Tuesday, January 1, 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:
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's radar showed a serious concentration of fish, with, at least so far, no incursion of large bodies. They had just flown over a small cluster of leviathans, so they'd be underfoot in a matter of minutes, but Halling radioed Schla to deploy the net. She got into position at the northern quadrant. As crew leader, she took the most problematic position, and baby levs tended to hover about the northern point. At this height, net problems were the sinners' headache. At lighter height, the southern quadrant was the danger zone.

Halling shot out her grapples, engaged with the net and passed it on underneath her to the sinner on her west. Once the net was secured between the four of them, Schla released the coils that let it drop down into the ocean, two hundred meters of fine mesh metal. There was a tremendous crash and splash when it hit the water, and the sinners counterbalanced against that as well as the increasing loss of resistance as the net became water-borne rather than airborne.

Halling craned around in her seat to look through the glass behind her. Yep, there were the levs, including at least three babies. She checked her radar again. The organic mass within the net was denser than it had been, which always happened when fish found their egress blocked. At least two levs were near the net, underwater. But the lighters were already singing and starting the formation. Those first two passes, a weave far too close to the surface in order to draw the leviathan's attention and kickstart their chase impulse, was always the point at which Halling's stomach tightened into a double fist. She could sort out Danaan and Rark's voices from the rest. "Carynn bye" she thought to herself. "Please keep them safe."

One of the levs near the net, at least 20 meters down, abruptly veered off toward the south and the lighters. See, she told herself for the countless time, they could not possibly have a visual of the lighters, either they hear the engines or the bastards are communicating with each other. She thought it was likely the latter. But the second lev did not leave the net area, and that was not a good sign. She checked her radar again, looking at the mass in the center of the net. Shit -- there was a clump that could, in fact, be a baby lev.

Schla had been running the winch for a few minutes now, and the bottom of the net was sealed. In another minute, the signal would go out for the sinners to begin lifting. If Halling was going to abort this sinning, it should be now. They'd have to fly some distance to find another school of comparable size, and batteries were steadily being depleted. Plus, the levs were going to follow wherever they went. She felt a surge of anger inside her at the idea of losing a day's work because of a stupid baby lev and the adults who taught it humans were prey, not a risk.

She remembered her argument with Igoz, and Igoz's accusation that Halling was willing to risk the stability of Skene in order to indulge her feelings. Then she remembered Yoj and Bux telling her that feelings were not problematic if they weren't in conflict with her best thinking.

Her best thinking was that any information they could gather about leviathans might be critical to human well-being. She imagined Veida's face nodding at her. She let the lift begin.

The load was heavy -- too heavy. Schla radioed her instantly, saying "Do you read a baby lev?" Halling replied "No. We must just have an exceptional harvest. Continue." Then she radioed Danaan and Rark, singling them out by name, and saying "We are going to have a slow ascent because of unusual weight, please cover." She knew they would decipher the code.

The leviathan response was as vicious as anything she'd ever witnessed. They weren't berserk -- if they were, the net would have been a goner -- but they were clearly frenzied in their attempt to bring down a lighter. There were countless near misses before the bottom of the net finally reached the 30 meter mark. All the lighters then zoomed up to safe altitude, and a jubilant shout ended their song. Halling announced a heading, and the sinners shifted into drive.

Five minutes later, the baby lev surfaced at the top of the roil of fish in their net. It was writhing and, once in the open air, they could hear its screams. All three of the other sinners hit the radio at once, demanding a drop command.

"We're on our way" answered Halling calmly. "I'm not willing to lose this harvest. I have a plan."

She heard Danaan's laughter briefly. She switched her frequency to long range and began trying to rouse the Lofthall. Ten minutes later, she got Qala, weak but clear, answering her hail.

"Qala, we've got an exceptional load, not just of fish but also a baby lev has appeared in the net. I am choosing to not abort. Repeat, not abort. Please advise the docks we will be doing a partial open of the net, not a full dump. Before the lev reaches the bottom, we'll winch back up and take it to the refuse dock next to the cliffs. Request crawlers and emergency crews on standby."

