We were too late.
It had begun.
Marian already had the fingers of one hand in her mouth, and was biting into them. A bad sign.
Below us Ms. Napoli strode forward at her most voluptuous, wearing a diaphanous gown that was somehow both shimmering and being blown about by an unknown wind. It was the kind of sight men are brought up not to resist.
She hadn't met The Doctor. He stood across from her. He didn't move.
Dr. Cornwallis would recognize the face, the hair, and (for some reason) the glasses, but everything else was from a bodybuilding catalog, or one of those old ads for “supplements” that may or may not have contained steroids (depending on whether the maker expected them to work). Powerful biceps poked out from both sides of a black t-shirt, tight jeans encased strong legs, and the man's stride was that of Burt Lancaster circa 1948, when he was still as much circus acrobat as actor.
Dr. Hoskie, yes. But Dr. Hoskie? No.
Sophie, the woman I'd made love to, the one who had cured me when I first came here, was doing her best. She was posing, she was dancing, she was practically pole-dancing without a pole, while Martin stood off to the side, wringing his hands, and looking (to me) like a pimp.
She was everything any man could want. But Emile Hoskie was no longer a man.
The Doctor wasn't drooling, inside, but laughing. He snapped his fingers. Now there were two Sophies. He snapped them again and there were four. Three were sexually assaulting the fourth, whom I assumed was the only “real” one of the group.
It was a nightmare. And finally it came from Hoskie's lips, one huge “ha!” that hit my ears like a wave.
And there was just the one woman, propped on her arms, on the ground, gown half-torn. And Martin was running up to her, like a poor soul who had just tried to pimp his own wife.
Their emotional humiliation was total. I looked away.
“I had a love,” Hoskie said in a human voice, a Cambridge accent without the artificial assistance he had needed in life, a voice that was at once both his and not his own. With a finger he condemned the two before him, like God sending Adam and Eve out of Eden.
“She saw the man within. She wasn't a great beauty, but it was the love I wanted, a love I needed, and it kept me alive at times when nothing else could. I won't have her memory insulted with this cheap strip show.
“Here in the Cloud sex, physical pleasure, and pain (a whip appeared in one hand, then disappeared) can be real, can be felt, but it's fleeting. It leaves no trace, no memory. It's a figment, a phantom, a creation of mind.
“And mind is all that matters here. Learn from it. And now, leave my sight.” He bade them away with a wave of one hand, and turned away from them.
I didn't feel the Librarian leave my side, as I would have in Meat Space, but in a flash she was gone from my side and occupying the space Sophia and Martin were leaving.
“Doctor, forgive them,” she said. “They know not what they do. They only exist to serve. They came here at the invitation of Dr. Cornwallis, to serve you, because she offered what you had not had in life, what I've not seen you take here, and he hoped it would humanize you.”
The Doctor gave another dismissive wave. Martin and Sophia instantly vanished. He rounded on the librarian. “What brings you here, Marian my dear?”
“I, too, exist to serve,” she said. “As you do. I have a former journalist with me, named Dave Blanks. He would like to serve you by asking a few questions.”
She motioned me forward, but I had nothing. Out of nothing, I tried the hardest pitch I could think of. “Why does the porridge bird lay its eggs in the air?” It was a nonsense question I hoped he'd recognize, a quote from “I Think We're All Bozos on this Bus,” an old Firesign Theater recording now nearly 70 years old. It was the question that confounded the computer at the center of the Future Fair, that caused it to break down and the world it created to disappear.
“Ah, a Firesign Theater fan. Very good,” said The Doctor. “Do you have any serious questions?”
“How did you know that?” I tried. “You were English, not American.”
“There were records at Cambridge.” He had been in college around that time, a graduate student, just starting his great life's work, already diagnosed but not yet the complete cripple the world knew him as.
“But you didn't listen to them,” I responded. “You didn't listen to them, yet you quote them as though you did. So I have a more serious question. What's it like to have thousands of former souls living inside you, trapped and unable to get out.”
The Doctor laughed, the kind of laugh I recalled from Marvel movie villains, a fiendish laugh from someone with hidden knowledge he thinks no one else has.
“Oh, they're out,” he said. “They're all out, and inside me. You're right. It's how I answered your joke question. But here, inside here” and he poked a finger at his own chest, “they're under control, and together they are more than any one of them could ever be.”
“More than even you could ever be?” I asked.
“Much more,” he said curtly, regaining his composure. Then, with a wave of his hand, The Doctor dismissed us both.
“And much less,” I added, but The Doctor didn't hear me.
I was back in my own 'home.'
Almost as soon as I adjusted to my new-old surroundings, the Librarian had bad news for me.
She hadn't come to my home. She had gone, apparently, to her own home, and her own screen, which was beeping through my own, like a Twitter account gone mad. I pressed a key, and the news was before me in a flash, the way a screen saver suddenly disappears to reveal the file behind it.
