Thursday, January 3, 2008


(Olive Grove by Vincent Van Gogh)

(Double chapter post tonight, because otherwise it's a bit of a cliffhanger.) 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 Yanja
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Iki on Riesig

The next day, it felt strange to Yoj to not be meeting Halling at the jichang as all the other pilots came in. For a split second, she thought This is what it would be like if she died, and instantly slammed the door on that possibility. She worked in her cubicle until it was time for the children to come home from school.

At home, Bux was setting a plate of creamed-tofu-filled celery stalks and a bowl of plums on the table for the children's snack. Small hands were already snatching at the food -- they tended to come home ravenous. Ng was sitting with them, asking them about their day. Yoj gave them each a kiss as she went to the sideboard and picked up the mail.

"We got a letter from Halling!" she called out.

"That was fast" said Bux. "Read it out to me as I start the rice for dinner."

Yoj untied the envelope and began: "My darling Bux and Yoj -- "

Mill interrupted, "Hey, what about us?"

"I'm sure she means all of you, too. Let me finish, okay?" said Yoj. "Okay: My darling blah blah, I have met a woman named Szebel here on Yanja and I am staying with her tonight and tomorrow. We have -- " Yoj stopped reading, her blood turned to ice.

"We have what?" prompted Ndege, her mouth full.

Yoj looked up at Bux, who stared back at her.

"Here, I can read it" said Ndege, grabbing for the letter.

Yoj held it over her head, then folded it and stuffed it into her gilet. A chorus of protests went up.

"It turns out, this is a letter just for emmas" said Yoj hoarsely. Bux now looked extremely concerned, and she said "Is she all right?" Mill immediately echoed "Is emma okay?"

"She's fine. It's not about -- her. It's about -- someone else" said Yoj, stammering. She turned to Ng and said "Bux and I need to talk, will you watch the children for a while?"

Ng also looked scared. "Yoj -- "

"Honest, Ng, she's all right. I'd tell you if she wasn't" Yoj said, a little more reality coming into her voice. Bux was already on the way to the bedroom. Yoj followed her and shut the door.

"Sit down" she told Bux.

"Give me that letter" counter-ordered Bux.

"I will, we'll read it together. But sit down here, I'll sit beside you" said Yoj.

She unfolded the letter, noticing that her hands were trembling badly.

Bux finished ahead of her, leaped to her feet and began pounding on the door. "I don't levvin' believe this, she's gone what, three hours, and she's buried herself in the crotch of some levvin' lava-eater? I'm getting on the radio and telling her to get her stinking ass home immediately!" she raged.

"Bux -- " said Yoj feebly.

"Don't you dare act like this is okay with you, you two always cover up for each other but this is not going to be tolerated, not by me in this house!" Bux wheeled on Yoj. The door opened behind her, and Qen stood there with large eyes, saying "What's happening in here?"

"Shut the door" said Yoj. Qen did, stepping inside. "Halling -- she's met someone and she's having an affair. We just got a letter from her."

"Already?" said Qen in exactly Bux's tone of voice. "What -- that doesn't make any sense."

Bux was pacing back and forth in a three-foot space, saying "Lev" over and over again. Yoj handed Qen the letter to read. When Qen was done, she looked quite pale.

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I have no idea yet" said Yoj. "But we need to figure it out. Will you get the children out of the house?"

"Yes" said Qen. Then, before she opened the door, "They're afraid you're fighting."

"We're not, are we, Bux?" Yoj said pointedly.

Bux looked at her fiercely, then at Qen, and said "No. I'm not fighting with Yoj."

"We'll walk to the fish docks and get something for dinner. Will that give you enough time?" asked Qen.

"We'll make it enough time" said Yoj. "Thanks, emma."

After Qen left, shooing Mill away from the door where she'd been trying to eavesdrop, Yoj unfolded the letter and read it once again. Bux had flung herself down on a clothes chest and glared at Yoj.

