Chapter 4: A Machine for Ghosts

“Hey,” answered Kim, picking up on the first ring. “Sorry I couldn’t talk earlier. I had-”

“A thing,” interrupted Pigeon. “Yeah, you said.”

“Yeah,” replied Kim. “So what’s up?”

“I took care of my thing. The heat is off,” said Pigeon flatly.

“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Kim.

“No,” said Pigeon, adding “but I need somewhere to stay.”

“You can stay with me,” said Kim without hesitating. “I’m just on the East side.”

Pigeon hung up the phone. Sitting alone, listening to rain hammer the roof of the car, she struggled to hold herself together, fingers tapping the steering wheel rhythmically. After a few moments, though, she could no longer manage.  Letting out a low moan, she broke down dry-sobbing. There were no tears.

Pigeon had briefly explained the situation with Maria, and Kim was careful not to ask too many questions. At the end of the conversation, they both agreed that it would be better if Pigeon laid low for the time being. So, with some discomfort, she settled into a new domestic routine.

Living with Kim, Pigeon got to see a whole other side of her that was quite unlike the spunky, outgoing attitude that she had gotten used to.

While Pigeon would describe her own sleep pattern as ‘nocturnal’, Kim’s lifestyle was something approaching truly erratic. She would stay awake for three or four days straight, during which she was a constant whirlwind of activity, planning robberies and ranting aloud about various political subjects.

Then she would crash for just as long, becoming moody and sullen, spending most of her time in bed or abusing inanimate objects. Pigeon learned to match the ebb and flow of Kim’s emotions, cooking and cleaning with her on the good days, and sitting alone planning her next Run or inventing errands to run on the bad days.

Thus it was that on one of Kim’s good days that they were smoking together on the patio. The back door was open, and the sound of one of Kim’s punk albums drifted over them, mingling with the sound of the rain.

Kim smoked ultra-lights; Pigeon thought that there would have been more nicotine if they had been rolled with pencil shavings, but she bummed one regardless.

“So,” said Kim, exhaling.

“So,” replied Pigeon.

“I have our meeting tonight, and I was wondering if maybe you wanted to come this time?” asked Kim. Every Friday evening, regardless of her mood, Kim left for a mysterious ‘meeting’ and didn’t return for several hours. She never shared the exact nature of these meetings with Pigeon, and she knew better than to ask, so the sudden invitation caught her slightly off guard.

Her mind was split. Her Runner’s sense cried out overwhelmingly, screaming for her to not get involved. Her curiosity, however, was more than just a little piqued. As she mulled it over, she toyed nervously with the little metal scorpion. She had found it again while she was unpacking her stuff, and she had taken to playing with it absentmindedly.

“Hey, that’s a cool little thing,” said Kim. “What is it?”

“Well,” said Pigeon, glad for the change of topic. “It was a little scorpion. But it kind of got… mushed.”

“Aww,” responded Kim. “How come?” Pigeon had to think about that for a couple seconds. Why had she started to untwine it? It seemed like centuries had passed since the little thing had passed into her possession.

“There was a thing inside of it,” said Pigeon after searching her memories.

“Oh?” said Kim inquisitively. “What sort of thing?”

“Hold on,” said Pigeon, hurrying to her room. Where had it ended up? She knew she wouldn’t have thrown it away, not after all the the trouble she had gone through to end up with it in her possession. After tossing most of stuff around trying to find it, she eventually discovered it at the bottom of the pockets of a pair of torn old jeans.

“Here,” she said, sliding it across the table at Kim, who was waiting patiently.

“Weird,” she said thoughtfully, turning it over in her right hand while using her left to smoke. “I’ve never seen anything like this,”

“No,” said Pigeon truthfully. “Never. Can I bum another smoke?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Kim absently, slidding the pack across the table to Pigeon. You know, I might know someone who can tell you more about this.”

“Oh yeah?” said Pigeon, lighting up.  

