Thursday, January 3, 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 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


Moja on Riesig

After doing the dinner dishes, Yoj made rice for the next day and set beans to soak overnight. She sat at the table with her notebook and the current pair of sokken she was knitting -- this pair was for Mill, who went through sokken like they were rice paper. Bux and Qen were rampaging in the living room with the children, some complicated game of chase and safe spots designed to wear them out. The shrieks were non-stop. Yerush was in the study, Ng had gone back out to her studio to finish some glazing, and Veida sat across from Yoj, mixing worm boluses for the katts which she intended to push down their throats the following morning.

When it was time for bed, Yoj told a story and led a song with the children and helped tuck them all in. Qen claimed one half of the table to begin cutting out a new shirt for Ndege -- her and Dodd's birthday was coming up, and she was making hanshan for each of them from two different shades of creamy silk. Mill's hand-me-downs tended to be battered and, in any event, there were two children almost the same size to provide for. Once they outgrew these, and that would be fast, there would be double the wardrobe to hand on to Prl and eventually Speranz.

Yoj looked around for something to do, then decided to just go on to bed. She picked up a flash and stood before the back door for a moment. Bux appeared beside her, with a grin, saying "Shall I be Halling and escort you tonight?"

Yoj thanked her and they walked out the privy together, sitting side by side to pee. The weather was definitely getting warmer. Bux said "You know, Yoj, that shu really hate privies? In all my life, I've never seen one in here."

"I know" said Yoj. "It's not about what my mind knows."

When they were done, they stood for a minute under the night sky, enjoying being able to look at stars between the scattered clouds. Bux's arm was around Yoj's waist. She said "Just me and you in our bed tonight."

"Mmm" said Yoj. "Don't get me wrong, I do miss Halling, but it will be very nice to have time alone with you."

Bux turned to kiss Yoj. After a minute, she pushed her gently backward, against the wall of the house, and began kissing her more energetically. Yoj slid her hand under Bux's shati, cupping her breasts in both hands, hefting their weight with pleasure and slowly sliding her thumbs over Bux's nipples. Bux had her fingers buried in the short hair on the back of Yoj's head.

"Ah, Bux, here we are a dozen years later and I'm still on fire for you" murmured Yoj.

"Better be" laughed Bux. "Better be a flame that never goes out, 'cause that's what I got for you."

Yoj slid one hand down Bux's belly and hip to the flap on her kaidang ku. Pulling the cloth tie loose, she remarked "I'm so glad you have the habit of wearing these -- most women who aren't field workers don't, you know."

"I didn't before you came along" said Bux mischievously.

"You're kidding -- really?"

"Really" said Bux, leaning in for another kiss. Yoj slid her fingers into the flap and found Bux's drench. Bux moaned into her mouth.

Yoj wasn't sure she could go slow, and she wasn't sure that Bux wanted her to. Bux spread her legs another inch and Yoj occupied the new space it made for her hand. Bux took Yoj's earlobe between her lips and nibbled, still moaning.

A flare of light came from the back door and Qen's voice said "Are you two all -- Oh. Never mind." The light vanished with a click of the door.

Bux and Yoj burst out laughing. "We're like a couple of schoolkids out here. Shall we sneak off to the park behind the U and lay down on the picnic table there?" said Yoj.

Bux looked at her in the reflected light from the windows. "I never did that, was that the place to go?"

"The place to go, but I never went with the right woman" whispered Yoj.

"Let's go in. We have a bed" said Bux.

"I want to keep you up a lot tonight" said Yoj urgently.

"We'll keep each other up" answered Bux. Preparing themselves to face the emmas, Yoj helped Bux tie her drawstring and they walked back inside.

