were grown, just to see what the place was like because neither of us had ever been. Qen complained constantly about the food."

"And their eggs are tiny" Qen went on indignantly. "The lettuce had a sulphurous film on it. No wonder all the children from Chloddia and Exploit are smaller than average."

Yerush patted her hand, but she was focused on Halling. "So, how did it go?"

"I was very sympathetic to the needs of the local inhabitants, and indicated I knew it should be their decision to make. But I pointed out that training to save the lives of pilots would directly affect their children's future -- "

"Not really" interrupted Veida, "Every child born on those two islands seems to stay there, mining is the end-all be-all, they think."

"Qala" pointed out Yoj.

"And Cholt, who's in my grade right now" said Qen. "She's got Lofthall fever bad."

"Amba's oldest?" said Yoj softly. She turned to Halling and said "Next time you come to join me for singing on Ot, why don't you talk with her directly?"

Halling nodded, ignoring Bux's sudden stiffness. She said "I also suggested they could use a public park of their own, a clean green place for their children to play, for community gatherings, and for kickball."

Ng began laughing. "Ahh. You played the kickball card."

The inhabitants of Chloddia and Exploit were ferocious players of kickball, with games every weekend, currently held on makeshift courts between mine entrances in the paved central areas of the islands. Despite padding, the injuries from playing on concrete were constant.

"I said we'd need our training area to be grassy, for softer landings, and the dimensions of it would be perfect for a couple of kickball fields" explained Halling. "We'd be building a tower, which could be used for game observation and reporting over Sigrist radio. We could arrange to be off the field every day by 5 p.m. and never there on the weekends. And behind the tower could be an area for playground equipment and picnic tables, away from the jump site. Her face lit up. I'm willing to bet they'll go for it, especially since the cost of construction will come from our budget." Halling looked smug.

"Well, speaking of budget, how will you play for all this?" asked Yerush.

"By contracting out the commercial pilots" answered Halling. "The schedule is being revised, anyhow, because it was archaic. If they all work longer hours, with different kinds of breaks, we can generate almost enough additional hauling income in a year to pay for it. Amortized over two years, we can easily cover it."

"That means you'll go into the next election with a budget deficit, though" said Yerush.

"Yes, but I'm counting on the negative aspect of that being offset by all the goodwill of industry and commerce, plus the flashy visuals of parachuting. We're commissioning scarlet and royal blue silk for the chutes, and every time a pilot completes training, she'll get a vivid patch for her cap. I'll play it up in my radio reports as an investment in human capital" said Halling.

"Can I get one of those patches?" said Mill breathlessly.

Halling grinned and said "See?"

"Oughta work" said Veida.

The following evening, as they were making dinner, Qen said with merriment in her voice, "One of the other leraars asked me today in a whisper if it was true that Igoz had been a brandynose."

Yoj said "Ah, then the gossip circuit is working."

"What did you tell her?" asked Halling.

"I said it would be unethical for me, with my insider's knowledge, to confirm such a thing" answered Qen, waggling her eyebrows. They all began laughing. Yoj said "She'll be quoting you up and down Riesig. Oh, deftly done, emma!"

Yerush, shredding red cabbage, said a touch acerbically "This may be neither here nor there, but all three of the definite drunkards I've ever known, including Igoz, were Y's."

The room seemed to go into suspended animation except for Yerush's chopping. After two seconds, her hands stopped moving, too, although her gaze remained fixed on the cutting board. Yoj looked around to make make sure none of the children, especially Dodd, had come in the front door. Then she glanced at Ng, but Ng's eyes were on Qen, and Qen was looking at Veida in disbelief. Yoj began to think she was missing something aside from the subtle slam at Y's.

When she looked at Bux and saw the horror on her face as she stared at Yerush, she suddenly realized: How would Yerush know Igoz was a Y? She slid her eyes sideways and saw a matching distaste on Halling's face.

The spell was broken when Ng said something under her breath at the table, sending Qen into choking laughter. Even Veida began giggling. Yerush, ramrod stiff, said "I'll see to the chickens" and walked out the back door.

Bux went to finish Yerush's cabbage preparation, kissing the top of Qen's head on her way. Ndege clattered in the front door, complaining that a child two manages up had thrown a rock at her. Halling set down the carrots she was peeling and went out front with Ndege to referee.

