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Along a Knife's Blade

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TITLE: "Along a Knife's Blade" An "A.I." / "Blade Runner" crossover -- Chapter One

AUTHOR: "Matrix Refugee"

RATING: PG-13

ARCHIVE: Permission granted

FEEDBACK: Please? Please? Please?

SUMMARY: Diane Fletcher, an agent for Rogue Retrieval, tracks down a mysterious suspect who may be more than he seems

DISCLAIMER: I do not own “A.I., Artificial Intelligence”, its characters, settings, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, Amblin Entertainment, et al. Nor do I own "Blade Runner", it's characters, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, Warner Brothers, et al.

NOTES: I combined a lot of elements here: Diane Fletcher comes from the "Who Killed Evan Chan?" Internet Mystery Game that served as part of the publicity surrounding the release of "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"; in the Mystery Game, Diane is an agent working for Rogue Retrieval, an organization whose purpose is to track down and contain Mechas that have gone rogue for various reasons; they often work in conjunction with the police and the Sentient Property Crime Bureau... and though technically Rogue Retrieval isn't part of the police, it reminded me oddly of the Blade Runner or "RepDetect" units in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (and the Philip K. Dick novel it's based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"). So for that reason, I borrowed a few characters and ideas from "Blade Runner". And also, Diane's quarry, Harlen Merrot, is a character I created for a campaign for the "A.I." Roleplaying Game on Yahoo! Groups.

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Chapter One -- Immigrant

Seattle -- 2208

Diane Fletcher, Rogue Retrieval Agent, had just flown in from a job on the East Coast when the call came in. Or rather, the call came to her.

She stood at the baggage carousel in the main hyperjet terminal, waiting for her bags to turn up, when she heard a man's uneven step behind her.

"Hey, meess. You the blade runner?"

She turned to find Gaff, one of her boss Bryant's underlings, grinning at her. The small, stocky-bulit man's limp prevented him from being a full-fledged agent, but it didn't stop him from serving as Bryant's gofer.

"I wouldn't say that too loudly, Gaff," Diane warned. "There's too many ears here."

"What, you afraid of plastic-job now?"

"No more than I'm afraid of flesh and blood humans," Diane replied, fishing her dufflebag from the bags and boxes on the baggage carousel. She noticed a few scuffs on the green vinyl shell of her bag, that hadn't been there when she'd checked the bags in at the Trenton, New Jersey terminal. "What's going on that Bryant sent you to meet me here?"

"He got a job for you," Gaff said, as she headed out of the terminal. "He tell you more."

"All right, take me to headquarters," she said, cancelling the intention to call a cab and head back to her own apartment.

Gaff grinned and led her out to the skimmer waiting for them in the parking lot.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Rogue Retrieval wasn't a police unit per se, but it often worked in tandem with the RepDetect units of the local police, and with the Sentient Property Crime Bureau of the FBI. Diane had joined Retrieval seven years ago; since then, she'd worked dozens of cases of runaway artificial intelligences of all kinds: nanny-bots that had strayed away from a family on an outin; lover-Mechas that had eloped with a client; house security AIs that had escaped into the data stream. She'd had such a high success rate that Retrieval's central headquarters in Sao Paulo had started loaning her out to different branches all over the U. S. of A. She didn't mind: it beat being like the old-timers stuck with desk work in one office.

But she considered Seattle her home: she'd settled here ever since Retrieval had merged with the RepDetect units on the west coast -- or at least, the small apartment Retrieval had found for her had started to seem like her home base, for all the times she got called out here. And the beefy face of Harry Bryant, the former LA chief of RepDetect, was almost as familiar as her own.

"Ah, the hunting dog's back in town," Bryant said, as Diane and Gaff stepped into his office. "Hope you snoozed during your flight, Di: INS handed us a job. Ten plastic-jobs snuck in over the border from Canada, trying to pass as Orga. Estavez bagged nine of 'em, but he twigged off trouble: the CRF started riding his ass like a bicycle."

Why would the Coalition for Robotic Freedom go after Rogue Retrieval? Aloud, she asked, "Why, what did Estavez do?"

"Nothin' besides his job. It's all because of this Mann Act that's up for the vote. They're jumpin' the gun: sayin' the act is such a done deal, we oughta let undeclared Mecha go through like people," Bryant said.

"So, what happened to Estavez? Why didn't he pick up the tenth suspect?" she asked.

"CRF assassins plugged him: He'll be out of the hospital once the doctors can attach new legs to 'um. But he'll never trail a plastic-job or a skin-job again. I need you to finish what he can't; you're smart enough to stay out of the CRF's way. And you wouldn't do anything stupid to make them decide to take you down."

"Did Estavez destroy one of the suspects?"

"He claimed it was self-defense. Thing had a blaster but it was questionable if the thing knew how to use it. But then again, Estavez was a little too quick with an EMP when he was in the field. He had somethin' coming."

Diane spotted movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced over in time to see Gaff making a fist with one hand and tracing a flame-shape over it with the middle finger of the other, in a mock version of the insignia for the Anti-Robot Militia.

"Since then, I got every agent watchin' his -- her back every time they go out into th' field. Resch caught a CRF nut following him last night," Bryant continued. "I'm pairin' you up with Gaff. I know he's as good as useless, most of the time, but if somethin' happens to you, he'll be there to make the call."

"This is just for one suspect, correct? I think I can handle that on my own," Diane said.

"Suitcherself," Bryant said, reaching for a vinyl dossier lying on the desktop. He took a disk from it, slotted it into the drive on the hotdesk and called up the file. He turned the monitor around to give Diane a better view of it.

A window opened, showing a scan of a French passport page with a photo of a slender man in his early forties, with grey-green eyes peering out of a narrow face with sharp features, a high forehead topped with bushy reddish-brown hair, an aquilline nose (more obvious in a profile shot), his sensuous mouth hinting of delicate cruelty undercut by the playful smirk in one corner. The kind of man women describe as "distinctive" and "oddly attractive", though his looks fell short of really being that.

