Johnny always was an odd kid.
He got beaten at school almost as much as he did at home– and that was saying something, since he rarely left home without fresh bruises. The beatings gave him a fatalistic streak, but they never seemed to break his spirit. Even when he was spitting out teeth, he always had a middle finger up and a defiant “Fuck you!” on his lips.
We lost touch after high school. I went into the trades, and Johnny went wherever kids raised by violent single dads go. I heard he got busted for something stupid and did a stretch in Arizona. I heard he found true love, got a minimum wage job and tried to go straight. Found out he had cancer. Lost his girlfriend after he tried to kill himself. After that, I didn’t hear about Johnny anymore.
When an angular shadow shambled out of a dark alley, staggered into me, and darted away crowing with glee and waving my wallet, I hadn’t thought of Johnny in years.
“Fuck you!” the ghost yelled, cackling maniacally as he flipped me the bird. “Fuck you, man!”
I stood staring after him, dumbfounded. Half of his face belonged the boy I’d skipped school with. The other half was a weird amalgamation of flesh and metal, held together with sutures and staples. His shoulders were lumpy and uneven, as if his stained jacket covered something no longer wholly human. He ran with an odd, mechanical gait.
What were the odds I’d bump into Johnny again? What were the odds he was even still alive? I wondered as I belatedly gave chase.
My wallet didn’t contain much of value anymore, thanks to the universal ID chip implant that had replaced my identification, driver’s license, and bank access card. Just a few crumpled low-value notes I used to tip the occasional street performer– and even those had mostly transitioned to implant-based transactions. Still, if I wanted the police to take my report seriously I needed to make an attempt to regain my stolen property.
Johnny didn’t make it far; a police bot brought an abrupt halt to his flight as he rounded the corner at the end of the block. Electricity arced, staining the surrounding walls with a flash of white, and Johnny let out a strangled scream.
When I got there, the electronic officer had a boot firmly planted on Johnny’s scrawny chest and a restraint collar fastened around his neck.
“Fuck you!” Johnny wheezed, thrashing. Pink froth seeped from the corners of his mouth. “Pig!”
Electrical discharge stained the street white as the restraint collar did its job. Johnny’s skin and hair had begun to smoke, and the sickly smell of burnt flesh filled the air. The bot leaned forward, settling more of its immense bulk on its victim’s chest. An ominous crunch followed.
“Stop it, you’re killing him!” I heard myself yell. The words echoed in my mind, deja vu of times I’d tried to step between Johnny and an ass-kicking from the bigger kids. It’d earned me my fair share of bloody lips and chipped teeth, but made little difference otherwise.
The bot fixed me with a flat stare. “If you attempt to interfere, you will be detained.”
Beneath the officer’s boot, Johnny’s struggles were growing more frantic. His hands clawed at the unyielding weight on his chest as pink blood frothed from his nose and mouth. Broken ribs and a punctured lung. Maybe worse. His cracked lips formed obscenities, flashing blackened metal.
“Fuck you.” I could barely hear him. “Fuck all of you!” The collar went off again as Johnny raised both middle fingers to his assailant. When the afterimages cleared his eyes were flat and vacant, devoid of life.
The officer flipped the corpse onto its stomach and cuffed its arms behind its back. I’d heard the new Enhanced Safety Enforcement Systems bots didn’t understand death as it related to humans; apparently the rumor mill had been right. As for Johnny, he’d died as he’d lived: destitute and unwanted, raging against a world that’d had it out for him from the start.