Originally published in CARBIDE TIPPED PENS edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi; Tor Books 2014)
The courthouse was crowded, but Indira Chang maneuvered through the swelling mass of people as if she were 6′7″, bulky, and sour-faced like her co-counsel, rather than her own mousy 5′1″. She couldn’t afford to linger. Too often there was that one person who ignored the “no strong perfumes” notice. The slow-moving crowd suddenly came to a stop, filling the arch leading into the hallway from wall to wall.
“Damn!” Indira’s nails tapped impatiently against her carrycase.
“If only you had a medical tattoo…” Dan deadpanned from behind her.
“Conflict of interest,” she answered automatically, as she always did.
He chuckled, a rumble like an avalanche. “Except that half the judges and more than half the jurors we argue in front of have med-tats.”
“Remember that one we argued, which was it, the fourth? Fifth—?”
“Where—yeah, fifth—where the entire jury had med-tats?”
“I’ve got it under control. My epi-pen works fine.”
“So get the tat and keep your epi-pen.”
“Can’t. They won’t renew the ’script. Risk of overdose. I know the arguments, Dan, I just can’t bring myself to trust my life to something I can’t control.”
“You? Control issues? Nah.” He laughed, but his voice was low and serious when he added, “Someday it won’t work, Indi.”
In the lobby behind them, the commotion peaked. Screeching cries of fear pierced the roar of mingled voices. Indira turned, but Dan threw an arm out in front of her.
Uniformed security and plain-clothed policemen rushed in as a man broke free from the crowd. For one frantic moment he met Indira’s eye. Then someone crashed into him from behind and he went down with a thud.
“Well, that’s not going to be good,” Dan said.
Dan perched on the edge of her desk, arms crossed lazily.
“You won’t believe what it was.”
Indira raised an eyebrow.
“Some whacked-out protestor tried to spray the crowd with ricin loaded into an epi-pen. Don’t worry, it didn’t discharge.”
Indira had logged many hours of practice at schooling her expression, but incredulity broke through now. “What kind of sick—wait. An epi-pen?”
Dan snorted. “Yeah. Guess we’ll be using crayons in court from now on. Security will probably start confiscating everything pointy at the door.”
Indira gave him a long look of exasperation.
Dan grimaced. “Yeah. I thought of that. I’m sure you can get some kind of exemption, right?”
“I’m sure.” Indira kept her thoughts to herself. She knew he was concerned about her, but he was also looking a little smug about his prediction coming true.
“It’ll work out, you’ll see.” He stood and rapped his knuckles twice on her desk. “See you tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t take that in.”
Indira scowled at the epi-pen in the guard’s hand, to keep herself from scowling at the young man who held her medicine hostage. It wasn’t his fault. Suited lawyers and nervous family members murmured behind her, shifting in a restless herd while she held up the line.
“Come on, Ari. Yesterday I was Indira and today I’m ‘ma’am’? I have a note from my physician right here. It’s biometrically notarized. You know I need it for my perfume allergy; you check it through every day.”
The young man looked around for help. “I’m sorry. Maybe you can speak to my manager. She left for a meeting about fifteen minutes ago. She should be back in an hour, maybe?”
“I can’t wait that long. I’m due in court in twenty minutes.”
He shrugged, a dull red creeping up his face and ears. The din behind Indira was growing louder and more frustrated. “I’m sorry.”
“Fine,” she said, picking up her carrybag, sans epi-pen, and slinging the strap over her shoulder with a frustrated jerk. “Keep it. Can I go in now?”
Dan waited for her inside the checkpoint. He matched her angry strides easily with his long legs. “You sure that’s a good idea, Hotshot?”
“Nothing’s happened in months.”
“Yeah.” His answer was subdued, doubtful, and his face settled into the frown that was his normal expression. Indira was glad. It made people get out of their way.
By the time they broke for lunch, Indira was getting a headache. As she exited the courtroom, a woman stopped in front of her so quickly Indira almost crashed into her.
“Miss Chang. I didn’t expect to have the pleasure of seeing you today. I was worried that all the fuss yesterday would delay our case.”