Moja on Yanja

The southern promontory of Yanja was bifurcated by a seam of magma which bubbled up from a rent in the rock and streamed southward over a cliff and into the sea. That magma-fall was where bodies of the dead were returned to Skene. Within sight, less than half a mile out, a ring of magma marked the rise of an underwater cone, a roiling mix of chugging molten rock and huge clouds of sea-water steam. Within this ring, sinners dropped the more toxic industrial byproducts and tailings from Skene's mines, where it was instantly vaporized and, hopefully, dispersed thoroughly into currents that rendered it not a major pollutant.

Along the land-based magma flow were yanjanger factories, producing most of the building materials of Skene. One row in from this were glassmakers called vetristes, rongyangers who shaped pumice, and related concerns. The entire area between shops was paved, for ease of transport by crawlers -- there was no need to conserve rainwater because close underground was lava. It was a hot zone, and on the northwestern edge was a large jichang. Sinners hauled to and from Yanja every day.

Just north of where the magma escaped to open air, a long valley stretched miles to almost the other end of Yanja. The valley, Maslina Ruck, was neither wide nor narrow, and on either side the heights flattened out. The protection from wind combined with volcanic activity close (but not too close) to the surface made this valley one of the warmest spots on Skene year round. It had been carpeted with topsoil early on and contained a vast olive orchard, producing all the zayit needed by Skene. When Halling stepped out of the sinner that morning, she faced this vista, beautiful dark green trees fading into the distance.

The ridge on the western face of the valley contained some of the oldest and largest Manages on Yanja. Unlimited building materials combined with folks who knew best how to use it had spawned amazing structures, multi-storied, sprawling, and often quirky. Yanjangers lived in these spacious Manages in unusual arrangements, forming multiple partnerships and other allegiances not found elsewhere on Skene.

The flat heights on the eastern side of the valley were far more extensive and held a network of lanes and Manages similar to those on Riesig, with a small central district of shops and offices. The population on Yanja was considerable, almost as many as Verzin. It took two large school sinners to transport their children to Riesig every day. Yanja would have preferred to establish its own school, and had also made noises in the past about creating their own fleet of aircraft for ferrying its people and goods to the rest of Skene. Yanja was prosperous and isolationist. Every Sheng Zhang kept a tight rein on Yanja.

The hostel was nestled into the cliff below the western ridge, next to the switchback pumice steps giving access to the ridge. It was beside the olive processing factories, and at this hour of the morning did not seem to be open yet. Nearby was a small cafe whose windows were flecked with volcanic dust. Inside, however, it was clean and cozy, with a smell of baking bread and a long shelf of books for patrons to read as they sat with their tea. Halling went to the counter, ordered pie and a pot of tea, and chose a table next to the bookshelf. There was only one other customer in the place -- Yanja went to work early.

Halling leaned over to read the titles of books within reach, and settled on a physics text she'd never seen in school. Her pie was good, the tea was strong, and the book was interesting. She gave herself over to leisure.

Before her second cup of tea, however, she began to feel as if she were being watched. She glanced at the woman behind the counter, but she was occupied making salads for lunch. There was no one at the front window, either. Halling turned to look behind her, and met the gaze of the other customer, a woman around her age with bright red hair in thick ropes down her back, brown skin and dark eyes with epicanthal folds at each corner. She was staring openly at Halling, and did not seem embarrassed when Halling caught her at it. Halling gave a polite smile and nod. The woman did not smile back. Instead, she picked up her notebook and mug and walked over to Halling's table.

"Okay if I sit with you?" she said easily. Halling noticed the thick muscles of her thighs and upper arms without meaning to, then said "Sure."

When the woman sat down, she reached out and lifted Halling's book to read the title. Her eyebrows went up and she said "You a scientist?"

"Sinner" said Halling.

"Ah. That's where I've seen you." The woman took a sip of her tea, then said "You live on Riesig?"

"Yep. And are you a yanjanger?"

The woman grinned for the first time, a dazzling wide grin revealing one gold tooth on a bottom incisor. "Built like one, but no. I'm a mathematician for the vetriste guild." The woman's dark brown eyes never left Halling's. After a long minute, she reached out an inkstained hand and said "I'm Szebel."

