Wednesday, January 2, 2008


(Extra New Year's chapter posted especially for Jan the fan.)

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: Skene Map: Peisuo
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


Halling was always perturbed by how feeble Igoz was at confrontation. Igoz either failed to show when there was tension in the Lofthall or, when other pilots were around, she acted as if everything was hunky-dory. Today she opted for the latter tactic. Igoz came into the canteen, made a big show of shaking Halling's hand and thanking her for advancing knowledge about leviathans, and called out "Carynn bye!" before she disappeared into her office.

"She looked like frostbit crap" Halling whispered to Lmape beside her.

"I don't think she slept. She almost never spends the night here, anyhow" said Lmape.

"I hear she has various lovers out there, which is hard to imagine. Does she sleep at their places, then?" asked Halling.

"Maybe. I know she also goes to her family's Manage in Verzin. When there's no Morrie Vaseo, she makes one of the trainee pilots take her -- scares them silly, I wouldn't catch rides with greenies like that. But she was only a pilot for half a year, I hear, I don't think she can tell good flying from bad" said Lmape.

There were not rich people, per se, on Skene, because all land was communally owned and Manages could not exceed a certain size per number of people inhabiting the premises. However, people with high incomes and the ability to make a profit (which was limited to 2%, but that could still add up) would sacrifice tillage for additional rooms or, sometimes on Riesig and Verzin, double or triple their chicken yard. Not every manage on the big islands kept chickens, and instead bought their eggs and meat at market. People who capitalized on this were referred to disparagingly as "egg-hoarders", and those who bought all their vegetables at market were also looked down on as "preferring eks to vitamins".

Igoz's emmas and abbas before them owned several business and factories on Verzin, and they were used to being called egg-hoarders. Igoz was the youngest of four, and all of her sibas were accomplished. The eldest was Sheng Zhang of Verzinnen, which governed commerce and manufacture. Another was a curandera ("the only one smart enough to get through the U", Halling had heard it said), and a third managed a precious metals mines on Chloddia. Igoz's legal address was still the Manage on Verzin, and it was usually whispered that family money and influence had bought her election to the Lofthall. It was Qala's expertise, as well as Igoz's appointment of leaders like Halling to popular positions, that helped keep Igoz in power despite her general incompetence.

That, and Skene's cultural fear of abrupt change.

As they were leaving the canteen, Schla stopped Halling and said "I wanted you to hear it from me directly -- I've asked to be transferred to the kelp sinning crew, and Igoz is going to okay it. In fact, she's going to make me head of that crew, since I've got the most experience."

Halling kept all her mixed emotions of relief and disbelief from her face. "Congratulations, Schla. They'll be glad to have you." And that part, at least, was likely true -- kelp sinning was far less dangerous because the levs were not excited by schools of fish. Smaller numbers of them arrived, with almost no babies or rash juveniles. Plus the kelp beds were always there; no hunting for that day's harvest was required.

Schla turned to Lmape, who was at Halling's elbow, and said "I suppose you'll put in for wrangler, now. I'll recommend you if you want."

Lmape blinked, then said "Yeah, I think I will. Thanks, Schla, I'd appreciate it." Schla turned toward the door to the privy.

As they walked to the jichang together, Halling said to Lmape "I'll recommend you, too, if you want. If that won't turn her against you."

"I levvin' don't care if it does, your recommendation will mean the world to me, Hall. And -- I'm sure Qala doesn't know about this, she'dve mentioned it last night, but she'll put in for me, too" said Lmape.

After a pause, Halling said diffidently "How often do you two sleep together? You and Qala, I mean."

"Oh, not on a regular basis" grinned Lmape. "We're not really lovers, if that's what you're asking. We're good friends who sometimes -- enjoy each other."

"I didn't mean to pry" apologized Halling.

"Nope, no worries. Besides -- Qala's sweet on someone else, has been for a long time" said Lmape in a low voice.

"Anybody I know?" asked Halling teasingly. As if there would be someone she didn't know on Skene in their sui.

"Well -- a little too closely, actually" said Lmape. Halling's heart gave a flip. She covered it by unplugging her sinner and starting a systems check. She thought Qala was all over any attraction she'd had for Yoj -- it was terrible news if Qala was still carrying a torch for her, and it made her feel weird. Lmape got right next to her, however, and whispered "If I tell you, will you promise not to pass it on?"

"I don't keep things from my partners" began Halling, even more uncomfortable.

Lmape said "Oh, yeah, I know, you can tell them as long as they agree to keep it quiet, also." When Halling hesitated, confused, Lmape said "It's Lawa."

