Monday, December 31, 2007


I'm turning over my blog briefly to my cat Dinah so she can post her choice for Best LOL Cats of 2007. Many of these were created by little gator (Images #1, 11, 12, 15, 17 and 19). BUT -- my favorite of the year was not acceptable, according to Dinah, because it was not feline-based, so I'm tagging it on at the end. Start your year off laughing.




(Ndege and Dodd)



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:
Skene Glossary (Skenish to English)
Skene Cast of Characters
Skene Culture, Calendar, Clothing, and Islands
Map of All Skene
Map of Riesig (the main island)
Map of The Manage on Riesig
Map of The Lofthall on Riesig


Before the Manage began to be filled with children, Yoj had been in the habit of keeping a journal. With Z'bef's exile to Peisuo, Yoj transferred her daily lines about her thoughts and the events in her life to plain paper, adding in Skene news and gossip as it reached her ears. Once a month, she bundled this sheaf into a large envelope, along with extra drawings done by the children or seeds Qen felt they could spare. She went to the second-hand stores and bought a tape player plus any decent music tapes they had. She got a mic and blank tapes as well. She persuaded the cartagen who made copies of books for her to make two copies instead of one. She enlisted Bux's help in locating drawing and painting paper plus a set of paints and brushes. Yerush gave her precious jars of jams and chutney, Veida made teas and tinctures, and Yoj added a loaf of her bread, a round of cheese, and smoked eel to the large package she mailed to Z'bef each month.

Z'bef wrote her back, always a month late in response but the things they talked about were often timeless. After Z'bef confided that an earlier exile had rigged the radio so it would sometimes pick up the chatter of pilots sinning in the Southern Wasa, Yoj bought a set of electronic tools, wire and radio parts, plus copied a general repair book from the library. Veida helped her create a false bottom in the metal shipping crates they reused, and in the next letter, Z'bef let her know she had rigged a new antenna that gave her flawless reception. She got up early each day to listen to the songs and voices of lighters and sinners. She commented acutely on Yoj's lyrics.

Yoj began sending her poetry books, music texts and blank composition sheets. When they had family photos made, she had an extra print made for Z'bef. Into the secret compartment went small bottle of cherry brandy, a plate by Ng, or a pair of sokken knitted by Yoj -- educational or survival tools were okay to send exiles, but personal items were discouraged. And alcohol was strictly forbidden.

When Z'bef wrote that the last two katts on Peisuo had died of some lung ailment, Yoj went directly to the Ethicist and would not be turned away until she had extracted a promise that three adult katts and two kittens would be caught on Pomar and flown out to the exile the following day, instead of waiting for the monthly delivery. Z'bef was surviving on next to nothing in the way of contact -- it was unthinkable that she should be overrun by shu. The island had no chickens, as an earlier exile had eaten them all and the coop had fallen into disrepair. The pilot who made the monthly delivery, with an armed guard, was allowed to stay only ten minutes, just enough time to make an exchange and perhaps shake hands. Z'bef told Yoj most of the time the handshake did not occur; she did not ask for it, and it was seldom offered.

Z'bef's letters to Yoj were as voluminous as Yoj's to her. Yoj usually read them aloud at night to her partners in bed. She had offered to share them with Veida as well, but after a moment of consideration, Veida had said she didn't think she could bear to know the details. It was enough to know what a difference Yoj was making.

As Prl began walking and talking, her calm and sunny nature spread to the other children, and squabbling noticeably diminished, even between Mill and Ndege. She was confident and pampered. Her older sibs were fond of explaining things to her in a somewhat patronizing tone, and she got into the habit of saying serenely "I know" whenever she was told something. When she was a year and a half, Bux told Yoj and Halling, "All right, I'm ready for one last baby."

"Are you sure?" asked Halling. "I mean, we have four."

"And how will it disrupt Prl's idyllic existence, to no longer be the adored youngest?" worried Yoj.

"Youngest isn't necessarily a bed of roses" said Bux knowledgeably. "And yes, I want five, I want this Manage to have five children. I'm still young and energetic. This will be my chief contribution to Skene."

"None bigger" said Yoj softly. Once again, Bux got pregnant on the first try, and this time her morning sickness was brief. When she began showing and they were all out in public together, it was entertaining to watch people do a head count of the children, then glance at her belly in surprise. Bux seemed to revel in it.

At dinner one night, Mill asked if she could be the one to name the new baby. Before Bux could say "No", Halling turned and asked Mill "What names are you considering?"

Mill tried for nonchalance as she said "I like the sound of Danill. Or maybe Mallark."

Yoj and Ng burst into laughter simultaneously. Mill scowled at her bowl of soup, and Halling said kindly "Those are original names, huh. And I like how they sound. But, it's up to emmas to name their children." Bux kicked Yoj under the table and Yoj managed to choke off her laughter. The next day, when Halling repeated Mill's suggestions at the Lofthall breakfast, it caused an uproar that left Rark and Danaan both blushing.

The next night, the two young pilots came for dinner. As they were helping to set the table, Veida said to Yerush "The folks behind us are moving. They're going to live with their child on Juh, now that it's just them over there."

Yerush said "Shards, I was hoping they'd hold out another ten years or so, until our grandchildren got old enough to need their own Manage."

"What do you mean, our own Manage?" said Mill. "I'm going to live in the Lofthall." Halling's jaw set into a hard line.

"And I'm living here with you" said Dodd, her face troubled.

"Good plan" said Yoj, giving her a quick hug.

Rark and Danaan, however, were looking at each other. Rark said "Is it definite, then? Have they notified the Ethicist?"

"Yes" said Veida, stopping to glance at them. "Why, do you -- oh. Ooohhh."

Danaan motioned behind Mill's back and shook her head, indicating they shouldn't get her hopes up. Mill was already demanding "What? What ooohhhh?"

Veida dodged the question, but Mill persisted. Finally Halling said "Mill, take your sibs to the sink and all of you get your hands washed."

Halling got up to carry Prl herself, and as she walked by Rark she murmured "I can't think of anything better, let me know if you want us to petition on your behalf."

Qala showed up just in time to sit down with them. Once everyone was eating, Yoj asked Yerush "Do you know where I could find the exact records of the testing they did to determine how often songs had to be changed to keep levs from learning them?"

"I'll have to look" said Yerush. "It'll be in First Generation Texts, likely buried in some dense military report. The Lofthall was considered part of the military then."

Which startled Rark and Danaan -- the concept of military was an alien one on Skene. But Halling focused on Yoj, saying with a slight challenge to her voice "What are you thinking about? You want to use songs longer than a week?"

"Oceans, no. But I am wondering how long they retain the memory. Is it for their lifetimes, or is it some kind of species memory? Because -- well, I just wondered if anyone had ever re-used songs from the past. I mean, the distant past" said Yoj.

Halling's face immediately softened. "You getting worn out?" she said quietly.

"I'll do my job as long as it takes" said Yoj stoutly. "But -- there's never been a stretch this long without an apprentice. If I could find some way to get even one week a month off..."

Bux looked at her carefully, then, noting the spreading white in Yoj's hair, the lines around her eyes. "Do you have records of the songs from previous dichters?" she asked, just as solicitous as Halling.

"Not the one I trained under. At least, no one can find them." Yoj's tone was slightly bitter. She had not much liked the dichter she had apprenticed with. "But before that, from thirty years ago -- your era, Veida -- I have lots of those in a big crate. And there are bound copies from various tenures even earlier in the stacks at the library."

"How do they compare to yours?" asked Qala curiously.

Yoj glanced at her, modesty making her hesitate. Finally she said "In the beginning, they were pretty rudimentary. Just enough to get the job done, looks like. Jingoistic lyrics and melodies that were long on percussion, short on beauty. Every now and then I run across some truly amazing songs, but -- I'm far from objective, I admit it -- still, it seems like I pour myself into it a lot more than most dichters have." She looked at her hands shyly.

Danaan said "If you want to have a try at using an old song, to see if it registers with them, I'd be willing to experiment with it." Rark nodded her emphatic agreement.

Yoj began protesting "Oh, no, I can't ask you to risk yourselves that way -- "

Halling said "Well, maybe we can figure out a method that minimizes exposure. On a voluntary basis, of course, not during a regular sinning run." She looked at Qala, who said "After the shift is over. And -- when Igoz is out of the dispatch room." Meaning they were going to do it secretly.

Halling said to Yoj "It's information we need to have. I'd say, look for songs that are at least 100 years old. And -- pick one that's really striking, you know, memorable on its own account. We have no idea how long the shitters live, or how they do remember things, but this could help narrow things down a bit."

Making a project for the good of pilots helped persuade Yoj to not feel guilty, as Halling intended it should. The next day, after her shift, Halling and Qala sat in the dispatch room and, between Qala's turns on the radio and Halling's bites from a tray of food, they hatched a plan.

"We'll have to test it in both the North and South Wasas -- there's some overlap of levs, I think, but not entirely" said Halling.

"All right" said Qala. "That means two different days. I can coordinate a set of delivery runs to, say, Yanja and Exploit, that just happens to result in Rark and Danaan being near the north and south ends of Skene, on the eastern perimeter, at the same time."

"And me" said Halling. "There has to be a sinner present. The levs will expect it, and I'm not going to let those two be exposed to this kind of danger without me there."

Qala looked at her speculatively, then said "How are you going to tell if they recognize the song?"

"By which ones of them are leaping, and how they're tracking" answered Halling. "In any given week, the older ones figure it out first. I mean, I'm guessing at that because we stop one day before they act on it, but I see a few of them starting to position themselves at key points, where a lighter is going to dip lower than usual on the next pass. Makes runs on Shmonah gut-clenching. Still, the older ones are also more cautious, so that extra day of waiting is what does them in. By Moja, there's a new song, and they have to start from scratch."

"Well, then, how long will you have to fly the pattern before you can tell if the older ones have it sussed out?" asked Qala.

Halling pondered. "On Shmonahs when I see what looks like them tracking it too well, it happens within the first half hour. So -- I guess if we do it for an hour, that'll cover it. We never sin in a single spot for an hour."

"Are you actually going to lower a net?" said Qala, with alarm.

"Lev, no" said Halling. "Not on my own. But I will run the radar, because it's possible they can pick up on that -- we don't know what kind of sensory apparatus they have -- and I'll center us over a big school that we actually would sin if we were all there."

Qala was beginning to look dubious. "I dunno, Hall -- I hate the idea of letting those two kiddos skim within reach of death just to see what happens, even if they're all for it."

