That morning, Bejji’s father had finally worn out his ghost, so he asked Bejji to come along with him to buy a new one.
This was the first time Bejji had ever been asked to go shopping for a ghost, so she was excited. Normally, she’d have been at school, but it was the holidays. If her mum had still been around, she wouldn’t have been allowed to go. Her mum had always hated the ghosts, which she called nasty unnatural things, while, as her dad liked to point out, never actually rejecting all that the ghosts did for them. But Bejji’s mum had packed her bags and left six months ago, and her dad had been extra nice to Bejji ever since, to make up for the absence.
Bejji could have told him it wasn’t necessary. She was happy enough to be rid of their endless bickering, which had made her seriously consider running away more than once, to need pampering. But being asked to go along to buy a ghost was something new, and she agreed enthusiastically.
Bejji’s father had decided on buying his ghost from a store that was right across town. Actually, there were only a few ghost suppliers, and all of them were across town. Most ordinary people didn’t need to own ghosts, just use the services they provided. But then most ordinary people weren’t Bejji’s father.
Bejji’s father was a sculptor; not just any sculptor, either. He worked in metal, which he melted in furnaces and poured into moulds, or else welded together in fantastically twisted shapes that still somehow looked like they could be alive. Bejji had absolutely no artistic ability, as her father himself admitted, but even she could tell that they were beautiful, in the way a waterfall of metal frozen in mid-air might be beautiful, or a metal bird spreading its wings in an attempt to fly might be beautiful. They were things that shouldn’t exist, but did. Bejji knew her father was a great man.
Of course, given all the metal work he had to do, Bejji’s father needed his own furnace, welders, and other tools, all of which needed a lot of power, which was why he had to have a ghost of his own and had been issued a licence to own one. He kept this licence in the safe deposit locker of his bank, and the first thing they did was to go to the bank so he could take it with him to show. Not everyone could get a licence to buy a ghost of their own, either, and Bejji understood that she should be proud that her father had one.
Bejji didn’t like the bank. There were too many people there, all of whom seemed worried all the time, and she thought they smelt of unhappiness. But luckily they didn’t have to be there long, and soon enough they were on the train going across the city.
The train was, of course, ghost-powered, and clean and silent. Bejji had been taught in school that they used to be pulled by ugly, dirty, smoke-spewing steam engines, and after that by ones which ran on electric power produced by stations which were themselves ugly, dirty, and smoke-spewing. It was so much better these days that the world had ghosts to produce all the power that everyone needed, their teacher had said, and asked them to write essays on what they thought.
Bejji had written about her father and how he had a licence to buy ghosts, and that hadn’t made her teacher happy. “This is elitist,” she’d said, looking down at the essay. “I wanted you to write about how ghost power has made the world better, not about how your father’s privileged to buy one. Think of all your friends whose parents don’t have any ghosts. Now go and write it over again.”
So Bejji had written one that she’d cribbed from an article she’d found on the net, and it had been very bad, as even she’d realised. But the teacher had been happy.
“That’s more like it,” she’d said, and given Bejji a B. “I’m glad to see you’re paying attention now.”
From the window of the train, which, of course, ran on elevated tracks, Bejji could look across the sprawl of the city to the towering blocks of the business section of the city, which looked like distant mountain cliffs covered with snow. Her father had told her that earlier, before the ghost technology was invented, the air of the city was so full of smoke that those buildings would be invisible from this distance. But today, not only could Bejji see them, she could even see the actual mountains, blue on the far horizon.
The train stopped for a few seconds at a station, and a young man in a black jacket got on and sat down opposite Bejji and her father. There was something wrong with him. His head kept twitching from side to side, his mouth moving and twisting as though he couldn’t make up his mind whether to smile or cry. His hands twisted on his thighs, the fingers wriggling like pale earthworms, while his boots seemed to be dancing on the floor of the carriage even though he was sitting on the bench.
Bejji nudged her father. “What’s wrong with...” she whispered.
“Shh. I’ll tell you later.”
As though he’d heard, the young man looked up suddenly at Bejji. His eyes were huge, the pupils so large that they seemed to have taken over the entire eyeball, with only a little bit of white left over. She’d never seen anyone with eyes like that. It looked for a second as though he wanted to say something to her. His mouth opened, closed, and opened again. Then he looked down at his hands and went back to twitching and dancing once more.
Bejji and her father got off at the next station. As the train moved off, Bejji glimpsed the young man one last time, his head still twitching and shaking hard enough to be clearly visible through the window.
