K doesn’t feel pain, as he nears the end. He had expected to. It had hurt, really hurt, until only just a second ago – but then, he’s seen this before in dying replicants. It’s all logical. Their nerve endings are designed to shut down before they truly stop functioning, as a failsafe to make sure none of their wiring backfires; sometimes in the old days, a ‘retired’ replicant would begin to twitch or even to get up and begin to go about their duties from the mortuary, glaze-eyed and brainless, which scared the hell out of any nearby humans and gave rise to more than one story of zombies. So nerves go first, now, then muscles, then brain. He doesn’t think that compassion had anything to do with that decision, but he’s grateful for it anyway.
Going to meet his maker – except, of course, he’s not. Not unless Deckard ships his body off to Niander Wallace for some reason or another. He closes his eyes and waits.
And then he’s upright, dragged by some unfelt force, numb and almost entirely limp as his feet automatically find purchase on the snow he can no longer feel soaking through his boots. He sees Deckard shouting, but can’t make out what, can’t hear himself or sense the words on his tongue as he speaks too.
“I can’t see,” says K, slurring, and finds suddenly that it’s true: his vision turns to black before he hits the floor.
When he wakes, he knows he’s going to live by the way that he hurts again. And by the way that he wakes at all. K has never expected an afterlife – no soul, so even if he believed in a place a spirit could live after death, what part of him would go there? – and, besides, the dirty warehouse roof above him is nothing like heaven or hell or any story he’s heard.
Deckard certainly isn’t any kind of angel.
The first thing he does when he realises K has come to is punch him, roughly, on the shoulder.
“Were you trying to die?” he snaps. “God-fucking-damnit-”
Somehow, K gets the impression that Deckard has been saying this to him for days and is just now taking the chance to have him actually hear it. But he doesn’t reply, too busy choking down the obedience imperatives programmed into him that are quite unexpectedly saying answer the question answer the direct question answer it to even begin thinking of trying to lie.
“Stay still.” Deckard tells him, marching off somewhere out of view: that, at least, is an order K can happily follow. “I’ve been playing nurse for days, least you can do is have the decency to feed yourself.”
Protein worms. That’s what he can smell, and it’s all he’s expecting – and even if he has false memories of real food, perfect and imperfect, it’s all this body has ever actually eaten. Which is why he’s caught off guard by the fact that the tin bowl Deckard all but shoves into his hands contains not only the worms but also something golden, soft and translucent and wholly unexpected.
Deckard sees him blink at it in confusion; he doesn’t smile, as such, but his demeanour softens for a brief moment.
K glances sharply at him, but Deckard doesn’t clock why right away, waving a dismissive hand instead.
“It doesn’t exactly go with their flavour, but at least it makes them taste of something.”
“Those bees were real?” K interjects, his voice steady but intent and curious. With the exception of humans, he can count the number of real animals he’s ever seen on the fingers of one hand, and most of those were rats – still fascinating, but with the unfortunate habit of gnawing through the wiring of his apartment. He thinks back to the Vegas dead zone in a new light: life, real bees, hundreds of them.
But of course, it’s not that simple. Deckard shrugs stiffly.
“I don’t know. The colony was there when I arrived, and I don’t think they ever changed in number. They’re hardy little creatures, though. Maybe.”
So the question changes. Not whether they were real, but the definition of real. Can synthetic bees make honey?
What else, says a voice in his head that sounds suspiciously like Joi, would synthetic bees do but produce honey?
They’re waiting for Freysa and Ana to send them a signal – he isn’t told much, and, knowing the value of secrecy, he doesn’t press. K endures a lecture on how difficult he is and how stupid before he works out that what Deckard is trying to tell him is that they’re even now and he owes K nothing. He would have assumed it anyway, but Deckard keeps feeding him as he recovers, so he makes no mention of leaving. Like a dog.
“What happened to your dog?” he asks, a few days later, as Deckard tries to beat a battered, elderly television into submission; the technology is obsolete, but some channels still broadcast for it as well as for online viewers.
Deckard’s back is to him, so K only hears the frustrated grunt and the huff of, “How would I know?”
He gives it a few seconds, and doesn’t have to wait very long for Deckard to turn to face him with something like annoyance.
“He’ll live, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
It wasn’t: K couldn’t say for sure what was. Deckard goes back to abusing the TV and mutters, “Either a replicant or a smart guy who knows where the dog food is. Probably the former.”, and doesn’t react when K – so, so far off his baseline, and bored as hell – laughs at him.
“What was his name?”
“Marcos. The dog breed is Portuguese, so I went with it.”
If K was an old-model replicant, he might think they’re happier to name their dogs than they are to name us, but he’s not and the thought occurs to him without emotion and then drifts away. If Deckard was crueller he might say and who named you?, but after Rachel the idea of comparing replicants to animals hurts.
Instead, he says, “Still don’t have a proper name?”
K had asked him not to call him ‘Joe’ shortly after waking up, caught up in the mental conflict between what he wants to remember of Joi and what he knows is true – that ‘Joe’ is a randomly programmed name all models of her AI would have come up with for him, and it’s the closest male version of her name besides. Deckard had been that same base-level of angry as he always is, grumbling that he won’t call him by a number, but K wouldn’t mind at all if he did. He is K. That’s how he thinks of himself.
