When Pigeon arrived at the Green Room, however, she was met with two bearded men wearing woodland camouflage and wrap-around sunglasses. The bulges under their jackets told her that they were armed. As she approached, they turned to face her, tension visible in the lines of their faces. Elizabeth was on the other side of the room, face to face with a young blonde woman in a red plaid jacket and heavy boots with the toes flayed open, revealing pitted metal plates. A hatchet hung from a loop on her belt. The air was charged with palpable tension; whoever this was, she was not a friend of Elizabeth’s.
“Sorry, just gonna sneak by you,” Pigeon said tersely, sidling between the two militia members.
“That’s okay,” said the blonde woman, staring into Elizabeth’s eyes unblinkingly. “I was just leaving. Gonna leave you ladies to your little play date.”
She turned to leave, but stopped in front of Pigeon. Squaring up to her, she gave her the same intense stare that she had been giving Elizabeth. Her eyes were a deep blue, the colour of a gas stove, flecked through with coal-black.
Pigeon had the uncomfortable feeling that this woman could read her thoughts, and cast her eyes aside. She turned to leave and the two militia men filed out after her, leaving Pigeon and Elizabeth alone.
“Who was that,” asked Pigeon, “and what did she want?”
“I don’t know,” responded Elizabeth, peering through the blinds, “and I didn’t ask.” Pigeon wasn’t sure that was the whole truth, but she let it slide.
“I saw the Watcher,” said Pigeon.
“Oh!” exclaimed Elizabeth. Evidently, she had forgotten about Pigeon’s errand in the excitement. “What did he say?”
“A lot of nothing,” said Pigeon dejectedly. “And this one phrase.” She repeated it to Elizabeth, who frowned. “I was hoping you knew something about it.”
“I can’t say that I do,” said Elizabeth. “Except…”
“Except?” prompted Pigeon. Elizabeth began searching the bookshelves, running her fingers along the spines as she talked.
“You know,” she said, “more important than knowing things, is knowing where to find the knowledge when you need it. Because knowledge is power.”
“Kim said that that power is with people,” said Pigeon, remembering one of Kim’s many rants.
“Kim is a good kid,” responded Elizabeth hesitantly. “Her heart is in the right place. But where is her head at?”
“What do you mean?” asked Pigeon.
“Well,” said Elizabeth, “Kim has a lot of privilege. She’s white, thin, pretty, able-bodied, straight. She comes from a wealthy family. She can afford to play urban guerrilla. And her Skeleton Army, it’s mostly just bored college kids looking for an excuse to vent their anger on acceptable targets.”
“There’s power in organising, yes,” continued Elizabeth. “But unless you understand why you’re organising, you’ll never be able to create meaningful change. You’ll never have a clear vision of what change looks like.”
“On the one hand,” Elizabeth concluded, “I definitely shared the animosity that the Skeleton Army had towards the System. On the other hand, I’m not as sure that lashing out at the System is necessarily the correct way to go about things. More importantly, I don’t see how sporadic criminal activity will lead to the popular uprising that they seemed to think it will.”
“But,” said Pigeon, trying to keep up. “Even if you have all that knowledge -”
“Aha!” interjected Elizabeth, pulling a book off the shelf and handing it Pigeon. It was titled The Messiah Industrial Complex, by a Dr. Sophie Demarais, Ph.D.
She thumbed through it briefly while Elizabeth continued. “What do you do with the knowledge? You let it guide your actions, inform your values. If you only ever make decisions with your heart, you’ll eventually find yourself straying to some dark places.”
“Okay, then what am I supposed to do with this knowledge?” asked Pigeon, tapping the spine of the book.
“Flip to the last chapter,” said Elizabeth excitedly. Pigeon turned to the last page, where the running head identified it as belonging to a chapter called A Machine For Ghosts.
“Okay,” said Pigeon. “So what?”
“Sophie,” replied Elizabeth, “is Computing Facilities Manager for the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. We go way back. You should ask her what she knows about this Machine for Ghosts.”
She had her back to the door, so Pigeon knocked on the door frame and coughed softly to get her attention. When she turned around, Pigeon was shocked to see that she was a ‘droid.
Evidently this shock must have registered on her face, because Sophie said chidingly, “You weren’t expecting a synthetic human, were you?”
“No,” said Pigeon truthfully, caught off guard by the question. “I really wasn’t.”
“I don’t have a lecture today, so you caught me just in time,” she said, taking a seat behind her desk. “What can I do for you?”