Heather Gannon was the CEO of Gannon & Perez, developer and manufacturer of pharmaceutical and diagnostic tattoo technology. She wore a pale yellow suit with a string of pearls at her perfect throat. Somehow she managed to carry off the Stepford Wife look without losing one bit of her ferocity as a businesswoman. Indira couldn’t help but notice that she made it look sexy, too. Too bad that was a real conflict of interest; and anyway, Gannon and Lucy Perez had been married since before they started the company.
“No. We’re still scheduled for this afternoon. If you’ll excuse me, I—”
The familiar itch started in her throat, around her eyes and mouth. Indira sucked in a strangled gasp. There wasn’t enough air. A hot flush swept her and she staggered back into Dan.
“Indira? Oh, God. Someone call 911!”
Indira woke, groggy and itchy. Her heart stuttered in a moment’s panic before she realized that it wasn’t the itch preceding an attack, but the more general, pervasive itch of pain medication. She became slowly aware of the all-too-familiar steady beep, and the cold, antiseptic smell of a hospital.
The Deputy DA sat at her bedside, leafing through a magazine. “You’re up,” Rowan had been her boss almost since she’d passed the bar, and was as much friend as colleague. “Glad you’re back with us.”
“Thanks. Me, too. What’s the status of my cases?”
Rowan raised a brow. “Considering you nearly died, maybe you can give yourself a couple hours’ recess before you start talking work again, Counselor?”
“It was just an allergic reaction.”
Rowan’s face hardened. “It was an episode that you almost didn’t survive. What were you thinking, going in there without your epi?”
“I was thinking that I had an appointment with a judge, and that opposing counsel would be only too pleased if I didn’t show up.”
He shook his head. “Sometimes I think you’re trying to give me a heart attack. Really, Indi, that was stupid. Dan could have handled it without you. You almost died.”
“But I didn’t. I just need you to talk to someone and get an exemption for my epi straightened out.”
“No. You’re not going back to court. It’s already been decided.”
“Then undecide it. Come on, Rowan. Talk to someone at the mayor’s office.”
“I have. The mayor himself told me to take you off. No one is keen to start making exceptions when you’re not the only lawyer in the city. Dan’s perfectly competent, Indira.”
“How many negligence and malpractice cases have I won against Gannon & Perez for implantable biotech?”
“Yes, I know.”
“How many has Dan argued?”
“None. Dan’s a good lawyer, but this is my case.”
“Not anymore it isn’t. I’m sorry.”
The snake wound around Dr. Tehari’s arm in sinuous green and yellow coils. Its head was poised over her wrist with open jaws that seemed ready to swallow her hand. Or slither a few centimeters farther and sink its fangs into Indira. Indira turned away, closing her eyes and losing herself in the constant buzzing noise.
“You all right?” the doctor asked.
Indira forced herself to look at the snake, rather than at the angry-red skin around her half-finished tattoo.
“What’s that one for?” Indira nodded toward the snake.
Tehari grinned, a flash of white teeth. “Nothing.” She winked. “That’s just to scare the patients. This one,” she wiggled the other wrist, displaying the single blue line tattooed around it. “This one’s for my diabetes.”
“Huh. Plain and simple.” Indira took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She’d shoved that damned epi-pen into her own thigh often enough; she could handle one little needle.
“I was one of the test cases,” the doctor said, and it took Indira a moment to remember what they were talking about. “I keep meaning to make it into something more interesting, I just haven’t decided what I want yet.”
There was something oddly poetic about a tattoo artist not knowing what she wanted tattooed on her own skin. Indira had already known that she wanted a delicate vine of ivy with diagnostic readouts in the leaves. She’d had the design picked out for years, actually, but then she had started taking cases against Gannon & Perez. When she had seen up-close just what the tech could do when things went wrong, the med-tat had been put on permanent hold. She wondered if the doctor knew what she did for a living.
“Heard you’re off the case,” Dr. Tehari remarked. “It was on the news.”
Well, that answered that.
“Not anymore, I hope,” Indira said, nodding toward her arm without actually looking. “Not after this.”
Dr. Tehari grinned. “I was surprised to see your name on my patient list. I would have thought you’d be a little, well, disinclined to get the tattoo, considering.”
“It’s not personal. I’m just doing my job.” Indira grimaced as the needle traced a thin, painful line over a nerve. “Though it wasn’t my first choice, I’ll admit.”
