April 17, 2009

I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe

I think I need to leave this line of work. I've been telling myself that for years, but have never really had the stones to go through with it. This time, though, I think it's for real. This time, the stress is just ridiculously unbearable. I mean, the past few weeks have been nothing short of complete mental chaos, and enough secrets, lies, and various other species of trust-busting ugliness have been ginned up that my whole world has begun to appear psychologically fuzzy and morally opaque.

The impossibly pressurized situation that is my job has always been hostile to my health and survival, but surviving is exactly what I've been able to accomplish for the last five years. I've subsumed my own desires beneath those of The Agency. Made sacrifices, bled rocks, and did whatever the hell I was told, without question—and nearly gone around the bend more times than I can remember. Retiring things that aren't ready to be retired will to that to a man.

Well, that and the little surprises that always end up being back-breaking straws, right? In my case, it was an episode of shocking drama book-ended by two innocuous telephone calls. The second one matters little, except that it happened not long ago, when my wife called me from San Diego to offer a singularly impersonal question.

"What was his number?" Her voice crackled in among wild cheers and other apocalyptic noise. I wasn't ready for coherent thought at the time, and had trouble picking up the signal. "Huh?"

"His number, damn it, his uniform number." She began to break up. "Oh—oh yeah," I replied. "Um...I think it was—yeah, it was 3."

"I thought so." She sounded nonplussed, but I knew better. "Why? What's up?"

"Eck is wearing it. Just like Jenny said."

"Shit. Shit! That's damn near unbelievable."

"Yeah, that's what I said," Em sighed, "but the girl's been shot at, fer crissakes. Don't question her. She knows what she's talking about."

We didn't say much after that, and hung up soon enough. I immediately went into a terrible funk, haunted by the last time I'd seen that holy digit dancing across my field of vision—back in happier times, right before the inevitable decline.

It all began last July. My wife and I were in the middle of a much-needed vacation, which just happened to coincide with our anniversary. We were just settling in to a late lunch, shielded from the cancerous afternoon sun by state-of-the-art glasswork, when the first call came in. Ignoring matrimonial waves of indignant surprise (itself related to my failure to shut off the damn phone while not working) wasn't easy, but I took one look at the incoming number and knew I had to pick up.

"We need you at the park pronto," said my C.O., in his weird but appropriately ominous Hungarian-Spanglish accent. "One of the units has gone off the reservation and displayed alarming amounts of violence coupled with emotion."

"What? Emotion? Are you kidding me?" This was almost unheard of—especially considering there was only one true replicant I knew of in that vicinity—but considering the previous few months, I shouldn't have been surprised. Statistics don't lie, except when they do.

"No, it's been verified. Get your ass down here immediately." Gaff broke off to yell at some poor bastard on his end of the line, and I could hear an ugly metallic banging sound. Shit—he wasn't at the station, he was on scene!

"I'll need all the info I can get—I can't go into another one of these things cold, sir." I was never a fan of replicant-retirement. I felt sick and twisted every time I had to go zap another crazed android, and so I'd been avoiding assignments like this for six months.

"Stop at the station on your way down, then," sighed Gaff. "There's a pile of Deckard's old notes on my desk. Read them quickly."

"Roger that," I replied, and we hung up. I traveled to the station in a coma, completely oblivious to the surrounding splendor of decaying paradise and tarnished opulence that stood in for Southern California. The case notes were right where Gaff said they'd be, and I skimmed the first ten or so pages before giving up and making for the scene. Deckard's shit was always so mopey and pessimistic, and I'd usually avoided his analyses as a matter of policy, but this time I put it down because I think I related to it a little too much. When you've played the game this long, a childish pastime starts taking on uncomfortable airs of responsible necessity, and you forget what made it fun in the first place.

For me, though, it was rarely fun. Oh, I was good at it—precocious, even—but the atmosphere didn't mesh with my temperament and I was functionally out of the game by the age of sixteen. For a while though, it was a useful enough pastime, despite giving me more reasons to weep like a blubbering fool, either in sentimental resignation or self-loathing angst or whatever other range of spasms that my own personal emoto-chip would permit. I mean, I grew up playing little league in America, so I've been primed from the age of six to let my well-being rise and fall from April to October; to place a laughably immature emotional investment in the clich├ęd myths and simply surrender to sensory manipulation.

So imagine the hoops my brain had to slither through when I arrived at the park and the place was louder than a jungle of howler monkeys. Oh sure, the game had long since ended, but plenty of panicked technicians and scientists were running around, openly freaking out. Moores was, naturally, nowhere to be found; Alderson and Towers were bawling each other out in the middle of the clubhouse; DePodesta was sitting by himself in a corner, head in his hands.

Virtually unnoticed by the scrum of reporters milling around were the units themselves, mechanically showering, dressing, and sneaking out the back door—Gonzales and Bell were leaving as soon as I walked in—while no less than three separate medical teams attended to one in particular. They spoke in hushed whispers, but I could make out a few distinct phrases. Two technicians bent over a feebly sputtering unit, its fist still embedded in a mangled locker door.

"Have you ever seen him like this before? This is totally unprecedented."

"No, never. Of course, we'd long suspected...phenomenal abilities...made previous models look clumsy and obsolete out there, especially Nevin and Klesko."

"Useless piles of scrap, those two," I chimed in, but they ignored me.

"This one, though—you weren't there back then, Dex—but this one, we built him along the lines of Sandberg. Well, Sandberg and that other Green—the Jewish kid, remember him?"

"I remember that guy." Suddenly Gaff was beside me, inserting himself into the breach I couldn't crack. "Saw him park two against St. Louis at a playoff game in L.A. Green was amazing. A king, that day anyway."

"Scary amazing," I said, but that wasn't what I meant. What frightened me the most is how much I identified with those particular units. The ones who put up crazy numbers day in day out, but choked in high profile situations with names like All-Star Game or Division Series. My reverie was cut short however, when the unit started beeping and whirring, briefly coming to life. Everyone else watched helplessly, but I couldn't stand it anymore, and bent down to cradle Khalil's head in my hands.

The replicant's faint whispers were difficult to discern amid the general uproar of the clubhouse, but I know what I heard, damn it—pure emotion. Yes, unadulterated feeling, pouring forth from the mind of an android as it lay there in my arms, a crushed and broken being at the end of its prescribed life-span, and when it spoke, we listened.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Naval attack ships floating beneath fireworks on the bay. I've watched gaslamps glitter in the dark near the Western Metal Supply building, and skin flash behind the bar at 5th and K. All those... moments will be lost in time... like...tears...in rain."

"Jesus God Almighty," sniffed Gaff, as the light went out of young Khalil's eyes, and his fingers curled into a weak fist again around the locker door.

"That's it," I said. "That's too much, chief. I'm finished." And then I left, never looking back.

Epilogue: Spicoli's New Adventures in Birdland

He's in a better place now, supposedly—just like his forbear, the Wizard Himself. The childish melodramas he left behind—emotional roller-coasters named Hoffman and Peavy, violently unstable units named Giles and Bush—have long since been forgotten.

Yes, because this is something New, ladies and gentlemen. This is the Land of La Russa, of gashouses, not gaslamps. Of Gibson and McGwire and Rickey and Stan the Man. Young Khalil's retrofitting in Missouri is said to be going well. Retirement was not an option for him. No, not yet anyway—but it's one hell of an option for me, ladies and gentlemen.

And I aim to make the most of it.

UPDATE 5/19: Apparently the retrofit is not going very well after all. Oh well.

Cross-posted: glb

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