"My sibu?" said Halling, in grateful surprise. "Wow. Are they in sui?"

"Just barely. Qala's sure that Lawa doesn't like her that way, and she's also a little nervous about what you'd say. It being your younger sib and all" said Lmape.

"I'd be glad for them both" said Halling. "And Lawa -- she's hard to read. At times I've decided she's never like anybody -- 'that way', as you put it. But I'll see what I can find out. Without revealing anything, of course."

"Tell me if there's hope" said Lmape. "I'll find a way to give Qala a nudge." They clapped each other on the shoulder and Halling climbed into her sinner.

A week later, the schooling maps suggested the sinners try south and east of Yanja. En route, Danaan radioed Halling to say her compass was not registering. She and Halling talked it over, and decided it was not an issue since flying the pattern focused on altitude and her partner's lighter, not the compass direction.

After an hour of searching, Halling found a good concentration there, and the sinning went well, with fewer leviathans than usual -- presumably, some levs in the Southern Wasa were being diverted by the kelp sinning occurring almost within visual of their location. Just as they were finishing, a fog bank rolled in from the east, which was not uncommon in this region. Halling radioed the lighters to stand apart, since flying the pattern without direct visual could be disastrous. Once the load was secured, they started for home, Halling telling Danaan to follow the sound of their singing.

After five minutes, they broke from the fog into clear sky. Yanja was visible nearby, and Halling turned them in that direction. Just as they entered Yanja airspace, Rark said urgently "Danaan still hasn't emerged from the fog! Where are you, Danaan?"

"I thought I was right behind you, but I can't seem to get out of this soup. And the sound keeps going in and out" answered Danaan.

Halling suddenly remembered that fog banks can ricochet sound waves as well as light. She passed that on to Danaan and said "Rark, go fly a pattern parallel to the line of fog but don't enter it, repeat, stay out of it. Broadcast constantly for 30 second intervals, with a 5-second break so you can hear others. Danaan, you home in on that. We can't dump this load, we're over land. Let me know when you get clear, Danaan."

Halling carefully increased the speed of their haul. They dumped at the docks and Halling radioed Rark. "She in sight yet?"

"No" said Rark, fear not quite scrubbed from her voice.

"How's your charge?"

Rark answered "I have -- maybe 45 minutes left."

"I'm low, too. I'm going to land at the jichang and swap out to a fresh sinner. I'll come back out there with help shortly" said Halling.

At the jichang, she explained the situation to Bux and Yoj, asking them to go tell Iro and then Ektr. As pilots clustered around her, she asked Lmape to take a big training sinner with a full charge to Yanja and land it. She asked for volunteers to help with the search and had to turn away all but four, since there were only that many craft remaining with a full charge available. Igoz appeared at the jichang and seconded Halling's plan.

They took off again, Halling radioing Rark that when they got within sight, she was to go to Yanja and switch to the sinner with Lmape. She asked Danaan what her charge was, and got no reply. On the second request, Rark said "I haven't heard anything from her in five minutes", despair in her voice.

"Lev" said Halling under her breath. She positioned the five new craft on a line along the fog bank, which was slowly creeping toward Skene, and synchronized them all on the same broadcast schedule Rark had been using.

By the time Rark rejoined them, Lmape at the helm, she sounded crazed. Halling was glad she'd had the forethought to put Lmape with her. There was still no word from Danaan.

They flew their search pattern for 90 minutes, until the fog had enveloped Yanja and threatened to cuff off their visual path to the jichang. They never heard a crackle from Danaan. Finally, sick inside, Halling said "We have to go back. We can't risk losing more craft in the fog. I'm going to ask the jichang at Yanja to transmit continuously at intervals from now until the morning, in shifts, and I'll set up rescue personnel there as well."

"No!" screamed Rark. "I don't care about the fog, I can get around with a compass, let me go into it and find her!"

"We can't risk it, Rark" said Halling.

"I'm not giving up!" Rark shouted.

"Nor am I" said Halling. "But by now Danaan's charge is gone. I choose to have faith in her, to have figured something out." It was empty words, she knew. Still, she had to get Rark back down on solid ground.

They let Lmape land first. By the time Halling climbed out of her hatch, Rark was wailing between Iro and Ektr, the rest of her own Manage around them. Halling went to hold Rark, saying "Listen, listen to me. I know the bond you two have, I had it with Xaya. I need to ask you, and be honest: Do you feel her still alive? Check your heart."

Rark sucked back her sobs and took a few shuddering breaths. She closed her eyes and stood for a minute, then opened them to look at Halling and say "She's still out there. Oh, emma of us all, I can feel her, she's not dead, I'd know it if she were."

