Thursday, January 10, 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


It was two weeks before school let out for the summer, and every child on Skene was cranky and restless. Halling was flying the school sinner for East Tendril and because she was ahead of schedule, she decided to drop the three children from Ada Fling directly at their Manage's pad instead of on Abfall where they'd have to catch the ferry.

As she accelerated from Abfall over the ferry's morrie vaseo toward Ada, there was a sudden silence from her engine. Her battery indicator dropped to zero and she lost all thrust. After three seconds, long enough for the older kids to notice the change, Halling turned her ignition off, then back on again. The engine sprang into life, the battery returned to a normal level, and she resumed climbing. But the cold panic inside her did not retreat.

Her focus on the battery indicator remained obsessive. She didn't see another flicker from it as she dropped her passengers at Ada, Juh, and Verzin. When she landed at the Lofthall tarmac, before she tied down and plugged in her sinner to recharge, she walked over to the jigong shed. She asked the first jigong she saw, Enyi, where Iro was. Enyi had been head of the day shift since the last Sheng Zhang, but Halling had preferred dealing with Iro ever since Iro had been hired.

"She didn't come in today" answered Enyi. "She's got the same chest ailment that Danaan has, went to the curandera today for antibiotics."

Halling felt disappointment, but she told Enyi instead what had happened.

Enyi said "You sure you saw it go all the way to nothing? Because that's a brand new array, in that sinner, put it in myself last week."

Concealing the flicker of irritation she felt, Halling said "I'm sure. Some of the kids noticed the engine cutting off, too. Maybe there's a loose connection, I don't know. But I want a full diagnostic run before that sinner goes back out."

"Will do" said Enyi.

"I left it unplugged, in case that makes a difference" said Halling.

"All right" said Enyi. She made no move to leave the shed, however. Halling finally said "I'll check in tomorrow, then" and went to the Lofthall. When Qala was off the radio, Halling asked "What's the status on Danaan and Iro's health?"

"Still sick, but getting better, Rark said. She's been coughing too but she began taking the same thing they're on and she insists she's all right to do local runs. I know she doesn't want to leave us short" answered Qala.

"We won't be short, we'll just postpone a commercial haul if we have to. Talk to her personally in the morning if I don't get a chance, and if she's congested, send her home. Flying over water doesn't do a thing for bronchitis, even in this warm weather" said Halling. They went on to other business.

The next morning, Mill begged to go with Halling on the school run. Halling wavered, then said "I'm doing the West Tendril today, and we use every seat on that route, honey. I know you don't mind sharing with another kid, but they might mind. Listen, it's only another week until school's out. When I help out on the occasional haul and you're here, you can go with me all day sometimes on those, okay?"

Mill reluctantly made the deal.

When Halling got to the Lofthall, the first thing she heard was Rark coughing from the dispatch room. She went in and said "You don't sound well enough to fly."

"I am" insisted Rark. "The crud is just coming up out of me, that's all. I swear I don't have a fever or any kind of weakness."

Halling looked her levelly in the eyes, and decided she wasn't dissembling. "All right, but no sinning out in the open ocean. I need to replace you and Danaan as a lighter team, anyhow. Instead, you do local sinner hauls, and if your condition changes, you tell me or Qala and levvin' go home, you hear me?"

Rark promised. Qala handed her a pick-up on Byli, a heavy load of early harvest to bring back to Verzin for processing. Halling walked on to her sinner.

It had been tied down and was plugged in, but not washed down. She looked at the engine compartment and couldn't tell if it had been opened or not -- there were no smudge marks, but there might not be with battery work. She uncoupled, climbed into the hatch and turned on the engine. It sprang into instant life, with a full charge just like a nearly new array should have. She waited five minutes, watching the indicator intently, then finally strapped in, radioed take-off to Qala, and did one last check of all instruments.

As she lifted off, she saw Rark in a heavy-duty sinner two berths down from her also starting her engines. She gave a wave and circled out over Bohaira, partly to gain altitude but also because it gave her pleasure every time to fly over her own Manage, looking down at the green beds and black roof, imagining the people she loved inside maybe hearing the sinner and wondering if it was her. She tilted slightly as she approached their lane, so she could be seen clearly through the hatch if by chance anyone was outside. But no one except katts and chickens were out of doors. She accelerated to climb.