“You’re doing the right thing. Allergies like yours are one of the best applications of the med-tat. Don’t think there have been any cases of failure with these.”
Indira shook her head. “There have, but they were addressed years ago. They’re one of the safest applications now.”
“And you would know.”
Silence lapsed but for the buzz of the needle. Indira looked toward the vial with her name and patient ID on it. Each vial of serum was customized, engineered out of the DNA of its designated target. The tattoo clinic received the bio-engineered serum from Gannon & Perez, and then added it to that patient’s ink. She had tried a case where the labels on two vials had been switched, and two patients had gotten product meant to cure conditions they didn’t have. The non-diabetic who got the insulin regulator only noticed that her dust and pet dander allergy wasn’t getting better. The diabetic whose blood sugar suddenly went wild was the one who brought the case. When Indira won it, Gannon & Perez had tightened its quality assurance practices.
“This is where I usually make sure you know how this thing works,” Dr. Tehari said, “but given who I’m talking to, I suspect you know better than I do.”
Indira tried to smile. “I’d say I know the basics.” The tattoo didn’t contain medicine, but rather, engineered cells that could produce medicine as needed, whenever needed. Because the cells themselves were never depleted, just activated and deactivated, the medicine could never run out. The diagnostic displays were mostly for reassurance. People liked the feedback so that they knew the tattoo was working.
The buzzing halted while the doctor switched inks, the sudden silence echoing in Indira’s ears. “I’m just finishing up the display. This’ll show the presence of allergens. Greens are all-clear. You might see some fluctuation in the green, but that’s just cosmetic, like a screensaver when your phone is in standby. Yellows mean a small but not dangerous concentration is detected, brighter toward the source of the concentration so that you know which way to go if you want to avoid it. The deeper autumns are when things get nasty. Red means you’re around a high enough concentration to trigger the drug. Brown means that it’s in your system, dealing with the threat. You know what the epi hit feels like. The color just reinforces that yes, that’s what that flushed sensation is. Then brown will fade back to yellow and eventually green.” She set the tattoo gun down and wiped clear, soothing gel across the angry skin. “There. Have a look.”
Indira turned her head with mild trepidation, which disappeared as soon as she saw the finished product. “Wow. It’s gorgeous.” A slender green vine wove its way up her inner arm, with four delicate leaves sprouting off it in perfectly shadowed hyper-realism. It looked real, and the faint shifts of green in the leaves made it seem like they were swaying in the breeze of a sun-dappled glade.
The doctor smiled. “Thanks. I like to do work that’s more than just functional. I have an MFA in art, but it didn’t take long to realize that an MFA doesn’t pay the bills, so I went into med school.”
“Sounds like a perfect career for you, then.” The woman working on her arm didn’t seem old enough to have gone through graduate school and med school, but with the cosmetic implants available these days, you never knew.
“Well, it rules out the squeamish artists, that’s for sure. All the leaves are keyed to the same readout, but they can be reprogrammed if you get other med tattoos later on. I like to leave room for growth.”
“Yeah, no pun intended.”
Dr. Tehari set to cleaning up, carefully sealing the ink pots. They went into a clear box along with Indira’s vial. More quality assurance—if something went wrong, not that it would, the ink and serum would be available for testing. The box was labeled with Indira’s name and patient number, and then sealed with biohazard tape.
By the time the workspace was clean, the gel was ready to come off. Dr. Tehari wiped it away gently, cleaned the skin again, and applied a few pumps of a fine, cold aerosol mist. “This will seal it up and heal it, so don’t worry about bumping it on anything or getting it wet, but it’ll stay a little tender for the next day or two. We’ll let your immune system recover, and tomorrow we’ll test it out and make sure it works.”
Indira grimaced. “Yeah. That’s the part I’m really looking forward to.” After her recent hospital stay and the enforced leave of absence from work, the last thing she wanted to do was tempt anaphylaxis for fun.
Tehari shook her head. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. The cells will be all settled in their new home, ready to pump out antidote before you’ve even realized you need it.”
Indira saw the headline on the flight home. “GANNON & PEREZ BEAT RAP OVER DISPLAY SYNCHRONIZATION.”
Dan had lost her case.
