“Wha'cha find out?” I asked immediately as Martin walked in.
“The sweet mystery of life,” Martin answered happily. I thought, you old dog, you nailed the librarian. But I was wrong.
“I found out why people in the Clouds only work a regular day.”
“Same reason we did it in life,” Martin said. “It's how our minds process, and since minds are all we are, we maintain the pattern. Off-time is back-end processing. You and I can still drift off to dreamland, even though we believe we're dead and there seems nothing to dream about.
“What we're doing is what we've always done, arranging the events of the day, what we've done and seen, into a more coherent whole. It's one of the things that makes us all more than computers, one reason it took so long for computers to model what we do. One reason why they still can't, without our help.”
“Yep. Dreams are how we take what we've experienced and fit them into a reality we can deal with. Nightmares are dreams we can't fit into that reality, memories and premonitions we can't accept. So we wake up from them in a cold sweat.
“And that's why The Doctor is so important, Marian told me.”
“The librarian's name is Marian?” I asked incredulously. “Marian the Librarian? Like from 'The Music Man.'”
Martin looked at me blankly. “I don't get the reference. But why do you think that you were able to grab it immediately?” He sat down opposite me, obviously excited. “It's because you filed it, long ago, in the long-term storage area of your mind. Probably while you were sleeping. It's how we turn short-term memory into long-term memories we can access. . It's why most college students can't cram and then pass tests, why kids sleep up to 12 hours a day, why seniors can remember the taste of the ice cream they had a child, but have no idea where they just put their glasses. Back-end processing.”
“And The Doctor? What does this have to do with him?”
“He doesn't use it. Says he doesn't need it. He never sleeps. That's what he uses many of those extra souls for. Imagine, you think you've being absorbed into a great mind to do great work but you find you're just a clerk in someone else's head, doing their scut work, for eternity.”
“Those souls aren't still inside him? I mean, they sort of disappeared, didn't they?”
Martin's hard look told me otherwise.
“And Marian told you all this? How? Why?”
“How did she find out? Access. As a librarian she has gets many requests from The Doctor, so she knows his pattern. She talks to other librarians, and all of them, no matter on what days or what hours they work, say they get a steady stream of queries from him.
“Why did she tell me? Because of my charm? Because I plied her with one of those wines you introduced me to? No. Because I asked.
“But that's just the point, Watson,” I replied. “Here's the proof we've been seeking that The Doctor isn't a force for good. This absorption of souls is far more complex than it appears on the outside, far more complex than even he lets on. It causes damage, and I have to believe it's on both sides of the transaction. In the end, it doesn't scale, it doesn't work.”
“It works for The Doctor.”
“He just thinks it does,” I said with bitterness. “No, I think he's headed for a nervous breakdown, my friend. And our job is to hasten it.”
“Hasten it? Why? And how would we do that? Isn't there another way other than breaking down what we know works for many people, both here and in Meat Space? You're putting a lot on a hunch.”
“You're right. My nature, I suppose. I don't know whether we can break him down, drive him crazy as you might a mortal man. But I have an idea about where to start trying.”
Moments later, it seemed, we were outside what appeared to be a grand villa in Naples, Italy. The large wooden door opened into a larger, cooler room. A middle-aged woman in a maid's uniform bade us enter.
There before us, dressed in one of those form-fitting gowns made famous in so many 1960s movies, stood the beautiful Sophie. My, uh, lover? I blushed, embarrassed at the thought.
“Martin, Buona giornata . How wonderful of you to come see me. Dave.” She walked right over to me and brushed my face with her cheek, as though we'd known one another forever. I felt, at that moment, as though we had. (Forgive me, Susan. And the response came. Nothing to forgive, darling – I'm dead.)
“Have you met The Doctor?” Martin asked, getting right to the point.
“Why, no,” she said.
“That's great,” Martin said, taking charge of the situation. “Because I want you to. As soon as you can. I want you to do more than that, in fact.”
“Martin?” This was getting embarrassing.
“You're reading my mind,” Martin said, smiling. It was an evil smile. I didn't like where this was going.
“I'm supposed to just saunter over and seduce the most famous man in The Cloud?” she asked, incredulous. “How am I to be introduced? Why would he see me?”
“Why would he see you,” Martin said. “Look at you. Wasn't the height of your fame during the same years Dr. Hoskie was a teenager? Hormones, and their memory. You've got the power, dear. You more than anyone else I know.”
He was laying it on with a trowel now, but I could tell from her expression that Sophie was eating it up. “You're famous,” said Martin. “You're beautiful. He hasn't met you. He will want to. To meet you is to love you. Who wouldn't?” He looked my way, and I blushed redder.
“What if he's gay?” I asked suddenly.
“Married three times,” replied Martin.
“You're not jealous, are you?” Sophia asked me, smiling her most coquettish smile.