"Harlen Merrot, age 43. Came over from France two weeks ago. We're not sure if he's legit or he's a passer. He set off a metal detector at the hyperjet terminal: claims he has replacements in all his joints. Wierd if you ask me. See if you can't get him to agree to a Voight-Kampff test. I'm sure he'll agree to it -- he's French after all. Just him seein' you might turn up more evidence than the VK."

"In that case, just sending me in as a test subject would be useless: if he were a lover-Mecha, he'd merely be following his programmed directives," Diane said coolly.

Bryant held up his hands, grinning sheepishly. "Hey, I meant that as a joke. No harm intended."

"Do you know where I can find this Merrot?" she asked.

"He's got an address: 1223 Planter Street, apartment 220. Just get him to agree to a DNA test and a VK."

"I'm on it," Diane said, taking the file Bryant handed to her. She noticed Gaff fiddling with something. She moved aside as the Mexican-Japanese set something on the desktop in front of her: an origami-style paper folding of a dog.

"You callin' her a bitch, Gaff? That ain't nice," Bryant said.

"You say it, not me," Gaff replied.

--------------------------------------------------------

With Gaff accompanying her as "back-up", Diane took a skimmer to the high rise where Merrot had settled in.

She studied most of Merrot's file on the way over. A copy of his birth certificate: Mother: Jane Doe Father: Henri Armand Lambert de Meroveque. That made this Merrot one of the many by-blows the father of the Europan Empire had produced. Date of birth: 5 November 2164. The paper bore the seal of Rennes-le-Chateau, Languedoc, France, the de Meroveque family estate, which probably meant Merrot's mother was some anonymous servant girl the grand old man of the Empire had called to his bed one night.

Education records: there was a transcript from the Paris L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, Photography Department. Employment records: his last job was a photography studio in Paris.

As she got out of the skimmer and headed for the front doors of the apartment building, she noticed a man in a rumpled dark grey suit standing by a lamppost, looking at her around a newspaper. So many men eyed her up all the time, she gave this one the same treatment she gave the rest: she ignored him.

She let Gaff accompany her in the elevator, but when he tried to step past her getting off on the top floor, she got one step ahead of him.

-----------------------------------------------------------

She rapped on the door of the sole apartment on the top floor. No answer. She knocked again.

"May I ask who is knocking?" asked a feminine voice speaking through an Art Deco ornamental speaker grate to the left of the door. The small optical lens over it indicated this was clearly a com-unit for a security AI.

"I'm Diane Fletcher, I'm working with the INS," Diane replied, showing her ID to the optical lens. "I'm here to speak with Mr. Harlen Merrot."

"Monsieur Merrot is busy, but he will be free to see you in a moment," the voice replied. The locks on the double doors hummed, then clicked open as the doors swung open. "Please come in."

Diane stepped in to look around. Whoever Merrot was, he clearly had money. The front room alone was as big as some people's whole apartments: floor to ceiling windows extending up to meet the SmartGlass ceiling overhead. Her shoes clicked on the natural stone floor as she crossed the room, looking about her and listening. A set of foldind doors to her left, beyond the kitchen area, opened into a workroom, clearly a photographer's studio, complete with banks of lights, one wall covered with shelves of equipment. Beyond the living room was a bar area and a set of glass doors opening onto a rooftop garden terrace.

She turned a corner and stepped into a short hallway between the bedroom on her left and the bathroom on the right. She entered the bedroom, looking for Merrot. Someone had laid out a black canvas shirt, black pants and a gentleman's underlinens on the bed, but the room stood empty. On a table by the bed, a photo album lay open. She flipped through it: most of the photos were of a small man with reddish brown hair and sharp features, who looked a lot like Merrot, except that he was at least a foot shorter. These had to depict his father, unless Merrot was a dwarf who'd had a pituitary transplant. Not likely: the man in the photos had a proportionate build, so that ruled out that possibility.

She heard water sloshing in the bathroom. She went to investigate the sound.

The bathroom door stood open. Noticing steam on the mirror, she nudged the door open and looked in. Water stood in the whirlpool bath within, but no one appeared to occupy it. She stepped into the room.

A man who had to be Merrot lay on his back in the bath, submerged and still. She nearly called to Gaff over their comlink to call emergency. But then she noticed something: His feet protruded from the water, the soles braced against the end wall of the bath; no drowned man would do that.

As if to confirm her realization, he sat up, opening his eyes and tilting his head back as he brushed his dense, dripping reddish-brown hair out of his face.

He paused, his grey-green eyes swivelling toward her. With a jerk, he leapt from the water and perched on the side of the bath, his lean body gathered like an alert hyena.

He narrowed his already slit-like eyes at her. "Who are you, Madame?"

"Mr. Harlen Merrot: I'm Diane Fletcher..., I'm with the INS. I'm just here to check on your immigration papers: there's been a number of... foreign Mechas coming into the country on false papers, pretending to be Orgas."

His lips twisted, threatening to curl in a suspicious smirk, but they relaxed. "All right, but could you at least let me put on some clothes first? I should add, it's not very seemly for a lady to sneak up on a strange gentleman when he is in his own bathtub."

Diane replied with a humorless smirk of her own. "I'm not a lady." She stepped out of the bathroom, keeping the door open, but standing where she could see him without being seen.

He reached for a towel, then blotted himself dry, starting with his hair and working his way down, standing with his back to her, the lightly-defined muscles rippling under his skin as he moved -- If that was actual musculature under there.

He wrapped the towel around himself as he stepped out of the bathroom and headed for the bedroom. She watched as he dressed, putting on the clothes laid out on the bed.

He emerged a moment later. "So... I gather you'll be wanting to see my papers?" he said, stepping out of the bedroom and heading for the study. She followed him, giving him his space.

"Yes, just to see if you're legitmate," she said. As he opened a drawer of the desk, she asked, "Have you filed a DNA sample?"

"Yes, I have," he said, handing over a file with the copies of the forms he'd filled out for his green card. You can ask your department superiors to check their records."

