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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?"

Chapter Text

With Dylan coaching us, Rachel and I settled in. We began showing lantern light through the cabin windows so anyone around could see someone was living there. We ventured to the hardscrabble market that popped up a few days each week just off the highway. Semi-trains thundered by and sometimes a drone flew a tight circle above us but the truth was no one with a badge thought Joshua Tree was worth much effort. When Interior tried to strike it off the park rolls, the Uppers around Palm Springs sued them over "sprawl" and everyone seemed to think the longer things played out in court, the better. The park police pulled out and the sheriff said she wouldn't waste resources and Joshua Tree became a place where most anyone could disappear as long as they stayed quiet. People or machines who attracted attention figured out quick that they'd be run off or dead and that suited everyone who mattered just fine. Cops only went in when they had a score to settle and if they did, they were on their own. Even Bryant wouldn't send teams to Joshua Tree. It would be too risky, too bloody and embarrassing if things went wrong. A lot of nasty cases were put to bed because the perps decided to put themselves in Joshua Tree.

And you knew as soon as you set foot in the market not to screw around. The peddlers were ready for business before dawn so they could operate for hours before the wind kicked up in winter and the heat grew fierce in summer. Kerosene and battery lanterns bled their light into a shadowy, flat glow that reminded me ironically of LA. To inspect a table's wares or count your change you had to bend down and squint, but keeping out of each other's way was a simple dance of stepping around shadows. People openly looked each other over until the sun cleared the mountains, but then they became more discreet. You'd glance up at someone and quickly look away again. I flicked my eyes over every body I could, looking for the bulge of a gun, the hilt of a knife, the claw of someone ready to strike. But that was everybody's habit. I was blending in without even trying.

"There," Rachel whispered as the morning's light sharpened. "And there." I glanced toward a woman leaning tiredly against a drooping table and a withered old man leaning against a rock closer to the highway than he should have been. The woman had a scattering of rags and handkerchiefs spread out before her, dyed in flat tones of mud and rust. They were loosely folded and just waiting for the wind to pick up and blow them away. The old man hadn't shaved in days and sagged in on himself. He had an ancient blaster tucked into his belt. If he'd been one of Tyrell's creations, the weapon would have been worth more than he was.

Then I realized he was one of Tyrell's creations. I don't know how, but suddenly the way he tilted his body seemed familiar, steady at first glance but ready to collapse at the slightest pressure. Rachel looked coolly into my eyes, then flicked hers between the two figures. "She's a 4," she whispered. "I can't imagine how she's lasted this long. He must be an early 5, older than your friend."

"How do you know that?"

She shrugged. She's beginning to suspect, I think. Another of Eldon Tyrell's experiments. Program Rachel to recognize other replicants, then watch to see if she recognized herself.

That was the moment I saw Sally Farmington. She was as wide as ever but listing to port, her weight born by a surplus camp stool behind a table of home-made axes and knives. She spotted me while I was whispering to Rachel, absorbed the way I stood, the way I walked, the way I took in the shadows of the market. Even in the half-light, she didn't squint. She looked briefly at Rachel and began pondering what kind of trouble I was in. At a glance, she knew Rachel wasn't cop.

I didn't need more than a glance to know there was no sense in hiding. With Rachel behind me I approached Sally slowly, hands visible, my eyes on hers. Rachel's breath quickened and her jaw betrayed the slightest tremble. She knew from the old lady's smirk that Sally wasn't afraid of me. She planted her elbow on the table, dropped her chin on her fist and finally allowed her lips to stretch when I got close enough. "Well, Ricky Deckard," she said. "You finally shoot someone real by mistake?"

"Maybe I'm hunting."

"Not with that princess, you're not." She gave Rachel a wide grin. The teeth on the left side of her jaw were gone.

"Clean air finally get to you, Sally?" I picked up a hatchet. She'd balanced it perfectly.

"Around here's a good place to take a break sometimes. Don't have to do too much looking over your shoulder, right?"

"You're not on a break." I set down the hatchet and took up a knife. "You wouldn't spend so much time on these if you were taking a break."

"I'm a craftsman, Deckard. Always have been." She cocked her head to get a look at Rachel. "Nice piece of equipment you got there."

