We had returned to my virtual home. It was looking more like the one I left, with my memories making it more vivid. Windows now looked out into a yard, there were trees outside, and I saw a street with a sidewalk, which had what sometimes looked to be people passing by on it.
“I see you're fixing the place up,” Martin said. “I like it.”
“It's a lot more familiar,” I admitted.
“The Community is, with your permission, analyzing what was on the stick you brought with you when you came over,” Martin explained. “Your life here can be as much as it was as you want it, and most newcomers prefer that.”
“At first,” I responded quickly. “I mean, eventually you see through the charade.”
“Some do,” Martin admitted. “Some prefer to leave things be, even after they know it's all in their heads.”
I thought about that for a moment. I could turn what I saw into anything I wanted. I could turn it into nothing, living literally on top of the clouds, like an angel in heaven. But this was always my heaven. As soon as I saw this house, over a half-century ago, I said I wanted to live in it. And, in time, I did. For decades. With my beloved Susan.
I shoved that thought out of my mind. “Let's get back to this problem of autonomy,” I said, as my favorite old music played in the background. “You seemed to say that losing your autonomy might be based on a desire to die?”
“Very good. Since we're all dead already, the only way of changing your mind on the question of immortality is to give away your soul. And the market is active. It's not something the people who created the Community anticipated, just as those who created the Internet didn't think about spam. But there it is. Complete free will leads to some treating it like a hot potato.”
“But like every market some firms are bigger than others, I take it?”
“You're getting better at accessing background resources, aren't you?” Martin said. “Your questions are becoming more pointed.”
I ignored the compliment. The question has been based entirely on intuition, on what Martin was telling me. But a reporter whose source thinks he knows the answers to questions gives better answers than one who does not.
“And who is this 'The Doctor' you keep going on about?” I continued
“The Doctor?” Martin feigned ignorance, something I knew, from life, meant I was getting at something he didn't want to talk about.
“Yes, The Doctor. It sounds like something out of an old TV show. Who is he, and why are do you seem so frightened of him?”
“Before I answer, I need to do something first,” Martin said. I looked up and saw, to my amazement, a plexiglass shield coming over both of us, like the old “cone of silence” on “Get Smart.” I wanted to laugh, but looking over at Martin I saw he was as serious as a heart attack.
“Yes, it's just like that,” Martin said, reading my bemused expression. “But it's also necessary.
“What you're seeing is a physical manifestation of my calling in an encryption algorithm with a tracer on our conversation. Not only does it resist decryption, but attempts to decrypt it are logged, so if someone tries to break in to this file and hear what we've said I will know about it before they know what we said.”
He sighed heavily. I waited for him to continue. (It was the most difficult skill I'd had to learn as a journalist, shutting up and waiting for the subject to get to the point in his own time.)
“The Doctor. Where does the Doctor fit into the history of this place? You know, don't you?”
“Vaguely.” He gave a wry smile. I kept my mouth quiet, and waited for him to continue.
Finally, he did. “As a concept, cloud computing began a generation ago, around 2008. By 2018 it was apparent that, despite several attempts to build human-like intelligence into computing, like the Watson project, everything we had done was still an imitation.
“So when Mr. Eric Edsel, whose company had formed the biggest Cloud service in the market up to that time, learned he had incurable cancer, he consented to become the first person whose soul would transfer. The idea was that, with his soul and mind here, he could enable the Cloud to 'think' in more human-like ways, thus gaining immortality while he improved the corporate bottom line.”
“It didn't work, as I remember.”
“That's right. It didn't work. It was like getting people into space, 60 years earlier. There were failures. People who thought they were going to live forever died on the table. You may remember how, in the first files you got when deciding to come here, there was a collection of names. Everyone whose transfer failed has a permanent memorial, filed both outside and inside the Cloud. Edsel's name is first on the list. Which, given who he was named for, is pretty funny.”
“Edsel Ford, you mean? The man whose name became the biggest dud the car industry had ever seen, until the 21st century oil crisis began.
Martin nodded. I was following what he was saying.
Reassured, he continued. “Anyway, within three years improvements in the code transfer mechanism enabled the first successful mind transfer, the mind of a Russian billionaire named Galonovsky. It took his entire fortune, but he was able to communicate back across the gap, convince everyone that his transfer had succeeded.”
“And he became the Doctor?” I said.