"Oh, I agree" said Halling. "I'm going to insist that the first two passes, the tail-flash as we call it, be no lower than 20 meters. That'll still get the levs worked up but they won't have a chance to make an effective leap. Then the lighters will stay at 28 or 29 meters from that point on. The juveniles will leap themselves silly but not be able to reach that high. It's only the big 'uns, which are also the older ones, who can sometimes make it the edge of 29 meters. And I'll be watching -- that's all I'll have on my mind, watching what's going on."

"Videotape it" suggested Qala. "In fact, let's mount cameras in all three craft."

"Great idea" said Halling. "Now, if word of this gets out, you're to let me take the heat. I'll divert it from the lighters, Igoz will be happy to settle the blame on me."

"No way on blue blue Skene will I do that" said Qala with a grin. "Let her threaten to fire me. It would take three people to replace me. Besides which, I know -- things."

Halling grinned back at her. "Care to share?"

"Not yet" said Qala. After a period of them looking at schedules and deciding on days for the tests, Qala said quietly, "She wants to be Archivist, you know."

She didn't need to say Yoj's name. Halling answered "I know. If Bux weren't pregnant now, I'd push for talking to ZaMa right away." ZaMa was current archivist apprentice.

"ZaMa's young yet, so even when the Archivist retires, which ought to be any day now, it's possible ZaMa will never turn over the job to Yoj" pointed out Qala.

"Yeah, I know, and that will count against her. Yet what Yoj wants most is not the title, but access to the training and the Archives themselves. If she plays it right -- if she acknowledges ZaMa may always be the Archivist and they'll need to train a younger apprentice together -- and if we can get Yerush's help, I think ZaMa might like the idea of having an apprentice who can never usurp her. And of training the second generation beyond."

Qala laughed. "You're getting really sharp at this politicking kind of thinking. Must be Yerush rubbing off on you."

"Oceans, I hope not" said Halling, not really joking.

That weekend, Rark, Danaan and Qala spent Shmonah afternoon in the living room with Halling and Yoj, learning a song that had been written 111 years ago. Yerush and Veida took the children to South Rambla for the afternoon, to splash with their wellies through the shallows, turn over rocks looking for water beetles, and haul back plastic bags of river sand to replenish the katt toilet area beside the privy. Bux took a long nap. Qen and Ng also claimed to be napping, but Halling was grateful for the steady singing which might drown out any noise from Ng's room.

The following Shmonah, the trio from the Lofthall returned shortly after lunch, hauling between them a video player and a viewing monitor which Halling set up on the sideboard. There was a whispered discussion between Halling, Yoj and Bux, which the older children tried to overhear despite distraction from Qala and Veida. At one point, Halling clearly said "At least Mill, definitely her". At another point, Bux said "She's still a baby, I don't think it'll register" and Yoj replied "You underestimate her."

Eventually accord was reached, and everyone was asked to get a drink, then find a chair. Every child was pulled into the lap of an adult. Halling claimed Mill, and Yoj, torn between Dodd and Prl, finally let Bux take Prl. Ndege had her choice of pilots or Veida, and after smirking about it to Mill, she chose Qala.

Rark pushed in a tape and said "We had almost three hours of footage, but we edited it down to this hour as most representative." She settled in close to Danaan.

The film began with leaving Skene, exhilirating panoramas of the islands, beautiful jewels set in vivid blue. Everyone exclaimed and began pointing out sights. The earthbound adults were as enchanted as the children. When the first Morrie Strati appeared on the horizon, however, the adult faces grew somber.

"What's that?" asked Ndege.

"Where the leviathans live" answered Qala. Dodd silently curled her hand into Yoj's.

The footage was not continuous, and switched from North to South Wasa, which was evident from a change in water color. Vantage points varied considerably, too. Halling's camera was steady, a frontal view that revealed an increasingly horrific mass of leviathans milling below and the lighters darting in and out of the lens. Danaan and Rark's segments, however, were dizzying, at times blurry in motion, the singing much louder, the breathing and grunts of pilot effort loud between bars of melody.

The first leviathan leap made everybody scream except the pilots and Prl. Prl turned to look at Bux and said "Wat is dat, emma?"

"That's a lev, baby" said Bux, her throat thick.

The malice of the attacks was palpable, and percolated even through to Prl. One shot, of a gaping mouth with that spiral of serrated cartilaginous blades, made Qen turn her face away. The juxtaposition of predator with the elegant, gleaming craft and the joyous singing was bewildering. Bux looked at Halling, who met her eyes for a long minute. "I really had no idea" Bux finally whispered.

"I wish I didn't, either" said Halling. But of course that wasn't true. If it occurred on Skene, Halling would want to know about it.

Mill became very still and had a blank expression. Halling held her tight, and after half an hour, she said to Rark, "I think that's enough." Rark immediately turned off the video, and no one protested. Halling said "We made it all back home, here we are, and we found out something very important: The levs don't have the capacity to store memories beyond a certain point. They never recognized this song, not on either run, not even the apparent elders." She finally smiled, at Yoj.

"Thank the stars" breathed Ng, also turning to grin at Yoj.

"This means you get a break, my darling" said Bux.

Yoj looked worried, however. "How are you going to get it past Igoz?" she asked. "I mean, you can't tell her you did this, you'll all get in trouble."

"We have an idea" said Qala, a mischievous expression on her face. "It so happens that a gakusha turned up records which indicate that songs are not retained beyond a certain time -- perhaps we can get help from a gakusha to create a convincing old manuscript."

"Or a photocopy of one, they can't leave the Archives, you know" grinned Yerush.

"So we tested it on a voluntary basis, with all the safeguards in place, and here's the result" continued Halling. "We'll ask the pilots if they're willing to try -- if they aren't, then it's a no-go. But after they see this footage, none of them will have doubts. These attacks are actually not that bad, as it goes."

Bux looked at her incredulously. Dodd finally began crying, and Yoj turned her around to hold her close, murmuring "It's all right, sweetie, we're taking care of things just fine." Prl immediately tuned up, and there was a sense of relief in the room when Mill joined them. Ndege was determined to hold back until Qala whispered in her ear, and then she let her fear give voice, too.

Qen got up to refill everyone's tea, and Veida got a wet washcloth from the bath room to wipe faces when they were done. Everyone felt better, even the adults.

"What would you like, every other week off?" Halling asked Yoj.

"Wow. That would be -- unbelievably good" said Yoj. "But -- will that mean I go to half-wages? Can we afford that?"

Before Bux could answer, Qala said "Here's the thing: We've gone ten years now, at least, without paying an apprentice. So that 15 eks a year has been extra in the Lofthall budget."

"That slimy -- " began Halling.

Qala went on "I think Igoz will be glad to not have that information made public, and the only way to insure it not coming out seems to be revising the budget to reflect Yoj's full salary for part-time work. Retroactively. If you get my drift."

Yerush and Yoj both burst into laughter. Halling said "You got any plans for your new free time, honey?"

Yoj said "Well, Prl is still at home, and we could use more special play time, right?" Prl nodded at her. "And I could do more outings with the kids on weekends. And the baby will be here soon."

"But what about studies?" interjected Halling.

"I'll get to that" said Yoj. "When I don't have babies to distact me."

"And at some point, I want to consider running for elected office" said Bux. Halling looked at her sharply, but Bux and Yoj were gazing at each other sentimentally. Halling snorted almost unaudibly, and Qala raised her eyebrows.

Qen said "I'd like to show that film at the school. I think it's -- important for children to see it. At least the upper grades."

Halling was surprised, and consulted with Qala silently, then said "I agree, emma. But I can't imagine Igoz agreeing to it. She'd say it would discourage children from becoming pilots."

"Exactly my point" said Qen.

"We'll try" promised Qala. "I'll hide the original footage, so it doesn't get lost. Maybe we could start with a community viewing, for adults, as a way of easing it into public consciousness."

"Okay" said Yoj suddenly, "I think it's time some of us go outside into this window of sunshine and have some games. It is Shmonah, after all." Dodd slid off her lap and joined the other children running for the front door.

"Let's get string and bread, take them to the fish docks and see if we can catch crabs at the cortices" suggested Bux. Rark and Danaan immediately asked if they could go along, and Bux directed them to get buckets from storage as she helped Prl put on sokken and kiatu.

A week later, Iro, Danaan's emma, arrived at the Manage one afternoon just as Halling was getting up from her nap. She sat down at the table with tea and toast, and got right to the point.

"I've been to see the Ethicist. Ektr and I put in a request to have the Manage behind you. We'll give up our family Manage on Abfall, which is almost equal in value, she says, and both our high-paying jobs will come onto the market. But we need to be on Riesig for Danaan and Rark to be able to have a family." She looked determined.

Halling and Qen both exclaimed in delight. Qen said "We'll write a letter immediately, urging the Ethicist to make the exchange -- we have some pull, it will help."

"Thanks" said Iro. "It'll be an -- adjustment. Ektr and I both grew up on Abfall. Ektr has a cousin here, but you're the only folks in the neighborhood we'll know."

"We'll introduce you around" said Veida. "And their tillage has declined somewhat" added Ng, "But we'll give you cuttings and starts, get you back up to eating strength in no time."

"What will you do for income?" said Yerush. Her tone was not critical, but Bux still gave her a scandalized glare.

"Well, that's part of why I'm here" said Iro. She looked at Halling: "I can fix just about anything mechanical, that's been a lot of what I do at the junkyard. I'm wondering if I can get a job at the jichang as a jigong."

"Oceans, yes" said Halling. "It's hard for us to find good folks -- not just the skill level and the demand for perfection, which is high, but the hours are long. Starts before dawn and often isn't over until dark. The pay is good, though, 18 eks a year."

"I was making 20 on Abfall, and Ektr was making 15. But, it'll work out. Danaan and Rark are both insisting they can support us without either of us working, which of course is out of the question" Iro grinned.

"I'll talk -- well, not to Igoz, my recommendation might count against you" said Halling slowly. "I'll confer with Qala, she'll know how to convince Igoz it was her own idea. The head of the jigong is Enyi. She's tight with Igoz, which is mostly just politics, and I've noticed she likes to supervise more than do hands-on work, but the other jigongs are superb. I'll drop a quiet word to them as well."

Iro said "Are you sure this is all right for me to ask of you?"

"All right?" exclaimed Halling. "I'm thrilled, our children will be over the moons to have Rark and Danaan next door. Those of us in the Lofthall, we function as an extended family."

"I'm catching on to that" said Iro. "I -- we, both of us -- fought so hard to keep Danaan away from the idea of piloting. Ektr wanted to blame Rark's influence, but the truth is, Danaan was bedazzled by Xaya long before she became friends with Rark."

"Xaya?" said Halling, shocked.