I didn't take the bait. "What are you doing out here, Sally? Last I heard, you were running boys and girls in Shadow Hills."

"Got to be too much work."

"You always loved the work."

"Let's talk about you, Deckard. I heard you'd quit and there's no skin job out here worth sending you after, anyway."

"Bryant pulled me back in. It was easier to get out of town than keep fighting him off." I liked the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. They were just vague enough for Sally to assume I was lying when I'd given her something an inch close to the truth. Meanwhile, Sally kept her eyes on Rachel, absorbing how Eleanor Blakely's clothes hung off her, the way Rachel tried to stand comfortably in boots that were four sizes too big. "I got any other old friends out here?" I asked.

"No one I'd worry about," Sally said amiably. "No one you couldn't handle with the right tools."

I picked up a knife with a seven-inch blade, gripped it, ran my thumbnail along the edge. "Could be sharper."

"Boys who know what they're about like to sharpen their own."

"Give you ten for it."

"You think I turned stupid?'

"I'd give you fifteen if I didn't have to take it home and make it useful myself."

"You'll give me eighteen because you know it's worth twenty and you want to stay on my good side about now." She smirked again.

"I'll give you seventeen because I know it's worth twenty and I'm not in the mood for your shit."

Sally laughed coarsely. "Fine," she said. "But only if it's coin money."

Chapter Text

In barely a week, we'd acclimatized to Joshua Tree's rhythms: Keep a ready eye on the weather, learn the habits of the coyotes and lynx at night, stay close to any snares you set because if you didn't get to the jackrabbits or squirrels quick enough, something else would. I kept my blaster hidden but hung Sally's knife from my belt, bought a second one for Rachel and a hatchet to lean against the bed. Each time she took my money, Sally's eyes glittered as if we'd joined a conspiracy.

"That woman frightens me," Rachel said.

"She's not going to bother us."

"If anything happens to you, Deckard, I won't last two days in this place."

"Nothing's going to happen to either one of us. Finding Sally was a good thing. She'll put the word out to leave us alone."

"She owes you a favor?"

"She knows I'll kill people if I have to."

Rachel lifted her head. "You said you'd never..."

"I said I'd never retired a human by mistake. I didn't say I've never killed anyone."

She looked at me for a long minute, then resettled her head against my chest.

The Blakelys had kept up their garden until the moment they took off. As laborers, they didn't need much to eat. Their systems squeezed as much energy from every calorie as physiology allowed. They were cheaper to operate that way, but still dependent on a course of regular fuel to stay alive. At one point, Tyrell had marketed the 5s as "a unique balance of fuel efficiency and strength." Rachel said the kid who'd come up with the line lasted two years with the company. One of Tyrell Corporation's values, she remembered, was "mediocrity has no home here."

In any case, it didn't take long for us to catch up on the weeding. The Blakelys had planted neat rows of kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and peas, more than enough for the two of them, more than enough for Rachel, but not nearly enough for me. Dylan told me we could trade at the market for water, clothes and the occasional tool but I was going to have to figure out another strategy to keep myself fed. Rachel and I couldn't handle much more of a garden and I didn't trust my luck enough to depend only on snaring small game. Convincing Rachel she could survive a trek into the mountains to hunt mule deer was going to take some time and even I wasn't ready to face the notion of eating coyote or fox, though word was plenty of people did. Either way, I didn't like the idea of shooting too often. I kept thinking it would attract attention.

Plus, we had to stick to the Blakelys' routines. Sally told me that the second time I saw her. "You bring your vegetables to sell every Thursday, third spot from the path over there. I don't know where they kept their table at the house, but you'll find it. And that feller over there. Fred's his name. He'll want to pick on your friend to get under your skin, so you'll have to keep him off-balance. He was afraid of George, but he'd figured out what George was. He won't be so afraid of you. Now, that girl over there..."

"Wait a minute," I hissed. "We're living in their cabin, not living their lives."

