Zen and the Art of Killing Cops
This morning, we ate most of our breakfast in silence. We'd had an intensive sparring session the night before -- remind me to write about Hakuin's sparring regimen one of these days -- and we wore the fatigue like soggy raincoats. To make matters more complicated, Tera was apparently still mad at me from our argument the other day. Hakuin is big on forgiveness and guiding rather than grudging, but Tera seemed to be having trouble trusting me. It came out a little in the sparring session.
We were content to eat silently, without moving much. So we did.
But I had something burrowing in my mind. "What about cops?" I asked.
Kelvin looked up, puzzled. "Huh?" The others exchanged similar glances.
I turned to Hakuin. "Well, the agents are part of the repressive system, right?" He nodded. "So then are cops part of that, too?" He nodded again. I paused, staring into my bowl of crud. "We have to run when we see an agent," I continued, slowly, looking at Tera.
She nodded. "Unless you want to get yourself killed and make life much harder for the rest of us."
"What about cops?" I asked again.
"What about them?" she asked.
"Do you run from them, too?" The table rippled with an uncertain laughter. Drive looked hesitantly at Hakuin, who was not laughing.
"I would never run from a cop," Tera said. "The pigs are there to keep a violent peace. Their job is to crush anyone who steps out of line. So they're just soldiers in the war."
"Like the agents," I said.
"Yeah," she shot back. "But you don't have to run from the cops. When you shoot at them, they bleed and feel pain and drop dead."
I scowled. "What happens when you shoot at an agent?" There was a mild silence. "What?" I asked. "You're telling me they can dodge bullets?"
Hakuin smiled. "No," he said. "I'm telling you that -- because they're ready -- they don't have to."
I looked sideways at him. "They can change the rules." He nodded.
"So," I said, eager to carry on. "When you run into the cops, you shoot it out?"
"Damn right," Tera said, and whipped off her belt. She slapped it on the table and moved it toward me. She pointed to a series of notches, ground into the faded leather. "Each one a kill," she said. "I don't play around."
The table grew quiet. Tera's eyes were fixed on me. I looked up at her, then nodded. "Impressive," I said finally.
She blinked. "Thanks," she said, replacing the belt.
We ate for a while, then I set my spoon down. "The agents," I said. "What are they?"
Tera jumped onto the question. "We told you," she said. "They are repression. Their purpose is to eliminate us."
I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "But what are they?"
Ramb set her spoon down. "Each agent is a program designed to locate and eradicate any members of the resistance who attempt--"
I pointed to her. "A program," I said, cutting her off. She made a face but raised her eyebrows and stopped. "So they don't actually exist outside of their code," I said.
"No," she replied.
"But the other people in the Matrix -- they're hooked into humans like us." Drive looked up suddenly at Hakuin. I glanced at Hakuin, but his face was as unreadable as ever. "What?" I asked. "I mean, we go into the Matrix and we interact with people -- they're connected to people like us, right? They have to be, if we can unplug them."
"An important question," Hakuin said, folding his hands and placing them on the table. "The answer is: some of them."
"What do you mean, some of them?"
"The Matrix creates people who aren't real people," Kelvin said. "Code -- like the agents."
"Why would they do that?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Another level of repression," he said.
"More on the persuasive end," Ramb said. "A way for the machines to keep tabs on what's going on, on the ground."
"How can you tell which is which?" I asked. "If you try to unplug someone who's not really connected . . ."
Hakuin nodded. "It's happened," he said. "The machines found the ship responsible and killed everyone on board." He took a deep breath. "The short answer is that there is no way to tell which is which. We try to find out as we get closer to the person, but the programs are getting more sophisticated all the time." He took a deep breath. "We have to watch our step."
I paused. "So," I said. "If I shoot a cop, I might be actually killing someone."
Tera dropped her spoon and shook her head. "Not likely," she said. "Why would the Matrix put a real person at risk? They need the people for their power source."
"Yeah," I said. "But the Matrix can't know when the Resistance is going to turn up. Suppose it's just some guy who decided to become a cop -- like I decided to be a teacher. If I kill him, I'm killing a real person."
Tera was grinding her teeth. "I don't think you understand," she said. "We're in the middle of a war. It's us against them, okay?" She eyed Drive hesitantly.
"Yeah," I said. "But what do these innocent people have to do with it? Here's a guy who just wanted to keep muggers off the street and he gets killed because he's one of 'them'? That doesn't seem--"
"I never said it was fair," Tera said quickly. "It's a war. Innocent people get caught up." She tapped her finger on the table. Beside me, I felt Drive's hand moving as well.
