Los Angeles, December 2020
One icy-cold Christmas Eve the city lay covered in a blanket of mildly acidic snow. Those poor defective souls unable to have fled to the Off-World paradise sheltered in their miserable hovels, while the snowfall wreaked a festive nightmare under a leaden sky. Christmas 2020 was far different from those of old: children could no longer build snowmen in parks or front yards without eventually melting their gloves and mildly burning their hands. Indeed wee nippers everywhere didn’t hope for toys, instead they hoped that Santa would bring them new shoes and boots to replace those melting away from walking through puddles of stinging wet slush. But mostly they wished for tickets to Off World. Not that Santa could oblige.
Mr Bob Cratchit lived in Kindred Lane, in the outskirts of the city, his home surrounded by streets of the empty, slowly decaying houses of luckier people who had long since fled for Off-World and left Mr Cratchit behind. Mr Cratchit’s house was the only house in his street still occupied, its festive lights swinging across his front window and doorway a lonely source of light in the gathering twilight gloom for miles in any direction.
Mr Cratchit rather enjoyed the peace and solitude, but he worried for the wellbeing of his children. School was some distance away in the heart of the city, and the Spinner Bus that ferried them there every day was increasingly at risk of a funding cut. No doubt someday next year the family would finally have to up sticks and move into the city, where there were many vacant apartments waiting for them. Moving Off-World, alas, was not an option; poor Tiny Tim failed the medical fitness requirements.
But what place would Off-World have had for the Cratchits, and what did the Cratchits care for Off-World? For himself, Cratchit was content. He had his family, and his home, and his job at the Van Ness Animal Pet Store Repair Shop (they weren’t real pets, of course, they had all died after the Great War Terminus, but they kept up the pretence that the artificial pets were real, an artifice carefully maintained by its proprietor, Hannibal Sloat).
And of course it was Christmas, Cratchit’s favourite time of year. In this decaying world of madness there was something reassuring about tradition, and family, and never was this clearer than at Christmas. And Cratchit was convinced Christmas 2020 would be something special.
So he cooked a special Christmas Eve meal and waited for Mrs Cratchit and the children to return from their Christmas Eve Church Service, while he left the television set tuned to a dead channel, confident that the lone city station would resume transmission at the scheduled time for some festive programming, and maybe even, as hoped, a special message from the President from the Oval Dome on Mars. Cratchit broke the silence of his home and the streets beyond with Christmas songs that he sang over the stove and as he prepared the table, feeling quite jovial and full of the Christmas spirit. His merry melodies were suddenly halted by a knock at the door. Why, had Mrs Cratchit yet again got her arms so full with the children that she could not put her key in the door?
Cratchit swung open the door expecting to see his lovely wife and his adorable little children, but was instead confronted by a dark, tall and imposing figure that seemed to soak up all the darkness of the gathering night, his face deep in shadow.
“Cratchit? Bob Cratchit?” The figure grunted.
“Why, yes,” Bob replied, utterly at a loss, forlorn at the sight of the case the man was carrying.
“Hart,” the figure barked. “My name’s Hart. Detective Hart.”
“Oh,” Bob sighed, looking more curiously at the man’s large briefcase. “I thought you were some kind of salesman. “
Hart leaned forward so that what dim light emanated from Bob’s hallway lit up his brutish, heavily-lined face. “I’m getting cold and wet standing here, Cratchit, and this snow stings like shit. Can I come in?”
“Well its a little inconvenient,” Bob protested. “My wife and children are out at church but they’ll be back soon, and we’ll be having dinner. What’s this about, officer?”
“Church, eh?” Hart said, glancing back at the gathering wet dusk outside. “We need to talk,” he said, stepping into the hallway and brushing Bob aside.
“Wait one moment!” Bob cried, staring in disbelief at his now empty doorway and then spinning after the large brutish figure striding down his hallway into the apartment beyond. This man was obviously a salesman after all. “Now this won’t do at all! I don’t know what it is you’re peddling but I’m not interested!” After a moment in which he realised that the man was no longer paying attention, Bob reluctantly shut his door and chased after the retreating figure.
He found the man standing in the centre of the lounge, dropping his suitcase onto a vacant chair. The man’s eyes were taking in the room, slowly turning until he faced Bob. “Nice. Homely,” he spat, as if it was the most disgusting thing in the world.