Martin laughed. “No, no. If we were facing a Russian oil oligarch we could have dealt with it. Just send Sophie Napoli in, have her seduce him, end of problem. Bond villains make mistakes, they prove their vulnerability in obvious ways. They think that money is the answer to all their problems, when it isn't even a question here. Evil intent carries its own push-back. No one ever thinks they're evil.
“No, the Doctor was a very, very good person.”
“The hint is in the name. Dr. H.”
“Emile Hoskie?” I whistled through my teeth. “The closest thing 21st century science had to a saint. Locked in a wheelchair for nearly his entire life by ALS, he discovered mathematical secrets to the universe which had eluded even Einstein.”
“Yes,” admitted Martin. “And he lived a nearly blameless life. He wasn't wealthy by any means, remember, just lived quietly as a college professor in a small town. But his home was a virtual shrine during his life, and thanks to modern computer and communications technology his reach was enormous. If Albert Einstein was Charlie Chaplin, Emile Hoskie was Michael Jackson. He perfected the intersection of fame, science, and wealth.”
“So what's the problem, other than he has been here for some years now.” I was suddenly afraid of what was to come.
Martin was, too. He exhaled deeply to clear his head before continuing. “Recall what I told you about the market in souls. As the Cloud became commercial, as it became the Community, as more and more people came here, and some found that it wasn't the heaven they wanted, people began offering their own souls to Dr. Hoskie, to be absorbed, in the hope that by becoming part of his vast intellect and blameless soul they might gain both rest and the chance to do some good, for both the Cloud and the world.”
“You're still not telling me anything bad.”
“You've heard the old aphorism about power?”
“Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“That's what the Doctor was given. Absolute power. Over other people. People who had problems, deep secrets they could never share, fears of all kinds.
“Each member of the Cloud Community who surrendered their autonomy to Doctor Hoskie also gave him access to memories and capabilities he hadn't imagined having before. In a virtual sense, he became many people. Athletes. Engineers. Teachers. Business leaders. Politicians. Preachers. With all their talents and all their memories, all their strengths but also all their weaknesses. For those who hadn't been much in life, he gave them access to all his compute power, all his file storage and address space. Both sides grew in the deal.
“Like NoFace,” I said. “The character in Miyazawa's Spirited Away. But when he was polluted by the sins of the world, he eventually regurgitated it. Dr. Hoskie kept it inside, I suppose.”
We both sat quietly, taking all this in. It was Martin who finally continued.
“Imagine if you could become much more than yourself, after you had thought, or been told all your life, that your own soul was the mightiest thing around. It was the Doctor who came up with that saying we've both repeated here already – I exist to serve. It was a mantra he tried to use in order to make certain he did well by the souls whose power he was gaining.
He shrugged his shoulders abjectly, in response.
“Poor man want to be rich. Rich man want to be king. And a king ain't satisfied til he rules everything. Bruce Springsteen. Badlands.” I smiled.
“That's about the size of it. None of the souls the Doctor was absorbing were as pure as his had to be, given his condition in life. But some were truly evil, even those of people who seemed good. Preachers who dreamt of molesting children, or who had, without anyone ever knowing. Accountants who had once confined their murderous rages to video games. Anyone with a secret which in life had dogged them, which they hoped to escape through the Doctor, the Doctor made it part of himself. He gained many lifetimes' experience of sin, of power, corruption of all kinds. I would suppose it was a Dorian Gray situation. Only the problem wasn't immortality. It was responsibility.”
“There are many weaknesses beyond the physical,” I said.
“Indeed. Just imagine if you were given absolute power over someone else,” Martin said. “Imagined if you acquired the souls of men and women, both the evil and those who only imagined themselves to be evil.
“It's a story as old as religion. Preachers are constantly brought down because they abused the power their jobs give them. And these are people trained to hold other souls as deeply precious, taught this as their prime directive in life. They still prey on the weak, or become good because they fear this desire deep within their souls. But the Doctor wasn't a theologian. He was a scientist. Is a scientist.”
“So what's he done that's so all-fire wrong,” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Evil is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose,” Martin mused. “I'm not entirely unsympathetic to his situation, believe me. But the Community has changed since I first came here, and I have to believe The Doctor is behind those changes.
“Don't get me wrong. In some ways it's better. The interfaces, for instance. The memory cache. There are technical upgrades happening all the time. But some of those upgrades are driven, it seems to me, by a desire to use people up, to lead them from ennui to despair, to encourage them into seeking a way out, to gather souls for the Doctor.”
