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Something Real

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Ana has always lived beside a turbulent sea. Beyond the glass dome of her sterile house, the seething waves pound upon a great grey wall. She can choose to mute that sound with filters, but some days she can feel the earth shake.

The earth shakes the day she meets the man who fathered her, and they save the man who united them. Both of them are replicants. And so, it turns out, is she.

The earth shakes, but Ana is breathless with a painful hope. If her parents lied to her about this, what else did they lie to her about? Her immune system is compromised. She has to stay here or die. She has always trusted this was true. She finds another doctor than the one who has treated her all her life. The tests come back negative.

The prospect of freedom is dizzying.

"You'd be safer offworld," K says. "You have allies out there."

"Safer to stay put," Deckard says. "You've been tucked away here for decades."

Ana is not going to the stars or staying in her cage. She lived eight years in an orphanage, and twenty one years in an isolation chamber. She wants to turn thirty under the open sky. "I want to see the outside world. I want to see a different ocean."

Deckard looks doubtful, but she can see the moment he makes up his mind. "What the hell. It's a long drive, but we have a lot to catch up on."

"How about it?" Ana says to K.

He tenses, an uncertain flicker in his eyes. Then he says, "Best offer I've had all day."

***

They are going east, crossing a continent, towards a place with no walls. A place to watch the sun rise over the sea. They drive along abandoned roads, the spinner gliding over cracked asphalt like a silent ghost. They keep low to the ground, the better to avoid detection by flitting drones. They have plastic tubs of protein, and a grow pod for algae. They cook over a cranky heater, that Deckard swears must be older than he is. They camp at night in a camouflage tent, that K procured from an unnamed source. All about, the hills are barren and dusted with snow.

In her work, Ana has designed memories that cannot be real: birds singing in green gardens, beetles sparkling in sunlit rainforest. Animals that are extinct, landscapes that are vanished. A world that no longer exists. Her imagination is not limited by reality. If Ana were to design a memory of a road trip, it would be like a summer dream: a roaring campfire, crackling with sparks, shedding warmth over hands and faces. Marshmallows melting on sticks, tendrils of smoke dissolving into the air. A chorus of crickets and cicadas. She knows exactly how she would compose and light and animate this scene. She doesn't know how to live it: the three of them crouched in one tent, watching the rain drizzle down. Cold dinner out of cold tins.

K says, in his quiet way, "I know it's not what you're used to."

Ana asked them for this. She puts on her steadiest voice. "That's the point."

"Might as well do something useful." Deckard pulls out a pack of cards, battered and faded. "Kids. Let me teach you about seven card stud."

***

"Her name was Rachael," Deckard tells Ana, late one night, when they are sitting around the heater, listening to the slow drip of rain from dead branches.

They shelter amid the ghosts of redwoods. Ossified trunks stretch upwards through dense fog. You could dream their canopies still reach the sun. Why they have not already been harvested long ago is a mystery. Every scrap of timber is priceless.

Ana traces a circle in the dirt with a stick. Her birth mother exists only as memories now. Deckard is one of the few who still remember her. The temptation is there, to ask him for access to those memories. To see them with her own eyes.

(Is that why she left her lab and her equipment behind? To avoid that temptation?)

She could transfer his memories into her mind. Merge them with hers. Even build on them. She's good enough. Her own cherished birthday party. It would almost be real.

(Something inside her recoils at the thought. She feels shame that she ever imagined false dreams would be a comfort.)

"I wish I could have met her," she says instead. "What was she like?"

His eyes go faraway and his mouth creases into a smile. He begins.

***

Snow dusts the rim of the canyon, outlining shelves of rock like tiers on a cake. Amid the swirling flakes, Ana cannot see the far side, cannot see to the bottom. It is immense beyond reckoning. This, now, this, is something the hand of man cannot destroy. Only the rain, cascading down ancient channels, will carve the layers away.

K nearly died on the steps of her house, bleeding out from his wounds, snow falling over him like a shroud. He still looks slightly hollow, like a returned ghost, eyes blank and uncertain. Still full of bewildered wonder to be alive.

Deckard is her father, but K is her brother in arms. He carries a piece of her memory inside him. She had wanted this once: for someone else to know how she feels, to understand who she is. Was it hubris? It disturbed his equilibrium so badly, he went wildly off kilter. She shook his whole world too.

"I don't feel that different to before," Ana says. "Human, replicant, does it matter in the end?"

K says, "You're different to both. There's no name yet for what you are."

She knows he means he thinks she is special. But there are moments when the distance between her and the rest of the world seems like a chasm.

You can still bridge a chasm. She touches his arm. "Whatever I am. Whatever we are. I'm glad you're here."

***

A high walkway overlooks the frozen falls, glistening like a glacier, silent as death. The three of them stand at the railing, gazing down. Ana had imagined water falling forever, with a vast roar, little rainbows in the foam and the mist. This image is like a single frame sliced from another reality.

"I knew a man once," Deckard says. "He knew he was going to die. But the wonders he had seen. He told me all these moments will be lost in time…"

He drifts into silence. They contemplate eternity.

"I grew up thinking I was human too." Deckard glances over at K. "I guess they decided that was a bad idea. Your generation is different. No illusions."

"No," K says, in a low voice. "We still have our illusions. Maybe it's just--human nature."

"How did you find out the truth?" Ana says.

"I dreamed about a unicorn," Deckard answers.

K looks at them both, and says nothing.

"Sometimes," Ana admits, "I don't know how much I can trust my own memories. How much of what I remember of my childhood is real."

Deckard grips her shoulders. "We're here now. I'm real. You're real."

It turns into a hug, enveloping and warm. She remembers her parents, but she barely remembers hugs. The glass wall grew between them. Ana looks across at K, hunched over by the railing. Sometimes he gets this look, haunted and hungry, like a stray dog, no longer expecting kindness from the world. But somehow still capable of giving it.

She extends a hand towards him. After a moment, so does Deckard.

***

They reach the coast on a cold and blustery morning. Even here, away from any sprawling metropolis, a thick layer of smog coats everything. In the end, they have to guess where the sun is: a brighter patch of cloud, low on the horizon. Ana stares at it. In the distance, where they say an island used to be, silver towers rise from the sea, like a kingdom for merfolk.

They wander along the barren shore, making footprints that are washed away by the tide. The cry of a gull echoes in her ears, summoned from her imagination by sheer weight of expectation.

K stops. He bends down and picks up an object from the sand. He is adept at noticing small things.

"Ah," Ana says, when he shows it to her. "A seashell. Made of calcium carbonate." She holds it up to the light. "This housed a living creature once." It is just a small flat disc, with a scalloped edge. Nothing like the great conches and gleaming cowries of her designs.

None of this is like her designs. She would have made this scene a postcard to nostalgia: golden beaches and azure waves, towels and umbrellas and swimsuits, ice creams and soda pops. But this sky is bigger than her memory can hold, the swift scudding clouds making patterns not yet complete. She faces into sharp biting wind, salt spray stinging her skin. She can taste it on her tongue, the taste of the sea: like tears, like rain.

"Not much of a birthday party," Deckard remarks. He stands at her shoulder, K on her other side. They are watching the same scene from three different angles, all of them, together. Making a shared memory.

"No," Ana says. "This is perfect."