Black Market Magic
rating: +13+x

When most people hear ‘time-travel’, they get antsy. They don’t want to hear it. It changes things, and everybody’s got things they don’t want changed. Even if your past is black as coal dust, the fact you’re standing there in any position to voice an opinion means you got out. And nobody wants to wake up and find some bastard broke their lucky break.

So it’s disquieting to find out you can shoot it into your veins. Worse still to know that four decades back you could buy a hit on most streets, at least in the bad parts of those kinds of cities which like to pretend they don’t have them. The names changed, the doses changed, but most everything fell into one of two broad categories.

Stitch was the worst. Still is, if you can get it. Chemical future, mixed with a self-immolation charge and whatever you call the tachyon equivalent of speed. While you take it, you get reckless. Careless. Eventually you’re either paranoid or dead. Caution saves lives, but stitch makes it so yours doesn’t need saving – instead of dying your body burns up and you’re kicked back by up to a month, free to make the same mistakes in new and exciting ways. A guy can get used to that like he gets used to oxygen; when there’s nothing on the line, you call every bluff you can find. You start poking tigers for the hell of it, because there’s no reason not to. Pain becomes second nature, and death becomes first – you get shot and stabbed and blown to bits and cut into ribbons and none of it matters, because you’ll always come up laughing.

And then you hit your tolerance.

Stitch works differently to most drugs, because it’s self-administering. When you’re bumped back, your veins are pumped full of it again, like they were the first time. The only way to drain it from your system is to wait it out, let it pass naturally. It usually involves spending several months in a very, very safe location. One wrong move and the charge kicks in and you’re burned up and — zzzzip — punted back with a fresh dose. You could theoretically spend an eternity riding that high, if you found a reliable way to kick the bucket, but when I say ‘theoretically’ I mean it. The human mind doesn’t like being rolled over like that, and eventually it gets wise. It starts to fight back.

Consider that, when you live the same day over again, your mind is the only thing changed. You’ve got the same stuff in your veins, the same brain in your skull, but your mind – the essential you — is a version of you which already lived the next couple weeks of events. After a while your psyche learns to ignore the chemical soup swimming in its arteries, and it suppresses the neurological triggers which tell the immolation charge to blow. You become a dud. Still high, still rocking the slow-burning amphetamine lifestyle, but mortal. Unless you find a new way to burn yourself out from the inside, you don’t get any more do-overs.

And that hurts. Not literally, because usually by that point you’ve spent enough time in terminally painful situations that you’re numb to most kinds of actual pain. But the knowledge that you can die, that your next false move could be your last… it’s difficult to grasp. Usually it doesn’t take, or the user doesn’t realise what’s happening to them. They die quickly and unceremoniously, like everyone else does. It’s often ruled as suicide, or close enough for the cops, since it’s hard to imagine a sane person getting into such a recklessly risky situation.

If they don’t die, they’re clued in by some near-miss. Something which should have sent their brain into panic, should have triggered the charge, but doesn’t. They’ll start rapidly tallying up their loops, counting the seconds they’ve relived, trying to come to some kind of total. Trying to work out just how much extra time they’ve spent.

It usually takes about a six months to hit tolerance. In personal time. Of course, if you mainline stitch during a plane crash, those months can be about three minutes for everyone else. It depends on the dosage, and the user, and a lot of other stuff, but regardless of what the threshold is, beyond it you’re on borrowed time, and I mean that with absolutely no pun intended. Once you get used to stitch, there’s no going back.

You get paranoid. You start yearning for that safety net. The days stretch out as you notice every hidden danger that could spell your end. Your last end, not like all those ends which ended up not happening. Pain goes from being an enemy conquered to a friend sorely missed, ‘cause it’s hard to stay safe when your body can’t give you warning signs. The addiction is cruel and self-defeating – you won’t even want to leave the house, much less find yourself a temporal methadone. Maybe you’ll get over it one day, and learn again the lesson that a life without risk is not one worth living. Most likely not, but stranger things have happened. It’s not important.

What’s important is that stitch kills, and it kills quick, and it kills in big stupid accidents with a lot of collateral damage. And despite those accidents, it’s no less attractive a prospect. People will always want it, and it’ll always take them for a ride. Compared to stitch, normal drugs are quiet and harmless. And you can’t arrest a dead guy for possession, which gave the board a motive to crack down on it. And crack down they did.

To picture the Nostrum Board, picture an office block a hundred miles from anywhere important, stained grey by the passage of a thousand starch-stiffened lives. Everyone working there is the same, more or less. They all have the same shallow eyes, the same forced disinterest. The same soft ablation of ambition. Paperweight workers in overcast suits who shift and shuffle their way up through the system until they vanish at the top in a puff of smoke. A perpetual motion bureaucracy, bubbling a smog of legislature just dense enough to keep it going without upsetting anything important.

Then add stitch. Infamous killer, public menace, and really big problem for the office-jockeys. It’s something important, and something that desperately needs upsetting. It’s like cancer to the board’s finely tuned anatomy, pulling the remnants of activity together into a kind of organisational tumour, disrupting everything.

It grows.

It doesn’t stop growing. It begins to distribute itself through the board, siphoning time and energy in great heaving breaths. It’s gross and it’s inefficient, but it’s powerful as hell and very difficult to get rid of. So they come down hard on stitch, harder than they’ve come down on anything before or since. They launch brigades. Task forces. And a man with fake hair and a smile to match, who shows up at my door with a warrant and one of those bright ideas that you can tell somebody else was very proud of themselves for. It should be obvious that I was in no position to refuse.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to nick. It’s the other kind of time-travel, the one the board now keeps mostly under wraps. It’s in the same chemical family as stitch, but with a lot more amphetamine and a lot less combustion. Instead of sending you back, it compresses your personal time whenever your body goes into fight-or-flight, giving you up to two hours for every minute. Your reflexes are effectively unlimited. You can see a crime scene for a moment and know it better than you know your own bedroom. Withdrawal is hard, but there’s no retroactivity and if the cravings get bad you can always keep dosing.

There are, of course, side-effects. I can’t drink, I can’t smoke, and I sleep for four months of the year. The board watches me like a hawk, and there’s a camera in every room of my house. If I ever stop receiving my discreet little sachets of time, I’ll go into a deep shock which could last a subjective infinity.

But in exchange for all that? I can win every fight. I can walk into a lab packed with the kind of people you’d expect, and still come out the other side with nothing more than a crick in my neck. I can shoot twelve people in six seconds and some of those with the same bullet. I can bust rings dealing stitch, of course, but also others. Pyromaniacs hopped up on lady blaze. Back-alley priests trading holy water and shots of 5. Addicts taking gaze to open their third eye, and crooks peddling B to keep it shut. Ooym, tank, oneirated diamorphine. If it’s been a slow day, I might stoop to coke. They took stitch down, but the initiative’s too big to stop.

Drugs kill. But so do I, and I do it better. I do good work for the board, and I ride the wave of that work as far as it’ll take me. Yes, I’m on a leash, and I can’t escape that without earning myself some severely unwanted attention. I’m tracked, traced, and everything short of shackled. But in the confines of the gutter, in those dark puddles of neon and blood, I’m a god.

And of course, there’s always the package tucked and taped in the crook of my arm. I’m hooked on nick, so a cannula made perfect sense. Needles can be risky, and the board was more than willing to cover the cost. Nobody wants their personal weapon getting infected, do they?

It’s easy enough to switch one packet for another.

Even with nick, I’m not perfect. Sometimes I need a do-over.

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