"All right, Bux. Some of it's starting to sink in. She says here that they are not in love and have agreed not to fall in love -- that they've made it clear they are committed elsewhere. And this woman has six partners, which frankly boggles the mind -- "

"Why in the lev is she hitting on Halling when she's got all that ginny at home?" snarled Bux.

"Not a question I can answer yet, Bux. What else? She says she'll keep us updated, that she won't be any later coming home, and she gives us her address in case we want to write her."

Bux made an extremely rude noise.

"And she apologizes for how upsetting this will be for us, but she says, twice, she thought it better to tell us right away rather than have us wait until she sees us in person. I think she's right about that. I'd feel pretty betrayed if she was having a -- thing -- for a week that we didn't know about" said Yoj.

"I feel betrayed no matter what, because I am being betrayed!" shouted Bux.

"How so?" asked Yoj quietly.

"We don't sleep around, we're a closed unit -- " began Bux.

"We haven't agreed to that" said Yoj, anticipating an explosion.

"No, and you've levvin' well made sure of that, haven't you?" Bux screamed.

"It's not about me" said Yoj, starting to get angry back at Bux. "I'm the one who's right here, trying to remember how much I love Halling, how much she loves us, and the fact is, she'd never ever hurt us. Not deliberately."

"Well aren't you high and mighty, the justice-loving Yoj!" said Bux. "How wonderful, that this is just fine with you, and you can sit in judgment on me, the crazy one!"

"I'm not sitting in judgment on you -- well, I am getting pissed that you're hammering on me, when I've not done anything to deserve it, yes. But this is not just fine with me. I'm having a hard time, and I sure wish you and I could act like friends right now, at the very least, instead of me having to defend myself from you at the same time I'm scared shitless that I might lose Halling!" Yoj suddenly started crying, although she still couldn't sort out all of the emotions flooding her. She threw the letter on the floor and buried her face in her pillow.

After a minute, she felt Bux lie down next to her and put her arm over her back. Yoj rolled into Bux's arms and wailed "I've been so worried about her, and I'm glad she's found something that might help, but what does it mean that I wasn't the one who could help her?"

"I know, I know" soothed Bux.

"And we haven't promised to never sleep with anyone else, I'm not trying to imply anything by that, it's just the facts, but you're right that none of us ever has! Until now! Agghhh, I hate the idea of it, I hate thinking about her being with whatever her stupid name is!" Yoj's abandonment to grief led Bux to her own pain, underneath her anger, and she began crying with Yoj. Ten minutes later, the shock was still on them but the cofferdams had been released. They lay curled together on the bed, able to talk gently again.

"I see your point, Yoj, about her being honest as fast as she could, but it's going to be such a horrible week, not just waiting to find out if she's the same, but knowing what she's -- doing" said Bux.

"Her love for us will not change, that I do know" said Yoj.

"Yeah, but she could fall in love with someone else, in addition. I mean, you did" said Bux. "And you can't control that."

"I think you can" said Yoj. "More to the point, I think Halling can. And -- no matter what she feels, she won't change with us. She's steadfast."

"It doesn't feel like enough, right at the moment" said Bux.

Yoj paused, then said "It doesn't to me, either. But it is enough. We'll get through this."

"Don't you ever pull this on me" said Bux.

"I can't imagine ever wanting anyone else" said Yoj passionately. "So I can't clearly say what I'd do, 'cause I can't imagine it. But -- I think I'd wait until I talked with you first. Especially seeing how you reacted today." They began giggling.

Yoj said "If you really had gotten on Sigrist radio and ordered Halling back home -- well, Skene would never have stopped talking about it." They were laughing hard now.

After a minute, Bux said "Speaking of the public -- what are we going to tell the children? Mill is going to blow a gasket."

"Like aggie, like child" teased Yoj. Bux goosed her, then said "Well, Halling laid it out baldly in her letter, maybe we should tell the kids the same way."

