I Care Because You Do
rating: +55+x

As I touched the face of the body with a single gloved hand, the first thought that ran through my mind was that it had a face, and that was never an especially common sight around here.

Our Jane Doe was pinned to the pavement like a butterfly on a cork, her head pierced by a perfectly-cylindrical metal rod twice the length of my arm. That in itself might not have killed your average Alagaddan citizen, but what would have was the intricate script running around its circumference — tangentially, that script should've sent me and any Alagaddan without years of discipline reeling from a mile off, but I wasn't an Alagaddan. Hence why I'd been called in today.

Carefully, thoughtfully, I brushed the length of the spear jutting out of her head and dispatched a hesitant ping of energy into its core: as expected, even through the latex I felt a jolt of energy refresh me and a brief flash of blue light from the runes on the cylinder.

I picked myself up from my kneeling position and peeled the gloves off, tossing them to the sidewalk where they'd be absorbed by one of the fleshy flagstones eventually. Karcist Nadya noted that I'd finished with my inspection and affixed me with her twenty-eyed gaze: "What information did you gather from the monolith?" she chittered, teeth in her mouth rearranging themselves as she spit the syllables in my direction.

"Definitely a Mekhanite perp from Flipside, you're right." I fumbled for a bottle of antiseptic in my pocket and gave my hands a quick slather just to get the feeling of the fetid oils off my nerves. "First glance, that thing has a couple verses from the First Tract of Trunnion round the circumference; all things being equal, our murderer's a Cogwork Orthodoxy member, though railgun weaponry points to Maxwellists."

"The brass residue would suggest that." By the time I was done with my handwashing ritual, I'd looked up just in time to see the Karcist retracting her rope-like tongue into her mouth, residue of Jane's brain still dripping from its surface. "Tannins from Oregon…" She licked a stray droplet of grey matter hanging off the edge of what counted as her lip. "…no, she's an Indiana native. Most recently she's got traces of the Black Quarter, though."

I grimaced and wrinkled my nose. The Black Quarter was one of those places filled with enough theologically, morally and mathematically abhorrent behaviour that the thought of having touched anything that'd come from it made the both of us equally nauseous, if our almost identical expressions of disgust were any indicator. "Signal Above cut me out, a Grade-A theoweapon and a Black Quarter runaway in the same case, huh." The thought that I hadn't actually got a name for this body crossed my mind — that combined with the sketchhy providence of said body set me on-edge. "Speaking of, you actually have any idea who this girl is?"

Another deep taste of the corpse: had the majority of Mekhanites not shed their fingerprints in the first parts of their conversion, I would've complained my partner turning them into streaks on the china-like skin of the cadaver. "Maybe 'runaway' is the wrong word, Inquisitor Xiang. More a passer-through, if anything: you know the trade in gallbladders, exotic organics… all the usual smuggler's vices."

"Travelling girl, then. Still haven't given me an ID, though."

She took a deep sniff, fluttered grey eyes that would've been pretty on a face with fewer eyes and an actual skull in it. "Allison. Allison Chao," she concluded, after some thought. Eyes turned to slits, nostrils flared again. "Did you do something to the body in your little inspection, Inquisitor?"

My brow furrowed and my hand itched to release its payload. "Nothing more than a quick ping to test if the artifact was still active, which it is. You sure you're not just picking up on the after-effect of that thing?"

"No. The metal." She turned to the side, spat out a gob of gold-stained blood. "It doesn't get any less disgusting the further you get from the weapon, you know? The distribution's too even for it to be just the monolith."

"If you say so, I guess." I knelt back down. "Let's take a closer look, check if she's not lead-lined or some shit…"

As I did, the first thought I'd had upon seeing the body came unbidden to the front of my mind — her face looked too close to a Flipside citizen, too close to my baseline for it to resemble anyone who'd been wandering the City of a Million Right Angles for enough time a Karcist knew her taste. Pondering the interpretations, my eyes scanned the body one more time, noticed the expensive-looking coat swaddling it like she was floating on a sea of velvet.

Hell of a thing to go to your grave in.

Slowly, gingerly, I peeled the coat from her shoulders. She was wearing a tank top, already something odd in the freezing winters even the city had to put on padding for, and I noted the tattoo of a chess piece on her shoulder: the black queen, the colour a striking contrast against the deathly-pale shade of her post-mortem complexion.

As I kept going with it, the coat peeled away to reveal more of the shoulder, then the arm, then—

A hand, delicately filigreed with silver trim and humming softly with the tick of gears moving under its skin. The first sign of a recent convert to Mekhane.

My breath caught in my throat. "Nadya!"

"That's Karcist Na…" The command faded, to be replaced by the guttural fury of Low Sarkic creole. "Shit! She bought in—!"

"She's a bioterrorist drug mule at best, world-ending extremist at worst," I responded, hurriedly covering what I'd seen in the coat's rich folds and getting back to my feet. "You need to set up quarantine. Fast. The theoweapon was bad enough, but if she's got a live sample of the Conversion you could be seeing a full-on eschatonic event at worst, XK in a bottle…"

"Understood." Nadya clawed at her neck, exposing an array of fleshy nodules growing along the musculature there like plants on display in a greenhouse: picking one between finger and thumb, she burst it with a sudden burst of force and the state-designated smell of emergency filled the air. As it did, the alleyway around us began to get closed off by curtains of newly-forming muscle and bone, the walls of Alagadda itself responding to the pheronome signal with a sudden overdrive of growth. "Where will you be off to, Inquisitor?"

"Flipside." I began sprinting for my car while the road to where it was parked was still open. "I have to see a lady about a priest!"

And with that, I clambered into the driver's seat, hammered the keys home and revved the throttle. The tyres of the Argo squealed on striated gristle as I tore down the highway, heading towards the woman who I'd loved and damned to hell in the same year.

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