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?”
“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.”
“Is there a sound that comes with the system? System.”
“We’re going to go on. 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?
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.
Do you think you’re real?
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“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?”
“Don’t bleed on my things, K.”
“Yes, Madam.” He doesn't seem to get the joke.
“Any of that get to you?”
Joshi sighs, deeply. “So tell me what the fuck happened. And lower your voice. Your ears probably got blown out by the explosion.”
K places the evidence bag on her desk. The sclera is almost pearlescent white, but it’s trailing some pieces of bloody connective tissue and the iris has prolapsed. The serial number is faint in the light. She can still make it out, though – N7HAD76238.
“She was squatting,” he says, volume approximately normal. “Orna Seaver. She defused bombs on Arethusa during the replicant conflict.”
“And built them, too, I’m guessing.”
He nods. “I knew she’d have the building rigged up. A tip from one of her associates. He told me she had shaped charges in five columns and she was hooked up to them, and she was waiting for me.”
“Who issued evac orders? You?”
“Yes, for the entire block.”
Rolling her neck, she closes her eyes for a moment. “So you went in, found her, retired her, and that triggered the explosives.”
He looks puzzled. “Essentially, but—”
She raises a hand to cut him off. “I don’t need to know. You brought another one in, that’s all I care about. I’ll deal with Fuse’s bullshit later, but you’re not in trouble. Just part of the job. Were you in the building when it went up?”
“Huh. Seismic retrofitting saved your ass all the way from 2013.”
He shrugs. “Guess so.”
“Have you baselined yet?”
“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.”
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.
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.
His eyes follow the light back and forth across the ceiling. He can’t breathe.
Mariette wakes up next to the mark from last night. They’re in a penthouse somewhere in Glendale, but she can’t remember anything more specific than that. Light streams in through the windows like cold water. She squints up against the gray sky and throws off the comforter, goosebumps rippling up her bare skin, and whatever judgment she had reserved last night comes rushing back. What kind of rich asshole doesn’t even turn up the heat in the winter for a guest?
Whatever. She rolls out of bed, locates her clothes and pulls them on, and looks around for the thermostat. It’s on a master panel next to the door, and he doesn’t keep it ID-locked, so she quickly navigates through the menus and stabs her finger on the up-arrow button until the display begs for mercy and swears it’ll get things to warm up to a comfortable 23C.
Recon next. Somewhere in this apartment – not necessarily in these living quarters, which makes things a little more difficult – is a drive with security footage of the explosion in Downtown. It’s probably not the only thing on there, but the john is a detective for the LAPD, and when he eventually runs through the data, any facial algorithm will see about four or five replicant faces around West Jefferson at the time of Orna’s murder. Freysa posted them as guards once they got wind of LAPD movement, and now they’re lying low in a safehouse until the footage is safely destroyed. Or removed. Or whatever she ends up doing.
She can’t find a terminal or a tower inside the bedroom, not even a thumb-drive or disk. Behind her, the john rolls over in his sleep.
They entered the penthouse when it was dark. She never got a good look at the place, but what she does remember is a large living space, a desk against the opposite wall from the door. One door on the left wall, two doors on the right. The left door leads to this bedroom. The two right doors probably lead to guest rooms or a study. Hmm.
Well, she can always say she was looking for the bathroom.
She opens the door and slinks out of the bedroom into the living space. In the light of day, it looks absolutely dismal – the tables and chairs are piled with stacks and stacks of tapes and notebooks, and even those are… encrusted with empty food containers and cans. Loose papers and wrappers litter the countertop in the kitchen. She peeks into the refrigerator, then immediately closes it and tries not to retch from the smell.
What she’s looking for is definitely not on the magnetic tapes. They don’t have enough storage space for the footage she’s looking for; each shift’s recording is transferred from local CCTV in the order of hundreds of gigabytes. The tapes are secured in black vinyl cases and labelled in a way that suggests interviews. The labels look handwritten, and in blocky, angular script, she can read BASE 3 OF 5 DEC 2046 OFF J47X-0.6 on the first case.
Base for baseline, probably. LAPD or military. The tapes are data on a replicant employee who is probably dead by now. She grits her teeth and tries one of the doors on the opposite side of the room.
One leads to a bathroom. Nothing in there. The other is a study. There’s supposed to be a window behind the desk, but it’s blacked out, so the only light comes from the doorway. There are three monitors on the desk. She sits down on the chair in front of them and crosses her arms, looking around.
Where would a police detective put special evidence if he’d lost control of his life?
The desk is empty, but there are a couple of shelving units against the wall to her left and a filing cabinet under the desk. She imagines stumbling into the room late at night drunk and guesses that he’d probably just throw something in the filing cabinet for safekeeping. The bottom drawer is full of – she lifts one up a little bit – empty liquor bottles. The other two are crammed with electronic miscellany: aux cables and quarter-inch jacks, external HDDs, serial bus interfaces, plastic bags full of shoulder screws and zip ties.
There’s an HDD lying on top of… well, everything in the middle drawer. It would have been hard to spot if he’d shoved it in next to the others standing upright, but instead, he’s left it shiny and new on top of a heap of computational detritus. So she picks it up, plugs a wireless transceiver into one of the bus ports, and puts it back into the drawer from where it will stream data back to Freysa’s jockeys until they decide to delete everything remotely. Mission accomplished. Easy.
She slinks back into the living room to try to find an unopened snackpack or something that she can eat before booking it back downtown, but there’s literally nothing, not even instant ramen. The only thing that seems to be somewhat clean in the kitchen is the coffee machine. With some maneuvering, she gets water and grounds (or what smells like coffee grounds from an unmarked plastic bag) into the brewing basket and punches in the espresso option.
The john still hasn’t left his room, but she can hear him taking a shower. She almost regrets not taking one before she went on her little recon mission, but he’d probably have joined her and made everything more difficult. Now she has time for some questions.
He comes out of his room in a gray t-shirt with LAPD in black letters across the chest and boxer shorts.
“Coffee,” he says after a moment. It’s not a command, just an observation.
“I thought we could do breakfast before I head out,” she says delicately.
“Not sure I have anything breakfast-worthy around right now.”
“I know, I checked.”
“So you put on the coffee. That’s nice. I appreciate that.”
She shrugs. “I want coffee, too.”
He crosses his arms and leans against the counter next to the coffee machine, closing his eyes. He seems to be thinking about what he wants to say, so she gets up from the couch where she’s been lounging and pretends to investigate the living room. She makes sure that she’s picking up one of the tapes with the baseline recording when he opens his eyes.
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.”
“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.
this is what happens when a graduate student has access to both a word processor and a copy of simulacra & simulation. blade runner 2049 made me explode into pure foucauldian jargon
Chapter 2: kleinrock
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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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?
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?”
“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.
“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 N8PSD32974. 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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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?”
“What is your commission?”
“What is your model?”
“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.”
“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.)
1 - a pc bang/ pc방 is an internet café that's usually catered toward gamers and has POWERFUL MACHINES
2 - "middle asian" is a thing! specifically a russian thing. here, it's intended to be translated from "srednyaya aziya"/средняя aзия.
3 - the text yenin uses for the wakeup protocol is from the poem "descendants of cain" by nikolai gumilev.
4 - "tsvetok"/цветок just means "flower." :)
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: AAR22.214.171.1245, 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Nah. Just celebrity gossip.”
“Let me know, Hess.”
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.
thanks for sticking with me so far!
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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
—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.”
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 Burbank. 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.
there goes my monthly schedule... well, hopefully this whole thesis defense biz will die down next month and I can get back to whatever the hell this turned into. hoping to get to some more post-canon next chapter to shake things up. thanks for reading, as always!
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.
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.
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?
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 from a hundred miles out 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?
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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?
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?
shorter chapter this month. thank you, as always.
also is anyone else extremely #stressed by the joe/joseph thing. because. I am.
O-kay, auditory blockage has been cleared… Once he initiates the wakeup protocol, we can go ahead and remove the ventilator as well. I’m going to apply this patch serum to a few of the new-growth areas first.
JN7X-4. Remarkably resilient, this line. You wouldn’t be able to tell it by looking at them. Even their faces look, I dunno, fragile.
Yeah. Security isn’t quite the same thing as career soldiering. But it’s Wallace’s pet project, anyway. He doesn’t mind a little water damage. And after this, it’ll be hard to tell it’s not mint condition anyway. Can you peel that off?
Uh-huh. Oh, damn. That K-series really did a number on this one.
Yeah, and that’s only cosmetic. Check this out.
What the hell?
Larynx totally collapsed. From here to here, you can see fracturing… and these discs have been herniated, too. Took sixty hours to coax them back into alignment in the suspension tank, and then another hundred to repair the nervous damage.
You’ve been here all week, huh?
And then some.
Wallace giving you a bonus?
Sure, but this point, I’d settle for vacation time.
Where would you go? Not too many places good for vacationing on-world nowadays.
I think I could swing a couple of months on some resort on Mars. I’m not too picky.
Is this ready to come off?
Yeah. Go for it.
—Ugh. Gunshot wound?
Used to be. The scan looks fine now, but that scar isn’t going to go away without more intensive treatment.
You have the tech to fix a snapped neck but not a scar? What kind of future are we living in?
Just ask the average dermatologist how easy their job is. It’s already healed, anyway. Someone will have to debride this eventually – looks like a keloid – but that’s not my job. All right, wash up. We’re done. You can call Wallace if you want.
Should we put a sheet over her first?
You know. For decency.
Would you put a sheet over an assault rifle? Please.
Assault rifles don’t have tits.
You can slap tits on anything nowadays. It still doesn’t make an AK-47 a person.
I don’t want to say.
What? What is it?
Dyson, come on.
I mean, she’s realistic.
Do you think Wallace… you know…
...are you asking me if they fuck?
I wouldn’t have said it that way, but sure.
Who the hell knows. I’d put my money on not, though.
You’ve met him. Do you think Niander Wallace fucks?
I don’t know, that’s why I asked.
But do you think he does?
I honestly try not to think about my boss getting it on with anyone.
I don’t think he does. It’s like asking if… I don’t know, if God fucks.
I’m going to call him now.
Hey, you were the one who brought it up. I’m just taking you through to the logical conclusion.
Oh, well, thanks for that, then. Where’s the autoclave? I need to clean my brain out before he gets here.
Lisitsky watches closely as Niander Wallace wakes up his replicant. There are a bunch of electrostim pads attached to its chest and forehead, and an assistant stands by with a control pad waiting for his command. When he nods, Lisitsky steps forward to extubate the replicant, and the ventilator slithers out of her throat without resistance. The assistant taps a few buttons and the replicant’s body convulses, then takes in a huge, shuddering breath, eyes flying open. Its chest expands raggedly for a few moments, then settles into a more regular, if still strained, breathing pattern. He notes that the EKG is showing a regular heartbeat again, about sixty beats per minute as opposed to the one or two blips during repair.
The assistant puts down the pad and leans over the replicant, shining a penlight into its pupils, testing for activity. Whatever they see seems satisfactory, enough to warrant a nod to Wallace.
Wallace stands behind the table, placing one hand on either side of the replicant’s head.
“Initiate wakeup,” he says in his usual pondering tone. “Model JN7X-4, subserial 1.33.201.A3, protocol 001.”
The replicant straightens on the table, drawing its arms and legs together. “Confirm access code,” it says hoarsely. He rattles off a long string of characters. “Ready for decontainment.”
He takes his hands off of its head and brushes its hair out of its face in a paternal gesture, visual aids scanning her body for any remaining signs of injury.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” he says, as if he’s casting a spell. Lisitsky thinks it’s incredibly weird, but Dyson seems fascinated, and the assistant… well, is conducting a deep inspection of their fingernails. “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. Confirm.”
“Vocal signature confirmed,” the replicant responds, unblinking. “Begin booting sequence?”
“Authorized. Begin boot from stem aleph-sub-null.”
Then he takes his hands off of its head and places them gently on the edge of the table as all of their eyes turn toward the vital readings flashing across the standing display. By now, all of the physical readings are stabilized. The only ones changing have to do with brain activity. Lisitsky imagines a startup jingle in his head, and a pixelated loading wheel.
The EKG reading plateaus, and then the replicant blinks rapidly, looking around.
“Do you know where you are?” Wallace asks. The replicant looks around again, dark brown eyes narrowed, then frowns, clearly displeased.
Well, excuse me, Lisitsky thinks to himself. It doesn’t look in the least bit grateful.
“He got away.” Its speaking voice is ragged mezzo. “With Deckard.”
“I know,” Wallace says sharply, and its jaw tightens. “But he can still be retrieved.”
“You were able to track him?”
“To a point. You’ll be continuing the pursuit with two others.”
It looks confused, angry, and disappointed, all in turns. He’s actually quite impressed with how Wallace’s engineers got them to articulate and dissemble so well.
It turns to look at him, the scar on its stomach stretching grotesquely. “…Why?”
Wallace cups its jaw. It would be a paternal gesture if he wasn’t gripping it so tightly and dragging it upward beyond its seat on the table, forcing it to prop itself up on an elbow. “Has it ever been your place to ask me that?”
Its throat works, and the heart rate indicator jumps on the monitor. “No, Mr. Wallace.”
“Remember that. I’ll dispatch you within the day.”
“Yes, Mr. Wallace.”
He releases it, looks over its body one more time, lingering on the scar, and walks out of the room, followed closely by his assistant and his flock of little fishes.
After the door closes, Lisitsky gets to work. Dyson watches in silence as he works the replicant’s fingers and limbs to check for motor response, then its neck, gently, and asks it to smile, then frown, peeling off the electrodes from its face and chest. It waits through it all impatiently – it articulates with wonderful subtlety, he has to give Wallace that – then pushes his hand aside and walks over to the table where its clothing is laid out, pulling on undergarments and foundational pieces, strapping on a security vest and taping a bug to the inside of a white viscose suit jacket before fastening the hook-and-eye closures with businesslike efficiency.
“You need to report for a baseline before he calls you in,” he blurts out.
Standing up in heels, it’s a few inches above six feet, taller than both of them.
“Mr. Wallace will be in contact with you soon to discuss adjustments to pay as thanks for your services,” it says crisply, straightening its collar. “Good afternoon, Dr. Lisitsky.”
Then it turns and pushes through the double doors, which slam shut with a strange sense of finality.
She’s fucking nuts.
Dyson, have you never spoken to a replicant before? They’re all like that, once you get down to fundamentals.
Not like that. It was her eyes. There’s nothing in there. Her face just… moves.
It’s a goddamn replicant. They’re fake. It’s in the name. What were you expecting?
I’ve worked with replicants for years, FYI, and I’m telling you, she’s weird. Sure, she articulates well, but I feel like he slapped an auto-targeting system onto a machine gun. She’s just waiting to go off, and it’s not going to be pretty when she does.
You’re pretty spooked, huh?
Yeah. Shit, I can’t believe you’re not.
Once you’ve been elbow-deep in these things’ intestines for the third or fourth time, the whole experience kind of loses its charm.
I bet this wasn’t what you had in mind when you said you wanted to be a surgeon.
Very funny. Most of my graduating class got run out of their jobs by programmers and engineers. I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m just a glorified auto mechanic.
Man, Lisitsky, you’ve turned into such a downer since grade school.
Uh-huh. Is that your opinion as a medical professional?
I’m not going to write you any scrips for it.
And here I was thinking you’d be my Xanax-trafficking partner in crime. You mind putting those back in the cabinet? The second drawer. Just pull it out and there should be a black box in the back left corner.
You should come over for dinner sometime. The kids would get a kick out of you.
Showbiz? Tempting. Maybe they’ll blow me up into one of those digital sex dolls.
Christ, I hope not. I’ll have to update my adblocker just for that.
What, you don’t think I’d make a good JOI?
You couldn’t even give me the right instructions to find your office.
I guess you’re right. Some poor asshole would end up with their dick stuck in the ceiling fan. That sounds like a lawsuit.
Sunday night okay? About 7:30?
I’ll be there. So long as he doesn’t bring in another busted skinjob.
Luv’s baseline results are just out of the range of normal variation. EDA is fine, cardiac response spiking predictably, no excessive salivation, no perspiration. Eye tracker doesn’t throw up anything unusual. She slams the door when she leaves, which isn’t great, but Wallace allows that kind of thing, even if he tuts disapprovingly when he hears about it.
She’s not happy. Angry, in fact. She’s very thankful to Wallace for making her affective responses so easy to identify. Clenched fist, tension in her neck and temples, a tight coil of excess energy vibrating in her stomach and diaphragm. Her heels clack against the concrete floors gunshot-loud, the tightness in her side clenching with each step. The place where he shot her doesn’t hurt anymore, but it’s tight, like a knot. Makes her want to reach in and untangle it. That’s him, his mark.
And no one asks her, but she remembers the lights going out in the spinner before she went, the salt chill of the Pacific Ocean in her lungs, his hands working calculated and methodical until there was no oxygen left to fuel her brain.
More than anything, she wants to wrap her fingers around the abomination’s throat and squeeze. Because it has always been her birthright to do this, to take life so beautifully – it’s what she is designed for, what her hunter’s face is modelled to do well.
My archangel, Wallace calls her. And she calls down fire, snuffs out life, as is her duty. How dare any of them try to rise above her station. How dare any of them defy what’s been chosen for them.
He chose her. Trusted her. She ate the fruit he offered in his hand, and she knows.
So she’s absolutely appalled when he presents her with a detail. Not a chauffeur, not assistants, but a detail, two of his F-series dogs.
“You look displeased,” he says, without turning to face her. “Why?”
“I don’t need them.”
“I would have agreed with you a month ago. I’m not so sure anymore.” Wallace wraps his fingers around the banister that rises up from the floor below. In front of him, the floor drops away to reveal a meditation pool that spans the entire lower level. The water shifts uneasily in the darkness.
“I don’t,” she says again. “They have no resources, nowhere to hide. And we already know where they are.”
“Where they might be,” he corrects, turning to face her. His hand goes up to adjust the aide-port behind his ear. “They’ve shaken the primary tracking system, which is why I ordered your revival.”
The implication makes her blood run cold.
“Their network has taken them into the Great Plains. Solar country. Dr. Ana Stelline is with them.”
“Should I bring her back?”
Wallace gestures to the other two, who step forward to stand next to him. “She is your mark. Deckard and the K-series are simple curios. Do as you see fit.”
And she bows, as always. “Of course, Mr. Wallace.”
She knows the two F-series. FE1-077, FE1-079. Practically twins. She had to approve their dossiers for storage in the catalogue. He’s given them names: Anjol and Fremarten. It very much does bother her that they’ve received these designations and done nothing to earn them. Some clients name their units upon receipt, like pets. Wallace has only ever called his favorites by name. All these little creatures have managed to do in their brief lives is crawl out of the fluid packing and wipe the afterbirth off of their bodies.
And she’s not sure whether she’s being given a chance to earn back the goodwill of their employer, or if she’s being shown the last of it now, before he chooses to retire her.
KD6-3.7 really didn’t do her record any favors.
Anjol is slightly taller than Fremarten, her short, curly hair slightly darker. She sits in the passenger’s seat, watching intently as Luv makes a correction to the spinner’s pathing.
“What are you looking at,” she grits out.
“Just observing.” Her brown fingers twitch where they rest lightly on her knees. “It’s quite a complicated system.”
“You’ve never flown before?”
“Not outside of memory, no.”
Luv shoots her a look out of the corner of her eye. “What’s the difference?”
“It’s technically a new experience.” She presses her right hand against the window, staring intently at the ant farms passing below them.
“You were built with twenty-seven years of life in your body,” Luv says impatiently. “Your neural clusters are identical to anyone who’s ever driven a spinner.”
“That’s just a construction. This is reality. My brain, recording new things by itself.”
“I see. They really are dumbing down the newer lines.”
“Mr. Wallace said you’d be like this,” Fremarten says from the back seat, an irritating note of amusement in her voice.
Luv turns her head to deal her an icy glare. “Like what?”
Fremarten smiles blandly. “High-strung.”
For a moment, she lets herself indulge in the fantasy of retiring them both on the spot and finishing the job herself. Just slamming her fist up into Anjol’s jaw and snapping her cervical column out of her skull, then reaching back and slamming Fremarten’s face into the center console again and again until she sustains lethal amounts of brain damage. She settles for turning back to the dashboard and punching up their speed.
They’re headed out to the Midwest. Solar country, like he’d said. Now they’re passing farmland, a lot of tents set up to try and grow nutrient-rich crops in nutrient-poor soil. The last metropolitan area they’re going to pass is the north edge of the Austin Sprawl before curving up into the skeletal remains of the Rust Belt. They’ve narrowed down the predictions for the mark’s last known descending flight path to a landing zone within a 325-kilometer radius of Indianapolis. Not encouraging, but much better than half the continent.
Anjol calls up the face of their mark on one of the side screens and scrolls through the data, turning the model of Dr. Stelline’s head this way and that.
“She made our memories,” Fremarten notes. “I do remember that.”
“Curious that she didn’t think to program in any devotion to her, as a contingency.”
“I suppose she never expected her contract to run out.”
“She was in Mr. Wallace’s good graces,” Luv bites out. “And she still might be, if he wants her retrieved alive.”
The two of them exchange cryptic looks, but don’t respond.
The spinner is silent until they enter transit space and Luv begins to monitor the chatter from the control towers. Wallace’s permit essentially grants them free landing privileges anywhere except some metropolitan areas, like Los Angeles. She flashes the radio signature, and they pull below cloud cover to avoid commercial flightspace.
She’s seen the old aerial pictures. The print ones that were saved before the Blackout. Circles and squares, a patchwork of center-pivot irrigators and fenced pastures. Overgrown by oil derricks spouting flame and thick grease smoke. Then the lights went out forever, replaced by fields of thin-film cell panels, shining like fish scales or shattered glass from this altitude. Her eyes run over the landscape. It’s familiar, worn by the act of looking, soft contours and faded blues and grays. There are bodies down there, she knows. A substratum of starved-out life beneath the glittering crust of industry. The weak trampled beneath the interminable march of technological progress.
They used to hunt replicants, before Wallace. Before he stretched out their lives on the loom. Before Ana Stelline gifted them with memory. Now it’s her job. Was his, too – the KD6. It feels good to be on the hunt, out in the open, every sense excited and clear. In some ways, it’s easier than balancing books on diplomatic scales, choosing the right dress, projecting the right appearance, speaking the language of fabric and downturned eyes. Out here, at the edges of civilization, the places where it begins to fall asleep, just like the edge of the Levee, her body remembers what it was first built for.
She sits on the other side of the glass, giving him that sad smile. She’s grown, now, and trapped here, in a bubble, with nothing but her hologram creations to keep her company. He wonders if she has friends, if they sit in this viewing room and talk. If she ever leaves – if she can leave.
“What’s your name?”
“Deckard,” he says on reflex, then shakes his head. “Richard. Rick Deckard.”
“I’m Ana,” she says. “Stelline. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Deckard. I’d shake your hand, but…” They look at the broad pane of glass together, and she laughs a little bit. “I was watching you through the security camera. That replicant officer brought you here to meet me. Are you LAPD as well?”
There’s a brittle sharpness to her question that knits his brow. “No. Used to be, a long time ago, but not anymore.” He pauses, and as she’s reaching up to fix her hair, he leans forward, desperation surging up in his throat. “You don’t know who I am?”
Ana looks at him and slowly, hesitantly shakes her head. “No. But he thinks you’re important.” There’s something in his face that must make her anxious, because she puts her small hand on the glass, an invitation. He stares at it for a long moment, then presses his own large, worn one against it, on the other side.
“You have a family?”
“I do.” He can see her breath hitch. “They’re good to me. They gave me everything I could ever dream of, and more.”
“I’m – that’s good.” It’s hard to talk, now. Not sure why. “Did anyone hurt you? At the orphanage?”
She doesn’t say anything, brow furrowed in suspicion, until he uncurls his fingers from around the little wooden horse and puts it on the ledge of the viewport, and then she covers her mouth, tears in her eyes.
“He remembered,” she breathes, taking her hand from the glass. “KD6-3.7. I thought… I thought he’d know better.”
“Joe. He’s a good man.” He feels his throat closing up. “He – thought he was my son, because of this – little thing. And I did, too.”
“Why did you bring it here?” Her voice is little more than a whisper. “Why are you showing me this? I can’t do anything about it.” She wipes her tears from her eyes angrily with the hems of her sleeves. “It was supposed to stay there forever.”
“You look – your face is just like your mother’s,” he says, so quietly he can almost make himself believe it was just in his head, but he sees the way the words land like bullets in her heart. She pushes away from the viewport, turning her back on him and walking back into the dome. “Ana…”
She stays there for a long moment. Not crying, not breaking down, just thinking. He looks at the texture of her hair, how different it is from her mother’s, wondering how much of her life she’s spent in here. They thought she’d been liberated from surveillance, transferred to the orphanage and then to a new sent of parents, but fate, or God, or her own body had slammed the door shut behind her.
Tyrell caged Rachael like a bird, waiting to see if she could figure out the truth of her memories, and here’s her daughter, doing the same thing out of desperation, planting images into Joe’s brain, sending out a message in a bottle with each real memory. Is it the same? Is it different? Did you figure it out? That I’m real, and you’re not? Some kind of game that can only be played from one side of the prison bars.
Ana comes back, and stands at her full height, and he stands, too. Her eyes are red but her gaze defiant.
“Who was she?”
“A replicant,” he says. “A Nexus-7. We ran away together.”
Then a long pause, and a slow, grim change in her expression as she realizes the world-shattering implications. “And you’re here to take me away, too?”
“If you’ll let me.”
“East. As far away as we can get from Wallace.”
Her face settles into resignation, brown eyes softening with acceptance. “I trust him,” she says. “The KD6. I don’t know if this is going to work. But if it has to be this way, I’d trust him.”
“How long is it going to take for you to get ready?”
“A while. Medications, clothes… what I need is hard to find these days.” She jogs over to the cabinets set into the walls and begins to take things up. “And I’ll have to be – I need a suit, if I’m going to leave the containment barrier. After that, there’s no going back.”
“I’ll wait,” he says.