Iro began crying at that, saying "Me, too, I feel it, too."

"All right then" said Halling. "One thing I can imagine is her gliding to a gentle halt on the water. The surface will be glassy smooth in a thick fog, and there'll be no shadow underneath her to give her away. The hull is watertight. She can ride out the night there, if she keeps quiet. In the morning, the sun'll recharge her and she can take off again." If the levs don't spot her first, Halling didn't say.

Rark's face flooded with hope.

"So" Halling said, turning to face the pilots. "We'll be needed at first light. Everyone's to go eat a full meal, no matter how tired you are. Then sleep -- don't sit up and talk, go to bed. I'll have the canteen make us breakfast an hour early, so by the time there's any light at all we can be in the air. No sinning tomorrow, everyone will be on search." She didn't even bother to ask for Igoz's input or approval; she was too exhausted.

She said to Qala, "I need to get her home, as well. Call me on Sigrist radio the instant you know anything. Use code -- ask for Yoj to come with me if it's bad news that you don't want to transmit."

They walked home, Iro, Rark and Ektr in their midst. At the Manage, they discovered Ng had somehow gotten salad, rice and roasted chicken prepared. Her face was lined with pain, but she was triumphant. They added bread, cheese, fruit, and ikan to make a feast for 15 at the table. Mill offered for Rark to sleep with her in their loft. Rark began crying again, hugging Mill and thanking her but saying she needed to be alone, so she could visit Danaan in her dreams.

After eating, Iro and Ektr took Rark home. Halling had a quick bath, laid out her clothes for the next day, and went right to sleep. Yoj and Bux played with the children, doing their best to alleviate their worries. Yoj secretly thought Halling's idea of what Danaan might be doing was extremely implausible, and she doubted Rark's certainty as well.

Everyone else went to bed early, too. Yoj woke from nightmares twice, but Halling was snoring beside her so she lay still until she could drop off again. Bux and Yoj both got up with Halling to see her, Rark and Danaan's emma off, without drinking tea this morning. Yoj said she would be at the Lofthall as soon as the children left for school.

She and Bux went back to bed for an hour, Bux pulling her in tight and saying "My gut is good with this, sweetheart" which for some reason Yoj could believe more than anyone else's. Yoj slept without dreaming, this time. When they got up, Mill begged so abjectly to stay home from school, go to the Lofthall, that finally Bux said "Okay. I'll take off work, too, and you can go with me. But if I say it's time to come home, you listen to me, you don't try to go to Halling, understood? Halling is taking care of the whole Lofthall right now, and I'm your emma for the day."

Mill, jolted, nodded agreement. Bux asked Veida and Ng if they wanted to go as well. They looked at each other, then Ng said "I'd rather stay here. Work is how I get through this kind of uncertainty. But will you send Mill back with a direct message if there's something happening that they don't want to put on Sigrist radio?"

"That's a good idea. And Mill, get your school books. We're going to sit at a desk and work on that paper you have due next week" said Bux.

Mill gave Ng a dismal glance and got ready.

When the children and their emmas stepped out the front door, however, the lane was still thick with fog. Yoj's brief rise in spirits vanished.

Two hours earlier, Halling had walked with Rark, Iro and Ektr into the dispatch room to find a cot beside Qala's desk, little used, and Qala on the radio. She got off quickly when she saw them and said "No word from Danaan, either here or at Yanja. And -- that was the Sigrist. She and the astronomer both forecast heavy fog around most of Skene until at least late afternoon."

Halling turned and kicked the nearest chair savagely, sending it flying into the air and landing almost at the feet of Igoz. Igoz blinked and said "I need to be at Yanja, coordinating the effort there when -- we can lift off."

"No one can fly you" pointed out Qala.

"I know, but ferries are about to run again. I'm heading to the landing, I'll be in Yanja inside of two hours" said Igoz, putting on her manteau.

Halling was looking at her incredulously. This meant Igoz would be out of radio contact for most of that time. "The ferries between Faar and Beras are open water" she pointed out vindictively.

Igoz clearly hadn't thought of that. Open-water ferries in a fog relied on the tracking skills of the faryaste. "Well, maybe it will clear by the time I reach that point. I can't just sit here" she said. Grabbing her burzaka, she walked out the door. No word to Halling or Qala about who was left in charge.

"I know the faryaste on that leg" said Qala quietly. "She has a sound beacon she uses, it's actually reliable."

"More's the pity" said Halling, "If we're going to lose anybody to the levs, I know who I vote for."

