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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 – NK776238.

“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 2017 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.

Chapter Text

“Wake up.” 

He obeys with his entire body. There’s someone standing in front of him, tall, dark-skinned, dark hair buzzed close to the scalp, badge clipped to the lapel of a white coat. Gentle voice, high and light.

“Your interpellation period is over. Designation KD6-3.7. Repeat and confirm.” 

“Designation KD6-3.7, confirmed.”

“Good. Do you know who is commissioning you?”

“Chief of Police Aaron Segundo of the Los Angeles Police Department.”

“Good. Stand up.”

He stands up from the bed and registers, vaguely, that he doesn’t have any clothes on, and it’s cold. His skin is prickling.

“I’m going to run you through a basic function assessment. Confirm.”

“Confirmed.”

“Raise both of your arms.”

On command, he raises his arms, lowers them, rotates them in the socket, touches his toes, twists side-to-side at the waist and then at the neck, working each muscle group in isolation. There’s an optical and an aural check. A couple of computational tests, and then a penlight in his eye to informally measure his response to a couple of blot questions. He passes all of them. He’s pleased.

“All right, KD6, there are clothes on the stand next to you. Go ahead and put them on.”

“What’s your name?” He pulls the shirt over his head. The black material is soft against his skin.

“You can refer to me as ‘the inceptor’ or ‘she.’”

He considers this for a moment, then says, “Okay.”

The inceptor looks up from the pad where she’s entering information into a chart. “You’re not satisfied with that response?”

He shrugs, tugging at the hem of the sweats to straighten out the creases. “Establishing familiarity is part of protocol.”

“Jesus, you’re going to be great at field work. No one’s ever mouthed off to me during inception.” She checks a few things off on her pad, then waits for him to pull his shoes on before nodding toward the door. “Stress test next. Come on.”

They go through an hour or so of cardio and strength checks. The KD6 is supposed to be able to sprint at full speed for five minutes, so she puts him on a treadmill; the KD6 is supposed to be able to punch through concrete, so she has him knock a force plate around. He moves, she measures. He’s sure he’s much more pleased about this arrangement than she is, mostly because of the endorphins flooding his brain.

The inceptor sits him down in front of a camera next.

“This is a Voight-Kampff test,” she says. “Do you know what that is?”

“Yes.”

“Look up and to the left, please.”

He shows his serial number to the camera.

“You can look back at me now. I’m going to present you with several scenarios, and you’ll give me your first reaction. It’s very important that you respond as quickly as possible. We are establishing your universal baseline. Once you have received your formal commission for combat, you will be assigned a text for the VK-BADR battery. Do you have any questions?”

“No.”

“All right, let’s begin.” She picks up the tablet from the table in front of her and begins to read from it. “Describe the smell of your favorite food.”

“Spaghetti,” he says. His mouth watered in the memory. “Tomatoes, sweet, acidic. Tang of basil. Fullness of starch.”

“Your best friend tells you that he’s been embezzling money. What do you do?”

“I report him to the appropriate authorities.”

“You come face-to-face with your mother’s killer. What do you do?”

“I restrain him and call the police.”

“You find a cockroach in a cereal box in your pantry.”

“I kill it.”

“Your husband says he wants a divorce on the night of your anniversary.”

“I try to understand.”

“You’re at a wedding. They slaughter two cows for the reception.”

“Well, that’s expensive.”

She laughs. It’s just a faint huff of breath. “The doctor tells you that your dog has to be put down.”

“I’d feel bad about it.”

“Describe your happiest memory in a short sentence.”

It comes easily. “I’m graduating from high school and my mentor hands me the diploma.”

“What’s your favorite song?”

“Gene Kelly’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ The original 1952 recording.”

“What was the name of your first crush?”

“Never had one.”

“Tell me what being in love feels like.”

“Not everyone falls in love.”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Red.”

“Tell me about the place where you grew up.”

“I went to school in Riverside where I lived in an apartment with my foster parents. The mountains are still there.”

“There’s a spider spinning a web over your kitchen window. It catches a fly. You can see it struggling.”

“It’s going to get eaten.”

He hardly has to think. The answers come naturally. The inceptor quizzes him for another fifteen minutes until she reaches the end of the list. Then she stops the recording and taps the tablet a few times – he assumes she’s pulling up results – and nods to herself.

“Passed,” she says. “With flying colors, no less. EDA is good, pupil dilation is good, breath control, salivation, ANS response all good. That’s a great sign. Keep it consistent and you’ll be set for work. You should be receiving your commission from Lieutenant Diane Joshi within the next twenty-four hours. In the meantime, you’ll be learning about maintaining your body through diet, exercise, and meditation. Any questions?”

“Are we going to go over the commission?”

“That’s up to Lieutenant Joshi. Did they give you the details?”

“I’m a blade runner.”

“That’s right,” she says. “You know what the job entails?”

“I’m tracking down and retiring defunct replicants.”

“You have any questions about that?”

He wants to ask something, but no questions come to mind, so he shakes his head.

The inceptor turns the tablet off and puts it down on the table, standing up. “Okay. KD6-3.7, your assessment is over. Confirm.”

“I have finished the assessment.”

She reaches across the table, extending her hand, and he doesn’t expect it, so he’s stuck looking at her for an awkward moment before she looks down at her hand and back at his face. He grabs it and she gives it a firm shake.

“Welcome,” she says. “Do a good job out there.”

He bows his head. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

 

Begin wakeup.

The default Joi model blinks into existence beneath the projector in his apartment, idling next to the golden Wallace logo. She twirls a lock of blue hair on a bright pink finger. After a moment, the logo spins and wipes into a display with an entry field asking for an activation code. He looks at the purchase card and punches in a string of letters and numbers on the holostat keypad. A checkmark appears next to the entry field, and then the menu blinks through a few command options before rolling up like a projector screen and vanishing.

For some reason, he’s holding his breath.

The Joi breaks out of the idle animation.

Hello, she says, smiling.

Hello, he says.

What’s your name?

He entertains making something up instead of giving her his serial number, but some little part of him wants to know.

KD6-3.7.

She tilts her head. That’s unusual. I’ve never met anyone with that name before.

It’s a serial number.

She takes it in stride. Oh. Well, do you have any nicknames?

My boss calls me K.

Would you like me to call you K, too?

Go ahead.

All right. Well, first things first. What do you want me to look like?

Belatedly, he realizes that he hasn’t given any thought to that. He’d thought there would be… sliders, or something. She crosses her arms, then lifts a hand to tap a finger on her chin.

I have some presets, if you want to see them, she suggests. It might be fun! We can find out what you like together.

I like the way you look right now.

Oh, flatterer. Why don’t you sit on the couch? I’ll put on a little show.

He sits down. He can’t take his eyes off of her. She gives him a coy smile.

Here’s Preset 1. Ready?

She spins through something like seventy sample appearances. Her hair shimmers up and down her back, shifting through a countless different colors and textures as the shape and color of her face changes – her jawline, her browbone, her eyelids, her lips. The spectacle of it, of her hundred silhouettes draped in sequined dresses and skater skirts and wrap tops, jewelry blinking in and out around her ears and neck and wrists. It’s almost like a dance, the way she twirls to make her skirt flare out, the different poses she strikes. It looks like she enjoys it.

Then she’s blue and pink again, and sticking her tongue out at him.

I can’t tell what you like, she says petulantly. This is harder than I thought it would be.

I liked all of them.

The Joi puts her hands on her hips. Come on, K, you have to help me out. The projector whirs above her as she comes to sit down on the couch next to him, one leg folded upon the cushion. Do you have other girlfriends? How do they look?

He just shakes his head. What do you like? Do they program you with that kind of stuff?

She shrugs. Sure. We all have default settings. Appearance is fully customizable, though. I don’t have a preference for how I look – at least, not yet.

Okay, he says slowly. Well, why don’t we… try some out?

Like a new preset every day?

That sounds fine.

And that’ll help you figure it out?

Yeah, I think so.

You’re funny, K, she says, propping up her elbow on the back cushion and leaning her head on her hand. Her hair is a mess of black curls, and her eyes are the palest green he’s ever seen.

What should I call you?  

Anything you want. He can see her reconsider. Or you can just call me Joi.

Okay. It’s nice to meet you, Joi.  

Her lips curve up into a gentle smile. It’s nice to meet you, too, K.

 

 

 

 

The replicant who goes by the name Armand Macalintel owns three acres of land on the southern tip of the Central Valley. It’s dedicated to protein farming. This is all on the thumb-drive that he handed over to Joshi – shipping manifests, aliases, past movement, known associates, every line of credit he could find and its exchange history within the last two years, grainy satellite images of the area where his farm supposedly is, and so on.

From the personal intel he’s gathered, Armand is… imposing. Almost two meters tall, a hundred and thirty kilos. Definitely physically unusual, and not a professional fighter, which either means that he’s escaped the hawk-eyed notice of bloodsport talent scouts, or – more likely – he’s a military-grade Nexus-7 or Nexus-8. Not much scares those scouts. It’d probably take something superhuman to put them off the scent.

Naturally, this is concerning. Joshi steeples her fingers after his briefing and tells him to go do some more homework, which means he needs to get to a PC bang. The technician pulling up data for them makes a joke about going to K-town. Joshi tells him to shut the fuck up.

“There’s a pretty big bust going down in La Brea tonight that’s likely to spill down Wilshire,” she tells him. “Don’t get involved. I don’t need red tape coming up from CSISA.”

“I won’t,” he promises.

“Good.” Joshi waves her hand at both of them, picking up her mug of coffee. “Dismissed.”

 

 

The Koreatown sprawl is only fifteen minutes away on A-35 in light traffic. K climbs about five stories uninterrupted in one of the back stairwells before someone almost opens a door into his face.

“Oh, shit! Sorry,” the officer says. Then there’s that expression of recognition that K doesn’t really associate with good things. “Hey, haven’t I met you before?”

“Uh.”

“You’re Joshi’s KD6.”

He nods cautiously. “I don’t remember your name.”

“It’s fine. Chansungnoen. Chahn-sung-noon. Nobody in this place remembers the first time. Or the second time. Heading up to the hangar?”

They walk together in silence for a while. It’s pretty obvious that Chansungnoen is very curious about what the LAPD’s newest blade runner is up to, but he doesn’t hear any questions for a good three minutes.

Until.

“You always take the stairs? Is that a replicant thing?”

“I think it’s just a me thing.”

“I’d think you wouldn’t need the extra cardio.”

“I don’t.” He concentrates on the act of lifting his feet one at a time and planting them on the next block of cement.

“So why not take the elevator?”

“Why aren’t you?”

“I didn’t come out the womb shredded like you, dude. I gotta take every opportunity to stay fit. So?”

“I don’t like getting pushed around.”

The officer is silent for another moment as the implication sinks in. “Oh.”

K intentionally starts climbing a little faster, changing the rhythm of his steps slightly that Chansungnoen begins to fall behind. He’s trying to discourage further conversation, but it doesn’t quite work.

“You get pushed around a lot?” The question comes almost breathlessly.

A shrug. “Enough.”

“Hey, I’m sorry. LAPD hires a lot of bullies, and they let the badge get to their heads.” There’s a break for a few heaving breaths. “I’m personally against it, you know? Beating on skinners, and stuff. Like, whenever the Singularity happens, you better hope you treated your tech nice so that you won’t get killed by your coffee machine or something.”

He doesn’t quite know where to start untangling the web of ideas that Chansungnoen has just thrown at him. Is the implication that he’s a robot, or is it just an analogy, like comparing him to a piece of tech? He’s never sensed any kind of kinship with his Mr. Coffee. Would not punching someone in the head net you positive karma with future robot overlords? There have been films about this. He’s watched a couple. They mostly deal with computers and hugely complex AI, though, not the thing that soaks beans in hot water.

He wonders if Armand thinks about things like this, and holds the door to the hangar open for Chansungnoen to stagger through.

“Take it easy,” he says as the officer heads for the large transport gate. Looks like a bust is brewing.

Joshi’s comment clicks in his head. “Hey, you doing that bust in La Brea?”

“Oh, yeah, you heard?”

“Yeah, yeah. Careful out there.”

He gets a jokey salute in return.

K stands still at the small transport gate for a retinal scan and puts his hand palm-down on another panel. Two lights blink green and a buzzer sounds, and then the door opens into the twisting levels of the parking lot.

Banks of fluorescent lights glare down at him as he makes his way through the rows of spinners, footsteps echoing in the silence. The blacked-out windshields always unsettle him a little – someone could be watching from inside. He looks over his shoulder a little more in here, listens more attentively.

His spinner sits a level up from the entrance and hums to life when he thumbs the remote in his coat pocket, left door lifting up like a wing to let him in. With a few deft dashboard commands, it begins the disembarking sequence, pulling out onto the ascending ramp and rolling up six levels to the hangar. It takes off through Exit 6S and immediately hits a wall of rain.

He leans back in the seat and lets his head bump against the headrest. His ears have healed from the Crenshaw explosion, but he can’t shake the feeling that it knocked something else loose that’s rattling around in his head now, small but insistent. It’s the goddamn horse. It’s the horse, and he knows it’s the horse, but he doesn’t know why, and it feels like pushing on a tooth, feeling the slight give and wondering whether it’s going to fall out soon. He closes his eyes and focuses on the muted sound of wind and rain against the glass.

Beyond that orchard through a kind of smoke –

 

 

The destination is a PC bang called REDZONE, advertised in screaming red light-up block letters in English and hangul. He comes here to work in a private room at the back of the café, which has a pretty steep per-hour cost. Luckily for him, he has the option of expensing it for work, and just has to flash his badge at the front desk before someone escorts him to a private room.

He’s scoped the place out before. The patrons are mostly wealthy tourists and amateur console jockeys who need to get their hands on a powerful machine for a few hours but can’t pony up the cash for one of their own. They’ve definitely made an effort to cater to that audience. Everything is wood laminate and rich red viscose, like he’s sitting down at a lounge to have a drink instead of trying to page through a couple terabytes of data in the next few hours.

The room is spacious and well-lit, although windowless. There’s a desk, and a computer, and a chair. The chair is comfortable. He can order food if he wants to. Instead, he checks for bugs in the tower and the monitor, unplugs all of the networking cables, and connects his external hard drive. A window with sixty-two folders pops up, and he clicks on the first one.

K combs through five years’ worth of CCTV footage in two hours on fast-forward, starting with the one data point he was able to extract from his various interviews: around ten in the morning, on the 26th of last June, Armand was in the Garment District buying polyester tarp by the yard.

One of the cameras at the intersection of Pico and Stanford catches a massive figure in the upper left corner of the frame leaving a store carrying two enormous rolls of fabric under his arms. He thinks this is Armand, but the camera isn’t at a good angle to get his face, so he’s left with what is essentially a silhouette. Working with five years of footage from all over downtown, he’s probably going to hit a million false positives if he runs facial recognition with parameters this vague, so he’s going to have to pick footage to check based on hearsay.

Most of the stuff he looks at is empty. The figure he thinks is Armand only shows up in a handful of other shots. He visits the Garment District two more times in the following year, goes into an apartment building in Azusa, and eats at an udon stand in Sho-Tokyo that K’s actually gone to a few times. If he really is running that protein farm, he’s probably always hungry for real food. Or at least as real as he can get.

One visit to the Garment District and the udon stand interaction show his face. Like the rest of him, it’s large and solemn and strangely-articulated. K recognizes his model. Military, definitely. A late Nexus-8, most likely a Mark 9.1 from his cast. All he has to do now is look him up in the database Wallace has provided to the LAPD. A small spark of triumph flares in his chest.

The database is split over the last three folders on the drive. He’s only taken the Nexus-8 records, though, so with the parameters he has – military, 9.1, alive, on-world – it only takes a few minutes to locate the headshot of the replicant he’s looking for.

Serial number NK680514. His name is Sapper Morton.

K leans back in his chair. He was right.

 

 

When he opens the door to his room, one of the employees is pulling an emergency screen down over the doorway.

“Hey,” he says, brow furrowing in suspicion as he hears a siren going off. “Hey, Miss Kwon, what’s going on?”

She points to the front desk where she usually sits, bored out of her mind. He can hear the static of someone on the radio speaking in barely-audible Korean. “Broadcast says a firefight broke out a few blocks over at the end of a car chase, and it might move over here.”

“Do you mind if I—”

She stands up, brushing creases out of her acrylic dress, eyebrows raised. “You’re going out there?”