I looked at him. "What?" I asked.
He shrugged. "This isn't the first time the question has come up," he said. "I agree with what you're saying."
"Yes," Ramb said. "I'm afraid I feel the same way." She was almost apologizing to Tera.
Kelvin chuckled quietly and ate a spoonful of gruel. "Don't ever ask me to watch your back when we're inside," he said with a snort.
"That's right," Tera said. "If there were another way for us to deal with it, that would be great. But you know, the cops see us as the enemy, too -- when they get orders to track us down and take us in, who do you think is giving those orders? They represent the machines, so they are the enemy."
"But they're humans," I said loudly.
"Probably," Hakuin threw in. "Look," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. I realized I had risen slightly from my seat. I sat back down. "This isn't a new question. We've been dealing with it for quite some time, and as I said, we cannot know which individuals in the Matrix are connected to humans, and which are not."
"So unless we want to be murderers, we should assume that they are," I said.
"Let me ask you a question," Tera said, leaning back in the chair.
"Suppose the agents capture Hakuin," she said. "They take him into a huge building, protected by soldiers and SWAT teams and cops. What would you do?"
I hesitated and tapped the table. "I'd try to find a way to sneak in," I said.
"There's no way to sneak in," she said immediately. "You have to fight your way in if you want to save him."
"That's a tough question," I admitted. "I don't know what to say." I looked at Hakuin; he wasn't offering any help. "I mean, on the one hand, you're my sensei. You've helped me out of the Matrix, and I owe you my life for it.
"But on the other hand, it sounds like I'd have to kill a number of people in order to save you. Suppose it's fifty. Is it worth killing fifty people to save one? What makes Hakuin's life more valuable than those of the police officers I'd be killing?"
"Well, it's not that simple," Tera said. "The captain of each ship is given codes to the mainframe of Zion. That's why the agents would capture him." I looked at Hakuin; he nodded.
I froze. They had told me all about Zion -- the secret land of the humans. Our enclave. "Hmm," I said finally.
"The agents begin to work on his mind; it's like trying to crack a safe. All it takes is time. So even if there were a stealth option -- which there isn't -- you wouldn't have time for it. The agents are going to break his defenses, get the codes to Zion, and kill all the humans there." She leaned forward. "What would you do?"
I glanced around the table. Kelvin was smiling slightly; Drive was stirring his gruel. Ramb shrugged a little. Hakuin stared right back at me, waiting. "I . . . I don't know," I said. "There's got to be some other way."
"God!" Tera said, throwing her spoon against the wall. "TNS strikes again!" She pointed angrily at me. "Our captain is being tortured to death, and you can't find the backbone to save him." She looked at Drive, then Ramb. "I can't believe you people."
Hakuin waved his hand. "Tera, take it easy. I understand your passion, and you're right when you say this is a war. But let's be reasonable. Above all, let's not make philosophical disagreements into feuds in our midst.
"Your example is a little extreme," he continued. "It's rather unlikely that I would end up in such a situation, and our energies really should be focused on making sure it doesn't happen in the first place." I nodded, and from the corner of my eye I saw Drive do the same.
"We can't know if any individual is a human or not," Hakuin said. "So it's best to proceed, as far as possible, assuming they are. We should do our best not to kill any humans unless it's absolutely necessary."
Tera made a face but remained silent. "Easier said than done," Kelvin offered.
Hakuin nodded. "As is true of everything important," he said.
Born To Run: Meeting The Agent
Today Hakuin and Tera led me through the city. It was my first time back into the actual Matrix since I'd been disconnected; it felt like going back to my old high school after graduation.
"The Matrix is a public relations tool," Tera said as we passed a man in a grey suit, talking on a cell phone. "It's a lullaby for our lives." She gestured to an ad on a bus shelter. "Its purpose is to distract us from reality so that we confound its interests with our own."
"Most of the Matrix is a persuasive apparatus," Hakuin said, his hands in his pockets, walking quickly but without hurry. "If you can control peoples' minds, their bodies will follow." He stopped suddenly and held up a hand. "Of course," he said, "the machines cannot rely on persuasion alone, so they have a repressive apparatus for when they need it."
Tera traced his line of sight and smiled. Hakuin pulled us away from the street, into the shadow of a bookstore's awning. "There's a blue sedan at the stoplight three blocks up," he said to me. "Look. Quickly." I put my head out, peered into the distance, and ducked back.
"It's a guy with shades," I said.
"It's an agent," Tera said. "Their job is to find people like us and kill us."
"They are the repressive apparatus," Hakuin said.