In the next instant, her engine went dead. She looked at the battery, and it was flat line again. Swearing, she reached for the ignition, turned it off for a second, then turned it back on. Nothing.

Panic filled every available space inside her except her mind, which stayed cool and loose. She turned the ignition off again, making sure it was completely disengaged with a visual, waited two heartbeats, then turned it on. Still nothing. She was now over South Rambla, with seven lanes of Manages in front of her if she continued on toward open water. It was twice that far back to the Lofthall, but she'd hit open water just as soon if she banked south. Her altitude was plummeting: Whatever she did, she was not going to let this craft come down on crowded Riesig.

She manipulated her flaps, trying to achieve glide, as she turned south and west. The heavy passenger sinner, however, was built for occupancy, not aerodynamics, and she could not find a position that keep her nose downward. Every two seconds she released one hand on the flaps to try engaging the ignition again. The back of her mind noticed a shadow pass close over her, and in the next instant, Rark's voice came on the radio saying "Halling -- Halling, are you in trouble?" But she could not spare a hand to answer, she didn't have enough hands as it was.

For a brief second, she gave fervent, all-out thanks that Mill was not with her.

By the time she reached water's edge, where South Rambla emptied into West Tendril, she was less than a meter above the rooftops of the cliffside Manages. She hoped to level out and maybe slide to a stop on top of the water, but she had to clear the shallows of the ferry line and its morrie vaseo first, she thought. Another ten meters, and she'd be over deeps, with no chance of hitting reef or rock underwater if the impact was direct.

She suddenly remembered her parachute. She didn't have to go down with the sinner, she could jump. She released the hatch, which blew open and yawed her sinner violently in that direction. She let go of all controls to unbuckle, lunged for the hatch, and as she jumped free, she pulled the cord on her parachute.

There was only ten meters between her and the water. The parachute opened but had no time to catch air. A second later, she hit the water on her right side, with a jolt of pain and cold, but she kept going down into the dark blue at a sideways angle. She'd forgotten to buckle her cap, and it was wrenched off her head. As she was still going down into the water, she felt an enormous percussion to her left, and realized it was her sinner crashing. At the same instant, she realized pain on her right side was localizing to her shoulder and arm, a searing throb that made her want to suck in air. No air was available, however.

Flailing her legs and her left arm, she managed to get more level and then, blessedly, begin rising slowly back up toward the light above her. The instant her mouth cleared the surface, she screamed and breathed in a lungful of life. She was having trouble focusing -- the salt water stung her eyes -- but she could tell to her left was the sinner, slowly sinking, and to her right was the parachute, flung out like a net over the surface of the water. She couldn't move her right arm at all without agony, and her otos, every item of clothing she had on, felt like it was made of metal. She tried to tread water with sluggish legs and her left arm, but she kept bobbing up and down under the surface, then just above it.

She timed her breaths to match her bob, and on one bob up, she blew out her nose to suck in air through her nostrils as well. As she did so, the reek of ketone filled her nasal passages, then her lungs, then seemed to fill her entire body. Her brain stopped working. Terror consumed her. The leviathans were here.

She looked around her wildly, trying to see them, but nothing broke the light chop of the surface except her sinner and the parachute. She was the third point of a triangle of floating objects, and she wondered if that was keeping her from being gobbled up instantly. Maybe they'd go after the sinner first. She looked behind her to see how far away the cliffs were, or at least the morrie vaseo -- maybe the sinner would distract them enough to allow her to swim for it, hobbled as she was. She wished a ferry were nearby.

Then she felt something underneath her brush against her right leg. She felt an eddy of current tug at her from that direction, as something enormous flowed by just under the surface, just underneath the floating parachute. The smell of ketone was overpowering.

