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Joshua Tree

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Rachel didn't die so much as close her eyes. We both knew it was coming. We'd both recognized the signs. They'd begun the day before, in the garden, late in the afternoon, as she weeded the kohlrabi. She was kneeling as she always did, primly, her legs tucked under her, her eyes hooded as if she saw something in the soil that no else could see. She worked so quietly that I kept glancing over my shoulder, a force of habit to make sure she was there, and it was during one of those moments that the fingers of her right hand began turning in on themselves. The dirt under her nails was as dark as blood, the dirt in her palm turned to mud under her sweat. In one movement she both looked at me and covered her hand. She held my eyes for an instant more, then returned to weeding with her left hand, laying the other on her thigh as if giving it a rest.

It had only been a matter of time. We'd known that the night we flew from LA, jinking north because that's the way everybody would expect us to go, everybody being Bryant, who's as dumb as a stump but plays the bureaucracy the way other savants play keyboards or decipher equations. I steered a shade below the radar, climbing out of the shadows once or twice so they'd pick up the course, then dove low and turned southeast before we hit the checkpoints at Fresno. Outside Cactus City, I hovered low enough for Rachel to step out while I set the controls, then hopped down after her. Precisely twenty seconds later, the spinner turned and set off for Middlegate, Nevada, four hundred and ninety five miles away and an hour north of where it'd run out of juice. When they found it, she'd buy us time.

Gaff was the one who'd figure it out. He probably had before Rachel and I passed Gorman. In my head, the only thing I couldn't settle was how he'd play it. A scrawny suck-up, he was, but he could have killed Rachel neatly and hadn't, and a man doesn't toss a blaster to someone who might shoot him. I guess you're through, huh? Gaff had me branded the moment he laid eyes on me. He knew I wasn't going back. He wouldn't mind Bryant looking like an idiot and Bryant couldn't point a finger at him for having the brainstorm of putting me back on the street. I was out of his way and for all the bluntness of his edge, something made me think Gaff felt about me the way some people used to feel about old dogs: sorry to see them suffer, but not enough to put them down.

This far from the city we could almost see the sky. LA's fog began thinning out by the time it churned through the windfarms at San Gorgonio. At Cactus City, if the wind was right, you could see stars though they were blurred by haze. They threw just enough light to illuminate the ground, reveal the paths Rachel couldn't see but I'd learned to recognize long before she'd been unwrapped. She followed close behind me, emitting a soft grunt now and again when her foot twisted. I set as reasonable a pace as I dared but kept my eye on the eastern horizon.

"Where are we going, Deckard?" she asked when we stopped after a few miles to rest. She leaned against a high stone, rubbing her calf.

"A couple more miles. I've got a friend."

"I never pictured you having friends in the middle of nowhere."

"We only want you to think this is the middle of nowhere."

"'We?'"

"They," I said, pushing myself forward, hearing her fall into line behind me. "It used to be 'we.'"

Dylan's tent was just where I thought it would be, in the same place I'd last seen it, four years ago, just about the time Ray Batty was being packed for shipment and the idea of the Nexus 6 gleamed like a new-model car. His tent was military-issue, camouflage rippling as the wind changed direction and the light swelled. Staked down tightly, it stood as solid as any composite building in the city.

As far as Eldon Tyrell would have been concerned, Dylan was old: He'd been put on the street seventeen years ago to find his way around as the good doctor watched and measured and scanned to determine how well he adapted to unfamiliar places. They'd programmed him to be strong and good-natured, a hair faster than an average man, but patient, too, so the chances of anyone provoking him were slight. Tyrell never suspected I'd known Dylan for years. He assumed I'd have shot him as soon as I recognized him for the early model 5 that he was. But if Dylan wasn't exactly a friend, he was a collaborator I could trust. He didn't always make it easy, but he'd let me know how life was moving along for those on the run, where the trouble spots were, who was worth tracking down and who wasn't worth the bother. He was one of the first machines Tyrell had built as he pondered whether his products might benefit from a bit of free will. If he'd patterned more of them like Dylan, I'd never have had a job.

