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Ice in our Veins

He had the dragon’s eyes. Artemisia didn’t need to check for the telltale tint around her patient’s nail beds or staining his teeth. Only Ice users of several years had irises that golden. His stood out against tanned skin in a narrow, sharp face, black hair left to fall into his eyes.

He moved like a user too, settling precisely onto the chair in her office. Some of her non-user clients slouched, angry or sulky; some perched, anxious and ready to escape. This man centered himself on the padded seat, pulled his cuffs down, and placed his wrists directly over the sensors in the arms. They were supposed to give her desktop a passive read on heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration. Thwarted by insulating fabric, the program flashed a discreet red indicator on the desk surface.

Artemisia frowned. Not many besides other counselors and health professionals would know the sensors were in that particular spot. She might want to reconsider her approach and use more medically sophisticated language. She dismissed the sensor warning with the tap of a fingertip and opened the appointment file with another. It was a community referral appointment, short on details.  No name, only an alias: “Stonewall”. Some overworked social officer skimping again. “What brings you to me?”

“Our loyal social force.” An unexpected note of humor threaded through his voice. Artemisia sat straighter, wondering if he’d dosed before he arrived. Long-term Ice users tended toward flat affect when not recently dosed. Like they had ice in their veins, they said on the street.

“Which is kind of them, but I can’t help you if you don’t want to quit.” Artemisia circled her fingertips in a doodling program open to one side, making shimmering patterns. She hated this part of community referrals, finding out which people weren’t going to let her help. “When did you last dose?”

Stonewall flicked a fingernail against the chair’s sensor surface. “It sounds completely different if you know what to listen for. It’s amazing what they put sensors in, nowadays. I designed some of them. Once upon a time. You have medical Ice you can give people, don’t you? Start weaning them off?”

It took Artemisia a moment to catch up with the abrupt switch in topic. An engineer, then, not someone in medicine. Still more educated than most users she saw. “Yes and no. I can prescribe a synthetic serotonin substitute, but it suffers from many of the same problems as the drug sold on the street as Ice. Since it doesn’t allow the brain to return to its normal serotonin production, one remains stuck in the cycle of requiring higher and higher doses. It’s good in low doses for depression, but for anything else it’s really no better than a pure form of the drug, without the staining from the materials street cookers use to cut it.” Artemisia touched the corner of her eye.

“I need some of that ‘synthetic serotonin substitute’.” Stonewall stood, his little game with the chair sensors apparently done.

Artemisia allowed him the position of greater power if that made him feel better. She tilted her head up. “You’ve given me no reason to prescribe you any. I’m not here to provide you a purer source to feed your addiction.”

“It’s easy for you to judge, isn’t it? Don’t you ever think people might have reasons for getting addicted?” Stonewall spoke with a characteristic cool tone. Artemisia could never quite get used to the lack of emotional body language to accompany users’ words. He should have been gesturing or clenching his hands, but he stood with them loose by his side.

Artemisia drew a straight path across her doodle pad and stood.  At least he was still talking to her. That was hopeful, though she had to be careful of hope. She couldn’t get invested in the cases she had to bounce right back. “Everyone has a reason. My job isn’t to tell you that reason is wrong. My job is to find something else to help.”

Stonewall brushed his hair from his eyes and ended with a rub at the back of his neck. The hair fell right back again. “Which is why I need the pure stuff. You don’t understand, and I don’t think I can safely tell you.” He started pacing, stopping to flick his fingers against the display surface that filled one wall. Artemisia had it set to a field of wildflowers at dusk. “The risk may be necessary, however.” Flick, flick.

“The risk?” Artemisia trailed a finger over his file. No medical history had magically arrived to suggest a previous condition he’d been self-medicating with Ice that might cause paranoia.

“Our darling government.” Stonewall returned to stand before her desk, expression flat. “Remembers a predecessor of Ice: Ecstasy.”

He raised his eyebrows at Artemisia and she nodded. They’d covered that briefly in school. “With Ecstasy, the user often crashes into anxiety, instead of into flat emotions, as with Ice.”

“Exactly. When the target is loyal, reward them with a dose of pleasure. When they’re not, let them crash into depression. Make them need the next dose, until they’ll do anything you say. Build yourself a corps of brainwashed slaves.” Stonewall leaned forward, hands on her desk.

An indicator flashed in alarm, detecting input from fingers with the wrong vitals. Artemisia verified the default lock-out of those vitals without really looking. Definitely paranoid, damn. That made helping him more complicated. What had caused it? “Why do you think they’re after you?”