There was an electrified silence -- Halling thought she could hear the shock of the other sinners -- then Qala replied, with a hint of humor in her voice, "Understood, Halling. Will arrange. Do you anticipate the baby lev still being alive on arrival?"

Halling drawled "Well, that's one of the many things we don't know, isn't it? But we're about to find out. If it is still moving, we'll make an alternate plan, dump at sea. In the meantime, the leviathan chase is unprecedented. You might want to alert ferries and cortices."

"Immediately" answered Qala. "l'll send this out by Sigrist."

Once Halling signed off, she waited to hear protests from the other sinners. But none came. Now, that was interesting. After a minute, Danaan broke back into song, this time a triumphant ditty about Skene's survival that expressed her jubilation. All the other lighters joined in, and then Halling added her voice. Twenty minutes later, they reached sight of Skene, still singing.

Halling ordered radio silence so she could talk with Qala. Qala said everything was ready for them, and all ferries had been stopped. Halling had been watching the baby lev; it had not moved in ten minutes, and she conveyed that to Qala, adding "We're still not going to make a decision as to its disposition until the fish underneath are removed." Then, in a casual tone, "Where's Igoz?"

Qala answered, again with barely suppressed laughter, "The Sheng Zhang had a meeting on Verzin with the Sheng Zhangs of Verzinnen and Potenza. Since the ferries have been temporarily halted, she is awaiting lighter transport. But all lighters are currently in use."

Halling was willing to bet the lighters would stay in use until it was too late for the Sheng Zhang to reach the fish docks and interfere. She said to Qala "Please convey to the docks that any uorui or uominori who is interested in participating in the dissection of a leviathan, their presence will be appreciated."

That oughta bring all of Riesig to the docks thought Halling. She thought she heard Rark laugh this time.

Sure enough, the crowd at the docks was in the several hundreds. Dock workers had formed a cordon to keep a clear space over the main drop site. Even so, Halling turned her radio to loudspeaker as they glided into position and said "Please be advised, we are not sure whether the leviathan is still alive. I'd recommend you to have a clear path for running."

That pushed the crowd back instantly. Halling turned over the coordination of the drop to Schla, adding "It's okay if we waste some fish rather than risk plopping that lev onto the regular dock."

"No doubt about that" said Schla tensely. She ran the winch controls and issued directions in a calm enough manner, however. The fish harvest was gratifying, Halling was glad to see. That would count in her favor. When a meter's worth of fish remained, Schla engaged the winch again and the net closed back up.

Halling radioed all the sinners and said "Did any one of you see movement from the lev?" One by one, they all answered "No."

"Proceed to refuse dock" said Halling. She turned on the loudspeaker again and said "Refuse dock, we approach with final dump, including a baby leviathan who appears to be dead. Please have a line of four crawlers ready to push the leviathan over the cliff at my command -- but only at my command. No action without my command."

The crowd surged toward the refuse dock, although the distance behind the cordon was even greater now. This would be the first time a living Skener had ever been this close to a leviathan.

Halling turned over the final dump to Schla again. The loss of weight when the net released its last contents was a little jolt. Halling dropped her grapple and said "Sinners, return to the jichang. Lighters, please remain available for possible diversion needs or as assigned by Qala except for Rark and Danaan -- you two please land and join me at the refuse dock as soon as possible."

Halling hovered over a landing site on the dock and loudspeakered down to the crowd underneath her to please move, she was about to land. They dispersed with alacrity. Once she was down and the engine was off, she jumped from her hatch to a massive cheer. She pushed her way, grinning, through the crowd and reached the dockworker cordon.

"Can one of you get me an ulu?" she asked. This was a large, wickedly sharp fish processing knife in the shape of a long crescent. As someone began passing one to her, she felt a hand whack down on her shoulders and turned to be grabbed in a hug by Yoj.

"By all that's good, you did it!" Yoj roared. Bux hugged Halling from the other side. Nearby was every member of her Manage except Ng, the younger children in the arms of an abba. Mill's face was incandescent. "Can I go with you to touch the lev?" Mill shouted as soon as Halling's eyes met hers.

"No, absolutely not" Halling and Bux said in chorus.