She stopped moving. She began slowing sinking downward, and she closed her eyes against the sting. She had the thought that she'd just seen her Manage for the last time, and there was a flicker of gladness in it -- at least she had that image in her mind. She'd hold onto that image as she went down the gullet. Or -- she could breathe in water now, just one big gulp and she'd be unconscious in a few seconds. She tried to convince herself to do it, to open her tight jaw and take one more breath.

In the next instant, the searing pain in her right arm burst into flame as the parachute harness across her shoulder was violently jerked outward. Keeping her eyes tightly shut, she had the sensation of being propelled forward, through the water, then, bewilderingly, launched into air. She felt the surface tug at her otos one last time, and it felt as if she were being swung by the end of a rope.

She opened her mouth to scream at the pain, and breathed in air. At that point, she opened her eyes, and saw on her right side, blue sky, on her left side, the dark water of West Tendril. Somehow, she was flying, traveling in a sideways arc and gaining altitude.

She looked down at the water, trying to make sense of her launch from there. She saw her sinner, almost submerged now. Three massive pink shapes were clustered around it, just below the surface, not moving. She looked for her parachute, but didn't see it. She turned her head to look straight in front of her, and there was her parachute, scarlet and royal blue silk hanging down like a flying jellyfish from its tackle. The lines of the tackle were taut and came directly back to her chest. She lifted her left hand and touched the webbing. Then she looked at her parachute again, and from it she saw a silver cable stretching up into the sky, and at the end of the cable was a sinner. Rark's sinner. Rark had dropped a grapple and snagged her chute. Rark had her.

As comprehension reached her, her flight began slowing and leveled off. They were over the tip of Bosco and still arcing, now closing in on Riesig and the jichang. She could see it to her left. Their deceleration became acute, and as Rark's sinner reached airspace over the tarmac, it shifted into hover. Halling and her parachute, now overhead, swung in circles like a plumbob for a long nauseating minute.

Halling closed her eyes again, trying hard not to either vomit from the sensation or pass out from the stress on her right shoulder. She opened her eyes again as the swing lessened and she felt a slight change in air pressure which meant descent.

She looked up at Rark's sinner, wondering how Rark was going to keep the heat of the jets from melting the lines of her parachute. As she looked, the parachute silk burst into flame and fluttered down around her. Not a good sign, she thought. She turned her gaze downward, to avoid the heat she could now feel coming toward her. She tried to remember practicing her jumps from the tower, weeks ago. They hadn't landed on tarmac and it wasn't straight down in a real parachute, but still she flexed her knees, reminding herself to bend.

When the reddish-orange gravel was about four meters below her, the line from her harness to the parachute tackle finally burned through. She began falling, and she instinctively pitched herself to the left, determined not to land on her right side and the raging ache in her arm. She hit the ground with all her weight on her left ankle, and she felt a snap in that joint as she continued downward, hitting immovable earth with her thigh, then her hip, then her back, and finally her head. But the blow to her head was not enough to even stun her, and could not compete with the now familiar pain of her right arm and the new, lightning pain of her left ankle. She rolled flat onto her back and tried to decide which pain was worse.

She screamed when someone grabbed her shoulders and she lunged, trying to avoid their touch. It was Yoj, bending over her, yelling her name. "Not my arm, not my arm" she screamed at Yoj. Yoj looked at both arms, and seemed to understand it was her right one. She moved to Halling's left side and, as other people pounded up, she told them "Her right arm's broken, don't touch it."

Halling said then "My left, too -- my ankle." Yoj said "Okay, I see it." Then "You're safe now, darling, you're going to be all right." Halling looked at her and didn't really believe her. The reek of ketone still filled her insides. She began shivering uncontrollably. "Don't leave me" she begged. "Don't let me go."

"I won't" swore Yoj. There were more footsteps, and Halling saw a stretcher being held by pilots in blue and yellow. Yoj said "Don't touch her yet, we have to figure out how to do this." Then she said "Hall, we're going to lie this down beside you on your left side. Can you scoot your upper half onto it by yourself?"

"Don't touch my arm" Halling said again, panicked.