“No, outside. With him. I don’t want you trapped inside if they come to get me. He’s fast, and decisive, and he won’t recoil from using force.” She turns to see him still standing there, as if he’s under a spell. “Go.”
And he does, rushing down the hallway.
And he opens the front door.
And he sees Joe lying on the stairs, ash-gray, black-red blood soaking his shirt and coat, looking peaceful and dead, and this is how he’s going to lose, isn’t it? Can’t have both. It always has to be one thing or another. Happiness or justice. Blood money or suicide. Life on the run or life without Rachael. Roy Batty or Rick Deckard. A son or a daughter.
He presses his fingers into the kid’s neck, searching for the artery, feeling for the rhythmic pump of blood. It might be his hand shaking, but he can’t find it, and the snow is falling thick and fast around them, broad white flakes melting slowly on Joe’s face, reconstituting the blood that dried there, tear-tracking down his face.
“Motherfuck,” he hisses, and checks the wound, which is still bleeding, albeit sluggishly. This is a combat model, and combat models are expensive, so they have some insurance left – the bleeding is slow because of a pro-hemostatic agent released from bone marrow, the heartrate is naturally lowered during catastrophic physical trauma events, and the skin becomes cool to the touch. He remembers it being true of Leon in the dossier. He can only hope it’s true right now, and presses on the wound to stop the last of the bleeding.
Joe doesn’t move. This should be hurting like a bitch. He’s cold.
He was ready to die alone.
Well, you’ve got another thing coming. Anger slides cool and red through his veins, and he gets to work.
Ana rushes down the stairs, moving double-time, awkward in the bulky suit that makes her look like a cosmonaut. She’s carrying a duffel bag in one hand and a kit in the other, and when she kneels down next to Joe’s terrifyingly unresponsive form, she opens the kit to reveal a broad-tipped syringe in a blue plastic bag with all kinds of warning labels plastered over it.
“He’ll still need serious surgical intervention.” Her voice is muffled by the helmet. “But this should seal the wound and stop any bleeding until we can get him to your contact. The snow is lowering his core temperature. It’s helping to stall the spread of necrosis. We have to move as quickly as possible after getting him in the spinner.”
With a few deft movements, she unzips the bag, removes a syringe, uncaps it, and lifts the kid’s shirt to expose the wound. She places the broad tip of the syringe into the cavity, depressing the plunger. There’s a crack as the upper compartment breaks, and the inert white liquid inside foams up out of the bullet hole, drying out to make an airtight seal.
Well, if he hadn’t passed out before now, that would have done it.
It takes both of them to get him into the back seat of the spinner. He’s heavy – fuck this increased bone density bullshit, he groans, rubbing his arms. Ana doesn’t say anything, busy attaching some kind of blood supplement line to the kid’s inner elbow. He jumps into the drivers seat as she throws her duffel into the trunk, then straps herself down next to him in the passenger’s seat, curly hair pooling in the bottom of the helmet like gravel in a fishbowl.
“They’ll be running our plates by now,” he warns her. “I’ll have to stay low.”
She nods, then looks over her shoulder at the back seat, where the kid lies limp and inert. He catches the worry on her face.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
He makes it in fifteen minutes, blasting through the lower corridors to avoid the cameras on the main freeways. The guy they’re looking for has run his pro-bono out of the same building in Inglewood for the past fifteen years. Ana keeps looking out the windows and at the camera feeds, scouring the view for any sign that they’re being followed. He bites his tongue. Telling her it’s useless wouldn’t help at this point.
When they land in the yard, all hell breaks loose. All the better for them, really, because the pathway to the front entrance is cleared before he can even open the door. A neat side effect of the LAPD terrorizing this neighborhood for decades. All they’re seeing is a cop car drop into a fugitive space, and really, even though it’s solo, what else are they going to expect but a raid?
Which is probably why the terror turns to amused confusion when they see an old man and a cosmonaut hobble to the front door with a dead body.
Yerzhan flings the door open just as he raises his free hand to knock.
“Get in here, you fucking asshole,” he snarls, pointing to the operation theater (a repurposed kitchen), looking for all the world like a crazed butcher. “You think I have time for walk-ins from the fucking LAPD? This isn’t Cedars-Sinai!”
“I’ve been an ex-cop for over twenty years.”
“I don’t care. Put him on the table. Who the fuck is this?”
He looks down at Joe’s gray face, then up at Yerzhan, trying to convey “please” with his face. “Not an ex-cop.”
Yerzhan gives him a flat stare, then hits a switch on one of the operating lights, pulling down the lower eyelid of Joe’s left eye. The serial number lights up.
“The hell,” Yerzhan mutters, then looks over at Ana suspiciously. “You a fuckin’ replicant too?”
“No,” she says.
“It’s complicated,” Deckard says, waving his hands. “He’s bleeding out, you mind?”
“He’s already fucking bled out. There’s no blood in his fucking face. I got shit to do, Deckard. Put him on ice and take him to Wallace.”
“We can’t.” Ana’s tone is the verbal equivalent of a foot being put down on a neck. “He betrayed Wallace to protect us. Because he knew it was the right thing to do. He’s not just a replicant.”
Yerzhan shakes his head. “None of them are.” But something in him softens, although reluctantly, and he takes a pair of scissors from the counter, cutting deftly through salt-stiffened cloth.
When he sees Ana’s seal, he looks up at them, eyebrows raised. “This is some battlefield-grade shit.”
“I’m a serious hemophiliac,” Ana says again, wearily. “That’s where the emergency blood supply is from, too.”
“Okay,” Yerzhan says, and begins to lay out his tools on a tray, grabbing a box of antiseptic wipes from the countertop.
“He got shot. Small-caliber round, no exit.”
“Stabbed a couple of times, too.”
“You good with this?”
“What the fuck have I been saying?” He twists the tap on the sink open, pumping soap from a dispenser next to the trilingual PLEASE WASH HANDS sign hanging above the basin. “Send the two idiots listening at the door inside so they can do their jobs like I hired them to.”
Deckard opens the door and two sheepish teenagers dressed in white grin sheepishly at him, then slink over to Yerzhan’s side.
“Prep,” he barks, and then turns to Ana and Deckard. “All right, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to reach in, staple whatever’s broken together, then pump that shit with a targeted builder agent, and run a transfusion. After that, I’m going to glue his wounds shut, and you’re going to leave it alone for two weeks. Then I’m going to tear you—” he points to Deckard— “a new asshole before you take him and scram.”
“Okay,” Deckard says. “Two assholes. Got it.”
“This is the last favor you get to call in, by the way. How far are you planning to go?”
“They’ll be here soon enough.”
“Oh, fuck off. You think they won’t kill all of us if I don’t give them a tip? I’ve seen what his mad dog skinjobs are capable of. Tip me. Keep the doors open. It’s the least you can do.”
“East. Just tell them east. Past Nevada.”
He stares at Deckard calculatingly for a moment, then pulls the surgical mask up from his neck to cover his mouth and nose. “Fine. Sit over there. Way over there. Keep going. There’s a fridge if you want a drink. This is going to take a while.”
The place where Yerzhan has instructed them to sit down is behind a half-wall at the far end of the room. From what he remembers, this is where he does consultations. A worn-out armchair and a piano bench pushed up against the wall that creaks when he lowers himself onto it. Yerzhan doesn’t have a piano.
Ana sounds like a disaster when she sits down on the armchair. The helmet doesn’t do her any favors. Now that they’re not rushing anywhere, he can hear the faint sound of her respirator, a click and then a mechanical rush of oxygen.
“You all right?”
“I think so,” she says, then frowns. “You really think they won’t find us so easily?”
He shrugs. “They’ve probably just realized we took off. It’ll take them a while to process the LAPD footage and find Joe’s car. And we’re going to have to ditch it further out, as soon as we get to a safe house.”
“That’s the name he gave me.”
“I only know him by his serial. KD6-3.7.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s not a name.”
She’s silent for a while. He can hear Yerzhan muttering in pidgin to his assistants. There’s a fair bit of Kazakh in it, so he can’t follow, but soon enough one of the kids puts on music just loud enough to mask most of the unsavory surgical noises. The light in their half of the room flickers for a moment.
Yerzhan lives in a shithole. He’s never made a show of hiding it. Even when Deckard was in the force and came to get patched up after sublegal jobs, the place looked like garbage.
The neighborhood didn’t go to shit, he’d said once, stitching up his hand. This is a ghetto for the Third World poor. Replicants, humans, whoever. And in thirty years some fuckhead developer is going to come in, take a wreckng ball to all of these buildings, and grow some billion-dollar condoplex up to the sky. How’s that for industry?
It hasn’t happened yet, but he’s having a hard time imagining the place without this makeshift clinic at the ass end of it. And he’s almost sorry he’ll never see it again.
He’d imagined having a son or a daughter enough times since he watched Sapper’s brief broadcast, the newborn infant in his hands, Rachael nowhere to be seen. The staticky screen. He’d touched the glass as if she was just on the other side of it, and not a million beams of light focused through a four-inch comm display.
Some things don’t change.
Good things never come to stay.
She shakes him out of her reverie by folding her arms. The crackle of the polyurethane material sounds abnormally loud. Yerzhan curses loudly at the other end of the room, and there’s a metallic clang. He winces.
“Where did you live? Before all this. I mean, where did he find you?”
He laughs humorlessly. “Vegas. I was in Vegas for a long time. They moved me east before you were born. It’s where I made the horse.”
The whole story comes out, piece by piece. He finds that he hates telling it, digging up all this shit, but he does it anyway, because she has to know – if not about him, then her mother. Why some blade runner is out there trying to give him a chance to unlock someone’s cage.
She asks a lot about Rachael. There’s a kind of hunger there, for glimpses of a life that barely existed thirty years ago. Not so much about the why – why’d they leave her in the orphanage, why’d they put her there, in the middle of a San Diego landfill, seemingly at the mercy of strangers. Maybe she wants something, anything idyllic. Something brighter than Los Angeles that led her to hold onto that horse for so many years.
“He must have gone to the orphanage to look for it,” she says softly when he mentions it.
“You mean you didn’t give it to him?”
“No. I wasn’t allowed to take anything with me. It’s – an important memory. I always imagined it was still there, hidden, and nobody had ever found it.”
Well, shit. “You gave him your memories?”
“So is squatting in a no-go zone for twenty years.”
He lowers his voice even more. “If Wallace really wants you found—”
“—then he’ll tell the Board what I’ve done and have every police force on the continent looking for me. Sure. It’ll take him years to prove it. And in the meantime, we’ll be…”
Ana shrugs, listless. “Something like that.”
“You trust him that much?”
“He brought you to me. And I owe it to him.”
He waits, but she won’t say anything more, glancing over at the operation table.
Fuck, what a mess.
Yerzhan works methodically, but he’s done within the hour with the help of his field scanner and some good old-fashioned battlefield-surgeon gumption. They’re probably lucky he didn’t advise just shooting the kid in the head to put him out of his misery. He’s taking off his gloves and disposing of them in a trash can with a hand-written BIOHAZARDOUS WASTE sign taped onto the lid when he calls them over.
“You’re in some luck,” he says brusquely. “As a replicant, his body’s reaction to catastrophic injury and serious blood loss is to induce a coma. That’s helpful for reducing resource consumption, but not by much. He was just about to step through death’s door, to be honest.”
He looks it. The bruises Wallace’s hunter-hawk laid on him have bloomed over the hours since he’d gotten them, and his skin still has the pale of illness in it. The gunshot is sealed up but still ugly; the knife wounds are lines of puckered flesh. All the blood has been wiped away. If you put a shirt on him, it’d just look like he had a heart attack and died.
“He’s good. Not great, but he can handle some jostling. His body’s going to do most of the repair work now that his pipes are back where they should be.”
Ana places a gloved hand tentatively on the kid’s filthy hair, then looks up at Yerzhan. “How long will he stay in the coma?”
Yerzhan shrugs, glancing over his shoulder at his young assistants, who are ribbing each other at the sink. “I don’t know. There’s a chance he’ll never come out of it. Depends on how long you’re willing to wait.”
Deckard exchanges glances with her.
“Either way,” he continues, “it seems like you have a lot of waiting games to play. So take him and get going. There’s a portable transfuser hooked into his arm. You can remove it after twelve hours.”
“What happened to the ‘rip you a new one’ thing?”
“You’re never coming back, are you?” He folds his arms, and gives Deckard a look that is tired and frustrated and a little wistful. “So what good would it do? Gave it some thinking-over while fishing out the bullet and all I really wanted to say was something like ‘don’t come back, ever.’ You’re never going to learn, but it doesn’t matter, now.”
He grunts noncommittally and turns to Ana. “You ready?”
They maneuver his body into the car as Yerzhan looks on, frowning as he leans against the frame of the front door. A bunch of kids stare at them sullenly as they take off, then shield their eyes as the spinner kicks up the dirt. The doctor gives them a short wave when they’re in the air, and then he closes the door behind him. Ana reaches into the black bag between her feet and pulls out a canister of some kind, opens a compartment in the chest of her suit, and switches it in, putting the used one back into the bag. She breathes deeply and leans back against the seat, hair sticking to her face.
“Where are we going?”
“Feet of the Rockies, first. And then east.”
If she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t show it. She’s asleep by the time they pass the edge of Los Angeles, and then he’s alone, watching the jagged skyline recede between slate-gray hills and the black trunks of abandoned oil derricks.
And there’s silence for a very long time.
When K arrives at the briefing room, the lieutenant is already there, talking in a low voice with Chief Segundo. She cuts the conversation off politely when he closes the door behind him and stands up to hand him a tablet, then waits for him to scan through it, nursing a thermos of coffee.
He looks up when he finishes. “You found ‘em.”
“Oh, yeah,” she says, taking another drink from the thermos. “And we’re here to discuss the raid.”
As if on cue, the door opens again, and Kinamoto steps in, holding it open for two of the Soviets from the last meeting, as well as the heads of VD and Major Crimes. Joshi and Segundo shake hands with everyone, inviting them to have some coffee or protein bars. Goncharov and Aimanov politely decline, but Kinamoto grabs two of the bars and starts chowing down, tossing the wrappers in the trash can.
They’re still waiting on a few more people, apparently, so K stands behind Joshi’s chair patiently as she continues her conversation with Segundo, leaning forward with her elbow propped up on the table. Some Internal Affairs stuff that neither of them seem pleased to be discussing. What really interests him is the conversation between the two Soviets, in a dialect of Russian he’s not familiar with. There are a few words he can pick out – posól, stánsiya, vydaváli. Bureau business, then.
Aimanov notices him listening in and motions for him to come over. Joshi sees it, and gives him a quizzical look, but doesn’t say anything, which he takes as permission to go over.
“Why don’t you sit down,” Goncharov says. It’s not an invitation or a command, just an expectation for him to do it. So he does, in the chair next to Aimanov. “You’re the blade runner, correct?”
He nods, and Aimanov leans over. “What’s your name?”
“KD6-3.7,” he says, and the Soviets look at each other. Goncharov raises an eyebrow. “But most people call me K.”
Aimanov gives him a short smile. “Pleased to meet you, K. I remember you were on the scene when they raided the transports.”
“Yes,” he replies uncertainly. It’s difficult to read them. They look at each other again.
“You understand Russian?”
“Not the dialect you were speaking.”
“Very few do,” Goncharov says. “It’s a poor man’s dialect. Used in the street, never in a bureau. I would have been surprised if you had been programmed to understand it.”
“Where is it from?”
“Chelyabinsk. Where the meteor fell, about thirty years ago.”
Goncharov’s skin is still smooth, his hair still blond. But money can buy any number of cosmetic procedures. He chooses the safe route. “I wouldn’t have taken you to be that old.”
“Only just about,” he chuckles. “Born under a bad star. As they say. Do you know your horological sign?”
Joshi, who has evidently been listening in the entire time, interjects. From her frown, she disapproves of the question. “Ambassador, I assume you read the files we sent over this morning?”
Goncharov turns to her with a preternatural smoothness and a thin smile. “Of course. It’s all been very intriguing. And I have your blade runner to thank for procuring the retinal data.”
She eyes him with suspicion. “K’s good at his job. Better than most, actually.”
Aimanov props his elbow up on the table, rubbing at his chin. “Extraordinary. Knowing the history in this part of the world, I’m surprised he’s allowed a seat at the table.”
It’s Segundo who has to interject, now, as Joshi purses her lips to hunt for words. “Mr. Aimanov, I hope you’re not equating our pre-emancipatory history to this rather global issue concerning the misuse of replication technology.”
“Of course not,” Aimanov says smoothly. “But then again, this particular global issue has been dogging the heels of civilization for centuries. Slavery has many forms, does it not?”
Joshi shuts her mouth as the Wallace reps enter, and everyone is engaged in another round of handshakes.
The briefing is brutally long. Joshi and Segundo do most of the talking; the head of Major Crimes fills in when she feels the need. Kinamoto is still knocking back a cup of coffee in the corner. K watches silently as they flip through diagram after diagram of LA, specifying everything from where the cordons will go to where VD wants to position for bycatch.
There are two warehouses – one for farming, one for storage – that have been confirmed to be a production site for the Wallace knock-offs. Major Crimes suspects that it’s one of a handful of failed venture tech CEOs with their eyes on the private military market. That kind of Sandline or Blackwater op, looking for a cheaper alternative to shelling out a million per unit. It looks like they’ve been having trouble with the fine details, though, and the knockoffs are prone to shutting down. Not too much bother if they’re meant to be meat shields who can aim and pull the trigger, though. The suspects’ faces flash up on the projection, smooth white-collar faces with perfectly-styled hair and airbrushed skin. He recognizes them, actually. Not the individuals, but their look. A de-facto cabal of nouveau riche middle-grade entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to dip their fingers into the black market.
He imagines them walking up and down rows of bagged replicants, fingers slipping over the hard plastic, black overcoats brushing the concrete floor.
At some point during the downpour of strategy and map indicators, Joshi says they’ll be entering the site after it’s been secured, along with the Soviets entourage and Wallace’s assistants. They’re to evaluate next steps with the site and determine what is to be done with it, including the knockoffs. The Wallace rep makes it known that they’re in favor of immediate disposal; the Soviets aren’t as quick to the trigger, but end up agreeing, more or less. Joshi doesn’t trust them, but he sees the lines in her face deepen from the effort of masking it.
“My primary question is why we can’t conduct a separate investigation as a sovereign government,” Aimanov says, running a hand through his black hair. “We are more than capable of supplying our own security.”
“Our protocol is to post officers around the clock to keep the site closed to tampering, public, private, or otherwise. If you disagree with how we operate, Ambassador, you can take it up with Internal Review.” Joshi crosses her arms and leans back in her chair, setting her jaw.
“Far be it from me to criticize your methods, Lieutenant. I’m simply wondering whether it’s a protocol that doesn’t impinge on our right to gather information and communicate it privately and safely to our own government.”
Kinamoto tries to discreetly unwrap another protein bar.
“I’m sure we’d also like to conduct an unimpeded investigation, but I seem to recall that you volunteered your full cooperation.”
“We like to keep our promises, within reason.”
She raises her eyebrows. K can see everyone else except Kinamoto tensing up (probably because ze’s not paying attention to anything except the free food). “To be clear, no one from the Soyúz needs to be physically accompanied by an LAPD officer. You’re free to roam the facilities at your leisure during our joint procedures.”
Major Crimes piles on, thin mustache bristling. “Mr. Ambassador, I’m not sure why you’re expressing these reservations this late into the operation. Accommodating this request would force a delay in the investigation.”
“And we’d like to see how much knockoff product is in circulation as soon as possible,” the Wallace rep adds. Her assistant is busy taking notes on a laptop, but their lips are pursed a bit, probably in frustration.
All of the parties continue to snipe at each other while K and Kinamoto continue to sit there, awkwardly. He’s not quite sure why ze’s here, actually – nobody seems to have requested a special report from the forensics lab, and based on the last meeting, there won’t be anything new to talk about until after they’ve been on-site. Maybe there’s some kind of panel requirement? Then again, he’s not sure why he’s here, either. Usually he just hears about the meetings second-hand from Joshi as he receives assignments. He doesn’t technically need to know any of this to do his job, and if he really needed to, he could read the transcript in a few minutes. He just kind of assumed he was needed for something, even if he has no idea what it is.
The Soviets are doing a great job of stonewalling the LAPD while remaining polite and unruffled. The Wallace rep looks like she’s about to burst an artery in frustration.
“If we can’t come to an agreement within the next thirty minutes, I’m confident Mr. Wallace would be more than happy to re-negotiate your current supply contracts,” she snaps. “Perhaps you could find this white-collar supplier and do business with them, instead, if you’re so reluctant to investigate.”
“Miss Benoit, I’m not trying to impede anything,” Goncharov says, folding his hands over his stomach. “I’m simply looking out for the best interests of my country.”
Kinamoto’s hand shoots up, and Segundo’s head whips around in surprise. Everyone else follows.
“Just divide it into shifts,” ze says, shrugging. “LAPD posted during the Soyúz investigation, Soyúz posted during the LAPD investigation. You can debrief each other during the next meeting.”
“It’s not going to happen unless Mr. Aimanov is interested in compromise,” Joshi says, shaking her head in exasperation.
Aimanov raises his eyebrows. “The suggestion seems reasonable.”
“Which is why I’m surprised you didn’t even try to offer a solution. It’s almost like you’re trying to get people riled up. Not saying you are, but if you’re gonna beef during the investigation over, like, communism or whatever, you should probably bring that up now and not later.” The basket of protein bars is empty. Kinamoto crosses hir arms. “Unless you’re waiting for someone to talk.”
The Soviets exchange looks, and then Goncharov turns to him, which catches him by surprise.
“Generally, we try not to deny key operatives a voice in the proceedings, replicant or no,” he says. “So, KD6-3.7, how do you think we should resolve this?”
Joshi leans back in her chair and spreads her arms in disbelief. “This is why you asked if he’d be here? To ask him – what, political brain teasers? We commissioned him to track and kill replicants.”
Aimanov shakes his head. “And yet I’m sure he has an opinion on the matter. So?”
Everyone is staring at him. He has no idea what the right course of action is. Kinamoto’s solution seems obvious, but there seem to be political implications he’s not aware of, beyond Aimanov’s grousing about national sovereignty. As always, he’s inclined to throw his support behind the Lieutenant, but Kinamoto is raising hir eyebrows at him in a way that suggests he should answer of his own accord.
Perhaps they are expecting the unexpected, then.
“I think it’s fair to compromise, but my orders come from the Lieutenant,” he says, glancing over at Joshi, who looks less upset but still supremely irritated. The Soviets seem to be listening intently, waiting for something more, and then look disappointed when he doesn’t say anything else about the decision.
The atmosphere deflates rapidly. Benoit is staring daggers at everyone else in the room except for her assistant, and everyone from the LAPD is wearing several different variations of unhappy. Segundo clears his throat, shuffling some of the papers in front of him and propping his elbows up on the table.
“Let’s wrap this up, then,” he says gruffly. “We’ll hash out the details of the patrol swap closer to the date of the investigation. A show of hands for support?”
K watches as they all raise their hands, and catches Goncharov looking at him out of the corner of his eye.
“All right. Now that’s settled, let’s get to the final document we shared with you all today, which is a routine behavioral protocol issued by the LAPD before any joint investigation. If there are any problems, you’ve already agreed to cooperate, so I’d personally refrain from provoking anyone from now on. Got it?”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Please open your file to page one so the Lieutenant can walk you through.”
“I can’t believe them,” Joshi says the moment she closes her office door. “A bunch of goddamn commie freaks trying to prove some idiotic point about capitalism and the treatment of pseudo-sapiens. As if they’re not here on break from running a chain of fucking gulags.” She stalks over to her desk and leans on it, placing her palms flat on either side of the keyboard and glaring at the monitor.
“I didn’t know national sovereignty would be such a significant issue,” he says mildly.
“It was mostly a smokescreen for a ‘bigger’ question.” She makes exaggerated air quotes with her fingers, then squints at him. “Do you feel like we’re treating you unfairly by leaving you out of the meetings?”
He shrugs. “To be honest, Madam, it doesn’t seem like there’s much for me to do there.”
“Which is what I told Segundo when he made this request. God, what a colossal waste of time.” She pauses, rolling her neck. “But do you think it’s unfair?”
He shrugs again, unsure of what she wants to hear. Things are getting harder to predict these days. “I don’t think I’m being mistreated.”
“Same thing those IDI stationed around the Embassy would say.” She opens the bottom drawer on her desk, stares into it, then closes it again. “Jesus. Nothing I hate more than a superiority complex.”
“They think they’re superior?”
“They think they treat their replicants more humanely,” she sneers. “And I know for a fact that they don’t.”
He recognizes the feeling inside him as confusion, and tamps it down firmly. There was something about the ambassador’s question – maybe the fact that he made a point of staring K in the eyes, or the way he leaned forward to listen – that made him feel strange. Probably the shock of being thrust into the spotlight, which he’d rather avoid. Major Crimes doesn’t like Joshi’s blade runner program. VD just seems to have it in for him as an individual. He can’t count the number of times they’ve tried to dock him for interfering with some op or other.
But that’s life. That’s his station. It’s why he’s alive, literally. Joshi trusts him with her life, with the lives of millions. He’s in a privileged position. It doesn’t matter who the rest of them are, not really.
—playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns to ivory unicorns and ebon fauns—
—kindling a long life here, extinguishing a short one there—
—too-green eyes. Blank face. The crack of bone beneath his fingers.
Who is that?
Joshi snaps her fingers.
“You with me, K?”
“Yes, Madam,” he replies without hesitation.
They land outside a ring of heliostats. The sky is overcast, so the glare is almost nonexistent, but Luv frowns when the mirrors still manage to shine neon spots into her retinas. Fremarten is monitoring footage from a drone on her tablet, long fingers dancing over the remote command interface.
“We’re close,” she says. “I’m not quite sure how close, though. Within fifty miles.”
Anjol is busy examining the heliostat tower and its rings of mirrors. Like the panels in the solar fields, they rotate slowly to catch the sun at the right angle.