“They did it to everyone in my department. We built the next generation of their little spies. We know how many places they hide their sensors to keep track of everyone.” Stonewall pushed back and straightened. “Only I discovered that if I started using, I didn’t need their dose.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I was my own man again. If I never feel anything again—well, so be it. They want to squash Ice production, of course. Make us all loyal slaves again. I need a prescription for the medical stuff. Dragon’s eyes are too noticeable. They get you swept up.”

Artemisia chewed on her lip. “How do you think they dose you?” Keeping him talking had gotten her this far, and maybe she could unpack his delusions a little. Conspiracy theories were common enough, but she’d always wondered how they persisted given the country’s useless elected officials in an equally ineffectual system.

“I don’t think anything.” Stonewall rubbed the back of his neck. “I know. I don’t have time to explain this to you. Even though I refused to give my real name, they’ll have noticed the arrest record by now.” He glanced around as if government agents would burst through the walls at any moment.

Artemisia hovered her fingers over the command to summon security, then pulled them back. He didn’t seem violent, just scared. As scared as a user could be. “I can’t force you to stay, but I really would like to help you. If someone’s dosing you, maybe we can figure out who and do something about it.”

Stonewall barked a laugh. “You don’t believe me. Well, I don’t blame you. I hope for your sake you don’t discover otherwise.” He disappeared into the hall.

“Wait.” Artemisia followed, hurrying after him. She would normally have let him go, but something about him had snagged her attention and wouldn’t release it. Maybe it was that he knew about the sensors, maybe it was that he knew about a drug that had vanished from the street half a century ago. She really only remembered it because of a classmate, Jem. He’d specialized in older serotonin-related drugs, legal and illegal. She’d asked a lot of questions about them as an excuse for conversation before she met his husband at a party and realized her mistake.

Stonewall pushed through a side door into the building’s garden, then turned back and looked at her in silence. He showed neither suspicion nor interest, but at least he was listening.

“I have a friend who studies that class of drugs. He could help you prove you have Ecstasy in your system, rather than just Ice, if you wanted to take that to the authorities.” Artemisia looked around the garden rather than fruitlessly search his face for a reaction. It was one of her favorite things about the building. The city mandated such spaces for air quality, and most were overgrown with the easiest species to tend. This one had distinct plantings in the shade of several decades-old trees.

The man remained silent for several moments, looking up into a tree. “Is it far?”

“Not at all. A short MassTran ride.” Artemisia turned to head back into the building since the MassTran stop was outside the front entrance, but Stonewall coughed. He put his hand on the gate into the alley behind the garden.

“I need to—” He touched fingertips to his mouth, and Artemisia got it after a second. “I can meet you out front if you can’t stand to be around.”

Artemisia shook her head and followed him out the back way. Giving up Ice cold turkey at this stage rarely worked. If she’d been treating him, she’d have prescribed something else to take the edge off. So standing by and letting him dose wasn’t precisely unethical, was it? Illegal, yes, but Artemisia found herself curious what the dose’s immediate effects would look like. She’d never had the opportunity to study patients as they dosed before. Or maybe that was just as bad, objectifying the man as nothing more than something to study.

It became moot before Artemisia exhausted all her arguments. Stonewall slipped something from pocket to mouth with a stage magician’s smoothness. He leaned with the side of his wrist against the wall. Artemisia sneaked closer, trying to watch his face.

“It’ll be a minute or two,” he said, voice already richer in intonation. Artemisia watched for anyone approaching as they waited. A laugh from him startled her. “I didn’t notice you’re so attractive.” He touched her shoulder and his hand lingered a beat longer than necessary.

“You’re my patient,” she reminded him, distracted by his smile. It lit his face and matched the humor she’d heard lurking even at his flattest in the office.

“Not anymore. So where are we going? Where’s your friend?” When Artemisia named the MassTran stop nearest Jem’s office, Stonewall caught her hand and tugged her to the stop.

She allowed him the hand when he didn’t try anything more. His tone and body language were animated and positive as Artemisia paid his fare and they boarded the line, but he clung to her. And chattered. He explained how it was safe to talk because the line was so noisy sensors had trouble, and how he’d disabled other sensors “they” had set to spy on him. It was compelling, and Artemisia filed it all away for when she could consider it without his charisma turned on her.

The building directory showed Jem in his office, undoubtedly plowing through his data. Artemisia sent a greeting and a request to consult about a patient through the directory’s internal mail system, typed one-handed, and only had to wait a minute or so before an invitation to come up arrived. She smiled, recalling how glad she sometimes was of distractions from her own data.

