“So how is the Doctor,” I asked, in my most avuncular manner, putting on a brave face to hide my fears, and probably succeeding no better than I ever had.
I was entering what Martin had assured me was an exact replica of Dr. Cornwallis' office from Cambridge, a combination of the high-tech and the twee.
Paintings of campus buildings competed for attention with a digital photo frame displaying pictures of former students and family members. The keyboard on the desk, with an iPad propped along one side on it, sat surrounded by wooden knickknacks from around the world. I noticed there were two globes, one with the borders of 1956, one with the borders 60 years later, both of which could be lit and spun. And of course there was the obligatory whiteboard.
Cornwallis sat behind the big desk, but as I entered (from what felt like my own living room) I noticed there were two comfortable lounge chairs in front of it with a small tea table between them. So I sat down, watching carefully as the professor himself, faced away from me, looked out the “window” onto the campus grounds, lost in thought.
A few moments after I sat down the door seemed to open, and Martin walked in to join us. Now he was wearing a sweater with elbow patches, a dress shirt and tie, brown slacks and black Rockports, his concept of what a college professor might don.
A voice suddenly appeared in my head. “If you're trying to make an impression, make yourself part of the scenery. I'll tell you how later,” the voice in my head said. In fact, I realized at once, it was Martin's voice, speaking to me so that Dr. Cornwallis couldn't hear him. I looked toward him as he sat down and he gave me a sudden look with his eyes, the kind that tells the viewer to keep their mouth shut.
After a very long five minutes during which Dr. Cornwallis brewed and served us English tea with milk and sugar cubes, Dr. Cornwallis seemed ready for my first question.
“What 'cha find out,” I asked cheerily.
He sighed. “Americans. You always come right to the point,” he said heavily. Martin gave me a dirty look. (I thought I'd waited.)
“This is excellent tea” Martin asked brightly. The service was detailed, the cups unchipped, with a wooden tea caddy in the middle of the table and a small kettle that seemed to keep the water eternally hot without electricity.
“I have always liked things light and sweet,” the professor said, and Martin nodded, serving himself this time, adding some milk to his cup before pouring from the pot then placing two cubes on the saucer beside the cup, along with a small spoon.
“Bless you, Mr. Bexar,” Cornwallis said. Martin sat back, stirred one of the cubes in with his spoon, and gave me a grave look the said, simply, “patience.”
After a few more interminable minutes, with half the tea gone from Cornwallis' cup, Martin finally came to our point. (Is this what they mean by eternity, I asked myself as I waited.) “So how is the Doctor? Well, I trust?”
Cornwallis waved his hand in front of his face, back-and-forth, as though swatting a fly. “Fine, fine. Fine.”
He paused a beat to compose himself. “It was a little strange, at first, to see him standing, even walking, as though that were nothing. I'd never seen him before except in that damned chair, with the voice box, and his head tilted to one side because he couldn't lift it. Yet there he was, walking around like you or I, hale and hearty, with no thought to what I might think about it.”
“Well, he has been in the Cloud for quite a few years now,” I ventured. “And getting into a chair so he'll be seen as crippled for an old friend might not have occurred to him. Even as an illusion meant to please you.”
“He might also have wanted you to see him that way, so you would see the benefits of the Cloud Community again, see how easily you can make your own reality here,” suggested Martin helpfully.
“Yes, yes,” Cornwallis said, waving his hand again. “And I understand he has other considerations now, other than science. I can't remember him ever being so excited about the life of the world before. I mean, uh, what we call Meat Space.”
“So he's well and active,” said Martin brightly, without betraying any feeling about what he had just heard. “What else?”
“Did he seem to be himself?” I asked.
“That was just it,” Dr. Cornwallis said, his face now contorted, trying to remember and get the memories down correctly. “Yes, and no.
“Yes, he was in many ways the man I knew once. But, no, he was also much more. And he was something else besides.”
Martin gave me the “shut up” look again, and we both waited for Cornwallis to continue.
“You know he had an absolutely brilliant mind. It is, if anything, even more powerful than it once was. His memories of past debates were sharp and precise. But there was also something missing...”
“Empathy?” I asked, finally, unable to let the tension continue.