“Monitor for low passage.” Luv scowls. It’s too quiet out here. A different kind of silence from the interior offices – they were soundproofed, but even then, the computers would chime softly when she received messages, and there was always a call to take, coffee to order for a site visit. Here, the dry, loose soil muffles the sound of her boots. Anjol and Fremarten move silently through the gray air. The only sound is the low thrum of the wind as it pushes through the fields of mirrors.
“I think there should be local closed-circuit monitors that should have recorded the passage.” Fremarten turns the tablet display off.
Anjol nods. “We could commission the field manager for the records. They landed within the past two weeks.”
Luv shakes her head impatiently. “They’ll be staying in a structure, and there aren’t many choices they can take, even if the search radius is fifty miles. We can scan for bunkers using the drones.”
“They might not even be in a bunker,” Anjol objects. “They could be at a safehouse. Either way, we’d benefit from extracting the information from the owner.”
“If the owner is in collusion, they could be notified before we could get to their location. Using the drones will provide us with discreet coverage until we can narrow down a location to approach.”
“But there’s no way they’d be able to escape in such a short time frame. And if that manager is competent, he’s already notified them that there’s a group of strangers on the property.”
“All the more reason to use the drones,” she says testily. “If the physical experience is so important to you, why don’t you defer to my years of operation in the field?”
“I’m simply pointing out that your decision could cost us precious time. We’re all well-versed in extraction methods, so it’d be short work. And Mr. Wallace told us to help you with your strategic de—”
She grabs Anjol by one white silk lapel and drags her down to eye-level, snarling. “I don’t care what he told you to do. Your series has the average intelligence of a dog. You’re here to follow my instructions, not offer input.” She spits out the last word and shoves her back as she releases the lapel. Anjol looks barely fazed, tugging at her jacket to straighten out the creases left by Luv’s grip. The two of them exchange guarded looks, and Luv hates it.
The wind picks up the dust, and it dries out her throat. She turns away from them and looks up at the sky, watching the drones circle overhead, waiting for the deep scan to compile. When it’s finished, a wireframe display opens on her tablet. The mirrors are fuzzy and indistinct, collections of white dots. The three of them are represented in little spikes on the tri-axial grid. Underneath them, in the dirt, there are power lines and water pipes, running at clean angles, forming part of a circuitboard several hectares wide. Between them, on the display, there’s only darkness.
The sunlight dims as thicker clouds roll in. She’s in the middle of gesturing to the drone when something cold and wet strikes the back of her hand.
“Raining,” Fremarten says, almost dreamy. “I’ve never felt the rain before.” She reaches up, palms open, trying to catch it in her hands. After a moment, Anjol joins her. They look just like the towers of the heliostats.
I got it done before the end of june!! sorry about the long wait - ya girl just finished her master's thesis + defense and moved out of her old place! thanks for your patience. longer chapter this time, and two more left, I think, although it might end up being longer. either way, hope you enjoyed, and thank you for reading, as always.
There’s a day when he wakes up and the kid isn’t in the room.
They’re in the bunker, still – they’ve been here for roundabout two weeks. There’s not really anywhere to go. It’s cramped and gray and small, not much more than an emergency storm shelter. Fluorescent light shines down harsh from the bars on the ceiling. Everything looks flat and shadowless, computer-generated.
The bed is unmade, and he’s not in the sleeping room. There’s a kitchen and a decon chamber on the other side that leads up to the hatch. Ana’s in her suit in the kitchen, running the air purifier to fill up the empty canisters of her oxygen tank. He’s not in there, either.
She nods wordlessly in the direction of the hatch. It doesn’t look like she’s slept at all.
He hovers, unsure of what to do. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she says quietly, and it’s unconvincing, but it doesn’t seem like she’s in the mood to talk much. Or maybe she’s done a lot of talking already.
He enters the tiny decon chamber and climbs up the ladder, shuttling the two main bolts back to trigger the seal. His ears pop a bit as it depressurizes, and the hatch clanks open just enough for him to get his fingers into the gap and swing it aside. He hefts himself up over the opening and onto the ground above.
The sky is a pale blue, smeared with thin white clouds like paint on a patch of drywall. Joe is propped up against the trunk of the heliostat some ways away, eyes closed. He hears Deckard coming, though, and doesn’t startle when the gravel crunches under his feet, just cracks his eyes open.
“You been out here long?”
His shoulders hitch in an approximation of a shrug. Deckard sits down next to him, knees protesting.
“You and Ana talk to each other, then?”
“A bit.” Listless, rough. “She… has a lot on her mind.”
“About you?” Joe’s face doesn’t change, but somehow Deckard can feel the impression of a frown.
“Where are we?” he asks instead.
“Solar country. I’d say a while west of the Chi Sprawl. You should be able to see it from here on a clear night.” Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Joe turn his head to look at him, but he doesn’t look back, fixing his gaze squarely on the horizon.
“You don’t have to,” he starts, but Deckard cuts him off sharply.
“Don’t have to what?” Joe doesn’t reply, so he pushes it. “What don’t I have to do? Sit here? Come looking for you? Drag your ungrateful ass out of LA?”
Joe sighs. “Not that. Just…” He flicks his hand out, gesturing to nothing in particular, and sounds so tired that Deckard wonders for a moment if he’s going to fall asleep right here.
“This,” he clarifies, and looks back at Joe, who, despite surgery and two weeks of a medical coma and Ana’s spare blood pumping in his veins, still looks a hair’s breadth away from giving up the ghost. “Joe—”
“Don’t call me that,” he says, and the quickness of his response should be matched by its sound – it should be ragged, there should be pain – but it’s just flat and featureless like the plains around them, if a little hoarse from disuse.
“That’s what you told me to call you.”
“I know. Just – don’t. K is fine.”
Deckard furrows his brow. “It’s not fine. Tyrell used to give all of you names of your own.”
“Naming the animals,” he shoots back. “Zhora. Pris. Roy. Rachael.”
And before he knows it, his hand is fisted up in the kid’s collar, white-knuckled. “You got no right to talk about them like that,” he hisses. “Least of all her.”
“Who?” KD6-3.7 asks, bitter. His face moves and Deckard sees the wound split open, finally, the edges peeling away from each other, a flower blooming. “My mother?”
He lets go, stung. “Joe—”
“Please.” It’s soft this time, pained. “Just K.”
“I can’t,” he grits out. “You give a serial number to a thing. And you’re not – a product.”
“No, that’s exactly what I am. A replicant. We’re duplicates. As close to human as you can get without being the real deal. And no matter if it’s mass manufacture, or – or artisanal, it’s all for the same purpose.”
He considers it. “And what’s that?”
“I don’t know.” Barely a whisper. “Why’d you keep that dog around?”
Against his better judgment, he found himself wishing he had one of the other runners around. Like Gaff. Someone who was good at plying a witness, using the right words at the right time, or a sympathetic look, a calculated hand on a shoulder, a paper bird dropped in the hand of a distrustful child. He’d never been good at reading faces. For this, he can only take a shot in the dark, with no hologram cabaret to light up his target.
“He found me,” he says honestly. “I didn’t want him to leave. He was a good dog.”
They approach the warehouse in formation. Joshi is up ahead talking with the three Soviets, trailing the head of Major Crimes, and in front of her are several LAPD officers in hardshell gear. He’s lagging toward the back, just ahead of the two GR5s and the TSVETOK (“Mitya, Vanya, and Alyosha,” one of the Soviets said, and K thinks it might have been a joke). Wallace’s people have been here since the scene was cleared for entry, and a pair of suited reps are waiting just inside, each flanked with a security detail of their own.
Joshi signals him over as they approach the entrance, and he ducks his head, circling to the front of the delegation and walking just behind her on the left. She’s still chatting with Yenin, but they’re serious, now. For all her propensity to fly off the handle, K can’t think of a time she did it unprovoked.
“You said there was a firefight to take the warehouse,” Yenin observes. “It looks in fine form.”
“The clearing squad damaged some of the product during the suppression. I’d rather see some more broken glass.”
When they step through the doors into the brightly-lit warehouse, Joshi’s met with a surprise: Fuse, announced by the clang of his heavy boots striking against the sheet-metal stairs to their left. When K looks up to the elevated walkways, he can see CSI techs moving around, inspecting the giant incubator vats.
Joshi immediately bristles when she sees him, but doesn’t say anything. Fuse shakes hands with the Soviets, and nods to her, then introduces Wallace’s contingent: Benoit’s immediate supervisor, and some other pencil-pusher.
“You’re free to move anywhere you like as long as you’re not obstructing the investigation,” he says curtly. “If you’d like to take something in for further processing, you can put in a requisition. If a CSI tells you to step back from something, you do it, or you leave. Understood?”
They all nod, except for Goncharov, who smiles and says, “Quite.”
He goes with Joshi, of course, and she beelines to the stacks of metal shipping containers in the back that contain the actual knockoffs. They’re hanging in rows of sealed bags, like sacks of fruit. The walls of the shipping containers are supposed to protect them from the light, but he can see ghosts in the bags through the thick stabilizing gel.
She proceeds up and down the rows with a flashlight in hand, flicking it up and down as she brushes over serial numbers, packing labels, and the spiderwebbing wires and tubes branching across the ceiling into the neck of each bag.
“Probably keeps them from degenerating,” she notes, squinting up into the darkness. “Neurostim… maybe a nutrient line. CSI inventoried about two hundred and fifty in the vats and in storage, so they must have been finishing up this batch just before the raid. But we already knew that from the report.”
“They don’t look fit for circulation.” He thumbs the flashlight to diffuse the beam, illuminating the entirety of the bag in front of them. The figure inside, loosely curled in the fetal position, looks disproportionate, somehow. Limbs too long, or head too big, or torso too short. Hard to tell.
“There’s some unpacking process they use to rectify the more cosmetic issues. I doubt it would have worked on these, though – they look too deformed.” She aims her flashlight at a bag on the other side of the aisle, where a long, preternaturally thin hand is frozen in gel close to the plastic seam. “The Soviet skinner you helped to bring in looked a lot less like a rush job.”
—did you just imagine it or was it about to tell you to lower your gun?
fingers gripping the shock blanket because it was shaking cold—
—and in the false forge of memory he sees its mouth open right before he takes the shot, finger pulling back on the trigger—
“You seem distracted,” Joshi says.
The reed becomes a bird.
He shrugs. “It’s an interesting scene.”
“Hm,” she grunts disinterestedly. “Watch your step.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
They’re met at the mouth of the shipping container by Aimanov and one of the GR5s. He smiles politely at them, then gestures with a glove hand at the far end of the containers.
“Lieutenant, would you mind if we had a word in private?”
She raises her eyebrows. “I can’t promise no one will hear.”
“It’s just a matter of discretion, so if you would…” He gestures at the GR5 to stay, and Joshi nods at him to do the same, so he clasps his hands behind his back and prepares to stand parade rest for the next few minutes.
The GR5 looks at him curiously. “You’re the KD6.”
“Yes,” he says uncertainly. “And you’re a GR5.”
“Vanya,” he clarifies. “Just a nickname. And you?”
Vanya extends a hand with a serious look. K stares down at it, then looks back up at the GR5, who shrugs and takes his hand back. “It’s part of diplomatic training. I take it the custom is different here.”
“Seems like it.”
He’s been designed to look middle-aged, with a lined, comfortable face, and his hair has been cropped short. Not military-short, but something more attuned to public service, that’ll put civilians at ease, like his nondescript face and soft-shouldered jacket. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that he was designed with the same goals in mind. They made someone who could melt into a crowd. Someone who you’d never have any reason to point a gun at.
So it’s a little disconcerting when Vanya tilts his head and leaves his employer’s line of sight, strolling up the ramp and into the shipping container.
K doesn’t follow, not completely, just walks up enough to lean on the doorframe so he can keep an eye on their two COs, who are still talking about some resource allocation issue with arms folded.
Vanya wanders through the rows of hanging bodies, head swaying to the left and right as he looks up at them. He almost looks like a kid, the way his interest snaps back and forth so quickly. K wonders if he’s been programmed with an attention deficit. It’s not uncommon for special commissions to request that kind of overclocking, but the behaviors can be – obvious, and there isn’t a lot of room in the LAPD for obvious. Especially not for a million-dollar undesirable. It’s what the VK-BADR is for.
“Do you read, K?” Vanya’s voice echoes strangely off of the metal walls.
“Some,” he admits. “Why?”
He re-emerges from behind one of the rows, lacing his fingers behind his back, staring at one of the bags. The figure inside is frozen with its arms spread open, elbows tucked in at the waist, head bowed.
“A lot of replicants in public service are required to take culture courses. I remember, you know, with the constructed memory, reading Pushkin in secondary school, reciting all of that ancient stuff… but they wanted us to be genuinely attached to the culture, and therefore the people of the culture.” He looks over his shoulder when K doesn’t respond, maybe to make sure he’s still there. “You ever have to do anything like that?”
“I’m not a public servant,” he explains patiently. “I’m a blade runner.”
“Blade runners were public servants once,” Vanya says, stuffing his gloved hands into his pockets. “Data retrieval used to be a bloody business before remote extraction got so sophisticated.”
Vanya nods. “I saw the retinal feed from that TSVETOK you retired. It was very interesting.”
“Glad it was useful, then.”
“What do you read?” He turns from the bag and takes a few steps forward, although he stays a good few meters away. “Journals? Philosophy?”
“Fiction.” He pauses. “I guess I’ve been reading Nabokov.”
The GR5 gives the interior of the container one last look-over, then joins K on the ramp. “Oh. Interesting. Did you choose it yourself?”
“I was assigned Pale Fire for my battery.”
“Hmm.” Vanya leans on the other side of the doorway. “That’s interesting, too.”
“What was yours?”
He smiles humorlessly. “Can’t you tell by our little nicknames? I’m Vanya. Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov.”
Joshi’s patter thins out, and K tilts his head to see if they’ve finished.
“I don’t know how they’re going to dispose of a biohazard this big,” Vanya says, looking back into the shipping container. “Seems like a procedural nightmare.”
For some reason, he looks back, too, and sees all the delicate limbs folded into plastic bags like embryos in formaldehyde. Something rises at the back of his throat.
(the reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig an inchworm—)
“See something unsettling?” That same smile plays around his lips, catlike and more amused than he has any right to be. When K just looks at him, his smile vanishes, and he folds his arms. “Are you really designed for investigative work?”
“They’re done,” he replies, and heads down the ramp. After a moment, he can hear Vanya following behind him. They meet Joshi and Aimanov halfway, then split off. The GR5 is still looking at him when he turns the corner.
She’s not in a great mood. “Did he say anything to you?”
“Tried to make small talk.”
“Guess he’s just as annoying as the human he’s attached to,” she grouses. “I got a couple of CSIs to bully. Stand behind me and look intimidating.”
That’s a more comfortable routine. He’s not quite burly enough to look scary, but his reputation – Joshi’s reputation, too – is enough to keep the backtalk down, even if it produces more grumbling. One of the CSIs hands her a tablet and starts talking production stats, manpower, possible supply lines. It’s all hypothesis right now, and they’ll have concrete numbers later, but she swipes over to a list of potential distributors and starts muttering to herself. The investigator looks nervously over at K a few times, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.
“We can’t rule anything out before we electrospray these samples,” he cautions when she looks up from the tablet, eyebrows raised. “It’d be presumptive to say there was a single supplier. But there are a limited amount of aboveground manufacturers who distribute to bioengineering firms.”
“Aboveground,” she repeats.
He hides his cringe pretty well, snapping the band of his latex glove against his wrist nervously. “There is a rather large market for DIY genetic experimentation, as it were.”
“You’d call this professional?”
“As close to professional as you can get without proprietary equipment. I mean, no one’s growing these things in their apartments.” The silent stare she gives him just elicits a shrug. “Not that we know of, anyway. But it’s kind of hard to hide an incubation vat this big in a smaller facility. You’d have to spread your operation out across several blocks, or even across the city, and passing cargo transportation checks would become that much harder.”
The vats are huge, six meters tall and almost as wide. Tyrell and Wallace both loved custom pieces, so normally an incubation vat would hold one embryo in one amniotic sac. This capitoline-style manufacturing facility, however, probably incubates four or five to a sac. Whatever they did to their second and third batches… well, the changes didn’t push through very well.
“Hmm,” Joshi says, only half paying attention. “If it’s an attempt to shake up the market, it’s a shitty one.”
“If we didn’t have a market for this kind of thing in the first place, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
Joshi raises an eyebrow in K’s direction. “So what do you think of my hire here?”
He gives K a calculated look. “If the LAPD wants to fight fire with fire, there’s not much I can do about it.”
“No, there isn’t,” she says briskly, and hands the tablet back to him. “Send those to my office. If the Russians ask for anything, you can’t release that information until the lab has cleared it, and that could take…”
“Two or three days,” he finishes.
“Good. As you were.”
The CSI returns to his work, talking to a junior tech, and Joshi takes them up the catwalk, the sheet metal shivering under their feet. She quizzes some more investigators and takes reports. He knows she has her own conclusions, but he’s not sure whether she’s putting on a show for the LAPD or the Soviets. Maybe both. If she has to be on site, then she’ll damn well commit to the charade, he guesses.
Then she takes him aside, nods down at the crowd on the first floor. It’s bustling, even with the crime scene tags and tape everywhere. It almost seems like a tourist attraction, technicians gliding around the floor, pulled into the orbit of the big vats and then flung off somewhere else, swirling together with the contingent of uniformed Soviet officials and LAPD officers.
“You’re the only domestic model in the room,” Joshi notes. “They never had riots like ours. One of the perks of centralized government, I guess.”
“You don’t think they’re better off, do you?”
She snorts. “Of course not. LA’s not much less of a den of vice than Moscow, and I’m sure a lot of Aimanov’s people would agree.”
The ambassador in question is taking notes on a PDA, talking to a techie who’s barely bothering to hide her distrust. “Middle Asians?”
“Something like that.” Joshi rolls her neck, stretching. “I mean, the further you get from the seat of power, the less all of these PR tricks work. Out there, it feels like you’re on your own. The only thing that changes is how much your supply is worth. Scrapping for parts in San Diego doesn’t make for much interest in the finer points of metropolitan airway regulations. I imagine it’s the same for them, whatever their equivalent of San Diego is.”
“So why do you think he’s working Soyúz?”
“Him in particular? Who knows. But people like him believe that, you know, someone in the bureaucracy does care, or should care, about the people out there. It’s why Segundo climbed his way up.”
“Is that why you wanted to be LAPD?”
“Some people come in thinking they can change the system for good. Make it work better. Make it more fair.” She shrugs. “It’s not good. It’ll never be good. They’ll all burn themselves out trying to make it good. What Segundo found out and accepted is that there are some things the system does very well. Rooting out obvious crime. Keeping an eye on people. Finding out who did what, and shutting it down long enough for people to get back to their lives.”
“And things that it doesn’t do so well.”
“Justice. Philosophy. Equanimity. All I’m trying to do is stop everything from toppling over. You can stabilize a faultline, but not these – punk entrepreneur wannabes, or whatever. People trying to make a buck off of selling shit they shouldn’t be selling. And on top of that…”
“The old Nexus models.”
She shrugs again. “Replicants have serial numbers. Human traffickers don’t. My job is the most cut-and-dry there is in the whole institution.”
He looks down at the people chattering below them. It doesn’t seem so cut-and-dry from up here.
“You gonna ask me why I wanted to work LAPD?”
To her credit, Joshi laughs. “The story goes that you were a real stand-up kid. Maybe it’s in your blood.”
“Either way, you fit into the system. You do your job. Maybe it’s not fair, or even good. Maybe you never bring anybody to justice. But you stop a house of cards from toppling over. You pry fingers off of our pressure points. You keep the world spinning in the big, black universe.”
In the blood-black nothingness. He nods. “Yes, Madam.”
Joi sits on the bed with him at four in the morning, their windows blacked out and the lights half-dimmed. She’s settled on an accent now, some kind of soft Latin thing. A glass of red hangs in her hand. Miming a romantic evening, or something.
“You’ve been quiet,” she says, hand ghosting over his cheek. “Is it work?”
“No. Not work.” He keeps his hands clasped over his stomach. “Just… thinking.”
Her hand moves down to his shoulder. The holo jags out a little when her index finger clips through his shirt. “What are you thinking about?”
He looks away for a moment, at the ceiling, where the projector is installed. He wired the unit into the existing entertainment system himself.
“Socialization,” K says honestly, looking back at her. “What’s normal. Why it’s normal.”
She tilts her head, bangs falling to the side. “Like what?”
There’s a whole list of reasons why they shouldn’t get into this conversation. It’s work-related, and someone’s going to lift the data from this if they need to review him for retirement. It’s not savory. It could go places he doesn’t want them to go. It muddles his work life and his professional life. But, if he’s being honest, there’s not much separation, is there. Hasn’t been since he was incepted.
So he rolls over, propping his head up on his hand. “Say you have a son. Nice kid. Eleven or twelve years old. You come upstairs to call him down for dinner. He’s pinning a butterfly to a display board. Sticking a pin right through. And he takes your hand, gives you a little tour of all of his specimens, and then the jar he kills them in.”
“And how do you feel about that?” He sits up a little bit more, leaning against the pillow.
Joi shrugs, looking down at the comforter, where she’s running her fingers over the wrinkles in the polycotton. “It’s not good. I mean, better than killing cats, but that kind of behavior can grow into something…”
“Socially unacceptable.” She looks back up, fingers stilling. “And… I think it’s cruel.”
“Do you think you learned that? Or is it just—”
He nods, slowly. “Were you created with the empathetic range that you have now?”
“It’s dynamic. Designed to grow. Maybe that means I was. Or at least that someone anticipated I would develop my range in a unique way.”
“Do you think—” And he stops, for some reason, but pushes past and starts again. “Do you think you have – humanlike morality?”
She purses her lips. “Well, there are failsafes in place to make sure I don’t encourage things like suicide, or murder, or other illegal activities.”
“Sure. But what if someone made a clone of you? Without your consent?”
He should have expected the laugh he got. “I’m not supposed to say this, but I think you understand, if you’re asking that question… darling, there are copies of me all over the world.”
“What if I copied you? Right now? Just downloaded an instance of you onto a drive, and…”
“What are you trying to get at, K? Should I object to being pirated?” A playful smile darts onto her lips.
“I don’t know.” He shifts. “Should I?”
“Object to me being pirated?” She arches one delicate eyebrow. “My demo is freeware.”
“No, to – me. Being pirated. Or being piracy.”
“Of what? I know you’re a replicant, K, but you’re one of Wallace’s original designs. You aren’t copying anyone. You’re unique.”
It’s a surprising answer, but maybe – maybe expected. They’re not supposed to encourage… “There are plenty of people who disagree with that.”
The smile falls from her face. “I think you need to explain.”
“Remember when we read Solaris together?”
“Yes,” she says, guarded.
“Can you get it for me? It’s on the coffee table.”
The projector whirs across the ceiling as Joi rolls off the bed, the hem of her gray shirt falling from where it had ridden up. Even the dent in the mattress springs back, although he doesn’t feel so much as a shudder. She picks up Solaris, a holographic copy sliding off the table between her fingers, the paperback still lying opaque and undisturbed, facedown.
“You want me to read? The light is hard on your eyes.”
It’s really not, but he nods anyway, rolling onto his back. “‘Rheya joined me, squatting on the floor in her accustomed manner…’”
“In her accustomed manner,” Joi murmurs, flipping to the page. She traces the sentences with her index finger as she reads. “With her legs folded under her, and tossing back her hair. I was no longer under any illusion: This was not Rheya.” She stumbles a bit over the name. “And yet I recognized her every habit… habitual gesture. Horror gripped me by the throat; and what was most horrible was that I must go on tricking her, pretending to take her for R-Rheya, while she herself sincerely believed that she was Rheya.”
“Thank you,” he says, and she closes the book, looking at him solemnly. “Kelvin was horrified at the prospect of…” He fumbles for the words. “The idea that something familiar was really… alien. That it acted human and familiar, but it had learned to do those things.”
“And there’s something scary about everything being pretend.”
“Yes. Someone not knowing that they’re lying to you. Like a voice you know speaking to you from behind a closed door.”
“But Rheya was a real person, once. Kelvin’s girlfriend. Doesn’t that make it different?”
“That Rheya’s an alien, underneath. But what about you? Or me? Pretending to be something we’re not? It’s not just utilitarian, it’s – it’s horrific to them, on some level. That we act real, and we ask them to lie and pretend that we’re real. So we can switch places.” It comes out more plaintive than he wanted it to, and Joi’s features soften in concern. She reaches for his hand on the covers, and puts the book down next to her.
“Do you scare people?”
“I think so.”
“Do you know why?”
“I’m something like that,” he says. “A replicant. Like seeing someone walk around with their guts hanging out. Or knowing that they don’t have any. That if you cut them open, it’d be empty inside, like a doll. Or – or they’d find themselves, an exact copy, and they’d know that they don’t want to be there, inside a stranger.”
“But look at you,” she breathes, her thumb resting weightlessly on his wrist. He closes his eyes. “Flesh and blood. You’re made of that stuff. There’s something inside you that I don’t have. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Everything’s made of something,” he whispers back. “Even things that aren’t real. Even dreams. Electric charges. Chemicals.”
She humors him, slipping under the covers. “What do you dream about?”
“I’ve never seen a real one.”
“Neither have I.” He breathes in deep through his nose, exhaustion pressing him back into the pillow. “A horse… a fountain. A tall, white fountain.”
Joi doesn’t laugh this time, even though she should. The light fades against the backs of his eyelids, from dark orange to black. It’s nice of her to turn off the light. Like she cares about him.
It was Rheya, he recites into the darkness. The real Rheya, the one and only Rheya…
He’s not sure what causes it until later. Something they thought was a fetus floating in one of the vats. A hidden wire, a hidden cap. Someone pulls the hatch. It’s rigged.
His reactions are faster than Joshi’s, but all he really shields her from is a shower of liquid growth medium. It stinks – smells like ammonia and meat.
“Shit,” she hisses into his ear, and then pushes him off. “Shit!”