“I have a question about your book,” said Pigeon.
“You read my book?” inquired Sophie.
“Well,” Pigeon shifted uncomfortably in her seat, suddenly aware of the fact that she had never finished reading a book that didn’t have illustrations. “A friend told me about it. And I was wondering what you could tell me about the machine for ghosts.”
“The machine for ghosts was a play on words, a reference to Koestler’s critique of mind-body dualism, as a part of a dialectical approach to understanding wetware/software interrelations,” said Sophie. Pigeon stared blankly at her, not having comprehended a single word that she had said. Mistaking her silence for quiet contemplation, she pressed on.
“The thesis was that the liberation of synthetic humans was dependent on the widespread acceptance of machine life by authentics, and the antithesis was that authentic liberation was dependent on the widespread acceptance of authentic life by synthetics. Therefore, liberation is dependent on a merging of authentic and synthetic, so that the ghost in the machine becomes a machine for ghosts.”
“Okay,” said Pigeon, nodding uncertainly. Clearly, she would have to be a little more specific. “Here’s why I ask…” She then proceeded to explain, briefly, her encounter with the little sliver of plastic and how she had come across its contents. When she reached the end of the story, she heaved a deep sigh and looked across the desk at Sophie expectantly. Sophie leaned back in her chair, pitch black omni-eyes searching Pigeon’s face.
“Can I show you something?” asked Sophie finally.
“Good-afternoon, Doctor. Would you like me to prepare a report on the animal trial?” A synthetic human- as ‘droids apparently preferred to be called- greeted them at the door to the robotics laboratory.
“Good-afternoon, Shelley,” replied Sophie. “No, that won’t be necessary.” Shelley nodded, and turned back to observing the large maze that dominated the centre of the room. Pigeon peered over at it, apprehensively. She silently hoped that she wouldn’t be expected to handle any of the rats that were currently working their way through the complex labyrinth.
“These rats,” said Sophie, “have all been implanted with a neural graft that allows them to communicate to one another and share a single consciousness. Currently, they are exploring this maze as a single collective, and the reward for completing the maze will be shared equally amongst them. Meanwhile, Shelley is able to communicate with the collective, her goal being to offer a bird’s eye perspective, guiding the collective in achieving its goal.”
“Now,” continued Sophie, “we can start to draw parallels between this experiment and the conditions that the System has produced. Under the System, synthetic humans are created to fulfil a purpose; as soon as we are born, our life has a quantitative value attached to it. Similarly, the displacement of authentic humans by synthetic intelligence also assumes a quantitative value on their life. You can see from the control group the competition between synthetic and authentic rats has created a hierarchical system of violence, whereas the experimental group functions with cohesion, guided towards a mutually beneficial result with precision and efficiency.”
“Okay,” said Pigeon, beginning to comprehend. “So, the ghost is the collective consciousness, and the machine is the rats in the maze. And both the ghost and the machine profit, because they are working together rather than against each other, so that the System is irrelevant.”
“Precisely,” said Sophie. “I hope this answers your question. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare a lecture.”
Pigeon had hardly stepped out of Sophie’s laboratory when her cellphone rang.
“Good morning sunshine!” said a warm female voice on the other end.
“Who is this?” asked Pigeon.
“Think of me as your deus ex machina,” said the voice. “I’m putting together a team, and you come highly recommended. Let’s talk in person.” She rattled off the name of a hotel in High Mountain, and then hung up. Pigeon stared at the receiver, dumbstruck. High Mountain was an hour’s drive; it looked like she would have to ‘borrow’ a car.
Pigeon dropped the stolen car into park in the visitor’s lot and checked the scrap of paper that she had written the address down on. This seemed like the place. Even more so than meeting Sophie, Pigeon felt out of place. Whereas she had revelled in disrupting the homogeneous sterility of the Research Centre, here she felt truly unwelcome, as if she had travelled to the edge of a medieval world map: here be dragons.
The elevator was on the opposite side of the lobby. Pigeon’s shoes slapped hollowly against the marble floors, echoeing in the cavernous space. Her Runner’s Sense sent a prickle of electricity up her neck. She could feel a hundred gazes being drawn to her, and she felt more exposed than she ever had before. These people were agents of the System, hardwired to stamp out people like her at the mere sight of them. Grind them out, like a cigarette butt on the sidewalk.
