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Amberline sat on a rocky outcrop at the crown of the hill, bare toes playing with chalky fragments. She stared down at Flint from under thick chestnut hair, her eyes at once fixing him and focusing dreamily in the distance, it seemed.
When Flint sat by his sister, her head barely reached the level of his chin. He gestured to the sky, the sun. "You should cover up," he said. "You'll have Granny Han popping cysts from your skin again if you're not careful."
Flint knew how much his sister hated the healings, when Granny Han excised the little brown sun-blisters from her skin. He knew she would ignore him, too.
The dry breeze carried a soft whimpering sound to their ears. A pup in the last throes of exposure, perhaps. Probably just a herd of hogs, scavenging somewhere on the hill. Down below, the jungle hummed with the soft trumpetings of courting dawn oaks, wooing the birds with their calls, their promises of dark nectar.
"What if they were human?" asked Amber, softly, turning a bone in her hand. It was cupped, curved, barely the width of her palm. A collarbone, Flint thought, from a pup barely days into its short life.
"They are not," said Flint. "That's why they're here."
He and Amber came here occasionally, usually on whim, as they had done today. Flint felt that the Leaving Hill had more of a pull on Amber than it did on him, but it was indeed a special place, a place with a powerful grip over all True people.
"All of them?" she persisted. "Every last one of them Lost, corrupted, changed ...? No one ever makes mistakes?"
"People are careful," said Flint. "A pup would never be exposed unless a parent is certain that it is Lost. Human life is too valuable."
"Then ..." Amber dropped the collarbone and shook her long hair in the sunlight. "Then people must err in the other direction. Some of the Lost must pass as True. What if that happens, Flint? What if I were not human? What if you were not human? Do you think that ever happens?"
Her eyes were fixed on him now. Eyes stained piss-yellow by childhood illness. Eyes that both entranced and scared, hinting at corruption, at change. This was Amber's big fear: in a world where illness can steal humanity, where change is prevalent and feared, at what point does a damaged human cease to be True?
Flint, in his ever-steady way, gave her questions serious consideration. He met her look and nodded. "It's only natural to wonder," he told her. "Only natural to fear the change and to question your own status." He paused and spread his hands wide, palms upwards.
"But don't worry," he concluded. "If you were not True we'd just sell you to the mutt trade."
A flash of anger quickly transformed into a wild, mischievous grin, and then Amber hurled herself at her brother.
She struck him in the chest, and together they tumbled from their rocky perch.
Flint cried out as bones and rocks broke his fall.
Wrestling, they rolled down the slope a short way before coming to rest.
Amber held him in a headlock.
"Okay, okay," Flint gasped. "I won't sell you yet!"
She released him and he turned his head to one side, gasping, spitting grit. A handspan from his head, a small body lay naked in the dirt. A pup, dead several days, he guessed. Pale flesh clung in tatters to its tiny body, where scavengers had feasted.
No: not body-bodies. A double body, joined from chest to hip; two legs, three arms, two heads-one skull grossly distorted, twice the size of the other.
Sometimes it was easy to distinguish the True from the Lost.
Overhead, vultures soared patiently on a midday thermal.
* * *
On the way back down to Trecosann from the Leaving Hill they met the Tallyman.
"Mister Flintreco Eltarn," he said. "Mistress Amberlinetreco Eltarn." He lingered over Amber's fullname, caressing the syllables with his tongue.
The Tallyman was a tall, attenuated figure, stooped under heavy robes, face shaded under a capacious sunhood. There were not many occasions when Flint had to look up to meet someone's gaze, yet the Tallyman, stooped as he was, stood a good handspan taller.
The Tallyman comes in the dead of the night. When the Tallyman comes you'd better take fright!
Children's rhymes, stories told on dark winter evenings, schoolyard rumours and gossip. Never trust the Tallyman!