Sally arched her eyebrows like she was proud of me. "This is how it works around here, Deckard. The whole place has a way of operating and everyone has their piece of it. You live in their house, you wear their clothes, you do what they did. Some people already know you're not them, some people'll take longer to figure it out. This is how Joshua Tree keeps changes to itself. You and your girlfriend, you got parts to play. Tell her to act a little meaner and you watch your temper. The more you go along, the less you stir things up and the less anyone pays attention and that's the way it all works out."

In the end, I ate coyote. Using the blaster would make too much noise so I brought them down with an old AR-17 that George kept in a corner of the kitchen. Dylan reacquainted me with Rocco Clementi, a friend of the Blakely's who showed me how to dress the carcasses as long as I brought him every head and tail. Suddenly we had plenty of everything: food and water, friends and enemies. To act mean, Rachel frowned. When I had too, I clenched my fist inside my pocket. If there were any ripples around Joshua Tree, we didn't cause them.

Chapter Text

Then one morning Dylan began to slide. He appeared at the market with his hands shaking so badly he could barely wrap his fingers around a sack full of peas. Two days later I found him walking toward the highway with his arms streaked bloody red. "Just rubbed myself with a towel this morning and all my skin started coming off," he said, his voice more curious than concerned.

"Let's get you out of the sun. That's got to hurt and you're going to attract bugs."

He blinked at me. "I don't think it hurts. And since when do bugs like synthetic? I know that from somewhere, don't I?"

I half-carried him back to his tent and his legs seized just as we got through the door. He watched them shudder as if he'd never been aware of them before, frowned as their shaking turned to thrashing. "Yuh, I think something's wrong," he said, then looked up at me as if he suddenly knew what it was. His eyes flashed and dimmed like an old-fashioned camera and he fell onto his side, so rigid he flipped over the table when he hit it.

"You don't bury skin jobs," Rocco, told me. "The 5s got a couple of parts we can dig out, then we save what's left and burn 'em for heat. It took Eldon a while to get the skeleton right. The hips and legs didn't hold up long enough without help. Dylan's got a couple of yards of good titanium in him, I'll betcha." He shrugged. "You were with him. It's rightly yours."

I waved him away. "You knew him better," I said. "He'd probably rather you took it."

"He don't 'probably' nothing anymore," Rocco decided, looking over Dylan's body, weighing it in his mind. "When a machine shuts down, a machine shuts down."

By the time I reached home it was nearly noon and Rachel had stopped her morning's work. From the way she looked at me, I knew she'd lingered in the garden longer than she should have, waiting. Now she stood in front of the sink, resting while the air dried her skin. When I came inside her eyes widened slightly and I realized what kind of sight I presented, slumping despite myself, crusted with sweat and dust and Dylan's darkening fluid.

Expressionless, she touched the sweat on my chest, then the film covering my arms and neck. Naked, her skin fair and gleaming in the cabin's faint light, she seemed out of place, like sunshine glinting off coal. Without speaking, she undressed me, inspecting my body and limbs for wounds even though I said I was fine. Once satisfied, she returned her attention to the pump and filled the bucket with fresh water. Then she took the tube of soap from the counter, dipped a cloth into the bucket, and carefully began washing away Dylan's last touch.

"What happened?" she finally asked.

"Dylan shut down."

"I don't want the details," she said. "5s are supposed to be turned off at the factory. Sit them in a chair, put a headset on them and the controller plays a code. They weren't designed to retire on a job." She ran the cloth down my arms, stripping away the muck, concentrating on her work, unaware of how her voice had slipped into the smooth tones of a Tyrell professional. Gently, she washed my chest and shoulders, my back and waist, then knelt in front of me to strip the grime from my thighs.

By the time she finished, my knees and calves had tightened, my shoulders ached from hauling Dylan's weight. I grunted and closed my eyes, opened them quickly when I felt the whisper of sleep rushing up behind me. Rachel watched. Her skin glowing even in the shadows, her back straight and her body sculpted but soft, she was as perfect as Eldon Tyrell had ever imagined a machine could be. But where he'd observed the movement of fine mechanisms, I saw grace. Where he measured the efficiency of code, I felt a saving warmth. On that first night together, I'd discovered Rachel was prudish and chaste, programmed that way to protect Tyrell from any complicating entanglements. He'd called her an experiment, after all. With Rachel he could dissect a replicant's emotions, with the next model he could experiment with its passion. Rachel still couldn't shake the feeling he'd been her mentor, the aloof but good-humored uncle who'd tutored her with pride.