On some deeper level, he knows that the serial number isn’t how a person should refer to another person. But he tries not to reflect too hard on it.
“No.” says K. “’K’ is fine.”
“No,” says Deckard, immediately, like he was expecting that answer. “’K’ is a letter.”
“It’s an alright letter. It’s almost a name.”
“It’s not a name. ‘Kay’ is a name.” He extends the ‘a’ sound, emphasises it, so K knows what he means.
“You can call me that if you want.”
Deckard grunts again, smacks the TV one final time, and manages at last to make it burst into staticky sound and light, some old movie being played on a local station.
Kay. He considers the name, turns it over in his mind. Like he said, it makes no real difference – but he still feels like it could be the start of a change.
A few hours of terrible films and ads for AI’s like Joi that aren’t Joi (and replicants, like him, that aren’t him) later, he figures out a way to know whether the bees were real or not.
“Did they ever sting you?”
Deckard doesn’t take his eyes off some 20th century woman in sunglasses driving an inefficient combustion-engine car.
He huffs what Kay presumes is a laugh.
“Oh. Yeah, all the time.”
That answers the question fairly conclusively, and Kay nods, satisfied.
“Well, there you go. They can’t have been replicants.”
It takes Deckard a moment to understand, but after those few seconds he does understand. Modern replicants, of all shapes, are carefully designed to be as utterly harmless to human life as possible; a real bee stings when it feels it’s under threat, but a replicant bee would recognise a human and allow them to interfere with the hive as much as they wanted. Technicians call it pre-programmed subservience, but Kay isn’t meant to know that – officials at the Wallace corporation call it helpful friendly service you can trust. There had been a programmer named Daniil who lived on the floor above Kay in his old building, who had called Kay names just as the other residents did, but his taunting had been more subtle. The technical terms for his existence shouldn’t have hurt, but they had, enough that Joi had picked up on it.
Her longing for agency would have confused him if he didn’t relate to it – after all, how can you miss something you’ve never had?
He used to worry about someone unpicking Joi’s data banks and finding something they shouldn’t, some tiny thread of insurgence in the phrases that she’d learned to say for him. A real boy.
But in a way that problem solved itself.
Deckard is peering sideways at Kay when he looks back at him.
“How does that work, then? You have to obey?”
Kay shrugs. “Sort of.”
“You can’t lie.”
He smiles slightly, a twitch of the lips, and shakes his head. “Oh no, that’s a myth. We can lie. Just not about specific things.”
That one, Deckard gets right away; he watches Kay carefully, like he’s testing the waters.
“Are you human?”
The word comes as it always does, flat and fast and automatic. It’s a reflex.
“Try and lie.” Deckard tells him. He nods. “Are you human?”
“Huh.” There’s no pity in the other man’s face, and Kay is glad. He wouldn’t want it. “That’s one hell of a glitch.”
“I guess so.”
A few minutes pass in silence but for the sound of the conversations happening on screen (Kay has lost the thread of the story, but it’s something contrived, something oh-so-important to the characters and meaningless outside their tiny, false existence), and then Deckard says,
“So what kind of orders do you follow?”
Kay frowns just slightly. “Orders from my lieutenant.”
Kay thinks of the honey with the protein worms, and of how Deckard hasn’t said a word about him leaving even after they’re contacted by Freysa, and about his name and how much it seems to matter, and decides to stop being obtuse and try and explain.
“Most replicants have at least some inviolable overrides. They won’t deliberately hurt a human, or they won’t steal. Things like that. But not me.”
“Because you’re a Runner.”
It’s not a question, but Kay nods anyway.
“It’s my job to take lives, hurt people, so they can’t have me set not to. I just have to have baseline tests more often. Had. Had them more often. As a safety net, to make sure I wouldn’t step out of line. And my conditioning is to follow orders from anyone identified as my direct commander.” Kay smiles without mirth. “If I did what every human told me to, I’d have to move every time someone wrote ‘fuck off skinner’ on my door.”
A large part of him is waiting for Deckard to ask the fatal question, waiting for him to notice the undertone to every interaction they’ve had recently. But it might not be so obvious to someone who can’t feel it buzzing in the back of his brain, and if he does, he doesn’t mention it. He looks back at his phone instead, frowning as ever, and to the TV. If Kay wasn’t a replicant, he thinks he’d relax.
“Wait here,” Deckard mutters, standing and stretching his ageing, human form. “I’m gonna check around the back again.”
Kay only nods his assent, and tries not to give away that his design has somehow equated saviour and target and ally and friend with commander, tries not to show the way he instinctively stiffens and waits for another order. He’s hoping even more than ever that there’s nothing for Deckard to see – because until he gets another command, he physically can’t move.
Deckard disappears for just long enough that Kay begins to worry, and then trudges back in with a cloud of dust and the scowl set even deeper between his brows.
“Where were you?” Kay says, more than anything just confused.