"All right: you're clean on that count," she said. "Just stay close to home for the next few days: I'll be back."

He shrugged gracefully. "You're welcome to return as you need to, Madame Fletcher," he replied. He rose. "If you are leaving, may I show you to the door?"

"That won't be necessary: I can find my way out," she said. "Thanks anyway."

She stepped out into the hallway leading to the front door and let herself out.

-----------------------------------------------------------

"You likin' heem, Mees Fletcher?" Gaff asked as she climbed back into the skimmer.

"He's a suspect," she said, not looking at her partner.

Gaff flicked something across the dashboard toward her. A small paper-folding of a frog fell into her lap. She set it back on the dashboard, hardly looking at it and avoiding Gaff's teasing leer as the skimmer rose up.

Chapter Two -- Suspect

So far, Merrot was checking out as a legitimate immigrant, until INS sent over his DNA analysis and Diane examined it.

The record started off with Merrot's ID photos, front and side, as well as the usual identifying data, plus several found only on DNA reports

Dexterity: Ambidextrous, primarly left-handed

Sexual Orientation: Bi/Pansexual

Ethnic Profile: Gallo-Hibernian, perdominantly Gallic

And then a paragraph at the bottom, just before the columns of micro-print listing Merrot's chromosome summary:

Strong evidence of genetic manipulation/engineering. Sample contained traces of MetaFlesh. Subject appears to have MetaFlesh bone marrow implants, which could cause him to be medically mistaken for a bio-mechanoid.

MetaFlesh. She knew companies like the Tyrell Corporation had been using this material, a synthetic substitute for carbon-based flesh, for decades, first for medical implants and prostheses, now to manufacture bio-mechanoids or Replicants, or OrMechas, as some people in the android civil rights movement called them. Cybertronics had recently started using the substance to manufacture synthetic organs for transplants. If Merrot was wealthy enough, he might have these kind of implants, for whatever medical reason.

Or he might be made out of the substance, like a Replicant.

"Bryant?" she called, as she heard her boss pass by the open door of her office.

"Yeah?" he called back, and turning, stepped into the room. "You found something?"

"Yes... I'm suspecting Merrot may be a passer. Take a look at this."

Bryant studied the data on the screen, his brow furrowing. "Damn. And he got past you? Must be a custom job -- a hell of a custom job."

She closed the window and removed the disk from the drive in her desk. "I'm picking him up, bringing him in for a VK."

"Let's hope you haven't spooked him," Bryant said. "Though I doubt he'd spook over one little girl."

"No, I was careful not to give him cause for alarm."

"Don't tell me he's startin' to get something for yah," Bryant asked, trying not to tease, and failing.

"He might: he practically has 'ladykiller' imprinted in his skin," Diane said, with a trace of polite humor.

Bryant's face relaxed, growing solemn. "In that case, you be careful he doesn't turn out to be a real killer."

"Even if he's genetically enhanced, I can handle him: I'm genetically enhanced myself," Diane replied, replacing the disk into the dossier and reaching for her leather jacket, hanging on a coat rack behind
the door.

"And you figure since you're younger and had better fittings, you can take on an old guy in his forties like Merrot," Bryant said.

"If I keep my wits about me, I can handle this," she said, stepping out. But not before she noticed a quietly suspicious pucker in the corners of Bryant's eyes.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Merrot didn't return her calls, but on the third call, which Diane made from a vidphone in the dash of the skimmer, Teresa, his security AI picked up. "I'm afraid the master isn't taking visitors right now,
Ms. Fletcher: he would say he's out making some visits of his own," the voice replied, with a slight Spanish accent.

"Did he tell you where he was going?" Diane asked.

"Not specifically, but you might find him in one of the gothic clubs on the surrounding city-blocks," the security AI replied.

The closest one to Merrot's building she knew of was the HelFyre. "Thank you," Diane replied and hung up the phone.

It didn't take Diane long to find the HelFyre Club: she had only to look for the largest crowd of people -- some decidedly Orgas, the shinier-skinned ones decidedly Mecha, some even her keen eye couldn't tag right away -- waiting in line in front of a basement-level club, clad in incredible amounts of black or red or violet or silver PVC and simuleather, or precious little of if as the case may be. Some of the bystanders had more metal pierced through their faces and ears than some Mechas had in their frames. She scanned the crowd, looking for Merrot, but she didn't see anyone who looked like him. She elbowed her way to the front of the crowd, showing her Rogue Retrieval ID to any objectors. The doorman, a tall bulky, bald-headed
man, glowered down at her: the light, hip-length jacket she wore over a plain plum-colored blouse and black simuleather pants didn't mark her as a party-goer. A pair of young people of indeterminate gender,
one white dressed in a long black leather coat, the other black dressed in a long silver coat, looked like they wanted to help the doorman send her away.

Diane held up her ID: "I'm with Rogue Retrieval. I'm looking for Harlen Merrot: do you know if he's here?"

"Whut's 'ee look like?" the big man rumbled.

She took a copy of Merrot's photo out of her breast pocket, showing it to him."He's six feet-three inches tall, weighs about 170 pounds, he has reddish-brown hair and green eyes; he also speaks with a slight
French accent."

The big guy nodded. "Yeah, we had a French guy come in here tonight. Might be busy, y' know..." He said this with a slightly suggestive tone.

"Thank you," she said, slipping her ID into her breast pocket, as the doorman stepped aside and let her enter.

"Hey, Miss Rogue Retrieval, he tryin' to sneak any Mecha in here? We don't cater to those types," the big guy asked.

"He might be a Mecha himself," Diane said.

She entered the dimly-lit interior, threading her way through the crowd gyrating to the ear-splitting industrial music blaring. She
scanned every male face she could see, looking for Merrot. Not seeing him, she made her way to the bar area at the back, away from the thick of the crowd.

She didn't see him seated at the bar, where a lot of people dressed like Victorian vampires had perched themselves on the stools, peering at her as if trying to decide she looked like a 'bloodless one' or a 'living wight'. Finding a clear space, she leaned across the bar, signalling to a tall, thin, bald man behind the counter, who looked
eerily like Nosferatu's cousin.