By the time she landed, she had declined to answer five calls from reporters and one each from Dan and Rowan. She returned Dan’s call first, sitting on the bullet train from the airport and staring out the window at the blur of rainy cityscape and gray sky.
“You heard?” he asked as soon as he picked up.
“What, no ‘Hello, Indira, how’d it go?’”
His voice carried the hint of a smile. “Sorry. Motion to note in the record that I asked and you answered, and then we can move on to where you yell at me for losing your case.”
She was quiet a moment, debating her next words. If she had been about to scream at him—and she still wasn’t sure if she had been or not—his candid invitation had taken away her steam. “So, what happened?”
He cleared his throat. “The false positives and the false negatives on the displays. We called it the same issue—lack of synchronization between display and implant. Well, they argued that they were different issues with different processes and technologies, and got the case dismissed.”
Indira took a breath, let it out, and counted to ten. She wondered if Dr. Tehari could implant Ativan without a prescription. Or maybe tequila.
“They conned you, Dan. They always try to make that argument. If I’d been—”
“But you weren’t, Hotshot.” His voice softened. “I had to cover this one because you were too stubborn to take care of yourself. Yeah, I’ve been hoping you’d get the damn thing, but not like this. You had to make a point about how you had it all under control, and you blew it.”
“What, so two wrongs make an excuse?” she retorted, and sighed. “I’m sorry. Look, I’m almost at my stop. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The deadbolt lock thunked over and Indira spilled into the apartment. Bail slunk out of the bedroom, a little orange fuzzball meowing reproaches at her.
She picked him up, rubbing her cheek against his soft fur. “Yeah, I’m sorry. But I know Mrs. Ming gives you tuna when I’m gone, so I don’t know what you’re complaining about.” The crisp, faintly metallic smell of the ozonator hung in the air. Indira smiled, carrying the cat with her into the kitchen.
“I think we can both use a treat, huh?”
She stopped short at the sight of a huge bouquet of flowers. With her free hand she flicked over the card tied to the vase. It was a generic “Get Well Soon” signed only “G&P.” Well that was…odd. Mrs. Ming must have accepted the delivery for her.
Setting Bail down on the counter, Indira pulled the milk carton from the fridge, giving it a sniff before she poured some into a saucer for the cat. For herself, she grabbed a spoon and a pint of ice cream. Chocolate, with chocolate chunks.
Indira settled into the armchair by the window. In the light, the glimmer of the tat caught her eye.
Pensively, she watched the kids at the park down the street as she opened the carton.
“Did you know it’s impossible to get good ice cream in the hospital?” she remarked to the cat, who lapped at his milk, ignoring her. “We can put a colony on Mars, but apparently hospitals can’t serve ice cream that doesn’t have freezer-burn.”
She sat back and let the first spoonful of chocolate melt on her tongue.
The inside of her mouth tingled, starting to itch. A jolt of panic jerked her upright before she even had time to think about it. The itch had already spread down her throat, around her mouth. Her hand went automatically to her throat, as if she could stop the swelling that would cut off her air—
The shock of epinephrine hit her bloodstream with the subtlety of a tsunami. The itching and swelling washed away, replaced by the quivering, twitchy sensation of adrenaline rush.
She sat back, gasping. Breathe. She clung to the mantra like the last epi-pen in a perfume department. I can breathe. I can breathe. The adrenaline was what was making her heart race. It had been released by the med-tat, just as it was supposed to be.
The hospital. Her hand twitched at the urge to call 911, but no, that wasn’t necessary anymore. The med-tat would provide all the follow-up monitoring and medicine. And it was self-diagnostic—it would tell her if there was a problem it couldn’t handle, or if it was malfunctioning.
Did that include causing her to react to something she’d never been allergic to before? She shoved up her sleeve. The leaves were fading from brown, to yellow, to green again. Bail jumped up on her lap, pacing back and forth from chair arm to chair arm, seeking the most comfortable spot from which to demand more attention.
The phantom itch in her mouth was her imagination. “Mrs. Ming must have a new man in her life,” she remarked to Bail, her voice trembling with aftershock. “Probably got new perfume and forgot all about it, right?” She petted the cat, hoping the smooth, repetitive movement would help calm her, too. “Did she smell funny?”
