'Gemsigns' (US 2014): Book Excerpt

gemsigns, scifi, book
Front cover of Stephanie Saulter's novel "Gemsigns." (Image credit: Quercus / Jo Fletcher Books)

Stephanie Saulter is the author of the "®Evolution" novels, the first of which, "Gemsigns," is now available in the United States. She has contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The last decade saw a rapid expansion in humanity's ability to both understand and manipulate the human genome, but the ethics for such efforts are not keeping pace with the rate of research progress.

In her first science fiction novel, Stephanie Saulter envisions a future where such exploration has led to the engineering of humans with inhuman traits, and while superior in some ways, these "gems" serve the rest of humanity. In setting in motion the conflict between gems and "norms," Saulter asks if a modified genome modifies a human's rights.

"The backdrop to the creation of the genetically modified humans of 'Gemsigns' is a scenario in which the alternative is at best a reduced, pre-Information Age civilization — and at worst, outright extinction," said Saulter. "In such desperate straits, who is to say that radical engineering would still be the wrong thing to do?"

Below is the first chapter of "Gemsigns."

[Read Stephanie's related Op-Ed: Trusting the Future? Ethics of Human Genetic Modification]


Chapter 1.

The headache bloomed before Gaela's eyes, a violence of reds and violets. Her knees jellied as turbulent, aggressive colors pulsed in time to the pounding in her skull. She'd felt it coming on as she left the museum, had gulped some painkillers and hoped she'd caught it early enough to at least stave off the florid accompaniment. No such luck. The meds should kick in soon, but for now she felt buried under waves of pain and almost-purple.

She often wondered what norms — or even other gems — would call her colors, and knew she would never have the answer. Hyperspectral vision coupled with an unimpaired intellect was a rarity, and hyperspectral synesthesia was, as far as she knew, unique. She could have done without the distinction. She struggled endlessly to describe hues no one else could see.

Today they were intense enough to interfere with her carefully modulated perception of her surroundings, and she stumbled and stopped, eyes half-closed. The street was lined with old, faceless buildings hard up against the pavement and she leaned against one of them gratefully. The migraine was not exactly a surprise. She'd known the likely outcome of the day's task, a hurried evaluation of a massive private collection. The paintings were rumored to include old masters, even some Renaissance work, but the museum had had its doubts. It was only at the last moment that someone had thought to request Gaela's services.

Now they had a treasure trove of lost masterpieces, awaiting painstaking analysis of the ancient underdrawings, corrections, and layers of paint by highly trained specialists wielding delicate instru- ments that could reveal to norm eyes what Gaela had seen in an instant. After hours spent checking dozens of canvases, trying to describe her findings in terms the others could understand, she had a headache. And, she reminded herself, payment and the prospect of more work. It was still far better than other things she'd had to do for a living.

But it had been an exhausting day and the early winter evening had long since deepened into night. At least there was no one around; she always chose her route carefully, preferring quiet streets where there was less passive surveillance to avoid, where she was less likely to be accosted, and where the visual bombardment would be less severe. She should be able to wait, unmolested, for the double-barreled barrage to recede.

She tipped her head back to rest against the cool masonry and gazed up at the sky. Even to her it was largely blank, washed out by the city's glow. Peaceful. She picked out gentle rays of ultraviolet, followed them up until she could make out a few stars. She stood in the shadow of the wall and watched them wheel slowly overhead, letting her eyes rest in the invisible light, until the pain diminished to a spatter of lavender. Her earset buzzed.

"Where are you?" Bal, worried. She'd told him about the paint- ings and that she'd be late, and messaged him as she was leaving. Still, she should have been home long since. She could picture him resisting the urge to call, wanting to trust that the Declaration would keep her safe, finding things to do around the apartment to distract himself, and finally grabbing his tablet in an excess of anxiety. It gave her a warm feeling.

"Almost home." She swung away from the wall."I had to stop for a while. Headache."

"You all right? Want me to come get you?"

"No, it's okay. I'm feeling a bit better. Should be there in fifteen minutes or so."

"Dinner's ready." The warm feeling spread. She could feel herself smiling, a huge happy grin that pushed the headache all the way back.

"Great. I'm starving."

She flicked off and picked up the pace, still smiling. Bal: what a treasure. A gem in the literal sense, a godsend if you believed in god. She remembered how they'd met, when she was still a runaway staying barely a step ahead of the Bel'Natur retrieval squads and he a newly arrived refugee from the Himalayan mines. He'd used the chaos of the transit camp to keep her safe, and she'd kept the cash coming in. Once the danger of forced repatriation and indenture had passed, they had ventured out into the city and found a new home in the Squats. For a long time their nascent community had been barely noticeable, a tiny tract of alien terri- tory carved out of the heart of London. Now it was exploding, as gems flooded in on the back of the Declaration.