He let that sink in before continuing. “And then there are the Doctor's efforts to gain temporal power in Meat Space,” he continued. “Acting as a political adviser, not just a set of scientific answers. Infiltrating Scientology, something I'm sure you'd know little about from your work as a journalist, so that he can actually pre-harvest souls. When people come in from Scientology centers today, they practically go directly to him and give themselves in, do not pass Go do not collect $200.
“And he's seeking that same power over other religions. It all seems to have the same aim. To gain control, not just of the Community, but somehow to gain power outside, in what we call Meat Space, as well.”
“An immortal emperor,” I said, finally understanding. “Can you prove this is the case?”
“No. I can't. I need your help for that. I can't convince you of the danger. You need to convince yourself.”
My habit in life, when I had a problem I needed to think about hard, was to first take a nap, or a walk, or a bike ride, to step away from it. Read a book, close my eyes, wake up and make another run at it. Often the answer would come to me when I least expected it, when my mind and body had distanced itself as far as it could go from the problem at hand.
So I excused myself.
Martin nodded solemnly. He seemed to walk to my front door, open it and walk out. It made no sense at first. Was this, too, an illusion? Or was he trying to teach me something?
Sensing the latter, I stood up, walked the opposite way out of the room, imagined my home, and walked through, finally arriving at my bedroom and its King-sized bed, surrounded by bookshelves.
I picked up a Kindle from the dresser, saw that it contained a late Pynchon novel I still hadn't finished, and opened one side of the covers, taking it into bed with me as had been my habit in life. Then, heaving myself in, I emitting another sigh for Susan's sake. Are there second marriages in the Cloud? I wondered. I'd have to ask Martin about that. And is Sophia attached here?
Then I pulled my pillows into a pile, lay down, read for a few minutes, pushed the Kindle aside and nodded off.
I didn't have the answers when I got up. Instead I had a process, which was just as good. I went back to my “office,” and found what looked like my old computer on the desk. Could I use this as an interface to the rest of the Cloud?
Worth a try.
Right the first time. And it had all the same interfaces I'd been using before my death, too. There, the familiar Google search screen, unchanged for over 40 years now, but I knew from experience, very different. Is it what it was in life?
I typed. “Cloud law.” I was feeling lucky. A link appeared. And I slowly immersed myself in the arcana of license language, paying far more attention than I ever had in life, when I merely focused on brief explanations of their differences and took for granted that what I was being told was accurate. Now I read the actual language, and found I could understand it. Was my cloud self smarter than I had been in life? Or was it just younger, adapting what made me unique to the programming environment, giving me my best self from life.
The Doctor's EULA was little different from any “Click-Wrap” license Apple had put out in its heyday. Once it was agreed to there was no turning back. Nothing the Doctor did could rescind it, and he had no obligations to maintain the signer as a separate entity. You were done. It was a suicide note disguised as a legal contract.
I opened a new tab, brought up a new Google search, and entered the Doctor's name, “Doctor Emile Hoskie.”
Here I found even more material than under Cloud law, but as I read I felt a strange disquiet, what I'd once called my “Spidey sense.” It read like it was written by a PR man. Usually a Wikipedia entry on someone like this would have at least a few bones of contention, notes referencing what various posters had once written, or things that others had written, which disagreed with the main narrative.
This might as well be a court biography of Louis XIV. That much of Martin's story checked out. The man had power, serious power, which extended from the Cloud to Meat Space itself.
I went back over the biography, or should I call it a hagiography, anyway. I looked for names, any person who might not have been a fan, maybe a colleague who knew his weaknesses in life, anything that might lead to a contradiction of the saintly, and so transparently false, picture I was getting.
Finally, in frustration, I opened another tab and went back to Google, entering the term “Cloud census.” Getting mainly numbers, I tried “Cloud White Pages.” A pretty obsolete term. Nothing.“Cloud Members.”
I ran the names I had found in the Doctor's biography against the Cloud Members listed. A few were not dead yet. I might have to get to an Interface for them, but they'd have to be awfully old by now.
Most had been assimilated.
Two of the matches had Cloud addresses. Sam Bradford had been a graduate assistant for the Doctor in 2015, and had come to the Cloud a year ago. Dave Cornwallis had been with him in the year 2020, and arrived a few weeks ago.
I brought up Gmail and wrote them both. I explained that I was new to the Cloud, knew they had been assistants to the Doctor in life, and said that, as a journalist, I was producing a little research paper on him for the files. No lies there. I worded both notes identically, used copy and paste, but sent them separately.
