Friday, January 4, 2008


(Glow on the flow)

(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:
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig
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


Half an hour later, with Igoz vanished and people clearing out but a thick crowd of well-wishers pinning Halling to the front of the room, Yoj and Bux made their way to the yanjangers to introduce themselves. Szebel gave them each a huge hug and whispered to Yoj "I recognized you, of course, but I'm being discreet. She showed me photos of you two every chance she got."

Bux's face lit up. She asked "Which one of you is Amya? Halling talked about her a lot."

"She has trouble with the long walks across islands on the commute" said Szebel. "So she's home, but she helped get all this together for Halling.

Prl, pressed tight against Yoj, said "Are you a real giant?" Wiaki answered "I guess I am. Would you like to try on one of our giant bracelets? It's made of blood from the planet's core." Prl nodded breathlessly and Szebel slipped off the shiny black wrist cuff carved with math symbols, then balanced it on Prl's small wrist. Prl had to use her other hand to keep it on. She was clearly dazzled, and said "From where did you get it?"

Wiaki, standing beside Szebel, said "I gave it to her. I'm the one who tamed the lava and shaped it into a piece of jewelry." Prl eyed her, and Wiaki added "I'm a giant too. We live together in a house full of giants that your emma came to visit last year." Prl was mute in admiration.

Qala approached and said to Wiaki "You can't possibly take the ferries back after the tasting, and the hostel is full -- let us find bunks for you at the Lofthall, all of you. And our breakfasts are stupendous." Prl asked Bux in a stage whisper "What do giants eat?"

Szebel answered solemnly "Huge octopus eggs seasoned with lightning. And for toast, we uproot a tree and slice off boards. Yummy." Prl said "You'd need a lot of jam on that, I bet." Everybody laughed, and Wiaki said "We make jam just by squeezing fruit in our giant hands."

Szebel said to Qala "We happily accept your offer." Halling finally reached them then, and she shook Szebel's hand sedately, conscious of watching eyes. Bux leaned up to whisper in Halling's ear, and Halling looked at her keenly, saying "Are you sure?" Bux nodded, and whispered to Yoj "I told her she and Szebel should go sleep tonight in your cubicle." At Halling's questioning face, Yoj also nodded with a generous grin.

It was time to go to the canteen for the annual tasting. Pilots clustered to carry Ng, and Qala led the way toward the rear door which would spare them the long, choked hallway. As they walked, Yerush carrying Speranz next to Yoj carrying Prl, Yerush said to them quietly "There are so many things that worked right for Halling today, but I would guess that the best help she had were from you two children. You may have won the election for her."

Speranz said "Do we get dessert, then?" and Prl gave her usual "I know."

At the tasting, the extended family of the Manage -- including Moasi and Ktiva's three children as well as all the sibs, Qala, Rark, Danaan, Iro and Ektr -- took up an entire row of tables. The Yanja contingent had the table next to them, and there was enough interchange between the two that by the end, all of the children except Mill were in the lap of or leaning against a yanjanger, chatting away. Mill stuck very close to Halling, and every time she looked at Szebel, her face grew suspicious. The highlight of this year's tasting was a white variety of corn, presented on the cob, as hominy with pork, and in corn muffins.

"I want this bread!" Dodd announced. "Can we get this flour?"

Yoj sighed and said "Skene just doesn't have the acreage to grow corn in bulk. We might be able to squeeze a few plants into the tillage, but it will only give us cobs, not enough for muffins."

Dodd looked hopefully at Qen, who shared her love of corn. "We'll see" she said.

After the tasting, Qala begged them all to come with her to the training room adjacent to the jichang. "We get a sandwich spread from the canteen instead of dinner, and there's enough to share."

"Will Igoz be there?" asked Yerush pointedly.

"She's never come before, and this year in particular, she'll be off politicking" said Qala.

Halling said "I need to do some politicking of my own, and I think it would be better if I didn't linger here. Not until after the Vote. I'll catch up with you tomorrow." She kissed her family goodbye and headed out the back door.