“If you come to the meeting tonight, I can introduce you,” said Kim.

Pigeon hesitated, inspecting the embers dangling from her fingertips, even though she knew that she had already made up her mind.

“Edgy,” she said finally. “Tab me in”.

****

The meeting was across town, in the basement of a community centre in the Pandora neighbourhood. Pandora had been a hub of art and culture in Pacific City around the turn of the century. Since then, however, the neighbourhood had fallen on hard times. Now it was the epicentre of the most visible aspects of the City’s problems: drugs, crime, and decay. Pigeon knew it well; she had come of age in Pandora’s Box.

By the time they arrived, the room was already set up with flimsy plastic chairs in a circle. A low table against the wall had a small coffee maker and a few plastic containers of food. Kim had explained that the meetings were always potlucks. They brought a small bowl of potato salad that they had left over from the night before.

“Pigeon,” said Kim, after exchanging pleasantries with a few people. “This is Alastair.” Pigeon had been watching from the corner while Kim made her rounds. From what she could tell, Alastair was the leader of whatever this group was. When she said this to him, he gave a short bark-like laugh.

“I’m flattered,” he said. “But the Skeleton Army doesn’t have leaders. At least, not in the traditional sense.”

“How do you mean?” asked Pigeon.

“The Skeleton Army is a collective, which means that we make decisions as a group, by consensus, and everyone is given an equal share in power,” answered Alastair.

“Okay,” said Pigeon, frowning. She had trouble picturing what a leaderless group would look like. “So what does the Skeleton Army actually do? What is it?”

“What has Kim told you?” responded Alastair.

“Uhh,” said Pigeon, wracking her brain to separate what Kim had told her about the Skeleton Army from all of her many political statements. “I know that it’s a voluntary political movement that organises in the community. But what does that actually mean?”

“Well, being voluntary means that no one is ever handed duties or issued orders; people only do what they are willing and capable of doing,” explained Alastair. “I already said that we are leaderless, that we make all of decisions together. A lot of what we do is simply making our community better. Most of the money that Kim brings in goes into things like making and distributing food to people who can’t afford it.”

“Okay,” said Pigeon. “Then what’s with the name? If all you do is ‘make the community better’, then why do you have such an ominous name?”

“First,” said Alastair. “First, there’s the history of our group. The original Skeleton Army was organised in the early 1880s in England as a lower class movement against religious-based oppression. In the 1920s and ‘30s Skeleton Armies fought against fascist movements in Italy, Germany and Spain.”

“And second?” prompted Pigeon.

“Second,” continued Alastair, “community organising isn’t the only thing we do. It’s a big part of it, but we also engage in direct action.”

“What does that mean?” asked Pigeon.

“For us, it means confronting fascism head-on. We organise against far-right groups and capitalist oppression, in the streets rather than in the legislature,” said Alastair proudly. “We aren’t politicians; we act, rather than engage in pointless, endless debate.”

“Okay,” said Pigeon, trying to keep up. “Then why all the secrecy?”

“Because,” explained Alastair, “not everything we do is legal. For one thing, we don’t believe in private property. We have no qualms targeting corporate giants.” Pigeon nodded, suddenly understanding why Kim suggested some locations for robberies while vetoing others. “Second, what we really want to do is inspire militant anti-capitalist action. If we were any more open, the System would come down on us, hard.”

By that time, enough people had filtered into the basement that the meeting could come to a start. Alastair excused himself, settling into his seat and producing a binder thick with papers. Craning her neck, Pigeon could see that it was photocopied pamphlets, news clippings, and pages torn from books.

The first item on the agenda was the last food distribution that they had done, an apparent success. A small handful of people volunteered to organise the next one, and Alastair dutifully recorded their names in the binder. Next, someone brought up a new right-wing group that had cropped up in one of the suburbs.