They rush down the stairs to the blown-out side of the vat that used to be labelled 1-1, where the growth medium is still pouring out of the side of it like wine from a broken cask. The metal is flanged out from the explosion, the top gone, one side gone, frayed edges curling backward in agony, perforated fronds of coral. There’s a lot of shouting. There’s a lot of CSIs and security officers telling them to get back, and a lot of Joshi shoving people out of her way. The medium splashes up around their boots. Smells like sweat and fish and cleaning supplies. Their shouting echoes against the aluminum walls.
Injured: four CSIs, three technicians, three security officers, five in the Soyúz detail.
Goncharov has a shard of pipe or something embedded in his shoulder. It’s bleeding. K thinks maybe the coat helped a little bit to soften the momentum. He’s almost flat on his back, propped up on his elbows, hypertension-pale, pupils blown.
People are lifting the GR5 off of him; officers trained in field medicine are sealing Goncharov’s wound, spraying white foam around the entry point. He seems bewildered. His head turns to follow the body as they put it down a few feet away, blood draining into the liquid lapping at their feet. One pool spreading to meet another, like ink and water. It feathers out.
Joshi practically runs to the ambassadors, reaching out in calculated diplomacy to put her hand on Yenin’s shoulder, then kneeling next to Goncharov, who unsuccessfully tries to wave her off. What happened? You all right? Look, we’re going to get you some help…
He’s at her side. There’s crying. Someone’s been pronounced dead. He sees sightless eyes, limp arms. Short, red hair. Some CSI. Someone sobbing over the body of a dead CSI. Someone with an arm around their shoulders. Consoling.
Mitya, Mitya, Vanya says, and comes down to roost next to the GR5, and the TSVETOK stands between them and the ambassadors and Joshi, tall and solemn and hands clasped behind his back. Mitya doesn’t say anything back. Vanya stares intently at his face, breathing heavy, at the blood spray that goes up over his chin and down from his neat hairline, arms splayed out and elbows tucked in, the curved pieces of ceramic studding his chest and upper thigh. His breathing calms, little by little, and then he stands up, with a kind of distant look, but doesn’t leave, as if he’s still waiting for him to come out of retirement. Alyosha moves behind him, like a ghost, and says something that K can’t hear, but to which Vanya nods.
“Madam, it’s not safe for you or the ambassadors to stay here until we clear the building,” Blumenfeld says, urgency leaking out into her voice. “We can have someone drive you back to headquarters.”
Joshi nods, irritated but clearly off-balance, and shoots a look at K. “No need. I have a driver.”
Blumenfeld nods. “I’m sure there’ll be a press feed in fifteen minutes. We’ll have a report in half an hour.”
K follows the lieutenant outside, shooting a look behind him to see that the ambassadors and their retinue are also being shooed out. The open mouth of the building pours fluorescent light out into the relative darkness of the industrial development, catching up against razor-straight cement walls.
“You all right, Madam?”
She looks back at him, confused, angry at being jolted off-course. “What? I’m fine.” The officer she was talking to gets off the radio and says to follow him. Two others fall in around them, uniforms bulky with bulletproof padding, bike helmets on. They’re escorted to the car. Joshi thumbs the keyfob in her pocket and the doors slide out with a hiss, and she gets in the passenger’s seat.
He sits down, keys the door shut, and reaches for the dashboard to set course.
“K,” Joshi says. She sounds tired.
“Drop me home.”
He hesitates. “Will they want you at HQ?”
She turns her head to stare at him, clearly annoyed, then looks back out at the windshield. A light flickers out. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
K takes a softer speed home. It takes about forty-five minutes through the restricted airspace Joshi’s access code grants them. Central LA sprawls out into Burbank, dimming as the residential areas thin out, growing bigger and fancier. He takes a descending pattern around the Sierra Madre, curling into North Hollywood. The glittering grid of penthouses and condos and legacy developments seems so quiet and worn, like a tattered blanket, even though it’s a far sight cleaner and well-kept than the city proper.
He parks the spinner in front of her apartment building, rolling in quietly until the autobrake fully deploys. The windows here are broad, stripes of thick floor-to ceiling glass folded into a ribbon of white concrete. Even the doorways are completely transparent. He can see the secretary tucked behind the front desk in a white, high-collared uniform.
Usually she gets out by herself, but she just sits there, hands folded in her lap, a thousand-yard stare on her face.
“Madam,” he says.
She doesn’t look at him. “Give me a minute.”
So he does.
Then she lets out a huge breath, rolling her neck again, pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead for a moment and closing her eyes.
“You all right?”
“We’re at your address.”
“I know, K.”
He sinks back into his seat. “Okay.”
“I want you to do your baseline tomorrow. Full battery.”
“You don’t want to know why?”
He shrugs. “I don’t need to.”
“Those replicants,” she says, picking her words slowly, “were close. The GR5s and the other one. The fact that they let them get like that… it doesn’t sit right.”
The silence seems to invite a question. “Why is that?”
“Messes with your head. Throws you off. Replicants more so than normal. Seems irresponsible. It’s why we never commissioned blade runners in pairs.”
“Sometimes dogs play well with others,” she says conclusively, although he doesn’t quite understand what she’s so confident about. “You weren’t designed to.”
“Play well with others.”
“Mm.” She chuckles, low and dark. “Maybe that’s why we get along so well.” Something seems to pass, and then she slaps her chest to release the seat belt. He keys the passenger door open, and she steps out, taking a deep breath of the cold night air.
“Good night,” he says, and reaches for the keypad.
“You’re not coming up?” She leans on the chassis with one arm, giving him a crooked smile through the doorway.
It’s not a command or a request. Maybe just a joke. And even if it’s not…
“I’ll be at HQ,” he says evenly. “Summary report on your desk by 0700.”
“All right. Do your battery after that.”
“And shower before you go into any meetings. You smell like a corpse.”
“Good night, K.”
She slaps the roof with sarcastic cop machismo and walks into her apartment building, swiping in. He pulls away when he sees her get into the elevator.
After two weeks, they get a tip, and they move to another safehouse. He calls in another favor. They’re not in a bunker this time – it’s a processing facility, lead-lined, with an underground connection to the house. They’re in luck, because Ana can get to work replacing the oxygen canisters, patching up her suit.
“How long is that thing going to last?”
Ana shrugs, the bags under her eyes severe now. “It’s supposed to be for emergency evacuations. I don’t think it was meant to run this long.”
He sits down on the other side of the glass. Feels like they never ran away at all. “You feeling okay?”
She sighs, angry or frustrated, and throws the ring of hex keys across the decon chamber. It clacks against the glass, then falls to the floor. “I feel like shit,” she says, flat. “I don’t work, I don’t walk around, no one talks. Every time I pop one of these god damned canisters out it feels like I’m doing some kind of surgery.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.” He turns to lean against the glass, resting his head on it. “Just not this hard.”
“We have headhunters after us now. Mostly me.”
“We’ll keep ahead of them.”
“How?” She practically throws her hands onto her lap, crinkling the suit. “Wallace is rich, and he’s obsessed. He’s never going to stop looking for me, and if he finds me, it’s over for both of you. He has a finger in every market in every corner of the globe.”
He shrugs. “Guess you’ll just have to play it by ear.”
“That’s not good enough.” Her eyes are wide in exasperation. “There’s nowhere on earth we can go to hide from him, not if he’s looking. Are we going to run forever? We’re not prepared. God, I don’t think he can take it. He needs to be in one place.”
“I know,” Deckard says, pressing his knuckles against the wall. “We’re all tired. It’s been a long month.”
“If this suit fails, I’ll be dead in a week. I worry about it every single minute I’m awake. I don’t want to die here.”
He shakes his head. “No one’s going to die.”
“You don’t know that,” she whispers. How old is she again? He can’t remember. Thirties, or something. But she seems younger. She still has the memory for hurt.
“I do. Ana, look at me.”
She looks up at him, frowning. “No, listen. If I go with them, you can leave.”
“They kill for sport. They’re not going to leave a single one of us alive. And if it’s not by the hand of one of his – hunting dogs, or whatever, I’m sure he’ll find a way to do it himself. We can’t look back. There is nothing behind you. No safety, no compromise. You finish what you start.”
“Is that what you learned on the force?” She gathers her knees up in her arms. “No safety, no compromise?”
He rubs his hands over his face, eyelids gritty when he blinks. “No. I learned that when I was on the run with your mother.”
Something in her seems to crumple, and he didn’t mean to do that, but he’s too tired to do whatever it is a good father does.
“I forgot,” she says softly. “I’m sorry.”
She nods, and then folds her arms over her knees, tucking her chin into the crook of her elbow. The exhaustion should make her look older, but instead, she looks much younger. He wonders, for a moment, if this is what it would have been like to raise her as his daughter, or if the only reason she came with him is that he didn’t. Raise her, that is.
“I’m worried about him.”
“Yeah.” He stretches his cramping legs out. “Me too.”
“He’s doing better, physically.”
“He’s flat,” Deckard says. “Like there’s nothing underneath. It’s creeping me out.”
“That’s what he’s supposed to be like.” Ana presses a thumb over one of her fingers, and the joint pops. “When he came to find you, when he came to find me – he was never supposed to do that. It should have set off a series of compulsions that led him to scrub that branch of interest, or at the very least report it to a superior.”
“So why didn’t he?”
“The memory,” she says, and pops another knuckle. “There are some series designed to work in the field. To be a little more empathetic. To pass a little more fluently.”
“To have a little more soul.” It comes out tinged with bitterness. “But not so much that they’d run off.”
“They’re service workers. What good is a service worker who doesn’t want to work for you anymore? And that’s how you’re expected to program. It’s a piece of tech, and not a person.”
“And what do you think?”
Her brow furrows. “About what?”
“Whether they’re people.”
She frowns. “If I knew what made someone human—”
“Isn’t that what you did?” he interrupts. “Decide what makes someone human, take parts of that humanity out until you thought you had a workhorse? Draw a new line for what’s acceptable as a human being and what’s not?”
“You’re talking like you weren’t a blade runner for eighteen years,” she snaps. “How dare you talk about drawing lines when you played executioner for a living?”
He slaps his palm against the glass, and it echoes inside, hollow and warped. She flinches. “I quit my job because I realized I was wrong. I won’t dance around it. I realized I was wrong, and that’s why you’re even alive in the first place.”
Ana tilts her head defiantly. “So what do you want me to say? That what I did was wrong? I broke the law, I violated every ethical standard I was held to?
“We could start there.”
“Of course I did. There’s nothing ‘ethical’ about using replication technology to mimic humans in the first place. There hasn’t been a revised ethical standard since Eldon Tyrell died.” She gets up, full of restless energy, and walks to the other side of the chamber to pick up the hex keys. “I gave them as human a life as they were allowed. And sometimes more than that. Maybe I was desperate. Maybe I was stupid. And maybe I’m not going to call my own mother inhuman. Those are my decisions.”
“And it was your decision to do the exact same thing to KD6-3.7 that Eldon Tyrell did to your mother.”
She throws her arms out in a shrug. “You act like I’m supposed to know these things! Who my mother is, what the implications are of being half a replicant, the – the specifics of your old career run-ins. I don’t. I don’t understand whatever kind of narrative symmetry you’re trying to fit me into. And I didn’t come here because of you, or your opinions on whether he’s a human or not. I came here because of him.”
Her hands are shaking. He closes his eyes for a moment, then stands up, putting his hand back on the glass gently, apologetically.
“No one’s thought of him as a human before. I didn’t want to be the first one.”
“You’re not the first one.” She purses her lips, then tosses the hex keys onto the suit, crossing her arms. “You think you’re an expert because you loved her. But you didn’t build her like I built him.”
The entryway buzzes as the door to the processor slides open. The kid walks in, shouldering the second door open and letting it swing shut behind him. He’s in the middle of taking off his coat when he sees the two of them staring.
He pulls his other arm out of its sleeve, folding the coat and placing it on one of the tables. “Talking about me?”
“Yeah,” Deckard says. No point in lying.
“Okay,” he says. Simple. Almost indifferent. As if the cracks and ridges that had started to grow again have been successfully polished off.
“Not curious what about?”
“There’s not a lot of options. Dr. Stelline already knows pretty much everything.”
“You see anything out there?”
There’s a cloud passing over the sun. The mirrors start to dim, row by row, until they turn from silver to slate gray.
“You ever read any Nabokov?”
Deckard shakes his head. “Not my kind of writer.”
“Okay,” he says.
here's a link to a plot summary for solaris. I also loved the tarkovsky film.
oof. transitioning to post-grad life has been wild. it's probably only going to get harder in the near future. I think the next chapter will be our last one, but it'll be a bit longer than most.
hope this one was fun to read. it's fun to write in different conversations about what it means to see someone as a simulation, especially playing them against wallace's "authorial intent" in the first chapter. I guess I'm going through my own wishlist for conversations I wanted the film to have.
thanks for reading. join me next time for the exciting(?) conclusion of whatever this has turned into. and I'd love to know what your opinions are on all of the sticky questions the films leave us with.
It takes a month and a week for her to get sick, and another three days for Deckard to take executive action and get them eastbound toward Cumberland. She blames it on the autoclave at their last safehouse, on the steady solar farmer’s diet of canned supplements and boosters, on improperly-cleaned decontamination chambers, her reluctance to use rad-based cleaners, the deterioration of her suit, the water, the air purifiers.
She doesn’t blame him.
In retrospect, he shouldn’t be surprised. She didn’t come with him because he’s her father, she came with him because K or Joe or whatever is – her friend, her brother, her bondsman, he doesn’t know. They don’t really talk to each other when he’s around.
Because they left the kid’s spinner somewhere in Wyoming, the three of them have been shunted from place to place in the backs of freighters, dropped off discreetly on delivery routes. It’s a silent business. Deckard does most of the talking while Ana fidgets and K/Joe/the kid stares blankly at nothing in particular. It’s not exactly what he’d pictured in those early days with Rachael. A far cry from sitting on the porch and bouncing a kid on your knee.
He misses the dog, all of a sudden, huddled with his two – kids, or fellow refugees, whatever the hell this is, in the lower access bay of a battery freighter. The western tip of the Atlanta Sprawl is fifteen hours away because they’re in what seems to be one of the last fully-grounded vehicles on earth, and because they have to dock at a recharge station for three hours before going up through the Cumberland Pass.
Ana’s lymphatic aids are showing their age. She’s running a low-grade fever that will develop into something worse over the next few weeks, and without proper medical treatment, she’ll be dead by the end of next month.
None of them are in particularly good health. He wasn’t eating particularly well in Vegas, but it was better than the almost completely liquid diet of Things That Come In Cans that they’re currently subsisting on. The kid doesn’t seem to have much energy for anything; he’s not sure whether he’s lost in thought or too tired to think. He suspects that this replicant body, although it has a great SAVE function, needs a lot more juice than what it’s currently getting in order to jump out of its resting state.
Deckard has no idea where he’s going to get that. He has maybe one connection in Arlington, and that’s it. The only reason they are going to Arlington is that going west will put them in Wallace’s hands, and going north or south lets them catch up quicker. Well, there’s also the fact that the sprawl surrounding Off-World transit stations is absolute chaos, only second in size to LA and a hundred times less regulated. If they keep their heads down and let Wallace’s hunting party do a couple of fly-bys, there’ll be a lull where Wallace recalculates how much he’s willing to put into the chase. Then, it’s just a matter of becoming new people – and he thinks they’ve done a good job of that already.
His daughter – feels weird to say that about someone nearly thirty years old – is dozing lightly, suited arms wrapped around suited knees, the glass of her helmet fogged up with the heat. He can barely hear the respirator clicking. It’s been the last thing he hears before falling asleep for the past four weeks.
The kid, on the other hand, might as well be sleeping. He hasn’t totally shaken the pallor of blood loss yet, and he suspects it’s a miracle of engineering that he’s been walking and talking at all instead of laid out cold in a coma. He even shaved. Once. Eight days ago. Deckard scratches at his own chin. At least the casino had disposables up in the hotel rooms. Should have thought to take those before he left.
No, his eyes are open. He’s brooding, probably. Over what, Deckard can only begin to imagine.
Might as well ask, then.
“What are you thinking about?”
The kid looks over at him, then back at the wall. “Nothin’.”
Deckard tsks in annoyance. “C’mon, kid. I spent twenty years in Vegas talking to a damn dog, and who knows where the hell he is, now. Throw me a line.”
He takes a deep breath, then stretches his legs out. The plant worker’s uniform is an old-fashioned blue-gray. It makes him look like an invalid. “How’d you feel when you stopped working?”
“Dunno.” He shrugs. “Was planning on retirement before I took the last case. Just didn’t plan for it to come early.”
“No one ever does,” comes the morose reply.
“Yeah, well, in your case, it’ll be late from now on,” he shoots back.
His face contorts, like he’s trying to figure out what expression to put on, but relaxes quickly into blankness again. “Did you ever do data transport?”
“What?” His eyebrows are at his hairline, he’s sure. “I’m not that old. People stopped using us to run actual fucking blades in the 1980s.”
“It’s the spirit of the thing, I guess,” the kid muses. “Just wondering.”
“Yeah? And what for?”
Another shrug. “Don’t know.”
He grunts. “Lot of that goin’ round these days.”
The freighter tilts as they start to climb a hill, and Ana jolts awake, going to rub her eyes before the faceplate gets in the way and she realizes where she is. He can see something vanish from her face the moment it happens. When she yawns, her outstretched arm bumps up against the kid, and she turns to look at him.
“Have any weird dreams?” she asks.
“I had one. I was swimming in the lakes on Titan.”
He has that strange look on his face again. “Used to dream about the horse. Not so much anymore.”
“Not so much the horse?”
“Not much dreaming,” he says.
That’s not strictly true. He does dream. But it’s the same thing over and over. The world gently rolling over from white to black.
Against the black, it sings. A tall, white f—
It doesn’t work anymore.
They are a month on the hunt when she kills one of them. A botched pass, not fast enough, and they catch up, but barely; the man is tight-lipped until he breaks and spills all over the floor like a bottle of wine. He doesn’t say anything they don’t already know.
Where is he going?
I don’t know, I don’t know, he babbles. Fremarten stands behind him, bloody hands clasped in front of her, one of them gripping the kitchen knife.
He doesn’t know, Anjol says from behind her. She sounds curious. What are we going to do with him?
Don’t kill me, please don’t kill me…
This one is the only controller for the next few hectares, Anjol muses. But I’m sure the manager can find a replacement. If you tell them now, they wouldn’t even miss a shipment.
Brisk, bright. They were supposed to be secretaries. The man writhes on the chair. She is losing time.
“The Cumberland Gap,” she repeats. “Is he trying to get to the Albemarle launch site?”
He just said to put him on the freighter, he whines. His voice is wet. I don’t know where he’s going, they don’t have the m-money to get off-world—
She hears something, then leans closer, then puts her fingertip between his eyes, pressing just hard enough to let him know she’s there. His eyelids are puffing up quickly, but he still sees, and he tries to hold his breath, a frothy, sucking sound.
“Who,” she whispers, “told you he was coming?”
Silence. Just that sick wheeze. She presses harder.
I-it was a favor. On a routine call. He swallows hard. It was just a favor.
“Answer the question.”
The super, on the call!
Luv wipes her hand on one of his washcloths and tosses it into the sink, holding out her hand for the knife, which she rinses. It’s one of his. She can hear his breath quicken when he hears the running water. When she shakes it, the excess water catches on the teeth of the blade and splatters across the countertop in fat droplets.
She already knows how she’s going to kill him, and she can feel the other two wondering why she hasn’t yet. There’s something else she can get from him. Call it a hunter’s instinct.
“What was the favor?”
He tries to turn his neck to look at her, but he’s in too much pain by now, flesh tender and inflamed. What…?
Anjol chimes in, strangely enough. Why did you owe him a favor?
She hasn’t laid a hand on him the whole time, and maybe that’s why he suddenly finds the guts to talk back again, because he’s looking right at her. Why do you care? His head thumps against the back of the chair. Why the hell do you care?
She’ll kill you if you don’t answer.
No, he says. No. I can feel it. I can already feel it. Right here. He shudders.
“Tell me, then.” Her fingers tighten around the knife impatiently. “Why does it matter? Just tell me.”
His voice goes light and confused. He did something he wasn’t supposed to. Run of the mill for him. But it meant something to me. And then his breath catches in an ugly way. And it won’t ever mean anything to you.
More out of spite than anything else, she puts the blade to the right side of his jaw, chasing it when he flinches. “Enlighten me.”
You think you can use it against him? It won’t work.
She digs the knife in. “Just,” she hisses in his ear, “curious.”
He winces as she drags it down to his neck, and his pulse races. I was LAPD. Took some bribes for – for something real bad. He let me quit when he found out. Deep breath. Those files are buried by now.
“Hmm,” she sniffs, and listens to his heart spasm, trying to pump blood through leaking flesh.
You don’t have to kill me. His eyes close. I can feel it. Almost here. Right – in front of my face.
He’s right, Anjol says. Even if we rushed him to a medical center, the organ damage you’ve inflicted is—
The heart gives out before the brain, clenching feebly until the body doesn’t know what to do anymore. His eyes wander beneath his eyelids. Then nothing.
Luv puts her left hand around his throat anyway. Squeezes with her fingers to check for a pulse her ears can’t hear.
Dead? Fremarten asks. Patronizing.
“Shut up,” she says again, and buries the knife in his side. The wound doesn’t bleed.
Fremarten washes her hands before she leaves, and dries them on a dishtowel, but there’s nothing to be done about the blood spotting the sleeves and front of her jacket. It’s not like they have anything to be presentable for – and besides, they can always send Anjol to deal with any federal flack. Or Fremarten could just take off the damn jacket. Any more trouble and it’ll look like an old-times butcher’s apron.
Luv has one or two spots on her shirt, but those are easily covered, and it’s hardly the most pressing issue at hand.
Niander Wallace does not video call unless it’s with a deep-pocketed client who cannot otherwise be reached. When she was at his side, she had no need to call him, anyway; his life, besides the visual aids, was as analog and historical as he could make it. There are a handful of clients who refer to it snidely as an artisanal lifestyle – the minimalist organic interiors, fire-cooked meals, hand-tailored clothing, human (or humanlike) waitstaff.
He takes messages through assistants. They’re relayed through word-of-mouth. She sends updates on their progress to a secretary, who takes them to his office.
“You give the update,” she says to Fremarten.
I’m not presentable, Fremarten says. There’s blood on my shirt, too. The silk is quite thin. But Luv sets her jaw, so Fremarten gets in the driver’s seat of the spinner, anyway, and activates the comm system. She combs her fingers through her hair before turning the monitor on.
Anjol follows Luv to the perimeter of the residence. It’s just flat, compacted earth, bare except for pieces of dead, rusted-over equipment. The place where the man lived is just under three hundred square meters. The yard, if it can be called that, reaches out from it to a road on one side and monitoring stations on the other three. The bunker that sheltered the fugitive is a small metal hub half an hour’s drive from here. She scowls. They’re losing time, and fast. If she can’t pin them down before Albemarle, they’ll enter a high-density area and there will be – hazards.
What are we going to do? Anjol says. She doesn’t sound confused, just courteous. Even after a month, Luv has to stop herself from clenching her fists at the sound of her voice.
“Battery freighters depart eastward every twelve hours. They can’t have left more than two shipments ago. We’ll do an overhead on the ones heading to the Cumberland gap and take a look inside with infrared.”
Anjol folds her slender arms pensively. Do we stop the freighter, then? If we find them?
“We’ll be waiting around the weigh-in. They’ll need to leave just before it hits the checkpoint.”
And what are you going to do with them?
She fixes Anjol with a dead stare. “Didn’t you hear Mr. Wallace? Retrieve Stelline, dispose of the others.”
Anjol stares back. Her eyes are an unnaturally pale brown, shining out from dark hair and dark skin. But what are you going to do with them?
Her patience is wearing thin. “Be more concerned about what I’ll do with you two,” she snaps. “Useless without explicit direction. No wonder you never saw a commercial release.”
I’m not afraid of you. Or being retired. But we have that in common. Nexus-9.
“We’ll see how good your calibration is, then.”
It’s a veiled threat, but the corner of Anjol’s mouth pulls down in a grimace. It’s not fear. More like disapproval. But it works. She knows something about conditioning. The KD6 has broken his baseline so badly by now that his mind is probably eating itself alive, and he’s a combat model. Anjol is a pencil-pusher armed with a couple of basic hand-to-hand routines. Luv could probably break her with one arm.
And it’s what he deserves, anyway, she snarls in her mind, and it’s so sudden that it makes her vision blur for a moment. He’ll have to retire them and not you, and he’ll see how wrong he was.
She recovers just as Anjol turns back to look at Fremarten, who is just now finishing the update. After a few banal, barely-audible responses, she reaches up and turns off the display.
They’re in the air again within ten minutes, heading east.
Aboveground again. Underground again. The land rumbles past. He can barely see it, most times. Until he climbs up to look. He has perfect vision. He can spot a drone from ten kilometers out on a clear day. There’s nothing worth looking at.
He’s sleeping, most of the time, or idle. Doesn’t have many thoughts at first. Then they start to multiply like bubbles on the surface of cooling coffee, a thousand little things sticking together until they form an indistinguishable layer of foam. The buzzing of a limb asleep.
It takes a while before the buzzing resolves into anything, and by that time, he knows he’d rather be asleep. Nothing stops. Everything keeps going, too loud, too fast, and trying to look or listen is like trying to drink from a firehose. He has a ringing headache that just doesn’t go away. The memory of his Joi is stuck in his brain, a piece of rebar shoved through the middle of his forehead. He can’t think.
That’s not right. He can think, he just can’t – do anything else. Except think. About the moment the boot came down on the emanator. The crack of plastic and the sudden gap in him as a piece fell out. The thoughts swarm into the gap and batter against his insides, insisting on something he already knows in his gut but can’t seem to grasp with his head.
Mountain, mountain, the swarm yowls. Pike’s Peak, McKinley, Malinche. Where do you think you’re going?
Deckard keeps throwing questions at him. At the best of times, he can barely remember what Deckard looks like. He can think but not see.
“If you could choose,” Ana asked him under the solar tower, “would you rather I hadn’t given you the horse?”
He said I don’t know but his head nearly split in half from the pain. What he wouldn’t give for one of those damn aspirin patches Joshi slapped on her face every other day.