It was always possible. People forgot when it wasn’t their allergy, their life. And the tattoo had done exactly what she needed it to do, exactly what she’d gotten it for. She was starting to shake—the aftereffects of the adrenaline rush that had saved her life.
The ice cream went back to the freezer. Indira needed to lie down.
“So, let’s see it.” Dan crossed Indira’s office in three of his long-legged strides, an opened envelope in his hand. Indira turned her arm so he could see the climbing green vine.
“I was thinking of getting spiders, but I didn’t want to scare you,” she teased.
He chuckled, hovering his fingers just above the tattoo. He was too polite to actually touch without asking. Dormant, the displays shimmered slightly, making the leaves sway. “Scare yourself, most like. No way you’d get a spider.”
“You never know. The doctor had a snake. And she was cute.”
Dan snorted and sat back, crossing his arms. As a reflex, he glanced at the open files on her screen, peering more closely when a name caught his attention.
“Gannon & Perez? You’ve got a new case?”
Indira collapsed the window. “Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“So what’s with the case files, then, if there’s no case pending?”
He gave her a suspicious frown. “Why?”
“Because it’s my idea of a fun time on a Thursday night? Sheesh, Dan. You’d think you caught me mapping out a bank robbery or something.”
He snorted. “Good luck with that one, Hotshot. Stealthy, you’re not.”
Dan handed her the envelope he carried. For a high-tech company, Gannon & Perez sometimes liked to do things the traditional way. From the envelope, Indira pulled a crisply folded piece of letterhead. It was a smarmy, generic letter, thanking her practice for their concern for the wellbeing of G&P’s patients, and continuing with an assurance that the problems were being addressed. Indira recognized it as the form letter that was sent to any patient who contacted customer service with a complaint. Rather than bearing the form letter’s usual stamped signatures, though, it looked like it had been personally signed by Gannon and Perez themselves. She returned it to the envelope and looked at the front. It was addressed directly to Dan.
“I’m sorry, Dan. They’re bastards.” She returned the letter to him and sat back with a stifled sigh.
“Thought you’d want to see it,” he said with a rueful smirk. “Enjoy your research. Next time, we kick their asses.”
He moseyed out of her office and she returned to her screen. She had no desire to share her real purpose, not with Dan or anyone. The details of her first case against Gannon & Perez were exactly as she remembered them. The patient had a bee-sting allergy. The med-tat had seemed a life-saving miracle…until the patient began to react to allergens that had not been triggers for her before, and eventually died of a heart attack after a cascade of allergic reactions, one after the other, and the eventual overdose of adrenaline.
The lawsuits had come in a flood at first, but slowed in time. After each case Indira won, additional safeguards were put in place to make med-tat technology safer. The monitoring modules were improved so that the tattoo would confirm medicine levels already present in the blood before administering more. The technology was more carefully calibrated to the individual patient’s physiology, their history of sensitivity to medicines, and their past reactions. At least one backup treatment was available if the primary treatment was not advisable. Remedies for a patient’s most likely side-effects or overdose reactions were now coded into every med-tat. And there was a transmitter as a last resort, to call for paramedics if conditions suggested an uncontrolled or dangerous reaction.
Tens of thousands of allergy patients wore the med-tat now, and there had never been another malfunction that created new allergies on top of old ones, like that first one.
Like a chocolate allergy, when it had always and only been perfumes.
The chocolate didn’t send her to the medical center, but the next set of symptoms did.
“Dermatomyositis,” Dr. Haskins said.
“I beg your pardon?”
The doctor took the other chair in front of her desk, rather than the one behind it. “The rashes and the muscle pain,” she said. “It’s an autoimmune disorder that affects the muscles and skin. The exact cause is unknown, but one theory is that it’s a viral infection of the muscles.”
“I know what it is, Doctor.” Indira said, stunned. “Treatment but no cure, right? It was the second case I prosecuted against Gannon & Perez…”
Dr. Haskins propped her elbow on the thick armrest, chin in hand, as she examined Indira. “Dermatomyositis is pretty surprising in a healthy woman under forty.”
“Yes,” Indira said quietly. “I know.”
“You were just in here a month ago. Were you already having symptoms and not sharing them with me?”
“Of course not.”