Word on the street was that they were a militia group from the prairies, muscling in on the local scene. Another small handful of people raised their hands to investigate further. When it came time to discuss the Army’s finances, Kim handed over a stack of cash from a bag that Pigeon recognised from their last robbery.

The final item on the agenda was a request for assistance; someone named Elizabeth, who was unable to attend that week, needed help driving things around. For this, Kim raised her hand and nudged Pigeon to do the same.

“This is the person I wanted you to meet,” she whispered as way of explanation.

With that, the meeting was adjourned. Most people lingered behind, chatting about their lives and hovering near the table of food. Pigeon returned the fist bump that Alastair offered her, giving a non-committal grunt when he asked whether or not she would be coming to the next meeting.

****

The car splashed through a pothole as Pigeon pulled up to the curb and dropped the car into park. Elizabeth lived in Little Caribbean, a neighbourhood adjacent to Pandora.

On the short drive over, Pigeon had continued to quiz Kim on her involvement in the Skeleton Army.

In short, Kim believed that the System was inherently violent, and that any act of violence against the System was therefore inherently justified.

Stepping into Elizabeth’s home was an immediate assault on all five senses. The first thing Pigeon noticed was how warm it was, the scent of curry wafting through the doorway where the hot air rippled when it met the cold night, so strong she could taste it. The next thing she observed was the loud reggae music playing on the record player against the far wall, and the posters that seemed to adorn every surface, slogans screaming as loud as the music.

No, that wasn’t correct: on second glance, posters only covered part of the room. What really took up space were the books. More than anything else, the space was full of books. Shelves upon shelves of them, most of them with the covers torn off and the title scrawled in felt pen along the naked paper spines. In some places where there were no shelves they simply piled up on the floor. Not just in the main room, but Pigeon could also see some rooms in the back that were similarly packed full of books.

“Welcome,” said Kim, shutting the door behind her, “to the Green Room.”

Just then, a cooking timer on the stove rang. A middle-aged black woman with thick horn-rimmed glasses came bustling out of one the back rooms. Her tightly curly hair was piled on top of her head in a messy bun. She was wearing lime-green house slippers and pyjama pants that clashed horribly with her hot pink tank-top.

“Hi, Kim,” she said in a heavy Jamaican accent, sliding a baking tray out of the oven. “And you must be Pigeon? Kim has told me a lot about you. Samosa?” She placed a plate full of fragrant doughy triangles on the kitchen table. Kim dutifully took a few off the plate and slid them into her purse before taking one for herself. Pigeon took on hesitantly, nibbling slightly at one of the corners. It was still piping hot, and the flavours exploded in her mouth, totally unlike anything she had tasted before. Seeing the expression on Pigeon’s face, Elizabeth laughed warmly and offered her another, which she gratefully took.

“So,” interjected Elizabeth, clapping her hands together over the sound of chewing. “Let’s chat.” They moved from the kitchen to the living room, where a number of lumpy, crooked couches sat in a semi-circle. Pigeon noticed that she walked with a distinctive limp in her left leg.

“Pigeon, Kim says you’re reliable, that you’re looking for work, and that you don’t ask a lot of questions,” said Elizabeth, settling into a slightly threadbare armchair.

“That’s right,” said Pigeon through a mouthful of spicy potatoes.

“I have some products that need to be moved around, pick-up and delivery,” said Elizabeth.

“What’s the heat?” asked Pigeon.

“My operation is pretty low key, and no one is trying to muscle in on our turf,” responded Elizabeth. “Easy as can be.”

“And the catch?” asked Pigeon.

“The catch,” said Elizabeth, “is that I can’t pay you much. I do most of my business by barter.” If Elizabeth hadn’t fed her already, Pigeon thought she probably would walked out right then.

“We actually have a favour to ask you,” interjected Kim, catching Pigeon’s eye.

“Oh?” said Elizabeth inquisitively. Pigeon produced the little plastic chip, and Elizabeth took it into cupped hands.