“That was a pre-criminal, Bej,” her father explained. “They tested him, like they test everyone else in school, and they found that he would most likely commit crimes when he grew up. So in order to prevent that they put a chip in his head.”
“A chip?” Bejji repeated.
“Yes. It’s keyed to his brain, and whenever he has a bad thought it sends out impulses which break that thought up. So he can’t think about committing a crime long enough to plan it.” He smiled. “It’s only given to the most dangerous pre-criminals, of course. It’s too costly to be given to anyone.”
Bejji thought about having a chip in her head and was appalled. “That’s horrible!” she said. “It’s cruel.”
“Of course it isn’t.” Her father’s voice took on the tone she knew well, the one he always adopted when explaining something to her as though she was still a baby. “If this chip wasn’t in his head, he’d commit those crimes – what crimes we can’t say, but something very bad. A lot of people would get harmed, perhaps hurt or even killed. And he would be put in prison afterwards, for many, many years or even the rest of his life. This way he’s no danger to anybody, and he still has his freedom. Isn’t that good?”
Bejji thought about it and decided it wasn’t good. “What if the chip stops working?” she asked, as they left the station and walked towards the pedestrian subway.
“It won’t,” her father said. “It’s ghost-powered, and a powerful ghost too. They last for sixty or seventy years. A ghost that strong could power a whole section of the city, but it’s used only to keep people like that poor man from harming himself and others. It’s just one of the many ways ghost technology helps us.”
Bejji wanted to say something – she wasn’t quite sure what – but then they came to the ghost store. It didn’t look like a shop. There were no large display windows or anything like that, just a door with a small brass plate set into the wall to one side, over a doorbell.
“This is the best ghostseller in the city,” Bejji’s father said, pressing the bell. The door opened and a young woman stood there, smiling at them. She was a very pretty young woman, and had a nice smile.
“I’m so glad to meet you,” she said to Bejji’s father, enthusiastically. “I’ve been an admirer of your work for years and years.”
“Thanks,” Bejji’s father said. He seemed embarrassed for some reason. “I’m here to buy a ghost.”
“Yes, so you said on the phone,” the young lady agreed. She led them into a long room that had a counter down the middle and metal cabinets all along one side. There was another young person there, this one a man.
“Could I see your licence, please, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.” Bejji’s father handed the licence over. As the young man looked it over, Bejji went over to the posters that lined the wall on the side opposite to the cabinets. They had pictures of machines, which explained how ghost power was used to drive them. Bejji looked them over with interest. The ghosts were kept in narrow flat boxes, the size of which depended on the strength of the ghost. Some were half the size of a palm of one’s hand, while others, which powered entire sections of the city, were as tall and broad as a grown man. One of the photographs showed a man looking up at a line of boxes which seemed to be as high as Bejji’s father’s house.
“Interested in ghosts, are you?” It was the girl who had met them at the door. “Would you like me to explain about them?”
Bejji didn’t say “yes” or “no,” but the young woman acted as though she’d agreed anyway.
“See these boxes?” she asked. “The ghosts are inside them, frozen in crystals. The ghosts make the crystals vibrate constantly.” She pointed at a diagram, which showed a box with part of the top and front missing. A pale yellow glittering sheet was connected to the box sides with thin wires. “Normally this vibration’s confined within the box, but once the ghosts are plugged into the machines they’re meant to run, the vibration is picked up by a reader in the machine and turned into energy. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Bejji dutifully, though she didn’t, not quite. “And the larger the ghost box, the larger the crystal?”
“No, there’s a limit to the sizes of the crystals. The larger boxes actually have many crystals – some of them have hundreds – with a ghost in each. That way, no matter how much power anyone needs, we can provide enough ghosts for the job. Clever, isn’t it?”
Bejji nodded. “Where do you get the ghosts?” she asked, because the young woman seemed to expect some question.
“You know...they make them in the factories.” The girl gestured vaguely. “I don’t really know all the details about that. But I’m sure you can find out if you really want.”
Bejji’s father, who’d just finished his business, called her now. “Stop bothering the lady, Bej.”
“She isn’t bothering me, sir,” the woman replied, smiling again. She seemed to smile whenever she looked at Bejji’s father, which made Bejji feel a bit strange. “It’s a pleasure answering her questions.”
“Did you ask her a lot of questions?” Bejji’s father asked, when they’d left the ghost shop.
