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Genetopia

a short story
by Keith Brooke

Foreword

Genetopia by Keith BrookeGenetopia has a complex history, so please forgive me if I feel the need to explain...

First, there was a short story called "Passion Play" (which was, in fact, my second published story). "Passion Play" was a strange little story that just popped out of my head one morning and demanded to be written. As soon as I had done so, the world in which the story was set, with its warped biology full of hidden dangers and wonders, imposed itself on me and I started accumulating notes for the novel I would one day write with this backdrop.

About ten years later, I was getting closer to writing the novel and I wanted to flex my writing muscles in this world, so I wrote the story you have before you: "Genetopia". This story, somewhat rewritten from what you see here, eventually became a chapter in the novel, which -- confusingly -- I also called Genetopia.

So I hope that's all clear for you now.

And here's the story...

 


Genetopia

 


I. Farsamy

"Faster, faster!"

Henritt Ofkyme leaned forward in his carriage's deep bucketseat. Banana-leaf screens shielded him on three sides, so that all he could see of Farsamy was the cobbled street, the jostling crowds and the tight-packed buildings to either side. Henritt took a crop from its carved holder and flicked it at the sweat-streaked flank of the nearest mutt. "Faster," he said again.

This place had an air of transience, of lean-tos and smart huts thrown casually together -- here today, but probably not the next -- against a backdrop of trees, hills, the great river, luxuriating in their ancient permanence. It made him uncomfortable.

He flicked again at the nearest mutt then, catching gentle old Pilofritt's look, eased himself back into the cushions. Pil had been with the clan for octades, a bondsman given in tribute to Henritt's father Kymeritt by the neighbouring Tenka clan, as part-settlement in some obscure dispute.

Henritt chewed on a jaggery stick, then tossed the sugary husk out into the street when he had finished. Pil would be right, of course: there was no hurry, no need to work the beasts too hard. It had been a long journey and everyone was tired. He closed his eyes, sick already of the sight of so much flesh, human and otherwise. Sick of the smells of shit and sweat and dirt, the babble of voices, the occasional raised beseechment to the gods. And yet... the clamour, the tension of mixing with the world beyond the clan -- it was exciting, too. He, Henritt, purebred son of Kyme of the clan Ritt, had been to Farsamy many times before, but this was the first time he had led the delegation. As Pil kept reminding him, he had much to learn. And also, so much to see and do!

His head hurt, his stomach burned, his throat was dry and swollen, making it hard to talk or swallow. Not that he wanted to.

Pil had woken him too early -- deliberate, he felt sure. Market day, stock to buy, heads to clear. Last night, slumped at the roadside, Henritt recalled the street rats sniffing at him, trying to work out if he was garbage to be consumed. He'd flapped at them, driven them from him. They should have been able to tell. He couldn't remember returning to the lodging house. No doubt Pil would fill him in on the details if he could be bothered to ask.

Set in an open square in the centre of Farsamy, the market's stalls and stock-pens were arranged in a grid formation. Wide tracks between them left plenty of room for the people and their bonded and mutts to pass.

Morning rain gave the cobbles a surface slick with slurry and smart algal scum.

"Hey, Janos!" he croaked, waving at a young bonded behind the Ritt stall. Janosofritt looked moribund: hooded eyes sunk deep into his pallid face. Just as he should: for much of the night the two friends had matched each other drink for drink.

The boy smiled, waved. He was good company, even if his fawning did verge on the outrageous. He was a good worker, too.

Henritt stepped behind the stall, eyeing the arrangements critically, gesturing at Janos or one of the mutts to refine the display.

Under the canopy he was sheltered from the rain, but there was no respite from the humid heat and the pervasive smells of the stock. He sat on a cushioned stool, ready to do business, ready to take his first serious steps in multiplying the clan's wealth.

