Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

Stephanie Saulter's novel of politics, philosophy, science, corporate greed, and slavery will make you reconsider "human."

(Excerpted from Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter)

Eli sensed someone settle into the seat opposite but didn’t imme- diately look up.The train was pulling away from the platform, gath- ering speed for the final leg of the journey, and he supposed this traveler had just boarded. Some hint of perfume or whiff of phero- mone told him it was a woman. That she had chosen a seat at an occupied table when the car was largely empty was, to say the least, annoying.

Eli was juggling two tablets, rereading the Conference brief and his own draft analysis on one, writing notes on the other. He shifted his feet out of the intruder’s way and glanced up, intending only a brief nod, just enough to convey a touch of irritation and forestall any attempt at fellow-passenger small talk.

The woman was staring at him.

Her face was striking. Black-dark eyes took him in over sharply angled cheekbones, red lips, and a cut-glass jaw. The hair was swept back, glossy and blond. She was tall; he thought that when she stood she would be almost his height. She lounged against the mass-transit upholstery with the easy, powerful poise of an athlete and was simply but expensively dressed. Her black coat would have set him back a month’s salary at least; her tiny earset coil was crystalline and almost invisible. He could not have hazarded a guess at her age.

The woman regarded him without expression. He thought her appraisal was intended to discomfort, and had to suppress the urge to shuffle his feet under the table while he parsed his new companion’s face. He was certain he’d never seen her before, would have remem- bered such harsh beauty, but he couldn’t shake a sense of familiarity: as though he ought to know who she was.

Looking away was impossible. The woman had created an inti- macy with her stare, had taken over his space and captured his atten- tion without a word. Eli was unnerved. He felt a need to respond to this invasion, regain a sense of territory. He also felt, instinctively, that if he spoke first he would be at a disadvantage.

He took refuge in props, his left hand holding the tablet he’d been reading at an angle that ensured only he could see its surface. He flicked the other into standby, shielding his notes from view. He left it lying on the table, leaned back in his seat, and gazed at the woman with what he hoped was an air of composure.

She smiled for the first time, a crimson flicker that softened her jawline but went nowhere near her eyes.

“Good afternoon, Dr.Walker.”

He let a few seconds tick by, assessing who she might be, making her wait. The voice was as expensive and cultured as the clothing. Her attitude remained relaxed, as though she had all the time in the world. He thought of simply not responding, forcing her to plow on unassisted, but somehow couldn’t. He tried to muster an aura of scholarly dignity.

“You have the advantage of me, Miss . . . ?” He let it trail off, inviting her to supply a name. She smiled again at the gambit, then ignored it.

“I’ve been meaning to make your acquaintance. This seemed,”

she nodded at the tablets, “an opportune moment.”

He thought he saw an opening. “You favor interruptions?” he asked, intending to sound irritated, wincing inwardly when it came out arch. She smiled widely at that, for an instant looking genuinely amused.

“Not as a rule, no.” She shifted in her seat, crossing long legs. “I am in a position to contribute to your research, which, I believe, you are intending to present shortly.”

“My research.” “Indeed.”

“If you’ll forgive me for saying so, you don’t appear to be a gem.” That earned him a flash of annoyance. Her brows creased and lips

twisted for a moment.Then the sculpted face smoothed out again. “I am not. But it seems to me, Dr. Walker, that relying solely on gem-derived data fails to capture the entire picture. It will inevitably leave a gap in your findings; one might even say a flaw.”

“I see.” He felt surer of himself now; he thought he knew what this was about. “And you think you’re able to fill this . . . gap?”

“I am.” She folded her hands together on the table. They were long and strong, beautifully manicured and without adornment. It was interesting, Eli thought, how the lack of accessories could often be the signal of serious wealth. Something flickered at the back of his mind; a hint, an intimation of who this woman might be.

Stephanie Saulters's Gemsigns is available from Amazon.

“However, I’m aware that you have had similar opportunities before,” she went on, “and have failed to take them up. I’m less clear on why.”

“I’m not sure what opportunities you’re referring to.”

“Oh come, Dr.Walker.You’ve had access to the genetype reports of all the major firms. It’s well known that you’ve been selective in your focus.”

“That’s your view, is it?” The tablet he was holding had blanked to standby as well. He stacked it atop the other one, being careful to activate neither. “You’re mistaken. My team and I have reviewed all of the data from, as you say, all of the gemtechs.That we’ve declined to adopt their interpretations is down to our commitment to objec- tivity.We have in fact been anti-selective.”

“Not true.You’ve chosen to ignore the conclusions of those who have a lot more experience in the field.”

“We found their conclusions to be predetermined and self-serving.” “Then you haven’t been given sufficient information. I can remedy that.”

“Who are you?”

The blunt question gave her pause. She regarded him for a moment before responding. He thought she wanted to make sure he understood the significance of the answer.

“My name,” said the woman, “is Zavcka Klist.”

