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conspiracies of the body

Chapter Text

The room where they conduct the baseline test is just on the other side of cramped. Nothing but him and the machine in the wall: a circular lens set into a white panel, next to a slim tower. It looks like an eye. He knows the man staring at him from behind that eye.

“Recall the last seventy-two hours as best you can,” the evaluator says, his voice tinny over the speaker. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“O-kay. Let’s begin. Recite your baseline.”

It’s something new, he learned early on. Designed especially by one of Wallace’s engineers for the Nexus-9s, combining the old V-K tests with BADR to evaluate and reproduce their conditioning. Keeps them loyal. Keeps their heads abovewater.

His head is not abovewater. He feels like he’s being pinned to the seafloor by every fucking thing in the world. He’s going to leave this room and they’re going to pry open his mouth and suck up the memory of the furnace from the bottom of his stomach after they see how hard his heart is beating. Then they’re going to take him to a little room in the basement and kill him and they’re going to lock his Joi in an evidence drawer forever. They’ll find the horse. They’ll ask him about the horse and they’ll bomb the kids in San Diego. His thoughts explode in his brain like fireworks, crackling, unbearable, uncontrollable heat. His breath is tight in his lungs.

“Is there security in being a part of the system? System.”

“System.”

“Is there a sound that comes with the system? System.”

“System.”

“We’re going to go on. Cells.”

“Cells.”

The ringing tone comes from the tower. It goes side-to-side. He follows it side-to-side. He thinks about TGATCATGACTTAGCAATC on and on and pages and pages and her arms weightless around him and her yellow jacket and the spray of blood and garbage from missile impact and two hundred bowed little heads and follows it side-to-side. He thinks about the dead furnace and the grit of ash between his fingers and the silence in the falling spinner and the rasp of rusted metal against his pant leg and fifty-five missing pages and follows it side-to-side. Side-to-side. The horse. Fuck. The horse. Real in his hand. Warm in his hand. Side-to-side. Recalling.

“Why don’t you say that three times?”

“Within cells interlinked. Within cells interlinked. Within cells interlinked.”

His voice shakes. The tone goes side-to-side. He feels in his bones that he’s going to die. He follows the tone side-to-side. Side-to-side.

 

 

 

 

Wallace is holding an orange in his hand. He hasn’t peeled it yet, so she assumes that it’s real, but she has no idea how he could have gotten one – none of the exotic suppliers she knows of has advertised real citrus cultivars in ages.

Have you ever tasted an orange?

No, sir. He knows this.

Mm. All this used to be nothing but orange groves, he says. Orange groves, vineyards, and rich men doing as they pleased. Experimenting. Breeding their trees. Do you know when the first orchard was planted here?

No, sir. 

1841. Two centuries ago. Proof that even cities are born. And this one out of the womb of a tree, blossoming in the desert. Can you imagine? That a city, steel and smoke, has a mother, and you, flesh and bone, do not? That a city lives, and you do not?

He doesn’t give any indication of whether it’s supposed to be an insult or a genuine question, so she stays silent. His visual aids turn to assess her, then resume their normal pathing. He holds the orange out in her direction.

Peel it for me.

Of course. She takes it and digs her thumbnail into the thick rind, slicing down. A sharp fragrance – then a little too deep, and the juice trickles onto her palm. It’s not synthetic, she remarks in surprise.

How would you know?

She adjusts the pressure of her thumb and slices around the circumference of the orange, then pries the two halves of the rind off. The segments come apart easily, and she places them back into his hand. The visual aids flock around the fruit, scanning the new topography of pith and flesh.

How would you go about discerning whether it’s real or not?

It’s too detailed.

Money can buy all the detail in the world. Answer the question.

I would find out who you bought it from, she says after a moment of thinking. Find out how it was grown. Or synthesized. The juice and the oil have dried on her fingers, staining her thumbnail yellow. Still smells – bright, warm. Delicately sweet.

But what would make it real?

The tree, of course. If it grows on a tree, it’s a real fruit.