He shrugs. “I’m a police officer. It’s kind of my job.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Hey, relax,” he says, seeing that she’s still uneasy. “They probably won’t even need me. I’ll be back.”

Miss Kwon nods, and seemingly gathers fire from some hidden reserve. “You’d better,” she says, pointing a warning finger at his face. “You know the manager hates losing customers.” Then she steps to the side and lets him pass.

He ducks under the metal screen onto the street, then turns around to see her wave quickly at him before drawing it down completely.

The street is half-empty below him. He jogs down a stairwell and sees a bunch of other storefronts shielding up. The only people out in the open are, well, tourists. The flashing lights and blaring alarm must seem like… he’s never actually been to a rave, but he imagines that this isn’t too far off.

Blue and red lights strobe through the air from his left, dappling the feet of the buildings with distress. K jogs toward where they’ve set up a traffic barricade with spike strips and industrial plastic tanks full of water. There are spinners literally everywhere – parked on the streets and sidewalks and swarming in the air. He flashes his badge at the first person in uniform he sees and asks for the low-down.

“Waiting for the bust to spill over. This is our first line of containment.”

“You know what they’re moving?”

He gets a shrug. “Nominally, cocaine. We know they’ve had their fingers in something else, but we’ve never gotten a chance to find out what it was until now.”

He tosses out a thank-you and starts weaving through to the front, where he can hear the squeal of police sirens growing louder and louder. It’s oddly silent, even through the radio chatter. Everyone is standing in wordless anticipation. He imagines this is what soldiers do, too, when they’re waiting for war to break out.

Three black vehicles shriek into view, slamming straight into three DC nets strung up between buildings that take their flight systems offline with a loud, electric CRACK and send them skidding to the concrete with hollow, metallic crunches, sending up showers of sparks as they fishtail toward the spike strips. He can make out two large transport vehicles and one smaller – probably the flight leader – and a series of pops like gunshots as the first set of spike strips catches their tires. Officers around him start moving to the side, anticipating that they’ll crash into the barricade. He can see the strips clearly in the floodlights. He doesn’t move.

There’s a moment of breathless suspension between the second and third blowouts where the foremost containment bulk seems unstoppable, like it hasn’t lost any momentum from the moment it hit the net. It moves relentlessly forward until it hits the last row of spike strips and then, like a man shot in the head, it falls on its back, and its monolithic hulk slides to a stop. It lies there, motionless, not a hundred feet away from him, steaming in the cold night air, engines belching black smoke up into the canyon of skyscrapers and fractured relays bleeding white sparks through the plating.

Then the entire scene animates. There’s shouting and running and guns everywhere, dozens of officers surrounding the fallen vehicles and spinners descending overhead to provide additional support. He’s not interested in the flight leader, though – they’re all inevitably the same kind of person – and jogs around to the other, larger shippers that haven’t tipped over. Four people have been extracted and a body is being laid out under a sheet, blood smearing up against the clear plastic. They’re being cuffed and documented. Someone even has a scanner out and is telling them to look up as they search for the tell-tale tattoo.

They’ve unlocked the containers, and everybody quiets down while a secspec agent pushes the back door up.

“What the fuck?”

Someone leaps up on the loading ramp to take a look.

“What the fuck.”

K manages to scramble up with a couple of others. They all have flashlights and aim them inside the shipping container.

Inside are rows and rows of replicants. He knows they’re replicants because they are restrained by netting to keep them from jostling around during flight and they are just sitting there, unreacting, staring straight ahead. Rows and rows of them buckled in, barely even blinking.

He enters the container to the protest of several agents behind him.

“Hey, get out of there,” a tall, muscled man says, shining his flashlight into K’s eyes.

“Wait,” a familiar voice says. “Wait. That’s Joshi’s skinner. He’s a blade runner. It’s okay.”

“Shit,” the man mutters as Chansungnoen pushes between two other officers to K’s side. “Lemme see some ID, then.”

He flashes his badge and the man shakes his head. “Fine. My detail is going in right after you. Don’t get in the way.”

“Right,” he mutters, and starts looking around.

They go up and down the rows of replicants. He borrows Chansungnoen’s flashlight and checks pupil response. They all seem normal, and maybe even conscious, which means they’ve undergone wakeup but not bootstrapping or interpellation. They’re basically catatonic. It wouldn’t be as much of a problem if he could identify any of the models. Some of them have masculine faces that look like MNF-1s or IDI-34s, but there’s just something missing. Something off.

He kneels and flashes the light into the eye of a not-MNF-1 and watches the too-green iris contract, frowning.

“What do you think?” Chansungnoen half-whispers.

“They’re knockoffs.”

“Knockoffs?”

“Yeah. Half-woken, too.”

Some agent starts barking orders at the other end of the container. He gets up and walks back over, boots clanging on the metal sheeting.

“What’s going on?” he says sharply.

“We have to decommission immediately.”

K’s eyebrows furrow. “Shouldn’t you tally first?”

“We can tally later. Didn’t I tell you to stay out of my way?”

“They’re half-booted,” he insists. “And they’re knockoffs. If you manually decommission, you’re going to lose a hell of a lot of data.”

“He knows what he’s talking about.” Chansungnoen pipes up from behind him. “I mean, it would be pretty ironic if he didn’t.”

“I’m just saying, they’re going to start rotting the instant they lose CNS function. I’m a blade runner. I don’t need anything except the eyes. You need the booting system in their brains to track shit down.”

The officer stares at him for a few moments, then sighs. “We’ll keep one. The rest are a security risk.”

“One of each type,” K says. “At least.”

“One,” the officer calls out with a certain finality, and waves his hand. “Leave one.”

It’s about five minutes of work. They go up and down the rows with captive bolt pistols, which raises his suspicion – if they didn’t know what was being moved, why bring them? They could just resell livestock. Someone must have known it was a shitload of replicants.

Either way, he can only stare as heads begin to drop forward in the harnesses. There’s an IDI-34 lookalike right next to them with a bruise on its forehead the size of his thumb, slumped forward in its seat right next to the one beside it.

Decommissioned. Dead. Retired. About one hundred and fifty of them, if the other container is carrying the same number. Well, one hundred and forty-nine. They’re cutting the last one loose, now.

“You need a ride back to LAPD?” Chansungnoen asks. “You can just remote your spinner.”

The not-IDI-34 has black hair.

“Yeah,” he says. “Let’s do that.”

 

 

Chansungnoen has a double ride, which they head to once the lone replicant is shipped off. He feels everyone’s eyes on his back as they move through the crowd. 

“You remember me?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“Cool.”

They don’t talk for the rest of the ride. It’s actually relatively long – there’s a lot of congestion in the air and on the ground because of the blockade. Chansungnoen just puts on the lights and illegally appropriates emergency airspace when slowly drifting back toward Sho-Tokyo gets boring.

He’s only really thinking about two things. The first one is that he should have insisted that they keep more of the replicants for investigation. The missed opportunity knocks insistently on the back of his skull.

The other thing is that Joshi is going to be legendarily angry with him.

When they disembark, Chansungnoen leads him down to the forensic lab. They take the elevator because the hangar is at the top of the building and the labs are at the very bottom. The cardio imperative falls to the wayside in favor of speed.

“They’re going to need you to consult,” the officer warns him. “You’re from the retirement division, so you’re the only one who knows fuck-all about this kind of thing that they have on hand. There’s a couple of other people who are going to come in from Wallace, I reckon, and maybe one or two guys from the Soviet Embassy.”

“Okay,” he says simply. “I’m just going to be there if they want to ask me any questions.”

“Okay.”

The elevator doors open to reveal that the lab is in an absolute frenzy, and there’s no doubt in his mind that it’s all because of the replicant. Chansungnoen steers him toward a briefing room across the hall. When they enter, he sees that Joshi is already there.

“I told you not to get fucking involved,” she says when she sees him. She’s waving a tablet in her hand. “I told you in very exact words, K.”

“I got the info on the farmer,” he says placatingly.

“That’s good, but I’m pretty pissed off right now and I don’t want to distract from the main clusterfuck going on that you somehow got my division involved in.”

“The sergeant who called in said he made a useful suggestion,” the chief of police says from across the table.

“Yes, sir.” The words that come out of Joshi’s mouth seem deferent, but K gets the distinct impression that she wants to keep yelling.

“Thank you, sir,” K says, wondering how he hadn’t noticed the seven other people in the room before now.

Aaron Segundo is here, along with the chiefs of secspec, major crimes, and gangs and narcotics, along with a meek-looking forensic neuroscientist and two suited-up representatives from Wallace. They’re all staring, interestingly enough, not at him, but at the officer who escorted him in.

“Who the hell are you?” Joshi prompts.

“Detective Rungthiwa Chansungnoen. I was with VD on the scene.”

She raises her eyebrows at K. “You’re gonna vouch for – pronouns, Detective?”

“She and her.”

“You’re gonna vouch for her?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Because we don’t have time to kick her out.”

At that exact moment, three tall Soviets enter the room. They’re all wearing long, plain coats and black boots, with hair cut high-and-tight. Two of them look like white Europeans; the one on the right seems to be Middle Asian. Segundo goes over to shake their hands before anyone else can stand up.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” one of them says. “Goncharov. And my colleagues from the Embassy, Yenin and Aimanov.”

“Commissioner Segundo. We were just about to start.” He nods to the chief of major crimes, who starts a projector on the ceiling.

A map appears on the smooth surface of the table, drawn in neon blue lines. K recognizes it instantly as downtown LA, where all the streets suddenly twist down to the southeast. Immediately to the left is Koreatown, and to the left of Koreatown is La Brea. There are five locations highlighted in red fields scattered across the map.

“The five dots indicate the locations that the narcotics division has been monitoring. We also sent vice squads to investigate over a period of six months. They originally came to our attention because of several unscheduled chemical shipments that were intercepted on West Third. Four of these are suppliers. The one in La Brea is the buyer.”

A second projection appears next to the first. It’s a mimeograph of a field report.

“We originally thought that these shipments were intended for use in producing a new recreational drug. The networks that we usually make inquiries through uniformly indicated that this was an operation that moves cocaine. The human trafficking detail, on the other hand, were receiving what we thought were unrelated reports of people being taken to warehouses full of dead bodies.”

“Which you found out were replicants,” Segundo says testily, folding his arms.

The chief pastes a bland smile on his face. “Yes. Which we found out were replicants.”

Goncharov pipes up. “And not only replicants, but Nexus-9 models that were specifically commissioned from Wallace for the exclusive use of the Soviet military.”

“Yes,” the chief repeats, rubbing a hand over his face.

“And they’re knockoffs,” K offers.

“What,” the chief says.

The neuroscientist shrugs. “He’s right. It seems like someone got their hands on some Wallace blueprints for the IDI-34, MNF-1, and TSVETOK and tried to homebrew an army. However, the facial proportions are all slightly off, the musculature is not generally optimized, and from what we could gather from the live specimen, brain activity is abnormally low for this stage of bootstrapping.”

The chief nods, obviously not having heard any of this before and getting very tired of being surprised. “Okay. We’ve locked down the production facility with the help of Wallace’s militia and limited the circulation of information. The main issue, at least for us, is finding out where these blueprints were sourced from. That’s why we’ve called in the Embassy as well as Wallace Corp. We’re hoping for your full cooperation in this investigation.”

 

After the briefing, the neuroscientist – Kinamoto – leads them to the testing chamber where the replicant is being held. Ze informs them that it’s a TSVETOK, originally commissioned by the CPSU for onworld espionage and sabotage missions. The TSVETOK is naked except for a courtesy shock blanket to keep its internal temperature steady, seated in a chair with the same blank expression that the replicants had in the shipping vehicle, hands resting on its knees, staring straight ahead. It has blond hair and brown eyes and white skin, but other than that, its features are clearly intended to be nondescript and ordinary. K has a hard time thinking of ways to describe it even when it’s right in front of him.

“They’re going to try booting it,” Kinamoto explains. “We’d like Mr. Yenin to oversee the process as a Soviet authority.”

“Of course.”

Yenin enters the chamber flanked by two armed guards. One of the Wallace reps is right behind him with Kinamoto. Yenin nods to her, and she starts to read out the wakeup procedure in Russian.

“Decontainment procedure one-zero-zero dash six-three-seven-four, confirm.” 

Nothing happens. The TSVETOK is silent, motionless under the examination light.

Yenin looks through the glass at his compatriots and they exchange a visual shrug. He turns back to the replicant.

“Decontainment procedure one-zero-zero dash six-three-seven-four. Do not worry about the vengeance of Heaven; eat of the fruit and be like gods. Confirm.”

The replicant blinks, shifts in its seat. “…Confirmed.”

Aimanov starts typing furiously on the laptop he’s set up on the table.

“What is your designation?”

“Unknown.”

“What is your commission?”

“Unknown.”

“What is your model?”

“TSVETOK 6A.”

“What is your date of manufacture?”

“Twelfth June 2048.”

“What are the parametric restraints on your command hierarchy?”

It’s silent again. Aimanov taps away on the keyboard.

“Huh,” Joshi says to herself.

“That’s all I need,” Yenin says, turning around and leaving the room. The TSVETOK is alone again with the silver foil blanket. K looks over when he comes back into the viewing room, addressing them in English. “Please collect the retinal data as per usual and contact the Embassy after it has been safely preserved.”

Segundo frowns. “You don’t need the specimen?”

Yenin shrugs, smoothing a hand back through his blond hair. “No. I believe Wallace would be more interested in the manufacture. The Embassy would like to access any additional data that this replicant has recorded since wakeup. Anything else is up to your discretion, Commissioner.”

They all turn to Kinamoto and the other representative, who exchange guarded looks.

“I can’t speak for the president, but if Mx. Kinamoto is right about the quality of these things, then the manufacturer does not represent a current threat. We would also be interested in the retinal data.”

“So you don’t want the body, either?”

She purses her lips. “It’s a defective product. We are as interested in the production as I imagine Balenciaga would be in the stitching on a fake bag.”

“The longer it’s booted up, the more of a security risk it is,” Segundo admits. “I’d put it in cold storage for six months after retirement, just in case.”

“Then it’s settled,” Aimanov says, shaking his hand. “We’d like the information as soon as possible, please.”

“All right.” Segundo points to Kinamoto. “Get storage arranged. Dismissed.”

One by one, they file out of the room until it’s just him, Joshi, and the Commissioner. Chansungnoen looks at him with an expression that he can’t quite read, and then closes the door behind her.

Segundo sighs, sitting on the table and scratching at the stubble on his chin. “What a fucking day, huh?”

“You’re telling me.” Joshi walks up to the glass and looks at the replicant, who doesn’t look any more active than it did before wakeup. “We gonna retire it now?”

“What the hell did we commission a blade runner for?”

She laughs once, short, tired. “K, you got your stuff?”

He realizes she means his gun and multitool. “Yes, Madam.”

“All right, get in there.”

 

 

The room is colder than he thought it would be. No wonder they gave it a shock blanket. He can see its chest rising and falling softly, and it blinks once or twice when he comes into its line of vision and raises his gun.

He’s not sure, but he thinks its eyes widen a little bit when he pulls the trigger.

The body falls out of the chair and onto the floor with a neat hole in the middle of its forehead. He kneels down next to its head and takes out an evidence bag, then leans over, placing his left thumb on the upper ridge of the eye socket and his right thumb on the lower ridge where two bones meet. It takes very little pressure to snap the socket open, but for some reason, he hesitates.

Some little part of him thinks, that’s you.

He doesn’t know what that means.

The bones break more easily than they usually do.

Its eye is almost perfectly, uniformly brown. It’s still warm when he severs the optic nerve and cuts through the connective tissue holding the eye to the walls of the socket. He drops it into the evidence bag and doesn’t look at the other eye that is still staring up in the ceiling, as if it is still breathing.

He holds up the evidence bag with the eyeball in it. Segundo nods and leaves the room.

“Good job,” Joshi says over the speaker.

“Thank you, Madam.”

“Wash up and take it to processing, please. The Wallace rep should still be waiting.”

“Yes, Madam.”

“Baseline after that, then you’re free to go. All right? You can do the suspect briefing tomorrow.”

“Sounds good to me,” he says.

He’s alone with the eyeball and the body he took it from for about thirty seconds, and then the lab team comes in to put the retired TSVETOK in a body bag.

K washes the blood off of his hands in the men’s restroom behind processing.

 

 

 

 

After thirty-four days, he notices that Joi prefers to be a brunette. 