The Ritt delegation had brought samples of some of their best smart fibres to the Farsamy market. Their livelihood was founded on the fibre beds, the techniques for farming and moulding the smartstuff jealously guarded, passed down through the generations. Clans would travel for days and weeks to buy in stocks of Ritt fibre and its products: woven together the fibres would bond and scab over, forming waterproof sheeting that could be used for clothing, bottling and other containers; depending on the after-treatment, Ritt fibres could even be used in the construction of buildings, boats and carriages. The stock they would sell at Farsamy market would finance the trip and the purchases Henritt was to make; the longer term deals and contracts initiated here were what really mattered.

Henritt had spent many such trips studying at the feet of his father, or Uncle Chardinritt. He was aware that he sometimes gave the impression of callowness, of disinterest even, but he was well-taught and his brain was sharp. He would not let the clan down.

Give him a mutt, any day! Mutts were straightforward in their loyalty and devotion: a good mutt could be nothing but obedient, after all. They didn't have it in them to be condescending, to patronise their betters in the way that Pilofritt had perfected, to simultaneously obey their master's every word and yet undermine his standing in the company of equals.

And Janosofritt! The boy had loved it.

"Perhaps the finest you will find in all of the eastern provinces," Henritt had told one customer, allowing her to run the loose fibres through her hands, feel their quality.

"Most certainly the finest," Pilofritt had chipped in, simultaneously defending the clan's standing and undermining Henritt. He had been like that since the start of trading, and Janos had not even troubled to hide his delight each time the old bondsman had corrected Henritt.

By mid-morning Henritt had reached his limit. "I am going to inspect stock," he said, addressing no-one in particular.

"I will accompany you, sir," said Pil immediately.

"You do not trust me to choose wisely?" demanded Henritt.

"You are my master and superior, sir. I merely advise and help you to refine your judgement. It is my duty."

Henritt met the old man's gaze. Turning away, he plucked another jaggery stick from behind the stall and bit into it, enjoying the kick from the coarse palm-sugar snack. He knew Pil disapproved of such stimulants. He tossed the husk into the gutter for the street rats. Why should he care what the bondsman thought? Pil might be purebred, but he was no freeman.

He led the way into the heart of the market. Bodies pressed all around. The wealthier freemen wore fabrics made from Ritt smart-fibres, their poorer fellows and bonded in cottons and woollen cloaks.

Henritt knew that if he paused for Pil's advice he would be told to explore the engineering stalls in the western quadrant. The Ritt clan might be blessed with the source for some of the finest raw materials in the region, but innovations in their uses came from other quarters. There would be gadgetry and clever devices aplenty in the western quadrant, but the real trade there was in talent and forging longer term partnerships: talented engineers to be recruited to the clan; innovative clans with which to construct alliances.

But Henritt was young and, he would readily admit, easily bored. His older brother Willemritt was the one who had been groomed in the mystical techniques of fibre production and it was Willemritt who was obsessive about the clan's product. Henritt was smarter than that. He knew that the real power lay in marketing and politicking. Let Will bury his head in the fibre vats day and night! It was Henritt who came to town, Henritt who saw the sights and met the people from outside the clan's small world.

And he knew exactly what would please his father, Kymeritt, far more than any exotic gadgetry. "Okay, Pil," he said. "Where's the livestock?"

They were chained by the ankle to loops bolted to the cobbles. Thirty, forty, perhaps. The smell was almost overpowering: faeces and urine but, more than anything, a booming, musky body odour. It made Henritt wish it was still raining, something to wash some of the stench out of the air.

He stood before a group of five males. They varied in height from one that barely reached Henritt's chin to one that towered over the others, like a mighty tree amid saplings. Despite the variation in body size, they looked as if they were all from the same stock: flat faces with almost no nose at all, wide mouths that split open to reveal even teeth in an expression more nervous than threatening. Their fur was thick, matted, starting above the eyes and extending over the head and down across the upper part of the body where it became thick and tangled, like the pelt of a goat.

"Janos would like them, no?" said Henritt, half-turning to address Pil. The bondsman chuckled, then looked pointedly downwards. Henritt reached over the stock fence with his crop and flicked at the loincloth of one of the mutts. "Ah," he said. "I see." They'd been gelded. "I'm sure he could find a use for one, even so."