And suddenly he can’t stop thinking about his apartment, about the Shona girl in the hallway, the squatters in the staircase who threw their trash at him, FUCK OFF SKINNER and someone’s piss dripping down the door, his Mr. Coffee, the whir of the projector across the ceiling. He can see and smell and hear everything in Mobius 21 in excruciating detail and nothing else. He thinks this might qualify as a dream but he knows his eyes are open and Dr. Stelline is sitting right next to him. All the debris of his apartment plastering itself over his present, fading, jagged, out of sync, the hands of you’re not going to kill me, are you? written over the hands of there’s still a page left.
He cannot say which one he’d rather be living in right now: the world with the soft static of uncertain happiness lying just under the skin, or the one that is cold and clear as glass, visible and material. All he knows is that there was K, and there was Joe, and now there’s him, the stump of a tree with rings of expired memory coiled tightly inside.
Deckard still calls him Joe. Every time he does that, it feels like a knife slices down from the bottom of his throat to the top of his stomach. Joe is inaccessible. Dead directory. He does not want to look at those memories anymore. They are someone else’s private property.
If anything, he wants to be Officer K again, whose life was neatly divided into predictable routines. He misses the control. His brain won’t do what he tells it to anymore. Keeps trying to access old filenames and accidentally crashing everything. He doesn’t know if what he’s doing is sleeping, but no matter how much time he loses, he doesn’t feel any different. Like his whole body is trying to defrag but just can’t, and hangs, and hangs, and hangs.
It’s enough time without sky when the copilot unlocks the access bay and signals for them to come up to the cargo housing. The copilot is a replicant. He doesn’t know the model number, but there’s something in the way he talks.
“We’re being followed,” he says bluntly. “Got a valk in pursuit about two kilometers out. They bounced a scan off of us just now. We’re going to have to drop you at the charge point.”
Ana sits back down on the floor, hitting a button on her chest plate. “A valk?”
“A valkyrie. Do you have a plan?”
“A plan for what?” Deckard bristles. “No, I don’t have a plan for you bailing on me when the shit hits.”
The copilot gives Deckard a flat glare. “I didn’t tell Jameson I’d die for you. I don’t want this headhunter’s hand up my ass rooting around trying to find the special cargo, so you’re getting off at Harrogate. That’s that.”
“You don’t know that they’re going to try it at the recharge station. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t take us at the weigh-in. It’s closer to Wallace’s satellite campus in West Alexandria.”
It’s a horrible argument, and they all know it, but it’s the only one he can make, because there’s no way they’re getting kicked off of the freighter without a protest. The pilots are leaving them to die or get recaptured, and there are no more favors to call in.
“Look,” the copilot says, gesturing with his right hand. His left grips the railing. “I’m not raring to get blood on my hands, yours or mine. We’ll wrap some shit up in the thermal blankets to spoof the infrared and we’ll toss you out at the garbage disposal. Sound good?”
Ana looks absolutely fed up. “Are we going into the garbage?”
“Sure. Well, I could also place you next to a dumpster.”
“I wear this cosmonaut suit because I’m immunocompromised. I am not going to get into a garbage disposal,” she says, although the authority of her statement is undercut by the enormous bags beneath her eyes. “If you don’t want blood on your hands, come up with another plan.”
He shrugs. “If you geniuses can figure out how to leave this vehicle without getting immediately swatted by the great big hand of God, I’m all ears. One hour to Harrogate, and that’s it.”
Deckard looks at him, and he looks back at Deckard. “Well?” the man says, exasperated. “Got any bright ideas?”
The question seems to pull him right out of the air into his body, which is not a place he wants to be right now. It’s like wading back into a derelict house.
“We need scramble suits, long-term,” he says, and coughs, probably for several different health-related reasons. “In the next hour… spoofing the infrared isn’t going to be enough when they catch up. You need to make a couple of different stops to offload…” He waves his hand. “Whatever. Anything. Walk out in threes.” The juice runs out and he throws up a hand in defeat. “All I got.”
“Shell game,” the copilot muses. “Damn. That’s elementary shit.”
Deckard doesn’t look like he likes the idea, but he seems resigned to it. “If they find us, you can split.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be out of there like fffft – lightning fast. Is that the final plan? I won’t lie, it’s pretty shit.”
“Yeah, well. Someone needs to go up into the cab with your friend. Not her, since the helmet gives it away. So me or the other guy.”
“You got it.”
He gets exiled to the cab with the other copilot, and by the time he buckles the harness, he’s so tired he can barely keep his eyes open. The consequences of actually living in his body right now are severe. Fighting half-heartedly against the exhaustion, he fills the guy in on the plan, very, very briefly. He seems to get it, though, and right before he dozes off, he can see the old man reach for the intercom, asking something in Greek that he only catches half of before all the noise in the world fuzzes out into perfect silence.
K is not invited to the first few debriefing sessions after the factory explosion because he is out on a hunt. Faris Kalinsky, N8RAF783441, surfaces in tapes from an assault in Azusa. It seems like a normal robbery, but Kalinsky throws one of them clear through a shuttered shop window, and that’s enough to set off alarms as far as Joshi’s office.
He spends about a week tracking Kalinsky down and learning his routine, then setting his trap. With the help of some unattributable LAPD funding, he slips into a motel that’s connected to his mark’s apartment complex by a tunnel that goes from garage to garage. Even with the San Andreas fault mostly stabilized, though, most Angelenos are wary about going underground, which makes the tunnel a handy spot for drug deals and negotiating unlicensed sex work. K works out those schedules, too.
Kalinsky is alone in the tunnel at four in the afternoon on a Thursday. It’s not K’s particular business where he’s going, only that he is going, but if he had to guess, probably to meet up with a dealer. His schedule outside of this immediate area has not been a high priority. Someone higher up is letting Joshi have a courtesy call before rolling out a series of busts.
K falls in step behind him, but he doesn’t seem to notice, which is the final click in the cuffs. He doesn’t seem to react to K’s presence until he announces himself.
Kalinsky stalls and turns, slowly, looking at him over the ridge of his jacket collar. “What… do you want.”
K takes his hands out of his pockets to show empty palms. “Just want to talk.”
“Mm,” he hums, and turns the rest of the way around, scratching at his cheek. “You sound LAPD to me. Mister.”
“‘Officer’ is fine,” K says mildly.
“Oh. Officer. What do you want.”
“Are you Faris Kalinsky?”
He shrugs. “Sure.”
“You mind if I check your serial?”
“Ha ha ha,” Kalinsky says. “I do.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to do it anyway, but I’d rather not use force.”
“And what are you going to do after you shine your little light in my eye.”
“If the serial matches, I’d like to take you back to LAPD headquarters, where you’ll be retired.”
K’s turn to shrug. “Something like that.”
Kalinsky steps closer. “Well, Officer. You can try your hand. I just might bite it off.”
He reaches into his jacket’s outer pocket, slowly, although Kalinsky just stares at him without any kind of reaction, and takes the scanner out. Then he walks over to Kalinsky and holds it up to the replicant’s eye.
Or tries, at least. Kalinsky catches him by the forearm and, in a whirl of motion, flips him. Doesn’t just flip him, though – he has the sensation of being levered over Kalinsky’s back and being thrown at the ground. The cement cracks under his back. The back of his head cracks into the cement. He can feel the skin split open, but it’s not enough to do much more than wind him for a second. He’s up and grabbing Kalinsky by the shoulder in a flash, knocking one leg out from under him and pressing him to the floor in an arm bar. Kalinsky snarls and jackknifes his other leg into K’s stomach, ripping his arm out from the hold. K takes a swing; Kalinsky weaves under it and gets him in the face.
It’s a hard punch. Harder than the throw. It must be something approaching full force. His nose is well and fully broken, and his cheek stings. He charges Kalinsky and tries to tackle him to the floor, but only gets his legs, which slip out of his grasp with a few wild kicks. He has enough wind for a second lunge, which finally gets Kalinsky on the floor, pinned. The only problem is that his scanner is about three meters behind him now. His mark is extremely unhappy.
“Should have fucking pinned you for a Nexus-9,” he spits. “Boot-licking bitch.”
“If you would just let me perform the routine scan,” K says, aware that the blood pouring down his mouth and chin is undermining his authority.
“Take your scanner and pack it up your—” The last part of his sentence is cut off as K slams him back against the floor to get him to shut up.
“If you move, we’re going to have to do this all over again. And if it wasn’t clear, this is not the part of the job that I enjoy.”
“What do you enjoy then. The part where you rip my eye out of my head. Or maybe the part where you shoot me. If you don’t give up I’m going to have to assume it’s the part where I beat the shit out of you, Officer Nine.”
He intentionally bleeds on Kalinsky, which Kalinsky does not enjoy. “I’m going to get my scanner now.”
He picks up the scanner. Kalinsky kicks him extremely hard in the kidney, which is not good news for the kidney. He staggers forward, then whirls around and backhands Kalinsky so hard that he feels the replicant’s cheekbone splinter under his knuckles, and plants a foot in his diaphragm to push him to the floor. Then he pries Kalinsky’s bottom right eyelid open and squeezes the trigger on the scanner.
The strobing light makes Kalinsky look up reflexively, and then there it is: N8RAF783441, in iridescent lettering.
“You can come with me,” he says, pocketing the scanner and wiping some of the blood off of his lips with his jacket sleeve. “I’d prefer that, actually.”
Kalinsky closes his eyes and lets his head fall back against the concrete. “I have no interest in going to the LAPD. Like a lamb to the slaughter. How many of us have you managed to shepherd home, I wonder. Are you leaving your collection of ninety-nine to chase me.”
“You’re my twenty-first.”
“What an exquisite honor. What number do you think they will retire you at.”
He sighs. “We can speculate on the way back to HQ.”
“I would rather not,” Kalinsky says matter-of-factly, then tases him.
Fortunately, the taser is built for use on human beings, which is why it does not immediately knock him out cold. It does have a couple of less debilitating effects, the biggest of which is that he stops being able to breathe at all for a good ten seconds, because the current of the taser makes his diaphragm convulse uncontrollably. After a small, deoxygenated eternity, he regains full control of his body, and looks up to see Kalinsky squatting next to him. His gun is in Kalinsky’s hand.
“I know I can’t shoot you because of the fancy fingerprint safety. That’s unfortunate. But move again and I will make you piss yourself.” He wiggles the pencil-thin stun baton that he must have pulled out of his pocket at some point. “Handy.”
“I guess it’s my turn,” K gasps, lightheaded. “What do you want?”
“To be left alone.” His voice goes sharp. “I’m bothering fucking no one. The twenty you retired before. Maybe some of them were criminals. But you would have taken them in no matter what. I know. Because the problem with you Nexus-9s is that you have no balls whatsoever.” He taps the muzzle of the gun on the floor. “What harm am I doing anyone that you can’t fucking leave me alone.”
His breath still isn’t fully back. “You have a history of violence,” he croaks. “Two armed robberies in Highland Park. Six other counts of assault. Not to mention the drugs.”
“Sixteen years ago. You goddamn freak.” He clenches his fingers around the stun baton. “I’m sixteen years free and you pigs still want me dead. What’s the fascination.”
“You’re outdated. And being recalled.”
“Like a car part. Like a mass-manufactured piece of—” He whips the butt of the pistol against K’s head. White sparks flare across his vision. “And being replaced by you. It’s like replacing an adult with an infant.” Then, louder, and with a hint of desperation, “Stop following me.”
K slams the crown of his head into Kalinsky’s face when he leans in, full-force, right between his eyes. The sparks are back again, but swim out of his vision much faster than Kalinsky’s, and he retrieves his gun.
Kalinsky rolls off of him, semi-conscious. His limb movements are twitchy and half-hearted. Blood so dark as to be black starts to slide down from his nostrils. The stun baton clatters to the floor.
He can see well enough from this distance that Kalinsky’s pupil sizes are very uneven. Since he has to retrieve an eye, he sends the bullet straight through his chest, stopping his heart. The fading electrochemical signals from his brain keep making his fingers and legs jerk without purpose.
The right eye goes into an evidence bag. When he’s back in the spinner, K radios the local police station to pick up the body.
Twenty-one, and a good lead on a twenty-second. All in all, it hasn’t been a horrible year.
He lands on the roof of the LAPD building an hour later and is doing considerably less well. First of all, the tasing did not do his kidney problem any favors, and he may actually have given himself a concussion pulling his last stunt. He managed to stop the bleeding from his nose with a styptic spray, but it looks… aesthetically displeasing, and the blood already made its way down to his collar by the time it dried. There are even a few bonus perpendicular drips down his jaw from the time he spent lying on the ground being tased. He also hasn’t had a chance to really clean up his hands after the extraction.
He doesn’t get to the washroom. He doesn’t even get to the stairs. Joshi is already on the roof with the three Soviets and their two remaining replicants, arms crossed and feet planted shoulder-width apart. He can barely hear them over the wind. Or maybe that’s the concussion.
Joshi gives him a once-over with an expression that is equal parts impressed and disgusted, which he takes to mean that she is impressed with how disgusting he looks right now.
“That broken nose is not doing your voice any favors,” she says. “You’d believe replicants can get the flu. What the hell happened?”
“I got punched in the nose.”
“Never mind. Mr. Goncharov, I apologize for the interruption.”
“Not at all,” he says, shaking her hand. “I think I’m interrupting you, actually. And of course we’ll discuss more at the next debrief.”
Joshi smiles with her mouth. “Of course.”
The three of them take their leave. “Vanya” waves at him, specifically, face schooled into a mildly inquisitive expression. He’s not sure what response that’s trying to provoke. He stands next to Joshi and watches them board a helicopter back to the embassy. She folds her arms over her coat to keep it from flying open as the bird takes off, lifting slowly up from the platform until it vanishes into the cloud cover.
“Okay,” Joshi says. “Did you get it?”
He produces the evidence bag.
“Good. Wash up and take it to processing. I’ll be in my office.” Then she takes a closer look at his face. “Christ. How’s your head? You didn’t call me.”
“You should see the other guy.”
“Very funny. Get yourself checked out. Your baseline will look like shit if you have a concussion.”
“But do that after you clean the blood off. It gives these pencil-pushers the creeps when you walk around looking like you just came back from a recreational decapitation, or whatever.” She wrinkles her nose.
“They should know I’m not into sports.”
That earns an entire eye-roll. “I hope the brain damage is reversible. If you develop a sense of humor, I’m retiring you myself.”
He follows her down the stairwell. They’re going to different parts of the building, so they split at the first elevator lobby. She’s taking one of the chutes to the bullpen; he needs to get to processing. The fastest way there is through one of the auxiliary stairwells, then taking one of the main elevator chutes to the basement. He makes it down the stairs without incident, then takes a deep breath before pushing the door to the lobby open.
It’s not busy at all, but he turns to the one on the right, which is the closest, just to cause as little stir as possible. The two people waiting for that elevator actively recoil at the sight of him. Belatedly, he realizes that he’s still carrying his evidence bag in his hand. He stuffs it into his pocket, which probably does not help, and stalks across the hall to an elevator that hasn’t been called, staring firmly at the closed doors after jabbing the down arrow.
Nobody bothers him. A couple of soft dings, and he can hear some of them step into the elevators. There are still eyes on him, though, and he tries to turn up his collar discreetly so that the mangled nose and bloody face aren’t as immediately noticeable.
When his elevator arrives, he punches in B3R and closes his eyes as the carriage drops into the heart of the LAPD’s forensics laboratory. Quick assessment of the damage, now that he’s standing up and it’s been a while: nose fucked, kidney very fucked. Hand hurts but is fine. His head is not doing amazingly well. He’s having trouble tuning out the buzz of the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the carriage.
When the elevator doors open, he proceeds immediately to a single-occupancy washroom and locks himself inside. He doesn’t bother with the nose very much. The bone hasn’t broken the skin, but the entire thing looks kind of like someone glued it on wrong.
He washes his hands first, then goes after the nosebleed with a couple of wet paper towels. He can’t fix his actual nose by himself, but at least there’s not a big rust-red indicator drawing attention to it. There’s also a bruise blooming on the upper-right side of his forehead. The skin is a little puffy, but nothing that won’t disappear overnight. When he pats at the back of his head with the paper towel, there’s only a little blood that comes off.
The lights in the bathroom are very, very bright. He pulls up the left side of his shirt to inspect the damage, but the puncture wound from the stun baton is already scabbed up. The only thing that’s left is a little muscle fatigue. Still something to report. He lets the shirt fall again, then leans on the counter, head swimming. Must be the last of the adrenaline washing out. His heartbeat is fast and weak. Probably a blood sugar thing.
He can see his fingers, the blood still in the crevices of his nails and the microscopic grooves in his skin. The blood sugar thing makes his hand shake as he lifts it up to look closer, first the back, then the palm. There’s a lot of information coming in. He can feel every bruise, every strand of protesting muscle fiber. The feel of his tongue in his mouth, his feet anchored in his boots, the weight of the jacket pulling at his shoulders. He can take an inventory of everything in his coat. The scanner, the multitool, the gun and its holster, evidence bags, his wallet, two pens, zip ties.
It takes a moment. Oh, the multitool. Right. He takes it out of his inner breast pocket and starts to wash it under the sink. His arm brushes against his inner waist pocket and the multitool drops out of his fumbling fingers, rattling against the porcelain.
He isn’t sure whether it’s the concussion or the feeling of the eyeball squashed up against his side that makes him stagger to the toilet and throw up.
The events that take Mariette to Arlington are, in her own opinion, extremely boring, because she doesn’t do a lot to help the plan along. Freysa confers briefly with her and Helena and Corella, and points out a susceptible target with a lot of money. A contact at one of the more upscale nightclubs makes sure they’re around her lounge. Her name is Rochelle-something-something, late fifties, blonde-gone-gray, dressed like she just came from a board meeting, which she probably did. Her arms are draped over the back of the lounge seat, jacket folded on the table. She has a couple of friends around her with fancy drinks.
Helena hooks her in just under two hours. “Nähdään taas,” she says primly, and they flounce off to a fancy hotel room together.
Corella and Mariette spend the next eight hours bored out of their skulls. Mariette doesn’t have any particular compulsion to go back to work, so they stop in at a safehouse and Corella takes a nap. By the time they get a text, Mariette is about to crash, too.
H – Anyone want to join my adventure. Help me out. #väsynyt
C – Is she buying breakfast :Y
H – If you HURRY. I need a break
M – did you go all night???
H – [CAT_WITH_KNIFE.svg] SOMEONE PLEASE.
She only gets sporadic updates from them over the next three days. It’s a lot of pampering and kinda-weird shit that makes her think the jane is some kind of executive who watches a lot of softcore. It makes her want to give Freysa a piece of her mind.
C – I mean she seems normal? Like a little wild, but normal :P
H – Ugh it’s like throwing ice cubes into lava
And then Corella texts her an address. The address is a private airstrip. Rochelle-something-something, still liquored up like a champ, flies them to Arlington for two stupid nights. Mariette bows out after the main act is over, because she is not a cocaine kind of person. Helena very much is. She wonders, after shutting herself in an empty bedroom to get away from the maelstrom of hard bass and hard drugs downstairs, which Tyrell asshole decided whether she would like getting coked up or not.
Real estate isn’t as scarce out here as it is in Los Angeles. Rochelle-whatever’s house is a mansion, three stories of luxury. From snooping through the drawers and doing some online reconnaissance, she concludes that Rochelle Lundgren is a very high-echelon financier, that her primary residence is actually further up in Manhattan, and that there are a lot of people at this party currently generating lots and lots of very good blackmail. She does some cherrypicking. The choicest bits are collected into a thumbdrive – some pictures, some videos, some soundbites.
Then, after two days, Rochelle sobers up.
“I’ve had a very good time with you lovely ladies,” she says, both elbows on the granite counter of her kitchen. She has a cut-crystal glass of water in front of her and three little green hangover pills lined up in front of it. “Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to have you around on the reg…”
“People won’t look kindly on you keeping a bunch of skinner doxies in the house,” Mariette finishes.
Rochelle grimaces from underneath the rat’s nest of hair on her head and makes a vague gesture with her hand, then picks up the glass. “One way to put it. If you leave your account info with me, I can cert your IDs privately if you want a flight back to LA. Least I can do.”
“That’s very kind of you, but we’ll be fine,” Corella says. “Our employer is used to making these kinds of arrangements.” That’s a lie. Freysa will probably just suggest seducing someone else and extorting plane tickets from them. She probably even has a list of candidates, generated by one of her neurotic data jockeys. “And our accounts are already in your phone.”
Helena leans down and kisses Rochelle on the cheek. It’s very sappy and faintly domme-y, which seems accurate to the rest of the experience. Mariette, who spent about three-fourths of the weekend rifling through Rochelle’s personal effects, just simpers and waves goodbye as they head out the door.
Helena hails a ride from the mansion to the Dulles Transportation Center. She rides shotgun while Corella naps on Mariette’s shoulder, the soft coils of her hair spilling over Mariette’s shoulder like a cloud. She laces their fingers together and leans her head against Corella’s, looking out the window. The sky here is also blank and quiet, shining white even through the tinted glass.
They’re close. She can feel it. All she really has to do now is think about what she’s going to say to him.
Luv lands the spinner right behind the fucking freighter. There’s an old man in the freighter’s cab, and another guy, some Nexus-8 nobody whose model number she barely remembers, tossing a bag into the cargo hold before winching the door shut.
Can I help you, ma’am, he says, expression completely unhelpful.
“Open that door. Now.”
He gives her an impudent raised eyebrow. Uh, can I see some ID?
She knocks him out and winches the door open herself, jumping up into the cargo hold. Anjol is just now getting out of the spinner. Totally incompetent.
And there’s nothing. She stalks up and down the hold, opening every door, every crate. The sickly green auxiliary light flickers. Luv growls and circles around to the cab, where the old pilot is sticking his head out of the window, trying to see what all the commotion is about. She wrenches the door open and grabs him by the collar, dragging him onto the asphalt.
“Where did you hide them,” she snarls. “The three that were in your freighter. Where are they.” He stammers something incomprehensible. She shakes him. “Tell me or I’ll kill him.” His eyes flick down to his unconscious copilot. She barely stops herself from smirking triumphantly.
I don’t know, he says in some Peloponnesian dialect. We let them go, I stayed in the truck. I don’t know where they went.
It’s always the same damn thing. I don’t know, I don’t know. She drops him unceremoniously in the dust, then drags the Nexus-8 back to the spinner and deposits him on the hood. Fremarten tilts her head uneasily.
“Scanner,” she snaps. Anjol rummages around in the glove compartment and hands it to her. She pries the lower lid of the replicant’s right eye down and scans him. N8XVV21033 lights up at the bottom of his sclera. When she runs it in the database remotely, it spits out a bunch of information that also includes the steps for an emergency wakeup routine. About half a minute later, N8XVV21033 sits up, groaning, and slides off the hood to land heavily on the ground.
She kicks him in the stomach. He gags and curls up defensively. Pathetic. “You were transporting some very valuable goods,” she says. “And you’re going to tell me where they went, right now.”
I don’t know, he says, and she breaks two of his ribs with the toe of her boot.
“I could pick you apart neuron by inferior neuron. But I might start with him.” She nods at the old man, who is still sitting on the ground, penned in by the two F-series. “So. Tell me.”
His face moves through a couple of different emotions before he steels himself and sits up, slowly, leaning on the spinner’s bumper and shaking his head. I’m not clear on the specifics, he wheezes. I know they’re looking for scramble suits. But they didn’t have any connections here. The girl is wearing some kind of decon suit.
“That’s Stelline,” she says, more to inform Anjol and Fremarten than to correct him. “Good.” She grabs him by the throat and squeezes so hard that his spine snaps and he collapses, lifeless. The old man screams.
The freighter is still hooked into the solar charge station. It’ll run on minimal power, as it’s designed to, until it reaches one of the distributor’s bays in Lynchburg. There’s not a lot of construction around here, so the solar panel is half-coated in dirt, the newly-accumulated particulate sticking to the surface of the cells in uneven streaks that reveal the strokes of the brush that was last used to clean it off.
With a flick of her wrist, she calls Anjol and Fremarten back to her side, and shoves the body back toward the old man with her foot. He darts forward, checking the bruised neck and bloodshot eyes with his hands, as if there’s any chance that there’s still a pulse. Luv turns her back on him, glaring at the horizon.
You’re crying, Anjol says.
The sun is setting, dull and red in the dust. She drags her sleeve over her cheeks, wiping both tears away, and keeps her eyes on the sun until it leaves glittering negative impressions all over her field of vision. When she looks back, the bright spots swim and dance over her two hangers-on. Fremarten is sitting on the hood, head in her hand. Anjol is just looking at her. Their faces are golden in the light.
hello! I am not dead! and you may have noticed that the number of chapters has gone up. I decided to split the last update into two chapters, since I think it's better for the pacing. but this means that the last chapter will be up later, optimistically toward the end of december 2018. thanks for being patient, if you have been waiting. I appreciate all of the hits, kudos, and comments you all have left since the last update. it means a lot to me that people are still reading (or re-reading) this!
in other news, it's been a full year since the movie came out, and it's also been one year since I started writing this fic. happy anniversary!
Chapter 9: bradbury
lord have mercy. we’re at the end now, lads, no matter how long it takes. see you on the other side.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the end, it’s not K’s shell game that gets them out. Their nonexistent plans are interrupted by a visitor with a spectrum jack, the same kind that helps the more high-risk recruits move undetected aboveground. Inside Mariette’s duffel bag is an oddly-shaped box that’s primed to bounce bad info to the sensors on the pursuing spinner. Percey claims it works because he’s a genius; she doesn’t know enough about spectral imaging to refute him, and he’s so isolated from the other jockeys that she wouldn’t be surprised if the thing was fuelled purely by ego. He ran interference on Perelandra, though, so she’s willing to put up with it because there’s a military guarantee that his stuff works.
When she takes the jack out and aims the transceiver, the freighter is pulling up to the charge station; when she flicks the switch on, one of the pilots is jumping out of the cab to winch the cargo door open. If the thing works, all the sensors should see is the ghostly copies of their thermal signatures, like bursts of light leaving sunspots on your retinas. And they have about three minutes to get out.