Now she took me by the hand and led me toward the bedroom. We walked naked through the cabin, as unselfconscious as Adam and Eve before the serpent seduced them. You think I'd be working in a dump like this if I could afford a real snake? Zhora's body had been perfect, too, and I wondered if she'd ever squeezed men to death in her arms. She hadn't been able to resist taking her time when she put her hands around my throat. If she'd taken a five-second head start instead, I'd never have caught up with her.

"How long did you know him?" Rachel asked once we'd settled on the bed.

"Maybe eight or nine years," I said hoarsely. "I was hunting the first Nexus 6, the X-6. No one believed it would understand there was a world beyond the city. Tyrell's team kept talking about how it was optimized as a combat scout. Hair-trigger reflexes and a sense of direction as good as any warhead's, but they kept saying it only knew the five blocks around the proving center."

"You knew better."

"Bryant and I talked to it. The product manager wanted to know if we could recognize the difference between a 6 and a human. We couldn't. Bryant said he could, but he was just being a blowhard. I don't know what he put in his report, but pretty soon they'd hired this Elisabeth Voight to start working on a test."

"Voight-Kampff."

"Yeah."

"How did you know he'd leave the city?"

"It was too smart not to. It knew it couldn't blend in. Part of its hair-trigger reflexes was a hair-trigger temper. One minute it'd be talking like the smoothest lawyer you ever met and the next it'd come at you so hard, it pulled its chair out of the floor. That's what it did to Bryant and me. I said something so bland, I can't even remember what it was, but it set off the 6 and Bryant wanted to retire it then and there. The product manager wouldn't let him, though. He said we'd need a court order, and they were going to turn him off in a week, anyway. They just wanted to run a few more tests and that would be that."

"But he got away."

"The day after we saw it. It broke the spines of half the product team. Four people, paralyzed from the neck down and he told them he did it that way on purpose. He wanted them to live long lives as cripples. The department was tearing the city upside down and I kept thinking, no, it wasn't going to be that simple. The X-6 was too smart. I was looking at a map and thought there's no way it could know about Joshua Tree. And then I thought if I figured it couldn't know, it probably did."

"So you came out here."

"Yes. I'd always thought there'd be a couple of early models out here, but I didn't expect to find so many. The 4s and early 5s were easy to spot. When I ran into Dylan, it took me about half a minute to figure out what he was. But he didn't care. He told me there was a crazy machine running around scaring the shit out of everybody, especially the replicants. Don't ask me why, but if it saw one it caved in its chest and left it to run down on its own. Dylan told me every replicant in the valley would rather be retired by a cop than have to face the X-6."

"So you hunted him."

"It was staking out a cabin a couple of miles from Key's View when I found it. It was so focused on the cabin, it didn't hear me come up behind it. I got as close as I could and took my shot. I blew the back of its head off and it still came after me. It only got about ten feet, though. It keeled over and started banging against the ground so hard I thought it might blow itself up. I shot it again and it went quiet."

I sighed. "Dylan was with me," I said. "He'd been built as an audiologist and had really good hearing. He could follow the X-6 by the sound of its joints. Tyrell's people knew it was a short-term project. They didn't fine tune everything the way they would on a production model."

Rachel lay on her back, her head facing the ceiling but her eyes twisted toward me. After a moment, she drew me to her. Her breath deep, she pressed my head against her. She'd had no particular feeling for Dylan. She still thought like a manager at Tyrell Corporation and a machine was a machine. Though I don't know if she understood what it meant, she must have felt everything moving inside of me: sadness, discomfort, foreboding, all churning against the walls of my chest constricting my lungs. Rising slightly from the waist, she look my head in her hands and pressed my lips against her breast. When I kissed her, she expelled a long, warm breath, then inhaled another just as deeply. "When I retire," she said, "the last thing I'll wonder is what it would have been like to feel the lips of my own child."

I closed my mouth tightly around her. She arched her back but the pace of her breath didn't change.

