He can’t move. That’s how it starts. The world is dark every muscle in his frame has wound itself up, buzzing with numb pins and needles that mean he won’t be able to even force his limbs to respond. He opens his eyes. There’s brilliant orange dust beneath his fingers, coating his palms, streaking his coat sleeves, caked to his face and hair. Sunlight through the grimy window panes is screened through an atmosphere of permanent pollution, turning the dead city beyond into a bone-bare graveyard.
K tries to lift his head. Tries to move.
Wake up, he tells himself. Wake up. Wake up.
Joi’s little plastic raincoat makes no sense in the Vegas sun, her clean white boots don’t make sense in the chaos around her, particulates of dust sliding through her because she’s just light and binary bound up in the shape of a woman. One-hundred-sixty-two days. That’s how long it took it his DiJi to decide for herself what she wanted to look like. One-hundred-sixty-two days for her personality matrix and domestic software to iterate out of its presets and evolve into something else, something less predictable because he wouldn’t feed her anything. No direction. No data.
He’d come home and every day a different person was waiting for him.
“I missed you,” said Joi in eighty different voices, with eighty different faces, in a thousands different outfits, A/B testing them against him over and over until the algorithmic learning within her hooked a hard right down some rogue bramble of code. He came home and she was back to her original pre-set, exactly the same in everyway… except she had an accent and a sweater. “I missed you, babysweet.”
She never changed her facial and vocal presets again.
“Stop,” she says. “Don’t. Please.”
That’s not what she said. This isn’t how it happened.
Luv’s boots are perfectly clean, polished and black as she prowls forward. Her eyes are on the emanator, on K, on Joi and the smile behind her lips but not quite on them just keeps widening. Then she smiles. Not a real smile. A salesgirl smile, an personal assistant smile – gracious and perfect and she kneels down next to K and takes a fistful of his jacket, fisting the material at the back of his shoulder blade and pinning him chest down so the floor.
“Please! You don’t have to hurt him! Just stop!”
Luv pulls K’s jacket up at his hip, pushing it aside so the length of rebar slammed through his lower right torso is laid bare, the bloody twist of metal standing free of his lower back, pressed point-first into floor beneath him. Luv looks him in the eye and he can see what she’s going to do before she moves to wrap her fine gloved hand around the metal. Joi is sobbing now, shouting – “Please stop! Don’t do that! You don’t have to do that! K! K, please!” – but she’s light and binary. She can’t stop Luv who holds K down with one fist and with her other she takes that rebar and drives it down like a tent stake into the stone beneath K’s body.
K doesn’t remember if he screamed. If he could scream. Probably not.
There was just the ripping feeling, the friction of the ribbed metal grinding backward through his body, tunneling through muscle and past bone. He chokes. The pain dominates everything and for a horrible all-consuming moment every thought and every nerve narrows down to that red and black glowing holocaust until Luv is satisfied with her work. Then she bends the rebar over in a crude hook at the top. That way, he can’t pull himself off the bar. Pinning him like a dead bug to a piece of corkboard,
A little boy shows you his butterfly collection. Along with the kill jar.
Luv lets go of his jacket and lays a hand against the back of his head. Joi is weeping. Her environmental emitters make it seem her tears are soaking the Vegas dust. They flicker imperfectly, blitzed by static. Luv murmurs, petting his hair like you soothe an injured dog and he anticipates her violence. Waits for her to snap his neck, to break his jaw, to take fistfuls of him at a time and leave him mutilated and alive. He keeps thinking of the words: kill jar. Luv’s eyes are cruel and curious.
She starts to reach for him, her slender steel-boned fingers sliding toward his face and –
“Stop!” Joi flickers, reappears, hands out-stretched, like Luv is a freight train and she can stop her with holographic hands. “That’s enough!”
Luv looks at her, the DiJi girl in the yellow raincoat.
She stands up. Joi’s emanator lies open on the ground just beyond K’s reach, its thin metal case sprung open, revealing the holo-coil within a thin tube of plastic. Joi flickers so she’s standing in front of it, so there is a clear line between her and the object that contains everything she is. Joi stands, shoulders squared, chin raised. Joi draws Luv's violence like rapid motion draws a cat to a kill. Luv smiles. She lifts her boot.
“I do hope you’ve enjoyed our product,” says Luv.