Everyone else, the Manage, a big group of pilots, and the Yanja folks, walked over to the training building. Ng was given the sole settee, and Qen settled in snugly beside her. In all the rearranging of chairs, no one not in the know noticed Szebel slip out the door, or if they did, they assumed she was going to the privy. Except for Mill, who did see her leave and smelled a shu.

Prl still had Szebel's black bracelet. To keep from losing it, Veida had tied it into the laces of Prl's gilet, where it caught the eye as a singular adornment. Prl seemed bent on making Wiaki her pet giant, claiming her lap and, as she chatted away, frequently lifting her small hand to delicately finger Wiaki's yellow curls.

Yerush had zeroed in on the member of the Yanga contingent who was linked by birth to Exploit and who had brought the Confederated Miner's testimonial to Szebel. She was clearly a power-broker of some sort, and Yerush wanted to plumb those depths. The yanjangers were grilling the pilots about flying, and the pilots were equally interested in the mechanics of Yanja crafts.

Wiaki was on the edge of several conversations. Finally, she raised her voice and said "How about if we give you a visual demonstration of how yanjanging works?" Receiving a clamor of 'Yeses", she and her friends stood, lining up chairs to create a long clear space between their straight backs, as they conferred in terms that sounded like a foreign language. At either end of the imaginary chute, but separated from it, Wiaki placed chairs crosswise.

"All right" she said. "This first time, we'll act it out for you. I am the touzi of my gang, the boss, and I'll play that role. We have a mending, who controls the inflow level -- " she pointed to the head of the chute, and a woman stepped into place there. "We have checkers, who make sure the sluice is conformed correctly and without a gap. We have fansha, who shape the magma in the sluice. And, once it's poured, we have the zayaste, who controls the flow of the coolant in the sidewalls. A tiny mistake anywhere along the way will mean, at best, a terrible burn, at worst an explosion that kills everyone in the chamber."

The children were transfixed, staring at the row of chairbacks as if it really was a sluice.

Wiaki continued, "Now, here's something you might not know. Magma is noisy. It talks as it moves. We can tell what it's feeling by what it says to us. When it's just flowing the way it likes to go, it sounds like this." She made a sound with her mouth that was utterly inhuman, a kind of crackling urgency that Yoj found fascinating. "But when you start messing with it, it fights back. And you can hear the argument, as it hits the sluice and wants to climb out." She made a new sound, higher-pitched and definitely angry. "Then, when we dare to try quenching the molten blood of the planet, when we presume to tame it, its fury comes out in a scream." And it was a scream that emerged from her throat. Speranz backed up into Veida's legs and stuck there.

"But it's not just the magma talking. It's also the poor abused metal and quartz of the sluice, being attacked by this hottest of all heat. It screams, too, when the magma hits it, but in a different way." She imitated that sound, and it was indeed metallic.

"So, there's a lot of racket going on, with waves of heat and clouds of steam, and we have to communicate with each other through it all. That's why yanjangers are so loud, and make great orators. We need some of you to be the magma voice, who can do that?"

Yoj instantly raised her hand, followed swiftly by Dodd and Ndege. Bux and Moasi joined them. Ng, Qen, Lawa and Veida volunteered to be the sluice voice.

"All right, then, here goes" said Wiaki. The other yanjangers, six of them besides her, took up positions along the sluice, one at either end. Suddenly their faces were deadly serious, and they seemed to be standing on the tips of their toes, despite their bulk.

Wiaki called out "In position?"

"Yes, Touzi!" came a bellowing reply. Wiaki pointed to Yoj's group, who began the crackling flow of magma. She said to the woman at the head of the chute, "Mending, let it go!"

As the mending pulled slowly back on an imaginary level, she called out "Glow on the flow!" This cry was taken up by all the other yanjangers, with a mixture of fear and exultation that sent Speranz up into Yerush's arms. They repeated it, new yells meeting an echo of the old, their eyes on the magma filling the sluice. From the looks on her children's faces, Yoj could tell they actually saw it, too. As it reached the top, the mending pushed with all her might on the lever and stopped the glow.

The yanjangers danced about on their feet, holding invisible paddles in either hand that they used to smooth the lava at the top of the sluice, ducking flecks and spits of magma reacting to confinement. Yoj's bunch created the furious protest sound as best they could remember it. At the same time, Qen and Ng were crying out the metal's response. Yoj saw Prl's lips moving, with a joyous grin on her face. Yoj wondered which she was doing, the magna or the metal, but it was too cacophonous around them to tell.