"Halling." The contact of her hand on Halling's did odd things to Halling's stomach. After another pause, Szebel said "Of Halling and Xaya?"

"You know the song" said Halling, releasing one of her own open grins and seeing it have an effect on Szebel. Then, with a mixture of emotion, she added "It was written by one of my partners. Yoj."

"The Dichter" said Szebel. "Let me think for a minute -- she has a local connection, I've heard tell -- Isola Fling? Or used to be."

"That's right" said Halling. "Her emma and siba are qi gongs here."

"Who?" asked Szebel.

"Nilma, and Owera."

Szebel's grin altered almost imperceptibly. "I've met Nilma."

Halling sighed, then said "Yoj is nothing like her. Not to be disloyal to my in-laws, but Yoj is day to Nilma's night."

Szebel laughed. "Glad to hear it. And -- you said partners?" She emphasized the ending S.

"Bux is the other."

Szebel surprised Halling again by saying "Wandmaler? And secretary to Sheng Zheng of Rahat?"

"You're remarkably well-informed" remarked Halling.

"I live with a bevy of talkers" said Szebel. Halling longed to ask who they were, but could not bring herself to it.

Szebel finished her tea and said "So, what's a sinner from Riesig doing in this cafe on a workday morning?"

"I'm on vacation for a week. Taking a self-guided tour of Skene" answered Halling.

"And you're beginning with Yanja? Good choice" grinned Szebel. "I didn't think sinners got vacations."

"I needed a break" said Halling, a flat tone coming into her voice.

Szebel's face softened instantly and she said "Oh, crap. Please forgive me. Of course, you just lost two of your own. My earnest condolences." The switch from her former blunt playfulness to her compassion again caused something to stir inside Halling.

"Thanks" said Halling. "How about you, why aren't you at work?"

"I do commissions" said Szebel. "I've got a problem to solve by the end of the week, but I'm not rushing it. I relish solitude when I can get it."

Halling wasn't sure if this was some kind of a hint. She reminded herself that Szebel had come looking for her, and would no doubt leave just as easily if she felt like it. Then Szebel said "I have six partners. And three of their emmas live with us. We have the oldest Manage on the ridge, with a maze of rooms but there's still not quite enough privacy, even though I have my own bedroom. So I come here to think."

Six partners. Halling had heard of this septet. It was usually the butt of jokes and innuendo. She forced herself to keep smiling normally and said "Are they yanjangers, then?"

"Four. Plus two vetristes." Szebel was grinning at her as if she knew the kind of gossip Halling would have heard. She prepared to stand, saying "I need more tea."

"Here, have some of mine" said Halling, refilling Szebel's mug from her own pot. Szebel reached for the honey jug and drizzled a generous portion into her tea. A drip landed on her finger, and she licked it off lazily, eyes closed.

Halling suddenly understood what it was that was pinging around inside her.

Szebel opened her eyes and caught Halling staring at her. She laughed lightly and said "How long are you here, then, Halling the sinner on vacation?"

Halling had to clear her throat. "Tonight. I'm taking a room at the hostel. I leave tomorrow for Beras where I have family, and eastward from there."



Szebel's shaggy eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline. "Now there's a bit of news that my household may not have heard."

"How about you, how many children with all those partners?" said Halling, the ground increasingly treacherous under her feet.

"None at all. Just us" grinned Szebel wickedly. "And, in case you're wondering, we're allowed to be with others."

Halling looked away, then, out the grimy front window. She tried to bring the memory of the olive groves back into her mind, to center herself. But Szebel had leaned toward her and said softly, "And you?"

Halling swallowed, then looked Szebel right in the face and said "This will be the first time I've exercised my option."

Szebel burst into delighted laughter. She drained her tea and said "Those hostel beds are narrow. My bedroom door locks. But -- just so we're clear: I'm a Red 56."

"Green 56" said Halling. Within sui.

