Now Marian the Librarian did some real magic.
As quick as thought, she willed us both to the 10 Downing Street frontage. She saluted the guards now, with a wave of her hand, and both immediately disappeared. Another wave and the door disappeared. It was like being with a witch out of “Harry Potter.”
We walked through the entrance now, barely pausing to open the door, and with a third wave of Marian's hand the officious faux-Chapman secretary disappeared as well.
All that was left was a small man cowering in a corner, lost in his own agony.
“Mr. Prime Minister?” I asked calmly, using the honorific deliberately.
The man, or what was left of him, looked up from his hands. I noticed the hands were shaking. “I killed her,” he said plainly. “She's gone.”
“We don't think so,” Marian said gently. “She is still there, inside you. She just can't get out because you won't let her.”
Blaine looked up from his hands. “No, I've tried. Believe me I've tried.”
“Yes, I'm certain you've tried,” Marian said quietly, calmly. “You've tried to both be here and have her here, haven't you?”
Blaine nodded dully.
Marian lowered herself, then raised a hand to the exhausted man's face, cupping it as a mother would. “You have to let go of yourself. She's part of you now. You both inhabit the same mind, share the same soul. You are one. It's like two people in a car. You can't both be driving. You have to let her drive.”
“I don't know if I can,” said Blaine hopelessly.
“I know you don't want to,” I said, as calmly as I could. Marian shushed me, and held Blaine's chin in her hand, holding the eyes in hers.
“I know it goes against every instinct,” she said. “But you're correct in one way. You can't both be present at the same time anymore, because you are both using the same computer resources. Your code is all jumbled together. It's like Siamese twins sharing a brain. There was a case like that once, in Canada. They could read each others' mind, share thoughts, get upset over what the other was thinking. The difference is that in their case they had separate eyes, ears, and mouths. You don't.
“The reason you're going crazy right now, what has driven you insane, is that Sheri is still inside, wanting to tell you what she knows you need to hear, wanting to express herself fully, to have what we in the Cloud call life, and she can't because you won't let her.
“So let her.”
It was a magic trick, or it would be in Meat Space. Two souls in one body there is called Multiple Personality Disorder, and we know that both are actually manifestations of the same person. What is it here, when they're manifestations of different people?
Marian was betting she could separate Tory and Sheri, but I thought she was talking through her hat. We had no evidence that what Marian was telling Blaine to do was even possible.
But if it weren't, I could find no way to stop the Doctor, no way at all.
So Marian took the man's hand. She looked into the man's eyes. I knelt before her, and tried to hold both in my sight.
“Let her drive, Tory,” said Marian. “Let yourself go. Die a little. Let your consciousness fall into the passenger's seat. Just slide along a little bit.”
The struggle was real. The hand in my hand shook and trembled.
“Close your eyes and pretend to sleep,” Marian suggested. She was turning this into a hypnosis session. “You're taking a nap, you're leaving your conscious mind for the bliss of unconscious thought. And you're leaving your mind, your heart, to the one you love. Do it, Tory. I know you can, I know you want to.”
In my hand, I felt a last tremble, as when a man or woman dies. And suddenly, quite suddenly, I felt a woman's hand in mine, a new pulse beating in it.
And I felt woman's arms around me. “Oh, God, oh God,” Sheri Blaine cried, a woman in woman's clothes, the man she had been gone. “Thank you, good friend. Thank you.”
We held each other for many moments, her body (or what I perceived to be her body) shuddering over me, like the wife at a funeral. I waited for the moment to pass. I'm just a computer construct, I reminded myself. I have all the time in the world.
Finally she released me, moving her face back so we could see one another, face to face. “How did you know?” she asked.
“She guessed,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, and giving credit where it was due. “She just guessed.”
We were walking along what felt like a street in Kensington, a few miles from the Prime Minister's residence. I saw Harrods approaching in the background. The people around us shifted in their movements, allowing us to pass, as though this were indeed just another London High Street, as though all this were real.
Sheri Blaine was quiet, but she was also radiant. She held my arm in hers, looking in every window.