Halling took the ulu in her hand and stepped out on the dock, toward the lev. The reek of ketone from it was intense and nauseating. A thick layer of flopping fish lay all around it, an unstable obstacle Halling would have to wade through. She looked at the dock and fish workers, and said "Anybody else want to come with me?"

Four brave individuals stepped forward. Three of them had various kinds of knives and hooks. The fourth had a rock-carving laser grabbed from somewhere. Halling nodded at her approvingly -- she should get her name, for future reference.

At that moment, a long shuddering wail of leviathan song broke over the cliffs toward them. The crowd reacted viscerally, many people screaming, children bursting into tears. The lev must be in the deep water just below the cliff. The cliff height was 40 meters, so they were safe enough, though it didn't really feel that way. Halling turned around to look at Yoj and Bux. Suddenly jubilation was gone, replaced by fear.

Danaan and Rark burst through the crowd behind Yoj and ran to Halling. "The morrie vaseo between Bosco and the cliff is choked with levs!" Danaan said urgently.

"All ferries in, coasts secure?" asked Halling.

"Yes" answered Rark. Then, "What's your plan?"

"I plan to see what's inside a leviathan" said Halling grimly. She stepped forward with a confidence she seemed to be draining from the yellow of her uniform, she didn't know where else it could be coming from. Somebody passed knives to Danaan and Rark, and they kept level with Halling. Someone called out "Wait a sec" and Ektr driving a small loader rumbled along the dock toward them. She used her scraper blade to clear a path through the fish almost to the baby lev. She stopped before going the last three feet, and Halling thanked her profusely. She looked around at the crowd and spotted Iro joining her Manage.

They approached the tail first -- farthest away from that obscenely massive mouth. The lev had not so much as twitched since being dumped, and its row of eyes were dull, but Halling knew enough about fish to know they died slowly out of water. She kicked a path through the remaining fish until she could have, if she wanted, reach out a hand and touch the lev's skin. She found she didn't want to, most definitely.

Up close, the skin was mottled and infested with sea lice. She reached out her knife and poked the lev vigorously. A gasp traveled across the crowd. The lev did not react.

A small ooze of red seeped out from where Halling's knife had pieced the lev's skin. Halling wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs and grasped the knife in both hands. She widened her slice in both directly, revealing pinky-grey flesh laden with muscle and blood vessels. Still no reaction. When she was halfway through the tail, she stopped and looked around.

"Get me a camera!" she called out. She waited a minute while someone ran to the dock office and returned with a decent-looking camera. "Got plenty of memory" the worker said who handed it to her.

She looked at Danaan and Rark. Rark said "I'm good at it" and took the camera from her.

"Especially the muscles" Halling said. "Any clues as to how it maneuvers."

She walked up the flanks toward the spiral of fins, continuing to kick a path. Every foot or so she opened up the lev to cross-section, going at least two feet in, chiseling out a wedge of flesh. Muscle structure was like a giant web underneath a thick layer of fat, massive criss-crossed ropes of fiber. And this was just a baby.

The leviathan song from the water below the cliffs became almost constant, and it was hard to not be unnerved by it. Some people gave up watching even this most compelling and original of sights because of the noise, and headed home, trembling.

Halling and Danaan removed one of the dorsal fins from the body entirely and let it fall on the dock. Rark was close behind them, photographing close-ups and measuring views. Halling began reaching up as high as she could to slice out sections, or right next to the dock, hoping to find evidence of internal organs, but all she found was muscle and blood.

She removed one eye and dug down into the flesh below the socket. Aha -- she hit bone. Brain casing, she would guess. She motioned to the dock worker with the laser, who came forward.

"Are you experienced with that thing?" asked Halling.

"My emma is a yanjanger" the worker replied. Which explained why she'd opted for this tool.

"Can you cut through bone?" continued Halling.

The worker snorted in derision.

"Stand back in case of splatter" she said, and turned on the laser. Aiming it into the eye socket, a sickening smell of cooking ketone reached their nostrils and, after a half minute of white light, suddenly a small crack was followed by a stream of blue-grey tissue. The worker stepped back, letting the expulsion dwindle to a stream. Halling said "Cut a viewhole into the brain, if you can."