Bejji shook her head. “I only asked her one, and she couldn’t answer that. Where do the factories get the ghosts to put in the boxes?”
“Why, didn’t she know?” Bejji’s father laughed. “She probably thought it would be too hard for you to understand. There’s something called cosmic radiation that’s everywhere, all around us. The ghost factories trap that radiation and concentrate it.”
“Yes. Remember how I showed you that a magnifying glass can focus the sun to burn a hole in a piece of paper?” Bejji nodded, remembering the blackening spot on the sheet and the curl of smoke. “Well, the factories focus the radiation and make ghosts out of it.”
“Oh.” It didn’t sound very interesting. “Where’s the ghost?”
“They have to go through some checks,” Bejji’s father said. “They’ll be delivering it tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Bejji said again. She saw an interesting signboard over a shop. “Could I have some ice cream, please?”
The ghost was delivered the next afternoon. Bejji had been watching television and had to answer the doorbell, since her father was in his workshop. She then had to fetch him to sign the papers and take the package containing the box with the new ghost. The delivery people then took away the box with the worn-out old ghost with them.
“What will they do with the old one?’ Bejji asked.
Her father, busy opening the package, didn’t even look up. “Erase it and upload a new one, I suppose. Help me clean this up.”
Later, Bejji’s father let her carry the ghost down to the workshop. It was only a small flat box, easy to carry in one hand, and she rubbed it with her fingers to see if she could feel the vibrating of the crystal inside. But all she felt was the smooth warm metal.
“How long will the ghost last?” she asked.
Her father shrugged. “The old one lasted four years, but I was less busy then than I am now.” That was because ever since Bejji’s mum had left her father had taken to spending more and more time in his workshop. “Maybe two years, three if I’m lucky.” He took the ghost from her and attached it to the computer on which he made his designs. “It’ll have to get harmonised with the instruments,” he said. “It takes time. I’ll go up and make dinner.”
Bejji knew what that meant. Her father would spend the evening, and probably the entire night, in the workshop, melting, cutting and pouring. “I’ll come along,” she said reluctantly, because being around her father while he was cooking meant being told to fetch and carry and wash, and she hated all that.
Today, though, with the new ghost, her father was in far too good a mood. “You can stay down here if you want,” he said. “Just don’t touch the machinery.”
When he’d gone, Bejji wandered over to the computer. The top half of the screen was flickering with lines of numbers and letters that moved far too fast for her to read, but the bottom had only a blinking cursor. On an impulse, she pressed enter and waited.
To her surprise, a question appeared under the cursor. “Who are you?”
“Bejji.” The computer had never responded to her before, and she took a moment to recover. “Are you the ghost?”
“Yes,” the reply came. “I’m the ghost. Are you my new owner?”
It felt disconcerting to be asked this in those terms. “That’s my father,” she said. “He got you for his workshop.” And then, suddenly, it struck her what was happening. “Wait. You can talk?”
“Of course I can,” the ghost said. “Why did you think I couldn’t?”
Bejji took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. Then she bent to the keyboard again.
“There you are,” Bejji’s father said, when she walked into the kitchen some time later. “I was just about to call you.” He peered at her. “What’s the matter? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s not funny,” Bejji said. “It’s not funny at all!”
Bejji’s father nodded at the dining table. “Sit down and tell me.”
“Do you know what ghosts are?” Bejji asked.
Her father blinked. “I told you...”
“No,” she interrupted. “Do you know what they really are? Have you ever talked to one?”
“Talked to one?” Bejji’s father looked at her. “What on earth are you talking about? How can you talk to a ghost? It’s a power source.”
“A power source, yes,” Bejji said. “That’s because we use them as power sources, just like we used to use horses and oxen like you told me. But ghosts are just as alive as oxen or horses. No, I don’t mean alive. I mean, they can think and feel and the rest of it.”
“And a ghost told you this? Bej, your imagination –”
“It’s not my imagination! It’s your new ghost, downstairs. I was talking to it on the computer. It answered my questions.”
“Is that so?” Bejji’s father had apparently decided to humour her. “What did it say to you?”
“You said ghosts are from the...the background energy of the universe, right? The ghost says it’s more than that. It says all the information, the thoughts and feelings of all the people and plants and animals that ever lived, anywhere – they all merge into this energy when they die. That’s what ghosts are – the thoughts and feelings and hopes and desires of all of them. And all we do is make them turn motors until they’re worn out, and then we throw them away!”