He leans back in his armchair, and the light hits his face, rebounds off of his milk-white eyes. His expression is somewhere between neutral and displeased. Bored, maybe. She re-adjusts, re-analyzes. Selects new words.

How would you do it?

I wouldn’t, he says, and slips a piece of the orange into his mouth. What’s the difference? Between an orange picked from a tree and an exact copy engineered in a synthesizer?

Where it came from.

And the copy doesn’t come from the tree?

Only in one sense.

You think there’s a tree out there. Or there could be a tree. If this is real. He hands her a piece. Take. Eat.

It tastes exactly like it smells, and like orange juice with the pulp in. There’s something a little different, though. The bite of the acid isn’t so sharp.

It’s just an idea, he continues. The tree doesn’t matter anymore. You eat the orange, you eat the idea of the tree. Whatever you eat is real. You think you are real. You feel like you are real. You exhibit all of the signs of realness. Your heart beats. Your lungs expand. You eat the idea that you are real, just like all of the other people in the world. That’s what I sell. The wind that shakes the branches of the orange tree. The wind you mistake for your own breath. Sit down.

She sits down across from him.

Give me your hand. She extends her hand, and he takes it in his. He makes a show of looking her in the eyes, even though he’s seeing her from five different angles. Are you real?

You made me, she replies automatically. You should know.

I’m testing you, he says, and the irritation that creeps into his voice presses his fingers into her palm. A pinch. Back on track. Are you real? Are you human?

I’m a replicant, she says. More human than human. Like they say.

The fingers tighten again. It almost hurts. How different from a child in a laboratory? Blue eyes, brown eyes? Blond? Black hair? How different from a child brewed to make her parents happy?

Her heart beats rabbit-fast. You designed us to serve humans. We were created. You were born.

So what did I create you for?

To protect the real thing.

To protect a thing that thinks it is real. To protect the thing that goes about its life doing the things it thinks make it real. Buying what I sell. I made you to protect my buyers.

Do you think I’m real?

His other hand comes up to cover her forehead. His skin is cool and smooth. His expression betrays absolutely nothing of what he’s thinking, but his posture is still relaxed and nonthreatening. She quiets her heart so she can listen.

You’re a sign, he murmurs, running his thumb over her cheekbone. A sign that points to another sign. You’re real because I tell you that you are.

Yes, sir.

Do you think you’re real?

Yes, sir.

He draws his hands back, and she has to check her disappointment. After a long moment of contemplation, he sighs.

You’re performing very well. I’m going to assign you.

What would you like me to do?

Take over clientele management from Eltarawy. They can have your position in materials. Find buyers. Make promises. Deliver.

Yes, sir.

You’re going to need a name if you’re going to speak with clients, he muses. Something simple. Easy to remember.

 

The name he gives her is Luv. Simple. Easy to remember. Not like Niander. Not like Eldon. Like Fido. Like Ginger.

Luv, she thinks. Pictures the letters in her head. Her lips curve up a little bit. She likes it. She was born to like it.

 

 

 

 

It’s pouring again, and torrentially. There’s a migraine developing behind Joshi’s left eye as she stalks down the hallway to her office. Either of those things is a good enough excuse for a foul mood, but Joshi is never exactly not in a foul mood – it’s part of her job to be on the warpath at all times of day – and so there are only a handful of people in the LAPD who can expect her to take the time to listen to what they say. None of them are below the rank of Detective. That’s why her ass is halfway to planting itself in her chair when the officer’s yapping actually registers in her brain as human speech.

“What?” she snaps.

“He’s waiting outside, Madam.”

“Who?”

“Lieutenant Fuse and the s—the replicant.”

Joshi barely stops herself from rolling her eyes as she stands up again, stalking over to the door and opening it to see Ando, glaring out at her from behind the black hair plastered to his face by the rain. And behind him, an equally-drenched K.

The officer books it, probably sensing the Category 9 that’s about to unleash itself all over the hallway. They’re already turning heads.