“I’m not sure a natural case of dermatomyositis could develop that quickly. You’ve had the tattoo how long? Two weeks?” She frowned. “I’m sure you’ve already considered the possibility that this isn’t a coincidence.”
“You know I’m going to have to report this.”
Indira’s mouth twisted. “Maybe you could wait.”
“You know who I am to them. Just give me a few days to consider the legal angle.”
The doctor was silent a moment, lips tight. “Next week, Indira. I’m going to report this by Monday.”
The restaurant was loud and dim and made the best noodles in town. Sian hailed her from across the room. Indira waved back, weaving her way through the tables to join her in the tiny booth crammed into the corner.
“Whoa, look at you. You’re a walking painting.” Sian stood to share a brief, tight hug, before sliding back into her seat. Sian was a long-time friend-with-sometimes-benefits, and their Wednesday nights were a longstanding tradition.
Indira had picked a black sleeveless dress with a thin wavy line of green up one side, leaving her tattoo visible. She found she was choosing her clothing to match it these days, an impulse she didn’t quite understand, considering what it had already done to her—and was possibly doing to her now. It was nice to look at, though. Kera Tehari had turned her into art, and it wasn’t the artist’s fault the paint had been tainted.
She smiled, holding her arm out at Sian’s prompting so that she could turn it this way and that in the light.
“Seriously cool. How’s it working?”
“On my allergy? Well enough,” she answered carefully, avoiding her friend’s eyes as she squeezed into her side of the booth. “It heads reactions off at the pass. And it’s hypnotic to watch.”
They were regulars at the restaurant, on first name terms with the chef and owner, a slight Japanese man who looked to be in his early 60s, but who was rumored to have started the restaurant himself, over a century ago. They didn’t have to order; he would make them something special that wasn’t on the menu. Once Indira was settled in, the chef’s daughter brought them two glazed cups, exchanging tea for pleasantries and leaving the teapot for them in the center of the table.
While Sian chattered about work and local news, Indira inched her skirt up and dabbed the corner of her napkin to the bandage just below her knee. When she brought the napkin back up, she could see it stained with a dark spot in the dim light. She shivered. She’d shaved more than twelve hours ago, but the little cut where she’d nicked herself with the razor still hadn’t clotted.
Slowly, under the table, she pulled a new bandage from her handbag and applied it to her leg, then sealed the overflowing one in a plastic bag and sanitized her hands. She barely heard a word Sian said over the panic pounding in her ears, but she forced herself to breathe slowly, smile, and nod.
Clotting factors. Her third case against Gannon & Perez.
“Sian,” she said quietly. “Something’s wrong.”
Her friend glanced around the crowded restaurant. “What is it?”
“The med-tat is handling the perfume allergy, but…it’s got a couple of hidden bonuses added in.”
She frowned. “Indi—”
She laid it out for her: the chocolate, the rashes and muscle soreness, the diagnosis, and now the bleeding. Sian’s frown only deepened as she listened.
“It’s just a small cut. I promise, I’m going back to my doctor tomorrow.”
The other woman’s mouth pinched but she gave a short nod. “All right. So what’s the likelihood that G&P knew you were signed up for the tattoo?” she asked.
“As individuals? They shouldn’t have known at all. Not beforehand, with enough time to tamper with my tattoo. That’s a patient confidentiality issue. I prosecuted a case against them for that.”
“Oh, that thing with the Senator?”
She nodded. “But they sent me flowers, so they definitely know now. I also ran into Heather Gannon’s personal assistant in the pharmacy queue yesterday after my appointment. I wasn’t trying to hide my arm from her, but they shouldn’t have known ahead of time.”
“Yeah but that doesn’t mean they didn’t.” Sian scowled. “Okay. So then, what’s the likelihood that they’re trying to get revenge?”
Indira frowned. “Low. They’re not stupid. Why would they have done this deliberately? This is their chance to get my sympathy, or public trust—maybe I’d drop out due to conflict of interest, or maybe they’d start a new ad campaign: ‘Even Indira Chang has one.’ So, why would they be hurting me instead of using me? They’d have to think I’d be high profile about it, if my tattoo was faulty.”
“You wouldn’t go to the media, though.”
“But they can’t know that.”