When the worker was done, Rark took a dozen photographs. Halling had stepped on toward the mouth, but before she could find a way to talk herself into approaching that open deathtrap, Igoz broke through the crowd and began shouting at her "What the lev do you think you're doing?"

"Finding out what makes 'em tick" said Halling calmly, facing the Sheng Zhang's contorted face.

"You've polluted this dock, you're risking all of Skene with this unauthorized stunt -- " began Igoz.

Halling turned her back on the Sheng Zhang and walked toward the mouth. The crowd reacted with another "Oohhh". Danaan and Rark wouldn't let Halling get ahead of them. The Sheng Zhang yelled at their backs to stop what they were doing, but when they ignored her, she shut up. She began to sense where the crowd's sympathy lay. She was not going to approach the mouth herself.

Halling looked around for the worker with the laser again. The worker grinned at her and said "I'm not getting closer than this to that thing", pointing at the mouth.

"Show me how to work it" said Halling, walking back and taking the laser from her. After a brief lesson -- turn on, point and shoot -- Halling handed her knife to Danaan and walked to the end of the lev, directly in front of its mouth.

She thought of Xaya, then. She would never know if Xaya was completely unconscious or dead before she confronted this horror. Rage boiled into her blood, and she turned on the laser, settled it against her shoulder, and fired full power into the open mouth.

She didn't quit until her anger dissipated. Shreds of flesh were all that was left. Still, Rark took conscientious photos. Halling walked on to the other side of the lev. Her boots were now splattered with levi blood as well as fish muck from the dock.

She was planning to work her way down this side, looking for more clues, when she noticed near the tail, high up on the side, that mysterious blue spot. She walked rapidly down to it and motioned for Rark to take a series of photos. It was three feet long, a foot wide, an irregular squiggle that looked like a giant vein or structure of some sort, not far under the surface.

When Rark was done, Halling motioned her and everyone else back -- if it was a blood vessel, the spill could be massive. Standing four meters away, Halling turned on the laser and aimed it squarely at the blue spot.

There was no splatter. Instead, once the structure was cut through from side to side, the leviathan simply collapsed. It was as if all its flesh melted, liquified. It sprawled out on the dock like a flattened jellyfish, with bulges here and there indicating bone or internal organs, perhaps. But the entire musculature of the body gave way, and it was no longer a cohesive corpus. The now floppy flesh reached almost to the tip of Halling's boots.

Her brain was shouting Glory, glory, and it echoed throughout all her limbs. She could hear Danaan and Rark exclaiming, but she turned to find Yoj and Bux in the crowd. They had moved within line of sight, and their faces matched her own emotions. The blue spot was the key. The leviathans could be unraveled, just that easy.

Halling told Rark to photograph whatever else she thought important, but the dissection was done -- what remained was goo, and her goal had been achieved. When Rark finished, Halling told the crawlers to come dispose of the carcass over the cliff's edge. As she rejoined Bux, Yoj and her family, she realized she still had the laser in her arms and it was still turned on. With a slight shudder, she handed it off to a dock worker.

Igoz came toward her. She was not going to admit what had just happened.

"I expect a full report from you" she began.

Halling cut her off, almost but not quite insolent. "You'll get it tomorrow morning, in detail. For now, we have a good harvest, we have more knowledge than we've acquired in 500 years, and everybody is safe. I'm going home to clean this muck off me and eat a very late lunch, followed by a long sleep." She turned and slung an arm over Yoj's shoulder, then Bux's. The crowd parted to let them through. Mill was skipping along ahead of them gleefully.

Igoz turned to Rark and said "I'll take that camera."

Rark refused to hand it over. "It belongs to the fish docks" she said calmly, Danaan and Iro coming to stand beside her. "I'll see if they can develop the photos, and I'll bring them directly to you." But not without making a set for Halling, she thought, that Danaan will carry to her first.

Without waiting for an answer, Rark strode toward the dock offices. When Danaan was sure that Igoz was not going to follow Rark, she went to Halling's sinner and prepared to fly it back to the jichang for washing and tie-down.

