For comedian MITCH BENN, Theresa May’s attempts to extend her political life put him in mind of his favourite film, Blade Runner. Here, he goes on the trail of Downing Street’s replicant
They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper. Not this newspaper anyway. They advertise attractively reduced rate subscriptions, framed signed copies of the cover art, even the occasional Tuscan wine-tasting holiday, but killers … not so much. Still, I scanned its rain-dampened pages for inspiration as I sat beneath the shelter of the shabby but atmospherically lit sushi stand.
My order arrived and I continued to flick through the paper with one hand as I shovelled salmon nigiri into my mouth with the other, pondering how exotically futuristic this would have looked to someone watching in, say, 1982, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I recognised the type immediately; the bizarre dress sense, the elaborate facial hair. Obviously one of the metropolitan elite. I flipped up the collar of my perfectly distressed raincoat and carried on eating as he mumbled a series of syllables into my ear.
‘He your Uber driver. He say go with him,’ said the elderly and in no way stereotypically Japanese sushi vendor. I didn’t need a translator; I knew the lingo. Every good op-ed columnist did. A mix of hipster slang, Guardian editorial and Flemish. Eurotrash talk; Remoaner speak. ‘Kelly wants you to come in. Says there’s a replicant gone rogue. Wants you to run the machine on it.’
I climbed into the Prius and it hummed silently away; I marvelled at the neon-drenched cityscape and wondered idly why Kelly hadn’t thought to call my mobile phone.
‘Look at this,’ said The New European Editor Kelly, gesturing toward the anachronistically crackly video screen. I sat in his office, surrounded by the memorabilia of his career in tracking down Europhobes and Brexit-peddlers. Framed covers, awards, more awards… had it really only been a year? Felt like at least 15 months.
‘Hey…’ said Kelly, ‘are you paying attention?’
‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘it’s just that the sequel to Blade Runner comes out in a couple of weeks and I’m finding it hard to think about anything else at the moment. It’s been my favourite movie since I was 12. It really doesn’t need a sequel and I’m just worried they’re going to…’
‘Well snap out of it,’ snapped Kelly. I directed my attention back to the screen.
‘What’s this?’ I asked.
‘Nexus Number Ten model,’ he replied. ‘It snuck in through an internal leadership election a year ago and it’s been holed up in Downing Street ever since. Got a bit fried in a pointless snap election a few weeks back but it’s still just about functional.’
I watched in grim, dimly-lit fascination as the figure on the screen delivered a speech in front of a crowd of supporters. It was strange how its every movement, every gesture, every facial tic and vocal croak closely mimicked that of a human being, and yet the resultant whole was still somehow utterly unconvincing.
‘What’s it trying to do?’ I asked Kelly as his strangely-attired driver lurked in the background, casually sculpting a 12-foot marble statue of a Triceratops and titling it ‘Prefiguring’.
‘It’s trying to pass itself off as human in order to cling to power,’ Kelly grunted. He turned in his chair to face me. ‘This model – the Maybot 9000 – is programmed to mimic human emotional responses, but to never actually feel anything except paranoia and extraordinary entitlement. Now the developers think if it stays in power for more that four years it might – just MIGHT – start to develop some extremely basic empathy. At this point it will become more dangerous than ever.’
‘So what do you want me to do about it?’ I asked as I flicked marble dust off my shoulder.
‘Get down to the House of Commons and run the machine on it, just to be sure,’ said Kelly.
I got up to leave, and Kelly called after me. I paused to listen. ‘Oh, and if you’re thinking of writing this up as a Blade Runner pastiche, don’t just do a parody of the voiceover from the original 1982 cut,’ he said. ‘Hardly anyone knows that version these days.’
‘Then they’re fools,’ I muttered. ‘It’s the only cut that makes any damn sense.’
My forged press credentials got me an interview with the Maybot 9000. I spoke to its – well. I guess, HER – private secretary as I waited for her to arrive.
‘It seems you don’t think our work here is of benefit to the public,’ the secretary said as I paced around the pointlessly cavernous office.
‘Politicians are either a benefit or a hazard,’ I replied. ‘And even the beneficial ones can be hazardous, if the benefits are outweighed by the hazards, although to give them the benefit of the doubt I’d hazard there’s a benefit to be had from giving benefits to the public, especially in hazardous – wait, what are we talking about again?’
She was about to reply when the door opened and the Maybot strode awkwardly in, surrounded by junior minsters and civil servants. At least none of them were pretending to be human.
I introduced myself and we sat at either end of a long polished table. I lifted the machine up onto the shiny surface, popped the catches and lifted the lid.
The small LED lens sprang upwards on its flexible stalk, lights flashed across the machine’s surface and that bellows thing which serves no obvious purpose began to pump up and down.
‘I hope you don’t mind if I use my vintage German dictaphone,’ I said. ‘It’s a bit big by modern standards but it’s a design classic.’
I began to ask my questions, taking notes all the time. We covered everything from military spending, to domestic policies, to foreign affairs, to economic matters… Nothing. For the whole conversation, the indicator lights on the machine stayed in the low reds, the needles lay still and unflickering, and that bellows thing just kept pumping up and down for whatever reason. Only once was there any hint of emotion; I asked her to share a childhood memory. Classic replicant hunter trick. Gets them every time. They sit there staring blankly while they try to invent some recollection, some authentic sounding image from a childhood they never had.
Either that or they produce a gun that you never thought to check them for and blow you through the wall, but that hardly ever happens.
But the Maybot was different. It paused, a faint guilty smile passed across its thin lips, the slightest hint of a blush bloomed momentarily on its cheeks, as it said ‘I used to run through wheat fields as a child’.
The lights flashed, the needles jolted, and then the moment was gone.
My time was up, and the Maybot’s entourage ushered her away.
‘What was all that about wheat fields?’ I asked the secretary.
‘It’s an experiment,’ she replied. ‘We’ve programmed her brain with false childhood memories in order to create an emotional framework; it’s supposed to help her develop almost human levels of empathy.’
‘Is it working?’ I asked.
‘No, not really,’ she replied sadly.
‘Extraordinary,’ I pondered out loud. ‘How can it not know what it is?’
‘It’s the next generation,’ said the secretary. ‘It’s programmed to believe it’s human.’
‘That’s not what I meant,’ I said, ‘I meant how can it not know that it’s utterly incompetent and hopelessly out of its depth?’
‘Oh that,’ said the secretary. ‘It figures that out on a daily basis. Impossible not to, really. Then every night we scrub its short-term memory and in the morning it’s back to square one.’
As I walked to the exit, she called after me.
‘Would you like an owl?’
‘No thanks,’ I replied, ‘I’m trying to give them up.’
I sat alone in the living room of my almost impenetrably underlit apartment and wrote up my report for Kelly.
I told him not to worry about the Maybot 9000; memory implants or no memory implants, there was no chance it would ever develop any real human emotions.
It wouldn’t even get any better at faking them. Besides, there was another replicant I’d spotted in Parliament that was giving me much more cause for concern. I’d seen it lurking in the corridors and elevators. Tall, white-blond hair. Possessed of an extraordinary sense of invincibility and destiny, and extremely fond of quoting poetry. That was the one to keep an eye on, I wrote in my conclusion.
I typed up the report on to a piece of paper and folded it into an envelope, resolving to deliver it to Kelly the next day, never even contemplating emailing it in for some reason. That done, I curled up on top of my piano and went to sleep, whereupon I had a dream which did not involve a Triceratops.
Not even briefly.