Mutable State
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About half a pound: that's the first thing she remembers.

It's the difference between an empty fifteen-round nine-millimeter magazine and a full one. When equipped with a fully loaded cartridge, the Beretta M9 pistol weighs around two and a half pounds. The one she's currently holding is scarcely over two. That means it's almost empty. Just almost, because the pistol's slide-bar is still in position.

She has no idea how she knows this.

There are at least four men charging down the hallway that connects to this apartment. Judging by sound of their footsteps, they're wearing heavy body-armor. The faint blip of a radio tells her they're organized — law enforcement? Maybe. Could be military, too.

The pistol is warm in her palm; the room has an acrid, eggy smell. There's a dead body at her feet, with heat seeping out from a dozen or more holes along its chest. Each contributes to the rapidly expanding crimson pool that stains the dead man's crisp, white cotton shirt. The red trickles down to spread across the hardwood floor. She doesn't recognize the corpse's face.

The footsteps stop at the door behind her. A muffled voice murmurs orders.

She turns and opens the door, stepping behind it. When the shotgun swings through, she throws all of her weight forward and slams it shut. The barrel is caught between the door and its frame. She steps back, lifts the pistol into position, and discharges two rounds directly into the side of the shotgun's barrel. The slide snaps back and locks; the pistol is now empty.

By the time the deformed shotgun retracts, Xiaoshan is already on the other side of the room.

Xiaoshan. That's her name.

The doorway erupts in a cloud of shredded timber and smoke.

The kitchen is like the rest of the apartment; pearl-white stucco walls with a hardwood floor of polished walnut-brown. There's a quaint marbled island in the center, with three burgundy velvet stools stationed on the end facing away from the counter-top. A rack over the oven holds several spices, a bottle of champagne, and a tin of olive oil. The space is neat and tidy — 'cozy'. Yes, that's the word. Very 'cozy'.

Xiaoshan snatches the champagne bottle and throws it into the microwave along with her pistol. She punches the 'popcorn' button an instant before she hears one of the men hollering. It sounds like 'POLICE!'. She snags a steak-knife and dashes low for the bedroom.

So, her name is Xiaoshan. She has (apparently?) killed a man; the police are now after her. And judging by how she's locking the bedroom door and counting off the seconds before the improvised bomb detonates — while simultaneously scouting the exterior balcony for signs of an escape route? — she knows how to handle herself.

Now she just needs to figure out who she is and what she's doing here.

The men in the kitchen are shouting something. She can't quite make it out, but it sounds English. Alright, then — she's in North America. Or maybe Europe? No, the accents are definitely North Ameri —

The room shakes beneath the force of the explosion. Her legs move before her body has time to think; she slams the pommel of the steak-knife against the pane of sliding glass that separates the interior of the bedroom from the balcony. Her body rushes through the web of cracks that appear, rupturing it outward into a spray of jagged, glittering edges.

Sunlight. Clear sky. Fresh air. Seven stories. Each spike of sensory data stabs through her psyche, then melts into the background. That last bit looked important, though.

She tries to hold onto it, pull it out for analysis — and that's when she notices that she has already lunged over the railing and is now sailing feet-first toward what will no doubt be her bloody, violent demise.

Well, that was utterly pointle —

CRNKT.

She slams down. Asphalt bulges, ripples, and splits beneath her. As she collapses, the impact bolts through her legs and hips, spearing up her spine.

The interlocking ceramic plates that comprise her vertebrae snap together like puzzle-pieces. Layers of insulating magnetorheological fluid compress into dense, flexible shapes, providing structural support and acting as secondary energy dampers. Excess kinetic force is expelled as whorls of super-heated steam from her mouth and nostrils.

She wobbles to her feet. She's at the edge of a parking lot, occupying the small but notable crater where she landed.

So… apparently, she's some sort of robot?

Okay.

That's fine. Good, even. She's learning new things about herself. That's a plus, right? Stay focused on the positive.

For example: There's a short woman about ten yards ahead, standing next to a dark blue Toyota Scion. She's staring at Xiaoshan with slack-jawed shock, holding what are presumably the car's keys in her left hand.

See? Transportation. Things are looking up.

Xiaoshan takes a step forward. The woman is petite and brown, with a head shaved as smooth as glass — and a face full of iron piercings. Her dark burnt sienna skin contrasts sharply with the bright pastel blue of her loose-cut kurta top and paijama bottoms. She is not moving; instead, she opts to silently stare.

"Hi. I, uh — need your car."

Some part of Xiaoshan automatically calculates the distance between them and starts formulating plans to acquire those keys. Each plan is ranked by their probability for success; all but one involves the precise application of violence. The one that doesn't has the lowest chance of them all.