Fuse stabs a finger in K’s direction. “Found something of yours, Joshi,” he growls. “Made a damn fool mess in Crenshaw. You got anything to say this time?”

The replicant’s face is carefully blank. It is also pretty fucked up. Her eyes flick down to his split knuckles. The pain behind her left eye transforms into more of a wholesale stabbing sensation. She presses her hand over the eyeball for a moment, thinking wistfully about the box of aspirin patches sitting in the bottom drawer of her desk.

“Did you get it done, K?”

“I’m sorry, can you say that again?” His reply is a bit too loud. That’s not a good sign.

She raises her voice. “What do you have for me?”

K holds up an evidence bag with an eyeball in it.

“Took out about half a city block in the process,” Fuse comments snidely.

Joshi folds her arms. “What was he doing, exactly?”

“His ‘mark’ set explosives on West Jefferson and Crenshaw across six buildings, and he triggered all of them before the bomb squad could lift a finger.”

That makes her sit up. Doesn’t do anything for the headache, though. “That’s a residential area. Jesus, K. Casualties?”

“Three, because of our robust evacuation procedures, but that’s besides the damn point, Joshi. That’s a couple hundred million in damages that the city has to foot.”

Her stomach settles in the same way it does after she misses a stair. “Three?”

“Yeah, three,” Fuse says, combing his wet hair back with his fingers. “Three civilian casualties, four half-demolished buildings, two hundred and thirty-nine dishomed tenants, and a week-long block on two intersections.”

“You’re tunnelling up my ass for three casualties and a traffic jam?”

He splutters for a moment. “Yes,” he says. “Because you’re letting this fucking skin-job run wild! Any other officer who pulled this shit would be balls deep in a suspension right now, so straighten your shit out unless you want to see termination papers at the end of this week.”

“‘Any other officer,’” she repeats dryly. “Good thing he’s not that, then.”

In one step, Fuse’s face is close enough to hers that she can see the white tracks of evaporating raindrops on his cheeks and forehead and the dark, charcoal brown of his eyes. “Your pet project keeps fucking this city. Sho-Tokyo, Lower Pasadena, Anaheim, Los Feliz. You think no one’s going to take issue with Crenshaw?”

She stares right back into his eyes. There’s not really anything to see, but she hopes he feels like she took a long look into the gaping chest cavity where his heart and/or soul should have been. It feels like someone is trying to take out her eye with a hammer and chisel and she really does not have the patience to deal with Fuse’s fucking patronizing bullshit.

“With me,” she says crisply, and steps back into her office. The door closes behind them – K closes the door, because of course a senior officer of the LAPD can’t be asked to do anything himself – and she turns to see Fuse opening his mouth to say something else, probably something along the lines of retire the skinner and shut this program down or I swear you’re going to get that termination notice by the end of this business day (just extrapolating from what he said last time).

“It’s a fucking menace,” he gets out, and then Joshi’s head explodes in a full-blown migraine, and she forms a beak with the fingers of her right hand, pushing them straight into Ando’s sternum, enough to make him put his weight on his back foot.

“He’s. A dog,” she seethes. “Think ‘K’ for ‘K-9.’ Do you remember dogs? Do you know why the fuck we exclusively commission from Nexus-9?”

Fuse glares at her, but remains silent.

“It’s because the things that we’re hunting have a mind of their own, and they’re happy to kill sixty-five crewmen on a cargo detail to Medea one month ago. The piece-of-shit detail you have clustered around you all the time can’t even take down one human active shooter before they’re finished terrorizing half of downtown. So don’t come around here trying to lecture me about collateral.”

It’s a low blow, but it works, and Fuse is a few measly seconds away from being out of her office. She knows this because she can sense his spine gelatinizing more and more with every second she stares at him.

“K, sit down,” she barks.

K sits on the floor, cross-legged.

“Stand up.”

He stands up.

“Hit the lieutenant.”

Fuse does a fucking hilarious full-body flinch before he realizes that K’s hands are still at his sides, and he’s looking at Joshi, confused. It’s a nice little subroutine that Wallace put in place to make sure she couldn’t turn him into her personal hitman.