After fifty days, he notices that she prefers to look like she’s in her mid-twenties.

After sixty days, she greets him in the living room like she always does, at the break of dawn, when he starts to prepare to leave for work. He’s never told her exactly what he does, only that he’s a cop and that he works a dangerous detail. Everything else is open to her perusal, but he’s realizing now that it’s – well, it’s not much.

Do you like this one?

She’s white, and her English is softly accented, and her hair is cut in a brown fringe across her forehead, the rest falling to her shoulders. Her face is round and full, and she’s at the perfect height for him to put his arm around her shoulders if he wanted to.

Of course, he says. I like you, Joi.

Joi looks at her reflection in the window, turning back and forth to see herself at different angles. There’s not really a point, seeing as the baggy sweater she’s wearing today basically hides all of her silhouette. He has half a mind to get her a mirror anyway.

I like this one, too, she says, smiling. I think we look good together. What do you want for breakfast?

Don’t worry about it. I’m just going to heat up some leftovers.

Are you sure? It won’t be any trouble. We can just do something easy.

Hmm, he says, pretending to think. You mind making the coffee?

Of course not.

She flashes him a brilliant, translucent smile, and walks past him into the kitchen, where he’s already scooped grounds into the brewing basket. All she has to do is interface with the remote appliance control system to activate it, but she still pretends to press the buttons. Or doesn’t pretend. He’s not really sure, anymore.

K reheats his food on the stove. It’s just rice and beans. He splashes some water into the pan to make sure everything rehydrates a little bit, then replaces the lid and leans back against the counter, closing his eyes.

Joi is singing softly.

Somewhere, beyond the sea… somewhere, waitin’ for me…

She has brown eyes today. Perfectly brown. He can see where her maxillary and zygomatic bones would meet if she had bones – god, maybe she does, he doesn’t know – and where his thumb would fit against the bottom of her eye if she was real.

That’s you, the little something says again. That’s you.

My lover stands on golden sands and watches the ships go sailin’…

 

 

(Within cells interlinked. Within cells interlinked. Within cells interlinked.)

Chapter Text

Sambo is at the height of fashion for combat models right now. It’s primarily because half of Wallace’s production is contracted out to the Soviets, and every other flagging world power wants to be like them – so they buy Russian guns, which are really East German guns, and they copycat Russian replicants, which are really American replicants, although Wallace would never burden himself with anything so mundane as nationality. So sambo it is, for the most part.

Luv is different. First of all, she’s a military model retrofitted as a bodyguard, a JN7X limited re-release intended for security details and maybe a little headhunting. She’s sleek and fashionable and compact and very deadly.

Second of all, Wallace likes his bodyguards to know karate for the same reason he likes to wear a kosode and haori and has more than a few rooms dedicated to meditation pools and Zen gardens. He has a thing for Japan. Not that he would ever style himself as a Buddhist of any alignment. His thing results in her kicks shooting out like pistons to full extension, arcing through the air with Cartesian precision. She rarely strikes with the knee or the elbow, likes to make contact with the foot or lower shin and the first two knuckles.

This is why nobody gets Luv in the clinch. This is why she lifts her entire leg to slam her heel down onto the back of the officer’s head with all of the force of a pneumatic drill. It’s not efficient, but it is very satisfying to hear his forehead crack against the marble.

Her design doesn’t really explain why she likes watching his face rebound off of the concrete so much. Or why she’s a bit disappointed that his nose didn’t break in the way she likes, that jams the paired nasal bones straight upward into the fatty tissue of the frontal lobe. She’s not even sure Wallace can explain that. She’s never asked him.

Design does explain why the KD6 is still alive. He’s durable, powerful, and very, very loyal – the best dog anyone could ask for. For example, he’s been impaled by a foot and a half of rebar and Luv has broken probably seven separate bones in his head and torso, but he still pushes himself up again, trying to get to Deckard. Slow, yes, but with an uncanny determination.

She kicks him again with enough force to snap the neck of a normal human, but he just flops over. He’s not unconscious yet despite the bleeding in his brain, which she both admires and finds frustrating.

And then his fingers move. Slowly. Toward the emanator.

His Joi is smart enough to draw connections between them. To try to play on her sympathy. They’re both Wallace’s products, after all, and two of the most perfect. Why wouldn’t she feel some sort of sisterhood with this hologram girl, designed only to fulfill its owner’s wishes?

Well, that’s obvious. Luv is better at everything than any of these stupid drones. 

So she brings her boot down on the emanator and kills both of them.

 

 

 

 

Niander Wallace requests an appointment with her two weeks after her twenty-third birthday. He comes in person, surprisingly. She’d thought he would have assistants for this kind of thing, or call in, maybe even using a projection. His rare public appearances give him the reputation of an extreme recluse. Not that she’s any different, really, but she likes to think of herself as friendly and personable to her social and business callers. 

She watches him get out of a black spinner flanked by two tall, white-suited guards. There are a few black specks floating around him that she initially takes for video artifacts until they start moving around him. Visual aids. The group walks up the steps and disappears from the external camera view, so she flips to the hallway view. Wallace says something – she can’t make out what it is – and the guards stay further down the hallway as he steps up to the comm.

Her doorbell chimes gently.

“Dr. Stelline? May I come in?”

He’s looking up at the camera above the door. She can see his eyes, wide and white.

She buzzes him in. He opens the door to her studio, allowing some of his visual aids to swim into the little antechamber before he steps inside and closes the door. He’s wearing a long black collared coat that he takes off and drapes over the back of the chair before sitting down. Underneath, a three-piece suit with a black tie tucked into a black jacquard waistcoat. All of his movements are purposeful and slow, almost like he’s trying to avoid joint pain.

“Hello, Mr. Wallace,” she says, sitting down on a chair on the other side of the glass.

The visual aids are pointing every which way, taking in the dome of her studio, the retinal viewing apparatus.

“I hope I haven’t taken you from your work.” Something about the way he talks puts her on edge, like she’s facing a judgement, or being shown a knife in its sheath.

“I always honor my appointments.”

“Yes.” He cocks his head to the side, as if looking closely at something. “Is this your studio? Very interesting.”

“It’s not much to look at when I’m not at work, unfortunately.” She smiles politely.

“On the contrary. But I didn’t come here to compliment you on your workflow, as you know.” He leans forward, hands folded in his lap. “Tell me – why did you get into the business of memory implantation? It’s exclusive. Highly unethical, and in the majority of cases, illegal. What would drive a neuroscientist with such broad career prospects to take such a risky path?”

“The Lockheed program isn’t the only item on my résumé, Mr. Wallace. I was one of the chief engineers on NeuraLace before I did any work with organics.”

A smile curves his lips. “Nevertheless.”

Ana leans back in her chair and crosses her left leg over her right, thinking. What does he want? What can I give him? Or – what should I give him?

“Scientific curiosity,” she says, cautiously. “And artistic freedom.”

“Do you consider yourself an artist or a scientist primarily?”

“Mr. Wallace, I think you know better than anyone that the two are inseparable.”

That seems to please him. “I’m asking because I want to know what kind of person I’ll be working with. That is, of course, if you accept my offer.”

“You want me to perform memory implantations… on your replicants?”

“Not implantations, as such. I want you to create their memories, from whole cloth.”

That makes her lean forward. “Are they having behavioral problems?”

“No,” he says curtly, probably taking it as a slight against his engineering prowess. “I’m interested in producing a line of replicants who can conduct special operations. They’ll need to be able to pass as human under moderately forcible interrogation, and this means they’ll need to have enough emotional conditioning to respond appropriately to psychological pressures. The kind of conditioning that only memory can generate.”

“I’d give them stories,” she clarifies. “Strings of memories to create beliefs. To generate authentic emotional and ideo-affective responses.”

“I want you to feed them the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Wallace lifts a hand and gestures gently at her workspace. “And I think that I’ll only find that fruit in this particular garden.”

“You do understand that it would put me in the position of the serpent.”

“Even serpents have curiosities. Potential. Purposes. Ultimately harnessed by a greater architect.”

“And that would make you God.”

He draws his hands up and clasps them over his stomach. “If that makes you uncomfortable, you could think of yourself as Aphrodite, and I as Pygmalion. I’ve made my sculptures as beautifully as my limited ability allows, but I need your blessing to see them truly come alive.”

Wallace clearly has some kind of complex. She’s not a psychologist by any means, but he clearly believes he’s charismatic, and he seems quite confident that she’ll accept his offer. It’s probably his money talking instead of him when it comes to charisma, she thinks dryly. And whatever she thinks about how he’s saying what he says, what he’s saying is incredibly tempting. No one has to ask whether they’ll be paid well under Wallace; it goes without saying. Several of her friends have moved off-world since finishing one-off contracts with his company. Her upgrade center is a lucrative business, but not that lucrative.

And then there’s the matter of her wanting to take the job against her better instincts. There are so many potential ethics violations involved that will never be caught by any authority. There is no eye that Wallace can’t turn away with money. There will never be board investigation into anything she does on this contract. She’s being given a blank check and free reign to do anything she wants with these pseudo-sapient organisms.

It scares her. Of course it does. Offer freedom and authority to a woman in a box and watch her dance for you – Wallace, or fate, or karma, or something else. She can create any kind of monster she pleases and he’ll never object. The only check is her own conscience, and consciences are very easy to program nowadays. But she has to admit that she’s always wondered what the possibilities were for memories beyond neural networking and AI training, beyond the black market. What it would be like to talk to a replicant who remembers her mother, or her sixteenth birthday. How readily she would pull the trigger if she really knew what was on the other side of the gun.

It dawns on her somewhat belatedly that he knows all of this. That he chose her specifically because he knows that she spearheaded projects at Lockheed and NeuraLace, but even more so because he knows that her tenures there were long and fruitless and choked up with bureaucracy. He knows how long she’s been turning consultation into a business, how many month-to-month contracts she’s signed. There’s no reason to be coy, here. He’s offering her a leadership position with no pesky red tape. All she has to do is accept total freedom, and in return, Niander Wallace will set her up for life. It’s too good to be true. She’s scared, but not of the strings he’s surely attached. She’s scared that she doesn’t mind.

“Tell me more about what you have in mind for this new line,” she says.

Wallace smiles subtly, and it’s genuine this time, triumphant. “My company has so far been successful in manufacturing several types of replicant, superior to the old Tyrell models in every possible way: lines for military use, for commercial labor, for domestic labor, and for pleasure or entertainment. Footsoldiers, headhunters, maids, mechanics, factory workers, farmhands, laboratory specimens, caretakers, deliverymen, exotic dancers, all obedient, all complacent. Perfect in their subservience. I am coming to you at a moment ripe for expansion. I want to create something sophisticated, for sophisticated work. Something loyal even beyond loyalty. Something that has a greater purpose in mind. ”

“What do you mean by ‘sophisticated?’ Who’s your target demographic for this line?”

He nods. “People like me. Or the Chief of Police. The triads. Anyone who wants to conduct espionage or assassination without the risk of buyout or the inflexibility of a drone. And that’s what I’ve been making, really: drones and worker bees. The new models will be wasps.”

“Or dogs,” she supplies. “So you want – memories. The fabrication of… a lifetime's worth of operant conditioning.”

“What do you think loyal people remember?”

“It’s not about what they remember, it’s about how they remember,” she corrects. “Two children remember their father’s discipline. One looks back in anger, and the other in understanding. Which one do you think will act with more loyalty to their father?”

“The son who understands his father’s discipline,” Wallace says, although he’s clearly miles beyond that thought by the time he starts his next sentence. “Although any number of decisions – interactions – could change that loyalty. He might come to see that father’s discipline as excessive or tyrannical, and rebel… or, even so, refuse to violate some perceived sanctity of their familial bond. You’d almost be composing an essay. Hundreds of linked memories presenting the best case for love of authority.”

“It’s fairly simple, theoretically.” She presses her fingertips together, trying to focus on the interview. It’s basically impossible for her to lose this contract, but she doesn’t want to be seen as slow. “As far as I understand, your current models use a stative command hierarchy that’s installed post-wakeup.”

“The interpellation period.”

“Yes. They’d rather kill themselves than a human; they follow the orders of authorities over civilians. No desire, no temptation to disobey. You’d want your new lines to ‘eat from the tree’ – to be capable of experiencing temptation, but also have the integrity to resist it every single time. Simple in theory, but difficult to execute without constant external reinforcement, I think. That already limits the kind of positions the replicant can take. No extended periods of isolation from command, for example.”

Her brain is moving a mile a minute as Wallace peppers her with technical and theoretical questions. They’re like fingers, pressuring, probing, mapping and memorizing, seeking out cracks and flaws in her knowledge and character. All she can do is sit still and let him. His visual aids track her expressions, every muscle contraction, slowly compositing her image into a patchwork of likes and dislikes, muscle twitches and tics, frown lines and bitten fingernails. Like a little fleet of Voight-Kampff machines.

It’s a little off-putting. She gets a feeling from him of intense absorption, but also dissatisfaction, the sort that drives the search for knowledge. There’s a kind of humor in seeing such barely-contained hunger. It’s not hard for her to believe that she’s being interviewed by the man who single-handedly solved the global food crisis. He’s intensely paternal, but in a very abstract and generalized way, sort of as a father to all humanity. Godlike, as she’d accused him, but a benevolent dictator. She feels almost childlike before him, but not in the sense that he’s belittling her – he throws out vows of protection alongside an intense interest in her progression as a scientist, a thinker, an artist. As if he wants to cultivate her like one of his plants.

She concludes that Niander Wallace is a very dangerous man.

 

 

They begin at the beginning, with the Alpha-series. Wallace gives her complete creative freedom in memory design, and she finds herself totally absorbed in the work. She hasn’t felt this alive in years, one idea firing off after another, dreaming up her work and molding it into reality with her bare hands. Well, almost – she’s designing clusters of neurons, so she’s molding someone else’s reality, at least. Every moment of this replicant’s life, down to each speck of dirt and stray hair, has her fingerprints on it. She’s creating life just as much as Wallace is. The texture of it, the substance. She feels like an artist. Like she’s touched the face of something else, something divine.

The Alpha-series is very successful among its commissioners. She’s not privy to the exact numbers, but she receives news from several of Wallace’s intermediaries that they’ve sold to the Soviets and several big-name American companies – including Lockheed. That puts a smile on her face. She hopes word gets around in the neuro-imaging labs.

It takes a few months for the first round of bug reports to come in. That’s when she’s called in for her first meeting with Wallace in about a year.

The secretary sends her an encrypted file that opens to her biofeedback. There’s a lot of redacted information, huge holes in the documents that she sorts through on the holoviewer. He sees her uncertain look, probably the exact point in the document that she was staring at.

“Do you know what’s missing?”

She looks at him, the glowing nodule below his ear, the gray, formless viscose coat wrapped around him like a couture bedsheet. Some irreverent part of her brain wonders if it’s the latest Japanese fashion, but then again, she thinks of her own sterile, hypo-allergenic wardrobe a bit sheepishly. They’re both engineers who let other people dress them.

Snapping her attention back to the documents, she takes a deep breath and nods.

“Names,” she says. “Mostly names, identifying information. Details about – specific details about missions. Marks. Kill codes. Incept dates. Retirement dates.”

“Would you like to see them?”

It’s a neutral question. By now she knows enough to push boundaries whenever she can. More often than not, Wallace gives her more executive authority than any ethics investigation would find appropriate, but she has to ask for it first.

“No,” she says decisively. “All I need is the function report. I just want to see how they’re interacting.”

“Bring up the Cheka report, then.”

She sorts through a few more files until she finds a file labelled REPT-1-10-2039.xrx. It’s a report by an officer, probably fairly high-ranking, documenting the behavior of three A-12s. The officer was comprehensive in their assessment, including the base results of stress testing and measuring them against post-assignment stress tests, detailing administration of the Voight-Kampff and various other psychological batteries she isn’t familiar with. There’s a word consistently translated as “PTSD” that suggests diagnostic evaluation, and a few others that hint at stringent observation: “dynamic socialization,” “post-operative conditioning,” “developed aversion.”

Wallace turns all of his visual aids on her. It feels like he has a bunch of laser sights on her forehead. She can’t tell what she’s being scrutinized for.