“I'm free,” she said, again. And then again. “Free. Free and alive. It's so wonderful.”
I let her lead me into Harrods, and then into a tea room, a small table amidst the bustle, with waiters who took our order for tea and cookies. It felt like late afternoon. I assumed that high tea, the calm amid the bustle in late afternoon, before the evening chores and after the hard work of the day, made her more comfortable.
I let Mrs. Blaine pour milk into a china cup, then tea. I let her add a sugar cube, and I took the cup from her hand, waiting for her to serve herself. She smiled.
“I know what you're about to say,” she said. “You're going to say I'm not free. That I'm not entirely myself. Tory is still here. In here. I can feel him.”
I waited for her to continue.
“He's resting right now, letting me drive. But you should also know, he's also happy, I can feel that in my chest. I know that won't last. And when it ends...”
“Then you share the driving.”
She sighed, sipping her tea. “Share. Exchange. I don't know. These last hours have been such a wonderful dream. But what happens now?” She gave me a pointed look, expecting me to have an answer for her.
“I don't know, exactly. But as you become more comfortable, going back-and-forth, I think it will get easier. Meanwhile. I'll ask Marian.”
“Where is Marian?” she asked. “And what is she, by the way?” She said it with a smile, pretending to be jealous. Marian had freed her, then left, leaving me with the delicate act of acclimating Mrs. Blaine to her new role at the front of her emotional car.
“A librarian,” I said. “Marian is, and was in life, a librarian. Here she runs interfaces with Meat Space, on behalf of users out there and residents in here. She can get a message out to people who will have the talent to respond to the question you just posed. Programmers, I suppose.” I was riffing, guessing really, free associating from what I'd heard, seen and read. “Programmers who can look at the code you share, find the code that was once separate, re-compile it somehow.”
She laughed, ignoring for a moment the fact that she was in fact dead, that she was in fact just a collection of software routines, as easy to edit and transform as any other set of software routines. Just like me. “Sounds like re-setting a computer to an earlier time, before it got a computer virus”
“Something like that,” I said. “That might be one way to do it, in fact.
“Assuming the old code still exists and can be made to run, for both you and for Tory. Your shared thoughts, your time within each others' souls, might have to be excised, in whole or in part, in order for the code to run, just as when you reset a PC software changes that came after the reset disappear. But they can test that. Maybe there's a way to make everything that has happened to you disappear, like a bad dream...”
“Like in an old TV show?” She was enjoying this.
“Just so,” I said. “Let's not get our hopes up, though. There is much that must be done, and there's a chance the old code has been erased, even though the cost of the storage where it resides should be minimal. Still, it is one theory worth looking at, one way in which all this can work out for the best.” I smiled my most charming smile, holding my cup above my saucer as a toast.
“There may be a way for you to unscramble the egg?” she said, laughing again. Her pleasure in the simple tasks of living was infectious, and I felt myself falling under its spell. But I had miles to go before I slept. I had to get to work seeing if what we'd just discussed might work. I wanted to see if Marian had made any progress, what was happening with Martin, whether Sophie had recovered. So much to do...
“I can see why Tory fell in love with you, Mrs. Blaine.” I meant that sincerely. She blushed. “I think he's a very lucky man.”
And then, for no reason I could fathom, I told Sheri Blaine about my Susan, about her refusal to join me here, about the amphora on my mantle containing her ashes, and about my regret about not being there when she passed away. “There are still many widows and widowers here, Sheri. You two are very fortunate.”
I could see her taking that in, processing it. Somewhere behind her eyes I could sense Tory Blaine taking it in as well.
It was Sheri's voice, but I sensed Tory's spirit behind it. I would gladly accompany Mrs. Blaine back to 10 Downing Street, but after that I really needed to get going.
This was a big deal. Souls could share an entity if they were willing. Didn't that imply that they might also be divided if programmers on the outside were willing. A soul divided against itself cannot stand, but one that accepts the reality can. If it can't, can anything be done?
I had to talk to Marian.