“Something like that. But, no, that's not the right word. I mean, he had empathy, for me, for Cambridge, for the whole Meat Space world. He even called it that, as though he were describing France. Meat Space, Meat Space. Strange, both to hear him speak and use such vernacular. He'd always been so formal....” Cornwallis' voice trailed off, then he suddenly reached into a jacket pocket. “Oh,” he finally said, pulling out a memory stick and tossing it toward Martin, who caught it without spilling any of his drink.
“The question remains, is he dangerous now?” I asked. “Did you see any signs that his increased power has gone to his head? Any traces of, say, megalomania?
Cornwallis shook his head again. “No. And, again, yes. Maybe. I mean, what if you or I had the kind of power he's accumulated. We'd all have to change in some small ways. I kept wondering during our conversation if his full attention was really focused on me at all. I don't know, gentlemen, with 8,000 souls, 8,000 sets of memories, 8,000 lives and knowledge banks under his control, was I seeing all of him? Or just that small part of him he wanted me to see?”
“There's one way to find out,” Martin said, putting down his teacup and producing an iPad from under the chair, then running his hands and fingers over it as though it were a piano.
“You say you arrived there around 12:50 GMT and left him at 13:25?” Cornwallis nodded wanly, as Martin's hands flew over the screen, before lifting it so we could see.
“Here's a record of every public record activity he engaged in between those time checks.” He passed the tablet across the table toward Cornwallis.
Dr. Cornwallis looked at it wearily, then poked his finger at the screen and flicked it, a digital expression I took to mean he was scanning a long file. “There's a lot more to him than what I saw,” he said at last. “I can't draw any firm conclusions from it.” But it was clear his initial findings were upsetting him, still.
I saw Martin bite his bottom lip, finally deciding to cut through Cornwallis' ramblings in a way I had wanted to do since we walked in. “What are your, uh, personal conclusions?” he asked quietly, placing a hand on Dr. Cornwallis' knee.
“It's way above me. I just don't know the answer. But maybe there's someone we can ask.” Dr. Cornwallis picked up an old-style phone handset from the desk behind him, one I had not noticed before. I watched him dial some numbers in the 20th century way, digits spinning around a central core, each one making a tiny clicking sound. Then I saw him speaking, in a surprisingly obsequious manner. After a few moments he finally placed the phone back on its cradle.
“Tory will see us for 5 minutes.”
“When?” I asked.
“Excuse me, in 5 minutes.”
“Tory?” Martin asked. “As in...”
“Yes,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “Tory Blaine. My former Prime Minister. And, in the years after he left Downing Street, a personal friend.”
The great Tory Blaine, it turned out, lived on in The Cloud Community in a replica of his old digs at 10 Downing Street. He had left office almost 30 years before. Curious.
While I had my house, and Martin a single room, Tory Blaine's image of existence included not just a full-scale replica of the Prime Minister's residence but the front porch outside Number 10, and the requirement that we knock before seeing a receptionist.
It was this receptionist that was our first indication something strange was going on. Because he looked and talked just like Graham Chapman, the Monty Python front man who had died, of AIDS, in the 1980s. Not even the Chapman of “Life of Brian” either, but the one who performed in the original BBC show, around 1970. From all this I knew he couldn't really be here. He was a figment of Blaine's imagination, performing in a perpetual “Argument Clinic.”
“Stupid git,” he said as we entered. The same line he used in the sketch. I shook my head ruefully and looked over at Martin.
“We're here to see the Prime Minister,” Dr. Cornwallis said helpfully, accepting the faux-receptionist as a real assistant.
“I suppose you're expected,” the fake Chapman said irritably.
“As much as any man might be considered expected,” I said hopefully.
“Oh, very good. Very good indeed,” he said, now even angrier. “Everyone who walks through is a comedian. My cross to bear...”
I couldn't help but smile remembering Chapman's later star turn in “Life of Brian.” “Quite,” I said.
One thing had changed in the life of our host, I noticed then.
Rather than having us cool our heels, or watch others rush in-and-out, the Man Himself entered from the other side of the room, dressed as though meeting the Russian ambassador, smile painted on, hand outstretched. “Tory Blaine,” he said amiably. “It's very good to see you.” He shook our hands vigorously, hand-over-hand, as though we were in fact Very Important Personages indeed and an Express photographer were just over our shoulders, all this over the head of the faux-Chapman, who gave off a parrot-like squawk.