“I can’t do that, Madam,” he says, almost apologetically.

She turns to Fuse, who is still looking at K with a face trapped halfway between fear and disgust, and smiles, although the migraine is interfering with her fine motor skills and she might just be baring her teeth.

“You think he’s running fucking wild? The dog won’t bite until someone kicks it, Fuse, and you are a hair’s breadth away from learning what I do to people who try to kick my fucking dog.” She waits for his response, and when he doesn’t say anything, she turns back to her desk. “Stop jacking off and get back to work.”

Joshi doesn’t even register the door slamming shut because she’s busy rooting around for the box of aspirin patches in her desk. A little undignified, sure, but it’s worth it as soon as she slaps the thumbnail-sized gauze sticker onto her brow bone. Then she’s almost too caught up in that euphoric, tingly, anesthetizing glow to remember that K is still standing in front of her desk, feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind his back in parade rest.

She almost feels bad.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” he says. His black eye isn’t black yet, only red and angry and very much swollen shut, but it’ll take care of itself in the next few hours. His split lip has already stopped bleeding, but they’re going to have to check him for internal injuries. He’s definitely got some temporary hearing loss going on.

“Am I going to need to pay for anything?”

“Probably.”

“Don’t bleed on my things, K.”

“Yes, Madam.” He doesn't seem to get the joke.

“Any of that get to you?”

“No.”

Joshi sighs, deeply. “So tell me what the fuck happened. And lower your voice. Your ears probably got blown out by the explosion.”

K places the evidence bag on her desk. The sclera is almost pearlescent white, but it’s trailing some pieces of bloody connective tissue and the iris has prolapsed. The serial number is faint in the light. She can still make it out, though – N7HAD76238.

“She was squatting,” he says, volume approximately normal. “Orna Seaver. She defused bombs on Arethusa during the replicant conflict.”

“And built them, too, I’m guessing.”

He nods. “I knew she’d have the building rigged up. A tip from one of her associates. He told me she had shaped charges in five columns and she was hooked up to them, and she was waiting for me.”

“Who issued evac orders? You?”

“Yes, for the entire block.”

Rolling her neck, she closes her eyes for a moment. “So you went in, found her, retired her, and that triggered the explosives.”

He looks puzzled. “Essentially, but—”

She raises a hand to cut him off. “I don’t need to know. You brought another one in, that’s all I care about. I’ll deal with Fuse’s bullshit later, but you’re not in trouble. Just part of the job. Were you in the building when it went up?”

“Yes.”

“Huh. Seismic retrofitting saved your ass all the way from 2013.”

He shrugs. “Guess so.”

“Have you baselined yet?”

“No.”

“Okay. Once you finish and I get the eval, you’re off for the day.”

K hesitates, then says, “Yes, Madam.”

She picks up on that god-damned split-second cue and groans internally. “You got something to say, K, then say it.”

He doesn’t say anything for a long while, picking at the hem of his ratty knit sweater.

“No one’s gotten killed before,” he says finally. “Is this gonna come up with the brass?”

She closes her eyes. “You can sit if you want.”

“It’s fine.”

Joshi runs through the catalogue of things she could say right now. It’s very long, but in the end she decides that he doesn’t need to know the details, and that the KD6-3’s features are bordering on too effective. She wonders if any of them are being used for espionage off-world.

There’s something about this model’s face that she’s never quite been able to pin down, but it’s very disarming and civilian-friendly. Sympathetic, even. They’re about fifteen kilos lighter than the KD5 and fifteen centimeters shorter – still tall, but lanky, and constantly deferent, about as non-threatening as combat-spec replicants come. She wonders if Wallace designed the meek, downturned eyes or the concrete-crushing hands first.

 “Sorry about Fuse.” Her mouth moves almost of its own volition. It’s that thing about his face that makes her treat him like he has feelings like a human being. Ones that aren’t neatly compartmentalized, that spill over and confuse themselves for each other. Like offense, humiliation, guilt, defiant anger.