She and Halling stood simultaneously. Halling noticed that Szebel was at least an inch taller than her, and her shoulders were wider. "Don't forget your bag" said Szebel, as she lay coins on the table.

Later, Halling would realize she did not remember that initial trip from the cafe up wide pumice steps to the ridge and along the lane which brought them to Szebel's enormous Manage, looking out over the Wasa South toward Peisuo. They didn't touch or speak to each other along the way.

Blood pounded in Halling's ears. When they entered the Manage, the size of the main room finally brought her attention out of herself. Polished obsidian columns wrapped in spirals of stainless steel provided support down the middle of the room. The ceiling was high but there was no loft, instead another full floor above. The dining room was its own chamber, and the kitchen was as big as the commercial set-up at the Lofthall canteen. Beyond the living room was a set of stone stairs, and next to it a hallway with several doors opening from it. Halling found it hard to take in this much space for a private dwelling.

Szebel went down the hall and opened the second door on the left, stopping to call back to Halling "This way." Halling followed her into a room that had a three-person bed but also a desk bigger than Yoj's, two high sets of shelves, a drawered kind of chest with a mirror on top, and in the corner, an actual sitting area with two chairs, a table, lamp and rug. On two walls were casement windows, not clerestory, giving an ocean view. Another door was on the third wall, next to the desk area.

"Is this your bedroom?" asked Halling.

Szebel laughed. "Yes, and study. And where I can entertain friends if I don't want to deal with the hordes out in the living room." She took Halling's bag from her gently and set it on a chair. "Do you want some more tea? Or something else? If you need to relieve yourself, go through that door there."

Halling walked to the door and opened it to an indoor privy, with its own flush toilet, sink, bathtub and hot water cistern. She stood still and said "Tell me this isn't yours alone."

"No, I share it with two others who have rooms across the hall. If you go out that far door in the bathroom, it puts you back in the hall" said Szebel.

Halling went into the room, closing the door behind her, and looked at herself in the mirror over the sink. Suddenly she didn't look entirely familiar. She thought it likely that Bux would squirt blood out her eyes and ears if she knew what Halling was about to do. But she really was going to do it. She hadn't felt this kind of heat since Xaya.

She pissed and flushed guiltily. She washed her face and hands, and looked in the mirror again. When she came out of the bathroom, Szebel was already in bed, sitting against the blue stone headboard with not a stitch on.

"Stand up" said Halling. "I'd like to see the whole of you, if that's all right."

Szebel grinned and slid out from under the sheets. Halling was astounded to see that her thatch was as bright red as the hair on her head -- she'd never seen that before. She began unbuckling her pants and said "It seems extra warm in here, is it just me?"

Szebel stood calmly by the bed, watching Halling disrobe, and explained "Yanjangers and vetristes work around intense heat all day. They get accustomed to it, and normal temperatures give them chills. We have unlimited geothermal energy here, so we keep our houses steamy." Then she added "But, I'm not ruling out that the sight of me might make you sweat as well."

Halling laughed. She was down to her underwear. "And -- your partners are really going to be all right this? Have you done this before?"

"Not in years. But yes, they'll cope. We're clear, aren't we, that we cannot fall in love? My heart belongs elsewhere" said Szebel.

"As does mine" said Halling, bare at last.

"And your partners won't come after me for revenge?" said Szebel.

"One will want to, but the other will talk her out of it" said Halling.

Szebel showed a flicker of hesitation. "Then -- do you want to reconsider?"

"No" said Halling, crossing to Szebel and enjoying the novelty of leaning up to kiss someone. Desire ignited her like the magma flows for which Yanja was famous.

Hours later, they were dozing when a heavy thud came at Szebel's door as the knob turned, but the door was locked. A voice came through the metal saying "Szebel! This is locked, come let me in."

Szebel slid from under Halling and padded to the door, calling out "Amya, I can't spend time with you right now. Later, sweetheart."

"I just need to talk with you for a second, I'll leave to your work" the voice answered. Szebel leaned against the door and said to the crack "I'm not alone, Amya. I mean it, I'll see you later."