At the Manage, Halling stopped to pull off her otos, then, stepping inside the door, her pants and shirt as well. Yoj took the clothes to the laundry room and began a load, while simultaneously starting hot water for a bath. Bux went to the back yard and cleaned the otos, attracting much interest from the katts who sniffed at the leather open-mouthed, a scowl on their faces.

Qen left to return to the school, which had abruptly stopped classes when the radio notice came in, to relieve teachers who were staying with children stranded by the ferry shut-down. Veida made a toasted sandwich thick with cheese and sliced tomatoes, and set it at the table in front of Halling with a mug of tea. Halling felt odd sitting there in her underwear, but was too weary to go get a schmatta. Ng pulled her chair right next to her, her arm over the back of Halling's chair.

"Tell me everything that happened!" Mill demanded, leaning on Halling's other shoulder.

"Let her eat first" said Yerush. "Come, children, let's go out back and you can tell me what you just saw, we'll make a round robin story of it, all right?"

Veida sat down on the other side of Halling, watching her eat. "That Danaan reminds me of Maszon" she remarked.

Halling laughed. "That's funny, she reminds me of Xaya."

"The quintessential lighter" grinned Veida.

Bux came back in the house and washed her hands, then stood behind Halling rubbing her shoulders. Just as Halling was done eating, Yoj came out of the bathroom and said "Your bath is ready."

Halling stood up and almost lost her balance. Yoj and Bux moved underneath each of her arms, and Yoj said "I'm bathing with you."

"Okay" said Halling. She let them help her to the bath room and undress her. Yoj slid into the tub behind her and Halling turned sideways so she could rest her forehead against Yoj's neck. Bux washed her gently, and by the time she was done, Halling was sound asleep.

They roused her enough to dry her off and walk her, naked, to the bed. They tucked her in and decided to let her sleep alone.

Yoj went to finish her load of laundry and Bux conferred on that evening's menu with Ng.

Just as Yoj went to wake Halling for dinner, a knock came at their front door. When Yerush answered it, there stood Danaan and Rark, in clean uniforms but obviously not yet rested, by the dark circles under both their eyes. They said they'd not been home yet. Yerush urged them in and Yoj got two extra chairs, seating them on the side between Mill, Ndege and Dodd. Halling sat next to Bux at one end, and Veida took the spot next to Yerush on the other. Prl was placed between Qen and Ng, and Yoj sat down with Speranz on her lap.

Stew and salad were already on the table. Bux said "You're eating with us, of course" and the two young lighters accepted. Bux began taking bowls and dishing out stew as Qen, on her end, started the salad around. Yoj's bread was already sliced and buttered on a plate in the middle.

Rark pulled a paper envelope from inside her guibba and handed it down to Halling. "You should look at them later" she suggested. "Igoz doesn't know you have a copy."

Halling grinned at her and blew her a kiss, which made Rark's light skin show a deep blush.

"Now can we hear the story?" said Mill.

"Yes, but only to the point where Halling lands" said Yoj.

Swallowing her first bite of stew, Halling began. She kept inviting Rark and Danaan to join in, and they learned what had been going on for each other during that afternoon's adventure. Halling was careful to explain concepts and terminology to the children, who had to repeatedly be reminded to eat, they were so caught up in the story. Yoj fed Speranz alternate bites, her foot pressed against Bux's under the table.

By the time they were done, Dodd was almost in Rark's lap. "When I grow up" she said confidently, "I'm going to be dichter and I'll write you special songs, just for you."

Rark laughed, glancing over at Yoj, and said "By that time, I'll be a sinner. But you can still write me songs."

Veida looked down the table at Halling and said "So? What's next?"

Before Halling could answer, Danaan cleared her throat and said "Listen...the other reason we're here, besides the photos...the Sheng Zhang had a long meeting the whole afternoon, shouting at us all about what happened. She said all Skene is going to be up in arms about what happened, that you endangered the entire island, and hinted about consequences being dire."

Halling looked at her with concern. "Make sure you stay out of her line of fire. Let it come at me."

When Rark began to protest, Halling said "I'm going to need you both, probably sooner rather than later. You'll have to be in the clear enough to be of use. If I stay the target, she won't suspect any kind of flanking maneuver."