"Yeah, her family lived across the lane from us. Ektr and I tried for over ten years to have a child, and during that time, our Manage became a kind of open-house for any child in the neighborhood. Xaya was our favorite, though. So lively and strong-willed. Whenever she came back to visit her emmas, she'd drop in on us, too, have tea and hold Danaan in her lap, fill her head with stories" said Iro.

Halling's face showed recognition: "You're the people she talked about -- the ones with the apple tree!"

Iro broke into laughter. When she laughed, her usually serious face was incandescent. "That child stole more apples than we ever harvested! We never brought it up to her, though. She'd come work in our tillage, I think from a guilty conscience."

"That's right, she told me" said Halling. "I had no idea Danaan knew her..." Her voice trailed off, her eyes cloudy with memory.

"Knew her and adored her" said Iro. After a long silence, she said "I'm sorry her emmas haven't stayed in touch with you. They're wrong to blame you, we all know that."

Halling was fighting tears. "That's kind of you to say. I -- miss them."

"Xaya's sibu has a child that's just started first grade" said Iro. "Keep an eye out for her, she looks the image of Xaya and she's got magma in her veins as well."

"What's her name?" said Halling and Qen simultaneously.

"Tlunu" said Iro.

Qen nodded at Halling, indicating she would befriend her. Halling said "Good name. Xaya's abba was Tlurim."

Bux slid her hand into Halling's and squeezed it. Halling shook her head free of longing and asked Iro "What about Ektr? Her work, I mean."

"Well, she wants to stay home with the babies when they come. And focus on the tillage, which she'll have to with me working those long hours. But she's going to apply at the fish docks as a loader operator, with all her heavy equipment background. It's a three-hour shift, and she can bring home fresh fish for us every day" said Iro.

"Listen" said Yoj, "I don't mean to be presumptuous, and you can say no -- but it's a long walk around to that place behind us by the lanes, and our back wall is high because we train berries along it -- would you be open to the idea of us having a gate between our tillages? I mean, our children are going to haunt your Manage, with Rark and Danaan being there, you might as well know that."

Iro laughed again. "Yeah, we're counting on it. Still like being an open house for children. By all means, let's put in a gate. We'll be bringing our four katts from Abfall, they'll have to sort out local territory on their own, of course."

"Let us know when the Manage is yours and we'll handle the installation of the gate" said Veida. "No, I insist, you'll have enough to contend with, that's a major move."

"Yes, and your first couple of days here, plan on eating all your meals with us, until your kitchen is up and running" added Qen.

"Count me in for sinner hauling of your possessions, as well, if Rark and Danaan need a third" said Halling.

Iro clasped her hand and said quietly "I'm honored to be part of the Lofthall. I mean, I do live in fear -- "

"That's always part of it" said Bux, just as quietly.

"Well, I need to catch my child and see if she'll save me a string of ferries home" said Iro, standing. Yoj said "Wait just a sec" and got a loaf of bread from the larder. "As an advance welcome-neighbor gift" she said, handing it to her. Halling walked Iro to the door.

While Yoj and Bux made dinner, Qen and Ng wrote a compelling letter to the Ethicist. They all signed it, with titles, and after it was addressed, Yerush called in Mill from the lane to deliver it to the post. Halling told her what it was, and Mill's face flooded with joy. "Can I tell the others?" she said, hopping up and down.

"Yes, and the twins can go to the post with you. But tell Prl to come in now" said Halling.

Prl was covered in mud, requiring a shampoo as well as a bath. She explained she had been lifting the cobbles at the side of the lane, looking for bugs. "I just hope she didn't eat any she found" said Halling, carrying her into the bath room.

Two months later, Bux gave birth to a baby as large and healthy as Prl had been. They named her Speranz, which pleased both Veida and Halling's sibs. She was as dark as Ndege, with the same hair as Mill, and her eyes were shiny black. This time, Yerush moved in to form a tight bond, and Speranz readily attached herself to Yerush. Despite the difference in coloring, there was a strong likeness between them in facial structure. And, as Speranz got older, it became clear they were alike in temperament as well.

When Speranz began vocalizing, at first random elongated vowels and later strings of gibberish, Yerush always listened to her with acute attention and then responded, as if having a conversation. At first, only Prl was taken in by this performance. Yerush would say "Oh, now that's an interesting observation. Clearly you've read the essay by Vriska about the economic impact of eliminating calcium deprivation from the aggie portion of the workforce in 285. But do you agree with the offset equation about soy sustainability?"

Speranz, raptly focused on Yerush's face, would flail her arms and make a few more utterances. Prl, at Yerush's elbow, would ask "What did she say, abba?"

Speranz shortly moved on to making effusively complimentary comments about her sibs. She began with Prl one day, Yerush translating "Siba, your eyes remind me of the azure urchin beds of Bohaira Lagoon on the most spectacular day of Ljeto". Prl melted, leaning over Yerush's arm into Speranz's face and saying "You beautiful too, baby sibu."

Ndege was next to be drawn in, as Speranz commented on her amazing agility and powers of observation. Dodd, watching doubtfully, said "How do know what she's saying, abba?"

"Decades of practice" said Yerush. "Here, come watch her face as she talks, you can start picking it up, too." Which was enough to make Mill try, as well. And Speranz's uncanny ability to see their best qualities, her often-expressed longing to become just like them, convinced even Mill that two-way communication was occurring. Thus, Speranz became part of family conversation before she could say a single word, and her intellect was admired by her sibs before she could hold a spoon.

When Speranz was four months old, she was sitting in Ndege's lap one night after dinner when Ndege suddenly said, "Oh, she's stinky again" and shoved her at Halling nearby. Speranz's face registered surprise at the abrupt movement, but Halling, taking a cue from Yerush, said "Look, you've hurt her feelings, calling her 'stinky'. She's just doing her job, which means taking aggie's amazing milk, using it to make every part of her body grow, and then getting rid of the leftovers. Right, Speranz, you clever, clever being, you?" Halling gushed at her. Speranz dimpled, and Prl echoed "Cevver, cevver bean."

Halling looked at the older children and said "It's time you learned how to change diapers. You'll either be emmas or sibemmas some day, it's part of being a good Skener." Ndege took a step backward, but Halling said "Get the diaper bag from our bedroom, will you?" Ndege complied at a run -- she liked errands that required running.

As Halling spread the plastic changing cloth on the table, she kept talking to Speranz, saying "It simply isn't polite to tell a person that they stink, is it? You know better than that, don't you?" Speranz burbled back at her, and Ndege asked, "What did she say?"

"She says you absolutely didn't mean to be thoughtless, she knows that, you are well-regarded for how often you think about the feelings of others" Halling improvised. Ndege said earnestly to Speranz, "Thank you!"

As Halling unpinned Speranz's diaper, she explained about keeping the pins away from "oh so tender baby flesh" and how "It's exciting to have relief on the way, yes, kick those legs, that's right" as she showed them how to wipe up as much of the mess as they would with a corner of the diaper. Ndege and Dodd looked green but they stayed at Halling's elbow. Halling folded the diaper tidily and handed it to Ndege, saying "Take this to the pail in the bath room, then wash your hands well. Before you come back, wet two washclothes with warm water, wring 'em out and bring 'em to me."

Ndege held the diaper gingerly and opted not to run this time. While she was gone, Halling showed baby leg exercises to the other children, drawing peals of laughter from them and Speranz. When Ndege returned, Halling gave one washcloth to Dodd and said "Now we wipe her very, very gently. Be sure to get the folds at her chubby thighs. When you can't see any more poop, fold that cloth, set it down, and wipe her a second time with the clean cloth. Look good to you? Great, go put those cloths in the diaper pail and wash your hands, too." Dodd was no longer fighting back gagging, and she opted to run for her errand.

Next, Halling showed Prl how to dry Speranz with a clean diaper and then "sprinkle some of abba's special powder, to give her that trademark Manage smell of lavender and lilacs". Prl overdid it a little on the powder, but Speranz praised her all the same. Last, Mill with her "superior powers of coordination and leadership" folded a new diaper onto Speranz and got the pins replaced without damage to fingers or baby.

Halling lifted Speranz into the air, making her crow which turned out to mean "You are the finest sibs any baby ever had! I chose to come live with you, chose you especially!" Ndege asked to have Speranz back in her lap, and Halling handed her over, going to wash the changing cloth and hang it to dry. Yoj, grinning, whispered "Do you think I could teach them how to wash the diapers, as well?"

After that, if the children were in the house, Speranz's diapers were changed by committee. Eventually, of course, grumbling set in, but all children on Skene had unavoidable chores, and at least in this case Speranz's commentary was entertaining.

One change brought about by Speranz's birth was that when Yoj wrote her sibs and emma about the birth of this final child, she got a letter back from Owera -- the first letter Owera had ever written her. Bux was the one who collected the mail that day, and she could hardly wait until Halling and Yoj got home. As soon as they came in the door, she waved the envelope, saying "You got a letter from your sib!"

Yoj's face was worried. "Oh, shards, I hope everything's all right." They sat down with her as she began reading. After one paragraph, she looked up, her face starting to flood with gladness, and said "It's okay, she's writing to congratulate us on our children and, well, it's just a plain old letter". Halling patted her on the back. A minute later, a look of irritation crossed Yoj's face and she clicked her teeth with her tongue, but by the end of the letter -- front and back of a page -- she was smiling again.

"What does she say?" asked Bux.

Yoj pushed the letter toward her, answering "It's about her job, mostly, and how she likes the wheat, which is good to hear. But she referred to the kids again, and asked if we had any Y's." Her irritated expression returned.

"Just like that?" asked Bux, shocked.

"Yep. I mean, is it all qigongers who are so lacking in -- social graces, I guess you'd call it -- or it just my family?" asked Yoj, exasperated.

"I don't know" said Halling. "Still, it's grand she wrote. It's a big step."

"Yes, and I'll write her back. I am glad about hearing from her" said Yoj.

"What will you say about her question?" asked Bux.

"I'll tell her 'Yeah, just the one.' And leave it at that. No names" said Yoj, with a grin.

"That'll work" laughed Halling.

Bux picked up the letter to read it, and Halling leaned beside her to share it. After that, Owera wrote once a month, and Yoj answered with long, interesting letters. She sent copies of the children's drawings, family photos, and her regards to Nilma. Sometimes she asked questions about their childhood, Owera's memories, but Owera never answered those. Even so, it was a connection that made Yoj feel less like Z'bef.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.



This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
NEW: Map of Exploit and Flings
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


Prl turned one and Bux weaned her with a deal to swap nursing for a cake. Prl didn't have the experience to know she'd get a cake regardless, and the older children didn't advocate on her behalf because, frankly, they simply wanted the cake. Every time Yoj looked at Prl, she was reminded of Bux as a toddler and felt a little lightheaded with emotion.