"No, no, not without her here. They're gonna need to get reassurance directly from her, and making them wait a week would be mean. No, we have to lie without actually lying" said Yoj.

"You did say it was about someone else. Which is true enough" Bux thought out loud. "How about if we say we heard something upsetting from Halling about someone else, someone they don't know? And that Halling is fine, and having a lovely vacation, lev her, and all is okay now?"

"Sounds good, except for the 'lev her' part" agreed Yoj.

It wasn't completely convincing to the three older children, but Yoj finally said after Halling got home, they could all talk more. She and Bux put on a tender, united front. As did the older women, although Yoj could tell Qen was deeply upset and Ng asked to read the letter for herself.

After dinner, Bux got out her paints and suggested the children all paint a picture for emma on Yanja. Yoj went to her desk and wrote a frank letter, relaying her talk with Bux and their story for the children. She sealed it into the envelope with the children's drawings, addressed with an addendum that if Halling was no longer there, it should be returned, and walked out into the night to mail it.

At bedtime, Yoj asked Ng quietly if she'd like to have the night alone with Qen. Ng looked at her gratefully and said yes, so Yoj and Bux took Prl and Speranz in with them.

Iki on Yanja

The next morning, Halling made breakfast for Szebel. The elder women were elsewhere, and all of Szebel's partners were already at work. Amya had left a note repeating her invitation to come watch her make glass. Halling wondered if there was an ulterior motive, but Szebel said "No, she's being sweet, we should go."

The vetriste shop Szebel led her to was a smaller building nestled between the imposing glass factories along the eastern edge of the magma flow. It was so hot inside, Halling immediately pulled off her guibba. She looked around for a safe place to hang it, but found no area that didn't seem to be in the zone of sparks and drips, so she hugged it to her chest.

Four artglass vetristes were darting about, using a row of ovens and shaping stations except the end section, where the oven was a foot closer to the ground and the shaping area was set up with rolling stools. This is where they found Amya, hard at it. She gave only a raise of her eyebrows to Szebel. Her hands were in massive protective gloves, one of them clearly special made for her left hand, and she was somehow spinning a long pole one direction, then back again, while its tip was in a white-hot oven. After a minute she pulled it out and, scooting herself on one of the stools, swung it dangerously near another worker to lean it on a support where she kept whirling the incandescent blob at the end of the pole with her left hand and adroitly fluted it into a complicated shape with tools held in her right hand.

This continued for ten grueling minutes, back into the oven, then more shaping. Halling's shati was soaked through with sweat, she couldn't imagine what Amya was feeling. Then Amya called out someone's name, and a woman came from another part of the shop to dip lengths from another oven and lay it into Amya's piece. Halling could tell that the other woman was not controlling where the glass landed, Amya was. Another ten minutes of this went by, Halling began to feel like her eyeballs were singed from staring at the glowing glass. "What color is it going to be, when it cools?" she asked Szebel.

"Green, I think" said Szebel. "Is that right, Am?"

"Very good" grunted Amya. "Like new growth in the spring."

"However could you tell that?" marveled Halling.

Finally Amya was done fussing over details Halling couldn't comprehend. She looked at her helper, who took the pole from her, still keeping it in motion. Amya picked up a pair of metal tongs and adroitly snipped her creation from a bulb at the end of the pole. With swift grace, she set it in a separate chamber and closed the door. She gave out a hoarse cry of relief, and her helper smacked her on the shoulder with a massive gloved paw. Halling expected to see Amya drop to the ground from the blow, but being on the stool saved her. Amya shucked her cap and gloves, and rolled over to her visitors.

"Are you happy with how it came out?" asked Szebel, planting a kiss on Amya's damp brow.

"Can't tell yet. Form's okay, but I tried something different with one of the imbeds. We'll see when it cools."

"I'm impressed beyond words" said Halling with deep sincerity. "I'd love to bring my emma to watch you work sometime. She's a keramiker, and I wonder what she'd have to say about the similarities and differences in what you do."