Her friend gave her a wry look, dropping her gaze to the cup in her hands as if looking for answers in it. “Maybe they want you to cry wolf and discredit yourself? If you turn up with a boatload of symptoms unrelated to what your tattoo’s even for, and you go public and it’s disbelieved…” She shrugged. “No. That doesn’t make sense, either. Your doctor has records, right?”
“Yes. I considered that. There’s no way it would work. And look at how it’s happening. It’s too obvious. These complications are popping up rapid-fire, in the same order as the cases I prosecuted against them. There’s no way that these conditions, in this order, can be random.”
“But why? It’s like they’re jumping up and down shouting at you that they’re doing something incredibly illegal and unethical and easy to prove against them. Why?”
Indira sighed, an angry breath hissing out between her lips. “I don’t know yet. But I will.”
As promised, she was back at her doctor’s office when the door opened the next morning. It went as she knew it would. Dr. Haskins went from stunned to appalled to visibly angry. “If you were anyone else,” she said, her stylus jerking angrily on the screen, “I wouldn’t be writing old-fashioned prescriptions. I’d be recommending you get the treatments added to your tattoo. These are exactly the sort of things the tats are for.” She shook her head. “Treating, I mean, not causing.”
Armed with yet another prescription for a condition she shouldn’t have, and a tight line of medical glue sealing the cut at her knee, Indira marched into work. She took Dan with her into the DA’s office and shut the door.
An hour later, they emerged. The look on Dan’s face sent the staff scattering.
Heather Gannon laced her perfectly manicured fingers together, setting her hands on the polished conference table like a still-life of innocence and diamonds. Lucy Perez sat beside her, the couple flanked by their lawyers. Lucy was sharp and professional and probably pretty. It wasn’t something you noticed when her wife was in the room.
“Miss Chang, I can’t tell you how appalled we are to hear of your recent difficulties,” Heather said. “Horrified for you. We will, of course, do everything we can to help.”
“I certainly appreciate your concern, Ms. Gannon, but I’m not here in an official capacity this time. I’m just an observer.”
“Nevertheless, you have my deepest sympathy.”
“Heartbroken, I’m sure,” Dan rumbled under his breath.
Indira threw him a look, then turned back to Heather and Lucy with a smile that was only half plastic. “Shall we get to business?”
Dan cleared his throat and passed a notarized page across the table. “So. Regarding the settlement of People and Gregory Armstrong v. Gannon & Perez…”
Later, as they filed out of the room, Indira noticed that Heather put her hand to the small of Lucy’s back, but Lucy picked up her pace and it fell away.
Indira was in conferences all day. Her leg was still sore but she tried not to think about it. It was late afternoon before she had a chance to go to the washroom. When she pulled up her pant leg, her stomach rebelled. A swollen field of deep purplish-blue climbed her thigh like a malevolent stain. It seemed that sealing the little cut with surgical glue had been a mistake.
She didn’t want to deal with anyone else’s sympathy or outrage, so she drove herself to the emergency room. You knew you had it bad, she thought, when the ER took you in right away and didn’t make you wait. She was soon ensconced on an uncomfortable hospital gurney, with an IV, an injection, an elevated leg, and the murmur of doctors beyond the thin shield of the curtain.
The clotting agent wasn’t working—the med-tat just kept pumping out more anti-coagulant, fighting off the IV fluids, the injection, and the prescription pills. The cut was still bleeding, but with nowhere for the blood to go, it had backed up and turned into an internal hemorrhage. Looking at her leg sickened her, so she kept the blankets pulled up. Whenever a doctor or nurse came to inspect it, she looked away.
They couldn’t just turn the anti-coagulant action off in the tattoo, the attending doctor explained, because they couldn’t find it; because it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. The theory was that equal-and-opposite doses would cancel each other out, but it wasn’t working. However much antidote they pumped into her, her engineered cells just produced that much more, creating a standoff of Cold War proportions under her skin. It felt like her leg might swell up like a balloon and explode at any moment, spilling red along the pilled surface of the hospital blanket.
Indira passed the time watching the reddened leaf where the new coagulant had been implanted. It shifted and shimmered its fall colors in the light; as if blowing on it might make it fall off her arm entirely and float away. Maybe there was some nice medication in that IV bag, too.
