The Red Planet Karaoke lounge was crowded, which was to be expected on a Friday night on level 10. Arthur scanned the crowd, the same assortment of gamblers, mercenaries, and partiers as there had been when he’d left. A drunken woman with three breast implants was belting out a decent rendition of “I Will Survive.” Mars. No place like home, eh?
He turned his attention to the man in the back corner booth, who’d been nursing the same drink for the past hour. Even in his cheap suit and even cheaper sunglasses, Arthur recognized Robert Fischer’s sharp-cheeked face. Shades inside, please. He was still shitty at disguising himself, just as he had been when he’d started coming in two months ago. Who would’ve figured the most powerful man on Mars would have a weakness for cheap karaoke joints?
You know who knew.
Arthur shook his head slightly. Focus. Tonight was the night he’d been planning for since he’d landed the stolen Fischer-Morrow shuttle in the syndicate shuttle bay three months ago. It had taken time, planning, and a whole lot of money, but if he was able to pull this off, it would be worth everything.
He scanned the room. One of Fischer’s bodyguards was at the bar, pretending to nurse a cheap beer as he chatted up the twinkish bartender. The other was at an elevated table, obviously checking out a tall, redheaded waitress in a form-fitting green dress. She smiled at him, and flipped her hair to show off her graceful neck before approaching him. A moment later, Fischer’s usual waitress strode over to his table in a slinky black dress, carrying a tray. She was a leggy blonde with a face like a Rossetti painting. Shit, she probably was designed after a Rossetti painting. All the Axiom replicants had that same sort of full-lipped, classical beauty, even the males. Especially the males.
She reached Fischer’s table and gave him a wide smile as she exchanged his empty tumbler for one full of amber liquid. Fischer smiled up at her. She made a comment, and Fischer chuckled and pointed at the stage. Good. They’d gotten to the point of rapport. Trust.
“I hope you don’t mind if I bring things down a touch,” a painfully familiar voice boomed over the mic, and Arthur’s heart stopped. He didn’t need to look at the stage to see who was standing there, his slicked back hair, his broad shoulders, his sly little smile. It’s not him. Not him. Not him. “ This one goes out to my boy Bob over there.”
The music started, melodic and slow, and as the person on stage began to sing, Arthur couldn’t help but peek over his shoulder.
“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us,” Eames crooned, his eyes locked on Robert in the back booth. “Peace and quiet and open air, wait for us, somewhere.”
A knot formed in Arthur’s stomach, and he snapped his head back to focus on Fischer. He was smiling softly, chin on his hand, and Arthur could practically see the fucking little hearts in his eyes behind the glasses. Made him want to throw up.
That’s not love. That’s a lie. A doll programmed to feel. What Eames and I ha—
Arthur’s train of thought came to a stop as he watched Fischer bring his drink up to his lips and take a deep swallow. Arthur held his breath and counted. One…two…three…
Fischer put his drink down heavily, then touched a hand to his forehead. He wasn’t smiling anymore. The waitress leaned down, concern creasing her face. Fischer waved her away, but he began to sway in his seat. The waitress put a hand on his shoulder, and he leaned into her instinctively. Bingo.
She was stronger than she looked—all Axioms were—and she easily helped Fischer to his feet. Arthur snuck another look at the stage. The singing copy of Eames hadn’t noticed, he was too busy milking the crowd. He checked bodyguard one: slumped over his beer at the bar, the bartender waving the bouncers over to carry him out. Bodyguard two was nowhere to be seen, probably already in the men’s room with the redheaded replicant. Perfect.
Arthur waited until the waitress and Fischer were almost to the back of the room before following at a discreet distance. By the time he exited the back door into the cargo service tunnels, Fischer was sprawled out unconscious in the back of the idling van that had been waiting for them.
“We clear?” the blonde asked, poking her head out of the back of the van.
Arthur climbed in the back and slammed the van door shut. “Clear. Yusuf?”
Yusuf glanced nervously from the driver’s seat, then turned back to the road. He gunned the engine, and the van took off down the tunnel.
Arthur checked Fischer’s pulse, making sure they hadn’t overdosed him. He was breathing deeply.
“Did we kill him?” she asked, already pulling her long hair back into a quick ponytail and shrugging on her worn, brown trenchcoat and belting it tight. It was huge on her, but she insisted on wearing it whenever she could. Reminded her of who she really was.