"Tallyman," said Flint, his tone civil. Everyone had their function, he knew. Even tallymen. The Tallyman was a moneylender, a purchaser and collector of debts, a gatherer of favours and promises, used by everyone from Clan Elder to the lowliest bondsman. Universally used, universally despised.
Now, the Tallyman stood in their path where the jungle wrapped its lush green fingers around the base of the Leaving Hill.
Flint took a step down the path, pausing when the Tallyman stood his ground. "We ..." He gestured along the path, indicating that the Tallyman was in their way. Now he could smell the Tallyman's animal odour, mixing with the damp earthy scents of the forest.
In the shade of the Tallyman's hood, Flint could see the old man's eyes peering out at Amber. Flint was aware again of how much his sister exposed of herself, despite the midday sun: bare arms, bare head, bare legs below the knee.
The Tallyman's eyes roved, lingered.
"We wish to pass," said Flint, his tone more brusque now.
"Do as you like, young sir," said the Tallyman, eyes never leaving Amber. "Be free to leave the young miss with me, though. Me can look after her." The Tallyman spoke in a rough hybrid of pidgin and true speech-for effect, Flint was sure.
"You talk about me as if I'm property ... livestock," said Amber aggressively.
Again, the Tallyman's eyes roved the length of her body. "What Jesckatreco Elthom says is true," he mused. "This one has spirit, all right."
"Jescka?" asked Flint. "You've spoken with our mother?"
The Tallyman nodded. "A fine woman. Her done ask me to come looking for sir and young miss. Done say they might be up with the bones. Done give me a message for 'em."
Amber was glowering at the Tallyman, but Flint saw clearly that she enjoyed his attention. She was four years younger than Flint, and it was only now, in this instant, that he realised she was on the brink of maturity, feelings both adult and childish at play. For a moment he saw her as the Tallyman must see her, and he felt immediately angry and protective.
"A message?" he asked.
The Tallyman shifted his gaze reluctantly to Flint. "You're to stay with Callumtreco Elthom and his family tonight," he said. "They need help at the dipping baths, and your mother done offer you out to them."
"Thank you," said Flint stiffly. Offered out like mutts ...
"Tallyman trades favours," said the old man, finally stepping aside. He leered at Amber from beneath his hood. "What favours you got in return, eh?"
"I'm sure Jescka has paid for your services," said Flint frostily. "You can expect nothing from us in return for your message."
"Sir can do as he likes," said the Tallyman, menacingly close as they passed. "But young mistress ... Young mistress can come with Tallyman, see the world. Tallyman can show young mistress far more than she's ever dreamed."
The two hurried past, Flint squeezing Amber's hand.
Soon the Tallyman was lost behind them in the twists and turns of the track. Maybe he still stood there; maybe he had gone up to the Leaving Hill for whatever nefarious purpose he may have; maybe he was following them, even now.
Amber started to giggle, the child in her winning over the woman. "You're so straight, big brother Flint," she said. "You should have seen your face."
She pulled free of his grip and used both hands to push her breasts up and together. "You saw where he was looking, didn't you, Flin'? All the time, he was talking to these."
Flint felt his cheeks burning. "Come on, little sister," he said. "Let's go to Callum's."
There would be a feast tonight, after the dipping and the cleansing, a gathering of Clan Treco from all around. A time of celebration, a time to rejoice in the gennering arts that made the Clan renowned throughout the region.
It was a time Flint dreaded, a time that haunted his darkest hours.
* * *
The track led Flint and Amber through the bellycane paddies, thrumming with chorusing frogs and insects, to the edge of Trecosann.
The town was alive with activity and anticipation. It was the start of the market festival, and many visitors had come from outlying districts. But also, there was a gathering of the clan, a spontaneous and irregular event.
The bazaar was packed, stalls overflowing from the trading square and out into the surrounding streets, lined two or three deep and leaving room only for foot traffic.