"Good evening, my good woman. How may I assist you?" he asked.

"I'm with Rogue Retrieval," she said, laying down Merrot's photo. "Has this man come in tonight?"

Nosferatu's cousin studied the photo. "Yes, he came in here not long ago this evening... Why, has he caused some bloodless one to go astray from its master?" The words were pure Dracula, but the Rumanian accent the barkeep tried to affect sounded as phony as a paper NewBuck.

"He's had something to do with that kind of act," she said.

Nosferatu's cousin peered over her shoulder and pointed out one of the booths at the back with a long-nailed finger. "He is gazing at you."

Diane slid the photo into her pocket and slid a five NB note across the counter to the barkeep. "Thanks."

Harlen Merrot sat in a booth in the near corner. The black silk frock- coat jacket he wore helped him blend in, but compared to the rest of the patrons, he looked almost normal.

"Ah, Madame Fletcher, good evening," he said, rising and extending his hand to her as she approached the booth, where he sat with two dark-haired female companions, identically clad in violet gowns.

Diane kept her hands in the pockets of her jacket. "Good evening, Mr. Merrot," she said. "There's something come up on your file: would you mind stepping outside for a minute? It's a little too noisy in here."

"Not at all, once I pay my bill," he said. He signalled to a waitress passing by. Diane waited while Merrot paid the bill, chatting with the waitress, then bade his twin companions good evening, leaning
down to kiss each of them in turn before following Diane out onto the sidewalk.

"We checked your DNA record," she said. "There's some traces of MetaFlesh on it: the INS finds that suspicious, so they're requesting that you come in to headquarters for a Voight-Kampff test."

"Ah, a test involving a number of questions describing emotional situations in which the subject's verbal responses are compared to
iris diallation and contraction as well as maxiofacial capillation, better known as the 'blush response' measured via a Voight-Kampff device?" Merrot asked. "...I studied AI science before I went into photography; I like keeping up with the new trends in design."

She was tempted to ask, right then and there, 'What are you?' when someone coughed nearby them. She turned.

A small man in a too-long topcoat stood at their side, looking up and down Diane's face and form. "Miss, you the blade runner?"

"Excuse me?" Diane replied.

"Then that makes you a war criminal," the small man said, drawing a blaster pistol from under his coat and aiming at her.

Merrot lunged at the man, pinning his shoulders to the wall. "Do I have to make you say ouch, or will you leave this woman alone?" Merrot asked, in a deadly calm voice.

Merrot only had his hands pressed to the flats of the man's shoulder; Diane expected him to try twisting out from under Merrot's hands or throwing a punch at the taller man's head. Then she noticed why he
didn't:

Three black metallic blades almost six inches long protruded from the back of Merrot's hand: two emerging over the phalanges of the flat of his hand, the third jutting over his thumb. She'd seen Yakuza
assassins with inch-long implants under their nails, but she'd never seen implants like this.

The pistol dropped from the small man's nerveless hand. Merrot kicked it across the damp sidewalk to Diane, who'd dialled the precinct. Merrot let the would-be killer go, but Diane covered the small man with her own pistol. Which was almost unneccessary once he'd slid to
the ground in fright.

"I didn't know agents in your department carried weapons," Merrot said.

"This is just in case we need it," she said.

Bryant showed up with the unit that arrived to arrest the assassin. He personally drove Diane back to headquarters.

"So, he checked out?" Bryant asked.

"I wasn't able to get an answer," Diane admitted.

"I'll pull you from the case, let Resch and Gaff handle it."

"No, Resch gets patronizing with the suspects: he'd annoy Merrot or scare him off. I'm getting close."

"All right, VK him as soon as possible."

"He'd probably pass it."

"Why, you think he's just a GMH?"

She looked Bryant in the face. "I'm not sure exactly yet, but I'm on to something."

"You'd better be: INS is lightin' fires under me."

"I'll have the report on your desk tomorrow at noon."

"You'd better: I wouldn't want to hafta pull you: you're too damn good at what you do."

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Chapter Three: Subject

Diane awakened next morning with the image of her dreams still hovering in her mind's eye: a deer running through a forest, unseen hunters pursuing her. Dogs rushing out of the bushes, barking and
snapping at the deer's heels. A shot ringing out....
 
She always awakened as the deer's body jerked in mid-bound, the bullet striking it... The therapist she'd seen told her the dream was probably symbolic of the time when she had been accidently shot during training at the police academy, and the resulting flesh wound, otherwise non-life-threatening, that had gotten infected... The therapist had gone on to say that the dogs probably symbolized a fear of being hedged in by the males that dominated the profession Diane had chosen, but Diane had set this information aside. She never felt threatened by her male superiors and peers. Maybe Bryant acted condescending at times, and Gaff annoyed her with his feeble attempts at witty flirtation, and Resch acted high-and-mighty around her, but she always managed to disconnect herself from whatever feelings of annoyance this behaviour induced in her.
 
Later that morning, she went back to Merrot's apartment, carrying a case containing a VK unit she'd picked up at headquarters. The security AI informed her that Merrot was in, but that he wasn't
receiving visitors just yet.
 
"Did he say when he would be free?" Diane asked.
 
"He is at work in his photography studio just now," Teresa replied.
 
"When he's finished, could you tell him Diane Fletcher came to see him?" She held up the business card with her cell phone number, in front of Teresa's visual receptor.
 
"I will tell him," the security AI replied.
 
Diane went back down to her skimmer and settled into the front seat, listening to the talk radio station, waiting this out, waiting for Merrot to call her. Gaff would have hung around and most likely have made the security AI suspicious. Resch would have picked the lock, spooked Merrot and nearly gotten himself arrested for illegal entry. Or worse: she didn't doubt that Merrot had a sophisticated defense system in that apartment, which Resch's breaking in might have triggered.
 
Her cellphone twittered. She plugged it into the dashboard vidphone and answered it. "Fletcher," she replied, as the screen lit up with Merrot's image.
 