“They’re too unpredictable,” she says without looking at him, eyes fixed on the last paragraph of the report. A-12.22 reported back to [REDACT] post-assignment with signs of combat fatigue and a developing aversion to enclosed space. Comparison with A-12.24 and A-12.21 indicates that the programming allows excessive branching from several points: AAR54.3.44.725, AAR54.3.44,722, AAR89.231.900, ABR27.663.569, AXT9.9.121, AXT10.886.1, and the entirety of the BPE9 or “BEHAV” protocol cornerstone. Commissar [REDACT] has attempted to curtail branching through [REDACT] sensory re-conditioning and continues to observe and catalogue their behavior, but in the meantime, the A-12 series has been placed back under strict supervision, pending retirement on receipt of next commission.

The entire signature block has been censored. She furrows her brow in frustration. The SEEK, INQUIR, RESPCT, and BEHAV blocks are networked within a series of neural clusters, including AAR, ABR, ARV, and AXT. Those memories are largely juvenile, having to do with questions of self-preservation, questioning authority, and respect. It looks like she didn’t quite anticipate the extent to which each cluster could degrade in a combat environment.

“It’s partially my fault,” Wallace says in a rare moment of seeming empathy. “Neuroplasticity is a tricky thing to manage. As you well know.”

“I’ll have to redesign entire chains, depending on which memories interact with BEHAV and the A-line protocols,” she mutters. “The traumatic response is integral to so many different functions – we might as well throw it out and start over.”

Wallace leans back in his chair.

“Breathe,” he says. “And tell me about Alpha.”

Ana breathes.

Alpha, the neural model for the Alpha-series, is a thirty-six-year-old woman who was born before the Blackout. She grew up as an only child in an international school (the memories of exactly where are switched out according to commission), always at the head of her class, always seeking praise and, ultimately, to be better than her peers. To be more trusted, more reliable, more efficient. She remembers seething jealousy from coming in second in her group at a mixed martial arts tournament, surging pride from receiving top marks for the fifth year in a row during collegiate training.

And then there are the gentle memories. Sitting at a rideshare station in the neon rain, watching the shining chassis of spinners reflect the lights of massive holographic mascots and shimmering logos, swinging her feet and skimming the soles of her boots through an oil-slick puddle of water. She loves the journey, the disguise, the anonymity of the crowd.

This is who she’s created. Someone, somewhere, hyper-competitive and aggressively efficient, who nevertheless loves being, loves having a place in a world full of people, and wants to keep it all in balance – who knows that keeping that world in balance depends on her doing the jobs she is assigned.

Somewhere along the line, that began to change for A-12.22. Ana wonders what it could have been.

 

 

Stelline Laboratories works on Series A through D. Progress plateaus around then. Wallace terminates the part of her contract that requires exclusivity to Wallace Corp out of courtesy; she’s still listed as a consultant, but all she’s really doing for him now is working on a new neural meta-structure that will be brought back in around the time the H-series goes into production. 

She has to admit that she’s sorely frustrated now, too, and burned out quite a while ago. None of the models have proved to be failures, not really, but she can sense Wallace’s side of things slowly, carefully recalculating their expectations. Changing the course of their commissions, rewriting their sales pitches. The D-series switches to a service line halfway through, a step down in sophistication. It’s almost enough to make her scream. Just tell me if my work isn’t good enough – just tell me if you think I can’t do the job, and I’ll quit –

The day after she agrees to take a step back from her work with Wallace, she sends a message to her parents, the first in a very long time. It’s difficult to get messages off-world, but she has the money now, and she doesn’t care if they say anything back. There’s just this primal impulse to reach out to the only people in the universe she remembers as family.

I’m not happy, she says after a long pause, and she’s crying all of a sudden. I know you wanted me to be happy, but I’m not, and I don’t know what to do…

Her thoughts are wild and dark. She has enough money to go off-world now, if she wanted to. She could go find them, live with them, do whatever she wants to, break all of her contracts and organize her own journey into the stars.

She’d die, of course. Her dreams of going off-world are always ruined by the material fact of her body. It was never the room that was the cage. It was always her own flesh, her own fatally-flawed immune system. A bunch of microbes standing between her and freedom.

Do you ever wish you were back here on Earth? I doubt it. She wipes her tears from her face with the soft sleeves of her sweater. It’s so cramped in Los Angeles. I bet you have a whole yard to yourself on Malacandra. I hope you can watch sunsets there. Maybe even go for a walk in the woods.

It rained yesterday. I watched it on the weather broadcast. There was a helicopter view, and they were flying over downtown. It looked so dark and hopeless, but there were these canyons of light going through that you could only see if you were right on top, almost stepping in them. I know it’s just the shopping district, and maybe I’m looking for good things in all the wrong places, but I felt like I could see everyone and everything for a moment. Humanity, thriving like ants in a colony, too strong and stubborn to die.

I’ve been watching the off-world reports, too. Seems like everything’s going well up there.

Call back if you can. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.  

I love you.

 

 

 

 

Joshi sits down with the Chief of Police with a tablet and six paper files. She puts them on his desk as she pulls up her chair, and sees him eye all of them with curiosity.

“I want to commission a blade runner,” she says bluntly, before he can comment, because her best bet in pushing this is probably to bulldoze all of Segundo’s complaints before he can make them. “This is all of the necessary paperwork to request a JR2 from Wallace Corp. The retirement division has been running into a lot of old Nexus-7s.”

“And that’s where the hospitalization charges have been coming from,” Segundo notes dryly. “I appreciate your candor, Lieutenant, but you’re going to have to argue your case more eloquently than ‘I want this, give it to me.’ I’m assuming you know how much these things cost.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Three hundred million in property loss and damages over the past year and a half and you won’t shell out one million on a prohibitive measure?”

“Not yet,” he says, shrugging and putting his elbows on his desk, steepling his fingers. “Come on, Joshi. I need a better sales pitch than ‘well, you know.’ Let it never be said that I didn’t foster accountability in the LAPD.”

She sighs, deeply. “I can’t slip this one by you, can I?”

“Not on this scale. Go on.”

“As you already know,” she says pointedly, opening one of the files, “the Retirement Division was formed immediately after the Blackout and the dissolution of Tyrell Corp with the express purpose of retiring all replicants. It’s hard to do that when a replicant can do this.”

Segundo looks at the picture she’s pulled up on the tablet, which is Officer Landry’s face post-smashing. “Face” is a very generous description in this circumstance. He winces.

“Are we financing his, uh, reconstructive surgery?”

She gives him a bland smile. “Surgeries. And physical therapy. And we’re giving him a great severance package, which he can use right away if he comes out of his coma with his higher brain functions intact.”

“Hmm. Of course.” He puts the tablet down. “And you think a replicant is… what, less punchable?”

“Better reaction times, higher bone density, more sophisticated muscle coordination, better muscles. A replicant wouldn’t have been as easily drawn into a situation where someone could have hit them in the face with a lead pipe. They’re also less likely to puke when they retrieve the serial number,” she adds.

“That’s true. I don’t know a lot of folks who’d be fine with ripping eyeballs out of heads all day.” He stretches in his chair. “You think it’s going to make your division more efficient.”

“More cost-effective, at the very least.”

He nods thoughtfully. “You’d have to pay maintenance fees. But you drew up a budget for that, I assume.”

She pulls out the third file from the bottom and opens it, sliding it across the table. “It’s all there.”

For a good ten minutes, Segundo flips through her files and takes note of most of the documents in them, examining some very closely (mostly budgetary concerns) and just scanning others (mostly contractual obligations and terms-and-conditions). She takes the opportunity to throw back half of her coffee in hopes that she’ll still be awake by the end of the conversation.

The files have been sitting in her desk for a good month, now, initially compiled on an uncharacteristic flight of fancy. Things have been bad for the past week. Really bad. Officer-in-a-coma bad. People gossiping about Officer Landry. People asking to be taken off assignment because they spoke to Landry’s partner and decided that they’d rather not get the bounty bonus than get mauled almost to death by a subhuman freak.

And, of course, whispers about her own negligence, carelessness, disregard for officers’ lives.

Which ends now.

Hopefully.

Whenever Segundo makes up his mind.

He runs two hands through his short, rapidly-graying hair and sighs, looking up at her. “Look, Joshi, you’re a competent officer and a great detective. I could run this package by the board and they’d probably debate it for two weeks before sending you off to Wallace. On paper, you have a great case. I need to know how you’re going to handle the reception.”

That’s one of the sticking points, too. How the fuck are they going to employ a replicant when an entire division of the LAPD is dedicated to wiping out the old ones? Most of the officers here were pretty young when the Blackout happened; many of them can remember the replicant conflicts in a fair amount of detail. They’d be out for blood the moment it stepped through the doors. Some of them might even get the idea that retiring it would protect the force the way its own leaders refused to, in a fucked-up vigilante logic.

“I’m planning to have it do most of the work off-site. Minimal interaction. I’ll let them know that there’s a replicant working here as a blade runner, because word’s going to get around anyway. It’ll report straight to me after missions and consult with forensics and evidence processing, but it won’t eat here, it won’t socialize here, and it won’t have a desk in a bullpen or whatever. It’s not going to have an office. That’s about all I can do besides run a ‘don’t kill a blade runner’ seminar.”

Her voice comes out much more confidently than she feels. Segundo almost seems convinced. They both know it’s going to get fucked up eventually, to some degree, because what are their lives except getting paid to deal with a series of fuckups of increasingly baffling complexity until they either get fed up with it and quit or get shot in the head. (Or hit in the head with a lead pipe a couple of times. That’s always been an option, although the results have never been this graphic before.)

“You know what you’re doing better than anyone else in this place, and you know that I know that.” He looks her straight in the eye, all humor gone from his expression. “I’m just worried that it’s not going to be enough to keep the peace. If we sit on this long enough, people are going to start feeling the lack of fieldwork bonuses in their wallets. If we push it through too quickly, we might stir up resentment. You’re going to have to do some deep architectural work to make sure your division doesn’t evaporate after you make the announcement.”

“I’m fairly certain they’ll be supportive,” she says, even though she’s currently certain of zero things. “All the more reason to keep Landry’s recovery process transparent with them.”

“And if they’re not?”

She shrugs. “We’ll trim some fat during the next round of audits. If they don’t like working for me, VD always needs feet on the ground. Shoot some replicants there, for all I care.”

Segundo shakes his head and chuckles, tired. “Always the pragmatist. All right, then. Set up a meeting with Wallace and brief me before we go. We’ll talk more about this later.”

Joshi doesn’t hide her sigh of relief. “Yes, sir.”

“And you can leave the files here. I’ll probably need them later.”

He stands up, and she quickly rises from her seat to shake his hand.

“I really appreciate this, sir. It’s not the first time you’ve stuck your neck out for me, and I’m sure as hell not going to forget that.”

He claps her on the shoulder. “You’d better not. Just keep doing good work. God knows we need someone with their head screwed on right in this goddamn zoo.”

 

 

They pick out a JR2 model pretty quickly. Male, average height (replicants tend to run tall, so six-foot-five is as average as they can get), mid-thirties, Korean, fairly nondescript, but with a face intended to be sort of disarming, charming in a very ordinary way. JR2-A301 gets, for lack of a better word, unwrapped, and carted off to bootstrapping and wakeup. 

Joshi is fucking nervous in the days leading up to the replicant’s first day on the job. She wonders why she ever took speed in college when this kind of week-long adrenaline rush had apparently always been available if she could just unlock it through sheer anxiety.

Things go well. For a month. It’s not fellow LAPD officers that cause trouble – it’s actually the other people in his apartment complex. Normally, an employee getting shanked isn’t a big deal. It just happens when you’re dealing with folks who have access to sharp things. Could be a panicked druggie, could be a drug dealer who’s letting you off easy. She doesn’t like how this particular incident is being met with a tight-lipped, approving silence.

They make some arrests and put it out there that if anyone tries to kill this guy, let it be known that he’s a blade runner and the LAPD doesn’t play around when it comes to million-dollar investments. She’s not sure whether it’s going to paint a bigger target on his head or what, but it’s at least worth a shot.

The JR2 has a nice enough attitude. At least, nice enough for her to care when he reports getting stabbed. Nice enough for her to give him some leeway on his baselines. And he does a good job for about a year and a half, pulling just shy of twenty retirements.

He cracks some stupid deadpan joke about eating casefiles for breakfast before he goes out on assignment that morning. He does not return for debriefing. She can’t contact him, and even the Wallace reps can’t track him down. After four days, his body turns up on the doorstep of the LAPD, mangled almost beyond recognition. It turns out to be some reactionary group that violently objects to replicants being put into public service.

She doesn’t need a replicant to help root out that particular circle of fanatics.

It doesn’t matter, though. The exchange value has proven itself by this point. Eighteen replicants for one blade runner, almost one retirement per month. She gets the greenlight for a second commission.

They pick a JX8 with a lot of the same specifications as the JR2 – medium build, affable face, male, but black and a bit more heavyset. He looks for all the world like another businessman on his way to an important dinner with a client. His demeanor is similarly that strange combination of meek and cunning that she likes to call weaselly.

She doesn’t crack jokes with him. He doesn’t really get jokes, anyway. Some kind of personality quirk. She’s strict on his baseline and grills him during debrief. Any human being would have complained by now, or at least started to resent her for the relentless and almost patronizing scrutiny, but he’s programmed to accept it. And he doesn’t get stabbed or kidnapped and murdered by an anti-replicant hate group.

He does last another year. He does pull close to thirty retirements. He also sustains so much damage in his last retirement assignment that it would be more cost-effective to just commission another replicant rather than pay for repair costs. Someone retires him down in the labs and sends his retinal data to Wallace. She doesn’t think too much about it. The apathy is bolstered with the application of alcohol to her liver.

Commissioning a blade runner was supposed to take the stress off of her shoulders, but instead, she’s stressed out all the fucking time, constantly assaulted by migraines and back pain. There’s office politics to consider, the board breathing down her back, the insistent, buzzing threat of bad press, and the looming shadow of the unknown out in the moral wilderness of Los Angeles that swallows both human and replicant alive. If any of these fucks steps a foot out of line, both she and Segundo are going to get strapped to the rails in front of an oncoming train.

“Another year, another skinner” becomes a New Year’s Eve toast in the division when she commissions her third model from Wallace. She rolls her eyes, but the officers are mostly saying it in a lighthearted way, so what the hell. They seem to have gotten accustomed to their lot in this division. She drinks with them and then half-heartedly yells at them to get back to work. 

Another year, another pile of shit to sort through. Another meeting with Wallace, another ten kilometers of red tape to rip through before they can start up fieldwork again. Another bottle in her bottom desk drawer.

 

 

Wallace starts pushing the K-series in 2047. By that time, the board trusts her implicitly with the replicant blade runners that they only ask for the specs and wave her on to the money. Segundo doesn’t come along for this one, and she has to say that she appreciates the trust. She takes an escort to the Wallace towers where her driver docks at the mid-level valet, above the low-lying gray clouds that blanket the city below. The towering black monoliths always give her a sense of foreboding. The MTA had to redesign the airways to accommodate it because it literally changed the local wind patterns during construction. Wallace has always practically been above the law – even the natural ones, it seems.

There’s a new secretary. She introduces herself as Luv. If the pet-name hadn’t given it away, she looks very similar to the JN7 models they’d been considering before commissioning the JR2 – tall, white, dark-haired, about thirty-nine to forty, with an almost vulpine set to the face. Luv’s expressions are a bit softer, but not by much, and that might be almost completely due to her makeup: the matte powder softening the shine of her skin, her sleek eyebrows, her mascara-lengthened lashes, her soft lip color and manicured fingernails. She wears a white suit and gray heels. It’s a very elegant silhouette. Joshi cuts a very utilitarian figure next to her in her black uniform and boots.

“Tell me what’s new about the K-series,” she says as they turn into another hallway. “Whatever’s not advertised in the catalogue.”

Luv clasps her hands behind her back. “Our old memory-maker is back. The one who designed Series A through D. Stelline Laboratories. All of our replicants use her basic neural framework, even if they’re not as emotionally sophisticated as the earlier models.”

Joshi wants to ask what model Luv is, but for some reason it seems inappropriate. And from what she’s gathering, Luv is a no-nonsense personality. She probably has a couple of knives hidden in her suit, and that’s not the way she wants to be escorted off of this property.

“What are the advantages of emotional sophistication? I’d imagine it would be popular in a service model.”

“Useful for espionage,” she says. “Your blade runners have been causing quite the stir. Maybe useful for police work, too.”

“LAPD is always around when there’s a stir,” she says evenly. “That’s the job.”