Jem had more paunch than she remembered, with gray sprinkled in his hair. He still looked attractive, but worn, with bags under his eyes and a sallow tinge to his chocolate skin. Artemisia pried off Stonewall’s hand so she and Jem could embrace.

A second later, she realized Stonewall had pulled away more than she’d pried. When she looked back, Stonewall had stumbled back from Jem. “You,” Stonewall whispered. “I remember you. You checked my levels, early on. You told them how to use their poison.” His gaze turned to Artemisia. “You’re working with him?”

Jem clasped a comforting hand to the side of Artemisia’s neck, then stepped back. “You shouldn’t associate with this kind of guy,” he said, flat. “He’s delusional. Especially if he thinks the expert on control can’t be controlled in the same way. Chemical effects are chemical effects.”

Stonewall’s eyes darted to the skin where Jem had touched her, then back to Jem. “I thought the doses you reported seemed higher than what I was feeling.” He gave a quick nod, almost a salute, then grabbed at Artemisia’s wrist. “We need to get you out of here.”

Artemisia slapped away Stonewall’s hand only to have Jem nudge her into the hall from the other side. “You should go, but I’d forget about him if I were you,” Jem said. “You have more deserving patients to see than some shelter rat whining about decreased libido.” He stepped back into his office and shut the door on her.

Artemisia stared at it in shock for a couple seconds before whirling back on Stonewall.  “What was that?”

“His sensors will still be working.” Stonewall took off down the hall. Artemisia glared after him in frustration for a moment, and then hurried after. She wasn’t going to let him get away before she had some answers.

Outside the building, she followed Stonewall into the mandated green space for this building complex, slipping between anemic trees. “Go back to work,” Stonewall said as her feet touched dirt. “Forget I exist. If you run, it’ll make you look more suspicious. Better you continue to not believe.”

“What the hell is this?” She pressed into the man’s personal space, arms crossed. Everyone telling her to forget made her that much more determined to figure out what was going on. What Jem had said didn’t make sense. Artemisia had never been a sex therapist. Jem knew that. Clearly, he’d been trying to get rid of her. Because he was being controlled?

Instead of answering, Stonewall dug into his pocket and came up with something like an analog pocket watch. Engraving showed faintly on the tarnished surface. He punched a button and the lid sprang open. “Remember: you don’t believe. But keep these by, in case you need them.”

Artemisia held out her hand automatically and looked down when he set the case on her palm. Half a dozen golden pills with stylized eyes stared up at her. She slapped the lid closed. Dammit, illegal substances were the last thing she needed to be dealing with right now. “Take them back—” Artemisia looked up to empty space. Stonewall had seized the opportunity to disappear through the garden’s other exit.

Artemisia stuffed the case into her pocket before someone passed and saw it. She’d have to turn it in on her way past the police post tomorrow morning, tell them a patient had surrendered it as part of his treatment. Tonight, she needed to think. About what she believed.

  *          *          *

 All Artemisia’s thinking on the ride home got her nowhere. If there really was something going on, who was behind it? And did she want to get involved? But Jem was a friend, and she still wanted to help Stonewall, same as any other patient.

She remembered to take the Ice with her the next morning, but on one cup of coffee, her commute was too ingrained and she missed the police post stop completely. Frustrated, Artemisia tossed the case in her bottom desk drawer when she arrived at her office.

The day was overscheduled as always and Artemisia had no time to think about anything except the patients in front of her. She saw people until forty-five minutes after her official office hours ended, and that still left her all the paperwork to do.

By the time she opened the forms on her desk, all the data techs had packed up and gone home, the lucky dogs, and only a few scattered counselors remained around the office. The hall lights snapped into energy-save mode, leaving Artemisia with a pool from her desk lamp surrounded by gloom. In the quiet, all her questions about Stonewall and Jem came crowding back in. She swept her hand across the surface to save and close the half-finished forms, opened her drawer, and drew out the metal case. It didn’t look as much like an antique analog watch on closer examination: no real room for gears. She pressed the button and the lid sprang open again.

What if it was some secret government conspiracy? On fourth or fifth examination, the idea seemed no less ridiculous. “Imagine the years of red tape to approve a committee to research how best to form the committee to approve the financing of a behavior modification program,” she told the woodgrain sleep mode on her desk as she tossed the metal case back in the drawer.

“We’re not affiliated with the government, actually. A common misconception.”

Artemisia’s heart slammed into her throat and her hands shook in startled reaction as a person’s shadow separated from the sharper lines cast by walls out in the hallway. “Smaller, private organizations are so much more nimble, and able to respond to changing circumstances,” the man said.