Yoj turned off her skillet of dogefish in leek cream sauce and said "This is ready. So is the rice." She wiped her hands and headed for the back door. A memory popped into her mind of morrie strati, one of the few times she had flown over its perimeter with Halling, the turbid crimson sea there dampening any waves which approached it. She thought suddenly that whether those environments were produced by the involuntary ooze of leviathans in groups or they were beckoned by such water because it felt safe to them would be irrelevant to the levs: They did what they did and sought comfort as any creature would.

In the chicken run, Yerush was judiciously trying to distribute the feed so the smaller, lower-status hens and bullied capons had an equal chance at what the dominant hens believed was theirs by rights. Yoj did the same thing when she fed them. She took a handful of feed from Yerush's can and helped out. Every now and then, over the bickering chickens, she could hear gusts of laughter coming from the kitchen. The sky was overcast and a wind was picking up. She saw Dodd at the back door, looking for her, and called out "Your night to feed the katts, I think."

"Yes, emma" she answered, fading back into the kitchen.

Yerush remarked "When I was a child, if I misspoke, as aggie put it, which meant anything from using incorrect grammar to swearing to telling a fib, a cloth rag was tied around my mouth for an hour. To teach me the value of using my words wisely, she said."

Yoj looked at Yerush. Her lips were pressed tightly together in that way she and other students had once mocked, and suddenly it had an explanation.

Yoj said "I don't know why I didn't sleep with Culisa. It wasn't good sense on my part, I can say that for certain, because I didn't show good sense at other times. I mostly put it down to dumb luck. If I had, I doubt Bux could ever have gotten past it."

Yerush met her eyes, then, a bruising in her blue. "Bux is like Qen, she loves whom she loves and reason comes after. Not that you weren't exactly right for her -- that's one thing I can be proud of, raising a child who had enough sense to choose you as a partner."

With all the seed consumed but chicken tempers still flared, Yoj began gently herding them into their house, Yerush flanking her. It was always easier with two people. As Yerush slid the bolt into place on the chickenhouse hatch, she said "When you were at the U and came to my office to talk with me, I always knew it was you at my door, even before you knocked. You have this way of clearing your throat right before you do something that frightens you. I'd feel my heart leap every time, knowing I was about to hear the most interesting question of the day."

Yoj slid her arm through Yerush's and said "Let's go back into the warmth, sit at that table of family you've created." Yerush squeezed her arm as they walked along the path.

Halling's weekly radio reports immediately become popular. Bux told them her Sheng Zhang was thinking about asking for air time as well. Halling took to wearing her dress uniform as often as she could, and she was increasingly recognized on the street, with people calling out greetings to "Nan Sheng Zhang". She had not mentioned the proof of other islands to anyone except the pilots.

However, word was leaking out. The day she flew a sinner to Verzin to pick up the copies, taking two pilots with her to help carry them, people watched them with avid curiosity as they walked back to the jichang, one woman calling out "Are those new maps?"

"Yes. Drop by the Lofthall if you want to see them" answered Halling.

A dozen or so folks were hanging around the Lofthall when they returned. Yoj and Bux were there as well, to help hang the maps. Bux took charge of the layout -- the area they would cover was more than the area of far long wall of the main hall, under the clerestories, so she began the hanging on the front wall as one entered the hall. They used small steel brackets designed to be driven into yanja walls. It took them all afternoon, and by the time they were done, every pilot was in the main hall, walking from spot to spot, carrying chairs in from the canteen so they could stand on them and look at the high maps. The crowd of Riesigers had grown to at least 50. Qen brought the children following school, and after their shift, Rark and Danaan walked to the Manage and returned with Ng on a carry chair.

At 5:00, the newly elected Ethicist, Api, arrived. She went directly to Halling, and Halling gave her a tour that everyone in the room tried to overhear. Halling reeled off directions and distances, showing the hopscotch progress of secanos across wasa expanses. Api chewed her lower lip and said "You're certain about the accuracy of these?"

"Well, I didn't make these maps, so I can't vouch for them all, no. But Sector 53 has been proven correct, so there's no logical reason to doubt the rest" said Halling.

"And these were locked away here, in the vault?"

"Gathering dust" said Halling neutrally.

"I've looked through the Ethicist records, and there's no mention anywhere of these maps. Does the Archivist know their origin or meaning?" said Api.

"You'll have to ask her" answered Halling. "We intend to give her the originals for safekeeping."

"What are your intentions for these? The information on them, I mean?" asked Api.

"I have no intentions beyond the sharing I just did. It's up to Skene to come up with a plan" said Halling, a slight grin on her face.

