Friday, September 13, 2019

Prologue

The end is near.

That’s what it said on the chickenhead’s sign, anyway. The one dressed in sackcloth and ashes. He also had sandals and a ratty looking beard. I guess he figured if you’re going for the mad prophet look, go all the way. That's LA for you. Still crazy after all these years.

I was on foot, trying to get into the Off-World Induction Center down at Pico and Alvarado. Space, you know? "A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies." I was going for it. The mad prophet got in my way. I could’ve pushed through him; he was built like a concentration camp victim.

“It …”

That’s all he could say. "It."

Typical chickenhead. Back in '99, the Russians experimented with broadcast energy. Tesla stuff. Suppressed technology. The experiment went bad. An industrial accident on a global scale. Yeah, it gave us FTL space travel, all that Star Trek shit. But it wasn't worth the price. Whatever it did to the earth’s magnetic field fucked a lot of things up. Cell phones didn't work anymore, birds forgot how to fly south for the winter. The effects made some people sick and some people stupid. This guy was both. I didn’t have the heart to push him out of the way so I let him talk.

“It’s the end,” he said. Spittle flying.

“The end of what?”

“It’s the end. The end of …”

I let him finish his sentence.

He couldn’t, so he started over.

“It’s the end of the w-world…”

“Yesterday’s news, friend.”

People on the sidewalk laughed.

“If you’d showed up with that sign 20 years ago, you might have been useful.”

A bigger laugh.

“Where were you in '99?"

“Huh?”

Everybody laughed.

A crowd had gathered around the poor guy, like iron filings around a magnet. I’d started a show, made people notice him, made him the center of attention. He was cornered like an animal, in a circle of people, all laughing at him, he didn’t know why.

It gave me a chance to go around him.

I made it inside the center. It saw my face and the doors let me in.

The place was clean. Dry. Orderly. Not the Ellis Island image they try to sell you. No scruffy refugees, hardy pioneers. People in line, but not shoving and pushing, not confused, never desperate. Nice clothes, fit bodies, gleaming smiles. These people had their act together, an instinct for finding the right row, asking the right questions. By Darwinian selection, they were the winners of this planet. First prize: they got to leave. The losers never got in.

The pretty girl at the front desk smiled at me. Floating screens all around her, the chickenhead in one of them. State-of-the-art. Not like the crap we still have to work with back at the station.

"How can I help you? Do you wish to go off-world?"

"That’s right."

"Orientation or emigration?"

"I'm ready to go. Now."

"OK. Let's make sure you're you."

She already had my face recognition. I handed her my ID card to confirm. She did an eye scan to double confirm. Then saw something on the screen she didn't like.

"You’re a cop."

"Was. Ex-cop, as of today. I resigned."

She saw something else. She liked it even less.

"Rep-Detec ... Jesus."

Badass reputation. "Blade Runners," they called us. Running the razor's edge and all that shit. But officially RepDetec.

"Why'd you quit?"

"Why'd I start?"

I could tell her I went into the police force to help people. Two years later, I got a transfer. They put me in RepDetec. I had a new job description. Killing people. Except they weren’t people. They were replicants. And I wasn’t killing them. I was retiring them.

The trick was not to get angry at them. They were broken machines. They could hurt people. You turned them off.

RepDetec started out as an intellectual property crime unit. Before my time, but it strikes me as funny, in a gallows humor kind of way.

See, they built the first android generations on earth. Synthetics, nano-carbon neural structure. Japan led the way. Sexbots, what else? Multinationals run by guys like Tyrell built the bots. Their cheap competitors tried to reverse-engineer the tech. Just another kind of software piracy, but the knockoffs had product defects. Some of the cheap sexbots went apeshit. Ripped a few salarymen to pieces. The UN punished everybody. They made all self-aware andys illegal on earth -- outside of a few research facilities. It looked like a dying industry.

But Tyrell came back from the dead. Kept research and development on earth, but moved his autofacs to Mars. Expensive operation for a business with no more customers. Most people thought he was nuts. They didn't see what he was up to.

Loser regs off-world. UN's not looking over your shoulder out there.

Tyrell started using bio-tech. Not synthetics anymore. Not andys. Strictly speaking, these were clones -- genetically engineered from human, animal and artificial DNA. But "clones" sounds too damn human, so he called them "replicants." And rebranded his product as a perk for colonists in space, put most of his competitors out of business or absorbed them.

So, after driving his business off the planet, the UN bought what he was selling. Then the replicants started coming back to earth. Some damn homing instinct kicking in from a strand of DNA they couldn't identify. That's when our unit went into the killing business. And hired me.

The Nexus 4s looked like department store mannequins. Easy to find, easy to retire. The Fives were different. They’d been "programmed" to simulate human emotions, including the emotion of empathy. Those were the words they used in the marketing copy, anyway. Programmed. Simulated. According to the Tyrell corporation. Like a clever autistic savant who knew they were supposed to laugh at jokes and make a sad face when they hear bad news, but didn’t feel anything inside.

Then I had to kill a five-year-old girl.

She was crying.

Please don’t kill me. I’m not a robot. I’m a little girl.

She didn’t feel like a simulation.

I shot the kid in the face. I didn't feel it that much at first. After a day or two, the PTSD kicked in. Mental images, repeating. I knew how stupid that was, feeling sorry about that kid. Anthropomorphic horseshit, like feeling bad about shooting a doll. But it bothered me. I stayed on the force, went through the motions, resigned in my head a thousand times, and didn't mention the PTSD thing to the doc. They’ve got pills for that nowadays, but they made me feel dead inside. That’s how they work. Yesterday, my wife finally left me. Today, I resigned.

"Do you want my life story or the short version?"

"Short version, please."

"I did my job so well I put myself out of a job. No good deed, right?"

