Science Fiction

The Apothecary's Handbook

By Effie Seiberg
2,208 words · 9-minute reading time
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The fifth rule in the apothecary’s handbook is to decide on your code of ethics in advance, or else your work gets sloppy. Doesn’t really matter what your code is as long as you stick to it.

When you make designer pills, it’s not hard to find places to draw the lines. Of course you sell niptucks, since there’s no harm in people tweaking the shape of their nose or the tautness of their jaw. Do you sell genderbenders? Just about everyone does, since most people like to slide around the scale at least once in their life, and there’s no harm in it, and now those nanos are easy to reverse if you want. Do you sell skinrips, which let people shed like lizards, swap colors like chameleons, grow scales and feathers and sometimes even horns? Some don’t, think it’s unnatural or inhuman. A few designers out there will sell nullers, to null out your sense of sight or smell if it’s bothering you, or your whole left arm if you think it’s not yours, or someone else’s lungs for one-minute bursts if you think they deserve it. Just about nobody will sell you flatliners.

Just about nobody but me.

My code of ethics says it’s none of my business what you do, but I’ve got to keep my own account balanced. Not going to do you harm if you’ve done none to me.

Flatliners are touchy business if you want to stay balanced. I got into the biz when I saw my gran, dribbling on morphine and wanting it all to end, and the doctors telling her she had to hold on and be strong. Cruel bastards, those docs were. Euthanasia ought to be a right, a bit of dignity. And what do they care if you want to off yourself? Taking too much pride in their work, those doctors. They don’t like fixing you up for you to undo it all.

The fourth rule in the apothecary’s handbook is to put out quality work. I set out to make the most beautiful flatliners out there. Mixed different combinations of cyanide and sugar and silicone dioxide and arsenic and magnesium stearate… over and over. The binders had to be right, the colors had to look nice, the coating pleasantly flavored with a texture that’ll slide right down (your last act on this grey earth should be as clean as possible)… and then to leave no trace behind. Innocent as a heart attack. The last thing your friends need is a nasty murder investigation when all you wanted to do was step off the stage with your head held high.

That’s where the trick comes in. Any apothecary can make a good poison. But my work is untraceable art.

Of course, you can’t make a living on flatliners, not unless you want to get up in the assassin’s handbook in the “preferred suppliers” column, and that’s a very tricky business. Plus, you go down that road then there’s no turning back. Most of those names wind up showing up in more than one column in that book, if you know what I mean. Ethics is sometimes practical, too.

So I learned my trade and got good. I’ve got skinrips so delicate they’ll make you grow a single peacock feather with your lover’s name right in the middle. Nullers so precise that you’ll only see the color red in people you secretly distrust, so you can trick your subconscious into telling you what it suspects. Genderbenders that swap on the hour, every hour, so you never know how you’ll wake up in the morning. And of course your basics: sleep aids with pre-set dreams, adrenaline-boosters that whittle your middle, niptucks that shrink down your ears overnight, the usual.

My shop is legit. You’ve got to ask for it if you want something that’s not, and you’ve got to prove you need it. But if you’re legit, I can whip up just about anything you can think of.
The man in the hat comes in on a cloudy day, looking as grey as the sky behind him.

“I need a flatliner,” he says, his voice dull. “My ma’s real sick and she’s got to go, but she’s wrestling with her faith. Suicide’s a sin, and this way it’s God who’ll choose.”

He shows me his smartpad, opened to his bank account. He has the credits to pay.

“Doesn’t that just mean God’s choosing to keep her alive?” I don’t take just anyone who can pay.

“I’ve thought of a way around it. Two pills, identical in every way, but only one will kill her. She’ll choose, and it’ll be up to God what happened, and that means she’ll be in the theological clear.”

It’s a very nice story, but I get stories all day long. And two identical pills? Something’s off, but I get curious and go with him. Close up for the day - you can afford that, if it might mean selling a flatliner - to go to the old lady’s house to check things out.

He offers me a ride in his autocar. It’s full of junk, cross and mandala both swinging from the ceiling in decor, and my pants squeak against the plasticky seat as I squeeze in next to a pile of old paperbooks. He seems twitchy and doesn’t meet my eye, staring straight ahead at the road instead for the entire ride. Lots of my customers are twitchy, but he’s one of the more nervous ones I’ve seen.

The old lady’s house looks just like the autocar, crammed full of religious knick-knacks from every religion I’ve ever heard of. Crosses and Stars of David and shrines to Krishna and spaghetti strainers and statues of Buddha and a whole mess of stuff I can’t even ID. Clutter on every surface you can see, and none of it was clean.

It’s an uncomfortable place. The third rule of the apothecary’s handbook is to keep things clean so you don’t contaminate. Usually when following up on flatliner requests I’d be in antiseptic places like hospitals or hospices, or private homes with expensive nurses who turned things antiseptic. Nothing like this.

“Wait here,” says the man, “and I’ll go get my ma.”

There’s no place to sit in the living room that isn’t full of dust or coated with a thin film of grime or piled with icons or prayer bowls. I stand.

A few minutes later an old lady wheels herself in. She has the same gray eyes as the man, but looks dried up and shriveled, almost as dusty as her home. Any apothecary can spot someone using niptucks, and she’s on quite a few. It does make me wonder just how awful she’d look without them though, or whether they can’t afford better ones and were shoveling all their money into the meds.