I scratched at the tent flap like a cat, our old signal. The years had passed without a word, but Dylan hadn't forgotten. "Gonna be a cold day today," he said through the canvas.

"Only if the sun doesn't shine," I replied.

"Always shines out here."

"May not today."

Our ritual complete, Dylan unzipped the tent and pulled the flap aside.

"Can't say I expected to see you here."

"Can't say I expected to be here."

"Who's your friend?"

I glanced over my shoulder and without any explanation introduced him to Rachel. They shook hands tentatively and Dylan frowned at the texture of her skin. It told him everything. Rachel, Eldon Tyrell's personal assistant, who no doubt had the Nexus 5 protocols committed to memory, measured the clarity of his eyes and the steadiness of his legs. The average 5 was built to run fifteen years before its systems began to degrade. Tyrell wasn't thinking then about lifespans so much as system limitations and cost-efficiencies and customer value, profit margins and planned obsolescence. And, indeed, Dylan had aged, though subtly. Since I'd last seen him, his skin had grown loose and gray, his eyes submerged in secretions he kept blinking away. His hand was cool to the touch and a tic worked irregularly at the corner of his mouth. He'd been built with less-than-perfect posture to help him blend in, but now his bowed shoulders had turned into a stoop and he revealed a limp when he walked. His hair was still jet black. He said to Rachel, "I've never seen one like you." She looked away.

"A lot's happened since we've talked," I said.

"Oh, I don't doubt it. You hear things out here, you know? A couple of mutinies off-world, a couple of incursions."

"We just got done with one of those."

"Old Eldon never did think things all the way through. He should have learned from the 5s that once you leave open ends in your code, all you can do is guess about where things will turn out. You said yourself he couldn't believe I left the city limits."

"That's what they told me," I agreed, sitting heavily on his cot, motioning for Rachel to perch beside me. Dylan's lantern cast the three of us in a silvery, flickering light. He pulled a stool from beside his footlocker and planted it in front of us. He knew not to ask questions. All I said was, "We need a place for a while. I've been out of the game and I don't know what's going on out here anymore."

"You got out?"

"I was out, I was back in, now I'm out for good. But Bryant's breathing down our necks."

"Bryant'd think you'd run north if you were taking a skin job."

Rachel stiffened but I ignored the slight. "That's why we came here," I told him.

"Yeah, he couldn't count to eleven unless someone lent him a finger. Word is he's got some new boys, though. They're supposed to be pretty good."

"They are, but I'm betting this isn't a chase any of them want."

"What about Holden?"

"Holden's close to dead. Whether he'll be back is anybody's guess."

The 5 nodded, considering us. "You remember the Blakelys?" he asked after a moment.

"Sure. We got them in Seattle."

"No, you think you got them in Seattle. They were here until about a week ago. Just disappeared one night and left behind a nice little shack with a weeded garden and everything. You move in there, no out-of-towner'll ever notice there's been a change."

"And if the Blakelys come back? The last thing I need is them setting eyes on me."

"There's a lot of things you don't need," Dylan replied. "But they're not coming back. They never stay in one place for too long."

"And the ones we got in Seattle? If they weren't the Blakelys, who were they?"

Dylan shrugged. He got to his feet and peered outside to examine the sky. "It's getting light. Just starting. If we leave now, we can get over there before people start moving out and about. You probably want to settle in some before you show yourself. Get some dirt on your shoes, you know?" He glanced at Rachel's patent-shined flats. "For that matter, get some shoes," he said.

By the time we got to the Blakelys' the sun had risen high enough to cast sharp shadows in front of us. The cabin had three rooms: a small sitting room, a smaller bedroom and an adequate kitchen. A privy stood out back, close enough to remain in sight after dark but with enough distance to tamp down the chemical smell. Each room was as tidy as a barracks, a pair of throw pillows precisely centered on the sofa, the bed made tight with hospital corners, shirts and work pants hanging at precise intervals in the closet. "It doesn't look like they'll be away long," I observed.

Dylan shook his head. "If they were coming back, they'd have said something."

"No bodies to throw cops off the scent?"

"Where's the scent? You thought they were in Seattle."