On the run following Prl's birthday, Halling found herself being easily distracted -- by the horizon and its question of other islands out there somewhere, by the miraculous individuality of her children, by the appearance of leviathans she could distinguish from one another, even by the lighter song which she'd be sorry to have to discard, it was memorable. The sinning went off without a hitch, and although it was a smallish to medium load, it was enough to take back home with pride. They were five minutes into their return trip when Danaan's voice came over the radio: "I've got a glitch -- something's wrong."

Halling answered "What glitch?" as she craned around in her view until she spotted Danaan's lighter, ahead and to the right.

"My charge -- it's dropping steadily, and fast. Like one or more batteries have gone dead. Or there's a break in the circuit. I'm -- I'm having trouble maintaining altitude." Danaan's voice was trying to stay even.

"Can you troubleshoot? Can you coast enough to turn off your engine and restart?" Halling's stomach had gone into convulsions. She could see Rark's lighter now right next to Danaan's.

"I -- I can't trace the problem. I've lost five meters already, Halling. The thermals aren't right, I don't feel lift if I coast."

No thought Halling. No, I won't let you go.

Rark's voice said "Don't you give up, Danaan. I'll get you, somehow I'll get you." She sounded desperate.

Halling said "Rark, I'm on this. I need you to maintain safe altitude no matter what."

Her brain was racing. She pushed away all thoughts of Xaya. Instead, Veida and Maszon came into her mind briefly. If nothing else, she could take home a body.

But no, there had to be another way. How could she cool off her wings enough to catch Danaan if she had to ditch?

Danaan said "I'm down to one array, Halling. I've lost another five meters."

Halling radioed "Sinners, we're going to try something different. We have to abort load, but I'm going to release my grapples and dive into the spill from the net. Continue formation until the net has emptied, then release your own grapples. Understood?"

Confusion in their tone, they all radioed assent.

Halling continued "Danaan, once I've coated my wings with fish, I'm going to level out underneath you. Put on your hat and gloves, button everything up tight. On my signal, exit your hatch onto my wings. Get centered and turn over on your back, rest as little of your body as possible on wing surface. I'll turn off my solars, I've got enough power to get back on battery. Do you follow?"

After a second, Danaan said "I got it."

Rark said "I'll fly interference."

"No" said Halling. "You stay above 30 meters -- you can divert but only from safe altitude. I -- have an idea."

The silence was profound. Halling said "On the count of three, I'm releasing my grapple."

She didn't know the actual weight of the load of fish, but it had to be tons. She would have to rely on speed and a skill she wasn't sure she possessed to keep from being downed by the torrent about to hit her topside.

"I'm coming, Danaan. Count -- three, two, one."

She hit the grapple switch and her craft yawed abruptly as the weight cut loose. She dove, accelerating at a steep pitch so the torrent of fish slid over her like a waterfall. The impact as writhing masses of fish hit her almost left her breathless against her seat restraint. She fought for control, pushing her way through the cascade, as the smell of seared iodine filled her cockpit. She flipped off her solar panels and climbed again briefly, banking to the right to avoid the other sinners.

Danaan was now below her and to the left. She radioed "Everyone stay clear of Danaan's craft, it's going to pitch and fall within seconds of her bail." She came around in a loop, diving the entire time, until she was approaching Danaan from underneath and behind. Her altitude was now 25 meters. Shit.

"Do you have a visual, Danaan? You'll have to tell me when I'm in position. Match your speed to mine." Halling read off her velocity. She left just a meter between her wings and Danaan's hatch. If Danaan's craft dropped abruptly --

But from the corner of her eye, on the left, she saw a leviathan in the water on swift approach toward her. Danaan said "You're directly under me, and we're in sync. I'm opening my hatch."

"Come on" said Halling. She kept her hands, her pulse, everything steady, steady. She felt a small thump above her, and an even smaller scrabbling sound.

She couldn't bank, or climb, or even accelerate because of the risk of blowing Danaan off. The lev to her left was now in jump range.

Halling flipped on her loudspeaker and began singing Yoj's leviathan song.

The lev stopped, stock still in the water. Every other lev within her visual range halted, too. She heard exclamations of disbelief come over her radio, but she didn't answer or lose focus.

She turned cautiously, evenly to the right and kept turning until she could see Danaan's lighter out her left window. Abruptly, it tilted and started a downward arc which turned into a spiral. She didn't see it hit the water, although she heard somebody yell "Impact." Then somebody else said "They're not following. They're not moving. They're just -- listening."

Halling kept singing for five more minutes, until she had reached safe altitude again. She slowed down even more then, and radioed Rark, saying "Come over us and check on Danaan."

She saw Rark's shadow blend with hers on the surface of the water. Rark said "She's alive, on her back, arched upward. Conscious -- she looked at me." Rark's voice broke at the end.

"We're heading for the nearest landing field, which is Exploit" announced Halling. "Ten minutes out." She began trying to raise Qala. After three hails, Qala answered.

"We've aborted the load and lost a lighter but not the pilot. I have Danaan on my upper wings, still alive. Don't know the extent of her burns. We need to make an emergency landing at Exploit, please tell them to have medical personnel and heat-shielded rescue equipment available" Halling said.

"Will do" said Qala, her voice deadly serious.

Halling heard Rark's loudspeaker nearby, saying "Danaan, less than ten minutes to go. We're landing at Exploit, help will be there. You hang on. I love you, I love you all there is."

Halling called "Rark, you land at Exploit, too, second in rotation. Everybody else but Schla, return to the jichang, people will need to see some of us coming home. Schla, you land third, we'll need to rig your sinner for an ambulance run, I'm not sure what condition mine is in."

Everybody radioed their understanding. Halling could see Skene at an angle stretching south and west in front of her, and she suddenly wanted to cry. If only she could have brought Xaya back home --

She forced herself into focus. She couldn't cut altitude quickly, so she came in over Exploit's small lighter field slowly and hovered, then turned her flaps to go straight down at a slow, descending hover. Dozen of miners and other workers were at the nearby loading shed.

As soon as she could cut engines, she was out of her hatch and yelling "Danaan, you still with us?"

"I'm here" came a voice thick with pain. People with ceramic-lined rectangles, a ladder and a first-aid kit were there in an instant. One of them scrambled up the ladder, took a shield handed up to her, and laid it beside Danaan.

"Can you roll over onto this?" she asked. She had on protective gloves and even so, she was trying not to touch the top of the lighter as she held the shield steady. Someone with a second ladder was running from the shed. Halling could see a two or three inch crust of blackened flesh coating the entirety of her wing surface, reeking of burned fish. She hoped none of it was Danaan.

Danaan had the thick-capped top of her head pressed against the wing, her hips jutting upward, her otos flat on the lower wing. Her shoulders touched the surface, also, despite her attempts to keep them clear. The side of her face that Halling could see was red from effort but not burned.

Danaan gave herself a final shove up, with a grunt, and collapsed in a roll into the shield. She grabbed it with her hands and cried out in relief. Another worker at the top of the second ladder, also heavily gloved, took the bottom of the shield and slid it out into air. Workers underneath reached up, six of them, and balanced the shield on their outstretched palms. The first worker slid Danaan's makeshift stretcher off the sinner altogether. The workers took the weight and then, carefully, lowered her down to the ground.

Rark came pounding up as Halling bent over Danaan. The back and top of her leather cap was burned through, and some of her thick dark hair was gone, but the sear had not reached her scalp. Her guibba likewise had gaping burns through to the sheepskin lining, but not to her uniform underneath. Her gloves were scorched but intact. The soles of her boots smoked a little.

However, on her hips, where she must have landed briefly at first fall, big patches of her kalsongers were gone and her flesh was charred, down past the first layer of skin.

Rark was on her knees, kissing Danaan's cheek, weeping with relief. Danaan said "It's starting to hurt."

One of the workers broke open the first aid kits and poured anesthetic jelly onto the burns on Danaan's hips. Covering it with gauze, she then offered Danaan a pill, which Rark slipped between her lips. Schla appeared next to Halling.

"I can move my seat up enough for someone to lie down behind me in my cabin, but not on this stretcher" she said.

"We'll put down blankets, and she can rest on that" said Halling, starting for Schla's sinner with her. Miners brought them blankets and pillows, and they made a nest for Danaan. She was carried over on the stretcher, Rark holding her hand, and by that time the pain pill was having an effect. She was able to get to her feet, shaky but strong enough to climb into the hatch and lie down on her belly again.

"Rark, you'll have to fly your lighter back alone" said Halling. She took Rark's chin in her hand and got her attention. "Go slow, stay calm. The last thing we need is something happening to you, hear me?"

Rark's eyes cleared, and she nodded. "I can't believe -- I can't thank you enough for -- "

"Anything else was unthinkable" said Halling firmly. Schla was climbing into her seat and said "What about you?" to Halling.

"I'll check out my craft. If it's safe, I'll fly back. If not, I'll radio for a pickup. Call Qala and give her a report." Halling shut the hatch and rapped on it, saying "Carynn bye" loudly as Schla started her engines. Rark was already running for her lighter.

Workers went back to Halling's sinner with her, where one woman had stayed on the ladder, trying to scrape baked-on fish from the panels.

"Leave that" said Halling. "We'll have to replace them. Let me see what kind of charge I have left."

She turned on her instruments and heard Qala saying "Best news I've ever heard in my life. We've got an ambulance here on standby, and the hospital is waiting. See you in five."

Her batteries still had a quarter charge left, more than enough to get back to the jichang. She leaned out and thanked the workers fervently, saying "You just made history. Please send your names to the Lofthall, we want to mention you individually in our report."

Her engine turned over without a pause. Her cabin smelled ghastly, but she shut the hatch and waved to the rescue team as they backed away. On her flight back to Riesig, Qala called her to say "I've let your family know, they'll be there waiting on you." Then "The other pilots are saying you talked to the leviathans."

"It's a long story. I'll fill you in later" said Halling. She was over Verzin now. She could see Pomar to her right and the white two-storied bulk of the University. The tarmac of the jichang was ringed with people. Suddenly she was exhausted. She reminded herself to stay focused, just this last little bit, as she came in with her usual elegant glide and settled down into her spot. Yoj had the hatch open as soon as Halling could turn off the engine.

She emerged to thunderous cheers. Every pilot from the Lofthall except for Rark seemed to be standing nearby, yelling her name. A pregnant Bux swept into her arms, and Yoj was pounding her on the back.

Halling let her lovers' bodies restore some of her energy. Waves of relief swept through her. She turned, looking for the rest of her Manage, and found everybody but Qen and Ng approaching. She grabbed her children into a group hug, kissing them with tears starting to flow down her cheeks. Then she found Veida's face.