Which duly stunned everyone else in the room, and was an indicator of how pushed Halling felt.

"The jichang at Yanja was beset with volunteers, and they trained a few of the more experienced how to use the radios -- they set up a second radio and used it to scan other frequencies" said Qala tiredly.

Halling looked at her then. "Did you sleep?"

"Couldn't" said Qala briefly. No doubt she'd left the radio on all night, listening to the calls out to Danaan.

Halling felt her own mind come back into focus. "I'm going to the canteen, eat and talk with the pilots. I'll bring you back a tray, and after you eat, you're going into your room and sleep. No arguments. I can handle the radio until the fog lifts or something happens. It'll keep me busy."

She and Qala looked at each other, communicating silently, and Qala said "Okay."

Pilots were lining the hall, waiting for word. Halling ushered them all into the canteen, saying "Eat as if your energy is going to be tested in a while. Fogs eventually lift, and we have no reason to change our assessment of Danaan's smarts, do we?" Talk was subdued at first. Lmape, Schla and a few more of the senior pilots sat at the table with Halling and Danaan's family, urging them to eat. Lmape said "Remember when Danaan's oto heel kept coming loose, and she kept forgetting to go get it fixed after her shift?"

Rark's ravaged face briefly lit. She said to Iro "This was before you began working here. She went into the jigong shed and used metal welding fixative to glue it back on. Worked, too, although Enyi was upset when she caught her at it."

There was a cautious chuckle in the room. Someone else had another Danaan story, and after that, breakfast was told over exploits of Danaan's ingenuity and determination. By the time Halling returned to the dispatch room with a tray, pilots were laughing. Not Rark, Iro or Ektr, but their faces were somewhat brighter.

Just as Qala was standing to go to her adjoining room, Mill rushed in. Qala gave her a hug before she went to bed, looking out on her feet. Bux let Mill go say hi to the pilots but insisted she come right back, no games -- although she could ask one pilot for help with her paper, if there was anyone well-versed in the subject. Bux set Mill's bookbag on Igoz's desk when she found out Igoz was gone, saying "Well, at least someone useful will use this piece of furniture today." Which got a breathy chuckle from Iro.

Halling settled in front of the radio with maps of currents and winds from the last two days, bent over them trying to guess where a craft on the water might have drifted. She enlisted Rark in this effort, diverting her with practical math. Lmape returned with Mill and they set to work on writing about the cycles of rice paddy production; Yoj had not known until that point that Lmape grew up on Beras.

Ektr brought them all tea every hour, using the walk down the hall as a means of clearing her mind and also giving visual reassurance to pilots who sat around the main room, playing cards and picking at their uniforms. Halling sent Iro to the jichong to rig their largest, most powerful sinner with extra batteries and a second radio, as well as grapple cables and a complete first-aid set-up.

At one point, Rark said to Halling "Ever since the burns, she's been careful about staying hydrated. She packs two bottles of water with her when we go out, no matter how briefly."

Halling said "That's to the good, then. One less thing to worry about."

After three hours, Halling checked back in with the Sigrist and Astronomer, to see if their scans showed any change in the fog. She wasn't able to keep the discouragement from her face when their answer was "No". A few minutes later, Qala came out of her room, pillow creases on her face, saying "Did I hear the radio?" Halling filled her in and Qala slumped into a chair.

"Did you sleep?" asked Halling.

"I did. But I'm done for now" said Qala. Igoz called in to say she had reached Yanja and was available if they needed her. Qala took the radio from Halling and gave her acknowledgement, but as soon as she turned off the mic she said acridly "She'll sit with Yanja bigwigs drinking brandy all day." It was another shock to them all: Halling had suspected Igoz was a drinker, yet had never felt brave enough to ask Qala if it were true.

Iro returned with word that the sinner was ready and waiting. She sat down beside Ektr. Thus it was that they were all in the room when the Lofthall radio crackled and a voice stiff with disuse said "Uh...hello, Qala, I guess? This is Z'bef -- from Peisuo. And I'm calling to say I have your pilot, Danaan, sitting here beside me."

Ektr and Iro both screamed. Rark lunged for the radio, but Qala grabbed it protectively, saying in her calm Qala voice "I read you, Z'bef. May we speak with Danaan?" As she clicked off, she wondered to Halling "How in lev does she have transmit capacity to our frequency?"

Halling turned to look at Yoj, jubilation having brought them both to their feet. Danaan's weary tone came into the room, saying "Danaan la Ektr na Iro here, reporting both pilot and craft are intact. Is Rark there?"