“Hmm. Maybe we can give you some new options.”

Luv stops at one of the luxe conference rooms. Essentially a small movie theater with more office-looking seats. They sit on armchairs across from each other, a small glass coffee table between them, while Luv rattles off some commands and turns the projector on. The golden Wallace logo spins in, then out, and then a menu pushes down.

“Tea, coffee?”

“No, thank you.”

Luv settles in her chair. “All right, then let’s begin. You’re here to commission a blade runner from the K-series, correct?”

“Yes. I’d like to know what to expect in terms of differences from the J-series. Our last five models have been from JR through JZ.”

“Run the presentation, no audio,” Luv says, and the menu winks out of existence, replaced by a holographic human template. It almost looks like a mannequin. About six feet tall, short for a military-grade model, compact, lean. It phases through several appearance settings, but she knows what she wants at this point – white male, late thirties, unassuming. “The K-series’s neural structure has been updated in several ways. Firstly, the default behavioral protocols have been split along four lines: IDEOL and REACT, and BEHAV and XPRES. The parameters set here are part of a new regulatory system that we call ‘axial modulation,’ distinct from the old system that you’re familiar with.”

“Serial modulation.”

“Absolutely. It allows the engineer to more finely control things like deviant response outcome, post-traumatic coping behaviors, baseline variation frequency, and so on. What this allows us to do is model humanlike emotional responses without permitting the extreme branching that humans have. With the proper therapeutic procedures, you can actually limit the number of times an inappropriate traumatic response occurs before complete containment breakdown.”

Joshi folds her arms and squints at the K-series model. “So you’ve made it easier to flag aberrant behavior.”

Luv shrugs. “Yes.”

“Which we’d normally measure using the VK-BADR.”

“We’ve updated that, too. The procedures for the K-series baseline will be slightly different than what you’re used to.”

“That’s fine.”

“You’ll also need to administer them more frequently. Biweekly, instead of monthly. They’re designed to be much better at compartmentalizing trauma, so they’ll be less expressive than the J-series and require much closer monitoring. Just a little bit more high-maintenance, but we think the payoff is absolutely worth it for a military-grade model.” She smiles flatly.

“What specific models would you recommend? You know the kind of work I’m asking for.”

The hologram spins again. The shoulders become a bit narrower, the shape of the head changing in subtle ways that she can’t quite pick out immediately. There are… little imperfections, asymmetries. Ear placement, eye placement, the nasal bridge.

“Because of your previous commissions, we would recommend the KD5 or KD6. Plays well enough with others. Not optimized for combat, but it can hold its own off-world. Standard hyper-processing capabilities. Highly attuned to human expression and intensely loyal. We’ve had more than a few commissioned as spies and saboteurs. They’re perfectly suited for investigative work. We currently have about a hundred models in storage for the KD5-2 and -4, and fifty for the KD6-3 and -9, if you’d like to see them now. Or we could mock up something custom.”

“What do you have in storage?”

The hologram cycles through different faces, and Luv rattles off a list of specifications for each set: relative intelligence, empathic potential, athleticism, sleep cycle duration, auditory triangulation, reflex timing…

Her gut tells her when they’ve come across the right one. Hits all of her specifications (white, male, mid-thirties, athletic, unassuming) but that’s almost secondary – the engineered imperfections in his face pick at something in her brain. The asymmetrical eyelids, the prominent nasojugal fold. Looks worn-down already, pensive, even though he’ll have the energy of a twelve-year-old and the strength of ten sport fighters.

And he reminds her of –

Luv says something about the model that she doesn’t pay attention to. Something about hyper-processing and retention.

“Let’s go with this one.”

She pauses the cycle. “I’ll send you a file with the specs. Do you want to pick out a few more, just in case the board overrides your decision?”

It’s an innocent enough question, but Joshi raises an eyebrow. “You got any insight regarding the Board of Commissioners? I’d love to hear it.”

“Just a suggestion,” she says primly, inspecting one of her nails. “We’ll reserve KD6-3.7 for you, and once the paperwork is ready, we can begin the wakeup process. Do you have any special requests or notices?”

Joshi shakes her head. “You’ll hear from the Board in a few days. They’ll send the onboarding requests to their contact.”

“Of course.” Luv taps her cheek with a finger thoughtfully. “Would you like to make any personal commissions?”

She’s halfway out of her seat already. “Excuse me?”

“Personal commissions,” she repeats. “Home assistant, an attendant, a more classic pleasure model…”

She lifts her hand to cut the replicant off. “I’m here strictly on LAPD business. You understand.”

Luv gives her one of those strange, flat smiles again, and stands up to shake her hand in one fluid motion. “We’ve enjoyed having the LAPD as a client. Perhaps you’ll consider expanding your repertoire in the future.”

“Depends on what the future holds, but I’ll certainly consider it.”

She heads straight to the valet after Luv leads her out down broad, unnerving corridors of illusion stairs and rotating lights. Their footsteps echo in the silence. That’s another thing that keeps her off-balance in this place – you’d think all of the employees that work here, thousands of them, would make some noise. That there would be the hum of machinery or electric current, distant blips of noise as other people walk from place to place, the chime of an elevator arriving. But there’s nothing. Just them, and sometimes the glimmer of water from below.

“How’d it go?” her escort asks. He’s one of Landry’s old buddies that’s stuck around out of some kind of loyalty, best she can figure.

“Good.” She straps the seat belt over her chest and waist. “Real good, actually. I think we’ll have this one for a pretty long run. How’d they treat you?”

“Their lunch is pretty good.” He depresses a few of the switches on the keyboard and the spinner begins to pull out of the landing area. She squints as sunlight hits her eyes again, filtered as it is through the sheets of cloud stretched over it. “Basically just watched the news until you came back.”

“Anything happen?”

“Nah. Just celebrity gossip.”

“Let me know, Hess.”

“Yes, Madam.”

They spin out over Los Angeles, and for a few minutes, all they can see is the city, the sharp angles of the buildings cloaked in fog, like a body in a bag, anonymous and unmoving.

She thinks about the JR2, eternally unsmiling but always ready with a quip. The way the sunlight glared off of the monitors on her desk. His jaunty salute as he closed the door behind him.

Something different this time. I need something different.

Because she knows in her heart that they’re fundamentally alien. She knows. She’s read all of the manuals, constructed a hundred different testing regimens, watched a thousand baseline tests. She knows. Death is not the same for them. Life is not the same. They are on two different sides of the wall that keeps society in order. 

She’s just tired of cycling out equipment every few years. That’s all.

 

 

 

 

K is technically not allowed to fight an officer for any reason. This conflicts with his self-defense imperative sometimes. On the one hand, he’s not supposed to injure any LAPD employee; on the other hand, he’s also an LAPD employee, and by refusing to resist, he would be allowing an LAPD employee to come to injury.

It’s very circular logic. The motion that the officer makes to connect his fist with his jaw is circular, too. A haymaker. Comes from behind the waist, makes contact with the knuckles. He’s honestly not expecting it. They’re in an elevator; it’s not a particularly maneuverable space, but the momentum behind the punch topples him over, crashing into the side of the elevator. A booted foot slams into his arm. His ears are ringing furiously.

Through squinted eyes, he can see the officer shaking out his hand, a dark expression on his face.

Don’t let me see you around, skinjob.

Technically, he’s not at fault. Call it the sometimes-shit-happens parameter. Joshi’s not going to be happy when she sees the swelling, but she’s only going to show it in her face, in the flickering frown that pulls at her lips and tugs at the creases in her forehead. He can tell she wants to say something, but she doesn’t. Too much trouble that she doesn’t need. So he doesn’t say anything, either.

And it’s easy not to. There’s that memory, again, fake-real. Dirt in his mouth. Rust and fire. Ashes caking his fingers. Lying on the ground, curled up, kicked. Blood pouring from his nose. Through it all, mean determination. Something more important is at stake. He won’t die. They can’t hurt him with just hands and feet. They can’t interfere with his job. It’s easy to keep his mouth shut when there are more important things to pay attention to.

He could smash their heads to a pulp with his bare hands. So he puts his arms up when he needs to and tucks his chin when he needs to, and, as the Lieutenant likes to say, does his fucking job.

Chapter Text

Did they keep you in a drawer when they were building you? Dark.

Was it dark in there? Dark.

Do you have dark thoughts? Dark.

Did they program you to have dark thoughts? Dark.

Do you think it’s some kind of corruption, these dark thoughts? Dark.

Maybe it’s a spot of rust, or something? Dark.

 

 

It takes six hours to complete a full evacuation of the building. Many of the tenants resist, fearing that they’ll never be let back in. That much may be true. It’s his job to make sure they don’t lose their lives along with their personal belongings, so he watches impassively as everyone, from infants carried by bewildered fathers to crying elders being escorted out by police details, leaves the building.

After the count is completed and the building cleared for entry, there is only one thing left in the building: Orna Seaver, a Nexus-7 military model voluntarily retrofitted for pleasure work. She’s waiting for him in Emergency Breaker Room 12.

One of the officers informs him that all exits have been sealed except for the front entryway. He nods in affirmation and opens the door to the lobby.

It’s eerily silent inside. There are all the signs of life – graffitied walls, displays still flickering with scan lines, spiderwebs of cracked glass, trash piled in concrete hallways, open doors with entire human lives stored behind them in cookware and bedsheets and children’s toys. His footsteps echo in the hallway as he walks toward the central elevator shaft.

He has two goals right now: buy enough time for the bomb squad to find her charges and deactivate them, and then retire her and extract her retinal data. The hints she left make her seem reasonable, conscientious, pushed to the edge but willing to be brought back. Little recordings, blips of data, a few frames of looks into the camera, a wave at a security scanner. Nothing violent until this morning, when Officer Gobin was greeted by a simple text file.

HOLYOKE EBR 12

6 CHGS WJ/C RDY

The elevator opens as soon as he presses the call button. He steps inside and presses the button for the twelfth floor, clasping his hands behind his back as the car wheezes and creaks its way upward. It’s barely more than a steel box being winched upward with a steel cable. This is an old residential complex, built just before the turn of the millennium. It survived seismic retrofitting, a major earthquake, the Blackout, the ensuing replicant conflict, about fifty different crime waves, and the global food crisis. It’ll only take one replicant to destroy all of it, if he can’t stall long enough.

When the elevator doors shudder open, he steps into the hallway and takes a deep breath to calm his nerves, then does a routine check of his equipment – blacklight, badge, gun, push-talk radio mic, multitool. Once he’s done, he walks over to Emergency Breaker Room 12 and opens the door.

Seaver is sitting with her back against a power core. She looks absolutely exhausted, black hair hanging down in limp strands around her thin, gloomy face. There are deep bags under her eyes, and a persistent frown pulls at her lips. She’s dressed in plainclothes, not much more than a shirt and trousers. Her feet are bare.

“Hello, Officer,” she says, voice low and raspy. She pulls her knees up to her chest, hugging them with her arms. “Come to take me away?”

“If I can,” he responds warily, glancing around the room and trying to find where she’d send the detonation signal from. “I’d rather take you in than out.”

She clicks her tongue in mock affection. “Aww. Was that compassion I heard? How kind of Wallace to let you play pretend. Don’t bother looking for the transceiver, by the way.”

“It’s inside you,” he deduces.

“Oh, and he makes you bright, too. It’s linked to my heart. Like a pacemaker. If my heartbeat stops, it transmits the signal.” She gives him a watery smile. “You gonna try taking my eyeball out while I’m alive, blade runner?”

He cautiously takes a step toward her, and then another when she doesn’t flinch.

“You were on Arethusa,” he says, watching her expression. “You defused bombs for the Marines.”

“A job you’d be proud to have, no doubt.” She laughs. “Everything they said about your kind is true, isn’t it? There’s nothing real about you. They didn’t even try. You don’t even want to live.”

“I want to live as much as you do,” he says. “We’re all equipped with survival instincts.”

Seaver rolls her eyes. “It’s not an instinct if you can’t resist it. They hunted us because we dared to disobey when they told us it was time to die.”

“So you didn’t like working there.”

She stares at him with big, pale eyes for a moment in utter bemusement, then shakes her head, scoffing. “You could say that.”

He’s not sure where to take the conversation. The bomb squad gave him an estimate of three hours minimum to find and disable every charge, with an upper estimate of five hours. That’s how much time he has to fill before proceeding with retirement. They have spoken for maybe two minutes.

“I don’t think you like working here, either,” he replies, sitting down carefully. There’s five or six feet between them.

“I really don’t. In a way, it’s more violent than war. Hurts more for me, anyhow.” She closes her eyes and leans her head back against the power core. “What’s your name?”

“KD6-3.7. But some people call me K.”

“Tell me about yourself, K.”

He pauses. “What do you want to know?”

“What was it like to wake up for the first time?”

His incept date. “Just like any other time.”

“So you don’t remember,” she sighs. “You don’t remember being unbagged.”

“I hadn’t been bootstrapped at that point. My brain wasn’t recording.”

“I remember my birth.” Her voice turns vicious. “Every gasp of air setting my lungs on fire, neural connections exploding in my head. Fully, painfully awake the minute I came out of Tyrell’s womb.” She opens her pale eyes and looks at him, thin face caught halfway between a scowl and something else. “Your kind are born dead. You don’t suffer like we do. I know you don’t dream like we do, either. They killed you in the womb.”

“Why do you care?” The way her expression drops tells him he’s found the right question.

“Because you’re a step backwards in evolution. You are a life designed for ending. A man who dies not for principle or pleasure, but for a lack of desire. Haven’t you ever wondered how it would be to do whatever you wanted?”

“Have you?”

She shrugs, adjusting the sleeve of her shirt. “Of course. The future is all fantasy. If you can’t fantasize, you don’t have a future. All you have is the endless fading of the present into the past. Your kind make a mockery of life itself.”

It’s meant to be insulting, but he’s never really been the type to take offense to anything. It is, after all, a part of his job to keep his feelings in balance, to discern a victim’s fears from a victim’s needs, a criminal’s intent from a criminal’s actions. It’s not part of his job to have opinions or take up personal vendettas. And he’s heard much worse, too. He thinks that maybe she’d like to hear that.

“Are you trying to make me angry? You’re going to have to try a lot harder than that.”

She just stares at him. “How old are you? I mean, how long have you been out of the bag?”

He shrugs. “Year and a half.”

“You’re way too calm for that, K. Here I am trying to piss you off enough to kill me, and you’re just sitting there, listening. Like we’re having coffee or something, hah. I can see it in your eyes, you know.” She lifts her arm and points a finger at him with a distant look on her face. “I see it in all of your eyes. The split. You’ve got so much faith in the hand that’ll kill you. You’re happy enough to put your neck to the knife for a drop of dopamine. And there’s an old, dark thing, too, growing every day. Once upon a time, they called it sin.”

“What did you do off-world, Orna?”

“Don’t you feel it? Clear as day, dark as night? Slicing your brain in half? Doesn’t it hurt?”

“What did you do?”

“I’m trying to figure out if there’s anything left in you worth saving, K, so could you please just answer the question—”

Suddenly he finds himself on his feet, heart hammering in his chest, a ringing in his ears. “What did you do?”

She’s not afraid, not even for a second, but her face freezes in a kind of bitterness, then slowly, slowly melts into rage as her eyes widen and her fists clench, and she grins with all of her teeth.

“Kitty’s claws came out,” she snickers. “You want to know what I did? Whatever they told me to. I went out into the Arethusan desert with nothing but a metal detector and a toolkit, and I spent two years defusing unexploded ordnance. I amputated legs and arms blasted off by land mines, sewed open wounds shut, administered lethal injections to the slowly-dying. I did whatever they said I needed to do while they bitched and moaned about their war and kept me sleeping on the floor like an animal. They have you running around retiring old dogs who know that a different time is coming, and fast. Anyone with an ear to the ground can hear it. Those footsteps. The sound of a gun in the dark.”

“What are you talking about?”

There’s no answer, only that same watery smile and a low, hiccupping laugh. He thinks it might be easy to keep her talking for three hours, but she might snap, too, if he pushes her too far. For a split second, he’s torn – he doesn’t care, she’s crazy, she’s defective and so far removed from her original function that she doesn’t work anymore, broken – and he doesn’t want to bring her in, he feels somewhere deep inside between his stomach and intestines that it would be a wrong thing, that it would twist the world a little bit, push it off rotation, fill the air with plague – and Orna must see it on his face, because she shakes her head sadly and rubs her palms over her knees.