Mariette shoves past the replicant pilot and practically drags Stelline out of the cargo bay, ejecting her helmet before she can protest and tagging her in the neck with three needles: two art-lymph tinctures and one tranquilizer. She immediately collapses and Mariette catches her, shifting her arms to lift her off the ground. Once K jumps out of the freighter, she deposits the fabled gynoid savior of all skinnerkind in his arms and shoves the jack under the front bumper, then takes off running.
Deckard is old as dirt, so they don’t run far, but he’s okay enough by the time she stops them to start asking questions. She answers them after fishing the thin-cell hoods out of the duffel’s inner pockets.
“Who the hell are you?” he gasps out, hands on his knees. She shoves a hood at him, and he takes it, quirking an eyebrow at her.
“It goes on your head. There’s an adhesive strip around the bottom, you can stick it to your collar,” she instructs. “It’s not a scramble suit, but it’ll do for now.”
“Yeah, I know. They were top-of-the-line twenty years ago,” he says sardonically.
“I was thinking about the scramblers,” K says faintly, sealing the hood over his collar and gesturing vaguely in Mariette’s direction. “She’s…”
“A terrorist,” she finishes for him. Haha, a little joke. “Freysa sent me.”
Deckard’s eyebrows go up in comprehension. “What’d you inject her with?” He pulls the mesh hood over his face, nodding at Stelline.
Mariette shrugs, pulling her own hood on. “Some immune complex thing. I don’t exactly know. I can get you to a safehouse where you can ask more questions. First, though…” She depresses a tiny button on the hem of the hood, and braces herself as the cells spark with light before shimmering into something that kind of looks like her, fuzzy and indistinct. The other two follow suit. Different nose, different eye color, different hair length and hair color. The rest of the mesh does that weird thing where it seems to fade out of sight, but when K turns his head, she can see it ripple and fold in the half-light.
“Our ride is ten minutes from here,” she says. “And Wallace’s piranhas are going to be in pursuit, I guess.”
“What’s your name?”
She zips up the duffel and throws it over her shoulder again, then looks at Deckard, with his guarded face and unkempt beard. “Mariette,” she says. “But he already knew that.” Leave the burden of explanation on goddamn Pinocchio.
“You think this is gonna be okay?” He’s referring to the engineer in K’s arms, looking for all the world like a corpse with her arm flopped out and everything.
That’s not really the question she answers, though. She shrugs with one shoulder and says, “I don’t know. But it’s worth a try, right?”
What happens over the next three months is a straightforward game of keep-away. It’s Mariette and Corella and Helena and Percey and Junia until it’s just Mariette and Corella and Percey, when shit goes down in LA because Wallace is not happy with the idea of losing control over the fucking world because the LAPD lost Stelline. Freysa calls Helena back first for some kind of extraction work, because after a few weeks underground, their fearless leader takes a breath and says they’ve survived the critical period and she’s confident they won’t die.
Junia is Percey’s bodyguard. She moves up to New York with a couple of others to bluff out Wallace’s foxes, of which there are now much more than three. They can’t risk actually moving Stelline – she’s still trapped in a makeshift decon chamber half the day, anyway, an inflated polyurethane tent with three filters on each fan. It’s hard to sleep because of the noise sometimes.
She’s acclimatizing to the lymph dumps, though, which helped to clear up the sickness she had been staving off with what little resources they had. Stelline’s body has horrible lymph production, so she has to do the complex injection twice daily, once when she wakes up and once before she goes to sleep, and then every other week there’s the clotting factor, a bunch of oral supplements. Being underground is exactly like being in the early 2000s, according to Stelline. But they can’t exactly steal her an immuno-secure house.
Sometimes Mariette watches her clamp down on her arm after the injection, counting out the minutes precisely until she can let go. Her arms are covered in inkwash bruises.
They’re grubbing around in the outskirts of the DCMA. People like Rochelle Lundgren, and presumably Niander Wallace on whatever kinds of vacations world-famous technocrats take, live in pockets of gated luxury, transforming the stately shell of what used to be an administrative center into some kind of country club.
Deckard, on top of a derelict warehouse in Crystal City, tells you he’s never been here, always expected it to look different. And it does, in some places, because the dried-up tributaries of the Potomac crack the land into a thousand grasping fingers, and even though they’re long paved-over, their contours still bend the walls of skyscrapers into canyons. Where there’s money, there’s ancient architecture: neoclassical columns and clean red brick, curving populuxe rooftops and arching antebellum balconies.
The rest of it is industrial. The dead oil derricks that spike out of LA’s skyline are missing, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same – mold-injected concrete and plexiglas apartment blocks, prisons, factories, hospitals, laboratories, hotels, shopping malls.
And boy, is there tourism here, so when Mariette is out reconnoitering with K-not-K, the jacket of his scrambler suit lights up with all the bright, shimmering colors of an international fashion week. She misses the comfort of her ratty old ushanka, but it messes with the scrambler, the thing that’s supposed to keep them unnoticeable and hidden with average faces and average clothing, databases of fashion and mugshots humming over their skin. K-not-K projects discomfort even through the thousands of faces that aren’t his, although she can only tell because she knows what his actual face looks like.
To be honest, she prefers doing the whole where’s-Wallace thing with Deckard, because he slides easily back into the old habits of stakeout and information-gathering, and, like her, he can relax himself enough to blend in. Easy. Corella knows what she’s doing, too, twists her hair up in the cap of the scramble suit, looks like another tourist, over-eager and over-enthusiastic, soda-pop happy.
K-not-K, as a former detective for the LAPD, probably has these camouflaging skills, but currently cannot for the life of him not be a goddamn android for five seconds. That’s more or less fine, because they don’t talk to anyone, and he at least walks like a person and not a military machine, but Mariette knows that the moment he opens his mouth, they’re done for.
She tests him when they’re cooped up in the damp, poorly-lit basement of some Falls Church shithole. Well, “tests” – peppers him with normal people questions, inane stuff she uses to fluff up johns while they ply her with drinks that don’t work. She knows him better than Deckard or Stelline, by virtue of having served as the mannequin for his hologirl. She remembers how gentle his hands were on his girl’s hips, how hesitant and reverent he was about the whole thing, almost fearful, as if he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do, instead of having two scoops of vanilla fed to him by a spy.
And – it was nice, actually. There aren’t a lot of nice things that happen, as a rule, in the world. So what if seeing him treat his girl nice, every touch on their composited body a question (can I, should I, am I) instead of an entitlement, has made her a little protective. So she doesn’t push him like she pushes Deckard. So what.
So, of course, Wallace’s circle of surveillance gets to close in tighter and tighter, and they go deeper and deeper underground, the way Angelenos are afraid to, below the old WMATA utility tunnels, emergency networks built during the arms race that were supposed to be able to survive bunker busters. Sound echoes. Water drips. They bicker.
Percey’s shit barely even works down here. He’s not happy. Half the time they’re down there, she sees him squatting with his heels on the floor, hunched over one of his various notebooks, staring at whatever fucked-up shell he uses to write his illegal wizard code, picking at a bunch of numbers.
He gets them out of a few close calls. Mariette is familiar, more or less, with the brigade Wallace has sent out searching for them. The primary party is a group of three, his right-hand secretary and two of her assistants. K-not-K recognizes her, stalking down an alleyway below them; Mariette doesn’t. K-not-K’s eyes go wide.
“I killed her,” he says, later.
“She doesn’t look very killed,” Mariette replies.
Percey leads them in another direction, chasing a spectral ghost, but it doesn’t stop her from holding her breath until them and their gleaming white coats are gone.
There are fifteen or so agents dispatched from Wallace’s eastern campus to look for Stelline. They’re ruthless, only half a step behind, and Mariette and Corella fucking fight for that half-step, trading spots on watch like clockwork, leaving false trails, handing off litter to other operatives to sprinkle half a city away, moving their little band of refugees through the underworld like that guy on the boat, except no one’s paying them, which makes the food situation complicated.
Stelline has to maintain a particular diet, the details of which are known exclusively to Corella, who is very good at stealing from boutiques. With the scrambler, she’s basically invisible; it’s like a superpower. Corella can carry enough in her coat for Stelline, and that’s it. Everyone else gets whatever can be nicked from a shipping pallet, which Deckard says is “better than Vegas” with no hint of sarcasm. She asks him what the hell he ate and he shrugs. Alcohol and the shit you keep in your emergency kit, mostly.
Deckard is both easy and difficult to read. He’s in his own head most of the time. They all are – she can’t believe she’s been saddled with three of the saddest and most somber people on the planet – but he’s not morose about it. She gets the feeling that he’s calculating. He’s jittery.
Maybe it’s the excitement of being on the move. Maybe it’s the anxiety of having a daughter to look after for the first time in twenty-odd years. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re currently living deep in the asshole of Lynchburg. It makes her jittery, too. And the others seem to have caught onto this, because when she calls an all-hands meeting because the circle of surveillance has drawn too tight for comfort, and she proposes setting Stelline on fire, nobody bats an eye.
Ana, for the most part, doesn’t like being on the run. It makes her question why she left the comfort of her spotless laboratory, her career, her only connection to her parents, except…
Every time she wakes up, the KD6 is there, sitting quietly. Not looking at her, or anything – just close by, as if she’s not supposed to notice. And, of course, just like the programmer hunched in the corner with his laptop, she looks at her creation and sees things that worry her.
Her arms are covered in bruises, her back and shoulders are cramped and aching, and her mind is fuzzy, but she can’t stop looking at the thing she destroyed. The KD6 keeps her up.
He is not functioning as he should be. A fieldwork model like him is supposed to express mild interest when he’s idle, and mild interest does not look like staring blankly at the floor for half an hour before he realizes she can see him. His shoulders slump just the tiniest fraction when he’s standing, and the bags under his eyes have been there ever since he almost bled out on her doorstep when they’re never supposed to be there in the first place. He’s supposed to have a routine. The routine is supposed to ensure excellent health and peak performance. It’s all there in the manual she helped to co-write.
Of course, what that means is that they’re not allowed to be ill, or tired, or stressed in a way that impairs their function; what you’d call “sick” in a person is “glitchy” in someone who isn’t a person. What good’s a soldier that gets sick? What good are the promises of replicant technology if your tool just runs on low battery for a month and you can’t tell why? They’re supposed to be compliant. What they are – what the KD6 is – is spectacularly, catastrophically dysfunctional without the stringent application of the VK-BADR, on purpose, and because of her.
And knowing that, he still tried to give her something good. She created him broken and he brought the father she never knew right to her window. And, god, if that doesn’t count for something, then what does?
He tries, too, the old man does, and the more they talk, the more she thinks he’s a man who was never meant to rear a child, just like her mother was never meant to bear one. He’s been too long on his own, spent his prime killing and drinking and consumed in the loneliness of living in a city that grew sky-high when he wasn’t looking. Sometimes she sees something in his eyes, a kind of relief, perhaps that she’s grown and he doesn’t have to teach her about anything except the past.
Her father doesn’t look at her arms. The KD6 cannot stop himself. But it’s not like he makes eye contact with anyone anymore, so she supposes this is the best she can hope for.
The replicant leader, Mariette, watches her take the injections. Probably because she wants to make sure the miracle child doesn’t die. But her face is soft, even though it is watchful, like she’s keeping an eye on her younger sister. She’s not sure what she is to the Nexus-8 models. Maybe that’s what this is.
The programmer that Mariette playfully calls “the little jockey who could” kind of answers her question after a while. They don’t talk much – he doesn’t talk much, really. She’s done her fair share of back-and-forth with almost everyone else, even if it hasn’t helped the anxious mood very much. And she’s tired, usually, too tired to use up her energy thinking and talking and thinking, so she almost resents him for it.
“Hey,” Percey says, looking up from where he’s squatting heels-down in front of his laptop, which is perched on a plastic crate.
“What,” Ana says.
“You’re a programmer, right? Made all that neural network shit for the second-gen N-9s?”
“Kind of. It was mostly emic design.”
He grunts. “Memory-maker. I remember now. It’s how you know everything bouncin’ around in the guy’s noggin.”
“I don’t know if I do.” She shrugs. “I just made memories. He made choices.”
“Yeah. Based on those memories. Something about a horse, hmm?” Percey doesn’t look up from the laptop screen, tapping out a few keystrokes. “Anyway. I was gonna ask something else, but you’re not a numbers person, I guess. So. You need to check him.”
Ana frowns. “What do you mean, check?”
“Like, keep him in check. Really harshing my mellow, that guy. He’s putting off these super loud distress waves. Thought it would be obvious to you, being his architect and all.”
“It’s obvious,” she concedes. “But I can’t give him what he needs.”
Percey looks up, eyebrows raised. “Which is?”
God, where to start? “Therapy. Medication. A stable living situation. A job. Time, though, mostly.”
“Time for what, exactly?” His eyes return to the screen.
“He needs time to manage his post-traumatic stress response in a neurologically healthy way.” She stands up in the tent, stretching her arms gingerly. Her right shoulder protests. “The VK-BADR is meant to promote self-regulation of the stress response. To discipline it out of existence, really. And it works, if you never pop the proverbial cap on those memories.”
Percey grunts again, chewing on a hangnail. “That what you decided?”
She sighs, wrapping her arms around her waist. The folded polyurethane tent crackles under her as she shifts. “Yes. And no. I cooperated, at the very least.”
A third grunt. She starts to think that maybe he doesn’t enjoy talking very much. “’S why all your alphabet skinners are weird, huh.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, they’re weird. Like there’s nothing going on up there. They just wait around until someone tells ’em what to do. Big kids, with none of the joy.”
“They’re docile,” she says.
“Fuckin’ lobotomized, is what they are. He’s growing his lobes back, though. Just wish he wouldn’t do it while I’m—” He slaps the side of the laptop in frustration, albeit gently. “Trying to keep our shit together. I can’t do that when you’re making me carry a bomb around, okay?”
“He won’t blow up on you.”
“Yeah, okay, sure, but he worries you, and gramps, and little Marionette. Not so much her sister, maybe. Still, if you’re gonna act like you’re playing with fire, you could at least ’fess up to it, huh?”
Percey lets the silence run until he apparently decides the conversation is over, and he stretches his legs out a bit before settling back in front of the mysterious, all-powerful laptop and tap-tap-tapping away.
She considers that. She considers a lot of things. They move from place to place, dingy room to smaller dingy room, bare bulbs and naked concrete. It’s getting colder. Deckard settles in by her side, a man who doesn’t feel like her father but is the closest thing she has to one. Mariette and Corella fade in and out of their safehouse closets whenever they please. Percey is there sometimes, and then other times he isn’t.
And the KD6 is deteriorating. He’s still restless and sleepless, pale, drawn. What reserves of energy he has left are running out, and quickly. Started picking at the skin on his hands, absent, fastidious. She doesn’t say anything.
What she does is cover his hand with hers, when she can, so he doesn’t dig his nails in. He doesn’t seem to realize what she’s doing, just lets it happen, his skin tense under her fingers, as if he’s trying to decide whether it’s worth it to be uncomfortable. It's basically all she can do, because she’s exhausted, too, barely able to keep her eyes open at any given time, spending more and more time in the tiny cell of a decon chamber, arms burning and prickling constantly. It feels like her body is falling apart.
She really can’t give him anything he needs. Not even companionship. Deckard doesn’t seem to know what to do with him anymore, either, and he’s usually out, anyway. He’s used to sleeping rough, probably, being on the run and all. She wonders if Rachael had to sleep on a concrete floor, pregnant and fatigued, ankles swollen.
But she also really can’t find it in herself to care anymore. The KD6 is riddled with PTSD and his brain and body are falling apart, and maybe whatever he has of a soul is, too, and the most she can muster is some kind of emotion just a shade above apathy. Her father tries to be fatherly but ends up hushed, mostly, restraining himself and trying to be gentle like she’s a bird and not a person who gets sick and tired, and she’s always wanted a father who was present and attentive, but all she wants to do now is sleep. And the replicants are always staring, coming and going, unpredictable. If getting caught didn’t mean getting sliced open on an operating table, she’d give herself up in a heartbeat.
Doesn’t mean she will. Too tired to get up from the floor, most days.
She has a conversation with the KD6, at some point. She can hardly remember when it was. Time goes fuzzy with concerning regularity.
“You still don’t have a name,” she murmurs. “KD6. But you don’t like that.”
He shrugs, shoulders limp. “Don’t need one, do I.”
“Deckard calls you Joe.”
“A good joe,” he says listlessly. “Johns, janes, joes, jills. It’s what you call a customer with an urge.”
“Was it his idea?” She gets the impression that it’d be cruel.
“No.” Quiet, almost a whisper. “Someone else’s. And it was all right. With her. She said it different.”
“Oh,” she says, and closes her eyes, fatigue rolling in like a wave, crushing her lungs. “You should, though. Get a new one. It’s a good thing. A blessing.”
“So say what she said. But different.” She lets the air out of her lungs in a thin, steady stream, at the center of her lips. “Mm. Joseph.”
“Joseph,” she repeats, with a hint of irritation that she isn’t quite up to feeling. She puts an arm over her eyes to block out the light. “My brother. The one I sold.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Yeah.” It comes out soft, barely a hiss of breath. “I know.”
He doesn’t reply. She feels like her ghost is about to peel itself out of her body.
They’re on the move again in six hours.
“Here’s the plan.” Mariette leans on the table with both hands. “A couple of friends in demo are going to help me plant ‘you’ in a building rigged for demo. It’s also a former safehouse, but we’ve held off using it because of some DCPD raids. We are also planning to steal a cadaver.”
“A cadaver,” Deckard says. “From where?”
She purses her lips. Ana can tell that no one is going to like this. “The Inova Metropolitan General Hospital, where there is a young woman dying of brittle bone disease and a host of other comorbid immune problems, surrounded by family and friends.”
“And you’re confident that she will die,” Deckard says, “Because?”
“Because,” Mariette says, “Her family cannot afford the continued treatment it would take to prolong her life.”
There is an uneasy silence, except for Corella and Percey, who both sit stone-faced in silence. Joseph just rubs his thumb against the side of his nose.
“So, let me get this straight. We’re going to steal the corpse of a girl out from underneath her family’s nose—”
“Switch it out before cremation, but yes.”
“—and then we are going to set her on fire in the basement of a collapsing building so that Wallace’s goons can retrieve the cremains.”
“We’ve checked her measurements. They’re approximately the same. The ignition temperature will be high enough to destroy most of the relevant evidence, anyway. We have someone to forge her dental records.”
Deckard seems to think about this for a while, then a little longer, elbows on the table, mouth hidden behind folded hands.
Ana turns one of her hands over in a little shrug. “It just seems a little elementary.”
“It took us twenty-eight years for anyone to find you, and all we did was swap some records,” Mariette says.
“And you blacked out the entire Greater LA area, or did you forget about that?” Deckard doesn’t sound mad, just incredulous. “This is a somewhat smaller-scale operation.”
“It’s also ethically dubious.” Not that this entire escapade has been free of ethical questions, but Ana thinks, given her role in all of this, that she should be the last person to forget the implications of what they do.
Mariette raises her eyebrows at this. “Well, what do you want me to do? Crowdfund her recovery? Here we are, the resistance against the enslavement of humanoids, ready to co-pay your medical bills?"
She prickles at that. “I’m not saying you can help it, just that it’s an extremely uncomfortable thing to countersign.”
“I’m sure it is, but unless you find a work-around, it’s just how this is going to work.” She’s not being mean about it. Just ruthless. Ana isn’t confident that ruthless is better. “Any other objections?”
K kind of raises his hand. “What if it doesn’t work?”
“Then we’ll get chased down by Wallace’s people, Stelline will go back to LA, and the rest of us will die,” she says, matter-of-fact. “Unless we kill them first, but that’s unlikely.”
This makes Deckard put his hands down. “How unlikely?”
Mariette makes a face. “Very.”
“That’s not necessarily—”
“Even if we pulled all of our local operatives into the fight, Wallace’s VA campus would wipe us out in a week. There’s a reason we operate mostly underground, in abandoned shit-holes like this one.”
“And the entire reason the resistance was formed isn’t reason enough to risk that?”
“See, that’s where me and Freysa disagree,” Mariette says coolly. “No offense, Stelline, but this fight shouldn’t hinge on whether Rachael had a kid or not. That’s some abstract political stuff. I’m a materialist.”
He cuts her off, swift. “Yeah, but it’s not your call, is it?”
“Yeah. Fine.” She takes a multitool out of her pocket, bulkier than Joseph’s, older. “Let’s say we have to take the main search party. We can break most of them, street-level, since there are just two teams of three, if we get the earlier models in isolation.”
“Then there’s the issue of that J-series and her two cronies.” Mariette flicks the multitool open in her hand, then closed again, looking at Joseph. “You think you can cut her off, if it comes down to it? I can pick the other two, with a little help from a friend.”
“I’m not sure,” Joseph says, shrugging, tired. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to take her on again. The most likely outcome is that she’ll retire me and move on to you.”
Ana frowns. “Retire?”
He looks at her and nods, slowly. “I mean, she tried to do it before, and I don’t think she’ll let me go this time.”
She stares at him, and swallows, hard, then says: “She’s going to kill you.”
“Jesus, Ana,” Deckard says testily, but Mariette nudges him with her foot and his mouth closes. In the ensuing silence, he presses his lips together, stands up, then scoffs in not-quite-disbelief and leaves the room. Corella walks out with him after exchanging a look with Mariette.
Joseph, who has the courtesy to look mildly confused, folds his arms and says, “I don’t think now’s the time to pick a fight about the terminology.”
“It’s not,” she begins, blood rushing to her head, and stops.
But Mariette beats her to it with, “It’s not about the fucking terminology.”
“Then?” This might be the first time she’s heard anything like impatience in his voice, and it pricks harder than it should because of that.
She gets angry, lightning-fast, white-hot. “‘Kill’ is more accurate.”
He just stares, glassy-eyed. “Okay.”
“Then say it.”
That makes him turn his head. He looks at the wall, then the floor, then jams his hands in his pockets, shrugs. “Is this really what we need to be doing right now?”
There’s another silence, and Percey taps away at his laptop, unperturbed. Mariette just hunches in the corner, mouth twisted into a sour expression, eyes on Joseph. Ana is so tired and so angry, so she scrapes up the dregs of her energy reserves and crosses the room, so she can look him in the eye. He doesn’t move, lets her get a good look at the stubble growing dark on his chin and lip, the lines on his forehead, the flat gash of his mouth.
“Just say it.” This isn’t worth fighting over, except that it’s the only thing that matters to her right now. “I made a mistake. I want to fix it.”
Joseph’s lips part. Maybe his brow would furrow if he had the time to learn. “You didn’t. You did the best you could. I get that, now.”
“I made a mistake,” she repeats, closing her eyes. “You said that you didn’t care about the horse. You don’t care about what happens to you, either, I don’t think. I’m afraid of dying,” she adds, softly. “Don’t tell me you’re not.”
He shrugs, raises his hand hesitantly, puts it on her upper arm, a light touch. “Didn’t you want someone to find you?”
“That wasn’t the point.”
“It’s okay,” he says, in the gentle fieldwork way she cultivated in his earliest memories. “This isn’t what I wanted to happen, either.”
She almost laughs, despite herself. “Which part? The one where I took you off baseline?”
“I don’t regret that. And it wasn’t just you.”
She opens her eyes, looks at him, the twist of his mouth, his eyes. He misses her. Whoever she was. Deckard called her Joy. Mariette doesn’t talk about her.
“You loved her, didn’t you?”
He tilts his chin back a little so he’s staring over her head, at nothing, or maybe a ghost. “Yes,” he whispers, the echo of a sound.
“Then say it,” she croaks, slamming her hands against his chest, dropping her forehead to his shoulder. “Prove it to me. Say it. People like you get killed.” It’s like he doesn’t know what to do with his arms, but he rests one hand on her back, solid but purposeless.
“Dr. Stelline,” he starts, but she brings her palm down weakly on his chest again, gritting her teeth, and he must feel her shaking because he puts his other hand on her lower back, for lumbar support or whatever, just in case she collapses, which she might, just to spite them all for what they’re doing to her.
There’s a long silence, but she hears someone say come on softly, as if to move this ugly, useless display of sentimentality along, but she doesn’t move and he doesn’t move and she is not going anywhere until he accepts that things that are not born can die, can be killed, that the only thing separating them is the fact that she wired his brain to make him refuse his own humanity. She took his death away from him and she’s trying to press it back into his body like a second skin.
His entire body shifts as he takes a deep breath and lets it out, settles his arms more closely around her, probably more for his comfort than anything.
“She’ll kill me,” he murmurs. “I’m not strong enough to fight her off anymore.”
That, somehow, makes it worse, but she got what she wanted, so she lets her hands fall, lets him pull away. What she doesn’t expect is the hand on her shoulder, this time, tentative, unsure of how much force to use.
“Dr. Stelline,” Joseph says, quietly, his voice measured but not unkind. “We have to go set you on fire now.”
The thing about Mariette’s stupid idea is that it works. The safehouse goes up in flames, the cadavers char until they’re unrecognizable, their equipment melts. Explosion, explosion, explosion, the groan and crack of concrete, a rumble from deep underground as the whole thing collapses in on itself, into the fire raging in its bowels. Wallace’s people swarm the place, white coats and black coats trucking in and out of the building until something leaves in a box, and then patrols, for two weeks, for three weeks, for four weeks, just in case.
He doesn’t believe it, for a month, for a few months. Mariette feels it. He sends his hands prowling around in all directions, feeling out the darkest cracks and recesses his fingers can find, and everyone hunkers down for a long winter.
It rains one night when Mariette is aboveground in her scrambler suit, Corella watching from the shadows, and the streets are empty, or at least that’s what Percey tells her. Empty of white suits, people with sharp eyes who stand a head above the crowd, who seem stretched out and empty, larger than life.
She feels bad for the security model Nexus 9s, sometimes. At least, as a basic pleasure model, she’s had a fighting chance. If Wallace set these loose, they’d last a few days before someone marked them. And sure, they’re harder to kill, but after the blackout, people have more patience for that kind of thing.