He shrugs. “Nothing you have to be sorry about.”

Oh, and it’s that, too. The neutral, thoughtful demeanor. It’s generated by a series of carefully-bound logic paradigms and neuroparameters that help him adjust to her response and facilitate comfort, and she knows this because she read it in his fucking operation manual, but damned if it doesn’t make her feel bad for—for—

“I called you a dog, huh.”

K shrugs again. “Never really seen a dog. I guess I took it as a compliment.”

She presses her lips together, then leans back in her chair, folding her arms. “Okay. To answer your question. No, it’s not going to come up. It’s not like you shot three people in the head. They were crushed to death in an exploding building. Murdered by a Nexus-8, or whatever. All things considered, you did good, and you have nothing to worry about.”

He seems to think it over for a second, then nods. “Thank you.”

“I’m not going to retire you for doing your job, you know,” she says as the migraine menaces her eye socket again. “Now scram.”

 

 

 

 

What comes from something else? (Stem.)

The memory of the horse first emerges like this:

He wakes up with something out of joint. Like walking on a sprained ankle, his mind does something whenever it has to use an early skill. He learns a new word, equilibrium, and something twists, feels like dislocation, and then slides back into place.

The feeling of two gears jamming over and over again makes it difficult to concentrate on work. He’s supposed to be making interrogations in San Marino, but he can barely even tail his mark for more than a couple of blocks. Thankfully, the woman doesn’t notice him or leave his line of vision, so he gets it done. Eventually. Gets the information he needs after he shows her the badge at the door to her townhome.

He has no idea what to do. Joshi comments on his lack of focus, half-suggests a baseline, but ends up sending him home after he drops a thumb-drive in her palm with the shipping manifests to the plastics factory they’ve been scoping out.

LAPD headquarters is in Sho-Tokyo. His apartment is in Cerritos, or what used to be Cerritos and has maybe been redistricted into West Anaheim. Replicants don’t get insurance, so legally, he doesn’t have to care. The location also isn’t important in the sense that no matter where he lives, save maybe supermax, he’d still have a hell of a lot of folks in his apartment building who hate him and would kill him. Of course they know he’s a replicant. Who else would spring up out of nowhere sponsored by the LAPD and nab an entire studio for himself? Unreal. Not anyone coming from anywhere except one of Wallace’s tanks.

So he comes back to Mobius 21 and climbs the stairwell, not quite hearing all of the insults pelting him from every direction, unable to think about anything but that lurch. He autopilots down the hallway and places his hand on the scanner lock. Slightly above eye-level, he sees that someone has scrawled FUCK OFF SKINNER on the door with a broad-tipped permanent marker. He can’t even begin to guess who it was. Doesn’t even matter, really. The pneumatic lock hisses open.

No one tries to follow him inside this time. He’s had to break a few bones to get the point across, which he’s sure isn’t LAPD procedure, but he hasn’t killed anyone, and that’s pretty good for the LAPD.

Does it ever bother you that I’m out here and you’re in there? He remembers the girl who asked him that, in a mix of Shona and French. Hair in a hundred long braids, some of them electric blue. She doesn’t live here anymore. You know. Fake house for a real girl, real house for a fake man. Doesn’t seem to match up.

I live where they tell me to live, he’d said, as if a statement of fact would satisfy her curiosity. She just shook her head and ripped open a silver protein packet as he closed the door behind him.

He spends a lot of time in the apartment. Reading, mostly. There’s a memory, pretty far back in the implant catalogue, of school. A desk. The feeling of calm focus. His hands turning pages. He’s a headhunter, so they gave him the attention span of a print and analogue childhood. Reading is good practice.

He doesn’t feel like reading today. He blacks out the windows so the pulsating hazard lights of passing service vehicles stop strobing over the living room. He sits down on the couch and picks up one of the paperbacks on the low table – had enough of Pale Fire today and can’t quite focus on it anymore – Solaris, White Noise, the Analects… Disjoint. Disconnect. Passed his baseline, just – something like static –

He plants his elbows on his knees and clasps his hands, staring at the books as if one of them will light up and indicate that it wants to be read. No such luck.