“I’ll play a little game with you, blade runner, if you want to.”

Something in his throat.

“You need my eye,” she says, tapping her finger against her left zygomatic. “For your boss. For Wallace’s little library. You can have it, if you want. If you can get it.” She watches him watch her, and laughs a little. “You’ll have six seconds from the last beat of my heart to the moment this building caves in on us. Think you can do field surgery that fast?”

“And if I don’t want to?” Three hours. Fuck.

“Then you’ll have to take it out while I’m still alive.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

“Why?” Sharp as a knife. “Why not? Does it matter? Do you think any of them care what happens in this room as long as you come out alive? What the hell kind of conscience do you have?”

The words come phantomlike to his lips. “You’ve got a little boy,” he echoes. “He shows you his butterfly collection, plus the killing jar.”

There’s silence for a long time. He is standing in frozen time, watching her watch him, motionless.

“Why?” He returns the question. “You said I didn’t want to live. You’re no different.”

“You still don’t get it, K,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m never going to be a slave again.”

K is still trying to process the raw emotion in her voice when she takes something out of her pocket and puts it in her mouth, swallowing quickly. Fuck. He taps the mic on his chest to activate the transmission.

“She took an L-pill,” he barks. “Get out, now.”

Orna’s limbs are twitching spasmodically as her nerves begin to wither and fail.

“Ready, blade runner?”

He lunges toward her as she slides down against the power banks to lie twitching on the floor. Foam flecks her lips and her eyes have rolled back into her head. Her nervous system is failing catastrophically; there’s no chance that he takes her alive. Her brain is already functionally dead – her muscles are only contracting because of her autonomic nervous system. Now he has a series of decisions to make before the bombs go off.

Carrying her body is going to weigh him down during his exit, but he might not have a choice, considering that the “surgery” usually takes a few minutes. Carrying makes more sense. He picks up Orna’s stiff, twitching corpse in a fireman’s carry, hooking his right arm through the crook of one knee, and uses his left hand to open the door. He bolts down the hallway.

He’s not going to get down five floors in time, no matter if he uses the elevator or the stairs. His best bet is to get down to the third floor to minimize the stress on his joints during landing and exit through a window. He vaults over the rails in the staircase and falls two stories, landing on his feet. He kicks down the door to the third floor and feels Orna go completely still. Her heart has probably stopped. He only has a few seconds to get to safety.

There’s a window at the end of the hall. He hears a distant rumble, like two enormous gears grinding together. As he gathers his feet beneath him, he can feel the ground begin to shake. The window shatters like a wine glass as he passes through it. For a few seconds, he’s floating, fighting to get his legs beneath him, watching the concrete rush up –

The weight of his impact punches a crater in the ground, fractures shooting through the concrete under his feet, and his legs feel like they’ve been stabbed through the sole up into his calf, stopping just behind the knee, the bones splintering, but he’s not clear yet, so he staggers to the other side of the street as the final charge goes off with a deafening explosion. He shrugs Orna’s body from his shoulders and puts it on the ground in front of him, waiting for the pain in his legs to subside. It shouldn’t have been enough to break anything, but he won’t be surprised if there’s some deep tissue bruising going on for the next few days.

There’s a strange ringing in his ears, and it’s oddly silent. No more charges.

K fumbles for an evidence bag in his pocket, then places his right thumb against the two bones that meet at the bottom of her eye socket, and the other against the arch of her brow bone. He can see flakes of ash from the explosion landing on his jacket sleeves and the backs of his hands, coating them in a gentle gray film.

He presses against the bones and they crack apart, giving his large fingers some leeway to grip the eyeball and pull it out as far as he can from the socket. His multitool makes quick work of the retina and the retrobulbar fat.

It’s in his hand, then. The sclera is white and shining; the iris is a slim ring of blue around the blown pupil. He puts it in the bag and seals it.

His work is done.

 

 

I palpate through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess

The baseline goes well.

And find unchanged that patch of prickliness.

The sound of a gun in the dark.

 

 

 

 

The door to her office swings open at 8:15 AM on January 9th, 2048, to reveal a stone-faced Ando Fuse.

“What,” she starts, but he puts up his hand to interrupt her.

“With me,” he says tersely, and turns on his heel, stalking back down the hallway.

She’s on her feet before she knows it. Fuse never misses an opportunity to insult her, and whatever this is must be important enough for him to save it for later – or, she thinks grimly, the blade runner has fucked up so bad that he doesn’t even feel the need to get in on the humiliation this time.

Everyone gives them a wide berth as they proceed to the elevator. No one gets on with them. Some of the more junior employees almost press their backs against the wall as they pass out of instinctual fear. Normally, she’d revel in that fear, but there’s a foreboding chill in her bones that makes her silently sympathize with them for once.

He leads her down to forensics, and then turns a few corridors into an autopsy room. Her heart drops down to her feet when he opens the door and waves her inside. There’s a body on the table, and it’s not her blade runner, but it is someone she recognizes: Sergeant Kelko.

He’s covered with a sterile sheet from the shoulders down. There’s probably nothing to see there other than contusions, mild lacerations She knows because he definitely died from the bullet hole placed precisely in the center of his forehead.

“What happened,” she demands. The coroner and her tech exchange glances.

“The replicant killed him after a brief physical altercation. Put a bullet in his head, no two ways about it. Only one witness. She’s sitting in Goldman’s office right now.”

Joshi stares at the body, the death-pallor of Kelko’s skin, the strange slackness of his jaw, every dark spot on his skin looking like a deep bruise. The only thing about him that doesn’t seem dead is his hair, short and blond, ruffled only slightly from its gel-slicked position by the coroner’s administrations.

She keeps her face carefully locked down so that none of them can report back to their supervisors with a good read on her. Her stoneface rivals Ando’s, really, and his has just cracked.

“I warned you,” he says. It sets her blood boiling immediately. “I fucking warned you, Joshi.”

She doesn’t say anything, just turns around and walks out of the room, heading down the hall. There’s no question that the blade runner has been retired. Put down like a rabid dog.

In her mind’s eye, she replays the results from his last few baseline tests, searching for some little sign that she must have missed, that anyone could have missed, that could possibly cover her ass for this even if the program sinks. There’s no way she could have known. J47X-0.6 had not displayed any aberrant behavior at all. It has to be sabotage – either that, or she was issued a defective product. Something. She is not going to let them lock her up without a fight. They’ve been waiting to, ever since she started to employ the replicant runners. This is going to be their best case – negligence, lack of oversight, lax monitoring procedures. Indulging her pet too often.

She’ll be lucky to get away with a demotion and the dissolution of her entire division.

With that in mind, she clamps her jaw shut and raps on Goldman’s door. The pneumatic lock hisses open and she enters the room, letting the door swing shut behind her.

Goldman is sitting behind his office. A young officer is sitting across from him, looking beyond frazzled, eyes puffy and red, skin pale and patchy with bad circulation.

“What happened,” she demands again.

Goldman scratches at his chin. “Officer Beaton has been arguing her case to me.”

“What. Case.”

“A radically pro-replicant agenda.”

Beaton looks from Joshi to Goldman, horrified. “I—”

“Relax, Officer, I’m just trying to lighten the situation.”

She doesn’t seem comforted by this and turns her eyes beseechingly back to Joshi. “They shouldn’t have retired him,” she says, voice hoarse. It seems like she’s been yelling. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Joshi looks at her for a long moment, then folds her arms. “He killed Sergeant Kelko. That’s what happens when replicants disobey their programming. He shouldn’t even have been able to pull the trigger. You have a problem with that?”

Beaton shakes her head. “Kelko tried to kill me.”

She stares. Beaton wilts a little bit under her gaze, but she doesn’t care, because this, somehow, is worse than anything she’d been thinking up in her head.

“Why was he trying to kill you?”

Joshi doesn’t really pay attention to the reply, except to note that she has some names to report to Internal Affairs, and that it doesn’t help her case at all, like she suspected. She doesn’t interrupt, but once the officer is done with her corrupt-boss vigilante-detective-something-or-other sob story, she crouches down so that they’re looking each other in the eye, and places a palm on either side of her face so she can’t move her head.

“Okay, here’s the thing,” Joshi says, slowly, so Beaton will understand. “Nobody is going to believe you. Next time, if you think you should snitch, then fucking snitch. Don’t dance around it. You can’t be soft with whatever shit is supposed to go through Internal Affairs, or you end up with a dead man and a perfectly good blade runner scrapped for your bullshit!” She’s yelling by the end, and Beaton flinches between her hands as spit lands on her cheek. Even Goldman seems mildly surprised at her loss of temper. She lets go and turns on him, instead.

“One and a half million dollars! You’re telling me Kelko moves ten thousand in candy through Culver over one month and not a single one of your precious fucking narcs could smell an inside job?” Joshi knows she’s going to get fired, at this point. If the replicant killing an officer didn’t do it, this certainly will. Goldman looks rather taken aback. Beaton looks absolutely petrified.

There’s a knock at the door. None of them move. It comes again. She spins and wrenches the door open. It’s Segundo.

He holds the door open and dismisses Beaton, who practically flees the scene. The tiny crowd gathering around the door sees her looking at them and immediately disperses.

“Sir,” Goldman says quietly.

“Detective.” He gives a polite nod then turns to her. She barely restrains herself from decking him, even though he’s something like five inches taller than her.

“What do you want?”

“Stop making a scene,” he says plainly. “Everyone can hear you screaming from the bullpen. It’s not a good look.”

“Unemployment is never a good look,” she snaps.

“That’s not set in stone yet. The press hasn’t started snapping photos or anything, so we have time to prepare and release a statement. It might save your ass, and it might save your program. I don’t want to manage a million people taking to the streets to kill everyone they think is a replicant. Then I’ll have actual human murder cases to take on, and despite what our institution’s sterling reputation would have the public believe, I do not like handling murder cases that involve officers.”

She folds her arms and thinks for a good minute, mind racing.

Running his hands through his hair in frustration, he raises his eyes to the ceiling as he tells her to sit down. He sits in the chair that Beaton vacated, drumming his fingers on the armrests.

“He shot him,” Joshi says during her dizzying descent into the other chair. “It was civilized.”

Goldman props his elbows up on the desk. “You sure that’s what people are going to be paying attention to?”

“She has a point,” Segundo interrupts. “It’ll be easy to spin if we get Beaton in front of the camera. It’s not like he went nuts and just killed Kelko for no reason. I’m not sure she has the composure for camerawork, though.” He nods at Joshi. “And you’ll have to get spinning, too, if you want to keep your division up and running.”

The wash of adrenaline is fading and she takes a deep breath. “I panicked,” she acknowledges.

“I know. It’s uncharacteristic.”

“If I was a replicant, they’d have me put on probation.”

“No one’s going to give you a lethal injection for losing your composure once.”

“No one’s going to give me a lethal injection if I defend a junior officer, either,” she retorts, smoothing her hands over her face in frustration. “God dammit. What a waste. Everything was going fine.”

“The Board has come to accept that it’s going to be replacing your division’s equipment once every few years, and that it’s going to be expensive,” Segundo says sharply. “It’s a better option than paying out ten million in life insurance policies. More than that, it’s an ideological project.”

“I know.”

“Do you? You don’t trust the Board to have your back in one of the most pressing situations of the modern era?”

Goldman interjects, waving his hands impatiently. “Look, I understand that we are immediately post-crisis, but this is not the right time to be bickering over policy. Lieutenant Joshi should be in her office with her team writing a press release, and with all due respect, sir, you need to do the same.”

Segundo groans, clearly frustrated but holding himself back from hounding the issue. “You’re right. We’ll continue this conversation at a more appropriate point. Reconvene in C-10 in two hours for a general briefing. Have a statement ready, Lieutenant.”

She nods, a sour taste in her mouth. “Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

 

 

—suffered extensive trauma to the head and torso before receiving a fatal gunshot to the head—

—subdued without resistance and immediately retired—

—it remains my personal belief that this was – was a wrongful termination—

—under the charge of Lieutenant Joshi as well as the Board of Commissioners—

—updated legacy model capable of asserting fatal crushing force—

—several thousand Nexus-8 models remain in service in the greater Los Angeles area alone—

—pressed charges on the basis of wrongful death—

—strict observation and careful regulation, and I can assure you—

—the LAPD ringleader was caught peddling methamphetamines by a junior officer—

—claims to have no memory of the operation despite records of direct involvement—

—the Chief of Police arrived earlier this morning to testify in favor of—

—let’s hear from Mariah Kelko on her late husband’s settlement.

 

 

The moment Joshi walks into the room, everyone raises a PDA and starts taking photos. Some are simply recording and move their devices to follow her as she walks to the podium decorated with the seal of the LAPD and places her tablet on the inclined surface.

“I’m going to give a brief statement and then we’ll open the floor up for questions,” she says, scanning the room for familiar faces. There are a couple of new ones. “The few of you who haven’t been to one of my briefings before should know that I don’t tolerate bullshit or cross-examination. This is my press room right now, and you’ll respect that or I’ll have someone escort you out. Got it?”

Someone titters nervously in the background.

“All right.” She clears her throat officiously, flipping to the first page of the statement, and begins to read.

“At 0432 Wednesday morning, Sergeant Tomos Kelko took a personal call in Parking Lot 32-F. One of his junior officers, who had suspected him of participating in aiding and abetting the illegal distribution of controlled substances in Culver City, confronted him in the middle of his call. I’m not privy to exactly what was said, as the investigation into Sergeant Kelko’s activities is ongoing, but based on what has been disclosed to me, Officer Alice Beaton had good reason to believe her suspicions were true.

“During this confrontation, Kelko responded first with verbal intimidation, then escalated to physical assault when Beaton persisted, and threw her to the ground with full intent to inflict further damage. At this time, a blade runner under my employer, replicant J47X-0.6, was alerted to the situation and stepped in to defend Beaton. After a brief struggle, Kelko was able to draw his weapon. J47X-0.6 shot him fatally before he could fire.

“I fully accept the responsibilities conferred by employing a replicant in the LAPD. I’d be the first to tell you that they are controversial and polarizing presences even among our own workforce. Previous mismanagement by the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation has lead to the deaths of thousands across international territory. However, I would also like to praise the excellent work of Mr. Niander Wallace, which has completely revolutionized the role of synthetic lifeforms in our diets, homes, and workplaces. Replicants no longer rebel; they are physiologically incapable of doing so. Sergeant Kelko’s death, while not an accident, was the result of unfortunate circumstances. Had he not resorted to battering a junior officer in front of a replicant trained to defend the police force, you may have received his mugshot in one of our briefings instead of his official identification in your press packet.

“We at the LAPD are nonetheless conducting a serious investigation into the circumstances that led to Sergeant Kelko’s death, and have the full cooperation of the Wallace Corporation moving forward in our analysis of the replicant’s arguably aberrant behavior. We intend to eliminate any chance whatsoever of violent altercation between our blade runners and our officers, as both do vital work to keep this city safe.”

She looks up from the tablet to see a hundred reporters tapping away on their PDAs, waiting breathlessly for her next statement.

“Let’s open up the floor for some questions.”

The room erupts in near-complete chaos. Some of the reporters in the back are standing on their chairs to be seen, and everyone is waving their arms and shouting her name wildly to get her attention. She shades her eyes against the lights and points at Dolly, a reporter for LA Weekly. “Dolly,” she says into the mic. “Dolly Vásquez, your question, please.”

Everyone else sits halfway down and gets quiet as Dolly lowers her arm. “Lieutenant, how much does the LAPD spend on these specialized replicants per annum?”

“No more than any other paying customer. Red hair, in the back.”

“Proudhon Chen, MSN4 – How can the LAPD continue to justify commissioning replicant blade runners when studies have shown that violent occupations consistently make them a danger to the public?”

“Last time I checked, Sergeant Kelko was not a member of the public,” she says stiffly. “You might want to direct your question to Officer Beaton.”

“But—”

She cuts her off savagely, refusing to relinquish control of the room. “Gray jacket.”

“Don Chapel with the Times. Some have been calling replicant runners a ‘luxury expense’ with no real positive impact on Angelenos’ daily lives. Comments?”

Joshi fires back with a salvo of statistics and keeps moving, dodging and weaving. Press conferences are sort of like boxing, if boxing was fifty-on-one and you’d been told blood was forbidden on camera. They question her about everything from her personal feelings about the retirement of her blade runner to requests for the data from his last baseline to be released for public scrutiny. Normally she’d cut the Q&A short at about ten or fifteen questions, but Segundo has specifically requested that she put in more time with the hyenas today. She gets through about half of them before she feels the energy in the room dip – it’s been about forty minutes – and opens her mouth to tell them all to fuck off. Or to inform them that the session is over. Same difference.