The beasts had good broad backs and shoulders. They might be worth the reserve price. Pil put a gentle hand on his arm, shook his head. "Good stock don't need gelding," he said. "They must have needed calming. Probably wild stock -- didn't want 'em rutting."

Henritt nodded. It paid to be careful. Most of the mutts he had known were, by their nature, obedient, hard-working. But he knew that many were flawed in some way: sickly, untrustworthy, malignant. Imbuto was the term they used: superficially healthy, but harbouring corruption in the core. His father would not thank him for bringing imbuto stock into the clan.

A herd of piggies in a nearby stall attracted his attention, squealing and chattering excitedly. One had blood smeared across its face, its features a curious mixture of hog and other. A street rat was dangling, twisting and writhing, from a mouth disturbingly human in form. The piggy bit deep and the rat went limp. The beast tossed its head back and swallowed while all around the other piggies pushed and snapped and chattered in their singsong voices. As a child, Henritt had pretended to identify words in those voices, had imagined an entire language of piggery. The beasts were vile things but, bred true, they had a loyalty to humans ingrained in them as solid as that of any mutt.

Henritt took Pil's arm and left the piggy stall behind. "I want something special for Father," he said. A plaything, a toy that will ever remind him of his youngest son's devotion and fitness to take on the clan's affairs. "A gift."

"The clan will be served well enough with the contracts we are negotiating today," said the bondsman. "Gestures impress. Good business sense repays the faith your father has invested in you."

"True," said Henritt. "But I want to impress him, too."

"You won't find better than this one in a year of Farsamy markets," said the trader. "Bids have already passed double the reserve price."

Henritt smiled, nodding absently. This mutt was the best he had seen. A bitch, the top of her head barely reached his chin, but she was finely proportioned, the musculature solid around shoulder and thigh, but not too heavy. Her skin was a pale amber, furred with a light downy fluff that grew more thickly across chest and groin. She could almost have been human, but for the fur and the dark, dark eyes: black at the centre, fading to a glowing tan hue where the whites would normally have been. The hair on her head was dark, cut short to emphasise the evenness of her features.

He stepped close, reached for her mouth, pulled the lips apart to examine two even rows of teeth. Dugs firm, no sign of lumps or slackness. He turned her, checked for signs of rot or infestation; gestured with his crop for her to walk as far as her chains would allow. She moved well.

He glanced at Pilofritt. "The bidding will go too high," said the bondsman. "We have several of this breed already."

"Ever the cautious one, eh, Pil?" Before Pil could respond, Henritt went on: "Father would enjoy her, don't you think?"

The bondsman bowed his head. "He would be impressed," he conceded.

When Henritt returned just after the middle of the day, someone had upped the bid. He was glad to be alone now, with Pil remaining at the Ritt stall. "I'll match the price," he told the trader. "And up by a tenth."

Someone else was examining the bitch, pulling her about, pawing at her. The mutt stared resolutely at a point above the woman's head, waiting for her to finish.

There was something in this one's look, her stance, that marked her as different, Henritt thought. A defiance, perhaps. Not a good thing in a mutt, but in this instance it raised her above the rest.

He went to her, studied her again. "Are you a talker?" he asked. Most mutts were dumb, at best communicating only with grunts and some simple pidgin. Some could be trained, though, he had heard.

She looked at him, parted her lips to expose her neat, off-white teeth. No sound passed her lips, though. Her expression lacked anything human and in that instant Henritt was struck by the animal nature of the thing he was buying for his father.

That night, he and Janosofritt celebrated a good day's trading.

"Clan Coltar have confirmed orders through to hawksrise," said Henritt. "Clans Treco and Willarmey, too."

"And did Pil tell you of the deal he is negotiating with the Riverwalkers?"

Henritt put a hand on his friend's arm. "He tells me everything," he said. "I'm in charge, see? He has to tell me, doesn't he?" The Riverwalkers were from an engineering enclave about ten days upstream from Farsamy. When Pil completed the negotiations they would supply bonded engineers to Clan Ritt in exchange for materials and protection.

So much business! After only a single day, the trip had already been a huge success.

