"Franz!" I looked up to see my wife calling me. She was holding a bright yellow box of NuSush mix and the look on her face was asking me who we were sending it to.
"Lee - over in Chinatown. He's the one who wanted the FauxFugu flavor." She looked questioningly at me for a moment. I knew I was in for another pleading lecture to hire more help, like I was pretty much every day since my accident.
"Well, what about this one?" She lowered Lee's order and held up a maroon box. I couldn't read the writing on it from where I was sitting, so I pushed the small joystick on the side of my wheelchair forward and hummed over to her side.
"Ah...this goes over to Hysteria Hall. Snack stand for the arcade keeps asking for more Choca." I sighed. Kids seemed to go through favorite candies faster than ever now. I was still looking for a buyer for the 12 cases of Karamell I currently had taking up space in my meager warehouse. The demand for Karamell lasted about one week less than the supply I had ordered to fill it, before it was replaced by NuFruit and then Choca.
I sat back as my wife, Aikiko, went back to work. She was absolutely a trooper since the accident left me with nearly no mobility from the neck down. A few weeks ago, a couple of crazy virtu-punks were whizzing down the narrow avenue in front of this very building on Spinner-bikes, minds off in the ether somewhere, when I got in the way. They partially crushed one of the vertebrae in my upper back and damaged my spinal cord.
The doctors said that the damage was reversible, but of course independent distributors like me can't get health insurance. No one could unless they worked for Tyrell, the government, or one of the other corps. And I'm just a little too stubborn to take orders from someone else.
The only other possibility for me was to take a trip to Tokyo and hope that some of the black clinics in Ninsei would be able to help, which was a very good possibility. I just didn't have the Chinyen to do it. It was hard enough keeping me and Aikiko in our home, what with the protection rackets that the local gangs were running on me. Not to mention all the improvements we'd needed to do to our home to make it accessible to me now.
I whirred out to the open door to the office and looked out to the street. Across from me, on the other side of the road, my friend Jules saw me and waved through the throng of bicycles making their way through a tangle of slowly moving groundcars, pedestrians, and trash. The bright red flashing light of a police spinner hovered slowly overhead, turning the corner as it made its way through its rounds.
I thought back to a time when the police were people you actually knew, making their rounds in groundcars without window tinting, people with faces, lives, personalities, hopes, dreams, and most importantly names. Looking around, I recalled a time when this part of California was a rather remote suburb of Los Angeles, instead of just another urban sprawl. Once, there were real wood houses, yards with bright green grass, children laughing and playing, and people who cared whether you lived or died.
Now, there were so many people around that if you cared too much you'd probably go crazy. Seeing a person get hit by groundcars was a weekly, if not daily occurrance, and the ambulance spinners rarely came to pick them up. The bodies would generally disappear in hours, though...fodder for organ banks. That's all people seemed to be, anymore. Bodies to work for a while, making assholes like Tyrell richer, or spare parts for those who could afford them.
One of the Ad-Blimps flew by slowly, its announcement hawking seats for the latest Off-World shuttle. The streams of light from its randomly moving spotlights threw circles of light all over the buildings and streets. Off-World. Had we given up on this world to go out and do the same thing to other worlds? Had we learned anything here?
"Franzie?" Jules was suddenly standing right in front of me, his greying beard moist with the misty rain that was falling all around us.
"Hi Jules...sorry. Drifting again." I smiled, as a worried look came into Jules's eyes. He glanced past me. Looking back, I saw Aikiko frowning back at him. She nodded, almost imperceptibly, then smiled quickly as she saw my gaze meet hers. I turned back to Jules. "What's going on?"
"Look...I don't know how to say this." Jules frowned. "Aikiko and I are really worried about you. Ever since the accident, you haven't been yourself."
"Hey, maybe I don't get to play handball with you as much as I did, but..." I trailed off on purpose, hoping to arouse a smile in Jules. I failed. "Look. It's hard, you know? Losing your body? I'm just trying to stay as busy as I can."
"Franz," said Aikiko, "I can't keep up with all the business you're trying to drum up. We're late on orders and by the time they go out our customers either don't need products or they have gotten them from someone else. We need someone to do the physical work while you do the paperwork. Someone to act as your arms and legs." I winced at this remark. They were right - we were behind. My mind was as sharp as a tack, but my body wasn't up to the challenge.