Something of this had been my idea all along. I had no choice.
“My only regret is I have but one lover to give to my country,” I said then, and we all laughed.
I would regret that laugh.
While waiting for Martin and Sophie to return from their visit to The Doctor, I had a date with the librarian.
Well, not a date, really. I haven't dated since I met Susan in the 1970s. Not a hook-up, either. I didn't want that sort of relationship.
More like an appointment. A meeting. An interface?
I wanted to know some things, so I checked her schedule, saw when she was leaving work, and dropped by at that time, shyly suggesting a cup of coffee.
Within a few moments, it seemed, we were sitting in a dark-paneled room, surrounded by books. A coffee shop, yes, but of a very different style from the one in Milan. I saw that my usual preference, a mocha grande, sat before me in a large china mug, which looked like a soup bowl. I could smell cinnamon and nutmeg sprinkled on the top, and a deep chocolate flavor along with the coffee bitterness. I took up the spoon beside it and had a sip. It was ambrosia.
“How did you know?” I asked.
Marian sat opposite me, her glasses perched halfway down her nose, her hair done up in an appropriate bun, wearing the sweater and dress of a much older woman, but the body of a much younger one, sipping what smelled like a mug of black tea.
“I know many things,” she said. “It's one perk of the job. Then, I've been around here a while and know how to manipulate my reality, I thought I knew a lot when I was alive, because I knew how to find every book on the shelves. But I really knew very little. I know that, now.
“Where was that, Mason City, Iowa?” I asked playfully.
She laughed. She got the reference. “Oh, dear, no. Although I loved the play. We did it in high school, and I even played Marian the Librarian. No, I spent my working life at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That's sort of how I ended up here.”
I put on the journalist's hat I had worn so seldom here. “How is that?” I asked.
“When I was due to cross over – I had ovarian cancer – The Cloud was a very new thing. Not quite experimental. More like one of Richard Branson's space planes. You had to be very wealthy to get a ride, or you had to give a fortune to the project to get in. That was its initial business model.”
She looked at me, saw my questioning look. “Oh, this was about 10 years ago. Maybe your own thoughts of death were still far off in the future then. How old were you when you, uh, came here?”
I guessed she knew, but I answered anyway. “I'm 82.”
“Well, I was 39. Do the math.”
“So you were born in 1988. You're my daughter's age.”
“How is she?”
“Fine, so far as I know. And you?”
Marian smiled through another sip of her tea. “Never better,” she said, looking up. She put her cup down, picking up a piece of shortbread from a plate that had magically appeared between us.
“But I didn't know that then. You see, 10 years ago I had two young children, aged 6 and 9, and a wonderful husband who worked in the computer science department at UW-Madison, named George Zhe.
“His father had been a graduate student from China years before, but George was 100% Badger. Both my parents passed away about 2 years before The Cloud existed.”
Marian grew quiet again. “Anyway, there were still people who remembered George and his dad in the department then. And there were people in the library, who knew me. And in some other departments. They petitioned to have me accepted to the Cloud, as part of their research. Dozens of programmers signed a statement saying they'd stop working on Cloud software if I wasn't accepted – most of them had no idea who I was. It was for George. He was desperate.
“It was bluster, of course. They weren't going to quit doing anything. Researchers don't work that way. But it worked. Here I am.”
“Still well. My oldest started at Wisconsin last year. The younger one is making noises about going to Northwestern, but I'm sure George can't afford it. They write, I write. He remarried two years ago, a nice woman, so I don't hear from them quite as often as before.”
From the look in her eyes, it seemed her mind was heading toward a bad place, so I intervened.
“That couldn't have been all,” I said. “Isn't it possible that the people that were building the Cloud knew they could use some good librarians?”
Marian gave a soft “pshaw”, but I persisted.
“Think about it. You could find every book on the shelves. You could find things. The skills of a librarian are also vital if you're building a free-form database. They needed you, Marian. They needed you to make this Cloud useful to people in Meat Space.
“Maybe you were their Killer App.”
She laughed then, a full-throated laugh, her concerns about her past life gone. “You're a very lovely man,” she said. “I like you. You flatter me, and you leap to conclusions with hardly any evidence. Is that what journalists do?”
She composed herself then, putting the cup down, bowing her head. “No. I exist to serve. That's the truth. I actually came up with that. Once I 'woke up' here and found I was existing here, once I acclimated myself, I helped design those interfaces. I'm very proud of that. And I recruited some of the initial staff to man the interfaces. Many of them had no idea how to do library work – all they could do was Google. Not that there's anything wrong with googling...”
She continued. “I helped create training courses. You took one. I worked to make the interfaces easier, because as you make things easier you can also make inquiries deeper. I used the old Turing Tests as my model, so everything could be conversational, like talking to a real person. You know your avatar, your appearance here, appears on the remote screens when you're communicating. That was my idea, too.”
