BINARY extract: The Beginning

We are a split and splintered species. Every pivot-point of need and creed proves the ease with which we fracture; every heartfelt reunion warns against its own necessity. The lines of our division are as many and varied as the sins of our ancestors and the accidents of history; as varied as the lines on the palm of Mikal Varsi’s hand, double-thumbed and huge at the end of a three-foot-long arm, as he raises it and takes the oath.

His eyes, split-lidded like a lizard’s, blink slowly as he listens to the solemn proclamation of the clerk, stumbling over her words a little as she gazes up and up to his face, wondering as she does so if her tiny part in this moment will be remembered; and wondering also, fleetingly and with guilt, whether posterity will smile upon the memory, or revile her for it. Then he opens his mouth, an ordinary mouth, a mouth she has already learned is no less quick with smiles than with wit, and in a gentle, nasal voice repeats after her just as he should, and she thinks, Well that wasn’t so bad.

She turns to set aside the edicts he has sworn to uphold, and he turns aside to the woman who stands behind him, a woman whose height and hands and eyes are steadfastly normal and who would, moreover, tell you that her heart is too; though there are still many who think this unlikely, for she has given both it and her name to a gem, a man designed for service and built for labour. He bends now and the long arm wraps around her body, and the thumbs on either side of that well-lined palm squeeze her shoulder as she tips her head back to smile up at him and receive his kiss. There is applause from his fellow councillors and hearty laughter all round the chamber, but the clerk thinks she sees a hint of her own secret worry flit across more than a few faces.

And then he steps off the platform, eight towering feet of genetically modified humanity moving to take its place for the first time among the elect of the city; and they part for him like a sea, and like the sea close behind him once again.

Binary (UK trade paperback), ch1, pp3-4

It’s Binary’s birthday! My second novel and the sequel to Gemsigns is now out in the UK. Lisa McCurrach calls it ‘another five-star effort,’ and in her interview with me for SF Signal, Andrea Johnson asked me to describe a favourite scene. This is the first of the two that I mentioned, and is the opening passage of the book. I hope you like it.

GEMSIGNS extract: Passing

Several platforms had merged into an apron where departing passengers pushed past him to get to their trains as the arrivals queued up to go through the turnstiles. Eli, lost in thought as he waited his turn to shuffle forward and place his identity pass on the scanner, started at a harsh buzzing from one of the turnstiles. A petite, remarkably pretty woman stood on his side of the barrier, the rejected pass in her hand, as she stared at the flashing light on the machine.

She looked vaguely familiar, but unlike the sense of almost-recognition he’d had with Zavcka Klist, Eli knew that what he was identifying here was a type, not an individual. It was something about her littleness and delicacy of bone structure, her excessive prettiness and the shyness with which she carried it. She stood out in a way that had become rare since the Syndrome. Even Klist did not exceed the usual height-weight-attractiveness ratios nearly as much as this woman. Yet there was something incoherent about her, some subtle counteraction to her beauty. He was no follower of fashion, but he sensed that something about her appearance was wrong.

He was struck by her hair. It was shoulder length and stylishly cut, but the dull, matt-black colour was at odds with her modish grooming and fashionable clothes. Eli felt a glimmer of satisfaction at identifying the disguise. He considered whether it was a wig or a dye job, decided on dye. A wig might slip, and besides if this woman had decided to take such a risk she’d have chosen a better wig. No, she’d dyed her hair, poured on layers and layers of light-barring pigments and fixatives to block the telltale gem glow. He wondered what colour it really was. A gentle rose pink maybe, or pale lilac.

For the briefest moment she raised her eyes to the man who was waiting for her on the other side of the barrier. He looked at least twenty years older, and better at hiding his discomfiture. His hair was receding and grey, and he wore the kind of well-cut, conservative suit that made Eli think of a banker. He had a confident, well-cared-for air. Someone used to money and privilege, universal rights and automatic respect. Definitely not a gem.

‘Must be due for renewal,’ the man said, in a voice intended to carry. Although he was looking at the black-haired woman, Eli thought the comment was meant for the turnstile guards. The one on the bodyscanner was watching the woman keenly. Those adjacent to her in the crowd took in her looks and her unease, and edged away. The woman bit her lip as she carefully lowered the pass onto the scanner again. This time a soft, welcoming tone accompanied a steady green light as the barrier gates hissed open. The woman stepped through and prodded her slim climbcase into the luggage scanner.

Intrigued, Eli sidestepped into the queue for the same turnstile to watch what happened. He was certain the woman was a gem, travelling on a forged – or stolen – norm pass. It was a serious violation, and on the face of it an irrational one. Gem travel had not been restricted since the Declaration – not yet anyway – and she would have been allowed through on her own pass.

But then she would have been recorded as having arrived in London. He could think of two reasons she might wish to avoid that. One was common to any criminal, gem or norm, who wanted to cover their tracks as they moved from city to city. The other was specific to gems who simply wanted to disappear, fall off the index of the underclass and slip into norm society. If their appearance allowed them to pass, the cleanest break with their old life was to register in a new location under their new identity.

He thought the latter was more likely in this case. There was something about the woman that seemed inconsistent with a city-hopping professional crook. Her nervousness and her companion both suggested someone unused to this kind of endeavour. He wondered if the man was a lover, a well-heeled gent past his prime but with the means and nous to attract a beautiful companion who would be grateful for the life he could offer. Such cases were not unknown; were not even restricted to the rich. It was very much at odds, he thought, with Zavcka Klist’s analysis.

The climbcase hissed swiftly through the automatic sensors, and paused rather longer at the visualisation monitor. Eli could see a guard bending down to peer at the screen. He knew this was a waste of time: the chemical sensors and hazard-recognition software were much more perceptive than human faculties. The same was true of the bodyscanners. The guards were really there to deal with the people and luggage that the machines flagged up, not to identify problems themselves. Until a year ago they had had very limited authority to intervene once the equipment had signalled acceptance, but this had been extended as part of the hodgepodge of post-Declaration protocols. Approval by the scanners of papers, person and possessions no longer guaranteed swift passage.

Which was why Eli wanted to see what would happen if – as he suspected – the woman did not set off the bodyscanner. She stepped up to and through it with a bit more confidence, and stood on the exit mat waiting for the light to turn green. No physical abnormalities then, no strange internal anatomy. The guard glanced at the monitor, then peered around it to give her a long look. Eli thought he was manually overriding the lights to keep her on the mat. He was focused on her hair. She stood perfectly still, barely breathing, still biting her lip, not lifting her eyes from the ground.

A mistake, that, thought Eli. It would be more natural to glance over at him, see what’s taking so long. He found he was holding his breath too, waiting for the guard to press a button that would make the lights flash red, to stand up and ask the woman to step aside and follow me, please. She seemed resigned to it. He could see her companion draw himself up in readiness.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

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