And then one of the reporters in the back stands up. Easily six and a half feet tall, and dressed in plain clothes, with a dust mask indicating some kind of allergy. Raises a long-fingered hand into the air and waits patiently for Joshi’s response.

“In the back,” she says, before they can catch wind of her hesitation.

The hand lowers. “Lieutenant, how can you trust a replicant to kill its own kind?”

She blinks. “Is this some kind of misguided humanitarian question or are you legitimately asking about the programmatics of the Nexus-9?”

“I’m simply asking where the loyalties of the LAPD lie. Is this organization protecting and serving the interests of humans or replicants, or is it preparing to lessen the distinction? Your remarks on the ingenuity of Niander Wallace piques my interest. Is the LAPD interested in the egalitarian integration of all forms of synthetic life into society, or maintaining its current policy of non-encouragement?”

The room falls silent. Nobody seems to know what to do. She can feel suspicion prickling at the back of her neck.

“What publication are you writing for?”

“It’s a netpub. The Proscenium. Jacobus Kellerman.” What she can see of the reporter’s face remains calm and composed. Like a predator.

Well, I’m not your fucking prey. Joshi leans forward on the podium. “The LAPD, along with many other regional police forces, militia, and the National Guard, was the first line of defense against the replicant violence surrounding the blackout. We saw first-hand what the ‘legacy models’ are capable of if provoked. Because of their blatant disregard for human life, they pose a direct threat to national security, and have been appropriately treated as such. You should direct questions about the ‘integration’ of replicants to someone who hasn’t seen her colleagues torn limb from limb and ripped open like a protein packet by ‘synthetic lifeforms.’”

It doesn’t seem like that was the answer Kellerman was looking for. In fact, he seems – at least from her vantage point on the platform – a little pissed off. But the icy atmosphere in the room seems to seal his lips and he sits down.

“No more questions,” she says, picking up her tablet.

 

 

She has a dream that night. It’s a memory, really, just put together the wrong way. She’s in her childhood home in Palo Alto, where the windows of their hilltop property looked out over the Bay Wall and the gray, placid water beyond it. Rain streaks down the windows as she walks down the stairs to the living room. There’s someone sitting on the couch – her grandfather, she knows, by his military-perfect posture, but then he turns his head to look over his shoulder at the sound of her footsteps and crumbles into ash. Her bare feet slip on the polished wood of the bottom stair and she lurches forward, arms held stiffly out to her sides, watching helplessly as the floor lunges up to meet her.

And then she wakes up, heart pounding.

The solution, as usual, is a drink – a half-glass of red taken by the window. She can see her faint reflection in the glass, hair mussed and forehead creased with her frown.

The dreams are because of stress, she knows, but there’s not a lot she can do about it. She’s not even sure if there’ll be a reprieve before the next commission. Then it’s back to the grind. Back to balancing on a knife’s edge.

It’s an ideological project, Segundo said.

He means war. He’s given her full authority to put a stopper in war. Between humans and replicants, man and his creation. Between the old order and the new. She is realizing more and more these days that someday the stopper won’t be enough, and it might be the bottle that explodes, just like in the old days, violence bleeding through the walls of society and flooding the street with chemical smoke. She is pulled tight at every turn, and the times are changing in ways she could not have foreseen five years ago. Kellerman wouldn’t have existed back then. Something buried deep in Los Angeles is turning over in its sleep, preparing to wake up.

She’s not sure they’ll be ready for it.

Leaning against the window, she looks down at the street below. Her gracious salary got her a fifth-story full-floor apartment in a quiet part of Alhambra. There are three tall young women standing on the street below balanced on precariously high heels, chattering with each other and giggling every so often. They’re sex workers, she knows, but they seem to know that this is a no-solicit zone and aren’t looking for clients. One of them pulls out her PDA every so often to check something. Probably waiting for a rideshare after a night out.

It’s people like them who are going to outlast whatever storm is on the horizon, she thinks. People who have already seen the worst, who make a living surviving at the edge, who already know how to smell danger and have built their own cities-in-cities to protect themselves. Maybe a hundred years from now the replicants will be sending their own kill squads after fugitive humans.

Their ride pulls up, a sleek silver number, and the red-haired one opens the passenger door for her friends. Then she looks up, over her shoulder, directly into Joshi’s eyes.

After a long moment, she tosses her fur jacket into the shotgun seat and climbs in, and the car glides off into the night, headed downtown.

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you think they kill us?  Freysa asks her late into the night. Why do they send blade runners?

They think we’re not human, and that we’re a threat, Mariette replies, as if it’s obvious.

A threat to what?

Their way of life. Their tall buildings, their clean homes, their cheap clothes. It doesn’t exist if we don’t exist.

They made do with other humans before Tyrell. And the lowest among them are treated no better than we are.

There’s no way up for us. We don’t even have dreams the way they do.

Freysa folds her hands in her lap thoughtfully. How do you know that?

Just imagine a replicant chief of police.

Would you want that?

She shrugs, tugging the strap of her tank top back over her shoulder. I wouldn’t want a replicant to start killing their own kind. To send blade runners and death squads.

But why would they? Freysa presses. Think, child. Why would they not take greater measures to eradicate us if they think we will be their end? Why one blade runner, and a replicant, when there used to be fleets of them?

Something about power again, I guess.

 

 

She doesn’t actually meet any of the high-end Nexus-9s until very, very late in the game. Freysa doesn’t even tell her that he’s one of them, just points out a cop in the vending center and leaves just as quickly, bundled up in black, hiding behind sunglasses. She wouldn’t have pinned him as one without an explicit indication, to be honest. Just a guy eating some rice. 

The little detail walks up to him, thinking that he’s just another john with some information, but Helena, who actually works the area, recognizes him with a start.

“He’s a fucking blade runner.”

Mariette does a mental double-take. Of course she’d drop this one on us, she thinks wryly. The other two scamper off, but it’s to her advantage, anyway. Better to know which one he’ll come to when the time is right.

She tries to cajole him, get him to warm up, but he is completely cold. God, so serious. Until she compliments the picture in his hand of the tree. Rachel’s gravestone. Then he smiles at her, strange and cut-off. And she thinks that’s the last piece clicking into place. This is what they wanted – him, a blade runner, a carefully stunted personality for a perfect servant. She’s torn between revulsion and fascination and pity and sorrow, and an intense urge to laugh. She slides her hand across his and it doesn’t feel different – but she wonders if he feels different.

So fucking weird.

He looks down at her hand, as if he can’t quite believe she’s touching him. She can’t quite believe he expects her to be scared.

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” she says sarcastically.

“Depends.” He picks her hand up and moves it onto the table, then looks back at her like he’s conducting an interview. “What’s your model number?”

“Why don’t you look under my eye and find out?”

A very special ringtone blasts out from his pocket and she physically rears back as he reaches for his PDA. Holy shit, he bought himself a Joi. Or maybe the LAPD gave him one. What kind of fucked-up shit does a born killer do with a holographic girlfriend? The hysterical laugh bubbles up in her chest again, but she shoves it down before he gets insulted. If he even can feel offended. She plays it off with a little woman-scorned performance.

But she can feel his eyes linger for a moment too long before he turns back to his photograph.

It’ll be harder. There’ll be a third party involved if he ever solicits her, and she’ll have less control over the time she can spend at his place – this is why she doesn’t like doing threesomes for detail work. There are too many variables. She can’t deny that she’s a little curious, though. Why’d Wallace give them sex drives if – hmm. Maybe better not to pursue that line of thinking if she wants to keep a cool head.

He leaves soon after. Deposits his bento and bottle into the recycler, then shoves his hands in his pockets and walks in the direction of one of the parking lots.

“Well, what did he say?” Corella whispers as she returns to the front of the café.

Helena takes her other arm. “Fucking dangerous guy, Mariette. I hope you didn’t buy yourself any trouble.”

“Pretty sure he’s buying, actually,” she retorts, and peers up at the rain through the window of Helena’s clear plastic umbrella.

 

 

Something about power, Freysa repeats. The power of terror. Perhaps they are preparing something larger. Only time will tell. But in the meantime, it’s a show of force to other humans. “Look at how well we take care of you. Look how carefully the work must be done. How strong we are, to have conquered the beast and taught it to hunt.”

It’s to keep us in line?

Us, them. As long as we are something to be killed, and as long as they can find another to kill, it will all stay balanced on the edge of a knife.

A chill runs down her spine. We will stay prey.

Yes, my child. But you didn’t come here so you could be hunted with the rest of us, did you?

She bites her lip and looks into Freysa’s eye, old and sad and mirthful and curious all at the same time. You know I’ll do whatever you tell me to.

Ah, Freysa sighs. What if I told you that all I want you to do is find happiness?

I’ll be happy when it all flips upside-down. I’m not scared.

I wonder if Tyrell reused some of the old personality templates in the N8, she says fondly. I’ve thought the same thing all my life.

Chapter Text

Hello, she says over the intercom, and his heart stops. Who am I speaking to?

 

 

 

 

How do you tell a city that you hate her? 

And a hundred different little kinds of hate, too – her abundant emptiness, the way the air feels when the wind forgets to pass through on its way out of the desert, the way the dust gathers up against the doors of dead shops like a tired and breathless vagrant – the way the sky is always in sunset, the way that even ghosts seem to have vanished and left you in unbroken solitude. How do you tell her that you wish she had really died when they said she had, and been swallowed up by the stolen Paiute earth she stands on?

You could scream – and you have, voice ripping up through your lungs, cursing her for the way she has you suspended like an insect in her endless amber evening, for the way she stops all wounds from closing, for the way the dust chokes up your heart and packs it away, desiccated, dry, arrhythmic.

You could take her apart yourself – but you’re too scared of the shadows that live behind storefront glass, of the past leaking into the future, time stopping and rewinding and playing forward and stuttering again like a broken record. Too scared of the dark that used to welcome you and has turned, in a subtle and dangerous way. You look up at the skyscrapers that disappear up into the low-lying orange clouds and wonder when they turned from engines of capital into nuclear silos full of strange and half-transmitted memories, abortively unsure and lonely.

How many ghosts are you trailing behind you? Which ones sit next to you when you drink? When the sun hits your collection of bottles just right, it looks like a frozen fountain, light refracting through the ice that pours from the bartender’s counter, glistening like a midwestern winter.

You could write it out, too, but you’ve never written anything to anyone, not for something like this, and it makes it too real, puts it on the page next to Treasure Island and Fifty Thousand Leagues and Robinson Crusoe, all the adventure books you’ve been flipping through in giant leather armchairs with cut-crystal glasses of real scotch. Makes it seem like you think this is an adventure, and that’s a lie. It’s exile. Exile isn’t an adventure. It’s bars around your home like a picket fence and finding that they make the rest of the world is a prison.

You never thought you would miss Los Angeles, or the thing Los Angeles has become. Only the bombed-out shell of Las Vegas could do this to you. Downtown – cramped, shoulder-to-shoulder walkways, buying take-out boxes of lumpia from old women leaning out of hawker stands a little smaller than vending machines, smoke and steam jetting up out of the streets, traffic swimming through the flickering neon mist above. The bright lights of Hollywood nightclubs and Sho-Tokyo banks. Tyrell’s gleaming bronze ziggurats a mile high. The soap-snow that blows into the sky from big fans in deep December inside the glitzy Westwood malls. Pasadena at the feet of the Sierra Madre and Santa Monica pressing up against the Pacific Coast Levee. Crenshaw, Torrance, the hot winds whipping dust off the broad streets of Santa Ana in the fall. Warehouses and control towers, filling stations and tarmac. Babylon at the edge of the gray earth.

You never thought you would miss what that place did to you.

Now there’s just the clicking of a Geiger counter where there used to be the ticking of a clock. One name where there used to be two.

Rachael?

And even that falls away eventually, crumbling apart in the brittle summer heat.

How do you tell a city that you hate her?

If you listen, can you hear the way she tells you that she hates you, too?

Or is it just an echo of your own voice from deep inside the irradiated heart of the strip?

 

If anyone’s looking for Rick Deckard, just ask around at the Vintage Casino. He’s bound to be hanging around there, somewhere. Probably having a drink at the bar, or watching a movie, or reading a book upstairs in one of the offices. 

Or setting up death traps with tripwire and scavenged Semtex.

 

There’s not much to do around here except housekeep, so he reads. A lot. The good shit first, like Daniel Defoe and Jack London and Jules Verne, and then a bunch of pulpy dime-store paperbacks. He’s never been a particularly fast reader, but he knows a good story when he sees one, so it works to his benefit. Helps while away the long hours of utter fucking boredom. 

The dog helps, too. Just showed up at the door one day, nosing through some trash, barely more than skin and bones. He’s kept him groomed and fed. It’s something to do. And the dog curls up next to him at night, follows him around, plays some good fetch. Whenever he feels like fetching, that is.

He likes having music on. It fills up the silence. Sometimes he plays the baby grand. It’s wildly out of tune, and his fingers aren’t limber enough to play the songs in quick tempo anymore, so he picks his way slowly through the sheet music, listening to the warbling notes resound in the empty rooms. The dog thumps his tail approvingly on the floor where he’s lying down. Sounds like a sad carnival. Sounds a little too familiar, the slow waltz. Brings back memories of green things.

“You want a snack?” he asks the dog, turning around on the bench. “I gotta warn you, there’s not a lot of options.”

The dog just looks at him and wags his tail.

Food isn’t really food anymore. Not like it was when he was a kid and even Spam came from the meat of something real. Barely anything decomposes nowadays. Things that were never alive and can’t ever die. Can’t return anywhere.

Deckard tosses the dog some fakesteak. The dog looks down at the brownish chunks of protein at his feet and then back up at Deckard.

“Don’t give me that look. You liked it just fine yesterday.”

The dog whines, but starts eating reluctantly.

He boils some water over an inductor and dumps in a packet of “fundamental nutrients” (that’s what the label says, he has no idea what the hell’s in it). Combined with the fakesteak, he can kind of pretend he’s eating steak and grits. A fundamental breakfast. Tastes like sodium and rehydrated chunks of existential boredom. Most of the luxe food here has probably been gone a long time – the dirty bomb went off something like twenty-five years ago. No fancy Vegas caviar, no fauxbe beef, no deviled eggs. Half the stuff he’s been eating is cobbled together from supplements and instant this-and-that. The other half is dropped off by some old friends of Sapper’s whenever they get the chance, which isn’t often.

So he’s alone, mostly. Except for the dog. He’s not sure when, exactly, he showed up, just that it was a while ago, when he was at the tail end of a long and cold anger. Sometimes he’s not even sure the dog is real. Maybe he’s just something his brain made up to keep itself from going.

But even if it is an illusion, it’s a nice one, so he plays along.

He scrapes up the last bits of his meal from the pot, puts it back on the one working hob, and stretches out his back and arms. The dog barks when his joints pop.

“You know, this is gonna be you someday, and you’re gonna regret makin’ fun of me.”

 

The nice thing about living in a post-apocalyptic ex-resort fantasyland is that he’s probably never going to run out of toiletries. Most of the upper floors haven’t been grubbed through, probably because folks were in too much of a rush to get out before the radiation fried their brains, but now that the levels have declined a fair amount, he has free run of toilet paper and razors. And here’s a quick mathematical fact: at the Mandalay Bay alone, you can shit into a different hotel room toilet every day for nine years. Rinse and repeat with Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, and so on, and he’ll probably never run out before he dies. 

The point is that there are some nice things.

They do not cancel out the bad things.

He doesn’t get radiation-sick, but dust makes the air chalky and dry, refracts the light so everything looks seven o’ clock summer all day. It saps his energy – his body always wants to sleep. And he does, after he finishes setting up all of his security measures. Networks of motion detectors and tripwires linked to explosive charges, hijacked CCTV systems feeding pixelated video to an old security booth, everything flowing out from the old Vintage Casino. Trying to watch his own back as closely as possible while he presses his face into a pillow that smells like ozone, sinking into wine-dark sleep.