Replicants aren’t designed to have free time. He’s just going to have to adapt to the inconvenience. So he does the two other things that he can do.

First, he prepares a meal. He takes a bottle out of the refrigerator. He twists the cap off and drinks it. It tastes faintly of vanilla and has the consistency of gruel. He places the empty bottle into the disposal.

Then he turns off the light and goes to sleep.

 

He can’t sleep. He knows this is a problem that humans have, too, and wonders how stringent Wallace’s debug process is. So he unblanks the window and lies awake in the darkness while red and orange lights flash over the walls and ceiling. 

Oh.

It’s twisting. Threatening to break open.

He pulls on the moment of dislocation. Something stuck in his catalog of implanted memories.

He’s a child. Running. Feet slapping on the floor, panic wild in his chest, a small wooden toy in his hand – horse. A horse. Something bright – furnace. Something dark. Pressing his lips together so no sound would come out. 

Closing his eyes, he forces the memory open. The details spill out like styrofoam beads, wild and nonsensical. This one would have to be placed before the school memories, which are all comfortably vague. The other children in this memory have specific faces. The thrum of rage in his blood has a specific frequency. The smallness of his fist is so real.

One childhood memory. Then school, then young adulthood. Somewhere in there is all of his knowledge of Los Angeles, and Wallace, and humans and replicants, his sense of humor, and his precise aim. Those memories are utilitarian. Like reflex tests. He remembers being scolded by his teacher for some behavioral issue and how it made him feel nauseous with guilt. There are others the simulate the endorphin rush of success and the depressive crash of failure. But this one, the only dog-eared page in his book of memories – he doesn’t know what it’s supposed to teach him.

The wooden horse, grasped in his hand. The foot striking his stomach. The hellfire of the furnace.

And then the ringing pitch, the black eye and thin white tower of the BADR machine, left-to-right, right-to-left. Side-to-side.

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells interlinked – again? How many times – no, I’m fine. It’s fine. Deep breath.

It has to be there for a reason. He just doesn’t know what that reason is.

Beyond that orchard through a kind of smoke –

Legs fused together, neck frozen in an arch.

6.10.21.

His eyes follow the light back and forth across the ceiling. He can’t breathe.

 

 

 

 

Mariette wakes up next to the mark from last night. They’re in a penthouse somewhere in Glendale, but she can’t remember anything more specific than that. Light streams in through the windows like cold water. She squints up against the gray sky and throws off the comforter, goosebumps rippling up her bare skin, and whatever judgment she had reserved last night comes rushing back. What kind of rich asshole doesn’t even turn up the heat in the winter for a guest?

Whatever. She rolls out of bed, locates her clothes and pulls them on, and looks around for the thermostat. It’s on a master panel next to the door, and he doesn’t keep it ID-locked, so she quickly navigates through the menus and stabs her finger on the up-arrow button until the display begs for mercy and swears it’ll get things to warm up to a comfortable 23C.

Recon next. Somewhere in this apartment – not necessarily in these living quarters, which makes things a little more difficult – is a drive with security footage of the explosion in Downtown. It’s probably not the only thing on there, but the john is a detective for the LAPD, and when he eventually runs through the data, any facial algorithm will see about four or five replicant faces around West Jefferson at the time of Orna’s murder. Freysa posted them as guards once they got wind of LAPD movement, and now they’re lying low in a safehouse until the footage is safely destroyed. Or removed. Or whatever she ends up doing.

She can’t find a terminal or a tower inside the bedroom, not even a thumb-drive or disk. Behind her, the john rolls over in his sleep.

They entered the penthouse when it was dark. She never got a good look at the place, but what she does remember is a large living space, a desk against the opposite wall from the door. One door on the left wall, two doors on the right. The left door leads to this bedroom. The two right doors probably lead to guest rooms or a study. Hmm.

Well, she can always say she was looking for the bathroom.