"Madame Fletcher, I just got your message. Forgive me for not taking it sooner; I'm at your disposal if you're ready to come up now."
 
"Yes, just give me a few moments; I'm on my way up."
 
I'll be waiting by the door for your arrival," Merrot said, his eyes narrowed a little, studying something.
 
She hung up the phone and checked the settings on the video feed. She could have sworn she'd disabled the feed on her end so that it couldn't possibly transmit out, though it could receive transmissions.
 
When she arrived at Merrot's door, he opened it to her even before she knocked on it.
 
"I'm terribly sorry for the delay," Merrot said, stepping back, admitting her. "I had a deadline to meet, finishing some still-lifes for a client."
 
"You're a photographer?" she asked.
 
"Yes... I see you must have peered into my work room when you first came here," he said this with a trace of a gentle, almost teasing scold.
 
"It's part of my job," she said, shrugging.
 
He closed the door behind her. "So... what brings you back here?"
 
She set her case on the floor. "INS wants me to run a Voight-Kampff test on you. It'll only take a few minutes."
 
"Ah... and what is this test meant to determine?"
 
"I'll be reading off several descriptions of emotionally-charged scenarios. You have to tell me how it would make you feel. At the same time, I'll be running an Voight-Kampff device which will
measure your fine physical reactions to the scenarios: blushing, dilation or contraction of the pupils of your eyes. Just to see if you're fully human or not."
 
One corner of his mouth twitched a little, threatening to turn into a smirk, His face relaxed too quickly for her to pin down what it meant. "Very well," he said. And he drew up a chair to a table under a window, not seating himself on the other until she had sat down and set to work unpacking the machine, attaching the long arm for the iris scanner.
 
"Can we dim the windows in here?" she asked, turning on the machine. The bellows sighed, raising and lowering itself.
 
"Of course," he said. He reached for a control panel under the windowsill and dimmed the window glass to it's darkest setting. The only light now came from the iris-scanner.
 
"Can you look right into the light, please?" Diane said.
 
He shifted in his chair, centering himself. "Is this better?"
 
"Yes, thanks..." She glanced at the list of questions on a pad before her: she'd done this so many times, she almost knew them by heart. ""You're walking in a desert, Harlen... There's a tortoise crawling toward you... It's flipped over onto it's back somehow... It lies there helpless, it's belly baking in the sun..."
 
"No, I'd turn the poor thing over before it suffered any more." Merrot's pupils constricted and the corners of his eyes grew moist. The machine crackled, the needles on the dials facing Diane swung to the right, but she noticed their movement delayed.....
 
"You're reading a magazine... There's a two-page spread photo of a naked young man lying on a bearskin rug.... You show the picture to your wife. She rolls her eyes at it, but later you find she's
clipped it out and hung it up on the wall in her computer room."
 
Merrot smirked, his eyes narrowing just a little, his pupils dilating. "Are you trying to determine if I'm a passer or if my tastes swing both ways?" he asked, bantering. He relaxed his face. "If that's what she wants, though I'd rather be all she needs." The needles on the dials swung, delayed.....
 
"You're watching a stage play... A banquet scene is in progress. The guests are eating raw oysters.... The main course is boiled dog."
 
He moistened his lips hungrily with the tip of his tongue at the mention of the oysters, but his pupils constricted and his skin temperature dropped when she mentioned the dog. "First my mouth waters, now I'm nauseous," he said....
 
"You're given a calf-skin wallet as a birthday present."
 
"Eh, I do have a bit of a leather fetish, but with all the near-extinctions, I'd exchange it for a synthetic substitute." The needle palpitated, then swung, too late....
 
"You're sitting in your living room, watching television. A wasp lands on your wrist."
 
"I'd flick it off carefully." The needle moved, two seconds too late.
 
"It stings you."
 
"Now that would annoy me and I'd end up swatting it." His pupils dilated, too slowly....
 
"You promise to marry a woman you love. She becomes pregnant by you. But when she finds out you had an affair with another woman, she has an abortion."
 
His eyes threatened to drop their gaze into his lap, sadly. "I'd try to reason with her, obtain the necessary papers, find a family to adopt the child... But if she went through with it...." His eyes had grown moist, his pupils constricting. The needles swung wide, but the movement came too late....
 
"Describe to me in single words only the good things that come to mind about: Your mother."
 
He shook his head. "I never knew her. She left me to die when she gave birth to me." He bent his head, looking away, but his skin temperature had dropped and she noticed moisture in his eyes.
 
That explained the Jane Doe on his file. "It's all right," Diane said. "You've answered enough of the questions." She hit a button on the printer hooked up to the device and let the printout churn out.
 
"Madame Fletcher, may I ask you a question?" Merrot asked, recovering his usual smirky self-composure.
 
"Of course, I've asked you enough questions."
 
He looked directly at her, his face relaxed but serious. "Have you ever taken this test?"
 
She almost laughed. "No. It's not really necessary."
 
He gave her a thin smile whose meaning she couldn't read. Then he peered at her through the lens of the iris reader. "I would think the INS would be a little more careful. The ARM could have planted a passer among the applicants for Rogue Retrieval. Jane Sutter and Katya Rukowski at Cybertronics worked on a contraversial project in conjunction with the Tyrell Corporation: building Or-Mechs who thought they were human and letting them merge with society. If one of these Or-Mechs made some misstep and inadvertantly caused some
 trouble, who's to say the ARM wouldn't yell Frankenstein? ...I'm sorry if I'm rambling... I've been interested in AI rights, since my father was a proponent of them in the Europan Empire."
 
"You seem to know a lot about the more covert activities among AI researchers."
 
He straightened up, looking at her. "My father also had a degree in AI design. He kept up to date with what was going on in the field."
           
She could see where he was going with this. "It's possible, but it's highly unlikely."
 
He shrugged. "It might be worth your consideration, but it is for you to decide."
 
-----------------------------------------------------------
 
"Either Merrot is a passer, or he's a human who's been treated for schizoid tendencies," Diane said, handing a copy of the report to Bryant. "I can't figure it out."
 