And to complete his triumph, Henritt had managed to see off the rival bids and only an hour earlier he had taken the female mutt into the protection of his clan's trade delegation. Now she was in a wagon at their lodgings. It had been a good day.

Just then, a girl at the bar caught his eye. She was plain, but well proportioned. He leaned even closer to Janos, nodded towards the girl. "Whaddya think?"

"I suppose you don't have to look at the vat while you're stirring the fibres," said Janos.

Henritt clapped his friend on the back and stood, went across to the bar. It looked like being a promising night.

Back at the lodgings. Head aswim with drink and narcotics, Henritt leaned on a doorframe to steady himself.

He'd come back alone. Janos was still out there with some whitewood salesman he'd met earlier in the day. Wendoftenka, the girl at the bar, had been fun, had rutted like the world was about to end, but had to get back to her lodgings before her clanfolk came looking for her.

So here he was, drugged and sexed out, end of a long day... why didn't he just go on up to that feathered mattress the clan was paying for?

Their wagons and carriages were out back. This was where their mutts slept, under the shelter of the clan's vehicles. The new one... she was still inside one of the wagons.

His eyes were already adjusted to the dark, but inside it was even gloomier.

He knew where she was from the sounds she made: feet on floor, breathing.

"It's okay," he said. "Just checking."

He could make out her shape now, backed into the farthest corner, hands held in front of her as if to protect herself. "No touch," she gasped.

"You speak?"

Her voice was quiet, the words strangely formed.

"Good girl work hard. No touch."

He couldn't place the accent. "Where are you from?" he asked. Then, "You hometown," he added, trying to remember how to talk pidgin.

"No touch," she repeated. And, again, he was struck by the animal in the human, the human in the animal, of her nature.

He backed out, locked the door, pissed long and hard against the wheel of the wagon, then made his way inside the lodging house.

He dreamed of her, the bitch, although by morning all that lingered were a few fleeting images, startling in their mundanity. A half-formed image of her backed into a dark corner: No touch. Her easy, rolling gait as he had led her back to the lodging house after his successful purchase. Dark eyes: brown on tan, as if cast in resin.

He ate fleshfruit on the way to the market, drank copiously from the bottle Janos carried, trying to clear his head for the day's trading and negotiations. He thought, again, of Wendoftenka, heard her cries repeated in his head. He wondered if he would see her again today, tonight. He felt suddenly reinvigorated, ready for the day and night to come, for the triumphant return to Rittasan the day after.

 


II. Rittasan

Clans Coltar, Treco, Willarmey, Tenka, Beshuzami... Henritt stood back, allowed Pilofritt to recount the long list of settlements they had made at Farsamy. He took the opportunity to observe Kymeritt Ofkardamy. His father was attentive, the clan head absorbing the success of the trade delegation with customary efficiency.

But he was drawn... like a child with a new toy, a new pet. He wanted to investigate the goods they had purchased, the bladderpumps grown by a new technique developed by Clan Treco, the quickfibres harvested from wild, imbuto-tainted beds in the far west -- a new germ-line of much promise. He wanted to talk to the four Riverwalker engineers, now bonded to Clan Ritt. Their expertise and innovation would be a valuable addition to the clan's production base.

And yet, as Henritt had known, he was drawn more than anything to the mutt they had named Taneye. Now... now that Pilofritt had run out of momentum, Kymeritt circled her, checking her over for corruption, for signs of ill health.

"She is well-muscled," said Henritt. Sometimes it paid to state the obvious. "The cleanest mutt in Farsamy. She is docile -- no sign of any taint. Speaks a little pidgin. I think she will work well alongside Stutter and the others in the fibre pods."

"We don't really need any more in the pods, or elsewhere, for that matter," said Kymeritt. "But yes, she looks like good stock. Sedge can isolate her until we know she's clean, then you can supervise her training. Pilofritt tells me you paid far too much for her."

Henritt nodded. "Nearly twice the appropriate rate," he admitted. "Clan Beshuzami saw me as a na´ve and foolish trader to pay so much over the odds. Their swagger made it far easier for me to negotiate such a good rate for the fibre contract we arranged with them the following day. And anyway, I thought you would like her."