“OK, then,” said Martin, backing away a bit. Blaine ignored it.
“Mr. Prime Minister,” said Dr. Cornwallis.
“Oh, would you like to sit down? Some tea?” Blaine indicated some comfortable furnishings in a sitting room done up to look like his old dig's waiting area. We sat in the side chairs offered, and a tea service instantly appeared before us.
While we sat down, Blaine remained upright. He was pacing the floor, I thought a bit nervously. Dr. Cornwallis motioned toward the faux-Chapman, Blaine, noticing the gesture in his friend, hurridly snapped his fingers, and the Pythonesque “secretary” disappeared.
“You said you wanted to talk about The Doctor,” Blaine said then, getting right to the point, and pulling out a handkerchief to mop his brow.
“You know him?” Dr. Cornwallis said.
“Oh, yes. Splendid man. Splendid. I tried to have him knighted, in life. In 2004, if I remember correctly. Back in, uh, what you call 'Meat Space.'” As he said this last he did quote marks with his fingers, something I never remembered seeing him do while he was alive. And his face – was that a twitch in one eye?
“I didn't know that,” said Dr. Cornwallis, calmly, friendly. “That's very interesting. And I take it you've met him since, uh, moving here?”
“Of course. I know everyone important in The Cloud Community. And there's no one more important than Dr. Emile Hoskie,” said Blaine, a bit more easily.
“Why is that, do you suppose?” asked Martin evenly. “Why is there no one in the Cloud more important than The Doctor? Even, say, someone such as yourself. After all, he was just a scientist. You were a leader of the Free World.”
Blaine chuckled nervously. “No one does as much good for the world” he said in a rush. “No one else is so well-equipped to serve, or so ready to do so.
“Really?” Martin said. “What services do you believe The Doctor provides?”
I saw Blaine's hands fluttering around his waist, betraying a struggle he hid from his face as any politician might. “The research he has continued to do, for example,” he said. “Do you have any idea how close he is to finding a way to exceed light speed in space, for instance?”
“How close? Martin pressed.
“Oh, very close,” Blaine said evenly, sure of his ground. “There are now 100 major projects, in various fields of science, to which The Doctor is now a major contributor, if not THE major contributor.”
“That's strange,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “I worked for the man. The man I knew was focused solely on cosmological math. It was his one and only passion.” The way he said “one and only” stood as a challenge.
“Oh, of course, but now he is so much more.” Blaine moved as if to sit down, and instantly a chair like our own appeared beneath him. He was giving Dr. Cornwallis that earnest look he gave reporters back in life, as though he could convince through conviction. I noticed he also wasn't continuing the pretense we had before, as though we were all meeting in Meat Space. Rather he appeared to be adapting ideas of control from Meat Space to his present plane. This impressed me.
“You say he is so much more than the man I knew in life,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “That's what I wanted to ask you about,” said Dr. Cornwallis. “My question is this. Is he the same man now as he was then?”
Blaine hesitated again, as though calculating something. Then his eyes lit up, the answer clearly there. “He is infinitely more,” he said. “So much more.”
“Because he has absorbed the souls of so many others,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said quickly. “And successfully.”
“It can be unsuccessful?” asked Martin.
Dr. Cornwallis seemed to see something in his Prime Minister's eyes. “It can be less than successful, I take it” he said.
“Yes,” said Blaine. “It can.”
Cornwallis pounced on what he'd seen, what we hadn't seen. “You tried it?” he said, like a doctor at a sick patient's bedside.
“With who?” I asked quickly, unable to control myself.
Blaine's eyes welled up with tears, something else I'd never seen before from him, either now or in life. “Sheri.” He said just the one word, very quietly.
“With your wife?” I said, a little too loudly or vehemently than I wanted. “Why?”
Dr. Cornwallis answered me, slowly, looking to Blaine's eyes for approval of what he was saying. “First, because you felt it the ultimate intimacy, and you were both in love, even when critics tried to tear you apart. But also, possibly, because you wanted to be powerful, and knew you couldn't achieve real power until you grew larger. As The Doctor had?”