The hotel suite was on the top floor, south facing. Pigeon took a deep breathe, and knocked on the door. After a few moments, a young woman in a pantsuit answered the door. Smiling broadly as she ushered Pigeon into the room, Pigeon noticed that she had too many teeth, each one a perfect, white square. She was reminded uncomfortably of a shark, bearing down on a wounded fish.
“Drink?” she asked, taking a bottle of sake off of a hot plate and pouring herself a glass.
Pigeon ignored the request, fully enamoured with the view. The city sprawled out in every direction, lights glittering through the few sparse rainclouds that drifted over the city like phantoms.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said the woman sidling up beside her. She swirled the drink thoughtful before taking a deep gulp. “Where are my manners? I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Natsumi Kaji.” She offered a hand to Pigeon, who took it limply in hers.
“Oh well,” she said, grinning. “We’ll work on the handshake. I suppose right about now you’re wondering why I’ve brought you here.”
“Yes,” said Pigeon truthfully. So far, she had never felt any more out of place. Her Runner’s Sense was screaming at her, begging her to back away slowly and Run forever. But something about Natsumi’s warmth kept her rooted to the spot.
“Well,” said Natsumi, swirling her drink. “I was serious. Earlier. On the phone. Do you know what deus ex machina means?” Pigeon shook her head, no. “It’s latin, it means god from the machine. Do you understand?” Again, Pigeon shook her head no.
“Well, try to keep up. The System is a machine, and you can think of me as your God. I’m bound up in the System, same as you. The only difference is that choose to make the System work for me, rather than letting my life be run by the System. Because your life is run by the System. Literally, I think. You Run, it chases. It chases, you Run.” She paused. “I don’t Run, because I don’t have to. I am the System. Now do you understand?”
“And what,” said Pigeon hesitantly, “does the System want with me?”
“So you’re not as stupid as you look,” said Natsumi, winking. “The System doesn’t want you. You know that. But I need someone like you. Someone who thinks quick on their feet and who is as good behind the trigger as they are behind the wheel.”
“That doesn’t sound like the System I know,” said Pigeon. The System she knew preyed on conformity and listlessness.
“That’s because I’m not the System you know. I’m part of the new breed, les nouveous riches. Do you understand? The System you know is decaying; I make it my business to be in business. And insofar as that business is concerned, you can think of me as the reaper.”
“What does the System want with me?” asked Pigeon again, more insistently this time.
“There’s a price on your head, kid. Whether you know it or not. And I’ve come to collect. Stick with me, and there will plenty more views like this one. So many, you’ll be sick of them.”
Natsumi reached into the pocket of her suit jacket, producing a wad of bills which she handed to Pigeon. Pigeon took them gently into the palm of her hand; based on the denomination, this was more cash than she had ever held at once.
“Congratulations. You are now a paid contractor of the Kuroyama Corporation. I’ll have the contracts sent to your new address.”
“New address?” said Pigeon, still mesmerised by the money clutched tightly in her hands.
“The job comes with perks. Company residence, company car.” Natsumi wrinkled her nose in disgust, and added, “I suggest you get some new clothes. You stink.”
“Thanks,” responded Pigeon dryly.
“Oh, don’t mention it,” said Natsumi, grinning widely.
“Tell me more about this job,” said Pigeon, slipping the wad of cash into her coat pocket.
“What,” said Natsumi, draining the last of her drink, “do you know about the Millennium Project?” Pigeon thought hard, recalling something that she remembered Kim mentioning.
“It’s a plan to renovate the water front, right?” said Pigeon. Natsumi threw her head back and let out a bark-like laugh.
“Sure thing,” said Natsumi, grinning. “Stick with me, and I’ll bring you to the top of the world. When you’re ready, you should meet the rest of the team.” She handed Pigeon a business card with an address scrawled in ballpoint covering the back.
Pigeon flipped it over. Apparently, Natsumi was a junior executive vice president. The Kuroyama logo, a black triangle emblazoned over a hexagon, glared up at her. Her new identity beckoned her forwards. If she was going to sell her soul to the devil, she wanted to make sure she got the best deal possible.
“There is one thing…” said Pigeon.
“Oh?” asked Natsumi, cocking an eyebrow.
“The last time I ‘got involved’ with the System, they burned my chip.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Natsumi, waving away the objection as if one would wave away a fly. “That’s covered under your new medical plan. Get that sorted out right away. You might need it. After all, this is Pacific City.”
“Isn’t it though,” responded Pigeon dryly.