I was hurrying down Morrison when he came at me, straight out of the alley beside the old grocery store. I put my head down and ignored him at first, sure he was just one of those guys who hadn’t taken to the process so well, but he was determined to catch my eye.
‘Hey,’ he muttered, shuffling over. ‘Hey, man. I gotta -‘
‘Can’t stop, buddy,’ I called, holding up a hand, wondering when the government was going to face facts and segregate these things. ‘In a hurry, y’know?’
‘Please,’ he said. ‘Just need a minute.’ A faint stink billowed out of him, a memory of breath.
‘Don’t you got a job to go to, friend?’ I asked. That’s the point, isn’t it? I didn’t say it out loud, but he had to know I was thinking it. Anybody would be.
He blinked and made no answer, swaying on his feet.
‘Man, I really am sorry. Okay? Really. But if I’m late for work I get to hear about it all week. You understand, right? Nothin’ personal.’ I’d reached out to shake his hand before I could stop myself, but his fists were buried deep in his rancid pockets. He froze. I glanced up at his face properly for an instant then, and he just stared at me out of wet, sloppy eyes. I couldn’t tell what colour they’d been; the process had washed it away.
I shook the guy off – his smell, his voice, the pallor of his face – as I kept walking, and by the time I finished work for the day I’d forgotten all about him. I walked home through empty streets. Apartment buildings rose into the dusk all around, dark and cold. My own building had thirty percent occupancy, and I knew I was one of the lucky ones. When I closed my door behind me I didn’t feel like something finally buried. I knew if I shouted, someone would hear me.
They might not come. But they would hear.
I saw him as I came near that old grocery store again, the one that had never been open during my lifetime. There he was, waiting in the shadows. Had he even moved since this morning?
‘Look,’ I said, before he could speak. ‘I told you before, all right? I can’t talk to you.’
‘Just, please,’ he said. He looked worse than before. Dark hollows beneath his eyes threatened to swallow his face.
‘Weren’t you at your job today? Huh? Did you just stand around here all day? Were you this useless when you were alive, too?’
‘Buddy, come on,’ he replied. ‘I gotta show you. Gotta show someone.’
I wasn’t sure why those words pulled at me, but thirty seconds later I was following him – a Refurb, an actual flesh-and-blood walking talking dead guy – into this alley. It smelled like hell.
Then, he stopped. I heard a noise, and looked down.
A kid. A kid lay on the ground, white-faced and wide-eyed, breathing hard as she stared up at me. She couldn’t have been any more than nine. It looked like maybe her leg was broken – certainly, she wasn’t going anywhere fast. This is good, flashed across my mind. The bounty for returning runaways was high. How she’d managed to escape from the Farm was anyone’s guess, but all I knew was they’d pay to get her back.
‘You animal,’ I growled, turning on the Refurb. I clenched my fists. This has to look good, I told myself.
‘No! Mister!’ The kid’s voice was like a whistle. ‘He helped me! I fell, and -‘
‘Enough,’ I told her, never taking my eyes off the Refurb. They weren’t supposed to hurt the living, but I guess you never knew. How can any of us be sure?
‘No,’ said the Refurb. His eyes were flabby. Blank. He’s just instinct, I told myself. Wrapped up in a body. He’s barely more than a machine. ‘No. Please.’ He took a shuffling step back and slid on something in the garbage piled there, falling back against the sacks. I took my chance.
A swift, hard jab to the abdomen, and he groaned so bad that I almost believed he felt it. Another, and another. There was barely any resistance in his soft flesh.
‘No! Arnie!‘ screamed the kid. ‘Stop hurting him!’
‘Arnie, is it?’ I said, bracing myself for another punch. ‘You’re a dead man, Arnie. No pun intended. You know that, right? Even if I hadn’t found you hurting this girl, or whatever it is I can make ’em believe you’d been doing up here, I’d probably have killed you just for being lazy. You’re going in the ground, my friend. Nobody needs a Refurb who won’t work.’
He looked up at me then, and his watery eyes overflowed. The barest twitch of his face could have been a smile.
I threw the killer punch. Arnie’s jaw shattered, and he lay still.
Is there a fine for smashing up a Refurb? I thought, shaking out my fist. Hardly matters. The money I’ll get for returning the kid will more than cover it.
‘Okay, little lady,’ I called, hauling myself up off the trash-pile, leaving Arnie’s twice-dead body where it lay. ‘Come on, now. You ready?’
I turned, but she was gone.
‘His name wasn’t Arnie,’ I heard her say. I squinted into the gloom, but there was no sign of her. ‘Well, maybe. It could’ve been. I call them all Arnie.’
‘You – what? Come on, kid. I don’t have time for this.’ I turned, looking, but besides me and the cold Arnie, there was nobody in this alley.
‘It takes years, you know,’ she continued, from her unseen perch. ‘The average Retirement application. And it can only be approved once a Refurb’s given at least twenty years of service. Don’t matter how many times it messes up – nobody cares. A Refurb’s gotta work until it falls apart.’ She sighed. ‘And they’re programmed not to hurt themselves, each other, or the living.’
‘So?’ I wished I could see her. The flesh on my back started to crawl. ‘What’s this got to do with you?’
‘Call it a public service,’ she replied. ‘They pay me whatever they’ve got, and I get them killed. Win-win.’
I looked back at Arnie. ‘You mean he – he wanted this?’
‘Wouldn’t you?’ She sounded angry, now. ‘Worked hard all his life, knowing that all he’d get for dying would be a day off?‘
‘I – but, it’s how it’s done,’ I said. ‘We need the labour.’
‘Right.’ The kid sounded further away now. ‘Tell yourself that when you’re on your deathbed.’ I heard a tiny scuffle, and a small grunt of effort, and a tiny shadow moving against the night.
‘Hey,’ I shouted. ‘Come back here! I’ve got to get you home!’ There was no answer. ‘Little girl!’
The wind skirled round the alley, tossing some papers and loosened trash. A cat flashed its eyes at me in the darkness, then vanished.
When I got home I called the authorities. Told ’em I’d seen a bunch of thugs harassing a Refurb near an alley off Morrison; I couldn’t intervene, because it was one against five. Possibly six. Said I hoped the guy would be okay. Mentioned a runaway kid, and asked about a reward.
Then I went to bed, but the darkness had a weight in it, and I was afraid to close my eyes.