Veida was weeping, hard. Halling grabbed her hand and said "You made this happen. You gave me the idea. Danaan is alive because of you." She looked at Yoj and added "And you gave me the tool that kept us from going down."

After more kisses and hugs, Halling said "Where's Qala?"

Schla said "The transport sinner's gone to Abfall, to pick up Danaan's emmas and get them here fast. Qala's on the radio."

"Then let's go to the hospital, shall we?" said Halling. The pilots turned and began walking up the nearby sidewalk. Two mechanics were at Halling's lighter and waved her on, saying they'd report later about what damage they found. Veida and Yerush announced they were taking the children home. When Mill protested loudly, Halling said "Let her come with us. The rest of you, we'll see you at dinner and you'll get the whole story then."

Mill grabbed Halling's hand in triumph and pulled her forward.

At the hospital, they filled the waiting room and overflowed into the hall. Rark was in with Danaan, and the curanderas were still examining her. Yoj slipped away, down the hall to the worker's cafeteria, and paid the staff there to make sandwiches for all the pilots. Halling was given a chair, and she sat down gratefully, pulling a gangly Mill onto her lap. Bux got the chair next to her, and Halling's arm rested against the bulk of their unborn child.

Everyone wanted the details of what had happened, however had Halling done what she'd done, but Halling held up her hand and said "I'd rather wait until we hear about Danaan. And her emmas get here, so they can hear it, too." After looking around, she said "Where is the Sheng Zhang?"

"Off politicking somewhere" a lighter said bitterly. "She'll get here in time to claim some of the credit."

Once food and drink arrived, they fell into silence, eating ravenously and starting to relax tense shoulders and calves. Halling found herself getting sleepy. Mill had settled onto the floor in front of her, leaning against her legs.

Half an hour later, a pilot in yellow and brown came through the crowd, clearing a way for two middle-aged women with frantic faces. Halling stood up and introduced herself. Danaan's aggie, Ektr, looked remarkably like her except she was taller and her hair was going grey. Her other emma, Iro, reminded Halling of Veida, tall, dark and white-haired. They clasped Halling's hands and Iro said "Is she really going to live? Please be honest with us."

"I really think she is" said Halling. "She's got a couple of bad burns on her flanks that will take a long time to heal, but they won't stop her from doing anything once they do heal. At least, that's what I saw."

This was confirmed a minute later by the curandera who emerged from the treatment area and came to find Danaan's emmas. She led them back to talk to her before she fell asleep from the sedative.

Ten minutes later, they returned, their faces transformed in relief. They went directly to Halling again and Ektr put her arms around Halling, kissing her cheek and saying "Rark won't leave her, asleep or no. But she told us what you did. You -- she's our only child, we couldn't have borne -- " She was not able to go on.

Bux said, "Okay, now, tell us the whole story."

Halling gave her chair to Ektr and another one was found for Iro. She motioned for the other sinners and lighters on her crew to come stand next to her, and she began the story. They interrupted her constantly to heap praise on her, at every turn of events, and there were many gasps. But when she got to the part where she turned on her loudspeaker and began singing leviathan, the room went into incredulous silence.

Halling said "It's not my song. It's one that Yoj wrote, from being a little girl on Isola Fling and listening to them all around her. She gets the credit for it."

All eyes turned to Yoj, including Bux who said "You never told me."

The Sheng Zhang's voice came from the hallway. "It's not something to brag about" she said coldly.

An angry murmur met this, and Yoj stared her down as she approached.

"There's a reason we don't traffic in leviathan ways" began Igoz. But Iro interrupted her and said "I think those reasons have just been brought out for re-examination. If Halling -- both these women -- had obeyed blind rules, my child would be -- " She couldn't say what would have been Danaan's fate, it was too vile to put into words.

Mill's voice came from the floor. "Will you sing us the lev song, emma?"

From the looks on the pilots' faces, Yoj could tell they wanted to hear it, too. But she answered "Not here, not in a place of healing. Another time." She helped Mill to her feet and said "We need to get your emma home, she's completely spent." Bux moved in beside Halling, putting her arm around Halling's waist and starting to walk with her to the door.

Halling turned to Iro and Ektr to say "Do you need a place to stay tonight? We can put you up at our Manage."

Iro grinned at her, the first time she'd smiled. Her grin, now, her grin was pure Danann. She said "We'll be staying here, but thanks." She kissed Halling's cheek and whispered "I know you know what you've done."

Halling nodded at her, grinning back. Then she left with Bux, Yoj taking Mill's hand and following them.

At the Manage, Halling drank a glass of tea, then stripped down to her underwear and lay down on their bed. Bux laid a quilt over her and Halling was asleep instantly. After a few minutes, Bux took Prl, overdue for a nap, with her and lay down beside Halling.

Yoj and Veida collaborated on a cake for dessert, made from almonds and a precious half-cup of sugar. Yerush made an egg and potato casserole, larded with spinach, and steamed carrots.

Halling told her story again as they ate, Mill adding details from her imagination that Halling left uncorrected, with a grin. As Yoj cut slices of cake, Mill said "Can we sing the leviathan song now?"

The emmas looked at each other, conferring, and then Halling said "All right. But Yoj, please, let's do it together." They stood, arm in arm, and began.

The ululating call, interspersed with clicks and undertones, raised hair on the back of Bux's neck. Prl's eyes were huge and she pushed back into Ng's lap uncertainly. Halling did not go on for long; she was concerned about how this would affect Veida.

When Veida spoke, she said "So -- they understood you. Or at least recognized what you were saying, you think."

"It seems that way" said Halling. She looked at Yoj and said "You with your gifted ear, you must have replicated it exactly."

"That's what you listened to at night?" said Bux, in a near whisper.

"Not just nights. But yes...I didn't know enough to be horrified until I was older" said Yoj.

"Why horrified?" asked Dodd, licking cake from her fingers.

Yoj didn't want to answer, but Mill said "Leviathans eat people, every chance they get."

Prl began crying, then, and Yoj said "Okay, that's enough of that. The important thing is, your emma fooled them and she saved Danaan, brought her home alive and in good shape."

"Tomorrow at school" Qen told the three oldest children, "Other kids are going to ask about what happened. You are not to sing the leviathan song, do you hear me? But you can verify that your emma Halling is a hero. A real hero, one of the biggest that Skene has ever had."

Ndege's eyes were bright with happiness. "Will you stay home from work and come visit us at school?" she asked Halling.

Halling looked at Veida, who said "The forecast was clear." Halling shook her head, regretfully. "I need to work. But first rainy day we have, I'll come visit your class, I promise."

Draining the last of her water, she said "I want to walk back to the hospital, check on Danaan."

Yoj and Bux said simultaneously "We're going with you."

"And me!" said Mill. Halling said "No, just grown-ups this time of night. But I'll tell you how she is when I get back."

"Tell her I love her" said Mill unreservedly. Halling's face glowed and she said "I certainly will and she'll be glad to hear it."

Ng said "You children do your chores, then we'll play a game in the living room." She kept Prl on her lap as the other three older women cleared the table.

After goodbye kisses, Halling, Yoj and Bux put on coats and left the house.

At the hospital, Iro and Ektr were in the cafeteria, cadging a meal. Rark was in Danaan's room, sitting beside her on her bed, one leg off on the floor. Her face was weary but at peace. Someone had put a cot in the corner. Yoj suspected Rark would not be leaving Danaan's side to use the cot.

Rark stood up to hug them all, especially hanging on to Halling. She told them in a quiet voice "They say her blood work looks fine, they've pumped a lot of fluids into her. She's mostly sleeping, except every few hours when the pain pills wear off and she wakes up moaning, but they give her more right away. She asked to see you, Hall."

Halling leaned against the side of the bed and took Danaan's hand in her own. It was callused and surprisingly small for a pilot. Danaan was face down, one cheek pressed into her pillow. A small brace kept the covers away from her hips. After a minute, Danaan's eyes fluttered open and she tried to shift, then stopped herself. Her gaze focused on Halling, and her face lit up.

"Hey" she whispered.

"Hey back. Mill wants me to tell you that she loves you" said Halling.

"Tell her...good. Her love will make me better" breathed Danaan. Then: "How did you know what to do?"

"I'm not sure" answered Halling. "I put together every last scrap of what I'd heard, and then I just -- I don't know. I wasn't going to let them have you, and that's the facts."

"I'll..." Danaan's eyes drifted shut again. Halling, then Yoj and Bux, gave her soft kisses on her upturned cheek. She looked like a child, not a woman.

Rark asked quietly, "What's the forecast?"

"Clear" said Halling. "We'll replace you both temporarily from the standby pool. I'll be flying a borrowed sinner, and we'll keep your lighter on the field, give them other craft. You take as long as you need with her here, that's our first priority."

Rark looked at her steadily, then said "We're yours, now. We're your pilots forever. I hope you understand what that means."

Halling was embarrassed, but nodded her head. "Clearly I feel the same way" she whispered. "Tell her emmas we were here. I'll check back tomorrow after my shift."

"Carynn bye" whispered Rark. "I want to learn that song, by the way."

Halling nodded again.

On the walk home, she asked Yoj "Do you think we should teach it to every pilot?"

"I'm thinking yes" said Yoj. "But we have to save it for emergencies, because we don't know how it will work again."

"I want to learn it, too" said Bux.

Yoj pulled her in tight as they walked. "Of course."

Back home, Halling took a bath as Bux and Yoj told the children stories and got them into bed. When Yoj went into the kitchen for one last drink of water, Qen, sitting at the table, smiled at her and said "I can guess what next week's lighter song is going to be about."

Yoj grinned back and said "Already got a couple of the lines in my head."

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.


Sunday, December 30, 2007


I am grieving the loss of Benazir Bhutto. I didn't actually know much about her, except that she was the first woman to be elected head of a Muslim nation (something we haven't managed yet, and the woman-hating aimed at Hillary Clinton is really coming out from under wraps, ain't it). Still, her death feels like a world loss to me.

So far, the best response I've read has come from Heart at Women's Space, so I'll link you all over there (do read the comments, too): Benazir Bhutto Assassinated.

(Serafina Pekkala from "The Golden Compass")

For those of us who've been discussing the His Dark Materials trilogy, mostly at Maoist Orange Cake (also briefly a while ago at Dykes To Watch Out For), Pandagon's Amanda Marcott has published a great review and launched a wonderful conversation about it. Not too late to join in, I don't think.

("Mexican Cook", woodcut by Michele Ramirez)

I want to second Feministing's recommend of a post at Guanabee concerning the pornification of the term "Latina": Hottt Wired: The Currency Of The Word "Latina" Online.