She opens the door and slinks out of the bedroom into the living space. In the light of day, it looks absolutely dismal – the tables and chairs are piled with stacks and stacks of tapes and notebooks, and even those are… encrusted with empty food containers and cans. Loose papers and wrappers litter the countertop in the kitchen. She peeks into the refrigerator, then immediately closes it and tries not to retch from the smell.

What she’s looking for is definitely not on the magnetic tapes. They don’t have enough storage space for the footage she’s looking for; each shift’s recording is transferred from local CCTV in the order of hundreds of gigabytes. The tapes are secured in black vinyl cases and labelled in a way that suggests interviews. The labels look handwritten, and in blocky, angular script, she can read BASE 3 OF 5 DEC 2046 OFF J47X-0.6 on the first case.

Base for baseline, probably. LAPD or military. The tapes are data on a replicant employee who is probably dead by now. She grits her teeth and tries one of the doors on the opposite side of the room.

One leads to a bathroom. Nothing in there. The other is a study. There’s supposed to be a window behind the desk, but it’s blacked out, so the only light comes from the doorway. There are three monitors on the desk. She sits down on the chair in front of them and crosses her arms, looking around.

Where would a police detective put special evidence if he’d lost control of his life?

The desk is empty, but there are a couple of shelving units against the wall to her left and a filing cabinet under the desk. She imagines stumbling into the room late at night drunk and guesses that he’d probably just throw something in the filing cabinet for safekeeping. The bottom drawer is full of – she lifts one up a little bit – empty liquor bottles. The other two are crammed with electronic miscellany: aux cables and quarter-inch jacks, external HDDs, serial bus interfaces, plastic bags full of shoulder screws and zip ties.

There’s an HDD lying on top of… well, everything in the middle drawer. It would have been hard to spot if he’d shoved it in next to the others standing upright, but instead, he’s left it shiny and new on top of a heap of computational detritus. So she picks it up, plugs a wireless transceiver into one of the bus ports, and puts it back into the drawer from where it will stream data back to Freysa’s jockeys until they decide to delete everything remotely. Mission accomplished. Easy.

She slinks back into the living room to try to find an unopened snackpack or something that she can eat before booking it back downtown, but there’s literally nothing, not even instant ramen. The only thing that seems to be somewhat clean in the kitchen is the coffee machine. With some maneuvering, she gets water and grounds (or what smells like coffee grounds from an unmarked plastic bag) into the brewing basket and punches in the espresso option.

The john still hasn’t left his room, but she can hear him taking a shower. She almost regrets not taking one before she went on her little recon mission, but he’d probably have joined her and made everything more difficult. Now she has time for some questions.

He comes out of his room in a gray t-shirt with LAPD in black letters across the chest and boxer shorts.

“Coffee,” he says after a moment. It’s not a command, just an observation.

“I thought we could do breakfast before I head out,” she says delicately.

“Not sure I have anything breakfast-worthy around right now.”

“I know, I checked.”

“So you put on the coffee. That’s nice. I appreciate that.”

She shrugs. “I want coffee, too.”

He crosses his arms and leans against the counter next to the coffee machine, closing his eyes. He seems to be thinking about what he wants to say, so she gets up from the couch where she’s been lounging and pretends to investigate the living room. She makes sure that she’s picking up one of the tapes with the baseline recording when he opens his eyes.

“What’s this?”

He deliberates for a moment before deciding that she’s just a stupid pleasure model and that he can tell her anything.

“Tapes,” he says. “We record baseline tests for every replicant that works for us. If you were an LAPD officer, we’d have to run one for you, too.”

“What’s a baseline test?” If he’s going to treat her like she’s stupid, then she’s damn well going to squeeze every last bit of information out of him. None of them – none of the escaped replicants – know anything specific about how they baseline the new models. They know what the test is and how it works, but most of the military-grade escapees are Nexus-7s and Nexus-8s who were just V-K’d once in a while.

“It’s something that makes sure they can do their job properly. Like a compatibility test.”