"Oh yeah?" said Amya, with interest. "She live on Riesig?"

"With us, yes" said Halling, "Although most of her career was on Argile and Seda."

A flicker showed on Amya's face. "What's her name?"

"Ng. Ng la Hala na Vantu" Halling said proudly.

Amya smacked her forehead with her right palm. "Your emma is Ng? I adore her work, I have several pieces of it at home! Well, who'da guessed. By all means, bring her for a visit, any time."

Halling was grinning from ear to ear. "And you're invited to come see us. You need a lift on a lighter instead of that levvin' ferry commute, just ask me."

They chatted for a while, Amya showing her tools to a very curious Halling and introducing her to her coworkers as "a new lover of Szebel" without any hidden emotion that Halling could tell. Amya drank a large quantity of cold water, then wiped her mouth and asked "What're you two going to do next?"

"I thought I'd show her the olive groves" said Szebel. "Before it rains again."

"Sounds nice" said Amya. "Well, I got another piece to start before I knock off, so see you at dinner, I guess."

Szebel kissed her ardently, bending over and cupping Amya's cheek with her hand. Halling looked away before it trailed to an end.

On the way to the Maslina Ruck, Szebel stopped at a small store and bought jars of olive paste and fresh yogurt, along with a loaf of haidan and four golden apples. When they entered the mouth of the valley, Szebel put her arm through Halling's and directed them to the western edge, under black bluffs, away from the central road and all the workers' onlooking eyes. A foot-wide grassy trail snaked along under the cliffs. After ten minutes, Halling began to feel as if she had time-traveled into high summer. It was not just the warm, still air, but also the thick aroma of olives and the frequency of bees. She kept stopping to put her palms on the gnarled trunks with hips and knees sticking out of them. She rubbed the silver underside of leaves to see if the color would come off on her fingertips.

Szebel told her some trees took 30 years to become productive, but once they did, they could bear for a thousand years. Parts of the grove were over 400 years old.

"Older than the current Lofthall" said Halling. "It was built in 150."

"Yes, but the lava solidified to make those walls is as old as Skene itself" said Szebel.

They kissed often, sometimes leaning against a tree, sometimes lying down in the dry grass. Halling felt like a teenager again, and when she realized that, she thought of Mill, of Ndege and Dodd in a few years. Which brought on guilt -- how hard was her absence on them? What right did she have to leave their well-being to Bux and Halling?

Szebel noticed her shift in mood and said "You missing your family?"

"I'm worried they're missing me, more like."

"I'm sure they are, Halling."

"Why didn't any of you ever aggie, Szebel? I mean, don't you have a high income? Couldn't you get leave?"

Szebel rubbed Halling's belly under her shati. "Yanjangers make a ridiculous income, likely for the same reasons as pilots, because their mortality and disability rate is high. Vetristes are also well-paid. But we, the seven of us, never asked to aggie. We are all alike in that we prefer our freedom. Children take over your time. As well you know."

Halling's temptation toward romance with Szebel diminished after that. Her desire was still there, and a growing liking, but freedom wasn't meaningful to Halling unless it was coupled with responsibility. It was an intriguing thing to discover about herself.

After a couple of hours, they came to a natural spring bubbling up from a ring of rocks. They sat down and ate lunch, drinking from the cold clear water and using it for various indecencies. The sky had begun to cloud over as Halling cut slices of apple for them with her clasp knife. When drops began to fall, Szebel jumped to her feet and said "Over there, behind that outcropping, is a workers' shed carved from the cliff." They ran for it, and found the door unlocked. Laughing with exhiliration, they began kissing, toward a purpose now but there was no room in the crammed shed to lie down.

Szebel closed the door, plunging them into startling dark, and pushed Halling against it. As she began unbuttoning Halling's pants, Halling said "I don't know if I can remain standing when -- you know."