“Interesting,” she said, frowning. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Pigeon felt let down, and she shot Kim a glare. Kim missed it, however, waiting patiently for Elizabeth to speak again.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said after about a minute of silence. “I think I know someone who can tell you more about this little doo-dad. Let’s work out some sort of quid pro quo.”

“Quid pro quo?” asked Pigeon.

“Right,” said Elizabeth. “Information for services rendered. Deal?”

“Sounds good!” said Kim, speaking for the both of them.

“Great!” said Elizabeth. “Come with me, and I’ll show you what the job is.”

Slightly bewildered at what had just happened, Pigeon stuffed another samosa in her mouth and followed Kim and Elizabeth into the backyard. Elizabeth led them across a small tract of grass to a two-car garage, where she unlocked the heavy padlock protecting the door with an ornate key she produced from her pants pocket.

“They prefer the dark,” Elizabeth aid in a hushed voice as they stepped through the doorway.

As her eyes adjusted to the dark, Pigeon could see that the garage was full of hanging troughs, all of them lined with small, luminescent mushrooms. As she watched, they shifted from blue to pink to green, and then back to blue. The pale lights shimmering against the roof of the garage reminded her of the northern lights.

“Wow!” whispered Kim softly. “I’ve never seen the grow before.”

“What do you do with them?” asked Pigeon.

“Crush them up into tea,” replied Elizabeth, ushering them out of the garage and closing the lock behind her. “They’re great for chronic pain, anxiety, depression… I use them for my hip.”

“What happened to your hip?” asked Pigeon.

“She had her pelvis fractured by a riot cop at a protest,” said Kim reverentially.

“Right,” said Elizabeth. “Now, you kids go and get some rest. Pigeon, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Elizabeth was right: her operation was too small to attract much interest, and Pigeon completed the deliveries without encountering much trouble. One customer was reluctant to pay the full agreed-upon amount, but he quickly changed his mind after Pigeon flashed her switch blade and said a few choice words. After returning the cash to the Green Room, Elizabeth had given her a scrap of paper with directions handwritten on them.

“Once you find out what’s on that thing,” said Elizabeth, “come back here and we’ll figure out what to do next.”

****

The address in the note brought her to a non-descript brick tenement in Richmond. Pigeon had to check a couple times to make sure that she was at the right place. Frowning, she flipped the paper over, trying to decipher Elizabeth’s cramped, messy handwriting. Once she thought she had it figured out, she parked the car in the alleyway and walked around to the back of the building, where she knocked on the windowless door in the pattern that Elizabeth had described.

The door opened a crack, and a young man stuck his head out of the door. He looked around quickly, then ushered Pigeon inside. The first thing Pigeon noticed was the cold. It was a cool, wet day in Vancouver, but the antechamber was easily ten degrees colder than outside. Wordlessly, the young man began to pile on layers of winter clothing. Once he was done, he finally addressed Pigeon.

“You have the thing?” he asked plainly.

“The thing. Yes,” replied Pigeon, handing him the little plastic chip.

He nodded, then led her through the thick metal door to the inner chamber. A blast of cold air struck Pigeon in the face like an open-handed slap. If the previous room was like a refrigerator, then this one was more akin to a giant, walk-in freezer. The walls were lined with banks of computers, exposed circuit boards whirring with fans that almost drowned out the enormous cooling fans set into the ceiling.

“Computers are more efficient in the cold,” said the Scribe by way of explanation. “They help him do his work.”

The ‘him’ in question was laying the centre of the room in what looked to be an old dentist’s chair set to full recline. Cables snaked from various computers around the room and plugged into metal slot implanted in the base of his neck. A row of monitors sat across from him, flashing snippets of news reports and traffic cameras. An IV drip fed a constant stream colourless liquid into his bloodstream. This was one of the Watchers.