As I shook my head at that, Rachel eased into the armchair beside the tiny woodstove, as close to slumping as I'd ever seen her. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, determined to keep her eyes open. "Why don't you get some sleep?" I asked her.

"What about you?"

"I'm going to poke around the yard for a minute. I want to know where everything is."

She nodded though she didn't want to. She gave Dylan a long look and moved toward the bedroom, her shoes scratching the dirt floor until she closed the door behind her. We listened to the rustle of her clothes and her weight pressing against the mattress. Then Dylan asked, "What are you doing with a 6?"

"How do you know what she is?"

Snorting, Dylan paced over to the kitchen, worked the hand pump until water trickled into the basin. "Guy gets a flat tire outside an insane asylum," he said. "He's about to put on the spare but he's lost all the bolts. There's another guy inside the fence, watching. He says, 'Take one bolt from each of the other wheels. That'll get you to the gas station.' The first guy says, 'How could a feller like you think of that?' The second one says, 'I'm in here 'cause I'm crazy, not 'cause I'm stupid.'" He stopped pumping and looked at me blandly, then rinsed his face.

"It's not something I want to get into."

"Fair enough, but folks around here are gonna spot her. Some'll care, some won't. I can't tell you who'll be who."

"Can't or won't?"

Dylan twisted his lips. "Jesus, Deckard. When did you become such an asshole?"

The Blakelys were late-model 5s, incepted a few years before Batty. Back then, Tyrell was still resisting the notion of programmed life spans. Quality products should last a good while and his engineers had refined machine learning to a point near holiness. I heard him say that one night. "Near holiness. A critical distinction. Our products are sophisticated and their processors-their brains-are complex. We're proud of that at Tyrell Corporation, but however they look and however they act, no matter what words they recite, always remember the replicant is only a machine."

He was speaking in the basement of the precinct house near Taluca Lake. That in itself was supposed to make a statement: Eldon Tyrell coming to us instead of our calling on him. Bryant was there, still a lieutenant, and Holden and me, Brannigan, Roewe and Mosston, all pulled out of Homicide or Anti-Gang squads to pilot Tyrell's notion that if the need arose, recalling his products would require special training. That was his initial idea-recalling, not retiring. He was certain that programming gone awry would only cause inconvenience, never danger. None of us sitting in the folding chairs believed that. At one point or another, we'd all handled a replicant that had gone off the skids.

Bryant had been the first to bring one down. It was a 5 that picked up a crowbar and went after a construction foreman when he'd cursed it for working too slow. Bryant tried talking to it, used keywords Tyrell said would break through its confusion, but after it whipped the crowbar at his head and charged him with a two-by-four, Bryant put four rounds into the thing's chest and shot it in the forehead to stop its thrashing around. It wasn't much later that we were there in the basement, drinking unusually reasonable coffee while Tyrell stood instructing us, dressed down for the occasion, thinking he'd fit in, I suppose, wearing a suit that cost as much as two of us combined made in a year.

It was the Blakelys who brought us together. They hadn't been manufactured as a pair, but that didn't stop them from finding something in each other, something so relentless that when they learned Eleanor was being shipped off-world while George was going back to Tyrell, they dropped out of sight, ambushed two beat cops who weren't even looking for them, and learned laying low was a better survival strategy than shooting it out.

Holden put together how they operated: Go someplace and look around until they found a man and woman whose build and complexions approximated theirs. Haul those off and snap their necks, blend in by taking menial jobs that didn't require much talk, then at some point move on and do it again. They were developed for strength and they were big, especially Eleanor, so when a woman whose build matched hers went missing anywhere, it raised flags all over the west. In Seattle, they broke their pattern. They came into town and bought a leaky fisherman the two of them could work by themselves and had a good few years before the department in Redmond tracked them down and called us. We went after the boat one morning while the Blakelys spooled out their nets. Two incendiaries later, that was supposedly that. Bryant closed the file and gave me an assist because I'd volunteered to keep an eye on them the night before.

Someone told me that when Tyrell rolled out the first 6, Bryant asked no one in particular, "What the fuck are they thinking over there?"