"We're not. Look, here's the stretcher. Can you figure out a way to -- here, I'm going to touch your left shoulder, does that hurt? Okay, how about if I lift your shoulder and waist on this side -- don't anybody else touch her, just me. Good, that's it, you're halfway on it. Okay, now, straighten out using your right leg, just lift your left leg into the air and I'll hold it at the knee. That's right, you've got it. Little bit more. Okay, Halling, you're on it. Lie flat and hold my hand, other people are going to lift the stretcher slowly but it still might hurt."

Halling screamed and gripped Yoj's hand as the stretcher went up into the air as evenly as the six pilots could manage. Yoj said "No rush here, folks, the emergency is over. We're going to walk slowly and calmly to the hospital. I'll count the cadence, okay." Yoj began slowly saying "right, left, right left" and the stretcher began moving sideways. Halling fought the urge to vomit again, but closing her eyes helped. And Yoj's hand helped. "Don't leave me" Halling begged her again. "I'll never leave you, never" said Yoj.

At the hospital, Halling was transferred to a rolling bed with less gentleness than Yoj had managed, and she began screaming again. Yoj was yelling at people, and finally the flare of pain died down to just a burning ache. Someone was cutting off her pants and boots, but Yoj said "I'll do her her guibba, get the lev away from her, I'll do it". She undid the buckles and slowly, very slowly, eased it from Halling's left shoulder. Halling was focused on the scissors going down inside her left boot and the flashes there at every jostle. Finally Yoj said "Hold onto my hand and I'm going to help you sit up, so I can pull this the rest of the way off you."

When Halling was able to sit, she saw at least six people in hospital yellow around her, including Ried. She looked at Ried and said "Why are you here? Where's Bux?"

Yoj said "Ried's the doctor, Halling, we're at the hospital. Bux is on her way. Okay, now, I'm going to slide this sleeve down your arm. I know it hurts, darling, I know. Just one last bit. There's, that's done. You can cut the rest off her, but don't move her."

Halling looked at her right arm and saw an impossibility: Something white and pointed was sticking out of the flesh of her biceps. There was a lot of blood and raw meat and a few pale colored strings with it. It didn't really make sense. She turned her head to look at her left ankle. It was purple and as big as a melon, but there was nothing sticking through the flesh. She closed her eyes again and said "Don't leave me."

"I won't" promised Yoj. Once Halling's shirt was cut off, Yoj helped her lie back down and stayed with her hands on Halling's head, talking to her, as needles were stuck in her left arm and people did all sorts of things to her, many of which were incomprehensible or painful. After a few minutes, though, the pain went away, just like that, all gone. Everything got slow and foggy, except Yoj's voice, her voice was very clear.

Yoj said "They have to operate on your arm, Halling, to fix it. I'll be right here when you wake up, I promise." Halling said "Don't leave me" and that was it for a while.

When she woke up again, the pain was back but not so much, and there was a heaviness to her right arm and left ankle that turned out to be things attached to her. Yoj was still there, and now so was Bux.

"Bux" she said, and Bux kissed her, saying "You're okay, the surgery went great, it's all going to be okay."

"What surgery?" said Halling.

Yoj said "They fixed your arm, and they've set your ankle too. Your x-rays are okay, you might have a mild concussion but nothing else is broken."

Halling said "I smell them, can you smell them?"

"Smell who, Halling?" said Bux, looking scared.

"The levs. They must be so close, if I can smell them like this." Halling began shaking again and said "Don't leave me, please don't leave me."

"I won't" swore Yoj. "What levs?" whispered Bux. "Did she see levs?"

"I don't know, I haven't talked to Rark yet" answered Yoj.

"Rark" said Halling, remembering. "Rark made me fly, she pulled me out of there. I need to see her, I need to -- she saved me, I was dead and I was just trying to let myself go, and suddenly she made me fly out of there."

She saw Yoj look at Bux and Bux said "She's in the waiting room, I'm sure, the entire Lofthall is there with our family, I'll get her."

"Not the children!" yelled Halling. "Keep the children away, I can still smell them, keep the children safe!"

"We will" said Yoj. "You're safe, too, I'm right here."

"Is emma there, too?" asked Halling.

Yoj stared at her. "Ng? No, honey -- Ng is -- not here."

"Good, she should stay home."