He had already mentally floated a number of possibilities. This one had been the least likely, and the most impressive. Eli raised an eyebrow.

“From Bel’Natur. I assume I should be flattered.”

“I’m not here to flatter you, Dr.Walker. I’m here to explain some things that you may be in danger of not considering fully, and to provide you with material that I think you will find compelling.”

He felt his hackles rise.This was more and more like familiar ter- ritory. The condescension, the suggestion of deep matters beyond his comprehension, the hint of a bribe. He marshaled his anger. The fact that Zavcka Klist had come in person, to catch him alone and unawares, signaled that the gemtechs were really worried.Their efforts to get him on board had become increasingly frequent and unsubtle.

He had rejected the most recent just the evening before, a slick, smooth-talking “businessman” who’d set up a meeting on false pre- tenses and spent half an hour trying to convince him that his entire approach was misguided. The man had then gone on to speculate, hypothetically of course, just how damaging such an error might be to a prominent and distinguished career, and to point out how bene- ficial a less uncompromising attitude could prove, before being sum- marily ejected from Eli’s office. It had been the third such approach in a month.

Word must have reached her. Since this most recent lobbyist had claimed to represent Recombin, it suggested that the industry’s internal espionage apparatus was functioning well. Or, he thought sourly, that they had teamed up, an enemy-of-my-enemy alliance, and sent one of their biggest hitters to bring him to heel. It was not a comfortable prospect. He wondered if she would acknowledge the incident.

“That sounds remarkably like a proposition that was made to me yesterday.”

“I know about the idiot from Recombin.” She said it quickly, exasperated. “Your response to him was entirely understandable. What is not understandable is the notion of a new classification system for gems. There is already enough uncertainty around an appropriate, affordable social settlement. Suggesting that established designations should be revised at this point would be a mistake.”

“My conclusions about gems are based on data, Miss Klist. Gained both from direct observation and court order. If, as you’ve suggested, you have new information I’d be happy to consider it.”

This was tricky ground and they both knew it. The courts had long since ordered full disclosure of gemtech records, despite mas- sive, costly, and protracted opposition. Her response was careful.

“I can provide a more detailed exploration of different behavior modalities, based on extensive Bel’Natur research and observation,” she said. “I understand that the raw statistics you’ve been working with can be . . . troublesome . . . to interpret.”

“I haven’t found them that difficult.”

“That’s because you haven’t understood what they represent,” she snapped. The change of tone was startling. “You don’t have a com- prehensive understanding of what gems are capable of—both the advantages and the risks. There are thousands of those people”—she spat the word out as though it were bitter—“wandering around amongst ordinary human beings, whereabouts unknown half the time, with extraordinary capabilities and unclear intentions. They cannot simply be left alone to tuck themselves away in unmonitored enclaves as though they were all the same as each other, or the same as us.They’re not.”

“No,” said Eli quietly. “They’re not. You and your predecessors saw to that.”

She leaned forward, lips compressed, nostrils flaring.“We fulfilled an urgent need at the time of greatest peril for our species.We kept the human race from becoming extinct, or reverting back to some sort of medieval existence. We are the only reason any of us are here.” “That is undeniable. And since”—he held up a hand to stop her from cutting in—“since we are still here despite all the odds against us, our imperative is to have regard for all members of our species.”

He threw her a speculative look. “Or do you think that because you’ve changed some of them almost beyond recognition they should be removed from our consideration?”

“The solution needs to fit the problem. Don’t misunderstand me, Dr. Walker.” Her fingers drummed the table for emphasis. “I don’t want their welfare to be disregarded, I don’t want them treated badly. I regret that the conduct of our industry has on occasion been less than humane. But we are where we are, and you have to understand that many—most—of the gems are simply not capable of leading a normal life.They are best suited to the environments they were engi- neered for, and the work they’ve been designed to do. And the point is that they can work. The social services emphasis there’s been since the Declaration is enfeebling, not empowering. Gems who are quite capable of earning a living are ending up in menial roles or becoming nonproductive wards of the state.What kind of sense does that make?” Eli concealed his reaction with a deep breath and a thoughtful glance out the window. He was surprised to see buildings flash past instead of fields and forests.They were well within the borders of the city, would be arriving within moments. He needed to decide how to play the rest of the conversation.

He had pissed her off with his apparent disdain for the gemtechs. Despite this she was being remarkably candid. This was surprising. Zavcka Klist’s business acumen was legendary: many observers con- sidered her to be the real power at Bel’Natur, itself arguably the most powerful and sophisticated of the bioindustrialist conglomerates. She was not thoughtlessly having this conversation, with a man she did not yet have the measure of, in a public train car. It had to mean she was prepared, or preparing, to take the argument to a wider arena; testing it out on him before the Conference, inviting him to take sides, demonstrating by her presence and her boldness what he’d be up against if he made the wrong choice.