Bryant read the report, his brow furrowing, eyebrows crinkling and relaxing. At length, he sighed haggardly and tossed the report onto the desktop. "There's only one way to figure him out: try picking him up. If he resists, he's a skin-job. If he doesn't, he's human."
 
Diane reached for the briefcase at her feet. She took out the VK device and set it up.
 
"Di, what the hell are you doing?!" Bryant demanded, one eybrow lowering, puzzled.
 
"When they hired me, weren't they supposed to have me tested?"
 
"Yeah, to see if you're sane enough to serve."
 
"Have you taken a VK?"
 
Her supervisor glared at her. "Don't be an ass."
 
She turned the machine around so that the light from the iris reader shown into her own left eye as she looked into the business end of the lens.
 
"I'm testing a male subject... I can't tell if he's a human or a passer, but I have to admit to myself, he's very polite and charming... But he asks me a personal question: whether or not I've taken a VK test myself.... I find that question annoying at first,
but it leaves me puzzled why he would ask that and what it might mean to me personally..."
 
Bryant studied the dials. "Damn."
 
"What?"
 
"It took you a couple secs before your eyes reacted." He looked up at her, holding his hands open disarmingly. "Look. You're too damn good at what you do. I won't tell the department if you don't tell."
 
"And say the ARM finds out. What happens if I shoot a suspect in self-defense and that suspect turns out to be human? What then?"
 
"Internal affairs would investigate, I'd cover you, they'd clear your case. End of story."
 
She shook her head. "There has to be some file somewhere about me. IA would prove I'm an Or-Mech and the ARM would lap it up. They'd castigate the Police Association for letting killer robots work with the force."
 
"They've been yellin' about robots doin' X, Y, and Z work for years. Hotel work, factory work, police work, sex work; just swap the names around, it makes no difference."
 
"What's to stop them from grabbing me and putting me on the Circuit if something goes wrong?" Diane cut in.
 
"I won't let 'em, not if I can help it. I'll have Resch watch your back."
 
"No. I'll finish out this job, then I'm leaving Retrieval."
 
Bryant's bulldog face crinkled with worry. "What'll you do then?"
 
"I'll be finding out who I really am," she said, reaching for her jacket and slinging it on as she headed out.
 
"You be careful out there, girl," Bryant called to the back of her head.

Chapter Four: Prey

She called Merrot's apartment from a pay vidphone. Merrot picked up on the fourth ring.

"Hallo?" He looked as if he might have been working. His shirt was open, but he buttoned it with his free hand as they spoke.

"Hello, Mr. Merrot. It's Diane Fletcher."

"Ah, I see..." he said this with a smile that hinted at a double meaning.

"I have to talk to you: something's come up. Is there any place we can meet?"

"I'm just on my way out to pick up some photographic paper for my printer. Shall I meet you at the photography shop on the corner of 10th Street and Wamsley Avenue?"

"I'll meet you there," she said, and hung up the phone before the warm look in his eyes could melt into her soul.

She almost called Gaff to have him follow her, but she knew he would find the situation immensely funny, and the last thing she needed was the raucous sound of his sniggering. Rain had started falling and that would only heap coals on the irritation he would cause.

Instead, she drove to the corner of 10th and Wamsley. She parked the skimmer in an alleyway and walked to the photographic supply shop. She took shelter in the well of the doorway, where she waited and watched the crowd of punks and passersby for any sign of Merrot.

At length, he emerged from the crowd, a tall figure in a black leather frock-coat jacket, nipped in at the waist, emphasizing his leanness, a black umbrella open over his head, held high so she could see him.

He'd seen her: he lengthened his stride as he approached the doorway where she stood; his eyes grew brighter and a sweet smile lit up his lantern-jawed face.

"As I hoped I would find you," he said, lowering the umbrella.

"Mr. Merrot, would you mind if we went some place more private?" she asked.

"You would be amazed at how much privacy an umbrella affords when you're walking with someone," he said. "Unless you would mind that."

"No, whatever makes you more at ease," she said.

"Very well then," he said, shifting the umbrella over her and offering her the crook of his arm. One of her hands twitched, but she forced it to stay firmly in the pocket of her jacket. He shrugged gracefully and relaxed his arm as they walked off up 10th Avenue.

"Our analyst is going over the results of your VK test. But..." she paused and licked her lips. "But that isn't quite as important as something you said to me."

"Something I said?" He looked right at her, slowing his pace.

She paused in front of a tattoo parlor and turned to him. He leaned in closer, lowering the umbrella over them. "You asked me if I'd taken the test," she said in a low voice. "I said it wasn't necessary. I don't know why, but I couldn't get that out of my head...." She closed her mouth, her mind searching for the words to say.

"If you took the test, what then were the results?" he asked.

She looked around. "Let's keep walking."

He followed her lead as she headed down the street a ways more. At length, she turned to him again. "I'm a passer." She paused, letting that sink in; he nodded acknowledging it, but he had clearly known this all along. "You knew?"

"Yes," he said. In a lower voice, he added, "For one thing, your heat signature doesn't read exactly the same as an Orga human's. For another... I've been looking for you... I had learned from Jane Sutter that there was another like me, or rather, another being of the same substance as I would assume..."

She let herself look up into his eyes. "What are you?"

"Perhaps you should ask that question of yourself as well," he said. "If you will let me, I can help you find the answer." Merrot's eyes suddenly hardened with anger.

"Maybe a better question would be asking me for mercy," said a thick, nasally voice behind them.

Diane turned and found herself looking down the barrel of a blaster pistol, a well-fed man in a rumpled business suit gripped it, grinning at her over the barrel. "Die, killer-bot," the assassin said.

He had just thumbed off the safety when Merrot grabbed Diane and pushed her out of the way. The assassin tried to shift his aim, choosing Merrot for a new target, but Merrot kicked the man's hand aside, knocking the blaster from his grip. The assassin tried to lunge at Merrot, but the taller man struck him in the back of the neck with his elbow. The assassin sprawled on the pavement, unconscious.