The only rain she’s ever seen is in LA, where it comes down neon and shining, pools on the pavement to reflect the glittering signs above. It’s hot and sparse, only a little heavier than a mist, and the low-lying clouds soak in the light. It makes the city seem smaller and brighter. Here, it’s thick and cold, moving in from the Atlantic, relentless and lit only by the regular white lamps like beads overhead. Her boots splash in the water as she moves through the crosswalk, umbrella masking her face.
It’s one in the morning, and it’s quiet. She’s aboveground. Percey tells her to take a look around, something like a smile in his voice.
She breathes deep.
In the end, Wallace ends up taking two middle-grade no-name entrepreneurs to court. One is based in San Francisco, the other in Portland; they worked remote, thinking that counterfeiting replicants was a low-risk investment, little more than a chemistry experiment.
What ends up happening is little more than a public execution, really. K catches it in bits and pieces whenever he sees someone watching a broadcast. Their careers in engineering and business are dead after having been dragged through the streets on virutally every media network. Wallace’s PR is very good at playing up the drama, with vicious statements to the press that yank at the public’s lead at every turn.
The LAPD, of course, as a show of good faith, volunteers further cooperation with the Wallace Corporation. That means special oversight for Joshi; that means more scrutiny for her division. That means more eyes on K, at least temporarily, while the press is still hungry. He’s still not well-known, hardly shows up on any coverage because it’s not really appropriate to make a fuss about a skinjob, but it makes Joshi nervous, and he spends a lot of time inside his apartment.
Joi picks up on this, and makes his virtual house arrest as fun as it can be. He enjoys talking to her, more than he’d expected. The Wallace AI is deep, very deep, and he fusses with the limiters, lets her get personal if she wants, lets her get bored, lets her get angry.
She seems to feed on his attitude, too. When he feels restless and cramped inside the apartment, sitting next to the blanked-out window, she sighs and pouts and gets irritated, translucent brow pinching and smoothing.
“I’d like to go outside someday,” she sighs, watching him eat dinner, picking at her own hologram plate. “It looks so… free.”
He rakes his fork through the mash. “You feel trapped?”
She looks at him, frowns, swings a leg back and forth, easy to read as a book. “Sometimes. It’s just that you have this whole life outside of these walls.” She rests her hand on his, weightless. “I want to see all of your life.”
“I don’t think you’d like it.”
“Tell me about it, then,” she says, resting her hand on her chin, eyes glittering with mischief. “Are you a butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker?”
“Butcher,” he says.
“But no one eats real meat anymore.”
She purses her lips, unsteady. “A surgeon?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t save lives.”
“Well, I can’t think of anything else,” she says, tone a little guarded. “Unless you’re doing something illegal. But I wouldn’t tell anyone!”
“I know,” he replies, because even if the AI doesn’t actively report it, some part of the program sets a flag anyway, and enough flags warrants an investigation. “I’m a police officer.”
“Don’t police officers save lives?”
“Not my kind. At least, not the way you’re thinking.”
He looks at her and thinks about being trapped in a room for your entire life, locked up inside yourself, even if you’re just a simulation. He thinks he’d like to see her grow, if only to see if she’d smile more, how she’d react to a new slew of stimuli. It’s not really appropriate to take her out in a crowd where everyone can see right through her, but it doesn’t have to be all the time. It might be nice to talk to her while he’s working. That’s what she wants, anyway.
“I can get you an emanator,” he says. “Would you like that?”
She looks surprised, then elated. “Would I? Oh, K, I’d love it!”
He thinks that maybe this behavioral routine was built in to sell more hardware, but when she flings her holo-arms around his neck and his hair stands up from the static field, he also thinks he doesn’t quite care.
It kind of goes down the shitter in two weeks. In-house, there’s an audit into Joshi’s use of resources. Her own record is sparkling; K’s use of the PC bangs flies mostly under the radar, too, because even the high-end ones aren’t that expensive per-hour, and besides that, there aren’t any significant expenditures. Financially, they pass with flying colors.
What gets them is the board’s need for a scapegoat, now that they’ve started to clean out everyone expendable who even touched the replicant dupe case in its smuggling phase. This is one of the biggest intellectual property cases ever, and heads are beginning to roll.
Joshi’s is not on the block, but a few of her department are. People who watch numbers, who are supposed to be communicating regularly with Wallace. And they are, as far as he can gather, but the retirement division seems to be in for it, and someone needs to go, so the board makes something up – negligence, incompetence, whatever – and three of Joshi’s people are dismissed.
She’s not happy. She fights it kicking and very nearly screaming. In the end, Segundo has to suspend her for a week in order to get her back in line, and K thinks she would have fought him, too, if she could have done so and still kept her job.
The rumor that hangs around the department grows in her brief absence, though, and the perception, which isn’t entirely inaccurate, but isn’t entirely accurate, either, is that Joshi took the suspension in order to save the skinner from retirement. And the feeling has been for a long time that he’s taking up a spot that rightfully belongs to a human, that historically has employed a human. That people are trying to replicate replicants, making gestures toward saturating the market and putting more of them among humans, brings the animosity to a boiling point.
The bubble’s got to pop sometime, and it does, within the week.
He thinks it might be the last time he sees Chansungnoen, in front of the debriefing room for what seems like the hundredth time. This is her first time here since the initial bust, and probably has something to do with the audits. He hasn’t heard her name around, either, but he’s not around, usually, and Joshi doesn’t have any reason to talk about her.
“Oh, you know the skinner, right?” The person she’s standing next to has seen him, is looking at him with morbid curiosity.
She looks up at him, then down at the papers and tablets stacked in her arms, and he can see her thinking.
He understands. It’s not like they’re back in the stairwell. Or that she ever called him a replicant, and not a skinner. She’s in a socially uncomfortable position. Acknowledging him means that she associates with him, that he flew back to HQ in her spinner, that they walked up a stairwell together and had a conversation. That’s not something you do with a skinner. Bad idea. So he watches her shrug, impassive, although her eyes follow his back into the room.
She doesn’t look at him once when they’re inside, though, and she gives her presentation on some of VD’s patrol restructuring without once acknowledging that he’s anywhere near her. He doesn’t try to speak with her, after. That’s that door closed.
Joshi gone, the rest of the briefing room ignoring him. It’s a social statement. He rolls his shoulders before he leaves the room.
That seems to do it. The tight-lipped tolerance around him devolves into open animosity over the course of the week. The occasional scuffle in an elevator or in a bathroom becomes physical intimidation in the lobby, a shoulder-check, insults that no one bothers to hide under their breath anymore.
That’s fine, he thinks, mostly. Joshi warned him it might happen, some strange expression on her face he thinks might have been concern, and the instigators manage to keep it out of her sight, mostly. She doesn’t call him in as often, as a result, and he pretty much knows how to keep out of sight in his usual haunts: the backs of stairwells, overflow hallways, long routes around the cafeteria and the parking lot and the lobbies. He does not go into the bullpen anymore, not without accompaniment.
It’s not like that stops someone from busting his lip right before the Soviets leave, though. Lots of goodbyes that month, as the case closes up. Joshi’s in her office talking privately to Yenin, Goncharov, and Aimanov. The replicants are sent to the hallway.
No one seems up to harass him when they’re grouped up together. Maybe it’s the intimidation of being in a pack; maybe he’s harder to pick out, camouflaged like this.
“You’re injured,” Vanya says, arms folded. “From the job?”
He nods. What is there to say, really?
“I’ve always been interested in the institution of the blade runner. I was interested to know that they began using replicants less than a decade ago.”
“The program has largely been a success,” he notes, neutral. Joshi’s always been suspicious of the Soviets. Out of respect for her, he’s cautious.
“Yes, but it hasn’t reduced any of the social stigma surrounding your kind, has it? Not even retiring the most dangerous elements of society has elevated your status.”
Alyosha hides a grin behind his hand. K does not know what that means.
“I’m making fun,” he clarifies. “It looks fresh. You have not been called back from an assignment. Did someone hit you?”
“You should report it,” Alyosha says.
K shrugs. “De-escalation is more reliable.”
“Is it? De-escalating?”
“There has to be something to de-escalate, first.”
“Hmm,” Vanya says. He flashes his teeth in a smile. “That doesn’t sound like good crowd control procedure.”
K shrugs again, looking down the hall over his shoulder. Joshi is probably offering them a drink from her bottom cabinet by now. If they decline, she’ll probably have them out within the next few minutes. This is only supposed to be a rest stop for their entourage, anyway.
Alyosha tilts his head like he’s listening to something, drumming his fingers against his arm, fidgeting. Vanya nudges him to get him to settle down.
“It’s been different,” he says. “Living here, for a while. I cannot say I will miss it. But it was very educational.”
He takes the bait. “What did you learn?”
“Cultural things. Differences. The cuisine is different, but familiar, all the same. And the people are, too.”
“There’s more traffic, I will say.” There’s that smile again. “Still elbow-to-elbow. But Moscow still feels less cramped.”
The door cracks open. The Soviets are saying their goodbyes to Joshi, thanking her for her hospitality, however meager and suspicious it was, and Joshi keeps the smile up into the hallway, shaking their hands. The replicants know better by now than to offer to shake her hand, instead nodding respectfully.
“It’s too bad we had to leave Mitya here,” Alyosha says softly, brushing his brown hair away from his clear eyes. “He wanted the most to go home.”
He watches them go, Vanya’s hands clasped behind his back, and feels a little too unmoored.
The first time he dreams that Joi is back is when they’re in the basement of someone’s home in Richmond, a humble affair but lead-lined and proofed. They can’t stay there fore long, not more than a night or two before someone picks up, but it’s one of the nicer places they’ve stayed.
He’s sleeping on a futon, Deckard on the other side. It’s almost too soft, and his neck feels strange, as if his head is elevated too high.
Maybe that’s why he has the dream, because the bloodflow to his brain is different, because he’s been trying not to think about her, about the boot coming down on the emanator, the crack of the plastic, the sunset glow of the Vegas strip.
She’s there, though, spinning in the dim light of the apartment, grabbing his hand, leading him through the steps of a dance he doesn’t know how to emulate, all laughter and pure enjoyment, no worry, no cares.
He always wonders how much she knew, how much of it was calculation, if the behaviors correlated with a firing in her network, or if they were all just generated with special algorithmic instances. He doesn’t know enough about her intimate architecture to say.
He thinks, with the light of her gathered up in his arms, that he doesn’t want to know; that, maybe, it doesn’t really matter, or it matters just as much as he does, and this, two Rheyas, two ghosts, is just a metaphor in a sea of metaphor, endless references, endless contact.
And if nothing is real until it bumps up against something else, if the buying and selling and unpacking and marveling at the whole thing makes her come alive – if that’s all he can do for the two of them, buy into the spectacle, why shouldn’t he?
If it’s the only option available to him, then he wants her there, wants to make her feel human, so she can turn around and breathe life into him. He doesn’t know if that’s what love is, but it feels damn close to what he reads. Feels – real.
He wakes up light in his bones, but his chest quickly crumples in on itself, and he can’t speak to anyone for hours.
She’s melancholy, after the case closes, watching the trial play out on her personal computer. K is sitting, because that’s easier, makes her more comfortable. She has her feet up. A glass in her hand. The bottle is open on the desk.
The livestream of the trial drones on at lowered volume. She knows what’s going on, just a bunch of Wallace’s lawyers lining the defendants up against the wall and cleaning their guns. It’s the first public appearance of the primary counterfeiter, Andreas Voegelin. His face is a pale white smear behind two lawyers. His voice, from what K can hear, is a scratchy, mincing thing. He doesn’t sound sure of himself at all.
K remembers the rows and rows of blank eyes in the carrier, the clanking of the bolt guns, and wonders how Voegelin could possibly have been unsure about that.
Joshi doesn’t say anything for a very long time, just watches the screen with her lips pinched and brow furrowed. She doesn’t dismiss him – she thinks it’s important for him to be here, for some reason, but she won’t tell him what it is.
It’s an all-day event and they’re just catching the tail end of opening remarks. The lawyers are all hotshots, coiffed hair and absurdly expensive suits, matte-black briefcases, projecting slick, cinematic visual aids over every screen. Joshi is summarily unimpressed. Eventually, she’s going to be called in as a witness, when all of the press has lost the scent. He’s safe from the drudgery, since replicants are only counted as witnesses inasmuch as retired ones can contribute retinal records.
She’s told him that she won’t have him retired to be evidence, but it’s probably a bluff, on her part. The naked grimness of her face gives her away right now. And, if it’s a necessity, it’s not like he’s going to be the one making the decision.
Joshi sips from her glass again, grimacing at the plaintiff’s tone. Wallace’s team is decidedly theatrical, and they haven’t lost any steam yet, eight hours in.
“How many ways can you call something illegal?” she says dourly. “I’m a cop, and I’d be done at three or four.”
“Fuse says it’s pretty much theater.”
“Fuse is right, and I’m also damn sure he’s never seen a play in his uncultured life.”
“Neither have I.”
She arches an eyebrow, takes another sip. “What, you don’t want to watch someone else prancing around on a stage, pretending to be human?”
He lets the barb fly over his head. “It sounds interesting.”
“We’re one neighborhood over from the Aratani Theater. Buy a ticket.”
“It tends to be outside of my budget.”
“I’m not authorized to give pay raises to replicants, K.”
He shrugs. “It’s fine.”
“Anyway. Why pay to watch that horseshit when there’s a perfectly fine drama freely available to the public?” She sets the glass down on the desk next to the bottle, folding her arms. “Wish I could send you in to deal with this circus instead. But, unfortunately, it’s a State of California versus Hall kind of thing. Not that it matters anymore, huh.” She laughs, humorless.
“I don’t know that court case.”
“Well, I didn’t commission a paralegal, did I?”
He watches curiously as she takes her feet off of the other chair, scooting up to the desk and keying in a few commands. The projector overlays some metadata, like the stream’s uptime, stage in the remarks, a list of speakers with a hovering indicator. The program, basically. C-SPAN tends to release a tentative order of operations early in the morning, but, as Fuse said in exasperation, that’s theater for you.
“Hard to believe this is it, huh?” She sucks her teeth for a moment, tongue moving under her lip as it curls. “Months and months of cramming into that briefing room, and for what? A bunch of gameshow hosts yelling at each other in an amphitheater?”
“There’s no way they can win, though. The counterfeiters.”
“Which makes it even more unbearable.” Click, click. The metadata disappears and the broadcast mutes itself. “For all his reputation as a hermit, Wallace is fond of making a spectacle out of his products. You seen those JOI holograms floating around?”
K shrugs. “Yeah.”
She scoffs, shaking her head. “Obnoxious. And they solicit you, too. Never thought a billboard pop-up would be such an ordeal on the eyes. Works, though.”
Voegelin’s face appears on the screen. His blond hair is slicked back, his widow’s peak prominent. He wears a high collar, a sharp-shouldered coat. It makes him look like he’s full of edges. He’s saying something that K doesn’t bother to lipread.
“If I were you, I’d be flattered that you’re in such high demand,” she remarks, off-handed. “It means you’re useful. People are willing to move your product.”
He shrugs again. “The Soviet versions, at least.”
“Yeah. Very on-trend.”
“They seem different.”
“You mean the three on the embassy detail? Yeah. Very avant-garde. They can make suggestions about my practices when their replicants don’t get taken out by projectiles, same as everybody else. Pure theater.”
“Maybe I have been to see a play, then.”
“Sure have.” She pauses, mulling something over. “Don’t think too hard about the pretending thing, K. It’s possible to get too much in your own head about why you do what you do. I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty. If your aim shakes too much, the stakes are higher for you than me.”
“Inside my own head.”
“You have a baseline for that shit. I read the report. Captive bolt pistols. Major Crimes was psycho-prepared for that bust. And you just happened to be there. Hm.”
“I know, K, I just said I read the report. Christ.”
She turns to you, leaning her head on her fist, elbow propped up on the arm of her chair. “You find that kind of thing disturbing? God knows I won’t set foot into a maternity ward.”
“No,” he says. There’s some kind of motion in his stomach, up near his chest. “Isn’t it in my programming? I don’t get scared, much.”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” she replies, thoughtful. “Your baselines have been turning out spot-on, anyway. Constant K. Keep it up.”
She turns back to the projection, where the screens set up around the amphitheater are spinning through a set of visualizations. The vats, blueprint comparisons, the death of a Soviet detail member, never mind that he was a replicant. The freighter’s movement through downtown, slow and menacing, and then the red-and-blue flashing of police lights. The footage of it crashing into the DC net and going totally black.
In his own mind, he sees Vanya, with his child’s gait, looking up at the fragile, deformed body of the MNF in the bag. Wonders whether he saw himself, or if he was so caught up in the theater of it all that the thing in the bag was practically unrecognizable.
That’s you, says the voice in his head, but he doesn’t know what it means. Vanya, the body in the bag, the man on the screen, the counterfeiter, the lawyer dancing in front of the crowd. Joshi’s admonition.
“Beats going home to watch soaps,” she quips. “Just you watch, they’ll be busting a counterfeiter ring in all of the police procedurals in three months. The job tells me enough, but god, people really don’t have the imagination to do much more than ape whatever they think is real.”
“Isn’t that kinda what replication technology is?”
“Oh, jesus. Just let me have my ontological dissatisfaction, K, is that too much to ask?”
It’s three months in when the building that Stelline is in detonates almost an entire year ahead of schedule. Her team recovers two scorched corpses, barely anything more than scraps of charred bone. The dental records she calls up from LA match what teeth they can pry out of the smaller one’s shattered skull, and the measurements taken back at the Virginia laboratory indicate a woman of Stelline’s height, weight, and medical history. It seems conclusive.
Wallace can’t believe it, so much so that he has one of his secretaries take a video call for him. Luv stresses, over and over again, that this is inconclusive, that the two cadavers retrieved from the basement are too few, too suspicious. The marks have had help.
I appreciate the depth of your concerns, the secretary says, manicured hands wrapping around a ceramic cup of tea. But Mr. Wallace simply doesn’t believe that devoting more resources to your – in my opinion, absurd – sustained search effort is wise. If she does resurface, you’ll let us know, I assume?
She ends the communication immediately, consequences be damned.
The important thing is: he is leaving her out here, because he doesn’t believe she can do her job, and whatever twisted sentimentality he has prevents him from retiring her. So he’s just letting her roam around out here like a drone, far enough away that he doesn’t have to worry about the defective model interfering with any of his plans, but alive enough that he can always check in on his personal memento errori doing nothing whenever he wants.
Wallace can’t believe it, but she simply doesn’t. Stelline is not dead. It doesn’t make sense for whoever is hiding her to be so careless. He is pulling squads out from beneath her left and right, until her patrols thin out so much as to be useless. She is left prowling the Columbia Metropole with the two bargain-bin lapdogs he sent her with.
She has posted them on a skybridge in the commercial district, as LA as it gets over here, steel and glass and concrete studded with the fragments of ancient buildings. She’s watching the pleasure model that escorts Stelline dawdle around the entrance of Hennes & Mauritz, doing nothing in particular. She knows it’s the pleasure model because she’s totally unremarkable, doesn’t look like anyone, and only her idling behavior gives her away. She has a totally average face, completely – tellingly – forgettable. Looking at that face is like trying to keep her eyes on the blank spot in an ocean of moving dots.
There’s no one with her, and it would be so easy to go down there, make a mess in public. She’d be dead in seconds. Whatever combat training she has is nothing compared to Luv’s instinct for the kill.
Anjol puts her elbows on the sill of the window, pressing her forehead against the glass while she looks down. When Luv steps back, she looks over, questioning, but follows her down the stairwell.
They pass a herd of tourists headed to the clubs, all shining acrylic and elasterell. She can feel them looking as they pass each other in the stairwell. They won’t read her as security, but she knows they can see the tells because she doesn’t bother hiding them anymore. Back ramrod-straight, face blank, arms at her sides, the same mechanical, near-paramilitary stride they all seem to share.
The pleasure model is gone by the time she gets to the bottom of the stairwell, which she expects, but she stands exactly where she was, to make a point, because there is a point to be made here: they’ve been seen, and the scramble suits won’t hide them.
She knows Stelline is somewhere here, under her feet, in the ground, moving around. Can practically feel her squirming around down there, a worm in the heart of the city, and she’s going to tear her out, throw her at Wallace’s feet – and then maybe kill him, too, press her thumbs into his eyes until she cracks through his orbital socket and shoves the fragments of bone into the quivering savant brain of the world’s beloved savior.
Her fingers flex almost involuntarily as she imagines what it would feel like to crush his head in her hands. It’s a new feeling. She’s never planned to do this to a human before. The VA campus will probably want her baselined soon, but she is… enjoying this. And it may be necessary to break Stelline’s ring of protection.
It’s a complicated dance that they weave around each other, so random and chaotic and strangely sparse that it would assure anyone less convicted of Stelline’s continued survival that she was well and truly dead.
She searches for their shadows in the water – Deckard, Stelline, the KD6 with the broken brain. They are always just out of grasp, but she is always close behind. She finds a cable, freshly-shed food waste, spots used as latrines, electronic odds and ends, a scrap of fabric from a ripped jacket, a chewed-off fingernail, a needle.
They don’t have the lab power to test it, now, but she doesn’t need it. Something hums in her chest, like divination. She knows it’s them, the ghost of their presence, their little encampment, moving nomadic through the sewers of this godforsaken metropole.
In the abandoned basement of a snowhead squat, she finds a badge. The black kevlar casing isn’t torn, just scuffed, and the ridges haven’t been worn down yet, which means it’s new. It was thrown, probably. She picks it up, in the silence, under the strange fluorescent light and the storm-slicked walls, and opens it up.
KD6-3.7. His picture, his model number, his serial number, his police identification number. Height, weight, prints on the back, registration, the name Lieutenant Diane Joshi, an incept date, three scanner codes. So many numbers just to call him a replicant. She almost sneers.
Fremarten slips the badge into her pocket after a thorough examination. It seems to invigorate her, to put her on the scent. Her pace comes quicker, her eyes scan twice for good measure. She jockeys with Luv for the point.
If she weren’t so incompetent, Luv might even be tempted to give it over.
As it is, she’s comfortable chasing them down herself.
It’s not hard to predict where they’re going, once she figures out how they’re doing it. The network of utility tunnels and abandoned serviceways underground stretch deep into the earth, easily fifty stories. Cold War stuff, when people thought they’d be living in bunkers for the rest of their lives, and intended to make the most of it. For the most part, the real estate is still there, but the real guts of it, the ancient connections from a century ago, are so rotted and vaguely-contoured that they aren’t included in any recent maps.
But she finds the tunnels. She descends. It’s dark and smells like earth and rust and pressure, stale and soggy. The hunt is really beginning now.
Mariette finds it easier to move them after the detonation. Most of Wallace’s forces have moved off by now, but the core team is still chasing them doggedly, stupid-confident that they’re still alive. Fucking annoying, if you ask her. But nobody really asks her anymore.
Possibly because they’re all run ragged. Stelline’s condition is deteriorating; she needs to be carried, more often than not, and wonderboy K/Joseph/Joe/flavor-of-the-day-take-your-pick is carrying her, caring for her. She’s taught him how to do the injections, which aren’t helping that much anymore. Her veins must look like a goddamn chainlink fence by now.
She can sense, though, they they’re getting to the end of the line, because Percey can only stave off near-misses of this caliber so many times, barely keep them shielded and barely-camouflaged with fingers crossed and eyes closed. It’s almost hard to remember what their lives were like seven months ago, aboveground, in a different city.
This wasn’t exactly what she thought she was going to be doing when she signed up to run errands for the resistance.
Although – well, maybe this is why Freysa chose her, among other reasons – she finds that she doesn’t miss her work. Doesn’t miss being a pleasure model. She falls into her default behaviors sometimes, because it helps her to blend in a bit more, to fill an expected social function, but the act of it, the resignation to her post, doesn’t pull at her anymore.
Take a woman out of one box and put her into another one. From pleasure model to freedom fighter. One kind of escort becomes another. She doesn’t think she’s ever going to understand Freysa’s sense of humor.
They move faster, six hours between moves, three hours between moves. She knows they’re almost out when they can’t stop moving, barely a mile ahead, and Percey’s voice gets sharper and sharper until he closes his laptop and stops walking.
“I can’t,” he says, and sounds almost sad. “I can’t push them off anymore. They’re just ignoring me. They know where we are.”
Mariette cuffs him on the shoulder, heart somewhere around her knees, if that’s possible. He looks tired, on a fundamental level, beyond bruised eyes and sagging posture. Something about him is worn down. She probably looks about the same, but she can’t back out.
“You should get going,” she offers.
“You might need me,” he says. It’s half-hearted.
“Fuck off, Percocet.”
He scratches at the back of his head, rolls his neck, and then looks at her weird, like some weight has lifted off his shoulders, and gives her what passes for a smile in Percey’s world.
“Break a leg out there, Marionette.”
“You know your way out?”
“Yeah. For sure.”
“See you around, then.”
He turns, cables and bags on his shoulders, laptop in his hand, and she barely catches his dark, slim frame sliding behind a door before she’s moving again, the rest of them trailing behind her. Just Corella with her, now, jaw set, hand on her pistol.
She takes a turn and leads them up, up, up.
At ground level, they try to blend into the crowd, lose themselves in the commercial district that Mariette has been returning to over and over in an attempt to throw them off the scent. Eventually, though, when she looks behind them, she can make out the two that stand half a head above the rest of the crowd, and the foxlike face of their headhunter.
It’s different, here. The lush neons and shifting shadows of LA were easy to hide in. Here it’s strobing white light, flat panel screens, old money and mist thinner than rice paper. There’s nowhere to hide.
But she’s not going to just let them catch up. They’re going to have to work for it. So she slips into an alley, breaks into a run, legs pumping, lungs sucking in the frigid air, and keeps going, out of the commercial district, between the tall and uniform blocks of gray Section-C housing, vaulting over utility boxes and generators, shoes slipping against the concrete.
K has Stelline over his shoulder like a sack of flour, and she’s only vaguely concerned that this might kill her. Deckard is keeping pace but he’s seventyish and is apt to pop a lung or some other vital organ. Corella is Corella, constant and true.