This time Qala let Rark have the mic. Rark said "My darling, my love, I'm right here. I knew you were all right, I knew it!"

Bux had stepped to the door to pass on the news, and a thunderous cheer now went up from the main hall. Pilots followed her back into the room, choking the doorway.

After a couple more exchanges of gush between Rark and Danaan, Halling took the mic gently from Rark and said "Listen, we're heading your way. We're socked in by fog, we'll need continuous radio signal from you during our flight, even with our instruments."

Z'bef answered, saying "I can do that. But right here on Peisuo, we have clear sky. Looking north, we can see the band of fog. You'll come out of it about 200 meters before you reach us."

"Thank all that's good. And thank you, Z'bef. We'll -- see you soon."

Halling rang off and waited for Igoz to call. After a minute, she radioed Yanja, only be informed that Igoz had left the jichang to go to lunch. Halling's face went rigid.

"Mill!" she said. "I need you to run to the Ethicist's as fast as you can. Here -- " she wrote hastily on a piece of Lofthall paper. "If she wants us to not take off before she gets here, you have to run back with that word, with feet like wings, you hear? Otherwise, I'm taking the authority here."

Mill flashed out the door, paper in hand. Halling turned to Iro and said "I'll need four more batteries in that sinner, and an extra compass, now."

"Already done" said Iro. "It's redundant in every way I could think of." She was grinning ecstatically.

Halling hugged her then, her and Ektr. "I'm sorry I can't take you with me, but we have space limits and we may have an extra woman on the return trip" she said apologetically. She heard Rark drawing in breath, and cut her off by saying "Of course, yes, you're going with us."

She turned and pointed to Yoj. "And you. I'll need another volunteer as well -- no, hang on, before you all raise your hands. I need a large pilot who will not hesitate to use violence on the exile at my command, no questions asked." The room went sober. Schla kept her hand raised, and Halling said "All right, then, you go find something you feel confident about using as a weapon."

Yoj left the room with her, saying "I'll be right back."

Qala was on the radio to the Sigrist, confirming the news and their plan. A few moments later, they heard the announcement go out on Sigrist radio. The Lofthall gave itself over to cheering for a while.

Yoj came back to the room carrying two of the large stacking pails they used on Skene to carry hot food. On top of each pail was a pie. Her kabat was buttoned and suspiciously bulky.

"What do you have there?" asked Halling.

"Pork roast, new potatoes, broccoli and mushroom casserole, pearl onions and peas in cream sauce, yesterday's leftover hamas in ginger sauce, plus bread in my coat" said Yoj.

"Ah, good. She'll be ravenous" said Halling, not clarifying which "she" in question. The bread was not accounting for all the bulges in Yoj's coat, however, because there was the clanking of glass when she moved. Schla returned with a metal axe that Halling suspected was used by the canteen staff to slaughter chickens. At that moment, Mill burst in, breathless, and gasped out "She says go ahead, but take guards and call in every five minutes once you're there, she'll be here waiting on you when you get back, oh emma can I go with you, please?"

Bux pulled Mill back into her arms and answered for Halling "Not legally possible, honey."

"We're off, then." Lmape took one of the pails from Yoj and Halling took the other. Rark was already out the door. Everyone in the Lofthall walked them to the jichang, the tarmac around them eerily veiled by fog. Once in the sinner, Yoj had to unload her jacket to put on her harness. On the floor she set four loaves of bread, jars of mustard, preserves and honey, plus two bottles of the good rice wine used occasionally by the canteen for cooking. No one said a word.

Halling turned on the radio and said "Z'bef and Danaan, we're about to take off. Please begin transmitting at 30 second intervals. Qala, you're in command now."

Halling lifted them into silent, bright invisibility. Yoj found herself shivering. Schla was up front, beside Halling and ready to assume the second set of controls. They were both intensely focused on their instruments, and no one spoke, listening to Danaan singing snatches of the coming-home song and what must be Z'bef laughing in the background.

Ten minutes later, as if punching through paper, the sinner burst into full daylight, making Yoj shut her eyes momentarily. Halling immediately radioed "We're in the clear, and have a visual of Peisuo." Qala answered "I hear that."

Danaan's lighter was parked to the edge of the jichang, leaving them room to land. Most of its metal surface was splotched with pale green spatter that Yoj thought resembled shu feces. As they hovered over the Peisuo jichang, beginning descent, Schla said quietly "The door in the wall between the jichang and the exile's part of the island is standing open."

"I see that" said Halling. "If something happens, take her out according to your best judgment." Yoj looked at the back of Halling's head, but kept silent.