I remember when I read Andrew Holleran's Dancer and The Dance, a pivotal gay novel of the 80s, I was struck by the implicit racism of the gay male community, especially with regard to the sexual objection of "Latins". It's not desire, it's not love, it's not appreciation, and it's not positive.

And, this post brings up an interesting aspect of using Google images, which I rely on heavily for graphics on my blog: Seems like most any term having to do with women (including and especially, to my disgust, lesbian) brings up mostly pornographic images for pages on end. Don't tell me this severe imbalance of visual stimuli is NOT having a negative impact on how we see things. What if a search for "white male" 80% of the time showed images of dismemberment and pain? Would that be no big deal, either? (Although, given who's doing the killing and raping, it would be accurate in terms of projection...)

Alex Jung has an excellent article up at Alternet, White Liberals Have White Privilege Too!, and I recommend reading not just it but also the comments -- despite the fact that the initial defensive, at times hostile reaction from white liberals tended to prove all the point she'd just made. But the comments list gets better after a while. Here's an abbreviated version of her "List of misunderstandings that many white liberals have about race":
1. White supremacy? You mean white men in white sheets? (Not only.)
2. I'm not racist, but...
3. Colorblind as a bat.
4. Kumbaya, multiculturalism!
5. It's not a "[insert racial group here]" issue as much as it is a "human" issue.
6. One of my best friends is [insert nonwhite group here]!
7. How could I have white privilege? I'm poor/female/gay/Polish/disabled!
8. The white savior complex.
9. "Good" people of color
10. All that guilt.

Another recommended read is an examination of "Acceptable Sexism and Racism" in the media and punditry world by Chris Bowers at Open Left. The opening paragraph states:

"Long-standing sexist narratives that macho pundits have often used to denigrate not only female candidates, but also Democrats in general, are more acceptable in our national political discourse than crass, barely coded racism against African-Americans. Crass, barely coded racism against Muslims and Mexican immigrants is a different story. Talk of deporting the tens of millions of people in America who falls into these categories is quite acceptable, for example."

It's not just macho pundits, however. Too many white male "progressives" can't disagree with a woman without engaging in thinly-veneered woman-hating, and even the "good" ones still use mankind instead of humanity. Or think it's most important for them to say what they think than find a way to encourage the voices not yet present in the discourse.

For all the vocabulary geeks who read this blog, The New York Times' List of New Words of 2007 is out and includes:
Colony collapse disorder
Forever stamp
Global weirding
Post-kinetic environment

(Good news, only one out of the six takes a jab at women.)



This is draft one of my sci-fi novel Skene. To read earlier chapters, go to LABELS in the right-hand column on this page, scroll down to the Skene tags and click on the one you want to read. Skene is set on a human-habitable planet in the Alhena star system at least 500 years in the future. There's a considerable amount of appendix material and diagrams also available here as needed:
NEW: Map of Western Flings
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


Yerush and Qen waited at the Bosco hostel on Shmonah until Veida was done, so they could ride the ferry back together. They arrived in time for dinner. Yoj, frying chicken, looked up at them as they unpacked their bags of dirty laundry. Veida came over to Yoj and put her arms around her to say "They convicted Z'Bef. She leaves tomorrow for Peisuo."

Yoj fought the urge to be sick. She said thickly to Veida "I can't finish this right now" and Veida took over for her. Yoj sat down and Halling handed her a mug of tea. Qen sat down beside her and said gently "There was no family to vouch for her. She does have friends, good friends, and they pleaded on her behalf. But -- there were earlier incidents, and the witnesses said she could have just walked away from the argument this time."

Yoj began weeping. Qen said "I gave her your letter, and I sat with her as she read it. She didn't show much emotion -- she was like a stone the whole time. Shock, I imagine. But her eyes were glad, and she told me to thank you. And she asked if you would consider writing her."

Yoj blew her nose and said "Of course I'll write her." She looked at Halling and said "Do you ever do the deliveries to Peisuo?"

"Not so far. Sinning is opposite that on the schedule. But I'm on that roster" answered Halling.

"Is there ever any way you could have an extra passenger?" said Yoj.

Halling's face was grieved. "No, sweetheart. Peisuo runs carry guards, and are heavily supervised."

Mill, now being held by Yerush, leaned toward Yoj and said "Emma crying? You have booboo?"

Yoj laughed in spite of herself. "I do have a booboo, in my heart, Mill."

"Like a cookie?" asked Mill brightly.

Bux turned to Halling and said "Where has she picked up this notion that if someone is upset, the best thing to do is offer them a cookie?"

Halling shrugged guiltily. Yoj told Mill "No, what I'd prefer is a sweet kiss from my favorite child of all time." Yerush moved closer to Yoj so Mill could reach her, giving her a slightly messy kiss on her cheek.

"Oh, all better!" declared Yoj. Mill chortled. Yoj stood and began carrying dirty clothes to the bath room. She said over her shoulder, "Mill, come with me, practice your walking. It's time to potty."

Mill slid from Yerush's arms and toddled after Yoj.

Two months past Mill's birthday, Bux made another appointment with the Genist. The three of them took Mill this time, as Raisa had requested seeing her as well. Raisa still did not have an apprentice. She let them in herself, served them tea and cake, and watched quietly as Halling negotiated bites of cake with Mill, taking "turns" that meant Halling ate almost three-fourths of the slice. When their plate was empty, Mill turned to look hopefully at the plates of her other emmas, but theirs were now empty as well.

After a few seconds, Mill tried to slide down to the floor. Bux was talking over her cycle with Raisa, indicating she would likely have another fertile period in one to two months and she felt ready to be pregnant again. Halling whispered noiselessly in Mill's ear, and Mill was quiet for a minute. When she began wriggling again, Yoj offered to take her and Mill reached, no doubt thinking it might be easier to get away from Yoj. But Yoj pulled paper and a pencil from her jacket and set them on the table before Mill. This kept her more or less quiet for another 15 minutes, long enough for Yoj and then Halling to be briefly interviewed.

By the time Mill got restless again, Halling was also beginning to feel weary of Raisa's persnickety tone. She wasn't offensive as Dest had been, she was just pedantic. Halling could not imagine her with Yerush. Halling took Mill back and interrupted politely to ask "Do you absolutely need me here for the next while? Because if not, I'm going to take her for a walk outside. We'll stay within earshot, she just needs to move her body."

"Of course" said Raisa. She'd never been around children but she'd memorized the developmental tables as part of her training, and it was obvious that Mill was more mature and well-behaved than most children her age. Halling and Mill escaped with equal gladness.

Yoj went over the household accounts with Raisa -- they had managed to add impressively to the Manage's savings, despite the expansion and Mill's birth. This was in particular due to Ng's contribution, and Ng's presence as a fourth abba, home all day, greatly enhanced their standing as a household for raising children, Yoj was sure. Plus, they had that Absolute Warrant. Still, going through bureaucratic motions was second-nature on Skene, done with somber rectitude, and she worked in earnest tandem with Bux.

Just when Yoj thought it was all over but the hand-shaking, Raisa said quietly "I understand you have an extra-partneral relationship within the household."

For one wild moment, Yoj thought Raisa was somehow, madly, bring up Yerush's affair with herself. Bux, however, cleared it up with "Yes, Ng and Qen have become lovers. It's all out in the open -- as it must be, for you to have heard of it."

"Is there unresolved tension between the three partners over this -- dalliance?" asked Raisa. Yoj looked at her sharply. If she dared demonstrate any avidity or hopefulness on her face --

Again Bux answered. "Well, first, it's not a dalliance. They were old friends who resumed a friendship, and it grew into love. It's solid and good for all of us to be around. My emmas have never been exclusive, although heretofore only one of them availed herself of the option. Repeatedly and diversely. They're long-accustomed to the communication required to keep their bonds strong, and both of Qen's partners are, in fact, quite fond of Ng. As are we all. I am glad to have an additional emma."

Oh, well done! thought Yoj. Raisa's cheek muscles had gone tightly smooth at the "repeatedly and diversely" comment. Halling was going to be sorry she missed this.

"So am I" jumped in Yoj.

Raisa's small eyes turned on her. "And what about you three -- I understand you, likewise, have not agreed to exclusivity?" There was an expression very close to a smirk on her face -- very close, but not quite.

"Technically, yes. But I cannot imagine the day will come that I'll ever exercise it" said Yoj. "What interests me most is doing deeper with the women I already love, adding on commitment and children and family connections there. The best of Skene existence, if you ask me."

Halling was going to be sorry to miss that one, too. Yoj had just kicked Raisa's personal choices in the kneecap. Bux said "She expresses it for me, very well. If you want to ask Halling, we can call her in -- "

"No, that won't be necessary" said Raisa, a faint hint of derision in her voice. "It all looks well for you, I congratulate you and look forward to what the years bring you."

A standard Skene benediction, yet much more potent coming from the Genist.

They all stood and began goodbyes. Halling and Mill were called from the door to shake Raisa's hand, and Mill was prompted to give her a kiss on the cheek, which did not melt Raisa as it did most people. Bux took Mill from Halling and adjusted her cap against the cold afternoon as they walked away.

Once around the corner, Yoj began whooping. She and Bux took turns regaling Halling with the latter part of the interview, correcting each other to remember the exact wording. When they got home, all four of the older women were at the table, trying to appear as if they weren't waiting.

Bux boldly repeated the conversation without any elisions, making Qen guffaw over the lines "repeatedly and diversely". But Yerush joined her, to everyone's relief. Ng reached out her hand and put it over Yerush's, saying "Your youngest has a brain and tongue to match your own, I hope you are eternally proud of her." Which pleased Yerush enough to make her go pink.

Bux became pregnant at the first try, declaring she had it all down pat, now. Which was crowing too soon, as it turned out. Her morning nausea with this pregnancy was severe and debilitating. Yoj was frantic, trying to come up with dishes Bux could keep down, and even Veida's tinctures had little effect. Bux began staying home until noon, because of the need to vomit, which meant she had to work all afternoon, right until dinnertime. Yoj went back to meeting Halling at the jichang on her own. One day, walking home, Halling said "What if she loses this baby?"

There. It was out in the open. Yoj linked her arm through Halling's and said "I don't know how we'll bear it. Except of course we will, because there's Mill."

Another few steps, and Halling said "I can't imagine loving any child as much as I love Mill."

"I know" said Yoj.

"And no nibbles at all with regard to an apprentice for you?" said Halling, seeming to change subject but not really -- the issue of her family's needs was a big tent.

"Nope. Lots of talented kids, some of whom go into music or poetry at the U, but nobody wants to take on this job. Am I some kind of deviant?" asked Yoj, only partly joking.

"Different, yes. In a good way. Maybe you make it look too easy" said Halling, not joking at all.