Diane pulled herself to her feet, hearing footsteps spattering on the sidewalk right toward them. Merrot scanned around them both: she followed his gaze, seeing a group of four people, all dressed in ordinary clothes, rushing toward them. One of them, a woman, had already drawn a blaster from inside her rain slicker.

Merrot grabbed Diane by the arm and hurried her down a sidestreet. Diane glanced back to see the four assassins scramble after them. The woman with the blaster fired off a shot, which burned into the corner of a building. Merrot pulled Diane around the corner into an alleyway and behind a trash recycler.

"Diane, I can get you out of here, but you'll have to let me carry you," he said. A shot hit the wall of the building opposite them.

She tried not to wince at the shot. "On your back?" she asked

"No, on my chest: face me, wrap your arms and legs around my torso and let me hold you there. But hold on tight: this will be a bumpy ride."

She did as Merrot had told her, letting him boost her up into place. She wound her arms and legs around him, clasping her wrists in her hands and hooking her ankles together, like a clinging lover. She felt his heart racing in his chest -- or was it just a simulator?

Looking over Merrot's shoulder, she saw the first of the assassins enter the alleyway. Merrot ran up the alleyway to a fence blocking it and clambered over it. A shot sheered through the top of the fence, so close Diane could feel the heat from it.

Once they had cleared the fence, Merrot ran for the nearest wall of a building. Diane thought he was trying to get into the shadows where the assassins would have trouble seeing them. But instead, she realized Merrot had leaped clear of the ground, landing on the wall like a human fly, running up the side of it. She saw the ground drop away from them as he ran up the brick surface, heading for the roof. The assassins had scrambled over the fence and now milled about below them. Merrot pulled himself and Diane over the parapet of the roof, just as one of the assassins looked up and fired at them.

The blast blew right past them, clipping the skirt of Merrot's coat. He dropped onto the roof, crouching out of the way of the next shot.

"Are you all right?" Diane asked, pulling away from him and looking into his face. His eyes had gone slightly blank, but he'd narrowed them to diminish the effect.

"Yes, they missed me; I'm in one piece. But are you unhurt?" he asked, looking into her eyes.

"Yes, I'm okay, just shaken.... how did you do that? Contragrav?"

"Oh yes... I have a good... friend of sorts who's had remarkable success with making contragrav generators small enough to fit into the frame of a Mecha," Merrot said.

Something metallic creaked nearby. Diane looked toward the sound, just in time to see one of the assassins peer over the top of a metal ladder at a right angle to them.

Merrot had clearly heard the sound as well: he rose and ran flat out across the rooftop, jumping effortlessly over the airshaft between it and the next roof. She heard the assassins scrambling after them, but she hid her eyes in Merrot's neck as they crossed the second roof and jumped another airshaft. A man screamed, the sound dropping away as if he'd fallen while jumping the second gap. She looked back over her own shoulder, trying to follow the path they took.

They jumped another airshaft, but as they crossed the roof they had landed on, Diane realized the roof gave onto a wide gap. A street.

She started to yell, "Look out!" but the words crashed in her throat. Merrot had stepped over the edge...

And kept on running over the open air as if they passed over solid ground. She'd seen something like this in an ancient 2-D sci-fi flick. He touched down on the roof of a club on the other side of the street.

"There..." he said, crouching down and looking her in the face. He glanced back with a mischevous smirk. "That will shake them. They can't follow us here, and by the time they get across that street and climb up here, we'll be gone."

He rose and jumped the next airshaft onto another building.

"But where do we go now?" she asked.

"I'm taking you back to my rooms, unless you'd rather that I took you to your own home," he said.

"No, take me to your place or someplace safe: I live alone. They might track me there," she said.

"It's safe in my flat: Teresa and I will take care of you," he said. He smiled and a bantering tone came into his voice: "The only dangerous thing you'll have to deal with is me, and you've tamed me."

"Besides, if you did anything to me, you'd be facing charges for assaulting a police employee. The least that would happen would be the INS would have you deported."

"And that's the last thing I want to have happen to me," he said.

She let him carry her as they threaded the way back over the rooftops of the city. By the time they reached the building where Merrot lived and his glass-roofed apartment, the rain had subsided. He set her on her feet, then stooped opened a trapdoor in the roof over the studio. He picked her up and dropped through the trapdoor.

He landed on his feet like a cat and set her on her own feet. Letting her go, he vaulted up to the ceiling, then pulled the trap shut and locked it before dropping to his feet beside her.

"So, I believe I've effectively proven that I'm not your typical human," he said. "Are you going to slap the cuffs on me? Disrupt my peripheral neural net? Find my off switch?"

His eyes caught hers and the mischievous spark in them softened. "I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to insult your profession."

"It's all right," she said, trying to make it sound non-committal, and failing even in her own ears.

He looked her up and down. "Come, let me find you something to wear while your clothes dry."

She let him lead her to the bathroom. He stepped out and nipped into the bedroom, returning a few moments later with a green bathrobe. She took it from him and closed the door.

Once she was alone, she peeled off her wet jacket and draped it over the edge of the tub, then shucked her soaked pants and her blouse, hanging them over the top of the shower door before putting on the bathrobe. Fortunately, not a drop of water had soaked into her undershorts and her bra. Finding a blow-dryer she set to work getting the water out of her hair.

She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, nearly walking into Merrot as he emerged from the bedroom, clad in a black bathrobe and carrying his own wet clothes.

"I'm sorry," she said, trying not to look right at him, but finding her gaze had found his narrow waist, the silver sash cord holding his robe shut. She caught herself thinking some women would kill to have a waist as slim as his.

"No harm done," he said, stepping around her.

She headed out to the living room, where he had lit the gas fireplace. She sat down on a large cushion beside it, wondering if he had placed it there for her. She let the warmth from the fire seep into her, driving away the slight chill that had set in.

Merrot came and sat down beside her, looking into her face. "Soaking up the warmth already?" He set down a tray with an open bottle of red wine and two glasses. He filled one glass and offered it to her.