By the time they reached ground, Danaan was standing in the doorway, grinning from ear to ear, her uniform incredibly wrinkled and stained. Visible behind her, but not close enough to be threatening, was Z'bef, white-haired and with a frightened face.

Schla insisted on being first out the hatch, but Rark was second and when she reached Danaan, she picked her up, Danaan wrapping her legs around Rark as they screamed in relief. Halling radioed to Qala they had landed and were going into the manage, she'd call again from there in less than five minutes. She locked the sinner as she left, and when they had all passed through the wall, she locked that door as well.

The manage was clean and bright. Almost every wall surface was covered with drawings, painting, and photographs of Skene. Yoj sucked in her breath -- one entire wall was dedicated to her children's art and their family pictures. Halling didn't take it in. She crossed directly to the radio and called Qala. She sat down at the desk with the radio and asked everyone else to sit down as well. Schla, however, stood by the door, axe in hand. Z'bef eyed her, then said "Can I get you all tea?"

"She's got wonderful tea" said Danaan, now in Rark's lap.

Yoj set the pails of food on the table and said "Tea would be great. I'll set the table." She unloaded her kabat again, and Z'bef seemed unable to move, watching the items appear. Yoj said "You can have wine now, if you want, but the rest of us won't be indulging. Whatever's left over is yours for later."

Suddenly Z'bef lunged toward Yoj, and Schla took a step in their direction, but Yoj's arms went around Z'bef and they hugged tightly. Z'bef had a desperate, almost disbelieving expression on her face. Tears soaked her cheeks, although almost no sound came from her.

Yoj finally pulled back and said "We're going to eat a meal with you. You've earned this, you understand?"

Z'bef nodded and went to make tea.

Rark said tenderly to Danaan "You positively reek, my love."

"Wait till you hear!" bubbled Danaan. Halling called in again and said "We're eating, here. I'll call every ten minutes for now. We have a guard on duty, everything's okay."

She joined them at the table, but Schla retained her post by the door. Halling pulled the sinner's video camera from her guibba and set it on the desk so it could film the table, turning it on. "All right, Danaan, let's hear the story." She dished potatoes onto her plate as Danaan began.

"Well, the best I can explain it is signal bounce or distortion -- no matter how I followed the radio sound, the further away it got. Eventually I was just picking up static, and not long after that, I broke out of the fog, on what must have been the back side of the bank" said Danaan, talking around a full mouth. "I felt pretty sick at that moment, I can tell you. My choice was to go back into the fog, hoping this time I'd find a way through -- or, well, you know what. My charge was down to almost nothing. My levvin' compass still didn't work, but I could tell rough directionality because of the sun's position, now that I could see the sun. So -- "

There was a long pause, as Danaan forked pork into her mouth. Yoj looked at Z'bef -- she was sure this was the first fresh pork she'd had in over ten years.

Taking a swallow, Danaan said "I decided I had some kind of special luck, and this was meant to be, and I headed on south and east. There was a vague kinda difference in the horizon, and I aimed for that."

Rark was staring at her, not eating. Halling said "The map. You thought about that map, didn't you?"

"I did for a fact" said Danaan, grinning excitedly.

"It crossed my mind" said Halling. "It's what I would have done. But I didn't tell anyone, didn't want to get false hopes up."

"Well, sure enough, there it was, that tiny little secano. It was all rocks except for one maybe landing spot, if I was willing to set down at an angle. By that time, my charge was gone, so I decided I was willing. As I hovered, I saw that every levvin' surface was covered with shu, and my hovering scorched literally hundreds of them. When I set down, I heard the crunch under my gear. Still, I was on solid ground. I breathed out a couple of times, and by the time I was done, my lighter was covered with shu."

Yoj suddenly wasn't hungry any more.

"I kept trying to raise you by radio for a while" said Danaan, "but I got worried about draining the battery utterly. I had water and some ikan, so I ate a little, pulled out the blanket from behind the seat, and, well, I went to sleep. By the time I woke up, it was dark. No fog, though. I could see the stars, brighter than I've ever seen them. I needed to piss pretty bad, but there was no way I was opening that hatch, so I drank down one water bottle and managed to piss into that. With some -- splash, shall we say." Danaan laughed merrily, and everyone joined her, although it occurred to Yoj how unfunny it must have been at the time.