Blaine's face contorted then. He was unable to contain himself, so wracked was he by guilt and grief. He began crying into his hands.
“How does he do it?” Blaine asked at last, breaking the tension that had come upon all of us. “How does he manage with all those souls inside him? What's his secret?”
“Compartmentalization?” asked Martin, rhetorically. A long word, but a good guess, I thought.
I tried to find some kinder words for it. “Sheri was your wife,” I suggested. “The Doctor is incorporating strangers, and perhaps that lets him be more, can I say, ruthless? Disassociated? Detached, the way a policeman or soldier or doctor who has seen much suffering in his life must be in order to function?”
Blaine's face lit up then in a strange way, and he pounded his fist into his palm. “Of course. How could I have been so foolish? How could we have been so foolish.”
Martin looked at me and mouthed, “She was part of it?”
“Is there any way to reverse the process?” asked Dr. Cornwallis.
Martin shook his head. “Once a soul is incorporated into another, I'm told the original is wiped, erased. So The Doctor told me when I inquired about it, even before the procedure. The contracts on this are explicit on that point, anyway. He tried to warn me...”
The blubbering began anew, then stopped suddenly.
“Maybe The Doctor has a way out,” said Blaine hopefully. “He's so wise, after all.”
“Is he?” asked Dr. Cornwallis.
“Oh, yes,” said Blaine. “He is the wisest man in the world, alive or dead. Look at all the good he has done for the world since he has been here. Think of all those souls he controls, all that knowledge, all that raw power!”
“You make it sound like it's a good thing,” said Martin. “Power, I mean.”
“Control of other peoples' souls,” I said. “It's been a fixture in horror fiction for generations.” I was sorry for this man. “Mr. Prime Minister?” I leaned close toward him. “How do you think Sheri feels, having given all the power of her soul to you? Is there something you regret in that?”
Blaine's face became a mask, a swirl of competing emotions. The cheery control he had exhibited in life, and through the beginning our interview, was long gone.
From his chair, Dr. Cornwallis was examining the man's face with more knowledge of him than he ever had in life, and his look was one of utter horror and contempt. Only Martin seemed unmoved by all this, standing off from us, looking at us each in turn, waiting for the moment to pass.
“Yes,” said Dr. Cornwallis at last. “I think our interview is at an end, Mr. Prime Minister. With your leave we should depart.”
Blaine did not move.
We stood and left the room like wraiths, going right through the door, leaving Tory Blaine to his private hell.
How does one travel within the Cloud, when every action happens at the speed of thought, and where there is no real “there” there.
The question occurred to me suddenly as I sat in my “house,” I looked out the window, and I studied the matter. Was I really still “alive” at all or was this, in fact, merely a half-life. Was I, like the faux-Chapman in Blaine's office, just a ghost in the machine?
Certainly everything around me looked and felt real. This desk, that chair. I tapped the window pane. It felt real enough.
Then I tried to wish it all away. I said to myself, let me see where I am, really.
And I saw nothing. I heard nothing, save the voice inside my own head. It was like being asleep, struggling to wake. Only I remembered how that felt. It was called sleep apnea. I was told once it could be fatal. When I struggled to wake then, I remembered, my breath came in gasps and I must have cried out. Because Susan, dear Susan, would nudge me, the spell would be broken, and I would suddenly find myself beside her, in our bed.
With that thought, I awoke. Or seemed to. My bed had appeared, in our bedroom, and I was in it, safe under the covers. I turned toward the mirror opposite me, the one I had dressed before for so many years.
What I saw was a man who appeared to be about 40, maybe a little more handsome than I was then, although still bald. There were just a few artful wisps of white in my mustache, hints of what age had in store, what experience had bought.
I stared at the reflection, and the wisps disappeared. Hair appeared on top of my head, sparsely at first, then fuller, moment by moment. I was growing younger before my eyes. I wiped a hand across my eyes, felt hair there, thin but real. I let go of the illusion and returned to what I had been a few moments before, reaching the covers across, standing up before the mirror.
I think, therefore I am, I thought. But am I, really?
