The afterlife, K assumes, looks kind of like an endless speeder ride, hovering over floodwaters by night. Then he feels the soreness in his arms and realizes he’s still alive.
Deckard is asleep in the seat next to him, and Stelline is driving, a throwback computer at her side. Why would they run the risk? Surely he’s endangering them just by being there; not only must patching him up have cost them time, but he’s afraid there’s still a target on his back. He’s made of tougher stuff than Deckard, whatever the guy really is.
It dawns on him that they saved him just for his own sake, because they assumed that was what he would want. But what does that make people who act without thoughts of their own self-interest? No better than Joi, automatons—
He falls back asleep.
Opens his eyes again. It’s bright, and they’re over land. Out of LAPD jurisdiction, he can only assume, although he has no idea how long they’ve been moving.
“You didn’t need to do that,” he says.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Deckard—by now driving—without turning around. “Part of being free is making your own stupid decisions.”
“Sure,” says K. “Uh, no rush, but when it’s safe, can we land somewhere? I kind of need to, you know, go.”
Stelline giggles. “Nice to have you with us.”
“You must really have been hurting for company,” K mutters.
“What?” she asks.
Deckard makes landfall a few minutes later, and K tests his legs, finding them surprisingly strong given what he’s been through. He paces, then jogs, to what he hopes is a respectable distance, and soon is hurrying back.
“Eat,” says Deckard, shoving a water bottle and some kind of jerky at him. “And no complaining, we’re not dragging you out here just to starve on us.”
He eats. The meat is tasteless. “Where’d you get this?”
“Work,” says Stelline. “Certified unhazardous. Safe for off-world travel, even.”
K must have given a start, because Deckard says, “Don’t worry, kid, we’re not going there.”
K nods absently. “Want me to take a turn driving?
Stelline shrugs. “If you don’t mind.”
“Course not,” he says. “Where are we headed?”
“Winnipeg,” says Deckard, and he and Stelline exchange a laugh like they’ve spent enough time together to have in-jokes. “Should be on autopilot, just try to avoid traffic.”
“Traffic?” Stelline asks.
“We’re from LA, kiddo,” Deckard smiles. “There’s always traffic.”
K takes the wheel in silence, and the skies are clear enough that he finds himself feeling around his arms, sides, the holes where he’s been pieced back together. For once skinjob almost seems an honorific; his skin is knitting itself whole out of sight, faster than any human should have the right to.
He looks over his shoulder—not always metaphorically—the whole trip. Deckard tells him that’s normal. “The nerves wear off after the first five years or so.”
Five years. To the Nexus-6s, that was an unimaginable lifespan, and K sympathizes. “Then what?”
“Then you start looking below eye level to watch out for bees.”
Whatever outdated sources Deckard had on the city prove more-or-less accurate. There are few replicants, and no discernible Blade Runners either. The police force, such as it is, is so susceptible to bribery that people generally find it quicker to settle their grievances personally rather than bring in third parties. There are half a dozen unofficial currencies, from fuel to tires, and beyond the dense city center most of the farmers live in what appear to be enormous, decapitated soccer balls.
“All I know how to do is kill,” K explains sheepishly, “and I tried to give up on that even before I met you. But I’m strong, I can learn.”
Deckard nods. “A friend of a friend tells me that Lise Gathorne has room to take on more hands, and we can trust her as much as anyone. I’m hoping she’s not allergic to bees.”
“What about Stelline?”
“Call me Ana,” says Stelline, for about the tenth time. After the first four he’d told her to call him K, not Joe, and he figures he’ll bend when she does.
“He has a point,” says Deckard.
“I can’t...go back to making memories. Not just because word will get out who I am, but it’ll get the replicants in trouble, too.”
“You should take some time to see the world. Go back to school, do something. Make up for being locked in a dome.”
“Oh right,” says Stelline. “You locked yourself in a casino for three decades, and Joe’s, what, four years old?”