After a couple of minutes, Wiaki stepped over to take a look and said "Ready for coolant?"

"Yes, Touzi!" came the answering shout. Wiaki looked at the woman at the end of the chute and said "Zayaste, what's your reading?"

The zayaste looking at a gauge and called back "100%", Touzi!"

"Release!" said Wiaki. She began flailing her hands in the air as if they were billows of steam, and Yoj's group switched to the scream of angry magma. Ng and Qen's wails went so high that their voices broke and they began laughing. Yoj directed her chorus into a slow diminishment until, with a final sizzle, the magma was tamed.

The yanjangers broke into riotous congratulation, and the children were the most excited of them all. Wiaki, coming to stand near Yoj, said "This is when we strip down and go take a plunge in the seapool, because we're drenched in sweat. Then we have a snack, stoke back up, and go again. While we're doing that, the checkers and loaders will let down the sides of the sluice and haul away whatever piece we've just formed. Then the checkers'll read the specs for the next piece and start setting it up."

"What's in the coolant -- surely not just plain water, or else the metal would burst" said Yoj. "For that matter, what kind of metal can take this abuse?"

"Trade secret" grinned Wiaki. She stepped back to the center of the room and said loudly, "Okay, this time, the children get to be the yanjangers. Who wants to be the mending?"

"Me!" yelled Prl, running toward Wiaki.

"That's my yanjanger!" crowed Wiaki. She set Prl standing on the chair and the former mending rested her elbow on the chair-back. Wiaki put Prl's hands around the wrist of this woman and said "You pull down on the lever, here, when I give you the order. But slow, mind you, or else we'll all burn to death."

Prl's eyes were huge. She clasped the woman's wrist tightly.

Wiaki looked around and spotted Speranz. "How'd you like to be the zayaste, and tame our magma for us?"

Speranz nodded and let Wiaki set her on the chair at the other end. The former zayaste obligingly cocked her elbow as well into a lever, and Speranz grabbed it confidently.

Wiaki turned to the rest of the children. "You six are all fansha. And here's what you must remember: Never let the magna touch you. If it touches you, you're marked for life." She pushed up her sleeves, showing a vivid network of bulging white scars. Dodd looked a little sick.

"Now, you'd be kitted out in serious protective gear. We wear helmets that come down to our collarbones, with a visor for viewing. Here -- " she reached toward Rark's cap and scarf, which Rark handed over to her. Wiaki put the cap tight on Dodd's head, then wrapped the scarf loosely around the lower half of her face until only her eyes were showing. Yoj thought she could see relief in those eyes -- Dodd now had on protection.

Other pilots put "helmets" on the rest of the children as Wiaki explained "Every other inch of us is covered with extremely thick, specially treated leather, that's so stiff it's a lot like wearing metal. Except our hands -- the gloves on our hands and wrists have to be flexible enough to allow us to move them freely. Which means it's easier to get burned there." Wiaki showed her arms again. "So -- " she looked sternly at the children. "What must you remember?"

"Never let the magma touch us!" they answered in voices muffled by the scarves.

"One last thing" said Wiaki. "We need the magma this time. Who wants to be magma?"

Danaan and Rark immediately volunteered, followed by Bux and Qala. Wiaki gave them whispered instructions, and they lined up, hips and shoulders touching but every other woman facing a different direction, behind the chair/gate controlled by Prl. They writhed and made magma sounds, and Yoj thought Prl would have abandoned her post except for her determination to live up to Wiaki's faith in her.

Suddenly all the children were as serious as the yanjangers had been before them. Wiaki let the magma crackle be all that broke the silence for half a minute, then called out "In position?"

"Yes, Touzi!" shouted the children. Wiaki looked at Prl, who gulped visibly, then said "Mending, let it go!"