“Now look here, Mr…. what was it, Hart? Now look here Mr Hart, this is most irregular. I don’t know what you’re selling but this is Christmas Eve, and I know that sort of thing doesn’t mean very much to some… people,” he hesitated, suddenly wary. “But my family take it very seriously, very seriously indeed, and I won’t have you ruining things. I didn’t invite you in and I’m not interested in whatever rubbish you’re peddling from your case there and-“
“What I’m selling, no-ones buying,” Hart grumbled, nodding.
“Well I’m very sorry but neither am I!” Bob shrieked, pointing an indignant arm back in the direction of his hallway as dramatically as he could muster. In truth, he was getting a little worried. All sorts of people walked the streets these days, there were all sorts of horrible stories, stories that nobody in their right mind wanted to invite into their house at night, particularly on Christmas Eve. “Its Christmas Eve!” Bob wailed.
“Calm down, Cratchit,” Hart sighed, brushing a huge calloused hand through the short-cropped grey hair thinning on his leathery scalp. He peered at the hallway behind Bob, as if considering the door and the cold wintry world beyond. “Sit down. I’m certain we’ll be done before your wife returns”.
Bob suddenly found himself stepping to a chair and mutely siting down, immediately feeling foolish for doing so, but he was beginning to realise this stranger in his house was not someone easily thrown out. “What’s all this about?” he finally asked.
“My names Detective Hart, Rep-Detect,” the detective sighed, his gravelly voice cracking a little with some weariness, as if he was repeating something he’s stated so often that it had long since become a crushing exercise in boredom. While he did so he shrugged off his trench coat, and slung it on top of the case discarded on the sofa. In doing so he revealed the huge heavy blaster fastened to his belt. Seeing this Bob blanched, horrified.
“Oh my God,” Bob croaked. “You’re a… a….”
“Blade Runner,” Hart coldly grinned, no warmth in his smile, only ice. “That’s what they call us now.” he walked over to a chair across from Bob and sat down, stretching his legs before him. “I hate that bloody name. I’m a detective, a professional, not some kind of bogey man.”
“But…what are you doing here? What do you want with me?”
Hart wasn’t listening. “Back in the old days, it was always looked down on,” Hart continued. “Rep-Detect was something openly sneered at, even by the traffic cops. Hidden down in the Precinct basement. Like a shameful secret where lousy cops deemed unworthy of ‘proper’ police work were dumped.” Hart paused, as if reflecting upon something. “I was good. Bryant always said so. Just because it was a shit job, you didn’t have to be shit at it.”
Suddenly Hart looked across at Bob, and stared at him intently. It was an unnerving, penetrating gaze. After a few moments he seemed to relax, his gaze softened, and he glanced again at the hallway. “When I started, it was the Nexus 3. Anybody could detect one of them toasters. Not so easy now- I guess that’s what they call progress. Progress!” Hart barked, flashing a sudden and disconcerting grin as he laughed at some joke.
He reached across towards the sofa and tapped at the case resting there. “These VK-decks. Humbug! For amateurs. Old-school Detectives like me, we don’t use them if we can help it. No skill involved in those gadgets. Nexus 3, Nexus 6, all the same to me.”
Bob looked across and felt a cold feeling settling in his stomach. Suddenly he seemed to be looking at a broken man. A broken man with a very dangerous gun. What were those stories he’d heard, of crazy cops going around shooting people?
Hart looked back across at Bob as if he was reading his mind. “Blade Runners,” he nodded. “Stupid bastards at Rep-Detect took it like some badge of courage. It’s something the shrinks thought out, some bullshit medical term about Detectives losing their shit. You retire so many Reps they said, Reps that become more and more like real people with every new model, they said it messes with your head. They said it messes everybody up eventually, just a matter of time. Too long running the blade. Eventually you get cut.” Hart groaned.
“You know how long the average Blade Runner lasts before they dump you in the gutter?” Hart asked. “Four years. Just four bloody years. The irony doesn’t escape me: four years,” he added, weighing up those words in the silence that followed.
“I don’t understand,” Bob croaked, his voice awfully dry. This man was obviously unhinged, Bob had let a madman into his house on Christmas Eve and Mrs Cratchit would be home soon with the children, and this madman had a gun- this could ruin Christmas. What was Bob to do?