Kymeritt barked a short laugh and put an arm around his son's shoulders. "You are a Ritt through and through, my boy," he said.

"She haunts me," he confessed. "In my dreams, my waking thoughts. People talk. I heard Janos this morning, gossiping with Sedge. He said I'm losing my grip, that my balls must be bigger than my brain."

He was half-dreaming now, drifting in the lucid-trance induced by Oracle's all-enveloping pherotropic mist.

The Ritt Oracle was discreetly tucked away on an overgrown island halfway down the stepped terrace of their main paddyfield area. It was approached along a narrow, raised track, either side fringed by bamboo and tall rushes with rice lagoons beyond. Oracle itself was a fleshy dome, its skin pocked with throbbing veins and grossly bulging tumours, with tangles of vine and creeper heaped high across its arched roof. Some said Oracle had formed the island itself, as silt accreted around its deeply rooted neural network of smartfibres.

Now Henritt sat cross-legged in Oracle's inner cavity, the entranceway sealed over, the only light glowing redly through Oracle's fleshy walls. The only sounds, apart from his own voice, were the liquid rushings in Oracle's vascular system, the steady, low boom of its hearts.

Oracle spoke, its melancholy tones so intimate it might be communicating directly with Henritt's mind. "You are young and free. There is no shame in what you say."

"She's a mutt!"

A new scent, a musky, sweaty, after-sex thing, subduing him, placating him. "Mutts are human too."

"But... tainted... corrupted."

He'd been supervising Taneye's training, as his father had instructed. Making sure Sedge didn't treat the newcomer too harshly -- he knew how territorial the mutts could sometimes be.

Supervising too closely, Janos had said this morning. Too attentively.

"You could keep the mutt as a plaything."

But... he was fearful of what may follow. "I can't get her out of my head."

Another change in atmosphere, in intensity. "The mutt: she has been isolated?"

He nodded, shying away from the implication of Oracle's words.

"But you have been monitoring her progress closely?"

"She's clean! No sign of taint."

"Except in your thoughts, your dreams. Perhaps your affliction runs deeper than mere adolescent urges."

Oracle was toying with him, he realised. Trying to frighten him, and succeeding. "No," he said decisively. "I am healthy. I am clean. The mutt has not tainted me!"

"And, like any young purebred man, your balls are sometimes bigger than your brain."

He was about to reply but stopped himself, recognising Oracle's wisdom, its manipulation of his reasoning so that he could see himself as he was: a randy young man, no more. He smiled, bowed his head, was thankful again for Oracle's presence among them.

He wanted to be alone with his thoughts, but instead he encountered Pilofritt and Janosofritt where the track from Oracle joined the main track from the paddies into Rittasan. He could tell immediately that they knew where he had been, and why he had needed to consult Oracle.

He met the two bonded's looks steadily. Janosofritt's smirk was irritating enough, but Pilofritt's casual arrogance was infuriating. "Do you not think that you should show me some respect?" Henritt demanded.

Pil paused -- through insolence, rather than hesitance -- and in that time his eyes never left Henritt's. "I am a bondsman," he said, finally. "Not a mutt. Unthinking subservience is ingrained in mutts, but not in me. You are my master and I am bonded to your clan, but my respect is something you must earn, just as your father has done."

In that instant, in Pil's defiance and Janos' amusement, Henritt saw himself as others did. Perhaps it was a clarity of vision retained from the pherotropic atmosphere of Oracle's interior, perhaps it was simply the attainment of a final level of insight. Now he finally understood that in others' eyes he was immature, a fool, a source of amusement and ridicule.

He pushed past the two bondsmen and stalked towards the settlement. He was angry without understanding where to direct his wrath, within or without; his head was hurting, a result of his anger and the after-effects of Oracle's intimacy. And he was mightily embarrassed.

Back in Rittasan things were no better. He saw accusation, ridicule, in people's eyes. Where before he would have seen admiration and respect, now he saw that they humoured him, laughed at him, undermined him with their gossip and rumour.