"I decided my best bet was to wait 'til the morning, when sun would recharge my batteries. I went back to sleep, though this time, the stench of shu and their skittering around on the roof was getting to me. At dawn, I needed to take another piss, but my bottle was full. I held it as long as I could, then I drank down the last of my second bottle of water and filled that with piss, too. I could see out the windows that one crag was clustered with seabeaks, and every now and then one of them killed and ate a shu -- well, they all stole bits of shu. The shu were scuttling back and forth to the cortices and a tiny beach, catching crabs, fish, whatever they could from the ocean. It was a nasty little microcosm. Let me add here, both on the way to the secano and the next day, I saw no sign of leviathans. Not a single one in that region." Danaan raised her eyebrows for emphasis.

"They really are focused on us here" said Halling.

"With the shu spread out on my solar panels, plus their shit everywhere, I didn't think I was going to get enough sun exposure to recharge. I had to talk myself into it, but eventually I buttoned up my guibba, put on gloves and cap, grabbed a wrench, and slithered quick as I could out the hatch."

Rark gasped. Danaan, smiling at her, said "I remembered how shu hate privies, and I figured they wouldn't like piss, either. I had to come out swinging that wrench like a club, they literally rushed me. I have bite bruises all over under these clothes, I can tell. But as I began wounding and killing them, the seabeaks took to the air and began helping me out -- well, not actually intent on helping me, just joining in the slaughter. Eventually I got enough of a clear space to scramble up on the lighter, slugging shu off onto the ground, and then I began pouring piss onto the wings. In a trickle, just like you add oil to make that egg dressing of yours" she said gleefully to Yoj.

"Well, it worked like a charm. They began jumping off the lighter like it was poison. The seabeak frenzy was still continuing, and I saw one snatched in mid-air by a seabeak. When they were all off the wings, I used the last of my piss to scrub the panels clean of their shit. I sacrificed my pilot scarf for the cause, Halling, I'll need to order a new one" chortled Danaan.

Yoj had the sudden thought that this video, if released by the Lofthall, would likely become the most popular movie Skene had ever seen.

"I climbed back in the lighter and waited. It got fairly warm, and I was starting to really thirst before the charge returned to where I thought I could maybe coast on home. When I lifted off, I did a circuit to check out the horizon, and I filmed the island when I did so, Halling." Danaan looked to Halling for congratulation and received it. Yoj changed her mind -- Danaan's video of the secano would now be the most prized footage of all time.

"Once I was high enough to check things out, I made some terrible discoveries. One is that the fog bank was still there -- not as close as it had been, but still between me and Skene. The other is that both my altimeter and my radio weren't working. I don't know if it was the shu or if there's something generally wonky in my electrical system, but it meant I couldn't afford to go back into that fog. I thought about landing again and waiting until the fog clear. I could make more piss for a while, until my kidneys gave out." Danaan said this lightly. Yoj saw Rark squeeze her.

"Instead, I tested my memory about the map and where Peisuo lay in relation to where I was. I projected a course based on the sun, and headed as due west as I could. After half an hour, I could see a tiny blip on the horizon to the north, and I angled for that. Sure enough, there it was. I landed and Z'bef here gave me some of the best water I've ever tasted in my life. The rest you know." Danaan focused on wolfing down a piece of rhubarb pie.

Halling thought for a moment, then turned off the camera. "We'll have to leave your lighter here, then. Come back out for it when the weather permits." Halling had been calling in to Qala faithfully every ten minutes, and she did so now, announcing they would be taking off in another ten and she'd ask for a homing signal at that point. She turned to Yoj and said "Would you like for Z'bef to take you on a tour of Peisuo?"

Giving them time alone, without witnesses or a guard. Yoj stood up, and after a few seconds, so did Z'bef. They went outside and Z'bef, completely unaccustomed to talking, made the most of her only conversation in a decade. Yoj held her hand the entire time. When they returned, they took a little more video of Z'bef and her surroundings. Yoj said "I'll send you prints from it, I promise. And I'll mail copies to anyone you want."

They left the remaining food with Z'bef. She walked them to the jichang, her body rigid now with the agony of new abandonment. Everybody except Schla hugged her, and Yoj kissed both her cheeks, whispering "It happened once, it could happen again. Don't give up. I love you, I've come to love you dearly."

"Me too" whispered Z'bef.

Yoj waved at the window of the sinner as they lifted off. Z'bef stood next to her tomato plants, two katts rubbing her ankles, looking up but not waving. Yoj thought that face would haunt her the rest of her life. Two minutes later Peisuo vanished as they plummetted back into fog. Like traveling between magical realms, thought Yoj.

Danaan and Rark were next to her, entwined and whispering. Yoj could only make out one word, "terrified" by Rark. She could tell Halling was extremely tense about trying to find the jichang and land in this soup. It lightened a little as they got over land, something about a temperature difference, Halling said. If they got low enough to see the tarmac, they could hit a building. But Iro had hauled pulsating yellow fog lights, dozens of them, out to the middle of the jichang, creating a double ring that even Yoj could see from her window. With a huge sigh of relief, Halling set down.