“I like you, Cratchit. I can see you’re a listener. The world’s full of talkers and listeners, and the talkers are always talking shit. I have to listen to them all the time. Yeah, I listen, I hear some shit, Cratchit. I hear some things”. Hart leaned forward, as if intimating with Bob something important, his voice lowering. “I hear some things,” he repeated, levelly. “You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I hear. Those stupid bastards at Tyrell, crazy fucking bastards”.
“T–Tyrell?” Bob dimly realised he was leaning forwards now himself. “Isn’t he dead? Dead last year?”
“Maybe. Some reckon he’s in cryo-freeze in the heart of his Pyramid, that the one people saw and ‘died’ last year was some kind of a Replicant. I don’t know, I never met him. But I’d have known straight away if I did. ” Hart relaxed a little, tapped his nose. “Never fails, I never miss one. Don’t need no VK-deck to know a real human from a filthy toaster. I got this skill, see. How I lasted all these years.
“But I heard this thing, Cratchit. This thing that makes me think, hurts my head. I got to say, it scares me, scares me shitless.” Anything that scared this scary man was obviously something bloody terrifying to Cratchit, who could feel whatever remaining colour was in his cheeks paling away to a shade as white as the snow outside in the night.
“Memories. They been messing with memories. At first it was some control mechanism, to manage emotions, feelings, from fucking up Nexus behaviour programming, but they got too fancy, too clever, too complex. Over time, some of the Nexus 6, especially those on the run, they get confused, they keep photos, they cling to these memories, they start thinking they are real, that the things happened to them. Take your wife. How’d do you know?”
“What about my wife?” Cratchit croaked in a hoary whisper.
“How do you know? How do you know she’s really going to come through that door? How do you know you’re not a Nexus 6 on the run who finally went loopy, that you are in some crazy loop everyday hiding out here in the ‘burbs, always convinced you got some family that’s only a loaded memory intended to keep you easily controlled but that has finally driven you crazy?”
Cratchit reddened. “You’re mad You’ll see. She’s late, but she’ll be here soon. With the children.”
Hart acted like he was someplace else, not listening. He shook his head, slowly. “That’s not what really fucks me up. You see, I got to thinking. I started thinking, how do I know? How does anyone know?” He leaned forward. “I wake up in my apartment, I have photos of family, heirlooms and shit. It all looks real. But how do I know? How do I know I’ve not just been switched on that morning, placed in that apartment, switched on with my memories preloaded. I could be just like the things I’m set to hunting and never know it. Set a toaster to catch a toaster.” Hart broke into a wide, agonised smile. “Its been done. I’m sure of it. They fucking cut us within four years, none of us last more than four years. Christ,” he groaned. “Four years, its obvious, its right in our bloody faces and we didn’t see it.”
Cratchit found himself shivering a little, suddenly cold. “You’re real. I’m sure of it,” Cratchit declared (as real as Santa Claus, he thought, but it wouldn’t be wise to upset a mad man with a big gun).
“I was flying my Spinner up from San Diego, few nights ago. Some rumour about a Rep down in the refuse yards, but I never found anything. Anyway, I was flying back up, and I noticed your lights, out here all alone in the ‘burbs. Reps tend to live the lies of their lives out in the sticks, away from anyone who’d notice.”
“Well I don’t know what you’re insinuating, Detective. Its no crime to live out here in my family home after everyone else has either died or gone Off World. I don’t see why I should abandon everything I worked hard for just because everyone else has. How dare you come here, on tonight of all nights, and threaten me, and my family, without cause.” Cratchit didn’t know where the courage to rebuke this giant monster came from, but his words seemed to hang there in the air, suddenly spoken before he’d chosen to.
Hart seemed amused by Cratchit’s defiance. “Just doing my job, Cratchit-“
Suddenly there was a crash at the door, a rush of cold and laughter and giggling that was swiftly followed by three children racing in, excited faces beaming and suddenly turned to confusion by the sight of this stranger in their home. Almost as quickly Mrs Cratchit loomed behind them, breathless and similarly confused at the sight of this hulking brute in her home.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Hart gasped.