He came to the low arched building where they dormed a lot of the clan's mutts.

With barely a thought, he pulled the door aside and passed within. He turned automatically to the left, eyes coming to rest on the cubicle at the far end where Taneye spent most of her time. The flap was open, but the figure within was not the mutt he had bought. He looked more closely and saw that it was Calig, a male mutt he and Willemritt had played with as children.

The mutt was sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth as if demented. When he looked up, Henritt saw immediately what must have happened. "What did you do?" he demanded of the creature.

There was pain and confusion in Calig's eyes. "Pretty one," he said, in his stumbling pidgin. "Pretty one done run out this place."

Again: "What did you do?"

Calig's hand reached down under his loincloth and tugged at his genitals. He smiled now. "Calig want pretty one make manthing happy." Then he stopped smiling, let his hand fall away. "Pretty one done hit Calig. Pretty one done run out this place."

"Which way?" Even to his own ears Henritt's voice sounded pitiful, the desperation painful to hear. "Which way pretty one done run?"

 


III. Genetopia

He had been on the road for some considerable time before realisation dawned on him. This was the first time he had ventured beyond Rittasan unaccompanied, a purebred human on his own in the wildlands between clan territories.

What was he doing? What was it that had stolen into his thoughts and drawn him into such a rash course of action?

He paused, looked all around. To one side of the track, pink canes as thick as his thigh loomed high, forming a near-impenetrable barrier between Henritt and the jungle. They looked like bellycane, but he could not be sure. Here in the wildlands, so much that looked familiar was impure, corrupt.

To the other side of the track, ragged thorn bushes and clumps of tall grass clustered tightly, as if stacked one on the other. What looked like thicket oaks towered over the bushes, multiple rubbery trunks bursting from the undergrowth in groups of six and twelve. Up in the canopy, bunches of meat fruit hung and, camouflaged against the leaves, a small party of tree martens grazed.

He had left without thought, without even pause to gather provisions. He was thirsty, but did not dare pluck any of the fleshfruit from nearby branches. He had simply rushed from Rittasan in the direction indicated by poor, distraught Calig. The mutt could not be blamed: it was in his nature to respond to Taneye's powerful sexual signals, just as it was in his nature to be pathetically subservient to all purebred humans. He was only a mutt.

Henritt continued on his way. With dense jungle to either side, she must have stayed on the track. She could not be far ahead. They would both be back in Rittasan before nightfall.

But with the sun swollen and red above the hills, Henritt had still not found her. Already, he had crossed several junctions where he might easily have guessed wrong; the jungle all around was thinner, too -- she might even have left the track altogether. If she was scared then that might be a likely option.

She was lost, he realised. All he could hope was that she would eventually find her way back to Rittasan on her own.

Yet still, he was drawn onwards, unable to abandon hope.

Ahead, he heard voices. He was sure they were voices and not mere animal babble. Perhaps these people would have seen Taneye, perhaps she was even with them.

Pil and Janos may think of him as an object of ridicule, but he was no fool. He approached cautiously. These were the wildlands, after all.

There was a small group of travellers, resting at another junction. Henritt recognised this place from his journeys to Farsamy: he had only ever taken the fork to the left before. The travellers were wearing poor clothing, coarse fabrics that may have been woven from the wool of the goats they had staked by the roadside. There were three men, five women and seven children, from toddler to a rangy adolescent girl.

The men were bearded and all of them looked hardened to the world, but they looked to be purebred humans, although not from any clan he knew. Itinerant craftspeople, he guessed from the wagon stacked high with what looked like bales of fabric. Weavers travelling from market to market. There were many such bands in the region, he knew; they called regularly at Rittasan, knowing it to be a wealthy settlement. It was a peaceable, domestic scene before him.

He emerged from cover and approached the junction in the open, careful to hold his hands freely at his sides to show that he posed no threat. When he saw that they had seen him he raised a hand, palm held flat towards them, a universal gesture of amicable greeting.

As he came closer to them he saw that they looked puzzled by his appearance, more than anything. He was an unexpected sight, he supposed: a purebred human, travelling alone.