She laughed.

"OK, now here's an official question. What are your reasons for leaving the earth?"

She had to ask. A formality.

“Well, it’s that guy with the sign,” I joked, and pointed at him in the security feed. “He says the world is coming to an end. I figured he must know something. I'd better get off."

She didn't laugh.

"You don't like it here?"

I gave her a look. She gave me a look back. Acting all serious -- and then she broke down. She couldn't keep it up. Don't you like it here? Who the hell likes it here? She laughed.

"I’m just kidding. Say 'I don't like it here.'"

"I don't like it here."

"Done. You're good to go."

We had a good laugh.

Then she stopped laughing. Saw something she really didn't like on her screen.

"No. This can't be right. That wasn't here before."

"What?"

"Your IDs invalid."

"What do you mean invalid?"

"You're Rick Deckard?"

"Last time I looked."

"Rick Deckard is dead."

“Obviously not.”

"That’s what it says."

She pulled back, like she was afraid of me. I smiled at her. That seemed to make it worse.

I tried to make a joke out of it.

"The guys at the station. Police humor, you know?”

Bryant.

She knew I was a cop, high-level unit who didn't have to worry about rights and shit. It was there on her screen. She also knew I was theoretically dead. Weird, right? Five minutes ago, the screen said I was alive. Even weirder.

She had two choices. Report me, or let me go.

Walking around with a fake ID was a felony. A dead guy’s ID was a capital offense. Either way that takes out about half the people in LA, so the law wasn’t strictly enforced if you made the right payoffs. But I looked like Deckard. For all she knew, I was a replicant. Or a deep-cover operative. My sudden resurrection backed that hypothesis.

And I’d said the magic word.

Police.

Maybe we're testing the system. Looking for holes, weak spots. Maybe her whole life hung on what she did now. We're testing her, and this is a test she'd better pass. The way she's shaking, I figure that's what's going through her mind. But she tried to act calm. 

She handed me back my ID card. Just shaking a little bit.

‘Yeah. Police humor. Don't I know.”

She forced herself to smile.

I smiled back at her and got the hell out there.

Outside, the crowd was still laughing at the chickenhead. Persecuting him, just like the Christians in the old days. A martyr like this guy, that should’ve made him feel good. But it made me feel bad. At least I felt like I should’ve felt bad.

The rain was coming down on his head. Acid rain. He didn’t have sense to come out of it. Or cover himself.
I gave him my fedora.

I’d be bald in a year if I didn’t get a new hat or one of those stupid umbrellas.

But that was the least of my problems.

What just happened to me is what happens to little people when they piss off the big people. First they kill you in the system. Then they kill you in the flesh. The real death is just a formality.

Bryant had blanked my file.

He was sending me a message.

Trying to get out? It doesn't work that way, Deckard. You’re living on borrowed time, pal. When can kill you anytime we want. Come back to the station. We’ll straighten it all out.

I didn’t.

I went back to my favorite noodle bar. The White Dragon. The sushi was tank-raised crap, but I liked the cool neon sign. I had some actual paper money left in my wallet. Enough to eat now. Figure the rest out later. Then the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My personal early-warning system.

Someone standing behind me, looking over my shoulder like a teacher who thinks I'm cheating on a test. Bryant, probably. I knew he’d show up.

Or Gaff. Bryant’s new flunky. An ass kisser.

One or the other.

They're right behind me. They'll either bring me back. Or I’ll stop being anywhere.

Kill me. Or let me die, a corpse as far as the system was concerned, can't buy anything, can't eat. Die now, die later. It was only a matter of time. I whirled around.

"Fuck you, Bryant ..."

My brilliant response to this sick game. But he wasn't there to hear it. Gaff either.

Nobody there. My instincts lied, this time. Nerves maybe. Or they'd moved before I could look.

I went back to shoveling sushi. Another advertising blimp gliding overhead, searchlights shining, loud voice booming down making the same old pitch. I didn't even look up, but I could hear it.

A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. New climate, recreational facilities.....absolutely free.

Free. Sure.

Free is always the most expensive.

I killed the sushi and went back home.

Figured my conapt would lock me out, I'd be out on the streets, starving, desperate, Bryant's way to bring me in. But the elevator accepted my voice command, the front door let me in, the electricity kept flowing, though I had no way to buy food. Dead guys don't eat, right?

After two days of this treatment, my identity magically reappeared. Bryant put my paycheck into my account every week -- just to remind me who was boss. No retirement bounties, but enough to live on. I could buy stuff at Ralph's and make calls on the VidPhons. But I couldn’t leave the earth. My identity had been flagged. Suspicious. Hold for questioning. Bryant had me on a leash. The lease was long and loose. I could hardly feel it. But I knew the leash was there. One of these days, the shit'd hit the fan and he'd yank me back it.

Or with any luck he wouldn't.

The situation was changing. Used to be replicants came back to earth and melted into the sea of humanity. They came by the hundreds of thousands, took good jobs away from decent hard-working human beings. The problem was big, it didn't go away, and that's why we stayed in business.

But face and bio-recognition kept getting better and better. Cams everywhere, seeing everything. These days, there's no place left to hide on this planet. So the smart reps changed their identities and found some new colony world -- rough and ready, pioneer days level. They disappeared into the wild frontier. Earth was the last place they want to go now, so the cases were drying up. Any day now, RepDetec will go the way of the House Committee on UnAmerican Actitivies. We'll close up shop. The checks will stop coming.

In the meantime, I kept going back to the White Dragon. Each day was like the last day, day was like night, it all blurred together like a scene in a movie they kept reshooting because they didn’t get it right.

The food didn’t get any better.

The advertising blimps kept repeating their messages.

I ate, and I waited.

For six months.

Then the shit hit the fan.

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