Prl had a hard time moving the lever -- the woman's arm was stiff and uncooperative. But she put all her weight on it, a sweat already on her face, and slowly the gate opened. The stream of magma surged into the sluice, loud and terrifyingly alive. The six fansha used paddle hands to poke at it, but the magma poked back, eight deft hands trying to land on the darting fansha. They were all shouting "Glow on the flow, glow on the flow" in frenzied tones through their scarves. It was Bux who finally managed to land a finger on Ndege's arm, and Ndege shrieked in frustration and imagined pain.

"Keep going" bellowed Wiaki, "We'll treat the burn later!"

Ndege's eyes showed rage but she stuck to her post. Finally the magma sound became lower than the metal cries, and Wiaki came to inspect the sluice. She asked the fansha "Ready for coolant?" and their returning "Yes, Touzi!" was triumphant.

Wiaki turned to Speranz, who had gone very pale. "Zayaste, what's your reading?"

Speranz's face was blank. She couldn't remember what to say. The woman beside her whispered something, and Speranz cried out "99.5%, Touzi!"

Wiaki face went grave. "Ah, there's impurities in the coolant. If we use it as is, we'll go up like a pinwheel." She flung her arms out as she made an immense explosion sound, and everybody flinched. "Zayaste, good catch. Please jettison that tank of coolant and redeploy."

The former zayaster whispered to Speranz as she mimed a series of solemn motions. Finally Speranz said, "Ready with coolant again, Touzi."

"And what's your reading?"

"100%, Touzi!"

"Release!" shouted Wiaki, and the metal screams mixed with magma rage tore up to the rafters. The fansha backed up a step involuntarily. Slowly the magma was reduced to silence. When Wiaki let out a whoop, the children ripped off their helmets and went berserk.

They of course had to go through it two more times, each child switching out positions. The last time, Wiaki held Prl and talked her through being Touzi. When the adults said they were too tired to do it again, the children invented a version of tag involving glow on the flow and fansha. Everyone else drank tea and talked until almost midnight, when exhausted children were carried to hostel and Manage.

At home, Mill ran to the bedroom door and wheeled, demanding "Where's emma?"

"She's going to be out all night" said Yoj. "She'll be here in the morning, no doubt bringing us the results of the Vote."

"Is she alone?" said Mill.

"No, she's not" said Bux. "Now brush your teeth and go to bed, we're all knackered."

When Halling arrived early the next morning with Szebel beside her, Mill's suspicions were verified. Halling was shouting, however, waving a slate from the kiosk and screaming "Landslide! It's a levvin' landslide!"

Everyone clustered around her chanting "Sheng Zhang! Sheng Zhang!" Halling picked up Bux and kissed her passionately, then tried to do the same with Yoj but managed only the kiss with her. They dressed quickly and were about to go out the door when all the sibs arrived from the hostel. They marched in a jubilant throng to the Lofthall, where pilot cheers threatened to wake all of Riesig. The canteen had prepared a celebratory breakfast.

Before they went in to eat, however, Halling led them to the main hall, carrying a long metal tube. Yoj helped her extract Mayim's map and pin it up on the wall. The pilots pushed forward to read it, and a deep silence came over the room. Fingers pointed to names and locations, but no one spoke. Halling waited until they turned to face her again, more than one face wet with tears.

"My number one goal this year: No new names on that map" she said simply.

Breakfast was the best ever held in the canteen. There was no sign of Igoz, although Halling had a lovely honorary speech she meant to make to Igoz should she show. Bux pushed Szebel to sit beside Halling, and she herself took a chair between Wiaki and Yoj. Many times, people rose to say a few words about Halling, including Mill who said "I hope you're Sheng Zhang until you retire from the Lofhall -- and by that time, I'll be ready to be the Sheng Zhang!" Which roused a cheer that Mill found most gratifying.

After breakfast, the Yanja crew said they really needed to get home. Halling offered them a passenger sinner, which they accepted, but Qala intervened when Halling said she'd fly them. "We need your attention elsewhere, Sheng Zhang" said Qala quietly.

"Huh" said Halling.

"I'll take them" said Danaan. Halling did manage a private goodbye kiss with Szebel in the dispatch office. Wiaki hugged each of the children happily, and gravely accepted the return of Szebel's bracelet from Prl. She whispered "I'll send you one that will fit you especially", and Prl said "I know." With Ndege, Wiaki said "Your burn mark may be imaginary, but not your courage -- you did your duty like a true yanjanger."