There was utter silence for a minute, then the sound of running boots. Szebel leaped across her room, pulled the bathroom door shut and turned the key just in time. Amya began pounding on it, saying "Who is in there? Who the lev is in your bedroom, Szebel?!! Do the others know about this?"

"Not yet, but feel free to tell them" said Szebel with a laugh in her voice. "Now, really, Amya, you're behaving badly. I'll see you at dinner and you can find out everything then."

Before returning to bed, Szebel went to the windows and drew the heavy silk drapes, remarking "It's just a ledge out there but I wouldn't put it past her. She's the most insecure of the lot, our Amya."

The thuds on the door had been powerful. Halling wondered how big Amya was. She asked, indirectly, "Is she one of the vetristes or a yanjanger?"

"Vetriste" said Szebel, lifting the covers again. "And don't worry, she'll calm down. I seem to be wide awake again. Oh, you're trembling, darling -- here..."

The next time Halling woke up from a nap, the light in the room was almost gone. She sat up and peeked out the drapes -- it was coming on dusk. Szebel stirred and said "I am unbelievably hungry. I guess it's time for you to brave the partners, eh?"

Halling felt sick to her stomach. "C'mon" said Szebel, "We have time for a bath together." She went into the bathroom and started water. Halling followed and made sure the door to the hall was locked before she joined Szebel in the tub.

As they soaped one another, Szebel said "All of the others have had more affairs than me, including Amya. I've been very content to only take one or two of them into my bed every now and then. I like sleeping alone and I like being immersed in math. I don't cook much, and I don't help with the tillage. But our arrangement suits us well. I'm the prize nobody quite owns, although Amya would like to, if she'd only admit it."

"Why me, then, Szebel?" Halling was not fishing for reassurance, she was simply curious.

"You mean, besides your dark serene beauty and your pilot's confidence and those strong shoulders and the fact that you chose a physics book to read over your pie?" laughed Szebel. "I don't know, Halling. Just something about you. I saw you walk into the cafe and my head got light."

"Yeah, I know what you mean" said Halling. A while later, as she was drying Szebel's back, she asked "Any tips on how I should deal with Amya?'

"Stay honest and kind. She had the bone disease as a child, she has some trouble walking and her left arm is withered" said Szebel.

Halling immediately shoved from her mind the behemoth she'd imagined Amya to be. "How does she pour glass, then, with just one arm?"

"She doesn't make commercial glass, she blows the most beautiful bowls and vases Skene has ever seen. And we don't quite know how she does it -- sheer force of will. She can't work a full day, it tires her out, that's why she came home earlier than the others. But they pay her more than any other vetriste on Yanja. She's very tender-hearted, and I really do love her best" said Szebel. "Don't bother tucking in your shati, they won't be impressed with it. Ready?"

Halling took a deep breath and said "I hope food helps with what's happening to my stomach."

Szebel led her into the living room, which no longer seemed spacious -- it seemed to bulge with unbelievably large women. Most of them were dark-haired, dark-skinned, and unsmiling. The two exceptions were a very pale giant of a woman with actual yellow hair, the first time Halling had seen it outside of pictures, who grinned at her and Szebel. The other was a woman no taller than Mill, with a left hand contorted like the roots of a plant: Amya. She didn't smile but she didn't seem menacing, either.

A delicious mix of smells filled the rest of the house. Szebel said "Ah, it's the emmas' night to cook, we're in luck!" She introduced Halling around, and as she said the names of her partners, they did smile politely and shake her hand. Their hands were massive and pocked with scars. The yellow-haired woman was Wiaki -- her room was across from Szebel's, along with Amya's. They each had their own room, apparently.

Szebel took Halling into the kitchen and introduced her to the emmas as well. These elder women were not nearly as intimidating to Halling as the partners were, or for that matter, as Bux's emmas had been. Halling insisted on helping carry food to the dining room, and Wiaki offered her the chair next to Szebel, moving down to sit next to an older woman who looked a great deal like her -- must be her aggie.