And she brings her boot down on –
“K! Wake up!”
K’s eyes open. His eyes were open in the dream, but they open again and Doctor Ana Stelline is leaning over him with a worried look on her face. The light from the hallway frames her head in a halo of pale gold. She’s wearing a hypo-allergenic clean suit and a white tunic over that. Her particle mask is clean soft plastic, form-fitted to her face and constantly cycling and recycling sterilized oxygen. It frames her nose and mouth like a shallow bubble so he can clearly see the way her mouth pulls with concern.
“You shouldn’t break quarantine,” K says quietly, not sitting up.
He’s lying on his bed, in his room. The fact she’s in here at all suggests he was making noise. Damn. He’s been working on that for a few months now and he’d promised Deckard he wouldn’t do anything to encourage Ana’s recent insistence on testing the bounds of her immune system. K focuses on Ana’s face to avoid thinking about the fact he’s sweating, that his heart his racing, that his hands have a tremble to them, and he can’t seem to slow his breathing. He’s getting familiar with panic attacks. His are notably suppressed compared to the average human being, but he’s started having them in faster and faster intervals lately.
Joi used to talk him down from his panic attacks. He stopped having them a few years back. Now, like cancer rebounding from a remission, his night terrors are starting to eat him alive. A life of violence retroactively catching up to him.
“You were calling out in your sleep,” says Ana.
“I do that,” K murmurs. “You can’t break quarantine because of it.”
“I am a grown woman and I will do what I think makes sense,” she says calmly. “Now, come with me and lets get some water.” She offers him her hand, soft and pale in the half-light. “Yes?”
She knows he can’t resist it. It’s barely fair. He takes her hand and lets her pull him to his feet and down the narrow hall to the split living quarters. Her living bunker is split like a mirror by Plexiglas – the guest section of the home on one side and the sterile quarantine on her side. Every time she breaks quarantine, she has to spend thirty minutes in a sterilization airlock before going back into her living quarters.
“I honestly don’t think my immune system is that delicate,” she says.
“Your physicians say otherwise,” K points out.
Ana is pouring hot tea into a mug. He’s sitting on one of the high bar stools at the kitchen island, feeling uncomfortable in a pair of sweatpants and a thin pull over pushed up to his elbows. Ana is strangely formal-looking in her clean-suit which fits like a glove beneath the tunic. Her fingers are bare. They shouldn’t be. The suit works best when all sections of it are sealed. He eyes her naked fingers with consternation.
“Your brow is wrinkling,” Ana says, pushing the mug toward him.
“You really shouldn’t break quarantine,” K says softly.
“It’s not as though you’re carrying anything I can catch, even if I did take off my particle mask –”
“Don’t take off your mask.”
“I’m not a child and I’m not an invalid,” Ana says a little sharply. Then she seems to regret it. “Apologies. I only mean that you shouldn’t worry. The house’s auto-clean functions are top of the line even for the gust suite and Deck—” She pauses. “My father has been out of the house for some time. Any transmittable contagions are gone to trace residue.”
“Replicants can carry human disease,” K points out.
“Not that ones I have to worry about,” Ana says. “Anything transmissible is through vectors we hardly need to fret.”
K stares at his tea. “Don’t take the mask off,” he repeats.
Ana sighs. “You’re worse than he is.”
“I’m sorry I woke you,” K says, ducking the correlation between himself and the old blade runner. “I used to have this under control. I just have to find a new system for… dealing with it.”
Ana takes a seat on one of the stools next to him. “Do you mind if I ask how you dealt with it before?”
“I had a DiJi,” K says neutrally.
“Oh?” Ana tilts her head. “I had a DiJi for a while. When I was a little younger and… very lonely. She got me through some very tough times.”
K stares. “What happened to her?”
“I still have her on a core drive in the house. I just… can’t bring myself to turn her back on.” Ana smiles a little forcefully. “It was addictive for me. I… wanted for company so intensely. She herself recommended that I try to focus on real things, real people, real work. She would be disappointed I think to find what career I’ve taken up.” A beat. “She would be proud of me for this though.” Ana gestures between them. “At least I think so.”
K is still staring.
“What? Have I said something wrong?”
“No,” K says quietly. “That makes a lot of sense.”
He can feel Ana monitoring his expression.
“I’ve said something wrong,” she says.
“No, you haven’t.”