Once home, Mill rampaged with Halling while Yoj quickly got her something to eat. As Halling wolfed down her stew, Yoj ran bath water and persuaded Mill to take a wash with Halling -- her hands were filthy from helping Veida in the tillage. Yoj went into the bath room with them and quickly scrubbed Mill, who had hoped for an extended round of water play with her emmas. She then lifted her out, dried her, and put her in clean clothes, insisting that Halling needed a nap and unless Mill wanted to nap with her, they had to go find something else to do. A daily reminder, and every time, Mill wept tragically and had to be carried outside to calm down.

After Halling was safely in bed, Yoj let Mill run around the living room and kitchen, "helping" her with the beginning of dinner. Ng returned to her studio and Veida pulled vegetables for the meal. When Qen got home, she took over playing with Mill, joined by Yerush, while Yoj finished dinner. After eating, Halling and Bux took turns with Mill and Yoj retreated to her study, to make up the work she'd missed that afternoon.

Not for the first time, Yoj felt an ache for Rosz, who had had so little help, so little company. Even if it was partly of her own devising -- sometimes we need to be rescued from our own choices.

At the three month mark, Bux's retching stopped overnight. She began eating steadily, as if to make up the weight she'd lost, and by her 20 week visit to the curandera, her abdomen was bulbous. Veida arranged to go with her and Yoj, peering at the scanner with the curandera, and after a minute she yelled "I knew it! The way she's carrying them, it seemed obvious."

"Them?" said Bux, her face lighting up.

"Two" confirmed the curandera. "Both in good shape."

Meeting Halling at the jichang that day was ecstatic. They all went to the canteen to celebrate with the pilots. Mill kept being asked what she thought about having two sibs at once, and she was patently bewildered -- the idea of sharing her universe with a rival was nonsensical to her.

Until they were born. Nursing two babies became a daily logistical challenge. Bux could produce milk easily enough, and she seemed to always either have a baby at her breast or be attached to the pump. Yoj held whichever baby Bux was not feeding, and Mill increasingly claimed Halling jealously.

The twins were not identical. Ndege, born first, was two pounds bigger than Dodd. She had black curly hair and skin almost as dark as Mill's, with a long elegant face and a healthy cry. Dodd was paler, close to Yoj's color, with no hair at all for a long time and when it did grow in, it was a lighter brown than Ndege's. Her eyes were lighter brown, too, with a greenish cast in bright sun. She was fussy and didn't put on weight well. Yoj began working from home exclusively, holding Dodd for hours at a time, willing her warmth and energy into this baby who pressed against her more gladly than Mill had, or even Ndege.

The third day after they were born, Bux was sitting at the table nursing Ndege while a recently-fed Dodd was being held by Ng. Yoj was making dinner when Halling got up from her nap. Mill rushed to her as if running from peril, which is how Mill usually experienced boredom. Halling talked with her briefly, still groggy, then sat down next to Ng and offered to take Dodd. As Ng was handing Dodd over, Mill tried to push her way into Halling's lap, shoving hard enough at Dodd that the baby nearly slipped from Halling's grip.

Halling yelled at Mill, "Hey! You must NEVER do anything to harm people littler than yourself."

"I'm tired of them" said Mill. "When do they leave?"

Ng laughed and said "They're part of our family now, they're not going anywhere."

Mill looked incredulous. "Not ever?" She thought for a moment, then said "Maybe we could barter them for something?" Her tone was dubious, as if she doubted they'd be worth much.

Bux joined Ng's laughter, which made Mill scowl. Halling said gently "These are my children, too, honey. I love them, too."

Mill stared at her for a count of five, then burst into outraged wails. Halling handed Dodd back to Ng and picked up Mill, carrying her outside. A very fine mist was falling, almost like dew. Halling strolled the path beside the tomatoes as Mill clung to her and sobbed. When the worst of it was over, Halling said "I remember when my sibu Lawa was born. I couldn't believe how much my aggie held her, and how Ng fussed over her. It hurt my feelings."

"Does abba love them, too?" asked Mill at the mention of Ng.

"She surely does. We all do, every one of us. We love them like crazy, just like we loved you when you came to live with us."

In Mill's mind, she had always been with the Manage -- there was no "before". Her family came into existence simultaneous with her birth. Which, in some respects, was accurate.

"I want you to love me!" she said, working up to crying again.

"But I do love you, just as much. I love you more each day, and will for the rest of my life. Our hearts are big enough to love lots and lots of people, there's plenty to go around" said Halling.

"Nuh-uh" argued Mill. She had not been experiencing anything like plenty for several days now.

"Well, I know you're finding we have to spend time taking care of the babies, because they are too little to do anything except eat, sleep and fill their diapers. You were that way at the beginning, too. But in a couple of years, they'll be able to walk and talk, and they will be your day-long playmates" said Halling, remembering Ng's words to her on this same subject.

Mill fingered the hair at the back of Halling's neck with her small fingers and considered this. "Will they play tag?"

"Mill, they will play anything you want. They are going to adore you and follow you around like you are their head pilot. They will do their best to be just like you, because you are their siba, always bigger and smarter and more talented than they are. Until you're all grown, and things even out a bit." Halling knew she was feeding Mill's ego, but thought Mill had earned it.

As Mill chewed this over, Halling added "And when they start first grade, you'll still be in first grade. By that time, you'll have a big circle of friends who like you oh so much. You and your friends will be the big kids then, the cool kids. And your sibus will discover they have an easier time in first grade because their amazing siba Mill had paved the way. The thing is, Mill -- there isn't another child on Skene who has twins as sibs. You are the only one. They are the only twins to have been born in 15 years. So people are going to look at you, all of you, with a lot of curiosity, and wonder how come you are such special children. You will have to behave with the dignity befitting a citizen of Skene who is the siba of twins. You'll be showing everyone how it is done."

Mill was a born leader. Her face, still tear-streaked, began to shine. "Okay" she said softly.

"And one more thing -- if you begin feeling left out, like there's not enough for you at a particular moment --- you come tell me, okay? Use your words, tell me directly. I promise I'll listen and make it better. Can you agree to that?"

Mill nodded. Halling knew she'd have to remind her often, but she meant her end of the promise.

"Okay, let's go back in so either I or Ng can help with making dinner. One thing the babies can do right now is squeeze a finger, especially a small strong finger like yours. I'll show you how much fun it is." Halling wiped the droplets from Mill's frizz and kissed her as they headed for the back door.

When the twins were two months old, Dodd came down with the croup. Yoj didn't leave the house for four days and, in fact, hardly slept, spending all her time rubbing liniment into Dodd's tiny chest, sitting with her in a steam-filled bath room, singing to her, or just holding her as she coughed and intermittently dozed. When Dodd's lungs finally cleared and her fever disappeared, Veida forced Yoj into bed for a day, saying exhaustion would only make her unable to care for her children at all.

At six months, when Bux went back to work, she told Halling and Yoj that she wanted to wait until the twins were at least two years old before she even thought about getting pregnant again. Yoj and Halling agreed immediately. As far as Yoj was concerned, it would be fine with her if Bux had no more children: They had one each now, and every second of the day was filled.

Dodd continued to get sick and listless in ways that Ndege did not, until they were a year and a half old. Then, for no apparent reason, Dodd suddenly began eating normally and running around with vigor. By this time, however, Yoj was accustomed to watching her nonstop and worrying about her in a particular way. Dodd continued her habit of spending much of her time in Yoj's study, playing quietly on the floor or reading picture books in the small chair Yoj had set up next to her own. Dodd began reading at two. She also became the first person each week to hear Yoj's newest lyrics, before her other emmas or the pilots.

Ndege, on the other hand, attached herself to Veida most. From the outset, she seemed to feel the injustice of not having been the firstborn and competed with Mill for attention. She got the solace and primary focus she wanted from Veida. She never competed with Dodd, however. With her twin, she was protective and gentle. Dodd had trouble sleeping soundly unless Ndege was within reach.

Halling and Mill remained fixated on each other. Mill was likewise in thrall to the pilots who began dropping in two or three times a week for dinner: Rark, Danaan, and Qala. Qala persuaded Yoj to not make bread on Ot until after dinner, so she could share the work and learn from her. Bux seemed to not be jealous about their friendship, and Qala's interest in conversation with Bux appeared as strong as her connection to Halling or Yoj. Still, Yoj was uneasy until the day Bux declared "Qala, you've become one of us here at this Manage. When you retire from the Lofthall, I expect you to move in and become the fourth abba to our grandchildren, okay?"

Qala had been moved almost to tears. After a long minute meeting Bux's eyes, she had said "All right." Yoj knew well that Qala had no other place to spend her elder years, and whether it was kindness on Bux's part or a genuine wish, she was glad it had occurred. From then on, Qala involved herself even more directly in chores and spending time with the children.

But the first time Mill announced at dinner that she, too, was going to be a pilot, Halling had frozen in her seat and not been able to reply. Later that night, in bed, Halling said fiercely to Yoj and Bux, "She will not go into the Lofthall, I'll make sure of that."

Bux laughed painfully. "I don't see how you'll stop her. Any more than someone could have stopped you."

"I'll find a way" vowed Halling. In that moment, Bux understood how dangerous what Halling did truly must be, and her chest went cold. They lay in silence for a while, not sure if the others were awake. Then Halling said, "Seems like the more you love, the more risk you have to face."

"Our babies" agreed Yoj in a whisper.

Still, once the twins were fully mobile two-year-old sinkholes of energy, Bux announced she was ready for a new baby. Mill and the twins were transitioned to sleeping in the big bed above the living room, with a locking safety gate attached to the top of the ladder that Mill promptly learned how to pick. Halling spent a lot of breath warning Mill to never climb over the railing and to wait until someone came to help them down the ladder each morning. These were admonitions that occurred in every Manage on Skene -- children in lofts above stone floors were a universal emmas' nightmare.

Ng had a brief respite of sleeping alone or with Qen. They already had one night a week together, on Sju, but now they had a little honeymoon, spending every other night alone in Ng's room. Yerush and Veida found solace in each other, from the sounds of things when Yoj was late going to own bed from her study.

Once the twins could handle a long walk, Halling began regularly taking all three children to The Shatters to fly homemade kites. Kite-flying was very serious business on Skene. Every child had several, fashioned from a particular kind of kelp-paper which would balloon outward like a jelly and decorated with water ochre from Argile or Saari Fling. Outside of school hours, there were always children flying kites from the crags of Sastrugi Prime, Sigrist Poke, The Shatters, Robin Buono, or whatever cliff was available on their particular island. It was understood that lighters would come from the ranks of the most serious and adept kiters. For what child doesn't want to fly? And the ones who could thread their kite out over the deeps and play the upwells skilfully enough to avoid the leaps of a leviathan -- leviathans could not resist trying at kites -- well, that child had a head start at lighting.