I certainly think, I thought. But I appear to be nothing more than thoughts. I can compel physical things to appear to happen, using those thoughts. I can create a virtual life for myself, out of my past, my knowledge, and I can interact with others who choose to enter my fantasy life.
But is it just a fantasy life? Or is it real? And what if I wish to interact with someone whose artificial life is inside another server, around the world? How much of me travels there, how much remains behind? Or am I just reaching queries into a server – http colon slash slash I think therefore I am dot org.
As I stood before my mirror, the doorbell rang. I heard it. “Ding-dong!”
I walked again all the way through what looked-and-felt like my house – hallway, kitchen, hallway, dining room – to what looked-and-felt like my front door, behind whose glass I saw Martin Bexar, with a big grin splitting his face.
I opened the door, and a rush of warm, moving air entered the room with him. I smelled pollen. It was a beautiful spring day outside, and I saw behind Martin into my yard, where there were buds on the dogwoods, and where I suddenly saw what looked like people walking down the sidewalk.
“There's no place like home, is there?” he asked, walking past me.
I stood by the open door, still transfixed by the scene.
“Feels real, doesn't it?” Martin asked. “Well, it is. As real as anything can be. As real as life.
“Or is it?” Still smiling, Martin waved his hand again across my face. The door shut against my will, and now I saw that on the other side of the glass there was snow on the ground, and that the same trees I'd seen budding a moment before were now lifeless.
“We make our own reality, my friend,” Martin said, then. “What's real in the Cloud Community is what we choose to make real. It's free will. It's serious magic. You think therefore it is, you don't and it isn't anymore. Pretty cool, huh?”
I turned to face him, and suddenly he was in his wheelchair, crippled and fat. As he'd been when we first met early in the century, suffering even then from the Parkinson's that would finally take his life. Yet still smiling.
“If it's in your mind it can be made manifest,” he said and, as I looked, the wheelchair disappeared and he stood before me again, straight and whole.
“Lesson over,” he said suddenly. “Now that the magic show is done, let's talk about The Doctor,” he added, taking a seat in my most comfortable chair, urging me to sit on the couch, or lie upon it if I chose.
I sat down on the couch, a bit woodenly.
Martin noticed my discomfort. “We make our own reality,” he said. “We always have. It's just like your parents said it would be. Our reality can be a dream, or a nightmare. Cornwallis made his reality a dream, Blaine chose to make his a nightmare.
“The question we all have to ask in the Cloud is the same one we ask in life. It's just easier to see here, on the surface of what we do rather than the depths of what we are, because we are what we do.
“So which will it be? The dream or the nightmare? Dave Blanks or Tory Blaine?”
The mention of Blaine jolted my mind awake. We needed to discuss him.“No,” I said, returning to myself. “Blaine did something physical, within the Cloud Community, absorbing the soul of his wife, which changed his reality in ways he can't undo.”
Another English tea service, like Blaine's own, now appeared on a coffee table that sat between us. Martin poured us both a cup, putting a little milk in his, some sugar in mine, and handed me the cup. “Yes,” he said. “You are beginning to see things here as they really are. That's good.”
I came back to the point. “How do we change it?” I asked.
Martin sat back thoughtfully, slowly stirring his tea, then placing the little spoon next to the cup and taking a sip before answering.
“Here is what you know,” he said. “You know that, here in the Cloud Community, souls can absorb one another. You have seen the damage absorbing a single other soul can do. You also know the Doctor has absorbed many, many souls.”
“Meat Space” I said suddenly, taking a sip of the tea, feeling the warmth going down my throat, the familiar slightly sweet taste of it on my tongue. “I know where I am. I know what the problem appears to be with The Doctor. But I can't judge whether this is for good or for ill unless I can learn how the real world sees what's happened here.
“You see,” I continued, “even if what is happening here seems bad to us, seems evil to us, it could be having powerful, positive results on the outside, just as Blaine suggested. The Doctor is now the smartest computer ever built, the smartest soul there ever was. He's capable of doing great good in the world.”
“He is also capable of doing great evil. Or something in between.” Great ambivalence?
“Before I do anything, assuming I can do something, Martin, I have to know which it is. Do you have any answers in your magic hat for measuring a man's soul?”