“Christ, you surprised me. Who are you?” Artemisia stood to draw attention from her fingertips’ frantic tapping on the desk to wake the surface and allow her access to the security call button.

“You have no particular need to know that.” The man took a few steps into the office, revealing a device on his wrist he was manipulating. Her desk stayed stubbornly wood. The device must be a jammer.

She scrambled back as he advanced. Somewhere on a chair behind her was her jacket, and in the pocket a handstun she kept for traveling on public transport late at night. She couldn’t look, though, or she’d telegraph her intention and he seemed close enough to hit her first. Her last self-defense class suddenly seemed long ago.

“We could use a counselor on the payroll. All she’d need would be a little discretion, know when to keep her mouth shut about what she’s been told. How about it?”

The back of Artemisia’s knees smacked into the chair with her coat a split second before the man launched himself at her. Artemisia lashed out with a few kicks, felt them connect, heard him grunt, but it didn’t seem to help. He dragged her to the desk by the hair and slammed her cheek into the surface, holding her down with his weight against her legs and one hand on her shoulders. He twisted the hair off her neck and smoothed down something sticky. A meds patch, Artemisia realized. On the back of the neck. Where Stonewall had fidgeted, and Jem had checked. Of course the back of the neck. Her whole body flushed hot and then ice-cold at the thought, leaving her shaking.

“Now, I should warn you. This will register as Ice in your system on your department’s usual drug test.” The man patted Artemisia’s neck. “And if you don’t do what we say, don’t show up for your next patch when this runs out, they will test. You’ll be arrested and lose your job, your credit to rent your apartment or live anywhere else—well, you know how it goes. We’ll contact you with orders, but for now remember that if you tell anyone, the sensors will pick it up and we’ll remind your department it’s time to check their employees. Enjoy the ride.”

His weight lifted, but Artemisia was floating too high to notice anything more. This was the best feeling in the world. She could do anything, weather anything, it didn’t matter that Stonewall had been right, she didn’t care. The professional corner of her mind tagged the feeling as euphoria, but that didn’t encompass it. She wanted to sing, she wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, but mostly she wanted to lie here and revel in this feeling forever.

She couldn’t tell how long it lasted, but when it was gone, Artemisia slid off the desk and curled beneath it. Her chest felt too tight to breathe. She couldn’t do this. Tears smeared her cheeks with salt and snot dripped to cover her upper lip as she sobbed. She was stupid, stupid, stupid. How could she not have done something earlier? Escaped, told someone. Stonewall and Jem had given her all the evidence she needed. This was her fault. She was going to end up a slave. She couldn’t even do anything about it, and the hopelessness of that realization crushed her.

The crash lasted a thousand times longer, or maybe about the same length of time as the high. Crawling back to herself was a long process. She shook all over, cheeks raw and eyes stinging. Some part of the drive that had gotten Artemisia through the worst of seemingly impossible exams at school, through the grief after her parents’ deaths, reminded her firmly that she had to do something.

She knew things about these drugs, things Stonewall didn’t. Jem had given her the clue: libido loss. Older antidepressants had been known for that. They were rarely used nowadays, with the availability of synthetic serotonin, but they worked by keeping serotonin already in the system from being broken down, rather than introducing new. Blocking the reuptake of the serotonin they dosed her with would probably be even better than flooding her system with more and more of the synthetic stuff.

Artemisia hugged herself. She had to get some, though. Had to stop shaking, get up, figure out a way to send in the prescription without triggering any alarms, and look normal when she picked it up. Had to find Stonewall and make him teach her how to disable sensors, take her with him. They had to get out of here, stay clear of the social force, and find someone else who would believe them and could do something. All that seemed insurmountable. She couldn’t. She was too stupid, she’d make a mistake, and she could hardly breathe through the fear that had settled in her chest.

Atremisia gasped in anger with herself and slammed her fist into the inner side of the desk beside her head. A drawer jumped out slightly. She stared at it, recalling a small metal case. He was right; not feeling seemed like a pleasant alternative to how she felt now. But it wouldn’t take many. Just one or two to get her through.

Bless that man.

The End

When she’s not writing, Rhiannon is a real live lab archaeologist. The “lab” part means that her job of analysis begins when the others come back from playing in the dirt. The “real” part means that fedoras, bullwhips, aliens, and dinosaurs are in short supply. Saying she helps her employer assure that developers are in compliance with federal and state cultural resource management laws might not have the same ring, but she’s happy to indulge her imagination in her own worlds instead. Her debut novel, Silver, the first in an urban fantasy series from Tor, will be out in June 2012.


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