She pours out her story, voice quavering. They were going broke, all she wants is not to be a burden on her son, the cancer pills weren’t working, the horrible manager at the bank is going to take the house unless they do something quick, the usual yada yada. She even asks for a second pair of pills, just in case the first pair… well, just to make really sure she knows what God wanted, she says.

So OK, fine.

Seems legit enough, and my own set of nullers usually helps me tell when someone’s lying. Nullify some of the brain filtering for signals, and suddenly lots of twitches and blinks and voice pitch changes flare up bright as day in your awareness. I think she’s lying about not wanting to be a burden on her son, but the rest seems fine. She’s definitely mad at the cancer, mad at the bank manager, mad at her doctors… all reasonable from her state.

After a little while she tells me she’ll get her son to take me back home, and wheels herself back out again. The man in the gray hat comes back in a short while after, alone.

“Will you do it?”

I nod.

“The extra set too?”

He must’ve overheard us talking, or the old lady told him. I guess I pause too long because he’s looking at me all nervous, clutching his hat, and when I nod again he gives me a ride back to my shop without another word.
It’s a relief to be back in my clean chrome shop. Every shelf and drawer labeled, every tincture or ointment or mineral or binder clearly stamped with precise letters. Everything at perfect right angles. You won’t see as much as a peeling label on a little glass bottle of niptuck nanos or a hint of dust on top of the cabinet that almost hits the ceiling. Rule two of the apothecary’s handbook says to stay organized to avoid mixing things you shouldn’t, and I take that like my religion. God or no, whatever they might look like, the handbook keeps me straight in this life.

I like my antifreeze-morphine mix with some cascading nullers for the job. You pop the pill and feel great for about five minutes, while the nullers quickly get to work on your nervous system, your heart, and your lungs. When they’re all ready to go, bam-bam-bam, you’re out before you know it, and the nullers release as soon as they finish their work. No evidence left behind, and a sweet goodbye for ma. Literally. Antifreeze is sweet, so I like to coat the pills in a little bit of glucose to make them go down easier. There’s as much an art to this as a science.

Plus, the formula’s an easy color to mix, little orange and white balls in a clear pill case. (Nobody trusts an opaque pill case, and with good reason.) Lots of other things can become orange and white balls. I put a little fun in the two safe pills. A low grade of morphine (the man’s paying enough for me to throw it in just fine) plus a bit of an adrenaline boost to get her to feel good. Coat them with the glucose too, just in case she needs to try again and tastes something different.

The next morning, as I put a flatliner into each of the two bottles alongside their twin fakes, I suddenly think - how do I know both actually go to the old lady? I’m no assassin, and I don’t need it to be on me if her first pick works and then there’s a spare flatliner just lying around for anyone to use as they like. I can still sell the second set if I need, just at a discount if someone now needs to take two pills instead of one. Looks like shoddy work.

I’m still thinking what to do about it when the man comes back in. He’s about fifteen minutes early for the pickup.

“It’s ready,” I say, “and here’s the deal. Full payment for the first bottle. You take it home today. Half the money now for the second bottle. If you come pick it up later, you pay the other half. If she doesn’t need it after all, you save some cash.” I hope I’m convincing.

He’s quiet as he takes the first bottle and puts it into his gray raincoat pocket, and comes out with a gun. A real, old-fashioned gun, metal as gray as everything else on him.

“Now I don’t want to shoot you,” he says, “because that wouldn’t sit right with God. But the second set of pills are for you.” He swallows. “I won’t shoot if you survive, honest to, because it means that God’s made the choice. I’ll live with the consequences if you squeal.”

His hand is shaking. There’s a good chance a shot would go wild, but who knows how many bullets he’s got in there.

And suddenly it occurs to me that maybe the old lady with the same eyes as him is just the work of a few quick-acting genderbenders and niptucks. Never heard of anyone going for the aged look, but a niptuck could do that if you code it right. Proper assassins know better than to threaten an apothecary - we have our friends after all - but someone desperate, someone mad at their cancer and their doctors and the world, who doesn’t want to get caught because you never know how long some cancers’ll give you…

And without a choice, with a gun to my face, I take one of the two sweet pills from the little bottle in front of me and swallow it.

The full morphine blast is a high I haven’t gotten in ages, but knowing how to look for the signs I can feel the nullers in prep, can imagine my kidneys beginning to metabolize the antifreeze into calcium oxalate. I stagger towards the tall cabinet, scrabble wildly at the bottles, and fall. The man looks satisfied, puts his gun back in his pocket, and leaves.

The first rule in the apothecary’s handbook is that before you make any poison, you first make the antidote. Five minutes is plenty of time to grab the bottle I need and swallow down.

I don’t do assassinations. Definitely not my own. But there’s more than one good book that says an eye for an eye, and that’s a perfectly good way to keep your account balanced.

This story originally appeared in The NonBinary Review.


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  • 3 Comments
  • maybefriday
    March 9, 12:06am

    I love the structure of this! The rhythm reminds me of a piece of music. Plus every word is just pitch-perfect.

  • Megan
    March 9, 2:33pm

    Really enjoyed reading this story with my Friday morning bagel. I loved the reverse chronological order revealing of the rules in the apothecary's handbook. Going to go look for more Effie Seiberg stories next.

  • yuki
    March 24, 4:38pm

    I love this story.very nice :]