Marian giggled. “My, I guess I have done some things, when you think about it. I'm too busy doing things for that. If I listen to you any more I might get a swelled head.”
“You see, Marian, you've really had a wonderful death.” It was a quote from Clarence, the angel, in 'It's a Wonderful Life.' It got a huge laugh from Marian.
“And speaking of a wonderful death, others have had such things too, I suppose. Like the Doctor?”
Instantly, Marian grew quiet, pensive. The cup in her hand shook a little. There were long moments of silence. “Maybe.”
“Tell me more about The Doctor.”
Before answering Marian put down her cup, took my hand, and walked with me outside. We were suddenly by the side of a Wisconsin lake, next to a park, with a bike path, and kids chasing Frisbees. It felt like mid-September, the leaves were just beginning to turn, and there was a coolness to the breeze that hinted at change.
“Dr. Hoskie was always brilliant,” Marian began, dropping my hand and letting me walk beside her down the garden path. “He was one of the first people to make the jump successfully, you know.”
“One of the first? I thought he was THE first.”
She shook her head. “Oh, no. There were a number of researchers before him. Some of whom didn't have to go at all – they were still young, vital, not sick. But that can happen when you become fanatically devoted to something. You create a fear of living in Meat Space for yourself – a fear that you'll miss the change due to a gun shot or traffic accident. Or you're just so excited about the new you don't think about the price of it.”
She took a breath. “Anyway, when The Doctor finally did come over, and 'met' these young men, he found some were incomplete. Not everything about their minds had come over across the gap. You have to remember it was very experimental technology 12 years ago – the whole idea of someone living forever, living in a computer's memory, and having something like a life after death – it was revolutionary.
“So I really believe Dr. Hoskie's first absorptions were done with the very best of intentions. He wasn't really trying to absorb anyone. He was trying to heal them, to meld the healthy aspects of his mind into them, to fill the gaps.”
We walked along, and I noticed how complete her fantasy about this lakeside was. I could smell leaves burning far away, hear the specific laughs of specific children, and when I touched a dry leaf on a tree, it crumpled realistically in my hand. The Cloud Community has come a long way, I thought – what might it be like in the future?
“Dr. Hoskie learned a lot from each of his early absorptions. He thought, he knew he was brilliant before. Now he had knowledge in many areas he'd known nothing about. He had power within the system he hadn't dreamt of, because these were people who knew the operating system intimately, who had root access. Some had made entire careers in working on the Cloud concepts, and its predecessor technologies. Some went back to the dawn of the century when ideas like virtualization were new, when running a Windows program under Linux was magic. Back before Amazon made it a business, even before OpenStack.”
“Sounds like you've studied your history. It was what I covered as a tech reporter.”
“That's one reason I was so anxious to see you. You understand what I'm talking about.”
“Same here.” She giggled again. We found a patch of grass and sat down. The grass felt real, individual blades under my hand. A duck waddled toward us from the water, quacking, looking for a bit of bread and, getting none, quacked again and marched back.
Marian stared into space, then plunged on with her story.
“He didn't think he was changing. Do any of us know when we change? You say I'm now a great expert on something. I never thought of myself that way. I was just doing my job. But maybe, out of all that learning, I was changing, too.”
“You exist to serve,” I said gently. “Does The Doctor?”
She picked up a blade of grass, pressing it between her teeth, feeling the green of it. “I know he did,” she said. “Once. I worked closely with him when I first came here. It was such a small Community then.”
“Does he still?”
Marian went back to staring into the distance. She was calculating, her hazel eyes flashing, her blonde eyelashes flickering up-and-down, her thin lips curving into a frown, then settling. It was like watching a computer processing. A very attractive one, I thought.
Finally she turned her eyes to mine.
“I'm not certain. I'm sure he thinks he does. I'm sure that when he started he was just absorbing tortured souls who couldn't make it here otherwise, people who were crippled mentally as he had been in life, physically. It was a mercy.
“But when you start taking in hundreds of souls, then thousands, and not sick souls but healthy souls, people who could well have gotten by on their own, who were just bored or ambitious or weak in their faith in themselves, after years or maybe just months of nothing to do...I don't know.”
Something occurred to me then. “Do you know what Martin and Sophie are up to?”
She shook her head. I made a guess. “I think they're going to try and distract him with sex.”
“Martin wants to find out what makes The Doctor tick. Find out if he has a weakness. Sex wasn't easy for him in life. Now it is. Maybe, Martin thinks, The Doctor has become a teenager with it. Maybe a little love will humanize him, like it does most men.” I tried to smile.
Marian didn't see the joke. “What is it with you men, always thinking with your pricks?” she exploded. “We have to stop them.”
And with that the lake disappeared. Or we did.