"How do we deal with them?" I asked.
Hakuin smiled. "We run," he said.
"Some people say there are ways to kill them," Tera said.
"But so far those are just rumors," Hakuin immediately warned. "We have no defenses against them."
"The point is," Tera said, "everyone in the Matrix is part of this apparatus -- whether persuasive or repressive. And if they suspect you are not part of the problem, then you will be seen as part of the solution."
"In other words," Hakuin said, "we are the disease, and the agents are the cure. All other individuals are part of the warning system -- if they sense something is wrong, the agents will be alerted."
"So," Tera said, "unless we have reason to believe that someone is on our side, they are our enemy."
Suddenly, Hakuin pushed us back into the flow of pedestrian traffic. I looked to the left just in time to see the agent drive past us. "Our first defense is being invisible," Hakuin said. "If we do not attract the attention of the repressive system, we needn't fear it."
"And when we do attract its attention?" I asked.
Hakuin and Tera exchanged a glance, and she began to smile. But Hakuin whipped around and gave a shout. I looked behind us and saw the agent running at top speed in our direction.
"This is it," Tera cried as we tore off down the street. Hakuin slapped a plastic clip onto his ear and pushed a button on his hip.
"Drive," he said. "We need an exit." We ran up two blocks, and I glanced back to see the agent gaining on us. Hakuin broke left and we followed; seconds later we were diving past a series of fruit crates and dodging the angry shopkeeper. We ran toward a door in the distance. I looked back toward the street, slowing down a little.
Tera grabbed my arm. "What the hell are you doing?" she demanded. "Get over here."
I scowled. "This is crazy," I said. "There has to be another way."
"Maybe there is," she said. "But right now we don't know what it is, so we have to run." The agent appeared in the mouth of the alley and, clipping the corner of the building, he smiled and headed toward us.
"Well," I said, "we're not going to find out what it is if we keep running from it." The agent, now less than a hundred feet away, drew a gun. Hakuin came to my side and raised a hand. "Freeze it," he said. Everything -- the traffic, the people, the agent -- slowed and then stopped.
I glanced around. "What the..?"
"This is another simulation," Hakuin said. He looked at Tera and nodded. "I guess you were right," he said. I looked at her with confusion. "The jump was impressive," he continued. "But Tera came to me with a concern, which was evidently quite valid."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"You're two days in," she said. "You've got TNS."
"Total Newbie Syndrome," Hakuin said. "There's a tendency among people who have recently been unplugged to feel as though they are impervious to the constraints of the Matrix." I crossed my arms and studied them. "It seems," he continued, "to be getting more common, but who can tell?"
"So," Tera said, "when you made your first jump, I knew that it would just make things worse. I told him we couldn't trust you inside yet."
"So you thought I would commit some major screw up?" I asked, venom in my words.
Hakuin raised an eyebrow and slowly turned to face the agent. He was frozen in mid-air, his Glock drawn with a monstrous vengeance on his lips. A slow, dense silence passed.
"There has to be another way," I said. "Running away is cowardly."
Tera swung around and clocked me with a boot to the head. I spun and smacked the wall. "Newbie!" she shouted, as I reeled and regained my footing. I turned to face her, but she was just as ready to fight as I. "Do you think you can defeat an agent?" she asked. "You think you can dodge bullets?"
"I don't know," I said. "I never thought I could jump from one skyscraper to another, but apparently I can. Who knows what else we can do? I refuse to accept this idea that we have to live in fear of their shadow." I pointed to the agent. "I thought this was a war."
"It is a war," she spat back. "And you've never set foot on the battlefield." She wiped the sweat from her forehead. "Look around you!" she said. "They run this whole game -- they wrote all the rules. We're trying to figure out how it works, without a map or a manual. So we can't RTFM until we write one of our own."
I drew in a deep breath. "There has to be another way," I repeated.
She turned and slapped the wall, hard enough to leave a mark. "You stupid idiot," she said. "You can't even begin to imagine." She took two quick breaths, then stepped toward me. "Suppose you stand and fight," she said. "Suppose you win. You've got a dead agent at your feet. Then what?"
I clenched my fists but said nothing.
"Then," she said, "the system takes that information and dispatches fifteen more agents to your location. Then what?"
I looked at Hakuin, who levelled a crushing gaze of inquiry at me. I looked at the ground.
Tera spat, just barely to the right of me. "One beat down'll never compare to four hundred thirty-nine years of captivity. Never." She turned toward the door. "You don't know smack," she said. "Freshman."
Silently, Hakuin raised his eyebrows and followed her. I sighed and slowly did the same.