When she got to Bux, Wiaki said "If you ever decide to come to Yanja yourself, on a -- 'vacation', I sincerely hope you'll call on me first." Bux roared, not just at the offer but also at the expression on Halling's face.

The rest of the family returned to the Manage for visiting and play. Halling remained at the Lofthall, sitting with Qala at her desk for now to make plans, until Igoz came in and formally handed over her tenure. The other big news of the Vote was that, at long last, Exploit Lagoon was okayed to be filled in. Halling had ideas related to that as well. On the walk back to the Manage, Speranz told Yerush "I'm going to be a yanjanger when I grow up."

"Really? Well, then, you'll have to live on Yanja, not our Manage" pointed out Yerush. Speranz looked stymied for a moment -- she intended to inherit that Manage, she was clear. Then she said "No, I'll have emma fly me back and forth to work every day. That way I can live here, still."

The adults all laughed. "It's an idea" said Yoj. Speranz took that to mean it was settled.

On Halling's second day as Sheng Zhang, she met with Lmape first thing, promoting her to head of the sinning crew and asking her recommendation for replacement wrangler and a fourth sinner. When she announced these changes to the pilots, she watched them sharply for their reaction and found only universal approval. Lmape had her finger on their pulse, then. Even Yalewa looked all right with it.

Once everyone was in the air, Halling took the ring of keys Igoz had left her and went into her large office. She stripped the bed of its linens and dragged the mattress to her former bunk in the dorm area, swapping it out. She carried the linens to the laundry and exchanged them for new sheets, blanket and pillow.

Then she sat down at Igoz's desk and methodically went through every drawer, creating prioritized piles to be examined. Budget and contracts were on top. Schedule was next. There was a tray full of unopened correspondence which she took into the dispatch room and asked Qala to sort through when she had spare time.

When Halling opened Igoz's personal effects cupboard, she found a grey-looking toothbrush and a half-dozen bottles of brandy and wine. She took the liquor to the canteen and told them to do whatever they wanted with them. The canteen manager who accepted them from her raised her eyebrows at the stash, but made no comment. Still, Halling was certain the rumors about Igoz would begin that night.

On her way back through the dispatch room, she said to Qala "If you have a stopping point..."

Qala said "I can turn it up high, so I can hear anything coming in from the next room." She did so and followed Halling. Halling pulled out the key for the closet off Igoz's office and opened the door.

It was enormous, really another room, lined with shelves and stacked with heaps on the floor. Dust was everywhere, and there was a faint pong of shu. Qala wrinkled her nose in distaste.

Most of the piles were old equipment, the unclaimed effects of dead pilots, or metal crates of old papers. More boxes of papers filled one shelf. Another shelf was crammed with log books and bound records in no discernible order. But the far wall of shelves is what claimed Halling's attention: It held countless metal tubes, all of them grimy with dust. She strode to it, pulled out the top tube, and carried it back into the dispatch office.

Wiping down the tube and then washing her hands first, she gingerly unrolled the thick curl of real paper from inside the tube. On its back, in pencil, was a series of words in the language Halling could not read except for one familiar term that she knew meant Sector and the numbers 21. She felt a rush of heat through her body.

Carefully returning the map to its tube, she went back into the storage room and counted the tubes. Including the one she'd already looked, there were 77 of them. Maybe 78, if the one she had already was not duplicated here.

Qala was back at the radio. Halling sat on the edge of Qala's desk, trying to calm her mind. When Qala pulled off her earphones briefly, Halling said "There's 77 of them. I'm going to need a lighter late this afternoon, following the sinning shifts."

"Got it" said Qala, pulling the headphones back to answer a pilot.

At that point, Yoj and Veida walked in. Halling stood to greet them, saying "I surely hope you are here to help."

"We are" said Veida. "Until the kids get home from school" added Yoj. Halling led them to the storage room and said "I need each of those tubes cleaned and its contents catalogued. You can use the table in the dispatch room. I think they're likely all maps, looks like sector maps. Any translation of the labels you can offer, Yoj, would be wonderful, but we don't have time today to examine them more than that."