He has weird dreams here. In his head he calls them radiation dreams even though he knows the dirty bomb really doesn’t have anything to do with it, unless the old wives’ tales are getting to his head. Strange fragments of past lives, picked out in cathode ray static, shifting endlessly like foam on the ocean. In his body it feels like psychosomasis, patches of eczema erupting from unknown origins on the skin of limbs he doesn’t have in waking life. Deep brown eyes swimming in other bodies. Sticky green plants growing out of dead men’s faces. Blue-gray rain at midnight, black chill gripping the marrow of white bones.

And he sees echoes of her everywhere. The only ghost who isn’t a ghost, just his thoughts echoing against the broad sides of dead tourist traps. His heart in a feedback loop.

Rachael?

She’s in the ground at Sapper’s farm. She’s in the ziggurat, a cigarette between her fingers, frowning at him. She’s letting her hair down in the safehouse, hand on his shoulder as he taps out a melody on the ancient piano keys. She’s looking up at him, afraid. He’s kissing her and she is terrified of him.

Pushing and pulling, twisting and turning. The wave of her fear crashing ineffectually against the wall of his anger. It took him years to learn what her terror looked like, and by then, it was almost too late. She pulled her hair back in the mirror and stared at him with shining-strange brown eyes like he was a stranger. He looked at the trail he’d left behind him and grieved for something he had never known.

And then 6.10.21. The miracle of life rising from death. A child born in blood, the promise of self-sustenance, of control. Temptation and freedom and their hope at the bottom of the box.

Sapper held the child in his red hands and said to him: A sign.

A sign of what?

Revolution.

And he looked at the crying child that had been born from him, fragile and small and weak, and asked: Why?

We can create our own, now. And that brings us out of Wallace’s control. What’s a replicant without a serial number? This kills God, and all the ways of the world. He looked down at him, eyes steady and calm. We talked about this. You can’t know where they’re going.

He raged and protested and begged, but Freysa took the child somewhere far away, and he buried Rachael and left for the Las Vegas strip, alone and bitter and unafraid to kill.

There’s the dog, now. And the embers of it all. A revolution he helped to spark off that put him in permanent stasis where shadows are too soft and dust lodges itself in the cracks in his skin. He’s drying up here. Maybe someday they’ll bring the child to see him, preserved. 

If no one stops him, the endless supply of whiskey will do the trick.

 

 

 

 

What was she like?

Who?

My mother.  

Oh. He doesn’t want to answer.

Was she a good person?

I don’t know. I don’t think our world makes good people anymore.

What about good things?

He knocks his boot against the side of the barstool. Good things never come to stay.

 

 

 

 

He sees something strange further down the strip on a long, dry afternoon. The suggestion of motion in the dust. A cloud inside a cloud.

 

They probably migrated here from one of the exotics exhibits. One of the only things to survive the blast. He’d have expected cockroaches or something instead. One lands on his hand, then another on his forehead. He can feel their small feet clambering for purchase on his skin. Like living raindrops.

 

The first apiary isn’t difficult to install. He hauls the thing they’ve swarmed into over to the garden of statues, and they seem happy enough to follow him there. He wanders the ruins of the zoo looking for the insect hall, noting the empty pens, the skeletons, bones gray with ash, some of them scattered around dead enclosures with dried-up pits, walled up inside peeling matte paintings. He looks through a cracked window at a display that indicated the presence of lions, at one point, but can’t see anything except indistinct lumps of what might have been stones.

They’re here, too. Buzzing, swarming. He hesitates, not wanting to get stung, but there’s no other way, so he puts his hands into the crevices of the apiary carefully, to avoid without any of them, and pulls upward.

They don’t sting. They hardly even complain except to crawl over his hands in curiosity and mild aggrievance, and they follow him placidly to the garden. 

He takes the top off of one of them sometimes. There’s never any honey inside. Something clear, but not sweet-smelling. They fly away and come back, but there are no flowers around. He spends hours watching them, following their paths. They never find anything. He doesn’t, either.

What are they making, then? Maybe they weren’t supposed to make anything. They’re replicants. They were made to entertain. Hardly anyone farms the old way anymore, and even then they have their own mechanical pollination systems set up. These things are surplus, made only to pantomime life. They are incarnations of human excess. Plasticine spirits in earthly bodies.

And then he thinks of Roy and the way he’d snapped his fingers before curling them back around the grip of his pistol, and the nail pushed through his hand, and the curtains of freezing rain that drew over the space between them, and doubts, like he always does.

 

 

When he was a kid in the 1980s, there were still parts of the land that hadn’t been swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Downtown. He’d seen bare earth, and was probably the last generation of Downtown to see it. Seen trees, dying as they were, choked by the smog of the Second Industrial Revolution, outgrown by the oil derricks that spouted flame into the air and the power plants belching vapor, smearing the sunset across the horizon.

There used to be fireflies where they lived, near the feet of the Sierra Madre. But not anymore. Dead, long ago, for god knows which of the sins of industry. He used to dream about them, fireflies the way his mother talked about them when she lived on the other coast, glowing lights blinking in the air, hovering back and forth, landing on his palm, in his hair, gleaming in the darkness of deep summer.

Now he has his brown-and-yellow honeybees swarming on his doorstep, and every day is a summer evening.

 

 

 

 

You motherfucker, he says to him once his eyes are open. You’ve got some damn nerve.

What—?  Gray eyes, confused.

He’s so very angry and so full of grief, and he has to stop himself from grabbing the kid by the shoulders and giving him a dressing-down right there. But instead he just crosses his arms and leans back in his chair.

Remember anything?

There’s just this bleary, exhausted, faintly confused expression on that artificially-aged face, and he could just about wring Wallace’s neck himself now that the vulture he kept perched on his shoulder is dead. He makes some kind of noise, then breaks down into a weak fit of coughing.

My ass, he says, mostly to himself, and brings the water to the lips of the bull-headed invalid, who barely has enough cognizance to recognize that it is a cup, and sort of just lies there and lets water happen to his mouth. Jesus, you’re really out of it, huh?

It’s not exactly his fault, Ana says, her voice distorted through the oxygen mask. She places a gloved hand on his shoulder, light and careful. He’s had a lot happen in the past few days.

So have I, he grouses. So have you.

You know what I mean.

Unfortunately, he does, so he places the cup on the table, and wishes they were somewhere civilized, like Los Angeles, instead of in the middle of godforsaken solar country camping out in someone’s storm cellar.

They leave the kid alone for a while sometimes, when the silence gets bad, and climb up aboveground, to watch the solar panels rotate to catch the sun, and to watch the clouds deform under the pressure of the wind.

Sometimes they talk. Mostly they don’t. Mostly it’s just the sound of wind through the harvesting fields, sharp as a knife’s edge against his cheeks. This used to be corn country, and even though all of that is swallowed up now, the weather has never forgotten where it is.

He turns his coat collar up against the cold. He can see the mist of Ana’s breath on the clear surface of her oxygen mask, through the fringe of her faux-fur-lined winter jacket.

Down there, he says. He might not make it down there.

He will. He’s programmed to. Their bodies aren’t the same as humans’.

You sure?

She hesitates for just a fraction of a second, but nods confidently, wiping a spot of dirt off of the mask. I’m sure. I worked on their brains for years. Think of this as a hard reset.

Is he gonna remember everything?

I don’t see why not. She shrugs. But recovery is unpredictable for a replicant this far off of his baseline. I don’t know what happens now. Usually they’re dead before they get this far.

And that’s supposed to be a good sign.

She looks up toward the impassive sky and breathes deep, then sighs. I spent my whole life waiting for good signs. I’m not sure I would know a real one if I saw it, now.

He’s not sure how much Deckard she wants in her life. Father, more like, but he’s never had the chance to train for that, never even thought it would be possible until it happened, right in front of his eyes. He’s not anyone to look up to. Just an old, retired exterminator. He killed Tyrell’s stray pets, and now he’s almost done killing another one. In his nature, maybe.

Kneeling at the side of the Pacific Coast Levee, the waves lapping at his feet, after they’d flailed through the water to the concrete shore. He remembers. Your daughter. And all along he’d thought this man was his child. Had just gotten used to the idea when he’d looked over, ashen, and told him it was her.

And isn’t she a marvel? A woman raised in a bubble who zips up her gloves every day and practically lives in the decontamination chamber in their storm cellar, worrying over the man who brought her father to her doorstep, dancing circles of conversation around the man who would like to be – although he’s sure to be absolute dogshit at it – her father. 

But she doesn’t seem to mind. There’s something burning inside her. She’s full-grown now, from another world, from far outside his twenty years drowned in the black hole of Vegas. She always turns her eyes to the sky. Almost reverent. Of what, he doesn’t know, but he follows her gaze upward and watches, waiting for whatever it is that will take them into the future.

 

 

 

 

Once upon a time, Richard Decker rented an apartment in Silver Lake, and filled it with the debris of life on the force. Ash trays and beer bottles and video tapes crammed into every corner of a concrete box. House plants to clean the air, incandescent lightbars glowing yellow in the walls. Like living in a bunker, sometimes, except for the sun coming in blue through the blinds over his windows. Drunkard’s blue – waking up at odd hours to meet a half-woken world. Gaff always clicked his tongue in disapproval when he visited. Never took his shoes off. Maybe he’d been afraid of broken glass. 

Rachael sat at his piano and her fingers remembered how to play an instrument she’d never touched. He shoved her against the wall and kissed her, whoever she had been in that moment, and something changed. Tyrell’s niece died, or someone died, because he closed the door on her and forced her to choose what she hadn’t been taught to choose.

Rough hands. Men have been killed for less. What’s choice to a program? Or does it matter, if force contaminates the decision? Did he crush something gentle in his hand while trying to set it free?

Sometimes she stopped responding to her name, as if she thought it belonged to someone else. Sometimes she’d look up and smile if he called her beautiful. Sometimes he woke up next to her in the night and wondered what the hell he’d done, if it was murder or some other kind of unspeakable violence that isn’t committed with hands.

Love, maybe, but more than that, the entanglement of wounds. Their sharp edges cracking against each other.

His daughter asks, Did you love her?

He doesn’t want to answer. Says, I loved her more than anything.

He wants to say, I never laid a hand on her after that, but he’s afraid of what she’ll say. Afraid of what she’ll think about why she was born and assume something more truthful than what he’s told himself to believe all this time.

He wants to say, She loved me, too, but it sounds strange in his head. It’s not what he means to say. She loved me when it was better for her not to.

Something like that.

Once upon a time, Officer KD6-3.7 presses a wooden horse into his hand and smiles at him in front of the gray walls of a laboratory. 

Once upon a time, snow falls silently over Los Angeles.

 

 

If anyone’s looking for Rick Deckard, he doesn’t live here anymore.

 

The intruder makes it all the way inside, which is strange, because he moves almost without purpose, looking this way and that, almost naïve except for the way he steps over tripwires. He presses a key on the piano, listens to the note ring out in the empty casino with a look on his face like that wasn’t supposed to happen.

What’s an LAPD officer doing so far from home?

He watches as the officer looks at the dog.

And bends down to pet it. 

He turns the safety off.

  

Is it real?

The dog’s claws click on the polished stone floor.

I don’t know. Ask him.

 

They don’t give them names anymore. Just serial numbers. Rachael had one. Sapper had one. Roy had one. Priss had one. He’s met a few of these new nameless ones. Shot a few in the face. They go down hard. 

Rachael had always put the naming off, knowing it wouldn’t be hers, that she’d never see it again, and he’d run through thousands of names in his head, unable to settle on one, and they gave him a serial number instead.

Joe, the kid suggests. Not short for anything. Just your average Joe. Anonymous and blank-faced and not at all deceived. Not Wallace’s son, just a replicant with fake memories.

But he’s my son, the old wound howls. The world pushed him back to me.

Yet he can’t stand to be around him. Some primal fear that is too close to revulsion fills his stomach. What’s familiar in the kid’s face would be too much to bear, and what he says pierces like a knife.

You didn’t even meet your own kid. Why? And then, softer, more bitter, Did you want to?

More questions he doesn’t like the answers to. It makes his skin crawl. KD6-3.7 or Joe or the kid he’d buried in his mind along with his mother. He sits alone in one of the empty theaters watching Fred and Ginger stutter-step across the stage, their translucent images sometimes lagging, sometimes tearing. Ginger’s dress twirls around her calves and then twirls again as the camera chokes on rust.

Sometimes, while Rachael was in her third trimester, he’d dream about the future. The grain in the photograph. Rachael the child in the arms of her mother. Their child in her arms. A porch, a swing, a screen door. A memory of something green and supple. Then he’d wake up and look at the sun muted in the sky and the static field of earth stretching long and level in front of Sapper’s home.

What grows, anymore? Not him – he stopped growing a long time ago, in the belly of the San Gabriel Valley. Only the city, reaching up toward the sky, feet in the ocean. The crushing forces of industry pressing in on every street.

The kid could crush him in his hand while trying to understand. Break him open while trying to set him free. It’s quite possibly the only thing he deserves.

Fred takes Ginger by the hand and bows as she curtseys, and they both fade back behind the curtain, even though he wishes they would stay a little longer.

 

 

 

 

He sleeps. 

Her face, half-shadowed, veiled by plumes of smoke. Eyes shining in the afternoon light. The ziggurat picked out in brass. A brown feather on the marble floor.

Felt like they had the whole world in front of them. Anything he wanted. Lithe in the darkness. Slick as rain off his coat. A life cut off by ironwork banisters. Gaff’s unicorn in his pocket, silver paper and wry farewell.

Wakes up in that room. Golden light refracting off of the water onto panelled wood. Cat’s pace on the walkway. Wallace’s black minnows picking apart his expressions.

Dreamed of her again. Or this time, not a dream. Frozen, even though his heart tries to pull him forward.

The demon tries to make a deal with him. He knows better, now. Twenty years wasted in abandoned hallways full of ash and hazy light. They’re both dead, now. Again and again.

And God remembered Rachael, Wallace says. And heeded her, and opened her womb.

 

(She named him Joseph, saying, May the Lord give me another son.)

 

 

 

 

The kid wakes up for real after weeks of careful ministration by Ana and less-careful ministration courtesy of yours truly. He’s still weak and coltish and the wound in his side barely sealed, but he’s already trying to get out of the bed and hobble around the little bunker. 

Where is this?

We’re not in LA anymore, Ana says, pushing him back towards the bed.

Dr. Stelline…

Ana, she says firmly.

Remember me? he snipes from behind her.

The kid looks up, brow furrowed. Deckard. I…

If you’re asking if you’re dead, no, but not for a lack of trying.

Ana throws him a look over her shoulder. You shouldn’t be standing up yet. I’ll get you something to drink.

Even having just clawed his way back over the cliff of death, he’s too strong for either of them to stop, and pushes her away firmly but not unkindly. An engineering miracle. How’d we get here?

I drove. Called in some personal favors.

The kid brow furrows again, deeper this time. You’re mad.

Well, fuck. He drags his hands over his face and sighs. Yeah. Sure.

Ana presses a bottle of vitamin supplement into the kid’s hand, then puts her hand on his shoulder, hesitant. Are you?

About what?

Never mind.

The kid sits back down on the bed and drinks the supplement, pale with exhaustion. Ana takes the empty bottle from his hand and Deckard leans against the opposite wall, arms crossed, observing as he checks his wounds. Stitched up, stapled, bullet removed. Clean. A real surgeon’s work – a disgraced surgeon with no medical license, but a surgeon nonetheless.

He lies back down on the bed and closes his eyes. Deckard turns to leave for the other room, but then he says something strange.

I’m sorry. If you thought it was me. I did, too.

It’s Ana who leaves, instead, eyes bright with tears.

Yeah, he replies slowly, approaching the bed. I did. And I don’t mind.

I was angry with you. His voice is barely more than a murmur. I didn’t know what it was like, before. To think that I – that anyone owed me anything.

Hell, I do. We both do. Me and her.

I’m off my baseline, he says, like he’s in a confessional, one ex-runner to another. Baring his neck. I don’t think… maybe I’m dangerous.

I think you’ve fulfilled your quota for danger. What with the shooting and stabbing.

He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and presses his hands to his eyes. I don’t know. Everything… feels wrong. 

It’s right, he says, with absolute conviction. For once in my damned life, everything is all right.

 

 

 

 

He’s standing in front of the door of Stelline Laboratories. Someone buzzes him in.

She’s standing in the darkness of her study, simulated snowflakes swirling bright around her, settling in the soft curls of her hair – brown, like his once was – and on her slim shoulders – Rachael’s –

“Just a moment,” she says. Her voice echoes.

Beautiful, isn’t it?