Dr. Haskins stopped by on her evening rounds, looked at the injury with a concerned frown she couldn’t completely conceal, and patted Indira’s hand. “I’ve ordered a procedure to install a drain and relieve some of the pressure in your leg. You’ll also need a transfusion to replace the blood you’re losing. Ordinarily, that would just be a temporary measure, and then we’d queue up your tattoo to start creating extra red blood cells, but in your case…”
Indira smiled wanly. “Yeah. Old school all the way, please.”
Indira was out of surgery and sitting up in bed when Heather Gannon appeared from around the corner and rapped three times on the frame of the open door. Impeccable as ever in an ice blue suit with a white collar, she walked in with a modest bouquet of wildflowers and a card. She set the flowers on the end of Indira’s bed. They rested awkwardly against her foot.
“I want you to know I am sorry, Miss Chang,” she said.
Indira frowned at her. “For what?”
Heather hesitated. It was the first time Indira had ever seen her look uncomfortable or uncertain. “Have you ever been angry at someone and pinned their photograph to a dartboard, or written an angry letter you knew you’d never send?”
“What are you talking about?” Indira whispered. Even through the lingering haze of sedatives and pain medication, she was afraid she knew.
“When you won those cases against us, I was angry. We filed those clients’ serum away so that it couldn’t be used ever again, and—not out of real, personal malice, you must believe me—I…I keyed them to your name. Just to relieve the anger, you understand.” The unflappable calm Indira had always admired and hated about the woman was tainted with a restless agitation that made it hard to see Heather Gannon in this woman at her bedside.
“Wait. You were mad at me, so you…what, put my name on defective vials, for spite?” Fear fluttered behind Indira’s haze of medication and disbelief.
Heather’s voice was crisp and clinical, and it trembled. She didn’t meet Indira’s eyes. “No one ever thought you’d get a med-tat. And when you did…The system is automated. It pulled everything with your name on it before I even knew you’d come to us. I know you won’t believe me, but we—I—didn’t do this to you on purpose. If I’d known this could happen, if I had any inkling, I’d have deleted it out at once.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Indira rasped, her voice thin with horror. “You think I won’t go after you for this?”
Heather shook her head with a sad sigh. “I’m sure you would.”
Indira’s throat started to itch and the familiar shot of adrenaline hit her bloodstream like a kick in the head. Her heart thundered in her chest, her vision going red around the edges. Pain lanced through her head. She lifted a shaking hand to her nose and blood dripped into her palm, another droplet trickling down her lip. Clumsy with panic and too much adrenaline, she grasped for the call button to summon help, but a second rush hit and overwhelmed her. The adrenaline feedback loop, of course, and Indira realized that Heather knew it, too—she’d programmed it herself, into a tattoo she never expected Indira to get. Hit after hit of epinephrine flooded her system without regulation. She gasped for air, in great big gulps that weren’t enough. Her monitors started beeping insistently. Pulse and BP were erratic. She couldn’t catch her breath.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Chang. Really I am.” She took Indira’s hand, and Indira was too weak to pull away. Disoriented, she thought she caught a whiff of the flowers at the end of the bed. Or perfume.
“I heard you’d gotten the tattoo,” Heather continued, speaking a bit more quickly, as if she was trying to get her confession out before it was too late. “And I was frightened. I sent flowers. I arranged to have others keep an eye on you, to tell myself it had all gone okay, but I realized quickly enough that it hadn’t. I wanted to warn you earlier, but Lucy wouldn’t let me. It’s our company, you see? We started it together while we were still in med school. Before we were married, even. It’s us. It would kill her to see it brought down.”
Indira lifted her head, studying Heather Gannon through blurred, pounding vision. Instead of ringing the call button for help, or asking what she could do for Indira, Heather’s priority was the unburdening of her own soul. It more than canceled out any sympathy Indira might have otherwise tried to summon for her.
The world was going soft around the edges, the sounds muted and far away. Indira was vaguely aware of an ache in her chest, and barely noticed when her telemetry monitors started beeping wildly. Heather straightened, brushing the wrinkles out of her skirt with a last look at Indira that might have been compassion. Or pity. “Help! Someone!” she called into the corridor, with believable panic in her voice. The echo of her heels clicking down the hall receded in perfect meter with Indira’s too-rapid heartbeat, until neither could be heard anymore.