She crossed the broad, brightly lit avenue that separated the back- streets of the financial district from buzzier clubs and cafés, barely noticing herself twisting and angling to slip unregistered between infrared camera beams and traffic monitors. The Declaration might have brought with it a new sense of security, but with scarcely a week gone by it still felt too tenuous for her to give up the old habit.The strange, dancing gait drew a few puzzled looks, which Gaela ignored. Gems were expected to be weird. In an open, populated place like this, with her hair uncovered and no companion, a touch of harmlessly off-putting eccentricity was useful. She sidestepped between a couple waiting for a table — who politely, pointedly looked away — and the perimeter of the sweeper field in front of the neighboring jewelry shop and plunged into the network of alleys that ran down toward the river.

The boutiques and bistros ended abruptly. There was less surveil- lance now, and she walked more or less normally. Little light penetrated these narrow streets, but she was using night vision, seeing as a cat sees, navigating easily around obstacles, on the lookout for lurkers in the shadows. From a hundred yards away she spotted a couple grappling with each other, hands pulling at belts and britches as they crammed themselves into the angle of a doorway. Gaela blinked at the telltale glow, not unlike her own, as one of them fell to his knees. She looked for a similar glimmer from his partner, couldn't find it. She hesitated a moment, then turned off into an adjacent lane.

Author Stephanie Saulter. (Image credit: Image courtesy of Frederique Rapier)

So one was a gem and the other not, unless his gemsign was well hidden. None of her business. Such liaisons — relationships even — weren't unheard of. Now that the Declaration had confirmed a uni- versal humanity, there would inevitably be more. And if it was a business transaction, well, most gems had few choices. Still, it made her uncomfortable.This was not yet a safe place for a gem to linger, still less to leave himself so vulnerable.

The lane she was in ran directly toward the Squats, but she changed course again to avoid a motion sensor, the infrared beam as clear to her as a red rope stretched across her path. The authorities were evidently trying to monitor the numbers moving into the inner-city colony of the radically altered.

Worry sparked in her, coupled with a deep-seated resentment of the endless, obsessive data gathering. There were a lot of very good reasons for newly liberated, often baffled and disoriented gems to band together; but they were in effect corralling themselves, the more easily to be counted and cataloged. Social services had been at pains to reassure them that the information would only ever be used for their benefit. The department liaison was committed, kind and clearly believed what she said to be true. Gaela wished she shared her confidence.

She came out onto another main road, as broad as the avenue she'd crossed earlier but dim and deserted, its surface pitted with age. A damp, stickily cold mist rolled up from the quayside, diffusing the glow from a few ancient streetlamps. Blocky, rectilinear buildings rose in front of her, lights twinkling from very few windows. Still, more than there had been even last night.

She glanced farther up the road to where the old leisure center squatted, dark at this late hour. Bal would have been in there today, working with the others to welcome and settle the newcomers while around them the building was slowly brought back to life. It had been the hub of a desirable area once, a development of modern apartments and communal gardens running down to the river and a short walk from offices, shops, and entertainment. People had flocked to live one atop the other, competing to claim a place in the heart of the city.

Then the Syndrome rolled through like a decades-long tsu- nami and the survivors, disheartened by the echoing solitude of so many empty homes, dispersed into the more spacious suburbs that ringed the center. Plans had occasionally been floated to demolish the old apartment buildings, reclaim the riverside, but for so long there had been so little money, so few people, and so much else to salvage that it had become an endlessly deferred project.

Now the gems were moving in.

Gaela angled across the crumbling boulevard, aiming for the dark mouth of a side street that wound into the heart of the Squats. Even this close to home she was scanning through the electromagnetic spectra, her senses alert for any new intrusions.

Still, she might have missed the ragged bundle, tucked away as it was among the litter that had collected behind a grubby metal cable box poking up from the pavement, stuffed with live wires that made it glow brightly in her specialized sight. It was a sound that made her look around: a querulous little whimper. She noticed the bundle, focused on the heat signature within, and stopped dead.

The bundle stirred, the sounds becoming more urgent and distressed as it tr ied to sit up. Gaela moved over to crouch in front of it, shocked to the core. She reached out, thought she should say something, found herself almost unable to speak. Her voice shook.

"Hang . . . hang on, take it easy, let me help."

She pulled away the muffling layers as what was trapped inside them scrabbled frantically to get out, trying to be gentle and reassuring even as she caught the fringe of panic, even as a rage beyond anything she could remember rose like bile in her throat

"Easy, easy . . . okay . . . there.You're all right, it's all right. Don't be scared. You're okay."

But it was not okay, and she knew it as well as the little boy who emerged from the windings of blanket and trash bags and looked around at the dismal street, the dirty crevice, and the strange woman with glowing red hair and began to cry.

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