Pigeon had heard rumours about the existence of the Watchers, but she had dismissed them as just another urban legend. The way the story was told, Watchers were the antithesis of Runners. Whereas Runners evaded the System by existing outside of it, constantly trying to stay one step ahead of it, Watchers made themselves invisible to the System by allowing the System to subsume them entirely. The Scribe fed the chip into a console, hit a few keys on the keyboard, then settled down in an armchair next to the Watcher. He pulled a coil-bound notebook out from his jacket, pen at the ready, and waited.

Suddenly, the monitors flickered, the images replaced with lines of scrolling code. The Watcher began to twitch, eyes rolling behind closed lids, muttering softly. Pigeon couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the young man hunched over his comatose form evidently could, and recorded everything dutifully in the notebook. As the page continued to fill up, she found herself steadily growing edgier. The anticipation of finally unravelling the mystery was killing her.

So when the Scribe finally presented the notebook page to her, she found herself greatly underwhelmed. It was mostly just gibberish, what seemed like random words, fragments of sentences, and nonsensical diagrams. At the very bottom of the page, however, was a single phrase that he had written in all capitals and circled many times:

A machine for ghosts.

The Scribe made a photocopy of the notebook page and handed the copy to Pigeon along with the small plastic sliver, both of which she tucked into her jacket pocket. Somewhat dejectedly, she made her way back to the Green Room, thoughts chasing each other around her head. Pigeon had to admit to herself that she had hoped for something with a little more pizazz, like a map of the city with a big ‘x marks the spot’ with over the location of buried pirate gold. Or something. She really hoped that, for all of her books, Elizabeth would be able to shed some light on that mysterious phrase.

It was on the drive back to the Green Room that her cellphone rang.

“Hullo?” she answered.

“…Pigeon…?” Amidst the crackle of static, she was able to make out a single word. But that voice… It was impossible. Pigeon stared blankly at the handset. It couldn’t have been Anita. Was she hallucinating again? Must have been. Anita was dead.

****

It was the summer of 1997. Late summer, hot, smog low in the sky. The only music on the radio was Big Shiny Tunes 2. The summer of ‘97. The year she met Anita.

Pigeon was working pizza delivery, with a little bit of weed on the side. She slept in her car, technically homeless, moving it from abandoned parking lot to abandon parking lot, constantly dodging the police.

Her same pair of torn black jeans and oversize white t-shirt were filthy, but she didn’t have the change to spare for laundry services. She was trying to save up for her next dose, knowing all the while that the proverbial Sword of Damocles hovered over her head, the knowledge that at any point she could be made to disappear back into the CHEEK. So when she was fired, Pigeon found herself cast-off, cut loose and totally adrift.

The darkness, which had always been there, consumed her. A shadow that lived in her heart and devoured whatever joy she fed it. It had swallowed her whole. She couldn’t afford her next dose on the amount of cash she had left in her pocket. Everything seemed hopeless.

Pigeon was sitting alone on a park bench in the hot sun, listening to the voices and chain smoking, idly contemplating the recent burns that dotted her arms, each one the perfect round circle of a lit cigarette tip. Her burgeoning Runner’s Sense sent a tingle running up and down her neck, but she could do nothing to stop it.

“You should end it,” said a voice beside her.

“You should escalate,” said another.

“She should make it real,” chimed in a third.

“She won’t do it,” commented the second voice.

“She’s too weak,” agreed the first.

        “Hey baby,” came a voice from behind her. “Mind if I sit with you?” Pigeon didn’t respond. If she responded to every voice she heard, she would never stop babbling. The sun was in her eyes, and she couldn’t immediately discern if this voice belonged to a real person or not. Evidently it did though, because a freckled, heroin gaunt young woman plopped down next to her, greasy red hair glinting in the sunlight.

        “Do you hear them too?” she asked, after scouring Pigeon’s face for a few silent minutes.

        “What?” asked Pigeon incredulously.

        “The voices, baby. Do you hear them too?”

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