Flint recognised many of the faces, traders who only came to Trecosann at market festival time, many of them freemen who lived in protected settlements and enclaves in the wildlands between towns.
He nodded in greeting to Jemmie the old dentist, working away at his foot-powered drill. He waved to Jemmie's daughter, Lizabel, who sold sweet buttered tea to her father's customers-her sugar and pain-killing herbs ensuring a steady trade.
"Maybe you're not so straight, after all," whispered Amber, noticing the direction of Flint's look.
"I am a grown man," he muttered, trying to ignore his sister's raised eyebrow and smirk.
They moved on, into the heart of the market, pausing at stalls as whim took them. Rugs and leatherwork; self-sealing clothing woven from Ritt smartfibres; jewellery made from bones and shells and amber beads; potions and cures and aphrodisiacs brewed from wild herbs-"guaranteed clean."
Amber bought a jaggery stick from a smart mutt child and bit into it, pulling at the stringy pulp with her teeth.
"We should make our way to Callum's," said Flint, as they paused to watch a fiddler play to a pair of dancing crafted dogs. The beasts' hind legs were splayed, giving them better balance as they twisted sinuously upright, front paws describing arcane shapes in the air.
"Dear Flint," said Amber. "My dear, terribly-straight Flint. You need to learn how to enjoy life, darling brother." She blew him a kiss, eyes mad with jaggery rush. "It's market festival, Flin'! Stop worrying about me all the time and learn to relax!"
He turned away. Away from his sister, who he knew was right; away from the two dancing dogs, their morphs crafted beyond their true form. He'd looked out for Amber as they grew up together, stood up and defended her when her behaviour had led to trouble, reassured and protected her when their father had grown drunk and violent, their mother wilful and abusive.
And now she was telling him to relax.
He found a water fountain and drank deeply, then pushed his hood back and splashed water over his face.
Amber often cut straight to the truth of the matter. It was true that he was straight, unwilling to let go. But someone had to be on guard, protecting their interests. It was a role he had adopted from an early age.
He realised he had lost sight of her in the crowd-thronging now, but nothing compared to what it would become when all of the clan and other visitors had arrived.
He rubbed at the moisture on his face, ran his hands through his thick black hair. The ache at the top of his spine was suddenly intense, and he rolled his shoulders, arched his back.
Stepping aside to let Cousin Mallery get to the water, he scanned the crowd. "Hey, Mallery," he said. "Have you seen my little sister? She was watching the dogs a minute ago."
Mallery, a stocky young man with a thick black beard, straightened and shrugged. "Might be at the auction square," he said.
Flint nodded. The auctions were always the heart of any market festival. Mutts would be up for sale there, along with a range of crafted animals, their bodies morphed and remixed in the changing vats. As children, he and Amber had always gravitated towards the auction square, intrigued by the range of livestock on display.
He set off, leaving his cousin to wash at the fountain.
* * *
The smell was always intense: a rich, faecal, pheromonal fug that intoxicated, emetised. Stock pens packed close together, low barriers all that were required to keep the lots in bound-in most cases, at any rate.
The livestock knew their place. It was in their breeding, in their bones: a molecular bonding of devotion and duty to the True humans. No matter how far a beast was morphed, the bond was fundamental to its nature; any that deviated from the devotional norm were weeded out rapidly. Humankind was always at the top of the pyramid.
And so the stock stood, squatted, lounged in their pens. The mutts ever-patient, the crafted beasts less so, and occasional fights broke out between goats and hogs and other modified creatures.
Flint strolled through the auction square, pausing to chat with relatives and friends, but he couldn't see Amber. It didn't worry him unduly: she was wilful like her mother, liable to take offence at the most trifling of comments, to head off on her own whenever fancy struck. The festival was always an exciting time: she would make her way to Callum's holding in time for the dipping, he was sure.