After a few minutes, Halling heard Bux's voice saying "She levving will go in here, this is my partner and I'm in charge of her visitors, not you, Ried, you need to back off."

"Back off, Ried" laughed Halling. She said to Yoj confidentially "I hate her just as much as you do, you know."

Yoj laughed in spite of the concern on her face, and Bux was there again, saying "Rark is here, angel."

Then Rark took her left hand, and Halling said to Yoj "Don't leave me". Yoj said "I'm right here" and she kept her hand on Halling's head.

Halling focused on Rark and said "You made me fly. I was under water and then I was flying."

Rark had been crying, Halling saw with surprise. "You sure did fly, I'm sorry how it must have hurt you but I had one chance to drop the grapple. I had to come in at an angle because of the cliffs, and because -- well, they were all around you, Sheng Zhang."

"I know" said Halling. "I can smell them, can you smell them?"

Rark looked startled. "Not right now. We're far away from them now."

"One of them touched me" said Halling. "Under water. I knew then, I tried to breathe in water so I wouldn't be alive when they ate me but I was having trouble, and then suddenly I was flying."

Halling could hear Bux crying. Yoj said to Rark "How many?" and before Rark could answer, Halling said "I saw three."

"At least that" said Rark.

"Why didn't they get me?" asked Halling. "Was it because I was out of the sinner, were they confused?"

"I don't know" said Rark. "I was buzzing them, too, as I got into position."

Halling could feel Rark's hand shaking and said "Do you have a fever? Are you okay to fly?"

Rark burst into crazed laughter and said "I'm fine, Halling, I'm the best I've ever been in my life."

She stepped back, and Yoj's hand left Halling's head. Halling said instantly "Don't leave me" and Yoj said, "I've got your hand, now, I'm right here."

"I don't want to smell them any more, can you get it out of me?" said Halling.

Yoj looked at Bux, who wiped her face and went to the side of the room where a plastic bag sat. She lifted it and sniffed of it, and wrinkled her nose, saying "Her clothes -- reek of it."

"Get it out of here" said Yoj, and Bux handed it to Rark who said "I'll see you later, Halling."

"Thanks" said Halling. Rark left carrying the bag. Bux went into the bathroom and washed her hands. When she came back, she kissed Halling again and said "All better, darling?"

"I was so glad Mill wasn't with me" said Halling. "I'm never going to let her fly again."

Bux began crying once more, and Yoj said "She's on so much pain meds, honey, she's out of it."

"I am out of it" said Halling, "I was right there with them, one of them touched me, and then I was out of it, flying out of it. Rark did that, you need to thank her for me."

"For the rest of my life, I will thank her" wept Bux.

"I still smell them, can you smell them?" asked Halling.

Bux looked at Yoj, and Yoj said "They washed her down with alcohol, I saw them. Maybe it's in her lungs, maybe she did swallow some water." She leaned over Halling's face and breathed gently at her mouth. Halling laughed and said "I don't feel like kissing right now."

Yoj sniffed of Halling's nostrils, then said "I get a whiff, I do." She kept sniffing of Halling's face until she reached Halling's temple, and she put her nose to Halling's hair and said "Oh, crap, it's in her hair."

Bux said "I'll get some help" and left the room. Halling said "Don't leave me, please don't leave me" and Yoj said "I won't, I never will."

Halling dozed off. After a while, Bux woke her up, holding a bottle of Halling's lilac shampoo. "Mill ran home and got you this" she said tenderly.

"Not Mill, she can't come near, keep her safe!" cried Halling.

"She's safe, she's with the abbas and the other children in the waiting room, they're all safe" said Yoj. They coaxed Halling up enough to put a basin underneath where her pillow had been. Bux gently washed her hair, and Yoj went back and forth to the bathroom, carrying bowls of warm water, until it was rinsed clear. Then Bux dried it with several towels until it was no longer damp. Yoj got a new pillow and put it under Halling's head. Halling gave a huge sigh and said "I don't smell them any more. Now I smell like a human being again."