Chapter Text

That afternoon in the garden came a week later. The sun was low and twilight had begun to cool the air. We kept working without a word until Rachel pushed herself up and wiped the dirt off of her legs and blouse. She was steady on her feet and her right arm moved naturally. As she stepped past, she kissed my cheek without speaking.

While she went inside, I gathered our tools and hung them in the shed, so familiar by that point I could work easily in its shadows. When I entered the house, Rachel stood with her back to me, naked at the sink, washing herself methodically. "How do you feel?" I asked.

"Do I look sick?"

"No."

"I didn't think I would."

"Your hand..."

"It's a signal. It tells the 6 to wrap up whatever it's doing and go sit someplace quietly." She paused, circling the washcloth over her hip. "Some do and some don't."

Nodding, I saw Batty's hand: his fingers loosely curled and the nail jammed through his palm. It gave him pain to focus on, to help him think clearly, to remember what was important as the world around him began to blur. When he grabbed me from the air, he sunk its point into my wrist.

"Wash up," Rachel said. "I'll make supper."

"No. You go sit down. I'll take care of things."

"Sit down and do what, Deckard? We never did figure out how to program the wind-down precisely. I may have an hour. I may have days." She made a face. "No more than two, I don't think."

"Let's just sit, then."

"I don't want to just sit, Deckard. I want to make supper."

I nodded and pulled off my shirt. Pumping water into the basin, I took the cloth Rachel had used and covered it with soap. I was just beginning to scrub my face when she said from the bedroom, "You could retire me, you know."

A moment passed before I could force myself around. She was standing by the bedroom door in her underpants, looking at me blank-faced. "You could go home," she said. "You'd have done your job and you wouldn't have to run anymore."

"Los Angeles isn't home."

"It would be the cleanest way for you."

"You think I care about clean?"

"Then shoot my head when I'm gone. It won't matter then, and you can tell them you came to your senses and did what you had to do."

"I walked away from that life before I even knew you existed."

"But you came back in."

"I didn't have a choice."

She smiled a thin smile. It wasn't without warmth but she was preparing me for something I didn't want to hear.

"You had a choice, Deckard. You had a choice and you made it. Someplace, sometime, they'll bring you in again. Blade Runners are like that. You can't stop."

"How could you possibly know that?'

"Because Eldon Tyrell told me. The Blade Runner units, he said, were the only policemen you could count on. He called you addicts. You get to kill people without killing people. He helped develop your personality profiles. It takes a certain kind of man, he said, to kill something that's..."

"More human than human?"

"Yes."

"And the word's 'retire,'" I said meaninglessly. "We were told to always say 'retire' when we talked to the company."

"That was from Marketing. Tyrell always said you didn't 'retire' a forklift, you scrapped it. Marketing said 'scrapping' a replicant wasn't the image he wanted in people's heads."

I stepped over to her. She remained where she was, her lower lip pushed out slightly, trembling barely enough to see. "I'm not afraid, Deckard, I'm just sad," she said. "I wish I could have lived my own life a little longer."

We passed the next day quietly, in the garden, weeding and digging up sprouts and cabbage. Tomorrow was market day and Rachel saw no reason not to prepare as usual. We ate lunch sitting on the edge of the porch. "The summer will be hard here," she said. "With the heat."

I just nodded. When we finished eating, we went inside and slept for an hour, then returned to the garden and packed our baskets for the morning. We were just finishing when Rachel said, "I think I need to sit down."

"Let me help you."

"I'm fine. But would you make me some tea?"

"Of course."

She smiled and straightened up, arched her back, then kissed my cheek as she went into the cabin. I followed her as soon as I'd thrown a swath of burlap over the baskets. Inside, she had settled herself near the woodstove in the old, scratched wingchair. She smiled crookedly, her eyes gleaming and her cheeks touched by the barest blush from under her skin. I took the kettle from the stove and brought it to the sink. When I turned around again. Rachel had closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, on hot, hot days, I'll stand beside the cabin and imagine what it must be like in Montana. I don't know why that's the land I focus on. I've never been there. I just imagine that the air is cooler and after all these years in Joshua Tree, I'd cherish the months of being snowed in alone, with no one to bother me when they went stir-crazy and decided they'd rather brave the weather than spend another minute talking to themselves.