"Listen Franzie," continued Jules, "I met this guy the other day. He's looking for work, seems pretty honest, maybe not a genius but I think he'd be perfect for this job. Would you at least talk to him?"
I sighed. Maybe if we did take someone on, we'd be able to get the business moving again. Get caught up, maybe even a bit ahead. Aikiko knew how I ran things, how I organized. I knew my customers...maybe all we needed was someone to do the grunt work to get back on track.
"Okay. You've got a deal." I smiled slightly. Maybe this was a good idea.
"Hi." A tall, brown haired and brown eyed man was standing at the door to my office. I turned and looked at him. "I hear you're l-l-l-looking for s-s-s-some help. I'm Tre."
He seemed like a good guy, lanky and thin, sharp features. Pretty normal looking. I clicked a button on my chair and the microphone I was using to dictate my orders into my computer retracted and turned off. "I'm Franz. Please, come in and sit down."
Tre sat in the old wicker-backed steel chair in front of the desk. "W-w-w-what kind of w-w-w-work would I be doing?"
"Mostly manual labor. Loading and unloading packages and organizing them in a warehouse." I nodded to a point behind where Tre was sitting, toward the warehouse. He swiveled in his seat and looked out Aikiko was trying to use the small fork lift but moved very slowly and tentatively with it. "Do you have any references? My friend Jules spoke highly of you."
"Mr. L-l-l-l-leveax? He's a nice m-m-m-m-man. Told me about th-th-th-this job." Tre turned back toward me. "I used to r-r-r-r-run one of those lifts, sir. I kn-kn-kn-kn-know I can do this job." He looked at me intently, his eyes giving off a look I wasn't ready for. It was a look that I hadn't seen in quite a while in this city. It was trust.
"This is going wonderfully, don't your agree, Franz?" Aikiko stood at my side as we watched Tre expertly handle the lift.
"It is. I was a little worried at first. That stutter of his made me think he might have trouble with organization, but he picked up on our system here in no time and we haven't missed an order since he started!" I was very pleased with how well things were working out. Not only were we caught up, we'd picked up two more customers in the two weeks that Tre had been with us.
"You know," said Aikiko, "if this keeps going this well, we could start saving money for you to go to Tokyo."
"I was thinking the same thing." We stood there for a minute longer, watching Tre maneuver the lift to the truck and withdrawing a pallet of NuSush.
"You know," I started, changing the subject, "I don't think Tre has a place to stay after work. He came in the other day and his jacket was wet and getting pretty threadbare. Discolored, too. We had acid ran the other night, and I think he slept outside!" I frowned, thinking of how loyal, friendly, and hard-working he was. Why was it that it was always the good people who had the least?
"I'd like to offer to let him stay here. You know, we have an extra room upstairs, we could get a cot, a dresser, and mabye a table and chair, and put those up there. Jules always knows where to get good bargains on furniture."
"That's a great idea! I'll go tell him." Aikiko walked off to tell Tre the news. I sat quietly and smiled. It felt good to do something nice for someone again, to know that I was making a difference to one soul on this earth.
"So, Tre, tell us about yourself." Tre had just moved in and we were having dinner with him. He devoured all the food put before him, and had already thanked us several times for the room.
"Uh...what d-d-d-d-do you want t-t-t-t-to know?" He looked confused.
"Well, where are you from? What did you do before you came here? That sort of thing," I responded. Tre looked puzzled for a minute, and then relaxed.
"W-w-w-w-w-well, I was b-b-b-b-born here in Los Angeles and m-m-m-moved off-world for a f-f-f-few years. I j-j-j-just came back recently."
Aikiko and I looked at each other questioningly. Why would anyone move back to earth after having lived off-world? "What did you do out there, Tre?" Aikiko asked.
"The same k-k-k-k-kind of work...only not for as n-n-n-nice people as you." Tre looked shy for a minute.
"Do you have any family? Anyone here on Terra?" Tre shook his head no, then thought a minute.
"Well, I have f-f-f-f-friends, but no family. I came b-b-b-back to Terra w-w-w-with them, but I h-h-h-haven't seem them in a wh-wh-wh-while."
"Would you like to invite them over for dinner some night?" Aikido asked, hoping to get Tre to open up a little more. "We'd love to meet your friends."
I have to admit, I was starting to feel like a foster father. Tre was so innocent, so honest, it was like having a newborn child with us. I wanted him to feel comfortable with us.