Materializing suddenly from the mist around them appeared what seemed to be all of Riesig. The hatch was jerked open by Ektr. Danaan tumbled into her arms, and Iro grabbed her from behind. Danaan was carried on pilot shoulders to the Lofthall, where 200 people squeezed into the main hall.

Qala said Igoz was on her way back. "Any instructions?" said Halling. "Nope" said Qala, grinning. Halling gave a brief report to the Ethicist, stressing Z'bef's cooperation and big role in providing safe haven for Danaan. Then she and Qala set up the Lofthall video player and monitor, and Danaan's story was shown to everyone. This time, Mill sat in Danaan's lap. The constant cheering and exclamations trickled away at the end, with the scenes of Z'bef, haunted and pale, talking about what she had done with her time on Peisuo.

The Ethicist made no comment about Z'bef's access to radio or other contraband evident by the video. She asked if she could have a copy eventually, and Halling assented. Danaan was hauled off to the showers by Rark and the pilots, Bux holding Mill back by force. Halling said "I'll be home later. But Yoj, would you do me the favor of taking both videos -- the one at Peisuo, and the one Danaan made -- to the photographer's and getting copies made?"

Yoj looked at her knowingly. This had to occur before Igoz could lock it away. And Halling was leaving it to her to determine how many copies. "Consider it done" she replied.

Bux tugged at Mill. "Danaan needs to write a report, and then she will want to go home with Rark" she told Mill. "We have to go home, too. Ng and Veida are waiting to hear the story, you can be the one to tell them." That got Mill out the door.

Eventually, at the Ethicist's request, an audio version of the Peisuo video was played over Sigrist radio. Igoz was then persuaded to release it for general viewing, but she hoarded the secano footage, refusing to show it to the Lofthall. Danaan's lighter was repaired without any clear explanation of why, for the second time in a row, she'd had a major systems failure in her craft.

Halling had her own copy of the secano video, and after dinner she, Qala and chosen pilots would review it meticulously, making a detailed map of the secano -- which they began calling Danaan's Secano -- and strategizing how to make it a refuge for pilots in distress over the Southern Wasa. The first time they watched it, Danaan paused it at one point and said "Look at the horizon there -- my compass, lev it all, wasn't working so I can't say precisely where the camera is pointing, but it was pretty much opposite where I thought Skene was, so say, southeast. Do you see anything, or is it just me?"

Halling and Qala leaned forward, and Halling moved the video forward and backward, frame by frame, several times. Finally she said "It could be a temperature fluctuation on the water. Could be a squall of some kind."

"Too small to be a squall" said Qala. "And if it was a temperature fluctuation, we'd see color distortion. This is just -- a color change, I'd call it. For just a blip there, it's not blue or green, but -- reddish to purple."

Halling looked at her for a long minute, then said "Like the volcanic rock of the secanos."

Since Danaan made a complete circuit in her lighter before she headed west, and since her speedometer was both working and visible inside the cabin, Halling was able to break the panorama down into quadrants, then degrees, based on velocity and time lapsed. Mill was sitting with them while these computations were done, and at one point Halling looked up to say to her, "See why being really good at math is essential to pilots?" Eventually they had a compass heading and a guess as to distance.

"Completely out of range" commented Qala.

"Unless someone went as far as they could on one charge, to the secano, intending to spend the night. Charged up the next day and headed on to the second" said Danaan, her eyes dancing.

"If it's really there, and if there's a place to land once you get there -- otherwise, you're one with the levs" argued Rark.

"Or if we could get sinners rigged with extra battery relays" said Halling. "Admit we're going to explore, not just feed Skene." Yerush said she had talked with the Archivist directly, and she had no knowledge of any other sector maps. "Well, that map came from somewhere" said Halling stubbornly. She was sitting between Ng and Danaan on that side of the table, with Mill leaning against Danaan at the end, and Yoj suddenly saw the profound resemblance between them all, as if they were four ages of the same individual. Must be their determination she thought.

When a Lofthall crew went back to Peisuo to retrieve Danaan's lighter, they carried with them materials to repair the chicken coop and crates of laying hens, plus a rooster. Z'bef would have fresh eggs for the first time since she had been exiled. Veida picked out the hens from their stock herself, but the order for the supply had come from the Ethicist.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

I put off reading Chapters 30 & 31 until tonight, Maggie. Now I see a "dedication" to me. Thank you!