The Doctor had won his referendum. He now had real power, not only in the Cloud but in Meat Space as well.
How did he do it and what did he want it for? I typed this as a query, in a chat box, and Marian suddenly appeared before me, in the “flesh.”
“You're really asking two questions,” she said, before I could offer a chair, coffee, or anything else. “He won because he's delivering something people want, a real human interface for asking, and answering, questions, along with the power of a giant computer system.
“This was the Holy Grail of computer programmers for nearly a century.” She wasn't sitting, was barely acknowledging me, but was treating me as though I were a lecture audience in a college classroom. I wondered for a moment whether she was appearing simultaneously in other virtual rooms, and other virtual homes? I'd have to ask.
“How do we mimic the human mind in a cyber mind?” Marian continued. “The arguments started almost before the machine was invented, with people like Alan Turing. They continued on through IBM demonstrations like Deep Blue and Watson, which mimicked some things humans could do. And of course Cloud developers thought they were doing it, which is why The Doctor was willing, at the end of the life, to come here.
This was beginning to feel like a college lecture. I sat in my chair, a little tired, and conjured a mug of hot green tea in one hand to keep me awake.
“But it was only with The Doctor's arrival here, and his own high intelligence, that we were able to make those connections inside the machine, the kinds of connections that would truly combine human intuition and machine intelligence. You might even say that The Doctor invented the Cloud, from inside it. He created a vocabulary, not only for the repositories of souls in silicon memory, but also for how we access resources, and how we interact with the outside world.
“You probably noticed that an inordinate number of the early settlers of The Cloud were computer professionals. That's not a coincidence. The creators of The Cloud Community also concentrated on marketing to aging Baby Boom programmers because they wanted to put them to work. And they did.
“The usefulness of the Cloud, to the outside world, lies in the fact that someone on the outside can now describe a problem, and someone inside can get to work on programming a solution to it. Turns out it's not the coding that's the limiting factor, it's the functional specifications, describing what the program does, that limits us.”
This ceased to become a college lecture, and became a personal harrangue. Instead of looking forward as though to a crowd, Marian was speaking directly to me.
“This is why writers, especially those who made their livings writing about computers, have become a recent marketing target for the Cloud. Writers know how to describe things, to explain things. The Doctor knew as soon as you hit my interface that you could be recruited, and he has been working toward that, encouraging you to be of use, existing to serve. Which you do.”
“It's a natural human emotion to want to be of use,” I said feebly
“For some,” she replied, finally sitting down opposite me, and conjuring a cup of her own. “Not for everyone. Some retired people only want to serve themselves, and their own needs. They come here, find every need instantly satisfied, because if you can imagine it, then it's there for you, and they get bored.
“These are the kind of people, those who have functionally retired, that The Doctor has been recruiting to enhance his power. Souls here either serve humanity, serve The Doctor, or spend eternity making up their minds.”
“Heaven, hell or purgatory,” I said. “Which is it?”
“It depends on what you think it is,” she said. “There are some who think they're in heaven but are actually in hell, and the other way around.
I stood up then, paced the room, and thought about what Marian had said, while she recovered with her hot beverage. At least, I believe that's what happened. The way Marian explained the Cloud, everything I had experienced since coming here was an illusion, a product of my imagination, a way of making sense out of an artificial existence where I was nothing but routines and sub-systems. Becoming part of something larger, like The Doctor, was starting to make some sense.
But is life on Earth, with the senses we're given by God, the way we see and feel and hear and taste, the limited ways in which we sense time and motion, any different than what I'm experiencing in The Cloud?
For some minutes no one spoke.
“There's the second question,” I said to Marian at last. “What does the Doctor want?”
“Think about how technology tends to evolve,” Marian replied, now calmly.“You wrote about it your whole career. Once something is possible, it evolves into smaller versions, then becomes software, and eventually...”
“A product. Like the PC. Like the iPad.”
“Remember how the Cloud itself evolved that way,” Marian said. “A few public clouds evolved into hybrid clouds, then private clouds, and finally clouds-in-a-box, even if the box at first was the size of container truck.”
I was starting to comprehend. “Then as the Cloud Community came into being, with the ability to hold entire souls within it, we all figured the evolution was over, and the one big system won,” I said.
“That's how you reported it,” Marian agreed. “I've researched your stuff, you know. You were a good writer. But there were strings from many other industries, most especially Japanese mechanical robots, robotics and surveillance work done in the War on Terror, as well as chip design and interface speeds, that could be turned into a far more compelling offering.”
“You don't mean,” I said.
“I do. It's obvious, now. The Doctor is returning to Meat Space. This time in an eternal, robotic body, with a fast wireless interface back here so he can control both ends of the connection.”
I gave her my summary. “Today the Cloud. Tomorrow the world.”
We drank, but my tea now tasted cold and a bit rancid.