The quantity, variety and rarity of food was equal to a feast, in Halling's eyes. There was fried chicken and roast pork, an egg pie, a big wheel of cheese, plus countless vegetables. But once she tasted everything, her awe subsided. It was good, just not up to the standards of her own Manage. Especially the bread, which was definitely lacking in flavor.

Szebel's partners ate slowly and steadily. There was much talk of work, with frequent laughter, but in between they managed to grill Halling thoroughly. She stayed honest and kind, and found herself coming to like each of them in a different way. It was clear that Szebel was the heart of the household, their darling. Szebel was the youngest, too. Which made Halling, four years younger than Szebel, feel like a teenager among them.

Halling was full long before the others seemed to be. She sat politely, answering questions, until Wiaki noticed and said "Are you ready for dessert? We don't stand on formality here, go to the sideboard and get whatever you like. We always have pie and cake."

Halling helped herself to small pieces of each. She was never too full to say no to dessert. And it was wholesome, but not what Veida could make. As the others joined her with laden plates of sweets, Amya, across from her, said "Don't mistake my meaning, but -- how long will you be here?"

The others laughed and Halling grinned as she said "I'd planned to go on to Beras tomorrow for a day or two."

Szebel looked at her intently and said "But you've seen nothing of Yanja, really." One of her partners snorted and said "I wouldn't call what she's seen nothing", and everyone laughed again.

Szebel smiled at the compliment and said "The olive groves, I really should take you on a walk through them."

"And if you come to the glassblower's shop, I could show you around" offered Amya.

"Stay another day" urged Szebel. "You can leave the day after that." She pressed her leg against Halling's under the table.

Halling looked around and said "Honestly? You won't mind?"

"You'd know it if we did" said Wiaki.

Halling thought for a moment. "I'll need to write my in-laws on Beras, make my apologies. And -- I should write my partners. The sooner I tell Bux, the better."

"The wandmaler?" said Wiaki. "She did the mural in emma's room, you should go see it." Her aggie nodded at Halling.

"I'd love to" said Halling.

"She's a stunning woman" added Wiaki. "If that's all right to say."

Halling felt her heart swell. "I quite agree."

Sjebel had gotten up and returned with paper and envelopes. "Do you need privacy to write these? You can use my desk."

"No, it needs to be quick -- I hope I can catch the last post" said Halling.

"I'm heading down to the ferry landing" said Wiaki, "I could take it for you if you're done in the next quarter hour."

Halling began writing. The letter to Paha and Tlochin was easy. She sealed it and stared at the second sheet of paper. "Honest and kind", the advice Szebel had given her about Amya. Just as useful here. She began "My darling Bux and Yoj, I have met a woman named Szebel here on Yanja and I am staying with her tonight and tomorrow. We have become lovers and I wanted to tell you right away, before I returned, so you know I am not keeping anything from you...."

She didn't re-read it, afraid she'd second-guess herself. She sealed it, addressed it, and handed both envelopes to Wiaki with a fervent "thanks". Then she insisted on clearing and helping with the dishes, which was left to her and two of the partners. After half an hour, Szebel came looking for her and said "Let's go, come on."

"Where are we heading?" asked Halling.

"Back to bed" said Szebel bluntly. She kissed her partners goodnight, one after the other, and they called out "Sweet dreams" to them as Halling followed Szebel to her bedroom.

"Sweet but not likely dreams" said Szebel, closing the door and leaving it unlocked this time. In bed, she untied her long red braid and let Halling brush out her hair.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Oy oy oy....I had never imagined anything like this! I notice you left out the juicy bits though!

Telling your partners about an affair (voluntarily) is a different culture from the one I am familar with.

Maggie Jochild said...

Well, I'm sure you can supply the "juicy bits" from your imagination. I threw in a few sly details here and there; you know Halling, you can guess the rest.