Someone shouts something from way above. Police sirens kick in from the other side of the building. Xiaoshan closes her eyes, takes a breath, and forces the part of her brain screaming for swift and decisive action to just shut the fuck up.

She opens her eyes: "Please? It's kind of important."

The woman snaps out of her trance. She looks up at the apartment above, then down to where the sirens are howling. Finally, she looks at Xiaoshan — and unlocks all the doors.

"Get in. I'll drive."

Wait.

Seriously?


The 3rd District has a saying. It's one that every officer — from traffic cops on up to the district's captain — eventually learns: 'Pass it off to the boys down the hall'.

Detective Jackson Worth heard the phrase three weeks after he started as a patrolman. He was still green, then — full of piss, vinegar, and that special sort of invulnerability that comes with the first time you hold a shiny badge and your very own gun. He spent shift after shift walking the streets of Philadelphia, distinctly aware of the subtle tap, tap, tap of the pistol against his thigh. The shape of it; the weight of the thing.

Then, one night, he heard that terrible scream.

He charged toward the sound. His pulse roared across his ears; every step he took was a thunderbolt, propelling him closer to destiny. When he rounded that corner, his pistol was already out. His palms did not sweat. His hands did not shake. He was ready — ready for anything.

Anything except for a woman's blood freezing at room temperature.

Delicate crystals of scarlet extruded from her pores, merging into an intricate, expanding web. It looked like a beautiful crimson snowflake placed under a microscope — except for the tattered body dangling at its center. Ten minutes later, the snowflake evaporated. All that was left was that shredded bloodless corpse.

He asked his commanding officer what to write it up as. The old man pulled him aside, patted him on the back, and told him to 'pass this one off to the boys down the hall'.

It means that sometimes, a crime can't be solved with shiny badge and a gun. Sometimes, you just have to walk away. Sometimes, you just leave it up to the boys down the hall.

Nowadays, Jackson often forgets that he even carries a gun.

He's not twenty minutes into the case and he's already figured he'll be passing it along. According to SWAT, the suspect used some sort of IED in the kitchen. She then proceeded to practice a swan-dive out of the apartment's seventh story window. One of the officers had already texted him a snapshot of the dent she left.

Then she stood up, dusted herself off, and got into a car with someone else.

Next, there's the victim: Travis Wilhelm. 23 years old; a white, upper-class engineering major and self-proclaimed 'political provocateur'. About eight or nine thumb-swipes through his numerous social media accounts gave Jackson a more accurate impression: professional shit bag. Two hours prior to his death, he was posting comments urging his followers to 'exercise their 2nd amendment rights' against some journalist he didn't fancy.

But that isn't the reason Jackson intends to leave this one up to the boys down the hall. The reason for that is on account of Mr. Travis Wilhelm being — to put it simply — 'still alive'.

It's easy to miss if you don't know what to look for. And who's going to look? There's over a dozen holes in his chest and nearly a gallon of his blood on the floor. What are you gonna do, check his pulse? But when one of the officers snaps a photo, Jackson catches it — just as the camera flashes.

The pupils contracted.

Jackson pulls out his phone and pretends he just got a text. "Hold up, fellas." The three other officers stop what they're doing and turn to face him.

"Well, shit. Guys, gimme a minute alone in here, alright?" It's not protocol, but they do it anyway. One by one, the officers shuffle out into the hall. They can feel it, too. This is outside their jurisdiction. Jackson's just giving them deniability — an excuse to leave so they can all go home and keep pretending like this universe makes any goddamn sense.

Once they're gone, Jackson settles into a chair and starts swiping down his contact list. He's hunting for the special number. It's the one he's supposed to call when things like this happen; when corpses move and blood turns to ice.

He's still swiping when he catches movement from the corner of his eye.

Pretend you don't see it, he tells himself. His pulse is pounding. Fucking hell. Why does he have so many numbers on this thing? And why can't he swipe faster?

He's half-way down the list when his eyes dart up. He immediately regrets it. Out of all the fucked up things he prepared himself to see, it's the absence of a corpse that gets him to drop the phone.

"How unfortunate."

Detective Jackson Worth freezes. The voice is right behind him. He can feel its breath; fetid and cold, like icy waves rolling across the shoreline of his nape and collarbone. His hand dips down for the pistol tucked under his coat.

"I seem to have broken this vessel."

He spins around, his pistol already out. His palms do not sweat. His hands do not shake. He is ready — ready for anything.

Anything except for a corpse's spinal cord extricating itself from cold, dead flesh, crawling toward him upon hundreds of spindly, delicate, razor-sharp legs.

"I suppose yours will have to do."

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