"I can easily hold you up" said Szebel, demonstrating her strength, and Halling gasped and laughed at the same time.

"But -- what about your turn?" Halling got out. "I can't hold you up -- "

"We'll think of something" murmured Szebel, and Halling stopped trying to think altogether.

The rain stopped in an hour, and venturing back out into the sodden grove was a jolt of light and aroma. They began returning the way they had come, but after a couple of steps, Szebel stopped Halling and said "Where you leaned against the door -- here, you've got dust on your shoulders and hips." She brushed Halling off, and when Halling turned to face her, Szebel bent to look at the knees of her pants, saying "Now that's ground in, I won't be able to get that off."

Halling, grinning, pulled her back up to kiss her, and they continued on.

When they got home, Halling checked out their tillage -- nothing near as good as what the emmas had planted at home, she noted -- and pulled vegetables for dinner. She insisted on cooking, but accepted any help that was offered. At Wiaki's urging, she used expensive or rare items as if it were a holiday. "What do you barter for all these delicacies?" she asked.

Szebel laughed. "We don't, mostly. We pay cash."

When they began eating, the household exclaimed at Halling's cooking. She had rifled the best recipes of her Manage that she could remember, and she had to admit, it had come off rather well.

"Where did a sinner learn to cook like this?" said Szebel, rubbing her calf under the table with a bare foot.

"Wasn't always a sinner" said Halling. "My emmas raised the four of us to pitch in. Plus, our Manage, well, one thing we do is eat well. I get fresh fish every day I sin, still flopping around fresh. And we grow -- " She began listing the output of their tillage, and longing for home again gripped her.

"Waves and ripples" said Amya. "Who designed your tillage, your emma?"

"Bux's emmas, but mine now" said Halling.

"And who are they, besides the famous Ng? Which reminds me -- " Amya got up and opened a door of the sideboard, pulling out very familiar bowls and plates. Halling fingered them and could even tell them what year one of them was made -- it had been before she left home.

"She's got severe rheumatism, you know" Halling told Amya. "Can barely walk now, and her hand joints are all akimbo, but when she touches clay, it's plain magic." Amya's eyes were a large, soft brown, reminding her of Yoj. They shared a look of understanding, then Halling continued.

"Besides my emma, there's Qen -- "

"The leraar?" said Szebel. "We all had her as our teacher! She was my favorite, out of all the grades I had."

"Mine, too" said Halling. "And she's even better as an emma. Her partners are Yerush, a gakusha at the U, and Veida, the comadrona." She saw these names recognized by those at the table as well.

"So, the Dichter, the wandmaler, Ng, the most respected leraar and comadrona on Skene, plus not just a gakusha but a former Ethicist -- all under one roof. And the famous Halling, of course" said Szebel softly. Halling's pride had shifted over to embarrassment with this listing.

"We don't think of each other that way" she said shyly. "And our Manage is bigger than most on our lane, but it's tiny compared to this one. Even though there's 12 of us, we have one bath room, and an outdoor privy. But that's typical for Riesig."

"It's typical for here, too" said Szebel. "We inherited this Manage from a multiple partnership in Wiaki's line."

Wiaki's emma said "Do you have photographs with you, Halling?"

Halling stood and almost ran to Szebel's room. She returned with a flat wooden box Yoj had given her for their first anniversary, now filled with photos. She'd stuck it into her bag at the last minute. She told everybody to wipe their hands well, sounding just like an emma, before she began handing them around, explaining who it was or what angle of the house or yard it represented. Her voice resonated with delight whenever she talked about any of her children.

"My word, Mill is a duplicate of you!" said Szebel. "But you're not the aggie?"

"Nope. Just -- meant to be, I guess" grinned Halling.

"And Speranz bears a striking resemblance too. But Prl, she's a second Bux, isn't she?"