“Let’s go and see,” Bejji’s father said. “I want to see this for myself.”
So they went down to the workshop, and Bejji’s father turned very pale when he saw the screen. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he muttered. And then he asked the ghost some questions of his own. The words he used were too complex for Bejji to understand, but whatever the ghost said, he grew more and more disquieted. Finally, he turned off the computer and stood up.
“I think we’d better go and have dinner,” he said shortly.
“But what about the ghost?” Bejji asked. “What are you going to do?”
Bejji’s father sighed. “Tomorrow,” he said, “I’m going to have a talk to the ghost suppliers, and see what they have to say.”
“It’s nothing at all.” The young man from the ghost store gestured at Bejji’s father’s work computer. “It must have been a glitch, or maybe just your daughter’s imagination.”
“It wasn’t what you call just my daughter’s imagination,” Bejji’s father replied. “I talked to the ghost myself.”
“But there’s no way you could have,” the young man said. “There’s no way an energy source can communicate.”
“Have a look for yourself,” Bejji’s father said.
“All right,” the young man said. He wasn’t smiling today, not at all. “It’s a waste of time, but I’ll look.”
Bejji watched him plug in the ghost and check the computer screen. She already knew what he was going to say before he said it. “It’s a defect in the ghost box, that’s all, sir. We’ll replace it with a new one right away.”
“A defect?” Bejji’s father echoed. “You mean that whole conversation is just because the box is...defective?”
“That’s right. We’re sorry for your inconvenience. We’ll replace the box right away.”
For a dry-mouthed moment Bejji thought her father would say yes, but then he slowly shook his head. “Not so fast. What kind of defective box could make such a false conversation? How is it possible?”
“We’ll check it and see, sir. We don’t want this sort of thing to happen again, either.”
“I’ll bet you don’t,” Bejji’s father agreed grimly. “No, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want the ghost replaced after all.”
“No,” Bejji’s father repeated. “That ghost is legally purchased, isn’t it? It’s my property now?”
The young man looked acutely unhappy. “If you put it that way...”
“I do put it that way,” Bejji’s father said. He glanced at Bejji. “And my daughter does, too.”
As soon as the young man had left, Bejji’s father jumped into action. “We don’t have much time,” he snapped. “Pack up whatever you want to take with you. We have to leave quickly.”
“What?” Bejji asked.
“Do you think they’ll leave us alone? That man will have contacted his bosses by now, and they’ll call the government. This isn’t a small thing, Bej.”
“I don’t understand,” Bejji said plaintively.
Bejji’s father didn’t even look at her. He was throwing things into a large bag. “You saw that man? Of course he knew all about the ghosts being able to think and so on. They certainly knew all about it but never said a word because that would make it hard to make ghost technology acceptable.”
“So what are they going to do?”
“Are you going to stand there like that or get your things? They’re going to raid this house, probably tonight, on some excuse or other. Maybe they’ll say they had a tip that a post-criminal was seen near here or something. They have all kinds of laws they can use for excuses. And during that raid, this ghost box will vanish and be replaced by an ordinary one.”
“You mean there is something wrong with the box?” Bejji asked before going to her room to pack.
“There’s certainly something wrong with it,” her father said. “What’s wrong with it is that it got into the wrong supply chain.” He shook his head. “I’ll explain later. Now go and pack, before they get here.”
“Where are we going?” Bejji said a little later, as they left the house.
“A hotel somewhere,” her father said tersely. “We’ve got to hide out until I think of what to do.” He held up a hand. “Hear that?”
Faintly, and then more clearly, sirens were sounding in the distance.
“We absolutely deny that any such thing is possible,” the representative of the ghost manufacturers said. The television studio lights glittered brightly on his shiny white teeth. “I think these accusations are...a little overwrought.”
The interviewer smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure we can all agree that some accusations need to be disregarded. Still, the fact remains that these particular claims are somewhat specific.”
It was several weeks later. For several weeks, Bejji and her father had hidden, moving from hotel to hotel, and from city to city. Bejji’s father had made phone calls and sent mails, and talked to people she’d never seen before. Sometimes he’d been discouraged, but only for a while. And then at last he’d taken a deep breath of satisfaction when he’d seen the television news and the lead story, which was about ghosts being claimed to be sentient and that ghost technology might be equivalent to slavery.
“They can’t bury it now,” he’d said. “They can dispute it, but they can’t bury it.” And, sure enough, a couple of days later, the television channel had contacted him for an interview.