I didn't have long to wait. Bradford had no interest in me, but Cornwallis said he would see me in his “club” whenever I wanted.
I typed the word “now”, and hit Enter.
I was no longer in my home, and no longer dressed in the ratty t-shirt and jeans I had been wearing. Instead I had on a nice wool suit, and was seated in a leatherette chair, in a dark-paneled room redolent with the smell of a previous century's cigars.
A man who appeared to be my own age handed me a heavy glass. I took it.
“Doctor Cornwallis?” I asked. “David Cornwallis?” Then I took a sip of my drink and felt the burn of single malt Scotch scorch my throat.
“None other,” came back the voice from another chair, and quite cheerily. “I love this place. Don't you?”
He sat opposite me, a tall man in an academic jacket, complete with elbow patches, a shock of red hair and a twinkle in the eye.
“The cancer is gone. I can drink what I want and never feel drunk. I can carry on my math experiments with the world's largest databases on my arm. This is heaven. Don't you think so?”
I nodded, non-commitally.
“So what did you die from?” he asked cheerfully. “I guess it's a question like 'what college are you in' at Cambridge. I'm sorry if it's a little personal.”
“Not at all.” I shrugged. “Mostly old age, I guess. I was given a diagnosis of cancer, but I didn't hang around long enough to find out what dieing from it might be like.”
“You were ready to go, then?” he said in a jocular tone. I shrugged. “Well, then, good man. They had to drag me in here kicking-and-screaming. Would have gone to into the ground were it not for old Emile.”
“Dr. Hoskie?” I asked. I couldn't believe my good fortune, him bringing up the subject I came here to talk about. He must have thought I was just impressed.
“Yes, Good old Emile,” he sat back with a smile. “A lovely man to work for. I was with him when he finally came up with the Unified Field Theory, you know. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were talking about gravity through his box, and he was near the end, poor chap, but he mentioned the grave, and I said, 'you don't have to be so grave about it,' then he said 'that's it' and described his epic equation to me, right there and then.
He sighed, gratefully. “It was the greatest moment of my life. Just being in the same room with him was magic.”
“I suppose so.” I wondered how much cooperation I was going to get when the questions started.
But he continued. “The CERN collider proved its accuracy a few weeks after Emile, I thought, died. But certainly not, or I'd be dead now too. He came here, and encouraged me to come when the time came. He saved my life, literally. He gave me a new one.
“So, what can I do for you?”
I hesitated a moment. I sipped the drink again. Its level did not seem to be going down.
“I always order them that way,” he said. “Saves trouble. More privacy. No waiters coming back when you're in the middle of a conversation or a game of cribbage. Or you can order them as single shots and talk to the waiter, who may or may not be real. It's fun to guess.
“So enough about me. Out with it. What is it you wish to know?”
“You've been here a few weeks. Have you met Dr. Hoskie yet?”
Now it was his turn to hesitate. “Well, uh, no.” He shook his head, took what looked like a big draught of his whiskey. “Busy, I suppose”
“You or him?”
“Me, actually. No, that's not right. I haven't tried to contact him, frankly. I can only think of him in one form, and I know some of what he's done here, I'm sure he won't want to appear before me in his chair. I wonder what he does look like on this side of the great divide?”
He took another sip. “It concerns me. I'm accustomed to his being physically dependent, unable to walk, to move an arm, to communicate through anything but a voice box. I don't know what our new relationship would be like. On the other hand, he hasn't called.”
“I haven't met him yet, either. What do you think he's like?”
“Emile? Same as ever, I suppose.” Another sip. “I hope. I assume.” A look of frustration crossed his face. “I don't know. Maybe I am afraid to find out.”
I seized my chance. “You know he has absorbed the souls of many people since he arrived here, not all of them theoretical physicists. Or even Cambridge graduates.”
He looked at me through troubled eyes. “That's part of it. I am used to seeing him as an equal, in looking down at him in fact, in that chair, wasting away. He's a mighty force here in the Cloud. I understand that. The relationship would definitely have to change. To what, I'm unsure.
“But has he changed fundamentally? Is his personality different, darker? I doubt it.”
I hesitated again before speaking. I'd only have one chance at this. “I think we're on the same path, then. I came to see you in order to learn more about the Doctor. Maybe we could learn together?
“You'd be like, my graduate assistant?” Cornwallis' eyes lit up.
“I exist to serve,” I said.