Six weeks after Dodd and Ndege had begun walking to school with Mill and Qen -- leaving Yoj unsure how to handle such an empty, quiet house -- Bux delivered a large, exuberantly healthy child who looked irresistably like her.

The week before, as Bux tried to find a comfortable position for sleeping and Halling finished rubbing lotion into her hands and elbows, Yoj said "I know we've been talking over a list of names for this new life to join us. And since Dodd was taken from my abba, and Ndege is from Qen's aggie Ndigo plus Ng, sort of, and Mill is from Yerush's emma, Melli -- "

Halling interrupted, saying "It's funny, but inside I always think of Mill being named for me. You know, Hall -- Mill."

Yoj grinned at her. "Well, it's turned out that way, hasn't it? Anyhow, I know for this name we should be thinking about Veida or Mwezi, maybe -- "

This time, Bux interrupted her. "Or Nilma."

Yoj shook her head. "I don't care if we include Nilma. The thing is, I want to ask that we consider naming her for someone who is, in fact, an ancestor in all three of our lineages: Pearl Goldfarb. Only, I'd like to pronounce it more Skenish, like Prl."

Her partners stared at her in delight. "Perfect!" said Bux. Halling kissed her cheek and said "Count me in."

So Prl arrived, a contented, blue-eyed, confident baby whom Yoj fell for just as hard as she had swooned over needy Dodd. When she was half a year old, Bux returned to work, taking her pump with her to express milk that she stored in the colder portion of the larder for the next morning. Yoj stayed home with Ng in the mornings, writing paeans to new life in her head as she held her latest heart's desire.

Not long after, Veida left mid-morning on a birthing call for Mrand on Hynys, one of the Western Flings. These Flings were an irregular chain of ten flings that began at Seda and coiled around to Yagi with only Byli as a large island interrupting their pointillage of the West Tendril. Most of them had a gabal, or steep rocky cliff, at one end which impeded complete tillage. These outcroppings could have been leveled to increase arable land surface, but by the time the Western Flings were settled, Skene was complacent about its ending expansion. It was hard enough to drop lava debris into the deeps between each island to create morrie vaseos. The commute from Motu to Pulo could take several hours. The school contracted a large sinner to pick up Western Fling children on the small jichangs placed on each island, and even that took most of an hour. Skene was not inclined to encourage more families to settle on these Flings.

That night, Halling had just gotten the older children to bed in the loft, Ng had retired with an already slumbering Prl, and Yoj was in her study writing letters to her sibs. Yerush and Qen were sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and talking in low voices, when the front door swung open. Veida walked in and dropped her bag on the floor. She pulled off her manteau, her face expressionless, and hung it carelessly beside the door. Her ku and gilet were splashed with large dark brown patches that Bux slowly realized must be dried blood. Yerush and Qen rushed to Veida.

Yerush exclaimed "Your hands are like ice, where are your gloves?"

"I couldn't find them" said Veida tonelessly.

"Come here by the hearth" commanded Yerush, pulling Veida onto the couch and sitting pressed against her. Qen took a quilt from the big chair and spread it over their laps as she settled on the other side of Veida. Yoj and Halling were both entering the living room, from opposite directions, when Yerush said "What happened? Why are you back so soon?"

Veida struggled to speak. "I caught a ride with Balt."

Halling reacted. Balt flew the sinner used by the coroner, a pilot skilled enough to handle night and bad weather flight.

Yerush took Veida's chin gently in her hand and turned her face so her eyes met Yerush's. "Who died?" she whispered.

"Both" said Veida, disbelief in her voice. "Aggie and baby." Terrible sobs tore out of her then, and she bent her face into Yerush's neck, her body collapsing.

Bux pulled up a chair to sit in front of Veida, tears springing to her own eyes. Halling went to make tea. Slowly, the story emerged from Veida. By the time a request for her help had gone out on Sigrist radio, Mrand's labor was already advanced. Her Manage's radio was broken, and her partner with two small children in the house had not walked over the ridge to the other Manage on Hynys for an hour, afraid of taking the children into sleety weather. When it became clear something was very wrong, she had desperately made the trek with her toddlers and used the other Manage's radio, leaving her children with the only woman at home, an elder.

Back at her own Manage, Mrand had begun bleeding. Her partner did her best to staunch the flow, unable to leave again to declare an emergency. Veida had gotten a ride to Hynys in an off-duty lighter, but even so, she was too late. Mrand died of blood loss five minutes after Veida arrived, and the baby, pulled from Mrand by Veida's hands, lived only a few minutes even with Veida breathing into her tiny mouth and lungs.

Mrand's partner couldn't take it in. She refused to let go of the baby or Mrand, and Veida was afraid to leave her alone. She waited with her, witnessing her unbearable grief alternating with outright denial, until at last the other members of the neighboring Manage got home from work and one of them came to check in. She returned to her Manage to place a call for help. Bux looked at Qen at that point -- how had they missed this call? They realized it must have occurred when they had all walked down the lane to take food and condolences to a Manage whose eldest member had died the day before. During that walk, the radio call must have been.

Veida waited for the Ethicist and coroner, flown in by Balt, and helped discuss plans for care of the partner, who began screaming when the bodies were taken away. The children would be kept overnight by the neighbors. Sibs would arrive by morning ferry to take them home. In the end, Veida packed a bag for the partner and she was persuaded onto the sinner. The Ethicist was going to take her home, or to the hospital if she proved to be a danger to herself.

Veida kept saying "If I'd been even half an hour earlier, I could have saved them both, I know it." Qen kept reminding her "It's not your doing. It was out of your hands before you arrived."

Yoj heard a creak in the wood of the loft above them, and realized the children were probably at the railing, listening. She stood up, indicating to Bux and Halling that she'd handle it, and began climbing the loft ladder. She heard a flurry of motion, and by the time she reached the top, all three of the children were in bed, eyes squeezed unconvincingly tight. Dodd was on the edge nearest her. She sat down next to Dodd and whispered "Make room for me, I know you're awake."

Dodd scooted over an inch, but immediately reclaimed the space by pressing herself against Yoj. Ndege crawled over Dodd to lie on top of Yoj, and Mill sat upright, saying "Is abba all right?"

"She is" whispered Yoj, "She's just very sad."

"A baby died?" said Ndege in a horrified voice, followed by Dodd's "And an aggie?"

"They did. Every now and then giving birth goes wrong. That's why we have comadronas like your abba, who make it go right. But they couldn't call her in time." Yoj thought to herself that anyone who lives on a Fling with small children, a pregnant aggie and doesn't get a broken radio repaired instantly -- but she stopped the thought before finishing it. That woman would have to live with herself the remainder of her life.

"So, abba will feel better after she cries out her sadness. If there's help we can offer tomorrow, we'll offer it. In the meantime, I'll tell you another story while you get some sleep. Mill, lie back down, and Ndege, could you just move your knee from my bladder? There, that's comfy."

Yoj began telling the riddle of the tillager on Yagi who needed to transport three things across the Riada River: A katt, a shu, and a bowl of figs. (Though why anyone would move around a shu was a question never answered.) Her boat was only large enough to carry her and two of the three items. Left alone, the shu would eat the figs or the katt would eat the shu. (And good riddance, Yoj always thought.)

The solution was long known to most Skene children, but Yoj could drag it out as a wonderful story, making up voices for all the characters, even the bowl of figs -- her fig voice was hilarious. She went off on tangents, added description and silliness, until the final answer was anticlimax. By that time, she could tell from Ndege's weight and Mill's open-mouthed breathing that they were both asleep, and Dodd was on the verge. She sat up slowly and lifted Ndege back to the middle, where she and Dodd immediately fitted themselves into each other they way they had slept together all their lives. Ndege made sure she had an arm protectively over smaller Dodd, and Yoj thought, not for the first time but with unending emotion, that they had likely done that in Bux's womb. She covered them all and went back down the ladder.

Yerush, Qen and Veida had gone to bed. Veida's bloody clothes were on top of the laundry pile in the bath room when Yoj washed her face. She ran cold water into the boiler and put them to soak overnight. When she joined her partners in bed, Halling and Bux were still up. Halling had awakened Ng, told her briefly what had happened, and purloined Prl for the night. Prl was now tucked into her baby bumper between Bux and Halling, sleeping on her stomach. Yoj felt a rush of relief -- she leaned over Bux and kissed Prl lightly but fervently on her downy head, her sweet neck and cheeks, her morsel of a shoulder.

Bux whispered "How're the older children?"

"Fine" said Yoj. "Beautiful, glorious, the most wonderful beings ever to live on Skene." She lay her head on Bux's shoulder and said "Don't leave us." Bux kissed her forehead and said "Never."

Halling turned off the light and spread her hand on Prl's diapered rump. Yoj stretched her arm across Bux and put her own hand half on Halling's, half on Prl's lower back. She closed her eyes in cascades of gratitude and dropped off instantly.

Once a week, Yoj helped all the children onto the roof where she set a telescope among the coldframes and they took turns watching the stars. She told them stories about mythical figures for whom the constellations were names, as well as real science from cosmology. She carried Prl in a yameen and helped Prl put the lens next to her eye -- she couldn't tell what Prl might be seeing, but you never knew, and certainly Prl was thrilled at being included. She just had to be kept from putting her drooling mouth over the eyepiece.

One Empat Yoj announced to the family that the coming weekend was likely to be clear at least one night and it was dark of the moon. The following evening they had a swift dinner and then set out for Sastrugi Prime on Verzin, everyone but Qen and Ng who opted to stay home alone together. The long trek along the main road next to Nahar River, the workyards full of equipment and industry that was Verzin's hallmark, not to mention the ferry ride after dark, were all enormously exciting to the children. Once up the hill, other families with children were scattered around the dark terrace next to the observatory, with their own telescopes and blankets spread on the ground.

The Astronomer was there, walking from cluster to cluster, helping locate objects in the deep darkness. When she got to their family, she shook hands enthusiastically with Yerush and Veida -- apparently Veida had delivered her grandchildren. In a whisper, she offered to take their three oldest into the observatory for a look through the great telescope. Masking it as a trip to the privy, they sneaked around the back and went into the rotunda, hushed and inky black. The twins were carried, and Mill clung tightly to Halling's hand.

But the views through the huge scope made them cry out in awe. Prl was asleep in Yoj's yameen, so she missed what became an event the children talked about for years.

The long slog home was wearying -- every adult was now carrying a sleepy child or an armful of blanket and telescope -- but they agreed it was worth it, and agreed to make it a monthly event. When weather permitted, of course.

Copyright 2007 Maggie Jochild.