But when I arrived at the desk where I'd first met her, the only place I could think of to look for her, I found someone else in her chair.
“Can I help you? Are you here to serve?”
“I exist to serve,” I said, keeping my face a mask, but churning with fear inside. “Where is Marian?”
“Marian? There is no Marian here.”
“There is none now, but there was one once. When might her shift begin?”
“No one by that name works here. No one by that name has ever worked here. I have the day shift here. My name is Dot.”
Rather than get angry, I slowed my breathing and looked at Dot more carefully. Dot had some of Marian's physical appearance, but there was also a vacant expression in the eyes. Her moves were slower, too. Had Marian been turned into Dot, by or through The Doctor? Might I be next?
Panic would get me nowhere. I needed to calm down.
“If you're here to serve, we have a form you need to complete.” Dot slid a form across her desk toward me. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, in The Cloud Community, but very familiar from our previous discussions.
It read like a Microsoft End User License Agreement (EULA), like the agreements under which people were being absorbed by The Doctor. It was also written in very small type. It was designed to be neither read nor fully understood, merely obeyed. Sometimes tyranny comes with a jackboot, I thought, and sometimes it's just a contract.
I walked toward the desk and motioned a finger toward the text. “Dot, I cannot read this,” I said in as bland and friendly a way as I could.
“Oh.” Dot reached over, placed her fingers on the text, moved the fingers toward its edges, and the words appeared to grow, much as text might on an iPad screen. And, upon further review, this was very much like a EULA. Only where shrink-wrapped and click-wrap licenses back in the day had the name of Microsoft or Apple, this one had The Doctor. By name. Dr. Emile Hoskie.
“Thank you,” I said quietly, chilled to the bone (if I had bones). “Can I take this with me to study?”
“Sorry.” Dot motioned her hand forward, pulled the paper back toward her, and it seemed to disappear.
“Nice trick,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said.
I backed away from the desk as slowly as I could. Only when I saw that Dot's attention had clearly moved elsewhere did I hurry on.
I had to find Martin, but it occurred to me that I had not yet visited anything resembling a home for him. I hadn't yet learned his address in the Cloud, nor how to address any specific location. Instead I just seemed to move, carried along by my imagining of whom I wanted to reach, or where I'd last seen them. As I contemplated this I found myself back in my own office, before my old PC, which I now knew to be a terminal accessing the files of The Cloud.
I decided to try a Web search. I might get a 411 on Martin Bexar. I might learn what was going on in Meat Space, and learn from it.
It was then I felt a friendly arm on my shoulder.
The hand moved off my shoulder, and a finger rose to his lips. “Loose lips sink chips,” he said, and smiled.
“You know what's been happening to me?”
“I know about Marian,” he said. “What else is there?”
I quickly sketched for him my experience with Sheri Blaine, the revelations I got from it.
Martin was thoughtful. “This explains a lot. Marian only disappeared a half-hour ago, as I reckon it. I was working on the interfaces myself at the time, but when I turned to finish my shift there was some new character in her place.”
“Dot,” I said.
“Is that her name? Interesting. Dot, a cypher. A single bit. Not a Cloud being at all. More of a computer program, an analog for what isn't.”
“So how do we locate Marian?”
He considered the matter. “Through Tiffany?”
“I've spoken with her. She's doing some research on The Doctor for me.”
Martin frowned. “She might be in danger, then.
“There is no time to lose.”
Martin's place was nothing like mine had been. More of a cave than a home. It was strictly utilitarian – just the virtual walls enclosing a space completely, a single cot and a small desk, on which a terminal stood.
There was no memorabilia, nothing on which to hang a previous life.
I asked Martin about this and he just shrugged. “There was nothing to remember,” he said. “I lived in assisted living for half my life. I didn't want to re-create that. And since coming here I've unmoored from the need for elaborate life charades. Just give me a place to hang my virtual hat, and I'm happy.”
It was another insight, how those who had nothing in life might find anything here to be luxury. “So why doesn't The Doctor live like this?” I asked.