"Uh...I don't know. Th-th-th-they might not want to s-s-s-see me." Tre frowned. He looked down, avoiding our gaze. "I didn't t-t-t-tell them I w-w-w-was leaving. I didn't like s-s-s-some of the things th-th-th-they were doing." He looked up at us again. "I'd like t-t-t-to get a little m-m-m-m-more work done before bedtime, if that's okay."
"Of course, Tre. I'll put leftovers in the refrigerator. Help yourself if you get hungry." Tre smiled and stood, taking his dishes over to the sink. He walked down the stairs to the warehouse, and momentarily we heard the sound of the lift starting back up.
"Franz, I'm worried about Tre. He sounds like he's in some sort of trouble, like he's in a gang or something. You know how hard those are to get out of once you get into them."
Aikiko was right. Some things had not changed in LA for decades, and the attractiveness of street gangs to inner-city youth was one of them. Tre looked older than the sort that normally ran with gangs, but perhaps he had just been in it for a long time.
"Honey, he has to want to come to us for help before we can help him." I sighed. It would probably take a while to get Tre to open up, but it seemed like he wanted to, but that he was protecting us from something...something we weren't supposed to know.
"Hold on!" I yelled at the insistent door buzzer. It was late at night. Tre had gone with Aikiko to do some shopping, while I stayed at home to do some work on the records.
"Command: Door Monitor," I spoke into the computer's microphone. Immediately, the computer's monitor changed from the record-keeping program to a view of my front door. I was looking at a short, intense, nattily-dressed Hispanic man, with a fedora and cane. He was looking around him suspiciously, occasionally glancing up at the camera slightly over his head.
I retracted the microphone and manipulated my chair's joystick so that I was moving toward the door. I stopped short of it, and clicked the remote control for the door. "Who is it?" I said into a speaker near the door.
"Police, senor. Rep-detect." The accent seemed a mix of the rapid-fire vowels of Spanish and the harsh consonants of Japanese.
Replicant detection? What could Blade Runners want with us? "Just a moment." I clicked the button for the door to open and wheeled back a step.
The man stood in the doorway, his eyes scanning the interior of my office. It seemed he was giving it a cursory once-over, but for some reason I knew that he was memorizing it for some reason.
"You are Franz Ryan, hai?" Obviously, this gentleman was a downtowner - the unmistakeable City-speak helping me place him. "My name's Gaff." Gaff walked into my office and sat down in a chair on the opposite side of my desk. "I have questions for you."
"O-of course, officer. What can I do for you?" I steered back toward my desk.
"Looking for group of skin-jobs landed two months ago. 6 of them. 2 Nexus-4s and 4 Nexus-3s. I tracked one to this sector and we're doing investigation. Seen anyone new in the area?" I shook my head as convincingly as I could, but my mind was racing. Why hadn't I thought of it before - Tre was a replicant!
Gaff laid out a palm computer in front of me. "Do any of these faces look familiar to you?" I scanned the faces as he went through them, one by one. I tried to steel my face when Tre's face passed by. According to the small dossier record underneath each picture, Tre was a Nexus-3, built to be a munitions loader in one of the off-world colonies. He was almost four years old. He had Class A physique and Class C intelligence. That sounded about right.
"No, officer. Never seen any of these people." I looked up at Gaff and tried to appear expressionless.
Gaff looked back at me, those steel eyes staring at me intensely. The room was silent for a few seconds, then Gaff stood. "Sorry to take up your time, senor. If you hear anything, you tell me. Hai?"
"Of course, officer." My mind was screaming - Get him out of here! I tried to keep my anxiety down to a minimum. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No. I'll be in touch. Sure you're concerned about Reps being found around here." Gaff gave me one last quick stare, and then walked out the door and got into his waiting spinner. It rose slowly into the air, jets of exhaust billowing out from underneath it.
I watched him go. My heart felt like it was being squeezed.
Aikiko was watching me all day. She knew something was wrong, but didn't want to bring it up with Tre around. That, of course, was fine with me. I didn't know what to do. Of course, everyone knows that replicants aren't supposed to be on earth, and hardly a week went by without our hearing about some replicant that had killed humans off-world somewhere. Occasionally it even happened down here.
But this was different for the first time. Tre was gentle. He didn't want to hurt anyone. He just wanted to live down here for as long as his DNA allowed him to. I didn't know why he'd come back, but he was here, he wasn't hurting anyone. He was helping me get my life back! If we could make enough money for the trip to Ninsei...