I buried Rachel as soon as I finished drinking her tea I'd made for her. It took a few moments for her features to settle into a mask without emotion, for her lips to straighten into a perfect line. Like every other 6, her body tightened just enough to maneuver easily, not so rigid it couldn't be bent through a door, not so loose that carrying it was like hauling fertilizer. Her body remained as straight and prim as it had been when I put the kettle on to boil. She still smelled vaguely of sweat. I buried her close to the cabin, close to the porch she favored. Some would say a proper grave would have been deeper, but I didn't want her to think I was trying to hide her. I knew she wasn't thinking anymore, but I still didn't want her to believe I was trying to hide her.

The next morning I went to the market because sticking to your routine is what you do in Joshua Tree. Sally raised her eyebrows and Rocco bought a bushel of sprouts he didn't need. All he said was "this enough?" when he showed me his money and "thanks" when he hauled the basket off the table. I went home and undressed and lay naked on the bed with my blaster on my chest. I wasn't thinking about anything stupid. I was just trying to decide if I needed it anymore.

Three days later, just after dawn, I heard the faint jets of a spinner circling in the southern sky. As it drifted closer, I mulled retrieving the blaster from its place in the bureau's bottom drawer, but the morning's warmth was just heavy enough to keep me perched on the edge of the porch. When the pilot decided he'd watched me watch him long enough, he tilted down the nose and brought the spinner in, flaring just before it landed on the far side of the garden. I did little more than sip my coffee as its doors lifted open. From behind the controls one of the strongest men I've ever seen climbed out. He was taller than six feet and broad-shouldered, made every movement with perfect control and even through his sunglasses, I felt his eyes bore into me. A prototype, no doubt. A Nexus 7. Well, that shouldn't have surprised me. I turned to watch his passenger emerge and that's when I got slowly to my feet, tossed away my coffee and walked toward her at the same pace she walked toward me. Three rows of cabbage separated us when we stopped. She had the decency not to smile. "Mr. Deckard," she said. "My name is Hannah Tyrell."

"You look like someone I knew."

"I was her model."

"Well, you're too late."

"Actually, I was more concerned about being too early," Hannah Tyrell said. "I had no intention of swooping in before you'd had some time. I can come back, if you'd prefer."

It took a moment for me to put it together. "You knew where we were," I said flatly.

She nodded. "One of the things we wanted to learn was if Rachel could fit into the everyday world. We couldn't do that if we didn't let her have a... Well, a life. She had to come and go as she pleased. So we implanted a tracker. Otherwise, none of the agencies would go along."

"I'm surprised that stopped Bryant."

"Captain Bryant doesn't know. There wasn't any reason to tell him. Rachel wasn't any danger and you certainly weren't looking for trouble. The police still think you're somewhere in the Rockies. Next week, we'll tell them Rachel's retirement date's come and gone and that will be that."

I couldn't stop myself: "That's almost kind."

She touched the edge of her sunglasses but didn't take them off. Mercifully, I thought. I really didn't want to see her eyes. "Eldon Tyrell was a brilliant man. He was a wonderful man," she said. "He spoiled me when my own father wouldn't. But first and foremost he was a scientist. To him, there was no gray area between a human and a replicant. Just a hard, thick line. You'd be surprised by how many people see that line disappear over the years." She glanced at her driver. He stood as he was, stock-still, his hands in his pockets, looking at me with interest but not curiosity.

"So why are you here?"

"To tell you you're off the hook. I'll have this all wound down and you can go wherever you want to go. I'm only going to ask that you keep this conversation between us." She studied me for another moment, then removed her sunglasses and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the light. "What is it?" she asked.

"Your eyes aren't like Rachel's."

"You can't mimic eyes," she said. "You can't mimic eyes and you can't manufacture souls, but in the end that doesn't make much difference." The corner of her mouth twitched. "That's the problem my uncle never accepted. Did you bury her?"

"Over there. Beside the porch."

She looked toward the grave. "She'd have liked that."

"But you'd like to take her with you."

"Of course we would," Hannah Tyrell said. "But we won't. She's not ours anymore. We lost her, Deckard, on the day she met you."