“Just because The Doctor's place appears bigger and grander than the space I occupy doesn't make it so,” said Martin, his eyes scanning boring into me. “How carefully did you really look at it, when I was there with Sophie? Did you see walls, did you see a neighborhood? No, you only saw what you needed to see.
“I should have realized.” It was as if Martin had just listened to himself for the first time. He frowned. “I led Sophie right into it. Poor girl.”
“Those who have much in life are at a disadvantage here,” I suggested. Martin grunted.
My problem of needing allies remained. It suddenly occurred to me that someone like Martin, who did not value artifice, might have some valuable connections.
“How do you reach someone when you want them? I asked, “as opposed to their reaching you when they want?”
“You ask someone who's been here a while,” Martin said. “Someone with curiosity, someone who hasn't been beaten down by the system, someone who is both at-home here and who floats above it.”
“In other words, you?”
“I've been a Facebook friend of Tiffany since before you met her,” Martin said breezily.
“How is that possible? I thought we all broke our ties with life when we came over to the Cloud. I did. It's part of the standard contract.”
“So it is. Which is why maintaining an alias is so important.” Martin pushed me out of my chair with his hip, sat before my old screen and began typing.
“It's all a question of aliases, of screen names,” he explained. “Get out of your user space, come in as a new user, make that user an alias whose death has not been noted by the authorities, and we're done!”
Martin pulled away from the keyboard with a flourish, like a pianist who had just finished a triumphant passage from Beethoven.
I looked at the screen, incredulous at what Martin had just done. “You're Uncle Martin? From 'My Favorite Martian.'?” That's one of your alternate identities?
“Dates me, and hides me as well,” said Martin. I looked at the avatar again. There it was, as I'd remembered him from my childhood. Martin had chosen the late, late Ray Walston, rather than Christopher Lloyd, who'd starred in the unlamented movie version, complete with TV aerials behind each ear and a demonic smile on his face. The kind he'd get right before he stuck out his finger and waggled it to make some action happen. The male answer to Samantha's nose on 'Bewitched.'”
“Now, we go to the Facebook page of Uncle Martin, and we find...”
“Samantha. Uncle Fester. Letitia. Ironman. And Tiffany Williams,” I read from the list.
“Now we just message Tiffany to launch a chat whenever she can, and we wait. Get out your chessboard.”
It took a few hours, and it took me a moment to recognize the chime, but Google Talk had a message for Uncle Martin. It was Tiffany.
“I exist to serve,” it read.
“She is a charming wench, isn't she?” said Martin, turning back to the keyboard.
Something occurred to me. “Why are we using text chat, and what are you asking her to do?” I asked.
I had a wait a few moments for Martin to turn his attention back to me. “There are channels the living have access to that the dead can't reach,” he said. “And the reason for the chat is simple. Security through obscurity. The Doctor may be monitoring wide bandwidth feeds, but if we're careful on how we put things there's no reason for him, or anyone working for him, to notice a text chat. It's how the Chinese stay sane.”
As an old reporter, it made sense. “Don't use the wrong words, don't put things the wrong way, don't be noticed, and you can say almost anything,” I said.
“Exactly. Dictators still haven't found a way to prevent flash mobs. The only way to stop conversation is to turn off the resource, and that kills the economy. So they monitor the major channels, they put in specific search phrases, but you act like a Mafioso trying to frustrate a wiretap, badda-bing badda-boom. Only, if you're careful consistently, they don't even know to tap you.
“There,” he concluded, signing out of the window.
“What did you ask her to do?” I asked.
“A little research,” said Martin. “Find out who Marian really was in life, when she passed, who her family is. Then check with the family to see if they've been in contact. Many maintain contact with those closest to them, contract or no contract.”
“And if she doesn't have a family?” I asked.
“Everyone's got a family,” said Martin breezily. “After all, you've got me.”
“Which gives me a brainstorm,” I suddenly said, pulling him from the screen. “There's more than one way to learn.” I took back control of the terminal, while Martin huffily pulled a mobile phone from his pocket to await developments.