Story of a girl and her search for safety in a world designed to destroy her.
Sefy, a girl on the virge of puberty, has every hope of gaining a mutational talent that will give her product status. Products get to live their lives being sold and bought and treated as property, but the alternative is worse. If she doesn't become a product, she becomes vermin. Vermin are staked to a metal post in the dump and left to die.
So when her "talent" shows her to be a vermin, she runs away. Sefy soon learns that life on the street is no picnic. An exterminator's job is to find vermin and kill them. Regular folk chase her off or try to poison her. Even other vermin beat you up and take your valuables.
After four days without food, little water and minimum sleep, Sefy is growning more and more drawn to the quicker dump death. Taking refuge in a handy back yard, she is found by a trio of vermin who actually befriend her! They bring her home to their group and it is there she learns the ways of the group called Artificers.
Trool heads up the team, Fish is their security, Kingston, a brilliant boy of 3, is their knowledge base. There are others as well. Together they teach Sefy the rules to live by: "you make sure no-one sees you come or go. ... No loud noises, no light, no distracting Fish"
Intersperced throughout this book is another story about the matron at Sefy's old school. Emma had gotten too attached to her charges and Sefy was her favorite. When this horror happens to "her child" she moves heaven and earth to bring about change enough to allow Sefy the safe life she deserves...
As time goes on, Sefy develops an attachment for Trool. The boy also has feelings for her, but the kind of mutation Sefy has keeps her from touching anyone. Trool fears he is becoming a grown-up, which he equates to exterminators. No one can talk sense to him, not even Sefy.
During this time, several of the children die and must be replaced. Sefy says to go to the big kids' dump, but Trool refuses, saying there is nothing to free them with. Sefy points out that the more infants they have, the less secure the place is.
Things finally come to a head when Trool meets with Sefy in private to tell her that he's been mistaken for a person. They argue and the tension is broken when they kiss. The acid in Sefy's makeup erodes away at Trool's face until he washes it off. From that point on, the two of them make sure they're never together without someone else being there.
Fish announces the house they'd been squatting in is no longer safe. Patrols are sent out to find a new place. Sefy thinks she has found the best place, but it's vetoed out of hand by Trool. When she demands a reason, he just turns and walks away.
Once she convinces the group that she should go after him, she searches and finds him in the very same spot they found her. He kicks off the discussion with, “Every place I go, I see you there. Every time I try to sleep, I feel you next to me...”
Sefy knows the feeling and by the time they have finished the discussion, they're both half way to orgasm. The woman who owns the house, seeing this, turns the hose on them and drags Trool into the house for healing.
Sefy flees and after two days, returns to the group to give them the bad news. With Trool gone, they need to pick another leader. They decide on Sefy, and they move to the place Sefy chose.
The new place does have problems, and these problems eventually cause a break in security that can't be hushed away. One of the children falls into the water while attempting to get to the hideout and Sefy and her crew have to save him. The result is that the whole team has to scatter and Sefy finds it almost impossible to bring them back together.
In her search for her comrades, she runs across the woman who took care of her when she was a pending product. At first, Sefy runs away, but when--after several hours--she again aproaches that area, she finds Emma has not moved.
Curious, Sefy speaks with her and learns that Emma has found a place for them where they won't be persecuted. Sefy doesn't trust it, and refuses the offer and leaves. Emma heads back to the place she had secured for her "children" but is feeling defeated.
Surrepitiously, Sefy follows to see for herself what Emma was talking about. What she sees decided her, for there in the yard, talking and laughing with a real human adult, is Trool.
"Hey, dummy!" a young voice behind her shouted, "Hey, you! Move your flanks! Can't you tell copwhistle when you hear it?"
Knowing they were yelling at her, Sefy bit a hasty retreat up the alley and through the funny hole in the fence. Pausing for breath, she found herself in a garden—or rather the remains of a garden gone to seed and neglect. Curiosity piqued, she began to move toward the old, gnarled tree that stood in the exact center of the garden. It spread its branches over half of the enclosed area. Dying from lack of water, it looked strangely as if it were reaching toward the fence, trying to escape.
For this entire day, Sefy had felt like that tree. Escaping the haus; fleeing the police car; running from the attack. She was spent and hungry, and that feeling she knew would dog her for the rest of a remarkably short life. It scared her. She didn’t want to die.
The house cast a formidable presence at the edge of the garden. Windows studded its side, barely breaking the monotony. All the panes were opaque.
"You want somethin'?"
Sefy whirled to the words, but could not find the speaker, "What? Who...who are you?"
"Well, somebody’s got to own this place, don't you think?"
"Oh." She finally located the source. It was a woman of middle years, standing in a doorway sheathed in shadows. "Well, there was copwhistle and I needed someplace..."
"Yeah, sure kid. Look, don't mess up the garden and get gone soon, OK?" The woman turned with a sigh and shuffled into the house.
The lady looked exasperated when she turned back, "Yeah?"
"Where can I go?"
"Where'd ya come from kid." Again the lady turned to leave, "Damn fool monster muckin’ up my plot of..." she murmured until she was out of earshot.
"Boy! You got guts!" a familiar voice said from the original funny hole in the fence. The boy who owned the voice was perhaps 15 and incredibly dirty. He’d been the one to warn her of copwhistle. Unlike her own flaming orange curls, his hair was straight and either blond and filthy, or brown. Sefy suspected the former.
"Did you hear slither guts?" a new voice and face showed at the fence, this one younger and female. "I've never heard her so mellow!"
"Yeah. One of her girls must have dropped two clean ones. But look," the original blond showed again at the hole, "Her moods don't last, 'specially not her good ones. Come on out and I'll feel a lot better."
All this conversation had come quickly and in stage whispers leaving Sefy somewhat breathless and bewildered. “I don’t have anything to steal.”
“Didn’t think you did.” The boy sounded friendly. “C’mon.” With a backward glance she scrambled through the hole.
"Trool." The blond grinned and thumped his chest.
"Sefy" she replied gravely.
"Sefy? Never heard that one before. Like it." He turned to his companions, "That's the twins." the second face from the fence ended up being a set of conjoined twins: Two heads, three arms, and one pair of legs. “and Perry.” This time a lanky boy with brown hair and three eyes—one set asymmetrically in his jaw—gave her a wave.
"What's your 'sease?" Perry asked eagerly, "You must be mental to trip to Slither Guts' den!"
"Yeah." Trool took over, "You know: brain worker, stuck together, gonna die, you know. ...You ain't no acid-bunny are you?"
"Acid-bu..." Sefy knew that acid-bunny was exactly what she was. The still vivid moment when she realized her body's new chemistry was lethal still haunted her, but she couldn't own up to that, and she’d have to be something. "No. The twins were right. I use my brain." she hoped fervently that they wouldn’t catch her out. "What about you?"
"I'm a brain worker too." Trool said ominously, "What kind?"
"Kind?" Sefy knew she was over her head.
"Kind! Kind! Like movin’ stuff or seein’ the future, or makin’ pictures in the brain! Which, Red? You tellin’ or are we gonna start thinking you've been planted here to find our place?"