“No, he’s fine, I think,” Arthur said. He pulled the PASIV out from under the driver’s seat and began prepping the machine.
“God, I want to slap him,” she said, venom in her tone.
“Go ahead. I won’t stop you.”
She took a deep breath. “No. If I start, I’ll never stop.”
Arthur reached out and touched her cheek. Still after all these months, he wasn’t used to the smoothness, the lack of stubble, the round curve of jaw rather than sharp angle. He’d touched her more like this than when she’d been—
“Eames, love. We’re going to make him pay for what he did to you.”
“I don’t want to make him pay. I want to make him fix what he should’ve in the first place.” Eames took a deep, shaking breath, and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the coat pocket.
Now that they were back in the privacy of the van, Arthur could loosen his mental guard, think of Eames as who he really was. When they were out in public--especially when Eames was working at the karaoke bar--Arthur forced himself to identify Eames by the skin he wore. It was easier to keep the con they’d been setting up for eight weeks: Eames as the coquettish waitress, Arthur as the admiring regular who was too shy to make a move. It kept them in the headspace and helped Eames hold his role. It was already hard enough on Eames, knowing what he looked like now. Confusing him while he was trying to run a con wouldn’t help matters at all, not with so much on the line.
Of course this all had to be an extra layer of complicated. The only blank replicants that had been on board the stolen Fischer-Morrow shuttle had been female Axiom pleasure models. With Eames’ body bleeding out, Yusuf had made a snap decision as to which body to transfer Eames’ memories to using Arthur’s PASIV and the Mnemnocin Miles had carried on board. Personally, Arthur would’ve picked the brunette, but truly it didn’t matter to him. He still had Eames—his mind, his soul, his memories. His love.
It mattered to Eames, though. Deeply. It wasn’t so much that Eames minded being perceived as female now—he minded not being himself. It was hard enough knowing what he was—or wasn’t—and having his old memories in a completely different body just drove the point home. Even all these months later, Arthur would still wake up after his four hours of sleep to find Eames staring at his new hands, as if willing them to shake. It told Arthur all he needed to know.
Now, they just had to figure out how to acquire a blank Forger model Axiom body. When Arthur had suggested kidnapping Robert’s personal Axiom love-toy to overwrite, Eames had gotten so angry he hadn’t spoken to Arthur for the rest of the day. It had taken Arthur a bit to realize his error—what he’d suggested was essentially mind-rape, forcing one soul to overwrite the other. Much as they hated to admit it, Robert’s consort had his own memories now, his own life. Who were they to take that away from him?
So, that’s why they were here, with the most powerful man on Mars drugged in the back of a van. Sure, they could’ve just gone to the manufacturing facility here on Mars, but that was where they made the rank-and-file Axiom replicants. No, they needed something special, something just like Robert’s personal Eames: no four-year-lifespan. Ariadne had found the files, but she needed the password to open them. The only one who had it? Fischer. Once Arthur extracted that information from Fischer, they would know where and how to procure a new and improved version of Eames’ old body. Then the fun would really begin.
“Do you have to smoke in here?” Arthur asked, looking up as Eames lit a cigarette.
“I second that,” Yusuf called from the front seat.
“Ask a bloke to work a shitty waitress gig for two months so he can drug the ex who built him and then abandoned him, and then give him shit for smoking when the job’s done?” Eames took a deep drag off the cigarette. “Lemme have just this one, yeah?”
“Fine,” Arthur said, then muttered, “never going to get the smell out of this van.”
Yusuf cracked the window and rummaged around the passenger seat until he dug up a small metal tin. He tossed it back. “Here. Don’t go getting ashes everywhere.”
Eames picked up the makeshift ashtray, and looked at Arthur with a strange little smile. Arthur knew exactly what he was thinking: all this madness started with an ashtray.
Arthur smiled back, then snapped the PASIV tubing. “All right. Time for me to get to work.”
“Good luck, love,” Eames said. He still refused to go under after what happened the last time, even though Yusuf was mostly sure that this new body’s neural chemistry was more stable than the last.
“I don’t need luck. I’m the world’s most devoted data analyst, remember?”
Eames laughed, and even with his different voice it was the same cadence as before. It made Arthur’s heart ache, strengthened his resolve.
I promise you, I will make this right, Eames. I will give you what Robert never did: a whole and healthy body and the ability to live out a normal human lifespan—even if it takes the rest of mine to do it.
I will give you yourself back, and then, I’ll finally show you the stars.