Api grinned back, more widely. "But if exploration turned out to be a public wish, you'd be glad to lend the Lofthall's efforts, maybe?"

"I can't imagine otherwise" said Halling. She heard Yerush snort behind her, and turned to see her standing with Veida. Api saw Yerush as well, and said "The questions this raises seem limitless."

"It will have to be addressed in an incremental fashion" said Yerush. "Unfortunately, they do have to be addressed. Skene can't just wait this one out." When Api looked at her quizzically, Yerush said in a voice low enough for only them to hear "The possibility exists that this leads to the mythical other island chain in another hemisphere."

Halling reached an arm out to steady Api because she thought the Ethicist might fall over. "Oh, lev" said Api.

"Which is why I consider it bordering on criminal that these were kept from public knowledge" added Yerush. Halling thought, not for the first time, that it would be a good idea to never make Yerush into an enemy. Igoz was toast, now.

Api said "I'd like to pull together a few folks to discuss this quietly. Would both of you be willing to be in that group?" She pointed to Yerush and Halling.

"I'd be honored" said Yerush. Halling nodded, adding "I'll want to either include Qala or be able to report to her."

"All right" said Api. "I'll send you word when it's arranged. Until then, please don't -- share your speculation with the public."

"I won't" said Yerush, "But others will reach that conclusion on their own."

Api rubbed her cheek with her palm, and Halling said "Let's go to the canteen and get a cup of tea before you go."

"No, I need to get home for dinner" said Api. "I won't be able to see my children the rest of the evening, I at least want to eat with them." She shook their hands and left.

Halling asked Yerush "Who else will she ask, do you think?"

"The Archivist. Asha, maybe all three Sigrists. The Sheng Zhangs. A few past Ethicists. Raisa" listed Yerush. Veida had moved in closer to hear this, and said "What about the head of the hospital? Or Qen as head teacher?"

"Depends on if Api's intelligent enough to understand that involving the public in planning for exploration is the best way to reassure everyone" answered Yerush.

"One of Igoz's sibs is a Sheng Zhang" said Halling. "She's going to oppose any kind of action."

"She'll be outnumbered" said Yerush. "In fact, once the implications of this gets out, commerce is going to be furious with her and she's likely to lose her next election if someone presentable runs against her."

Qen, Ng and the children arrived beside them. "We're all hungry and need to get dinner started" said Ng.

"Let's eat here" suggested Halling. "I'll go warn the canteen they'll have a dozen extra." The children began cheering, and Halling added "But straight home afterward and homework as soon as we get there."

All of Halling's requests for land use on Exploit Lagoon and laser training went through in rapid order, facilitated by Api. Halling wondered if Api suddenly felt a secret need for pilots who were somewhat familiar with a possible weapon. Two sinners a day were diverted to endless dumping of yanja debris and non-toxic mine tailings into the lagoon, starting at the non-ferry end. It would take months to complete the fill-in, but long before that, Halling intended to send Rark and Danaan out onto the first rim of fill and begin levelling it. She had already talked with Iro about taking apart a laser and drawing a schematic of how it was constructed. They were going over specifications in her office once a week.

Halling had her Shmonah afternoons off, which they used for family outings whenever weather allowed, but she increasingly had to schedule meetings during dinner or after dinner. She still went in to the Lofthall at dawn, to eat with the pilots and send them off each day, and made up her rest with a nap in her office most afternoons. The Manage was busy preparing for spring planting, so Bux took over Halling's share of that work and Yoj spent ever more time with the children.

In the warm drenches of Yaomur one night, Halling said "Let's all go to Yanja this weekend. Stay at the hostel, see the sights. I have a meeting there on Sju afternoon, so we could fly there on Roku after market and stay until Shmonah evening. I'll take off work."

Bux looked at her suspiciously. "A meeting with who?"

"A laser specialist" said Halling glibly. Bux suddenly remembered what this was about -- Halling had told them. Still, she asked "Will you be staying at the hostel with us?"

"That's up to you" said Halling, meeting her gaze, then looking at Yoj.

As if reading minds, Prl asked "Will we get to see Wiaki?"

"Yes" said Halling. "I'll see if she'll give you all a yanjanger tour. And we could have dinner with your emma and sibu" she added to Yoj.

Yoj nodded to Bux, and Bux, with a sigh, said "I'll make the hostel reservations."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Maggie, every time I turn around, you've posted another chapter (or two)!!

Thanks! Jan

letsdance said...

Oops, I meant to ask if you ever sleep??!! Jan