He stopped to look at a family of mutts, wondering if his father had sobered himself up enough to come looking yet. Most of the mutt trade here was passing through, mutt dealers pausing at the festival en route to the Tenkan gang-farms in the south, where they were guaranteed sales. Most of the mutts kept in Trecosann were bred locally, but sometimes they would buy in some new blood from the traders.
While crafted beasts were animal stock-twisted and remixed in the vats, bred and interbred to establish new lines-mutts had their origins in the long-lost past in genuine human stock. Many could pass for human at a glance although, equally, many could not.
The family group before Flint now were short and squat, slabs of muscle giving their shoulders a hunched appearance. Their pale skin would be a burden under the dry-season sun-even at a distance, Flint could see pepperings of sun-blisters wherever the skin was not protected by ash-white fleece. They would either be immune to the spreading of the tumours, then, or would require regular healings.
They bred true, though: two young ones clung to the parents' loincloths, equally pale and white coated, already well muscled. The female held a third pup to her left teat-the creature too young yet for Flint to see if it had bred true, although it was likely that it was good, like its older siblings, and would not have to be exposed.
"Hey, you," called Flint, gesturing at the adult male. "You done get name?" All mutts should understand some of the pidgin language they called "Mutter"; most could speak at least a few words.
The male bared long teeth, a nervous expression, possibly a smile. It nodded eagerly. "Done call Shade," it said.
Flint found it hard to make out the beast's words, a combination of its strange accent and the distorting effects of its buck teeth. He gestured. "Walk," he said. "Jump."
Obediently, the mutt walked a tight circle within the confines of its pen, then came to a halt and started to jump on the spot.
"Okay, enough," said Flint. He turned away. The mutt was in good physical shape, but a tracery of silver scars on its back told of past punishments, a rebellious or unruly spirt. This one was bound for the gang-farms, he felt sure.
* * *
Trecosann was an old, old settlement, with streets paved in stone and some ancient buildings with walls of granite and roofs of slate.
Cousin Callum's family compound was constructed around one such building, known for generations simply as the Hall, its thunder-grey walls towering high over the street. The roof of this building was a blend of slate and Ritt-fibre sheeting, the new sealing over the imperfections of the ancient.
Although easily three storeys high, the main part of the building was a single hall, echoing now with music and voices. Many of the visiting clan members would camp out in this hall, and as Flint stood on the threshold, he saw the patient activity of mothers erecting screens to provide a modicum of privacy.
Excerpted from GENETOPIA by Keith Brooke Copyright © 2006 by Keith Brooke. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 9, 2008
In the ancient settlement Trecosann, Flintreco Eltarn notices by her playful flirting with the Tallyman that his younger sister by four years Amberlinetreco is on the verge of maturing into a young woman. Still he rejoices that there remains enough of the child that he grew up with.---- However, during a Treco clan gala, Flint cannot find Amber he soon concludes that she is simply gone. No one seems concerned except Flint who knows she may have decided she had enough abuse from their cruel father and left on her own accord however more likely Flint assumes the worst that slavers abducted her thinking she is a mutt for market. Feeling nothing toward any other member except perhaps hatred of his father, Flint decides over the objection of his kin, to search for the only family member he cares about, Amber when he finds her as expects to do he will insure her safety even if he has to battle slavers and slave owners.------ The above two paragraphs are the opening gambit in a futuristic tale in which biotechnology has gotten out of control. There are a few purebred humans who are subject to being tossed into the changing vats. There are also Mutts who are slaves whispering that one day they will be free obvious parallels to the slavery of this country add depth. This is a thought provoking science fiction story that is more a coming of age tale that condemns any 'ology' or ism that cause harm. The fascinating story line contains several interesting spins. For instance ironically the audience knows up front what happened to Amber while Flint can only conjecture while he learns who he is in a world off kilter, as Amber is just the mechanism to propel the hero to begin his quest. Fans of deep thrillers will appreciate this fine parable of a man frightened by what the future holds, but sets forth anyway.----- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.