“Almost five,” says K.
“Ooh! We’ll need to have a birthday party for you, then.”
K rolls his eyes, and makes a mental note not to tell her his incept date.
Lise Gathorne is not allergic to bees, although she seems skeptical of Deckard’s chances of finding a hive. K is doubtful too, but a week into his routine driving a tractor—it has none of the agility of the speeders, but a fulfilling hum under his feet—Deckard emerges with a small honeycomb growing between thin windows. “Traded it for speeder parts,” he says. “If someone catches up to us I don’t exactly think we’ll be outflying them in Ana’s relic anyway.”
K isn’t sure whether this is humor.
Stelline, for her part, finds work at an advertising firm, sketching out commercials for flights to the off-world colonies. She comes back to the dome they’ve squatted buzzing about her co-workers, seemingly listing off her personal gripes with everyone, from body odor to ridiculing her accent. Yet her eyes are alight. “I’ve never been around so many strangers! And they’re all—all people,” she catches herself, “you never know what they’ll say next!”
“There’s a bunch of strangers down south gonna be annoyed you’ve disappeared on them,” says K.
“Wallace and his minions? They can get by on mediocrity. I’d pity the replicants left with cliches, but it seems you don’t need imagination to make it.”
Deckard turns away, eyes down. K hesitates, then rushes on. “No, I mean, the ones who hid you, who saved me in Vegas. They think your birth was something special.”
Stelline blinks. “Isn’t everyone’s?”
“Don’t ask me,” says K. “They want—wanted—to use you as a symbol. To show the world we’re no different.”
“I imagine,” says Stelline, voice tenser than usual, “they have plenty of documentation to prove that I exist.” More gently, she adds, “and plenty of willpower to show the world what they are.”
For all their tenuous connections—Deckard’s DNA (or is it?) in Stelline, her memories in K—it’s the coincidence of books that’s their strongest common bond. Deckard and Ana were holed up on their own for decades, and part of K longed for stories that had nothing to do with the baseline tests. Pre-Blackout books are circulated too liberally to be another Winnipeg currency; the lending library ranges from dome to spire. Despite their mutual paranoia, they eventually agree to let other bookworms visit and discuss with them. If someone was going to rat them out, Stelline reckons, they’d have done it as soon as they got a loan.
So they chatter over travelogues and try to imagine animals and plants that seem like phantasms, roll their eyes at romances whose characters have less original dialogue than the Jois, sound out poetry in unfamiliar languages with only a line or two comprehensible in Cityspeak. (The local patois is different from LA’s, but just as rich in slang.) The only thing they reject out of hand is science fiction; “too implausible,” Deckard declares, and no one disagrees.
“Happy birthday!” Stelline chirps, holding a pair of boxes.
“Ana,” K groans, too annoyed to notice the familiarity, “I wasn’t born.”
“Oh well,” she says, “so it’s okay I didn’t make you a cake, then? I mean, I’d like to, but you know...”
He sighs. “You shouldn’t have.”
“It’s my first time putting a party together! I have a lot of lost time to make up for.”
“If you insist.” K opens the smaller one first. An oddly-shaped piece of clay, twists and curls sprouting from its highest point. “What is this supposed to be?”
“It’s my first time working with clay,” Deckard protests, “give me a break.”
“No, I mean, is it an animal?”
“It’s a moose!” says Ana. “See the antlers?”
K wonders if he skimmed their last fantasy novel too quickly, because he doesn’t remember a description of this bizarre creature, but carefully sets it down anyway and reaches for the other box. It contains a pair of neon green slippers.
“You always wear the same pair of work shoes to book club, and everything,” Ana explains, “and I figure you should have something more comfortable when you’re just sitting around, you know?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Thank you.”
Maybe it’s just Ana’s imagination wearing off on him, but he can see himself wearing them, not caring if he stands out. Sees a life where he doesn’t have to run anymore.