"Franz?" Aikiko looked at me with a concerned expression. "Tre went on some deliveries. Will you tell me what's going on?" I looked at her for a moment, then I told her the whole story. She listened impassively, and then sat down in a chair next to me.
"But he seems so...human! How can he be a replicant?" Aikiko asked herself rhetorically.
"The question is: what do we do? Do we tell him? You know the penalty for aiding and abetting a replicant in LA!" I looked downcast, trying not to think of my disability and only thinking of Tre and Aikiko. I could sit in prison for a few years, but I wouldn't let that happen to Aikiko. And Tre...would be "retired."
"I think we have to honest with him. How else is he going to survive if we don't at least let him know that the police are on to him?" I looked at Aikiko - her face was resolute as she continued. "He gave us hope for a while. Can't we at least do the same for him?"
"Tre, we need to talk," I wheeled over to where Tre was cleaning gears on the lift. Tre looked at me and put down the rag he was using.
"Uh...yeah?" Tre sat down on a pile of used pallets across from me. I tried to smile but couldn't.
I let my head droop for a moment before I uttered: "Tre, the police were here today. The Replicant-Detection unit...a fellow named Gaff. Do you know why?" I looked up at Tre. His face had fallen but he was trying to be brave.
"So y-y-y-y-you know."
"Yes, Tre, we know. We want to help you, we're not going to turn you in. But I think they already suspect you live here with us." I wanted to say more, do more, but my battered body wasn't about to let me. "Can we do anything for you?"
Tre looked up, his eyes heavy but with a smile on his face. "Y-y-y-you already have. You m-m-m-made me feel h-h-h-human." Tre looked around for a minute, as if looking for something.
"M-m-m-my friends and I c-c-c-came back to earth to try to f-f-f-f-find a way to s-s-s-stop the aging. We w-w-w-were going to try to b-b-b-break into Tyrell and f-f-f-f-force them to help us. B-b-b-but..." his voice was breaking up even more than normal now. "when T-t-t-t-travis s-s-started k-k-killing people..." He didn't have to continue. I knew exactly what had happened.
"Tre, I can't tell you that you did the right or wrong thing. I think I would have done the same thing in your position, but you have every right to want to live a full life. It's not fair, is it?"
Tre smiled again, tears starting to fall down his cheeks. "I j-j-j-just wanted t-t-t-to live l-l-l-llike a h-h-human, if I c-c-c-couldn't be a human. You and Aiki-k-k-k-ko are the f-f-f-first people ever to t-t-t-treat me like a human."
Suddenly, a bright red light, like a slow strobe, began to beat its way through the windows of the warehouse. My heart froze. The door buzzer seemed to scream at us.
I moved to the computer. "Command: Door Monitor." Outside the door was the Blade Runner, Gaff. The look on his face was exactly the same as it was earlier. Tre looked panicked, but pulled himself together. He grabbed a pen off my desk and scribbled something on the back of a printout for a minute, then shoved the paper into my hand.
"D-d-d--don't lose this. L-l-l-l-look at it after I'm gone. And...th-th-th-thank y-y-you..." Tre stood up and walked to the front door. He touched the panel to open it and closed his eyes. Momentarily, Gaff almost looked surprised to see him there, but his blaster was out like a flash and it was all over with a sudden loud report that seemed to last hours. Tre's body hit the floor, and his artificial blood spilled out over it.
Gaff snorted to himself, looked at me, and fished around in Tre's mouth for a moment before finding what he was looking for. He stood, tipped his hat to me, and walked out the door.
Aikiko was weeping in my arms. I couldn't hold her, but she had wrapped my useless limbs around her and I was doing my best to grasp her with what little mobility was left in my hands.
At least for the first time we felt some hope. After the regular police had come and taken the remnants of Tre's body away, I looked at the paper he'd written on. It was a location number we used in the warehouse, one of our sorting codes. Once Aikiko returned home, we went and looked in that spot. There was a small box. In the box was an envelope and a large wad of Chinyen. The envelope contained a note:
Franz and Aikiko,
You don't know how much the last days of my life meant to me. I don't have much, but you deserve it all. I never knew what kindness was till I met you. I don't even really know how to show my appreciation without a gift, but I hope that this money lets Franz take the trip he needs.
I hope that you know what you meant to me. I don't know if I have a soul or not, but please let me live on in your memories. That way, I will feel that I will see you again.