"Greetings," he said, lowering his hand. He did not know what language they would speak, but it would be an insult to address them in pidgin. "I wonder if you can help me?"

He saw that one of the women was not looking directly at him, but rather at a point just over his shoulder. He paused, half-turned to glance behind him.

The girl, the tall, gangling, adolescent one, had doubled up on him, emerging from the bushes with a brutal-looking club raised above her head. She laughed when she knew he had seen her, then rushed at him and swung the club down towards his face.

He raised an inadequate arm to fend off the blow.

The girl was still laughing when he hit the ground, lay there unable to move, senses drifting, floating away like in a lucid-trance, blackness spreading, enveloping...

Voices woke him. Not human. Not mutt. Voices punctuated by moist snuffling sounds.

He was cold, his body slick with moisture -- blood or water, he was not sure. He tried to move and felt a sudden stabbing pain in his chest, his ribs.

He opened his eyes and saw that it was still light. Perhaps it was morning now and he had spent the night unconscious. He drifted.

The snuffling sound again. Then something cold, wet, sharp with bristles, pressing against his face. He opened his eyes and saw frighteningly human eyes staring back at him over a wide snout. There was fear: the beast squealed, spraying him with spittle, and backed away with a hammering of feet.

He remembered the piggies from Farsamy market, toying with a street rat they had caught. This beast... there was a lot of piggy in it, but there was other stuff too: the disturbing eyes, the long canine fangs protruding from its wide mouth, the sleek fur on its body, rising to a tufty crest along nape and upper back. A true beast of the wildlands, malignant and corrupt as anything he had ever seen.

The fear had been temporary, an artefact of surprise that was rapidly departing. The thing took a step towards him again.

He was naked, he realised. The travellers had beaten him and stripped him of all that he possessed and left him to the wilderness.

He made himself sit, scrabbled about in the leafmould for anything that might serve as a weapon.

He was in some kind of clearing in the jungle. The travellers must have dumped him somewhere away from the track.

His hands closed on a stick, but it was soft to the core, rotten. He looked around for possible escape routes.

And that was when he saw that there was more than just one of these mutant boars. There was another adult nearby, standing crookedly to support its heavily goitred neck, and beyond it two smaller, possibly younger beasts.

He returned his attention to the nearest boar and abruptly, a stick emerged from its left eye-socket. No... not emerged: planted itself in the thing's eye. The shaft of an arrow!

The beast took an age to realise what had happened. It stood, rooted to the spot, tipped its head slightly, as if puzzled, then shook vigorously. It raised a front leg, pawed at the ground, tried to step forward and staggered to its front knees. Then it groaned, a disturbing, near-human sound, and finally it sagged to the ground.

The other boars stared for a drawn-out moment then, emitting brief, startled squeals, turned and stampeded out of the clearing.

Henritt slumped, releasing the breath he had been holding.

A man stepped out from the trees, tall and bald with bulging eyes. He wore many layers of rough clothing, made from animal skins, coarse-woven fabric and stripped, braided leaves. There was a bow slung at his shoulder and a heavy pack on his back.

He stood over Henritt, studying his pathetic form.

"I expect you have a story to entertain me over a pork supper, eh?" He laughed, turned to the boar and started to work his arrow free.

The man, who called himself Cedar without claiming any clan allegiance, was not alone. He introduced his companion as Herrel. She looked to Henritt like a mutt, with densely matted hair across most of her visible features and a wide, animal mouth. She didn't speak -- couldn't, according to Cedar. Illness had deprived her of the ability.

Henritt knew what kind of illness the man's words implied: the corrupting illness, creeping into its victim's core and twisting what it finds, transmuting, leaving human not-human and animal not-animal.

Now Herrel approached Henritt and he was suddenly aware of his nakedness before these two strangers.

"Let her heal you," said Cedar. "The imbuto have talents your kind ignore: the inner change is not always malignant."