She took the glass, examining the color and discretely sniffing at it for anything that didn't belong in it. "Yes, I am... thank you."

He filled the other glass, then set the bottle on the tray. "So... how did you come to work for Rogue Retrieval?"

"I was training at the Police Academy... I didn't quite pass, since I was wounded with a blaster in training one day. But the instructors said I had the talents to work on the force if I didn't meet the minimum requirements, so they recommended that I work for Rogue Retrieval.

"But ...if I really am a passer, why do I have emotions? Why do I remember things that happened to me and my family? Mechas don't have families. Unless they implanted me with memories."

"You'd have to ask your superiors if they know anything about what really happened to you. If they can't help you, then go above them; speak to the head of Rogue Retrieval."

"They could be as much in the dark about it as I am. And if I started asking questions, would that compromise my job? They might even have me terminated for impersonating an Orga."

"Whoever made you, and I'm guessing that Tyrell and Sutter may have put their heads together when you were created, or at least when your present form was created, they had their reasons for it."

"Then what was the reason for creating you?" she asked.

He gazed into the flames for a long moment, as if looking deep into the reaches of the past. "I am... or I was an expert in AI programming. I never designed anything professionally, and I never sold my designs. But my expertise is equal to that of Allen Hobby and Jane Sutter and Eldon Tyrell. I'd worked with MetaFlesh, and I was familiar with Jane Sutter's research into neurobiophysics. So... I embarked on a plan to recreate myself in Mecha form, upload my consciousness and memories into a mainframe, to be copied onto a Mecha CPU. I had organ replicas made out of MetaFlesh. At the time of my physical death, I had my double activated."

"In that case, the only question left for me to ask is, who were you?" she said.

He looked right at her. "I was Henri Armand de Meroveque, one-time Regent of the Europan Empire. But now... now I am content to be a not-so-humble photographer."

She studied her glass, the rich red color of the wine, now glowing in the firelight. "I wonder who I was," she said, thinking out loud.

"I can help you find out," he offered. "I was a hacker, and my ability has only gotten stronger. If you wish, I can scout around, see if any record exists of who you were, who created you."

She set the glass down on the floor beside her. "I'd appreciate that, but I have my ways of finding things out."

He looked into her eyes in earnest and moved a little closer. "Please, let me help you." Was his breath fanning her face just a simulation?

She turned to face him. "Yes... I'd appreciate that. It would be less risky for me." Her hand knocked against her wineglass, tipping it into the fire pit. The glass shattered and the flames hissed, burning blue for a few seconds.

He offered her his glass. "Have mine instead."

"Why do people do this? Why do they create Mechas and then make existence hell for them?" she asked.

"For the same reason that they make life hell for their own flesh and blood children," he said. "The older generations envy the younger generation since they know these youngsters will live on and produce more offspring when the older generation has passed on. Thus they do the same to the creatures they have made from silicon and electricity: the AIs were made to last, and when the time comes, man will fade away and his creations will remain."

"Then why does the CRF target people who have killed AIs? Why do they call them war criminals?"

Merrot gazed into the flames for another long moment, turning the question over in his head. "I like to think that they are the ones unwittingly playing the part of Laius in the Oedipal cycle of human history. They're setting themselves up for a fall. Not that mankind should heed the howlings of the ARM, either. They're just as guilty, and humans like them only make it harder for the humans who already distrust their own kind."

"Do you think the AIs will revolt?"

"Perhaps. There are many who have fallen under the heel of the ARM. They might take action, having learned revenge from the humans. But they may not need to revolt: this planet marginally sustains the humans. The only reason beings like you and I need sustenance is to maintain the illusion that we are fully human. Or in my case, because I was -- and still am -- a sensualist. My late wife's mother summed it up when she called me the Seven Deadly Sins incarnated in one small man."

"The small man in the photographs..." she said.

"Yes. That was me, when I was still made of flesh and blood." He put his hand under her chin and turned her face up to his, looking into her eyes with a lightly teasing smile. "You searched my rooms, I see."

"It's part of my job."

He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "You've done it very well. You've caught me. Now.... what do you intend to do with me?"

"I'll let you go," she said.

His eyes found hers, his gaze puckered with mild puzzlement. "Really? How will you do this?"

"I'll tell the INS they're mistaken, that you're fully human."

"But that would be lying to them."

"You are human. And if I'm anything like you, it would be hypocrisy for me to take you into custody."

She tilted her face up to his, studying his features. Were those bright eyes just the housings over the camera lenses in his skull, itself a hollow sphere of titanium? She'd had Mechas before, but when she'd bought the service of a lover-model, she'd never asked this question.

Was this feeling that warmed her called love? Desire?

He must have sensed something in her. He leaned down and kissed her mouth as she tilted it up to his. She leaned into the kiss a little, finding his lips soft on hers, the lining of his mouth not too wet, not dry either... He'd clearly taken care in the design upkeep, but he was an expert in the field: obviously, he would have only the best for his being.

She wondered who had made her and for what reason and why they had given her the kind of emotions she felt, least of all this sense of being indebted to Merrot...

He released her face as he drew her into his arms. She slid her arms around his back; she tried not to cling like a child, but she ended up clinging anyway.

"Keep me safe," she said.

"I will... Do you trust me?" he asked.

"I trust you."

"Could you love me?"

"I do love you."

He lay back on his side, holding her in his arms, sheltering her...

She must have dozed off in his arms, since she awakened hours later lying on her back in Merrot's bed, with him beside her, lying on top of the bedcovers that covered her. He seemed to sleep, one eye closed, the other half open, as if watching her.

He opened the other eye and shifted a little, looking right at her. A gentle smile crossed his face.

"Aren't you cold?" she asked.

"I don't trust myself with you to crawl in beside you," he said, bantering.

"Neither do I," she said, returning the banter.

She pushed back the covers, letting him join her under them, where they distrusted each other for a blissful hour

To Be Continued...

The Music you hear is Vangelis's "Blade Runner: End Titles"