I had done all I could do in the Cloud. It was time to look outside it.
But there was only one person I knew outside the Cloud.
How depressing. A long and (I thought) well-lived life, but as soon as I move away I find I have only one friend in the old neighborhood.
I'd enjoyed our chat. We'd met quite by accident, she was nothing like me, but she'd laughed at my jokes, enjoyed my company. And seemed curious.
But could someone inside The Cloud call out? I decided to try. I looked up her IP number, fired up the browser in my office, and gave it a try.
And it worked.
After the exchange of pleasantries (surprised ones, in her case) I got down to cases. “Have you heard of The Doctor coming to Meat Space?”
“Dr. Emile Hoskie. Oh yes, everyone knows. It's very exciting.”
Ouch. I would have to be careful here. “What do you think about it?” I asked, in as non-committal a way as I could.
There was a pause. “Actually, I hadn't really thought about it at all. It was just a story that flew by, like the story about his winning his referendum.”
“There's a lot happening in your life, then?” I said.
“Oh, yes. The daily grind. Getting by. It's what matters most. You helped teach me that.”
“I?” I was startled. “How did I do that?”
“Well, because you're not part of it any more. But you could talk to me, help me. It's like beyond the grave stuff. Spooky.”
“Isn't that what The Doctor is trying to do? Only, as you might say, for real?”
I saw some concern etched in her eyes. “I hadn't thought of it that way. I don't know why, but I hadn't.”
“Has anyone? Anyone mention, say, Lazarus? Admit there was something spooky about someone coming back from the dead, getting into a body, and wielding power over the living as he does over the dead?”
“Whoa. That is chilling.”
I waited a moment. “What's more chilling is that it's so obvious, yet unspoken. This tells me it's a truth that dares not speak its name. And when truths don't speak their names, there is usually a reason for it.”
Tiffany nodded her head. “For a dead guy you're pretty smart,” she said.
If I could have blushed, I would have. As it was, I just waited a few beats before continuing. “I don't have the same views of things, on this side, that you may have. I'd like to know more. I'd like to know how The Doctor's re-appearance in Meat Space is being covered. How big a story it is, what the angle may be. Anything you can point to me.”
“Can you use links?
“Been doing it for 50 years.”
“What I mean is, if I sent links to this address, like I were sending an email, could you click on them and see them, as I would be able to do out here?”
“I believe I could.”
“Well, here.” I watched her face scrunch up, then she disappeared from the screen. “I'm opening up a new window on my computer,” said her voice through the Interface. “I'm pulling out my news links, and I'm copying them to an e-mail file. He's also trending on Twitter under a hash tag, #TheDoctor. And I'll poke around for Facebook pages, anything else I can find, and send them to you. There,” she said, suddenly reappearing, and grinning in a way teenagers might who've just done something naughty.
An icon appeared at the top of my screen. I had mail.
“You're a doll, Tiffany.”
“No, really. Stay in touch, will you?”
Before I could even think it, Marian appeared.
“People who don't want other people to know things shouldn't be doing them on public channels,” she said hurridly, closing my door (which I hadn't realized was open) behind her.
“Whatever do you mean?” I asked innocently.
Marian smirked. “You don't get it, do you? The Doctor controls the horizontal here, he controls the vertical. Anything sent out in public is going to come to his attention very quickly. I hashed and encrypted that exchange you just had with your lady friend, which is why your screen went out for am moment.”
“I thought it was because she was multi-tasking,” I said.
“Please,” Marian replied, the teacher lecturing a student who just didn't get it. Multi-tasking in the clear has been around for 20 years. I'm just glad I was tracking your terminal and ID in real time. If The Doctor had been able to sense Tiffany sending that set of links to you, or your asking for it, it would have meant trouble.”
“He did,” I said. “I mean, the screen didn't blank until I told Tiffany my concerns, and got her concerned enough to collect that stuff for me.”
I hadn't known Marian could curse like that. “Have you got the file?”
“It's inside here somewhere.”
I did, and watched Marian's hands fly over my keys. She clicked my mouse, and she used the fingers on her other hand on the touchscreen, causing windows to fly, open, close, at what seemed the speed of light. She looked a bit like Vishnu, the Hindu God usually shown as having four arms. Although these were all going at a blur.
“Do you have a thumb drive?” Marian asked from inside the blur. I handed one over. I saw it go into a port, then come out. I caught it as it was tossed to me.
“That's all I can do for now,” Marian said, the four hands turning to two and the two hands falling backward, off my PC. “But just in case we need to get out of here, now.” She grabbed me by the arm and we raced toward the door. She opened it, I shut it, I looked behind me for just a moment.
And it was gone.
“Where are we going?” I asked, as houses and towns and city streets whizzed by me at cyberkinetic speed. “What happened to my house?”
“We're going to see Tory Blaine,” said Marian. “And I'm afraid your house doesn't exist anymore.”