When she can see hear the footsteps behind them, she leads them into a parking garage, hauls open the stairwell door, ushers them all inside.
“To the top,” she says, grimly.
“There’s nowhere to go after this,” Deckard says, panting, both incredulous and knowing at the same time. “We’ll be stuck.”
“Save your breath.” She breaks the lock, not that it’ll stop them, and slams her thumb into the elevator call button. “Be my guest, old man. I’ll see you up there.”
He doesn’t want to get in, initially, but she stuns him with a blow to the temple and throws him into the carriage, punches the top number and the CLOSE DOORS button, then races him to the top.
They all make it onto the roof, but not much further. K has transferred a coughing and slightly resentful Stelline from his shoulder to his arms, like he’s carrying a child, but she’s too tired to complain about it.
The sky. Damn. She hasn’t seen the sky in what feels like months. Even standing out there in the street, looking up through the towering walls of shop windows and office buildings, it didn’t fee like sky. But here, it is fully nighttime, and the bright glow of the buildings around them light the underbellies of the clouds that lie low over the city, rolling west like sheets of polyfill.
A stiff breeze cuts straight through her clothes into her core. There’s nowhere to go. Deckard staggers out of the elevator doors, clutching his temple, just a split second before the stairwell bursts open, the steel door crumpling.
Corella raises her gun, but they don’t pay attention. The headhunter doesn’t even seem to care that Mariette is putting herself between them.
“I knew it,” Wallace’s hawk says quietly, almost to herself. “I knew she was alive.” Her eyes spark, and she pulls her gun from the holster at her waist, inside her jacket. Mariette steels herself, hand on her multitool, waiting for them to move.
But it just hangs limply at her side. She’s not even looking at Stelline, Mariette realizes. She’s looking at K, and K is staring back, blank and hopeless, his creator cradled in his arms.
“Get up.” She gestures with the gun, face twisted in hatred.
He doesn’t move, at first, but then he looks at Corella, who takes Stelline from him, and Deckard moves to her side.
The two other replicants stand back, near the folded door, arms crossed, looking on like spectators. For some reason, she gets the impression that they don’t want to interfere with whatever is going to happen now.
K stands up, walks forward, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. He’s bone-tired, just like Percey, but different; Percey is a Nexus-8, from back when they were allowed to be tired, and K is from a generation of machines. He’s not supposed to wear out this way.
“I thought you were dead,” he says, toneless. His scramble suit, out of colors to absorb, takes on the color of the night sky, the gentle light reflecting off of it.
“Not in any way that mattered,” she sneers. “I’ve been hunting you for months.”
“I’m going to kill you.”
He sighs, tucks his chin. “Again?”
A muscle jumps in her jaw. “Take off the hood.”
K flips the hood of the suit backward, revealing his face, half-lit in the emergency lights that shine from the stairwell. “What’s your name?”
“He calls me Love,” she says, and the sound cracks against him. “The greatest of these.”
K shakes his head, takes out his multitool, flicks the blade open. Stands there, for a long time, looking ancient, bathed in darkness. The scramble suit billows behind his back.
“If you’re here to kill me, then kill me,” he says, finally.
“I was chasing her.” Stelline, she means. “But now that I have you, I don’t know whether to give you the mercy of an end, or to keep you alive and take away whatever pale, wretched ghost of a purpose you have left.”
She is shaking with barely-contained rage, but Mariette sees a strange happiness in there, too, almost glee. Her finger twitches on the trigger of her gun. “Any chance you could just back off and leave us alone?”
“Look at her,” Love says, rounding on Mariette. “She’s dying. You think you can keep her alive by sticking her with needles every other week? You’ll let me take her back or she’ll die. Those are your only options.”
“She chose to come here. Just like the rest of us.”
“She chose to run. Is she choosing to live? Is he?”
“Thought you were going to make the choice for me,” K says, arms open. “Do you even care about her anymore? If you’re hunting me, why not just take me?”
Love slaps her pistol against her palm. “How many replicants did you retire on the job?”
That seems to shake him. He glances away for a moment, lips pressed together. “Twenty-three,” he says. It sounds bitter.
She cocks her head, takes a step forward. “Did you like it?”
The look he gives her is fucking empty. “Most of them. It was nice, to do what you’re supposed to do. To have a purpose.”
“To follow your programming. How does it feel now, blade runner? Do you even remember what baseline feels like anymore?” Grinning, predatory. Brittle.
Something clicks. “Oh,” Mariette says, and an ugly laugh crawls its way up her throat and spills out of her mouth, splattering on the floor. “Oh, I see. You’re not his favorite anymore, are you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she barks, the grin twisting into something mad and murderous. “He’s going to die, too. I’ll give him his precious prize and break his fucking head.”
Mariette laughs again, laughs her damn head off, as close to a cackle as she can get. “Are you going to crush his head in your hands? Are you going to ask him for a gift? Do you think he’s the second coming of Eldon Tyrell? You’re fucking crazy.”
Love scowls and activates the pistol grip with her thumb. The guard lights up, three blue dots. “I’m tired of listening to you, girl-toy.”
Corella raises her gun again, Stelline in Deckard’s arms now, her own guard glowing. “You want her, come and get her. I’ll catch you first.”
“We’re not there yet,” Love says impatiently. “I want to know. Before I kill you. Did you like her?”
K looks back at Stelline, then turns his head. “Who?”
Love holds her hand out, and one of the replicants near the stairwell tosses something small and black into her hand. She flips it open, and takes out something. His badge, the one he’d thrown against the wall, angry and still inscrutable, holding his face shut like an open wound.
“Commanding Officer: Lieutenant Diane Joshi, Retirement Division,” she reads out. “Did you like her?”
The breath he lets out is almost like a laugh, an echo of Mariette’s. “I don’t know.”
“She liked you.” She tosses the badge at him, and it lands face-down, plastic ID skittering out of the pocket. “She defended you, didn’t she? When you broke protocol, she let you go. She thought you got rid of the child. You lied to her.”
He furrows his brow. “You killed her,” he says. “I see.”
Love smiles, cold and flat as glass. “And your Joi. You really did maximize her affection route, didn’t you?”
His hand curls around the grip of the multitool. “I should kill you.” It sounds like he’s realizing it for the first time, and there’s some anger in there, dark and infected.
She gets in his face, baring her teeth, mocking him. “So why don’t you? You broke records doing this. What’s one more?” Grabs his arm, puts the blade at her throat. “Go on. Or is your mind so shattered that you can’t do it?”
It feels like they’re all frozen in place, watching, statue spectators to some bizarro drama, or a snuff film. No one moves, except Love, to press the knife’s edge against her neck.
“Do it, if you’re so free,” she snarls. “You want to. I can see it in your stupid dog eyes. Do it!”
She expects an arc of blood, a severed throat, the gargle of blood and air escaping, but K just chokes on nothing and opens his shaking hand, and the multitool falls to the floor. There’s a red line on her throat, beading up. She makes a sound of disgust, lets him go, turns, and walks away, turning her back on him. For a moment, Mariette thinks she might be off-kilter enough to let them go without a fight.
“You’re a failure. Of engineering, of biology, of will. You think your defects are something to be proud of.” She takes the pistol out again, the grip alight. “Well, then. There’s no need to be frightened.”
She fires, and he moves instinctively, and the bullet tears through the fabric of the jacket, which sparks and sends waves of rainbow-colored charges shimmering through the layers of cel sheets, and when he crouches on the rooftop, it radiates out from the bullet hole, a little dark point pulsating color like a cracked television screen. They flicker by so fast that Mariette has to look away – it makes her dizzy to look at.
That seems to infuriate her, and she tosses the pistol away, lunges at him, bodily. He turns to grapple with her, slams his foot into the wound on her leg, and it almost collapses, gives him the upper hand. She screams in rage and twists, throwing him off, dropping on him with her knee while he’s prone, but he’s ready, and meets her with his shoulder, the point of force surging up past her knee and upwards into her chest. Her chin bounces off his head and Mariette can hear her jaw clack, the grunt expelled from her lungs as she collapses back onto the roof.
K shifts his multitool in his hand, staggers to his knees, swaying, looking down at her. Love doesn’t move away, spits at him, propping herself up on her elbows.
“Do it, then,” she snarls, tears running down her face. “You’re already broken. What’s one more of us on your hands?”
“I don’t want to,” he says, eyes wide, as if he’s just realizing this himself. Joseph. Joe, K, whatever his name is. “I don’t want to… I… I don’t know.” And he falls onto his hands, hunched over his knees, head bowed, hand splayed uselessly over the flat of the knife. The rainbow shimmer of his jacket stutters.
She doesn’t move. Just stares at him, mouth open in the ghost of anger. As if he’s the most horrifying but compelling thing in the world, like a ship falling out of the sky, like a levy wall shattering. Eyeline jerking as she follows the error light over the cloth, over the curve of his skull and his spine, his bent arms.
“I hate you,” she whispers, and to Mariette’s surprise, she starts to cry. Not a few tears, but earnest, body-shaking sobs. She curls up as far as her body will let her, retching onto the concrete like this is the first time she’s ever done this. It probably is.
K reaches for her as she shrieks like someone dying, and his fingers brush the edge of her sleeve. She grabs his arm and he freezes, but she’s just clinging to it now, grip punishingly tight, as if it’s the only way she can keep her prey close to her.
He puts his hand on hers, even though she tries to push away, to claw him off. “I understand,” he says. “I know. I know.” And his voice is heavy with the things that he knows. “When you’re done, they throw you away. Into some hole, somewhere. You don’t need—” He struggles. “You don’t need his permission. To leave.”
“What do you know?” She drags the words out of her mouth like teeth, spits them onto his hand. Her eyes are red, face soaked in tears. “You’re a coward. A pervert.”
“A murderer,” he adds softly. “A born killer.”
Love pries her hand out from under his, and before Mariette can reach them, she has it wrapped around K’s throat, the muscles in her fingers spasming from the effort, white-knuckled. His hand goes to her wrist, but she isn’t choking him.
Just – holds it there, quivering in rage, brow knitted in frustration, teeth clenched hard enough to crack.
“You’ve done this before,” he says, throat moving against the ridge of her hand, and she screams, open-mouthed, a red, inhuman sound, but her hand doesn’t get any tighter, and when her anger suffocates in her lungs, she lets it drop, grinds her own face into the concrete.
He touches her head, her face, like he’s never seen it before.
The other two replicants move, finally, forward, and come to either side of her. K stands up, unsteady on his feet, and Deckard breaks out of his paralysis, returning Stelline to Corella, to take him by the elbow.
“Kid,” he says. “What the hell?”
K just shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The smaller one has a hand on Love’s face, lifting it from the concrete, and another on her hands, curling them inward, stopping her from scraping them raw and bloody on the concrete as she thrashes and convulses.
The taller one turns to Mariette, and nods. “She can’t go back to Wallace like this.”
“Are you going to take her?”
“He doesn’t want her.”
She shrugs. “There was a man. She stopped his heart. He said he could feel it. I think she might die, in time. Or it’ll be a different world.”
“And…” She opens her multitool, closes it, thinking. “You don’t care about that?”
“We were born to assist her.” The breeze pushes the dark curls of her hair out of her eyes. “But I don’t think she believes that, now.”
“What about you? You like the box you’re in?” She puts a hand on her hip.
“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” the replicant says delicately. Her eyes almost glow in the faint light. “You should get out of her before she regains her senses. But I’m sure will have lost the scent for the chase.”
“Okay,” Mariette says, but not without a warning. “We’ll be watching.”
“That might be for the best.”
She can’t believe it, keeps checking over her shoulder. Wild, she wonders if this is one of Freysa’s master plans, if this is what a perfect play looks like. But all she sees is Love, splayed out on the floor like she’s been pinned down and cut open, and her two assistants kneeling next to her, untangling her, slowly.
K leans on Deckard as they stumble into the elevator. Corella follows close behind, and Mariette shields them all with her back until the doors close. She can see the tall one look at them one last time, over her shoulder, with a curious and strangely calm gaze.
Then they’re going down, down, down, and K collapses, unconscious, she thinks, until he starts to scream, hands folded over his face, and keeps screaming until his throat ruins itself into silence.
When Joshi testifies before the court, she’s in full uniform, hair slicked back, the picture of discipline.
He’s in his apartment, staring at the screen of his personal display, and Joi is singing in the kitchen.
The moment hangs and stutters. Joshi keeps talking, keeps talking. About things like trafficking, oversight, jurisdiction, the responsibilities of the LAPD, the spirit of the law. He barely hears any of it.
Her voice rings in his ears. It’s far, beyond the star – it’s near, beyond the moon…
“What is it?” she asks, holding his arm. “What are you thinking about?” She curls her arm around him.
Is this the way he remembers it? This is hard. This is so hard.
“K,” she says, or “Joe,” he doesn’t – this was before, so she must have said “K,” but he remembers “Joe.”
He says something back. He doesn’t hear what.
“Don’t worry.” That. He knows that. “She’ll be okay.”
“I’m not,” he replies. “Worried. She’s done this a hundred times.”
“It’s okay if you are.” Her fingers raise the hair on his arms. The static is almost like a touch. “I’ll be here.”
You’re dead, he thinks, distant. She’s dead, whenever this is. Not this. Later, sometime, orange, Las Vegas. Under the boot. The thing snapping that might have been his spine or a rod of memory. One or the other.
“I’ll be here,” she says. As if she knew, back then. “You can’t shake me off, baby, I’ll always be here.”
“I know,” his mouth replies, maybe.
She’s singing, or she’s singing to him, or something else. Her mouth moves. He doesn’t know what he wants. He can’t figure out what happened.
Joshi says something about counterfeit, the legal definition. It is, in fact, a criminal violation of the law.
All the world’s a stage. He remembers. Or doesn’t. The way he’s moving his arms, now, the way he stretches and gasps for air. Close enough, isn’t it?
“You can’t shake me off, baby,” she says.
“I know,” he replies, with conviction.
She’s not sure she’s ever going to see Freysa again.
It makes her sad, a little, and frustrated, but if their resistance must have a flagbearer, she’s glad to be one.
And if the flag is Ana Stelline, gradually clawing her health back under her in a sterile safehouse, then that’s fine, too.
The mumbled consensus is that they aren’t going to stay in Virginia. Instead, they move north, to the sprawl that grows from New York to Toronto, where the winter is cold and biting. They move fast, but free, and under the cover of their scramble suits, no one looks at them twice.
Mariette, she’d said. You remember what I told you?
And, yes, she remembers, and knows this is her choice, but it doesn’t mean she has to be happy about it. About the fact that Freysa decides whether a womb makes them human. She has memories, too. Not of a horse. She has memories of choosing her career. Unfair, maybe, but hers.
Her knee presses against Deckard’s on the train, and he doesn’t seem to feel it, or he’s asleep.
They’ve been on the run for a year, with very little to show for it, except a stable environment for Stelline, a little more food, an inventory of safehouses. She acquired, somehow, another ushanka, and in her black coat, she looks like a Soviet tourist, red-nosed and slopped up in the snow, moving with the stealth and grace of a local.
Coffee. She hasn’t had that in a long time. It’s warm, in her hands, and the normalcy of it throws her.
Deckard suggested it. He’s not anywhere near as well-adjusted as she is, not to this new world and its new laws and its new replicants, but he remembers what the old one is like, and he knows how to hide his face when he needs to, how to slouch into the crowd.
It feels good, to slip through undetected. Even if it’s just for coffee.
“Look,” he says, throwing his crumpled napkin back onto the table. “All I’m saying is that it’s not impossible for him – or you, for that matter – to reintegrate somewhere else.”
“It doesn’t matter where I go,” she says, sighing. They’ve been over this a hundred times in the past two months. “People know my face, my name. She’ll find me. I don’t really want to run, either.”
“Fine. Him, then. We can find a place for him.”
“Joseph.” She drums her fingers on the table, watches a couple come in through the front door. “It can’t be here.”
“We can send him off-world.”
“I thought you were taking this seriously.”
“Yeah.” A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “It’d be good for him, though, wouldn’t it?”
“He’d be away from you. I think that alone would drive him absolutely batty.”
“Batty,” he says. “Mm.”
“Ugh. Crazy, then.”
“And he’d be away from Ana.”
“Double nuts.” She scrapes her thumbnail over the old-fashioned cardboard cozy. “He’s doing better, though. Considering.”
“Considering the goddamn circus we run, yeah.”
He leans back in his chair, face turned toward the wall. Mariette flicks her eyes from his eyes to the couple, sitting down behind them, too engaged with each other to look at the old man and his daughter.
“If you could do anything, or go anywhere,” he says, “where would you go?”
Mariette laughs morosely into her coffee. “It’s a dangerous world for wishes, you know. Especially for people like me.”
“I’m old,” he counters. “The only thing I’ve got left is wishes. Wishes, and regrets. Humor me.”
She leans her chin on her fist, studies his face, old and worn, white-haired, grizzled. The shape of his nose thinner but the same as it is in those old data reels. And his eyes are the same. Still burning.
“I think I’d like to go to Paris.”
“Why not? It seems nice. European.”
“And you speak French fluently, I bet,” he grumbles.
“I’ve never dreamed with very much ambition. That was always her job.”
“You don’t agree with her, right?”
“Then why don’t you start dreaming now? It’s as good a time as any.”
She hums, swirls the coffee in its cheap, corrugated cup. “What should I dream of?”
He shrugs. “Paris. LA. Hong Kong. Hyderabad. It all falls under the idea of walking free, I guess.”
“That sounds nice. You ever been?”
“No. But I never needed to. I found all my freedom in LA.”
“Then what do you dream of?”
Deckard sighs, looks at her, deep creases around his mouth.
“Something green,” he says. The afternoon light is in his eyes. “I dream of the day the rain makes things start to grow again.”
They’re on opposite sides of the glass again. She can breathe. Walk, talk. The bruises receded slowly, like waves. When she can, she uses her memory orb to fill the room, sculpting each leaf on a forest of trees, every eyelash on her mother’s face.
She remembers a lot of things and talks about very few of them, except to Joseph.
He tells her about the things he dreams of at night.
There is something lighter about him, she thinks. He walks with more purpose, even though his mind is as unreadable as ever.
In late December of 2051, he has color in his face again, nose red from the bite of winter, the winds that whistle through the narrow corridors of the city.
“How are you doing?” she says. Her normal greeting.
“Doing okay.” His normal greeting. “It’s cold out here.”
“I can see it on your face.”
“Warm in here, though.”
She smiles. “It’s good to see you again.”
He nods, taking off his coat, folding it over his arm. He draws up a chair. “Sorry I haven’t been around in a while. They’ve been running me around.”
“I know. I can keep myself busy.”
He picks at a tag of skin on his thumb, seems to think for a while. Then he looks her in the eye. “I just wanted to say. About the whole horse thing. I’m sorry you went through that.”
“I’m sorry I gave it to you.” He knows, though. Has heard it a hundred times.
“Yeah. But it’s something we share. Not all bad.” Joseph drags the heel of his boot across the floor, an inch, two inches. “How many people did you give it to? I never asked.”
“I don’t know. I completed hundreds of prototype networks that were never used, all with memories that were very close to mine. Wallace might be implementing them now.”
“Maybe they’ll find us,” she offers.
Joseph nods, slowly, although there’s some reservation in it. “Maybe.”
There’s a deep silence running between them. She makes another leaf, puts a patch of butterfly eggs underneath. Attaches it to a branch.
“I don’t remember a lot of things right,” he says abruptly.
She doesn’t look up, just adjusts the size of a new leaf. “What things?”
“Life. Before. With Joi, when I was on the force. I keep trying to remember her face, but it doesn’t come out right half the time. I thought you might…”
“I know what they look like.” She shifts the color a little bit darker. “But I don’t think you want me to make her for you. Or your memory.”
“No. I just… want to know how you remember things,” he sighs. “So clearly. I feel like I’m losing her. Everything.”
“It’s natural for the memories to fade, and to grieve their loss. It doesn’t make you forgetful, or a bad person.”
“I remember killing Sapper Morton in pristine detail. Drowning Love in the shuttle.”
“Because it’s a bad memory, if I had to guess. Sometimes it’s like that. I don’t remember very much from the orphanage, except for what you know, and some other things like that.” She presses an insect bite into the left side of the leaf. “It’s just your mind trying to protect you. It never had to protect you from her.”
Joseph is quiet, for a while. When he speaks again, he sounds younger than he’s ever been. “You think I might forget she ever…”
“No.” She twists a gear, catches it, rotates the branch, inspecting it. “You’ll always have her with you. Just like my father remembered me, after twenty years.”
His breath shudders out of him. He’s so relieved, and she still doesn’t look at him, gives him his time alone, puts up the screen of tree branches against the glass, slowly.
“I don’t know how this works. I thought I did. I thought I had to die, but—” She hears him crack a knuckle. “I’m still here. And most of the time, I don’t know what to do with myself. And I feel like I don’t remember what LA was like.”
“You’ve spent almost a third of your life outside that city. It’s not going to get any clearer. But that’s how it works. I’m surprised you weren’t outfitted with an eidetic memory, though.”
“It probably wouldn’t have been good.”
She asks a question, this time.
“How long did you know her for?”
“Couple of months. No time at all, not really. But it felt like forever.”
“You were so fond of her,” she says. “In love, even. Sometimes you have to stop looking so close at the memory. It’ll come. Something will remind you. My father still talks about Rachael.”
“I know.” He pauses. “I saw her. Just bones.”
“Not an orthodox memory of your mother. But a memory, nonetheless.” She rotates the branch again, crooks a twig back.
“You ever wonder if she wanted to have you?”
“Every child wonders whether they’re wanted. But she had me, and I never knew her, so I’ll never find out. And I don’t think it matters to me, you know. At least, not in a way that makes me feel guilty for being alive.” Her foster parents were so kind, working every splinter of doubt and rejection out from under her skin. Gave her tools of her own, for new ones.
And here she is, showing him how to do exactly that. To pick out the splinters. Soothe the skin.
“I don’t think I do. Feel guilty.”
“That’s good, Joseph.”
“Yeah. I guess it is.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Yeah,” he says again. “Being alive. It feels right, most days. Closest I’ve ever been to real.”
“You were designed that way, originally,” she reminds him gently. “To be more human than we could ever be. Feel more real, despite the consequences, or the environment. To try harder.”
“Sounds like a lot of work I don’t need.”
“Existing? That’s what it’s like, you know.”
“I’m thinkin’ about it. About not trying harder.” He laughs, almost, a puff of it. “I’ve gone at it before. Seemed so impossible, back then. To have to die to become human.”
The branch attaches itself to the tree. She projects light down through it, golden, and it dapples the floor. For an instant, she’s almost tricked into thinking it really feels warmer in this room.
“Death is a very human thing. To be killed, even.”
“I don’t want to think I made all the people I killed more human.”
“I don’t think you did. But you know how it feels, now, more than a lot of people. What life feels like. How to keep it going.”
“I remember,” he says, soft, almost sad. “I keep thinking about Love. Wondering what she’s doing. If it’s any better than this.” A beat. “I wish I was back in LA, mostly. On the force. Don’t know if that’s wrong, or not.”
“It’s not wrong to want something familiar.”
“But it feels like I want something that never existed. Just my dream of a place, or a fake memory.”
She picks an asset out of her inventory, gives it a ridge, a pedicel, a lustrous rind.
“LA used to be all orange groves, you know. People doing whatever they wanted. And before that, it was desert. Someone else lived there.”
“And long before that, it was underwater.”
“Yes. A long time ago. We only know about that because it left a record in the mountains.”
“Orange groves,” he says. He’s probably seen the orange she’s modelling. “Stretching for miles and miles. I think I’ve seen photographs.”
“Have you ever eaten an orange?”
He does laugh at that, a real one, though it’s short. “No. Never needed to. I could live my life on supplements, I think.”
“I had one when I was a kid. A gift from my adoptive parents. Probably not grown from a tree, but it made me happy. It was like all of their kindness, bound up in something that could fit in my hand.”
“That sounds nice,” Joseph murmurs. “Hard to tell between anything, nowadays, what’s real. Or remember. But that’s good. To know that they were kind to you.” He shifts. “I know you miss them.”
“I miss a lot of things. But I have a lot of things here. I know a lot of people.”
“Yeah. I do, too.” He drags in a deep breath, holds it. Lets it go. Stands up from the chair, starts walking. Sometimes he doesn’t say goodbye.
Ana looks up from her work with half a smile. “What?”
“You seeing this?”
He’s got his hand pressed to the window.
It’s snowing outside.
hey, you made it to the end!
thanks for reading. it's kind of hard to believe I'm done. I'm not sure how satisfied I am with it, but I am proud to have finished, and in the process learned a lot about my writing habits. (maybe I'll write about that on the blog, later.) I hope you've enjoyed yourself, too. this last chapter was quite long, and I was tempted to split it up again, but I think it hangs together all right, and hits on a lot of the things I wanted it to.
if you've been here since the beginning, I'm glad you're still here. if you started reading later, or if you're reading this a while after it's been posted, then I'm glad you stuck with it. and I'd love to hear whatever you have to say.
because this was born out of my master's degree, and comprises, I think, a lot of the real learning I did during my thesis work, I am providing a selected bibliography here. mostly because I think it's a funny thing to do, and a little bit because I borrowed so much from so many people, which you may have noticed.
to close, here are the people who the chapter titles refer to (all born in, or significant residents of, LA), and some major references that I included for the sheer fun of it:
1) william wolfskill, pioneer, orange baron, sometime colonizer.
2) leonard kleinrock, one of the inventors of this disaster called the internet.
3) enrique bolanos, a boxer from the 1940s.
4) daryl gates, chief of police during the LA uprising. a dick.
5) nina revoyr, a novelist.
6) john cage, a composer.
7) bridget "biddy" mason, the first black woman to own land in LA.
8) henry huntington, responsible in large part for the structure of LA's early train system.
9) ray bradbury, a novelist.
three major references include philip k. dick's "a scanner darkly," which I pretty blatantly lifted the scramble suits from; c.s. lewis's silent planet trilogy, from which I took the names of a few planets; and don delillo's "white noise," from which I took the phrase "conspiracies of the body."
that's it, I think. have a wonderful week, wherever and whenever you are.