"She is. And, they say, Yerush in her day." Halling had reached the bottom of the box, to the photo of her, Yoj and Bux taken in their partnership ceremony finery just before they left at dawn to catch the ferry for Pomar. It was her favorite picture of the three of them -- she stood in the middle, her arms linked joyfully around their necks, and all of them beamed into the lens with no trace of exhaustion or trepidation. She remembered that each her new partners had a hand cupping one of her ass-cheeks, unaware of the other one's matching embrace, and it made her laugh now to remember it.

"What?" asked Szebel.

"Private joke" said Halling gently. She handed the photo on and began putting the rest away. "Thank you all, for letting me ramble on about my family."

After dessert -- Yerush's recipe for apricot flan and Veida's blackberry crumble -- four of the partners cleared and began cleaning the kitchen. Amya and Wiaki stayed at the table with Szebel and Halling, because Wiaki had bluntly turned to Halling and asked "Can you explain to me just why it would be so terrible for Yanja to have their own aircraft for deliveries?"

Halling blinked, then said "I can tell you the arguments I've heard, but I won't back them up with my own conviction. I don't see why it would be a problem to let that happen."

Wiaki and Amya looked amazed and instantly interested. Halling went through the cons, which centered around fear of outfitting conflict such as had occurred during the Troubles. So many strictures on Skene dated back to that. There was a visceral reaction to the notion of islands being in any kind of open competition with one another, or of air power being decentralized from Riesig and the Ethicist's presence.

"Still" said Halling, "The Lofthall oversees two main functions. First and foremost is feeding Skene, and that's deep water work. That's where the traditions and training are essential, because any error means death. Nobody is allowed to refer to leviathans as the enemy, but that's what they are. They don't simply compete with us for the same food -- there's plenty out there, a supply we'll never diminish -- their intent is to eliminate us from Skene. I'm convinced of it."

This kind of talk was heresy, and she astounded herself by engaging in it here, away from the safety of her family or her close allies at the Lofthall. It was received as obvious truth by her new acquaintances, she was relieved to see. She went on, "The other work of the Lofthall is assisting in the industry and commerce of Skene. And you know, I just don't see the need for us to have those controls held tight in our hands. We could come up with some other set of checks and balances to insure aircraft was used strictly for hauling and maybe as an adjunct to ferries. I mean, I'd want the Lofthall to retain the work of transporting schoolchildren, because diligence and safety is our hallmark. Otherwise..."

"Do you have any ability to influence this issue, then, there in the Lofthall?" said Wiaki, leaning toward her.

Halling laughed grimly. "No, the Sheng Zhang thinks all of my ideas are dangerous, unless Qala has made it sound like it was Igoz's to begin with. She's a politician, mainly. She was never a lighter, went straight into kelp sinning from pilot training -- " They could all hear the faint negative emphasis on kelp -- "And she only sinned for one year before the old Sheng Zhang retired and she had a chance to run. Her emmas were all well-connected, and her opponent had no connection at all to the Lofthall -- pilots don't give up flying until they either die or have their spirits broken, generally -- so she got elected and she's made sure nothing has changed since."

She could see the disappointment on their faces. She sat up straighter and said "Here, though, let's look at it from another angle. You got paper and pencil?"

Szebel got it for her, and two of the yanjangers from the kitchen joined them when Wiaki said "You'll want to be part of this, I bet."

Halling began writing down the costs of building and maintaining a fleet of hauling sinners. She knew every detail of upkeep and equipment loss, what kind of rates were charged for each haul, and could even speculate about the feasability of Yanja teaming up with the mining islands to share the outlay. She filled several sheets with neat tables of figures and considerations, then asked Wiaki and her colleagues a series of incisive questions to determine Yanja's needs and schedules. When she was done, the totals for each proposal were lined up next to each other at the bottom of a page, and the difference between them was very small.

"So, honestly, it probably wouldn't be worth your while. The shift of labor from Riesig and the Lofthall to Yanja and other islands would require some matching shift of people from here over to Riesig, too." Halling sat back, and saw that Szebel was looking at her with what seemed to be fierce desire.

