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Chapter 9 - Can't Trace Time by A.J. Hall

The molecule - or rather, the multi-coloured schematic representing the molecule - revolved impressively above the vid-plate while the three of them watched it. Their patient had a rather intense expression. Owen supposed that was reasonable enough; after all, a significant concentration of those molecules was floating around its blood at this very moment.

Owen felt too much attention to the vid-display was surplus to requirements; there had never been any real doubt in his mind about what the molecule would look like, once they isolated it.

“Now,” Owen muttered to Petrova, “run me a search on that. You’ve got its structure. And, to save steps, try using the last brand-name I heard for it. Retcon.”

It was not, given the processing power at her finger-tips, a particularly challenging task. A few minutes later she raised her head from the comconsole. “But - it was dropped from the Pharmacopeia Galactica getting on for a century ago.”

“Not just because of the ethical issues,” their patient added, leaning in over the vid-plate. “Also as a result of the side-effects.”

Owen waved an impatient hand. “What’s a bit of violent paranoia among friends? Depending on who you work for, could be a career-enhancing strategy.”

The patient’s lips quirked. “If I carry on living round here it could be a downright lifesaver. Only question: would I be able to tell if it was the side-effects? Anyway. At least there’s one bit of good news. There is an antidote.”

Owen leaned back in the swivel chair, locking his hands behind the back of his neck. “Of course there’s an antidote. Otherwise no-one would dare use it in an intelligence war. Mutually assured oblivion.”

“There was an antidote,” Petrova corrected. “If the drug itself hasn’t been legally manufactured for decades -“

“We’ve got the molecular structure,” Owen said. “Drug and antidote. And if I wasn’t sleep-walking through that bit of the grand tour, you’ve got a lab downstairs which can synthesise pretty well anything you like on three seconds notice.”

“But those drugs haven’t been authorised for prescription on Barrayar!”

“Like I care,” the patient said. “Not if I get my memories back. I want to find the bastard who did this to me, and - ah - get violently paranoid. On his ass.”

“And now we have informed consent,” Owen said, letting the chair rock forward abruptly. “So. Get onto the lab and tell them we need them to whip up a custom-designed molecule for us. In a buffer solution that doesn’t make you want to vomit when you swallow it. We’ll be waiting right here.”

Petrova whirled, her eyes blazing. “Oh - you!” It was not immediately clear whether she meant singular or plural you - Owen had a sense that some of her intended auditors weren’t even in the building.

Owen folded his arms and looked at her. “Yes, darlin’?”

“The rules about pharmaceutical validation and approval are there for a reason. You can’t just go round walking straight through them, just because some desperate patient asks you to.”

The patient was across the room before either of them saw it start the movement. It had its hands either side of Petrova’s face, forcing her to look straight into its eyes. She flinched, slightly, whether because recent memories of her ordeal on the roof were still too fresh or simply because she was squicked on some sub-conscious level by their patient’s touch. Abruptly Owen recalled Karolides’ throwaway comment earlier, found a context to put it in.

That mutie from Ward 20 musta jumped her.

Mutie. Mutant. Isolated in otherness, drowning in loneliness. Disqualified at the starting post from the human race. He found himself unexpectedly shaken by the pity of it all. Had it been within reach he might have put his arm round the patient.

The patient’s voice, rawly passionate, chimed with his thoughts.

“Make that begs.” It gestured, the sweep of its arm taking in not just the room but the city, glittering in the dark night, and by extension the whole planet and the galaxy of which it formed an infinitesimal part; smaller, in proportion, than one of those molecules whirling through the patient’s blood.

“Somewhere - out there - people are wondering why I abandoned them without word. Lovers, children, pets. Friends. Colleagues. Enemies. When I came into this hospital someone took all of those people hostage.”

Its voice dropped so they almost had to strain to hear.

“Don’t ask me to prove what I’d do to free the hostages. Just - don’t.

Abruptly it dropped its hold on Petrova and stalked across the room to a chair. Petrova dropped back onto the sofa where she sat, head in hands, hunched in silent misery.

Owen cleared his throat. “It’s my call here. Look; we’ve had one illegal drug used already. And - I won’t lie.”

Well, much.

“It’s one I’ve seen used before. Whether it’s strictly legal or not - it’s too useful operationally ever to die out, I think. But once someone realises it’s been used on them - that’s when the real problems start. You can call them side-effects, or you can call them an iatrogenic psychological condition. Me, I call them bad news. And I’ve seen them. And they aren’t pretty. So - I vote for the antidote.”

He could see Petrova raising her head, shaping up to continue the argument.

Owen framed his mouth into the winning, ingenuous smile that had paid dividends so often in the past.

“Trust me,” he said. “I’m - from a very long way away from here.”