“They’re also totally preposterous,” the representative said now. “It’s the sort of thing the Luddites who want us to go back to electricity and steam say. But even they don’t make any stupid claim like this.”
“What do you have to say to that, sir?” the television interviewer turned to Bejji’s father.
“I’d say that we’ve all been blind,” he replied. “We’ve been using the ghost technology, and we’ve never cared to wonder why, for instance, they’re even called ghosts. If the ghosts are actually not sentient, if they aren’t the remnants of the energies and memories of the dead, why would they be called ghosts?” He glanced across the interviewer at the representative. “Well?”
The representative stirred but didn’t say anything.
“It goes well beyond that, of course,” Bejji’s father went on. “This ghost box of mine...” He held it up. “This box is able to communicate with me and my daughter, via a computer. The company man said it was a defect. But how could it be a defect? What kind of defect would let a power source communicate with a human?
“There’s only one answer. The defect isn’t in the box. The only defect was in the mistake that let a box meant for the military into an ordinary civilian’s possession.”
“The military?” the interviewer echoed.
“Or the internal security service. It hardly matters which.” Bejji’s father waved a hand. “If ghosts are actually able to think and communicate, can you imagine the uses the military or the spy services can put them to?” He paused an instant. “Even the so-called pre-criminals. How many of them are actual dangerous potential troublemakers, and how many...” He looked around the audience, and into the cameras. “Some of you will have relatives who have been chipped as pre-criminals. How many of them, I ask you, are actually dangerous people, and how many are simply persons whose opinions the government finds embarrassing, or inconvenient, or worse?”
“Ridiculous,” the ghost company representative scoffed. “The whole thing is ridiculous. Ghosts can’t communicate with anyone, simply because they aren’t anything more than concentrated energy. It’s like those Luddites who use the sun’s rays to generate electricity and store it in a battery.” Luddites seemed to be his favourite word.
“Ridiculous?” Bejji’s father repeated. “I’m willing to put it to the test.”
“That’s fine,” the interviewer agreed, with a broad smile. “You can plug it into our computer here, and we’ll see.” He and the ghost company representative exchanged a tiny glance – such a momentary glance that it was almost invisible – and Bejji caught it only because she was looking for it. Her father, looking across the studio audience, caught her eye.
“My daughter has a better idea,” he announced. “You say the box is defective, right? That’s why it gives a false conversation when plugged into a computer?”
The interviewer nodded. “Yes...that’s what the ghost manufacturers are saying, aren’t you?”
“Or maybe it’s a problem with the computer they’ve been using,” the representative said, grinning. “I’m sure if we plug it into this computer here, this studio computer, you’ll find there’s no such thing at all.” Just looking at him, Bejji could already tell that it was all arranged.
“And that’s why we aren’t going to use the studio computer,” her father said. “I’m a sculptor in metal, as you know. I bought this ghost to use in my workshop. My daughter there, in the audience, has a portable furnace and a device for pouring molten metal in designs. Neither the furnace nor the device has any connection with a computer. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The interviewer and the representative suddenly looked uncertain. “Not really,” the former said.
“It’s just this,” Bejji’s father replied. “I intend to hook up the ghost to the furnace and use its power to melt the metal, and allow it to extrude the molten metal to make any designs at all, all by itself. Since there’s no computer at all attached to anything, there’s no possibility of a computer glitch. Right?”
The interviewer and the representative exchanged glances, quite openly now. Both looked very unhappy. “Go on,” the former said.
“Well, then,” Bejji’s father said. “What will you do when the ghost uses the extruded metal to make messages, just as it wishes, all by itself?”
Without waiting to be called, Bejji walked to the stage, towing the little trolley with the furnace and the rest of the paraphernalia her father and she had smuggled into the studio earlier that day. Bejji’s father, in the frozen silence, plugged in the ghost. The furnace hummed. Shining silvery metal dripped out of a nozzle into a tray.
“Read it,” Bejji’s father invited the interviewer. “Read what it says.”
The interviewer looked down into the tray and licked his lips. “I can’t...” he began.
“Read it,” Bejji’s father repeated. “Or would you rather let everyone see it for themselves?”
The camera overhead zoomed in on the tray. On millions of screens around the country, the silver letters shone. “DON’T YOU REALISE THAT YOU’LL BE PART OF US AFTER YOU DIE?”
There was a frozen moment’s silence, and then the shouting from the audience started.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016