"Emma of us all" swore Veida, and began counting. Halling said "77."

Yoj's eyes were big and her nostrils flared. Halling said "Yeah, I smell it, too." Yoj turned abruptly and went out to the tillage, gathering three katts into her arms and carrying them back to the storage room, where they immediately began prowling into corners. Veida said "I'll carry the tubes to you and you can clean them, all right?" Yoj gladly accepted this division of labor.

Halling went outside, where a group of trainees were raking the tarmac and turning the fallow beds in the tillage. She recruited three of them to carry old equipment to the jigong for recycling, to sort through the pilots' belongings and put them in individually labeled boxes where possible, to find and repair the break in the air ventilation screen where shu had been able to get in, and, the one with best handwriting, to make a list of every bound volume on the shelves. She warned them about the possibility of shu as they pulled off their guibbas and set to work, cheerful with curiosity.

Halling returned to Igoz's desk -- No, my desk, she corrected herself -- and opened the budget book.

By the time they all broke for lunch, eating from trays carried into the dispatch room to keep Qala company, eleven shu had been found and killed, leaving Qala blanched with fury. "These are my living quarters" she said, "I can't believe they were allowed free rein just a door away."

All of the tubes had been cleaned and stacked neatly against the wall, and Yoj had read a third of the labels aloud to Veida, who typed a neat columned list as they went. The equipment had all been cleared -- Iro popped in to say a great deal of it could be salvaged for parts, why on earth had it been put in storage? The pilots' effects were separated into those could be identified and returned to families or were anonymous and would be given to charity. Except for the three old guibbas: Halling decreed they should be taken to the school and presented to Qen for use in theatrical productions. She was mystified about how a guibba could have been separated from its pilot.

Halling had eventually found herself stymied by some of the entries and bookkeeping in the budget records, and finally decided to take it home, to get help from Bux and Yerush. She answered the mail Qala had deemed most pressing, and was ready to start revising the Lofthall schedule next.

Yoj was feeding morsels of her broiled fish to the katts at her feet. "They won't hunt if they're full" remarked one of the pilots.

Yoj looked at her indignantly. "Of course they will, that's just superstitious rubbish. They hunt better when they're well-nourished. They like to kill, that's more important to them than the meat."

Veida nodded, saying "They've not eaten most of the shu they've caught in there, haven't you noticed?"

"Unlike levs" said Halling, sending them all into horrified laughter.

After lunch, two of the three pilots began collaborating on the record-book catalogue, while the third began dusting and washing every surface of the storage room. The katts wandered off. When pilots began returning from sinning, Halling joined them at their meal and listened to their stories of how the day had gone. She quietly told Lmape, Danaan and Rark about the maps they'd found, and the bottles of alcohol, feeling her own anger surge briefly as she saw it on their faces. Rark and Danaan offered to stick around and help, but Halling sent them home to bed, saying she'd rather talk to them after dinner for a bit.

Yoj and Veida finished their list and went over it with Halling. Number 53 wasn't on it, which meant their map was also an original and the total was 78.

"Do you think this was done by the original survey craft, this mapping, and these were brought to Skene from that original planet?" asked Halling.

"I think it's possible" answered Yoj. "Which gives me chills when my hands touch that paper." She left soon afterward with Veida, to pick up fish at the docks and go home to meet the children. Halling said she would be on time for dinner, but just barely.

When the pilots finished their cataloguing, Halling enlisted their help in carrying all the tubes to the lighter Qala had assigned to her. She flew to Verzin, to the industrial jichang nearest Yoj's favorite cartagen, and loaded her arms with as many of the tubes as she could manage. The list was tucked into her guibba. The print manager understood the significance of the maps immediately and promised to treat them with extreme care. Two of her assistants walked back to the jichang and retrieved the remaining tubes.

"I need not only two copies of each, but I'd like to have an additional copy printed on something durable for mounting on a wall" said Halling.

"We can do that" said the cartagen.

"You can roll the rest of the copies up together, but the originals in the tubes will be going back into the Archives" said Halling. She arranged to pick them up in a week, and as she walked back to her lighter, she wished for no freak fires in that region of Verzin.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.