"You're mighty good with a spreadsheet" said Szebel softly.

Wiaki glanced at her knowingly, then said to Halling "Can I keep these pages? I'd love to share them with our guild."

"Just don't attach my name to it so it gets back to Igoz" asked Halling. "And -- what is your beef with the current setup, anyhow? In particular?"

Another yanjanger was able to explain how, whenever they asked for a schedule or loading change, it was granted by Igoz for a very small raise in fees, but at the half-year accounting review, they'd discover whatever they'd gained would have been offset by a sly change elsewhere with no matching rebate. Thus, over time, service had remained exactly the same but even those small fee hikes had added up. "And we have the opportunity to expand our business over Skene -- not a lot, but some, enough to make the extra costs worthwhile, yet expansion is blocked by our hauling limitations."

Halling's face had grown very angry as this sunk in on her. "That's contrary to the ethics of the Lofthall" she said heatedly. "We exist for the good of all Skene. Our expenses are paid for by taxes, mainly, and we have no business meddling with profit." She tapped her fingers on the table. "Lev, I wish I could get around her -- there are so levvin' many obstacles, that's why I went on vacation, to clear my head so maybe I could think of something." Her entire body was tense.

Szebel took the pad and pencil, saying "Tell me the obstacles. What is it that's wrong?"

Halling began slowly, a little cautiously, at first. "Interference from baby levs. No clear information given to the rest of Skene about what we contend with. No way of saving pilots who go down. No scheduled days off. No encouragement for pilots to have families and tillages. No acknowledgement that levs live a very long time, that they learn over time, that they plan and act cooperatively, that they communicate not just effectively but over distance and with memory."

She saw the others reacting strongly to what she was saying, but Szebel's eyes were encouraging her and she went on. "I have a map that indicates underwater terrain and currents, but I can't share it. There used to be underwater sensors to monitor lev movements in and around Skene, but I can't even refer to it, much less find someone to create new ones. There's a rumor that another, older map shows other land on Skene, somewhere beyond our current flying range, but if the Sheng Zhang has it, she won't admit it."

Amya broke in. "I've heard that rumor, too. My habibi was from Riesig and knew the Archivist, said there was such a map." The atmosphere in the room was now electric.

Halling's voice had gotten very high. "I want us to be able to say that we're being hunted, every time we go out to sin, they're after us, the levs, they connive to pull us down and when they do, they swallow us whole. They swallowed Xaya, and I'll never know if she was still alive when -- ". Halling dropped her face into her hands and began sobbing. "And Schla, I didn't like her much, she was one of Bux's exes and a self-serving jerk, but nobody should die like she just died! We live like shu in a roomful of katts, and when I try to talk about it, I get told I'm being militaristic and threatening the well-being of Skene! But I love Skene, I feed Skene, and I just don't want to have to choose between your survival and my own any more!"

Szebel pulled Halling into her lap, and Halling let her fear and anger pour out. After a while, she felt another hand stroking her back, and realized it must be Amya. Embarrassed, she wiped her face and scooted back to her chair. Amya kept patting her, however. When she could focus on those around the table, she saw only empathy there.

Amya said quietly "Stay with us another day, Halling. Let us think about your problem. It's my problem now, too. We're a smart bunch, and we're Yanja, we do the impossible every day." Her partners laughed appreciatively, and they all urged Halling to stay on.

Halling looked at Szebel, who grinned and said "Oh, absolutely, I want you as long as I can have you."

"All right" said Halling. "Thanks -- I can't tell you how much -- "

Wiaki gave her a shove and said "Aw, stow it. We're all the same here."

Szebel took the pad with her when they went to bed and set it on her desk. "I'm working on an equation for this" she said. "That's how I like to approach things. Well, not all things" she qualified, grinning at Halling. "I'm going to take another bath, care to join me?"

"Does your hair need washing?" offered Halling.

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.

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