Oh. Kay hasn’t really drunk any liquid in – days, actually, and his body doesn’t need to expel water if he hasn’t consumed any. It’s one of the advantages he has over a human, the ways in which he's more streamlined. If Deckard hadn’t known he was a replicant, though, it would have been a dead giveaway.
Deckard sits down next to him on the dilapidated couch, with that expression still like something is internally nagging away at him.
“I never liked those baseline tests.” he says eventually, voice flat and unapologetic. “They worked, how we used to use them, before you got those eye-scan things figured out. But they’re almost purely psychological.”
Kay looks steadily back at him.
“My programming is almost purely psychological.”
“They’re not right.” snaps Deckard. “It’s a system that punishes you for being hurt. You come in shaken up and they retire you.”
“I come in shaken up and I’m more likely to go wrong and hurt someone or something.” he shoots back, instinctively defending the LAPD. Deckard is staring at him with something like disgust – he sees it in his eyes, the air of how can you argue for that, and he shakes his head. “I’m not – I’m not saying it’s okay. Just that it works. Mostly.”
“You said you had the baseline tests more often.” asks Deckard. “How often?”
“Every forty eight hours, at least.”
“Forty eight –” He cuts himself off, too furious for a second to even speak. Kay lets the fury wash over him, knows it’s not aimed at him. “You’re expected to be on your baseline all the time? To shoot someone later and then be fine two minutes later?”
“You’re expected to learn to be fine.” says Kay, flatly.
It’s a psychological phenomenon that he very much doubts is unique to replicants; the ability to perform a task replaced by the ability to pass an exam designed to test that task. The baseline screenings become easy to get through after a little time, because you begin to learn what the humans want to hear, want to see. Kay thinks carefully, trying to work out how to phrase that.
“The frequency of the testing encourages replicants to force themselves to be calm, to compartmentalise the problems.” He shrugs, squashing down the slightly desperate feeling of stop thinking about it breathe calm down stop thinking about it stop now he’d always had before stepping into that little box. His predecessor – a Nexus-9, but an earlier model, who they’d kept on for a few weeks after Kay started in case something had gone wrong with him – had warned him about that, told him how to pass the test even in distress. Kid, it’s not lying or disobedience if no one tells you not to. “I don’t know if that’s deliberate, or if it’s just a byproduct of the process.”
Deckard still looks mad enough to spit – he bites out, “And they wonder why so many of you are ready to snap.”, gets up, and storms off to their makeshift kitchen. Kay turns to watch him, keeping himself as calm as he would if he was going to a post-traumatic test right now. Now that he’s thought about it, he’s aware that he’s doing it, but by now it’s half an impulse most of the time.
“You ever take one?” he says, remembering the corrupted audio file Luv had played him, the voice of that prototype replicant woman. Rachel.
How much Deckard knows of how much Kay knows about Rachel is irrelevant; in any case, he stiffens suddenly, throws a glance over his shoulder at Kay like some pained creature.
Kay doesn’t look away.
“Yes.” says Deckard eventually, with his voice like a confession. “Damnit. Yes.”
He gestures angrily to his grey hair, his lined face, his frail body. “I’m clearly not a replicant, am I?”
“And it’s not like I had a baseline to go off in the first place!”
“And it was fucking inconclusive!” shouts Deckard, incautious and unexpectedly honest, honest enough that Kay blinks; most humans wouldn’t let a replicant push that far. He’s shaking, with rage and a strange kind of stress. “Not enough information for the test to be able to tell whether I was human or not. That’s what it said.”
This is the answer that he thinks Rachel would have wanted, from what little he knows of her. It’s what Ana and Freysa would want. But Kay doesn’t like the feeling of his world breaking into little bits, and he suspects that Deckard doesn’t either. Neither of them are caught up in this by their own choice – not really.
“You know what they said to me? When I asked them why the results came out like that?”
Deckard isn’t facing him, so Kay doesn’t bother to shake his head.
“They said, ‘humans under extreme emotional stress can sometimes mirror the results of replicants’.”
Kay feels his heart sink. Extreme emotional stress. Shit. That sounds right.
He sits, for what could be minutes or hours, and tries to process that while Deckard abuses their few kitchen devices trying to make something more interesting than protein worms. Barbecue, thinks Kay, wondering about Treasure Island and that strange first point of connection between them.
“You know,” he says eventually, and knows that Deckard is paying at least some attention by the way that the clatter pauses. “My lieutenant asked me if I dreamed, once – we do, so she asked what. I said the same as she dreamed about, corrupted memories and thoughts, and that most of them are nightmares anyway. I didn’t think she liked that. But it was the truth.”
Treasure Island, Joi, Marcos, the bees. KD-3.37. Rick Deckard.
“You made us, and yet you don’t want to hear that we’re like you. Strong, hurt versions of you.”
“But it’s still the truth.” says Deckard, understanding, and for once the tone of his voice is more determined than angry.
Kay’s mind goes back to the bees again – the way the question he had around them had changed, the way that their realness had ceased to matter. He can’t, physically can’t, answer yes when he’s asked if he’s human.
But he can if he’s asked if he’s a person.