He follows her eyes. Oh. His hands are shaking around his mug; the surface of the tea trembles. He steadies his hand and sips the tea to buy some time. Ana’s worried eyes track his movement before mercifully turning toward the sugar bowl. She straightens it like it needed any such thing and by the time she sits back, K is steady again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Ana asks.
There’s a silence.
“But…” K says, eventually, “I think… my DiJi would have wanted me to.” He keeps his eyes on the tea in his hands, on keeping the surface still. “Since I don’t have her around anymore to… talk to.”
“Okay. When you had her, what did you talk about?”
“Everything,” K admits. “Everything I couldn’t say to anyone else, I said to her. There aren’t any rules about what I can say to a DiJi. It’s why my old partner recommended that I get one – so I could talk to someone without any consequences or… filters getting in the way.”
“That’s smart, I never thought of that,” Ana says.
"My old partner trained blade runners. They knew alot of tricks for keeping on baseline even though they weren't a Replicant themselves."
"Your old partner was human?"
"Yes. They're the reason I lasted as long as I did. I took all of their advice."
Ana smiles. “Okay. What was your DiJi like?”
“I don’t know." K shrugs. "She was herself. She would talk back to me a lot. She yelled at me once but she felt so badly about it she cried.”
Ana’s brows go up. “Oh? Then she was… post-Turing and set for fidelity iteration?”
“I jail-broke her about a year in.”
Ana’s eyes are round. “K, that’s dangerous. Jail-breaking a DiJi….”
“Why did you do that?”
“I wanted her to be herself.”
Ana stares. K stares back.
“K, where is your DiJi now?”
Ana shakes her head. “Left behind?”
“No,” K says matter-of-factly. “She was destroyed. I transferred her from my apartment drive to an emanator. The emanator was destroyed. She’s gone.”
Ana looks stricken. “When?”
“In Las Vegas when I found Deckard.”
“You lost her in Las Vegas?” Ana’s voice is barely above a whisper. “You didn’t… Deckard didn’t mention…”
“He didn’t see it happen. He didn’t know I had her with me.”
“What was her name?”
K blinks. “Joi.”
There’s a long quiet.
“You were… calling out for someone named Joi. That’s why I woke you up. I…” Ana waits but when he says nothing she goes on. “K, I need to ask, have you ever lost someone you loved before? Because I didn’t build any memories of loss into the KD6 psyche pack. Have you ever –?”
“Technically,” K says evenly, “remember my parents’ funeral, but I was too young to have any emotion attached to it.”
“K, you might be grieving.”
There’s a beat.
“Oh,” he says.
Ana looks worried.
“I figured I was just off my baseline and this is how it feels.”
“K, for the love of god.”
“Joi was always the one who talked me out of anxiety attacks. I just need to talk to someone else.”
K grips the tea mug a little tighter.
“I guess, if I’m grieving, it would make sense that I keep dreaming about her emanator being destroyed.”
Ana covers her mouth with one hand.
“How long will I feel like this?”
Ana doesn’t answer. She gingerly takes the mug from his hand because it’s begun to whine in his fingers from the pressure he’s exerting on it. She sets the mug on the kitchen counter and carefully wraps her arms around K’s shoulders, hugging him so tightly he can feel the muscle in her arms strain a little with the effort. K blinks. Ana tucks her head against his shoulder and her hands slide a little along his shoulder blades, rubbing gently through his shirt and he can’t explain the rush of heat behind his eyes when she does that.
“I keep thinking,” K says, “that I’m going to talk to her soon.”
“I’m sorry,” Ana whispers.
“I dream about her dying, then I wake up and I think she will be there to talk me down from it.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“What should I do?” K asks somewhat haltingly.
“I don’t know,” Ana says. “No one’s figured that out yet.”
Her arms tighten around his shoulders and K can feel that scream, the one he only knows in his nightmares, trying to claw its way out of him. Somehow the pressure Ana is pushing into his back tamps it down, slowly. He breathes out slowly. Keeps breathing until his breath stops shaking on every exhale. He lifts his arms and places them carefully around his memory maker, not sure if he’s doing this right, but certain that somehow that doesn’t matter. Ana lift a hand to cup the back of his head and her palm is warm against his skin.
“You can talk to me,” Ana says quietly. “Alright? You can talk to me.”
K closes his eyes.