"You certainly do" said Bux, kissing her forehead. Halling went to sleep again, and when she stayed asleep, Yoj turned off the light and curled up next to her on her left side, asking Bux to relieve her in four hours.

Nurses woke Yoj up repeatedly, changing IVs and doing other things, but Halling slept on until a different curandera, not Ried, came in and began examining her. When Halling woke up, the first thing she said was "Yoj" and then "It hurts". The curandera injected something into her IV line and said it would help with the pain, and Yoj sat on the edge of the bed, holding Halling's hand. Halling said "The engine went dead, and I wasn't going to crash on Riesig, not with all those Manages underneath me."

Yoj said "Rark was right next to you, thank all that is good, and she was trying to get you on the radio. Then she called Qala, and Qala sent it out on Sigrist radio. I heard it at my cubicle and began running toward the Lofthall. Then we didn't hear anything for a few minutes, from you or Rark, and -- " Her voice failed then.

"They were there underneath me, they must be in the deeps all the time in West Tendril, just like in East" said Halling. "But I don't know why they waited long enough for Rark to save me."

"Because we can't live without you, that's why" said Yoj.

The curandera said "She really should rest" and Yoj answered "She has been, she'll go back to sleep in a minute, won't you, Hall?"

Halling said "I'm a little hungry" and the curandera said "That's good. We can get you some juice, maybe some soup." She left the room and soon afterward Bux came in, looking exhausted. Yoj pulled her into a hug without letting go of Halling's hand and said "Did you get any rest?"

Bux said "Qala took me to her room at the Lofthall so I could have privacy but I only slept in small chunks. How is she?"

Halling opened her eyes again and said "I forgot about the parachute until too late, but I couldn't have used it any sooner anyhow because then the sinner would have crashed onto someone's manage, you know."

"I know" said Yoj. "Still, it was the parachute which saved your life, that and the grapple training you instituted. You saved your own life."

"No, it was Rark" said Halling. "I was dying, I was going deeper into the dark where they were and I was trying to just suck in the water so I didn't feel them eat me, but Rark pulled me back out into the air."

"She just got another injection of whatever they're giving her" said Yoj. "She slept pretty solid for, what, at least three hours."

A nurse came in with a tray and Halling said "You got any pie here?" Bux laughed a little crazily and helped Halling sit up as Yoj got the table positioned by the bed. Bux told the nurse "I'll feed her" and Yoj asked "Is there any way we could get a cot in here, for one of us to sleep?"

"I'll see" said the nurse. Bux gave Halling a sip of the orange juice and Halling said "Wow that's good." The soup was mostly just broth, but Halling ate it all and drained the juice glass. Then she said "Uh-oh. I need to piss."

Yoj looked around the room and opened a cabinet, finding a bed pan. She and Bux briefly discussed which side would be easier on Halling and decided to turn her to her right, with Yoj under her left shoulder and Bux holding the pan after they got Halling slid to the edge of the bed. Halling remarked "I got no knickers on, I didn't know that. And this schmatta is open at the back."

They were successful in getting most of the pee in the pan, with only a little on the floor that Yoj mopped up after they got Halling lying down again. Bux was emptying the bed pan as the nurse returned with a rolling cot. Yoj set it up in a corner of the room as Bux told the nurse about Halling peeing and answered questions about amount and color. Halling found that pretty funny.

"What time is it?" asked Yoj.

"About three in the afternoon" said Bux.

"The kids will be home from school, who's with them?" asked Halling worriedly.

"The abbas are at home, Qen will walk them home and the abbas are taking great care of them" said Bux.

"Don't tell them about the levis" said Halling, starting to close her eyes.

Yoj said "I'm going to go out to the waiting room and maybe get something to eat. Have you had anything?"

"Qala brought me something from the canteen when she woke me up" said Bux.

"I'll be back in a bit and sleep on the cot. If you're asleep, just wake me when you need me." She kissed Bux and Halling said, with her eyes closed "Don't leave me."

Yoj answered "Bux is here, she's going to lie down here with you. I'm leaving the room but not the hospital, and I'll be back in a few minutes to sleep in the room with you, too. One of us will always be with you."

"Okay" said Halling.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.

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