The television screen sprang into life, arresting their attention: “My dear fellow Americans,” a jolly clown beamed. “I’m looking down on the Dear Old Earth and while I’m glad I’m not down there with you, you poor bastards, my thoughts are with you as I wish you a very Merry Christmas. My husbands and hand maidens all share my hopes that you are fairly well and your rotting appendages haven’t entirely dropped off, as we sit here by our Christmas Tree- yes we grow Christmas trees here on Mars. You poor bastards probably never seen one, so here it is, here’s what a Christmas Tree looks like.”
“Looks fake,” grunted Tiny Tim with a frown as he limped over towards the tv screen.
Hart laughed. “Kid, the whole of Mars is fake. Its all smoke and mirrors in those domes.”
Mrs Cratchit reached over towards Tim, pulling him close to her as she did the rest of the children. “Well, Mr Cratchit,” she nervously spoke, her voice fragile and broken. “Who is this?”
“Why, this is Mr Hart,” Cratchit beamed, “and he’s spending Christmas with us, he’s our very special guest,” he said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Part of him figured, if you can’t get rid of him, invite him. It nearly gave him some calming sense of control over this strangest of Christmas Eves.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Hart said, again.
“Not at all,” Cratchit replied. “Its Christmas.”
And that was how Detective Hart spent Christmas with the Cratchits.
It was the day after Christmas Day, and Harry Bryant needed a drink more than ever as he surveyed the bloody carnage before him. He was standing in the lounge of the Cratchit residence, and the Cratchit family -well, the bloody and dismembered pieces of them- were scattered over the floor, walls and ceiling. A clean-up team had put sheeting down and were proceeding to mop up the remains. Better they had a hose with a bucket- the body bags were largely redundant. Why were they even clearing this mess up, better to just burn the place down. Why weren’t they burning the place down, he wondered absently.
“Goddam it I need a drink,” Bryant shuddered, feeling his guts already twisting in fiery protest. Part of Tiny Tim dripped down from the ceiling and Bryant stepped back to avoid the grisly ooze that splattered onto the plastic sheeting. “Goddam it Gaff, its Christmas and I’m dodging some kid’s intestines raining down on me. Its worse than the goddam snow. You told me you’d got Hart tracked down.”
Gaff, as chillingly smooth and sharply-dressed as ever, leaned on his walking stick as he moved toward his boss, effortlessly avoiding the remnants of Tiny Tim. Bryant always marvelled out how Gaff moved. For a guy with a smashed leg walking with a cane, he always seemed to dance rather than limp.
“We had a trap set up in San Diego, a report of a rogue Nexus,” Gaff explained in a hushed voice only Bryant was intended to hear (you could always count on Gaff being discreet). “But he’s good. Hart must have smelled trouble. By the time we realised he’d flown…”
Bryant waved a hand in the air, dismissing Gaff’s excuses. “Well thank Christ all this is out in the sticks and no-one to see it. Nobody’s going to miss the Cratchits, that’s damned clear.” Well, that was about the best of it, Bryant thought. Everything else had Bryant reaching for a drink and exploding the molten ulcer in his gut. His fists trembled in his trouser pockets. “Shit, Gaff,” he whined, “how many is this? Hart’s running around like a one-man murder squad slaughtering anyone he comes across. Crazy bastard sees toasters everywhere.”
“I’m confident the stats will state the Cratchits were Replicants,” Gaff observed with a casual glance at the clean-up team diligently working. “Good for our stats, more retired Reps. Not that it matters. Little people,” he added.
Bryant could have punched him there and then, but instead spun around and stormed out of the room, heading for the exit and his party back home. “Goddam it Gaff. get that bastard,” he yelled back. “Get him soon. I don’t need a rogue Blade Runner running amok, especially at Christmas. It reflects badly on the Department, no matter which way you write it.”
Outside, the dusk was gathering again, the shadows drawing in around him. Bryant looked around at the empty houses, broken windows, collapsing roofs. It almost seemed like a cemetery. What compelled a guy like Cratchit to live out here in a practical wilderness? Sometimes humans could be like Nexus clinging to their memories. This street, this place, meant something to Cratchit. The old life, the old world, possibly.
But that old world was long gone. This world was now a grave.
“Merry Christmas,” Bryant muttered, reaching his Spinner and dropping into its pilot seat. He flicked a switch and the car coughed into life and rose up in a twisting curve up into the leaden, ashy sky.