Nekropolisby Maureen F. McHugh
Fleeing an empty future in the Nekropolis, twenty-one-year-old Hariba has agreed to have herself "jessed," the technobiological process that will render her subservient to whomever has purchased her service. Indentured in the house of a wealthy merchant, she encounters many wondrous things. Yet nothing there is as remarkable and disturbing to her as the harni,<… See more details below
Fleeing an empty future in the Nekropolis, twenty-one-year-old Hariba has agreed to have herself "jessed," the technobiological process that will render her subservient to whomever has purchased her service. Indentured in the house of a wealthy merchant, she encounters many wondrous things. Yet nothing there is as remarkable and disturbing to her as the harni, Akhmim. A perfect replica of a man, this intelligent, machine-bred creature unsettles Hariba with its beauty, its naive, inappropriate tenderness . . . and with prying, unanswerable questions, like "Why are you sad?" And slowly, revulsion metamorphoses into acceptance, and then into something much more. But these outlaw emotions defy the strict edicts of God and Man -- feelings that must never be explored, since no master would tolerate them. And the "jessed" defy their master's will at the risk of sickness, pain, imprisonment . . . and death.
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How I came to be jessed. Well, like most people who are jessed, I was sold. I was twenty-one, and I was sold three times in one day, one right after another; first to a dealer who looked at my teeth and in my ears and had me scanned for augmentation; then to a second dealer where I sat in the back office drinking tea and talking with a gap-toothed boy who was supposed to be sold to a restaurant owner as a clerk; and finally that afternoon to the restaurant owner. The restaurant owner couldn't really have wanted the boy anyway, since the position was for his wife's side of the house.
The jessing itself happened rather quickly, at the first dealer's. There was a package with foreign writing on it, from the north across the sea, so even the letters were strange and unreadable. He made me lean my head back and open my mouth, and he sprayed the roof of my mouth with an anesthetic. Then he opened the package and took out the tool to do the jessing. Watching him, I had leaned my head forward a bit and closed my mouth. "Lean back," he said. I leaned back again and looked at the ceiling. The roof of my mouth felt thick, as if I had drunk something that scalded it, except of course that it didn't hurt. I felt the pressure of something pressed against the roof of my mouth and there was a sound like a phffft.
I was more afraid when he'd done it than I'd been before. It was done. I couldn't back out. The jessing process was happening somewhere in my brain and I was changing. Jessing is supposed to enhance natural loyalties, butright then I wasn't feeling loyal to much of anything even my mother's voice was raw on my nerves. Scared! I was so scared I could feel the sweat under my arms.
I wasn't really sold, of course. It's just that the medicine they use to do the jessing is made in the E.C.U., not here in Morocco. It's black-market and costs. The dealer has to get paid a lot, and that money goes against the bond that I owe to my owner. Not really owe, it's more money than I'll ever make unless maybe I save everything, never buy as much as a pair of earrings, and work for fifty years. And besides, when you're jessed, you're not supposed to want to leave. You're supposed to be trustworthy.
Sitting with the gap-toothed boy at the second dealer's, I still didn't feel loyal. I felt irritable and annoyed and nervous. I had expected never to feel that way again. I had expected my loyalty would be absolute, like the loyalty of a soldier, or a saint.
When Mbarek-salah came and hired me, I still didn't feel anything, not even when the dealer pronounced the trigger words. I didn't know at the time that the actual jessing process takes weeks, sometimes even months. I never felt like a soldier, though. I learned the sad fact that I couldn't give my life away, that anywhere I went, there I was. If a girl asked me tomorrow if she should be jessed, I don't know what I'd say. It's not a bad life. It's better than being an old maid in the Nekropolis, the part of the old city where I grew up. I'd have to ask her: What are you leaving?
I have been with my present owner since I was twenty-one. I'm twenty-six now. I was a good student, I got good marks in math and literature, so I was bonded to oversee cleaning and supplies. That's better than if I were a pretty girl and had to rely on looks. Then I would be used up in a few years.
I like my owner, like my work. But now I'd like to go to him and ask him to sell me.
"Hariba," he'd say, taking my hand in his fatherly way, "Aren't you happy here?"
"Mbarek-salah," I'd answer, my eyes demurely on my toes. "You are like a father and I have been only too happy with you." Which is true even beyond being jessed, praise God. I don't think I'd mind being part of Mbarek's household, even if I were unbound. Mostly Mbarek pays no attention to me, which is how I prefer things. I like my work and my room.
It would all be fine if it weren't for the new one.
I have no problems with AI. I don't mind the cleaning machine, poor thing, and as head of the women's household, I work with the household intelligence all the time. I may have had a simple, rather conservative upbringing, but I've come to be pretty comfortable with AI. The Holy Injunction doesn't mean that all AI is abomination. But AI should not be biologically constructed. AI should not be made in the image of humanity.
It's the mistress's harni. It's a very expensive, very pretty toy, the kind of thing that the mistress likes. It cost more, far more than my bond. For what it costs my widowed mother could stop selling funeral wreaths and live comfortably in her old age.
It comes over to our side sometimes the master says that since it isn't human, it's allowed. There is no impropriety it's never alone with the mistress. In fact, now, after having it a couple of months, she pretty much ignores it, which would be virtuous if she did it out of any sense of morality, but the truth is it's like...
Meet the Author
Maureen F. McHugh is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Mission Child, China Mountain Zhang -- which was a New York Times Notable Book, nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula Award, and winner of the Locus Readers' Poll for Best First Novel, a James Tiptree Award, and a Lambda Award -- and Half the Day is Night. She received the Hugo for her short story "The Lincoln Train," and other stories have appeared in several publications and anthologies, including in the highly regarded collection Starlight 1. Ms. McHugh lives in Ohio with her husband and stepson.
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In a future Morocco, slavery is legal, an institution deeply ingrained into the fiber of society. Slaves are jessed, given mind-altering drugs that make them loyal and eager to please their master. Hariba, born into poverty in the NEKROPOLIS, actually lived with her family in adjoining crypts until her brother was caught in the sin of adultery. He was flogged and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. Hariba fearing any deep emotion sold herself into slavery and was jessed to her new master Mbarek. She becomes a housekeeper in his home where she meets the biological construct Akhmim. Despite herself, and knowing any relationship between them is illegal, she falls for him. When she is resold, she runs away from her new masters, taking Akhmim with her. Unless they can find a way to be smuggled into a country where slavery is illegal, even for Chimeras like Akhmim, the two risk capture and death at the hands of the authorities. Maureen F. McHugh has written a literary science fiction novel that will be enjoyed by fans of Ursula LeGuin. The story line is riveting, but what makes this work so very special is the way slavery is accepted by both slave and master alike. The subcultures of the biological constructs raise interesting social and ethical issues, especially what constitutes humanity. This is a novel that makes readers think and ponder their own values system. Ms. McHugh is going to be a giant in the science fiction genre. Harriet Klausner