Rark grinned in comprehension.

Danaan continued, "The other thing is -- all the sinners, including Schla, said there was no sign of a baby lev in the net until we reached Bohaira. They swore it to Igoz. So did Qala."

Halling couldn't quite take this in. "But -- I broadcast over the radio, I told Qala -- "

"Yeah" said Rark, "But that's not the story now. The story is that it was too late to do a dump and fish again by the time we saw the lev. And the Sheng Zhang wasn't listening to the radio at that point, just pilots and Qala. It was on our frequency only."

Halling almost whispered "Why? Why would they lie?"

"Because this had to happen" answered Danaan. "We all knew it. We had to have this chance, to find out what we've found out. We know what it means, even if Igoz doesn't."

Ng spoke up: "She's got to go. She can't remain Sheng Zhang, not with the possibilities this opens up."

The pilots were startled, but the abbas all nodded. "She can be defeated, she has the support of commerce but not much else" said Yerush.

"Who will we get to replace her?" asked Halling.

Yerush's grin was broad and a little feral. As all the older women, plus Bux and Yoj turned to look at her, Halling's face went smooth in shock.

"Oh, no, I'm not a Sheng Zhang" she said.

"You're already the leader of the Lofthall" said Danaan, "That's why she's so freaked out. We need you, exactly you, making decisions for us."

"We can get you elected" said Yerush softly. Halling was stunned. Veida couldn't stop laughing.

Bux stood up and went to the warmer for dessert. "Veida used dried apricots to make a cobbler" she announced, "And we have whipped cream to put on top."

The children cheered loudly. Danaan and Rark's faces also lit up. They leaped to their feet to help clear the table for dessert.

After scraping the cobbler dish clean, Yoj let Speranz get down and run into the living room with the other children. She said to Bux "They need baths, but I guess they can wait one more day."

"I have the morning off, I can wash Speranz then" answered Bux.

The next morning, Bux and Yoj both got up with Halling and Veida, to drink tea and whisper encouragement. As Halling was going out the front door, she glanced up at the children's loft and saw Mill's face peering through the railing at her. Halling waggled her hands like wings at Mill and winked. Mill's face glowed as she got back under the covers.

When Halling approached the Lofthall, a figure stepped out of the alcove and motioned to her. Halling saw it was Qala. She let Qala pull her back into the alcove and put her head near Qala's mouth to hear.

"There was a meeting and we all said the same thing, that -- "

Halling interrupted. "I heard about it, from Danaan and Rark. Qala, I can't thank you enough -- "

"That's not all" said Qala. "After dinner, Igoz announced to me and a couple of the mechanics that she was grounding you indefinitely. She said after a hearing with another Sheng Zhang, she didn't say which one, you were likely going to be removed from the Lofthall."

Halling's chest seemed to constrict instantly. She began shivering, although her guibba was buckled and she had on hat and gloves.

Qala continued whispering. "Word -- got out. Within an hour, every pilot knew. There was a secret meeting in the dorm. Then every pilot went over to Igoz's quarters and got her up -- this was close to 11. They informed her if she grounded you or in any way demoted you, they would all quit on the spot. She'd have to start from scratch. They'd bring the Lofthall to a halt."

Halling stared at her in the trickle of light from a nearby window. "No -- what did she do?"

"She backed down. She tried to act like she was under this terrible pressure from other sources but she intended to back you up, fight for you, it had all been a misunderstanding. She was grey, Halling. I expected to see a wet patch at her crotch" Qala's tone was derisive.

Halling tried to stifle her laughter. "I'm sorry I missed it" she said. "I wonder how the word got out?" She squeezed Qala's shoulder.

"Yeah, it's a mystery, ain't it?" Qala's grin was visible. "Anyhow, I thought you should know" she concluded, taking a peek to see if the coast was clear before sidling back to the Lofthall. Halling waiting a few minutes, hugging herself, before going in the door and entering the canteen to a muted hurrah.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

WOW, Maggie! You are a fantastic story teller! Every chapter knocks my socks off (and that's not good in Michigan in January!).

Keep writing, Woman. Ginny Bates and Skene are wonderful stories.