She was after something specific with this emphasis on classifica- tion and employability. He sensed a significance there. Time to dial down the antagonism, try to draw her out. He pulled his eyes back from the window, focused on her face, conjured a concerned frown onto his own.

“Their capabilities are limited to spec.” “For the most part, yes.”

“And they therefore should be understood in such terms.”

“Just so.” She caught herself, backtracked. “I don’t suggest they shouldn’t have options. No more mandatory indentureships, we understand those days are over. But they need to be channeled into appropriate roles, with appropriate management and oversight. It makes absolutely no sense for a gem with high-res memory, say, or a gillung, or an organ regenerator, with all that potential, with all that value, to end up driving taxis or sweeping streets. Or on welfare, which is frankly more likely.”

“Who’s to decide what’s appropriate? You’re suggesting a system of . . . what? Support? Governance?”

“The details will have to wait for the Conference, but you’ve identified the most important points. Whether you flinch at the thought or not, Dr.Walker, the fact is we—the gemtechs—designed them, produced them, raised and trained them. For better or worse, we understand them. We’ve always known how to evaluate their abilities, and their needs. Our expertise should be used better than it has been for the past few years.”

“Miss Klist.” Eli rubbed his hands over his face. He felt weary suddenly, and dirty. The public-address system chimed softly. He needed to end this, but Zavcka Klist wasn’t finished.

“Furthermore—and I cannot stress too greatly the importance of this—all gems are not equally competent. Many are simply inca- pable of proper socialization—you can provide all the therapy in the world, they just don’t have the wiring for it.We know from experi- ence that their behavior can be unpredictable.We used to be able to prevent those problems from impacting on society in general. Then it was decided we should no longer have that influence. Fine. But what have we been replaced with? So far, nothing.”

She sat back, hands folded once more on the table, and fixed him again with that keenly observant gaze. He realized that his responses were being examined closely; as closely as if he were a gem in a test- ing chamber, pinned and probed and scanned for reactions, capabili- ties, endurance. She was waiting for something.

Eli considered his options. If he rejected her outright he’d lose the insider information she’d dangled and cauterize a potentially valuable link to the secretive gemtech hierarchy. If he appeared too ready to agree, she would suspect him of duplicity. He needed to find a response that was encouraging but noncommittal.

As he mentally reviewed the conversation it occurred to him that only half the pitch had been made.

“Miss Klist. With respect, you’ll be aware that many of the con- cerns you raise have been raised before. I am not oblivious to them, and I appreciate your coming to discuss them with me personally. However, my findings must be substantiated. What can you share with me that is verifiable? And quantifiable?” He answered her keen look with one of his own.

She gave a satisfied little sigh and smiled that red smile again. “Take this.”

From nowhere a memtab had appeared on the tip of her finger. He reached over and she transferred it to his. He felt a slight tingle. “It’s keyed to you now. Once you’ve reviewed it we’ll talk again.”

“Password?”

“Same as your bank account.”

That was blunter than anticipated. But then this woman wore confidence like a coat.

The train slid silently into the platform.There was nothing more to be said. The other passengers were on their feet, collecting coats and climbcases, chattering into earsets.

Zavcka Klist stood up. She was as tall as he’d expected. “Good- bye, Dr.Walker. No doubt we’ll speak soon.”

With that she turned and strode off the train.

Eli glared at the memtab, then pressed it to an intake port on one of the tablets. It slipped off his skin to bond with the machine. He slumped back against the seat and ran his hands through his hair. The tension Zavcka Klist had generated had snapped with her departure, leaving him completely drained. He looked around the car, wondering if any- one had noticed them. He was occasionally recognized. Even within the guarded gemtech world Zavcka Klist was notoriously publicity shy, but anyone who knew who he was and wanted to know who he’d been talking to could no doubt find the information with a quick scan.

Oh well.Too late to worry about that now.

He stood to pull his coat and battered climbcase from the over- head rack. There was one other person still in the car, a scruffy, tired-looking young man at the far end who’d boarded with him in Edinburgh. He carried an ancient backpack instead of a climbcase and was struggling to pull it on over an equally ancient jacket.

Student, Eli thought. Too much work, too little money, future uncer- tain. I can relate. He felt as worn out and vexed as the other man looked. He was muttering angrily, apparently to himself; Eli assumed an earset must be hidden under the shaggy brown hair. Terse notes of complaint in a thick brogue wafted up the car to where he was pulling on his own coat. As if suddenly aware of the attention, the passenger glanced up, caught Eli’s eye. Eli flashed a sympathetic smile at the young man, who grimaced and turned away. Eli sighed and stepped onto the platform.

Excerpted with the permission of Jo Fletcher Books

Published 4:30 am Mon, May 19, 2014

About the Author

Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She lives in London, blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus. Gemsigns is Stephanie’s first novel and is now available from Jo Fletcher Books (an imprint of Quercus). It is the first book in The ®Evolution Series. Its sequel, Binary, was recently published in the UK and Stephanie’s busy running late with the third book, Gillung.

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