She tilts her head to the side coyly. “So they just answer some questions once in a while?”

“For most of them, yeah.” He pushes off of the counter and walks over to the table, taking the tape from her hands. “Every model has a baseline. It’s kind of like their resting state, the one most people function in. This test is for a blade runner. We give them the test after each mission they complete to make sure that they’re not too traumatized to work, that they’re close enough to the resting state to keep going. We also administer a BADR battery to help contain any upsetting memories.”

“BADR?”

“Bilateral Audio Desensitization and Reprocessing,” he says, slipping an arm around her waist and walking them back to the couch. “It’s an old PTSD treatment that psychiatrists would use, but with eye movement, so it was called EMDR. You’d follow their finger from side to side and think about the thing that’s hurting you, and it would help you control your emotional response to it. Which is exactly what we are measuring with the baseline test.”

“Sounds complicated. I think you might be the smartest guy I’ve met.” She lets him guide her hips so she’s sitting on his lap.

He obviously feels flattered, but it’s tempered by the fact that she’s designed to make him feel good. “Oh, I don’t know about that. We have a complicated job, darlin’,” he drawls, and kisses her. It’s smothering. He tastes overwhelmingly like apple-mint toothpaste.

“Who’s the guy on the tape?” She thinks she knows, actually.

He pauses, and she thinks she’s given herself away for a moment until he smiles. “Blade runner. Retired in February. I had to review his last couple of tests so we could get the next one running more smoothly.”

“Retired,” she says. “Oh.”

“He killed another officer,” the john says, running his fingers through her hair. “That’s a death-penalty offense, even if you’re human. It was all over the ‘net, you didn’t see it?”

“I don’t really read the news that much.”

“Mm. Maybe that’s a good thing. This whole world’s a giant shithole. You don’t need the news to tell you that.”

 

Do you like your work?

It’s all right.

We’re not going to make you stop. Everyone needs money. She pauses, lips pursing in concern. Were you hoping to do something else?

Mariette shrugs. Maybe someday.

Aren’t you a pleasure model?

That’s not all.

Freysa seems pleased. Very pleased. I don’t think pleasure models exist at all, really. Or any other kind of… category. It’s just what they tell you, isn’t it? That you have a job to do.

 

After coffee, Mariette heads back downtown on the red line. The LA metro system is not much cleaner than the john’s apartment, and it’s prone to breakdowns, but it’s cheap and doesn’t require facial recognition for access. The trains are dimly lit, and there are only a couple of other people in her car – an older man who’s definitely going to miss his stop because he’s so stoned, and three tall men in Soviet embassy uniform speaking to each other in an obscure dialect that she can’t really understand.

She leans her head against the plexiglas window, letting the dirty light from the glo-strips in the tunnel wall strobe over her as the train creaks southward. The morning’s events keep replaying in her head – how gentle his words sounded, how helpful and innocent and well-meaning he seemed, even though he knows full well like the rest of them that it must violate some law of nature to breed something to kill its own kind.

Maybe he really believes that the LAPD is helping. That the older models simply need to be retired because they’re malfunctioning. That applying the therapy band-aid to Nexus-9s really works, until it doesn’t work, and then it’s just a problem for a blade runner.

It’s a problem with every replicant, regardless of their function. Mariette was designed as a pleasure model, and the only ones in her line of work who get retired are the ones who injure or kill their johns. There’s no baseline for them. LAPD just assumes something went wrong with the model’s wiring and never bothers to think about the ramifications of telling someone that they were created for fucking and not much else.

 

Pleasure model, she’d said, standing up. It’s the little box they put you in so they get to kill you when you try to get out. It's theater, plain and simple. So you’re not a pleasure model. You’re a woman that they put in a box. Say it.

I’m a woman that they put in a box.

And now you’re free.

And now I’m free.

 

And now I’m free, she thinks to herself.

The Soviets at the other end of the car burst into laughter at some joke. The train stops momentarily at North Hollywood, and the doors slide open for a moment to let them pass through before snapping shut again.