She had a wad of chewed leaves in her hands, some kind of herbal poultice. She pushed them against Henritt's chest, where the skin was torn and puffy. Pain tore through his ribcage and he fought to stop himself crying aloud. It subsided rapidly, and a numbness spread through his side.

"Thank you," he gasped.

And all the time, Cedar worked at the dead boar, stripping back its hide and carving chunks of meat from its body. He had lit a fire and already strips of pork were cooking, suspended in the flames from skewers stuck in the ground.

The man looked at him patiently. He had asked for Henritt's story and so now, falteringly, Henritt started to talk, of Farsamy, of Taneye, of Rittasan and his father. Soon his words flowed more freely. It was like confessing to Oracle again, seeking advice from the ancient one.

As he talked, Cedar rummaged in one of the packs he and Herrel carried, emerging with a coarse cape. He handed it to Henritt as his story was nearing its end.

"I... I have nothing with which to pay you," he said.

Cedar shrugged, dismissing the matter. "Your obsession with this mutt, this Taneye," he said. "From what you say it does not sound like a natural thing, an infatuation. You had little chance of finding her out here and yet you still tried: your senses must have been clouded, corrupted. It sounds to me as if you have had a lucky escape, in more ways than the obvious. You still intend to seek her out?"

He felt the desperation again, but it was less intense. He shook his head. "I don't think so. She has gone and it is probably good that she has gone."

"She was not the normal true-breeding mutt, in any case."

Cedar's words had a certainty that surprised Henritt and for a moment he wondered how this man could say such a thing.

"What do you mean?"

"It's inbred in a mutt that it should always be subservient to any purebred human: they can't help it. If your Taneye was of true stock then she would not have been capable of running away from her master. The fact that she fled proves that she was not pure, that she was tainted."

There was a sudden bitterness in the man's words.

"You...?"

Cedar nodded. "I have seen everything, experienced it all. I was once a purebred just like you, and then I fell ill with a fever that stole my humanity away, corrupted me, wiped what I was and left me as I am: tainted and impure. I am imbuto. Is it so bad?"

He took a skewer from the ground, held it out towards Henritt.

Henritt hesitated, then reached out and took the strip of pork from the skewer and stuffed it hungrily into his mouth.

Later, Henritt said, "If Taneye was dangerous, then surely Pilofritt would have known? My father, even. Why did they not do anything?"

"Maybe they don't like you," said Cedar. "Or maybe they were testing you to see how you would handle the situation."

He wondered what he would do when he returned, how he would handle this kind of knowledge.

"I will not forgive them," he said.

"Does it matter?" asked Cedar. "Your kind always regard yourself as the freest of the free and yet you are bound by your self-imposed position. I remember exactly what it is like. Now, for the first time in your life, you are truly free. You don't have to return to Rittasan. You can do whatever you like."

That hadn't occurred to Henritt. He had just assumed that he must return. He settled back, comfortable in the heat of the fire. He could decide in the morning.

Henritt pulled the cape tightly around himself, keeping the steady rain from his naked body. Cedar had shown him more kindness than he had ever known -- and that from a man who had lost everything.

As he entered Rittasan, he was aware of the stares, the comments. He must look odd, frightening even, clad only in a rough-woven cape, his face so sore it must be heavily bruised despite Herrel's poultices.

He straightened his back and kept walking. Let them stare.

He could have done as Cedar had suggested: left all this behind him, looked for a fresh start. But he had resisted the temptation to run. This was his home and these were his people -- good, bad and everything in between. This was where he belonged.

He saw Pilofritt and nodded. The bondsman studied him with narrowed eyes. Finally, the old man dipped his head, looking away. Things would be different now.

Henritt smiled grimly. He was a changed person -- stronger, now. Not tainted, just different.

In a world where traits migrated from species to species, carried by plague and fever, where people were judged on what could be divined of their breeding... in a world like this any transformation was a frightening thing. But also, he now understood, it was a natural progression.

He had become a different person and he was learning to embrace the change.


© Keith Brooke 2001, 2006.
This story was first published in Future Orbits (October 2001).

The novel, Genetopia, was published by Pyr in February 2006.
Genetopia by Keith Brooke
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