I have a new work of fiction out on Amazon.
(What follows is a work of fiction. I wrote it early this year, in about a week, after a weekend vacation to Asheville, touring artists' markets. Hope you like it.)
A cup or goblet, made of clay, and fired with a simple limestone-colored glaze. I saw it in a storeroom, by the workshop of an artist who was now working, instead, on cartoonish wiener dogs hipsters could hang on a wall.
The price was a snip, $19. I asked what inspired her to make it. She didn’t answer. All she said was, “It’s on sale,” as she wrapped it in newspaper.
I thought no more about it. I was giving my wife our hundredth honeymoon, a weekend in the North Carolina Mountains. There were other artists to visit, and the Google Map on my phone was buzzing in its cradle. We had to move on.
Think of this as Volume 17, Number 37 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
This caused me, while still on our cruise ship, to write the following, which I now offer to the rest of you in hopes it helps, just a little, with those struggling to write good fiction:
Fiction is hard. Wish I could do it better.
Anyone who starts in to write fiction is in for a lot of hard work. Creating worlds, stories, and people who never really existed is the most difficult task you can imagine -- it is a feat of pure imagination. Anyone who does it, anyone who succeeds at it, becomes a hero in my book.
Here is what I've learned, and often failed to apply, in writing fiction.
Think of this as Volume 17, Number 23 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
In fact, the con may be the most human act there is. Because it is based on the one thing that most separates us from other animals, story-telling.
Civilization begins with story-telling. Whether it's in cave paintings or the words grandparents give grandchildren, indicating a past before the kids' own births that was different from the present day, it's story-telling that defines us as human.
A con man is telling a story. And the first person they tell that story to is themselves. They are their own first “victim,” and their most important one.
Think of this as Volume 17, Number 13 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Both had a similar aim, to keep people from stealing making and re-selling copies of material subject to copyright, now that technology allowed for clean (or nearly clean) copies.
My sympathies here are purely with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and blogs like Boingboing, which hate these laws as attacks on freedom of speech, of association, and the free exchange of ideas.
March 29, 2013 in A-Clue, Books, business models, censorship, Communications Policy, copyright, e-commerce, economy, education, Fiction, futurism, history, intellectual property, Internet, law, Music, patents, Personal, regulation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Think of this as Volume 17, Number 1 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
No one knows the nature of God. We each take the final step alone, and no one has reported back anything but an emptiness or a bright light that drew them in briefly, before life in the form of a science-taught doctor pulled them back.
Faith replaces understanding. We choose to believe this or that. And faith is organized through religions. Faith represents “revealed” truth, stories that may be true or may not be, but are believed by their adherents because we're all afraid to die and we all want answers before we go.
There is nothing wrong with faith, but religions are human institutions. As such they are subject to the same forces that drive businesses, universities, and states. You're either growing or you're dying. A business that stagnates starts to die. Without growth you go backward. The process can seem invisible, to those inside, but it's an inevitable unraveling in every case.
You grow by getting more. More money, more power, more customers or adherents. To grow you contend. You must be aggressive, even ruthless at times. The result is conflict. Those who lose conflicts die quickly. Those who withdraw die more slowly, but they do die.
Trouble is, this is incompatible with the nature of God. Sure, I said that's unknowable, but almost everyone agrees that the nature of God is not human, that human nature is not God's nature. What makes you successful in building an institution is not what brings you to a higher understanding of God. Any man or woman of faith will tell you that.
So Buddhism was driven out of India by the more aggressive Hindus. So the Bahai' and Zoroastrians were driven out of Iran by the more aggressive Muslims. So animism was driven out of the Americas, and Africa, by more aggressive Christians and Muslims. So it is within Christianity – passive groups like the Quakers, Unitarians and Episcopalians lose adherents to more aggressive, fundamentalist sects that demand more of their members and constantly evangelize for more.
Powerful religions make demands of their adherents. To grow, they make more demands, and demand more adherents. They demand obedience. The power of a religion is directly related to the amount of crazy stuff its leaders can convince adherents to do. Acts of greed, of brutality, or murder, are routinely committed in the name of religious power, and these acts go unpunished. In fact, groups that don't engage in these acts fade away, they lose adherents, they die.
“This is our chance,” said Martin to Marian. “Let's not blow it.”
The Librarian was back at a terminal, not in the main room but here in what had been my house, which a little imagination (from a number of people) had turned into a rebel command center, with a half-dozen terminals lined along the back walls of the bedroom Susan and I had shared for so long. Since I didn't need it any more.
I now had plenty of other places where I could close my eyes and rest, leaving my programs untethered from this real-unreality, places where I could imagine myself with my loving wife once again. It was what I needed, a fantasy to maintain my cyber sanity.
You wouldn't think an imaginary computer construct could sleep, even dream, and not of electric sheep, either. But I knew better now. Dreams are how we process what is coming at us while we wake, combine it with past memories, deal with harsh realities, and grow inside. Dreaming is how we learn.
I'd been spending a lot of time dreaming lately, learning and processing. The excitement of the last weeks had allowed me to finally accept Susan's death. That and the fact that, thanks to Martin, Sophie, Marian and Liza, I now had more friends in death than I had at any time in my life, true friends I could depend upon.
But now was no time for distractions. It was go time. D-Day. H-Hour.
Marian's screen showed news feeds and live data from the outside world. Liza's showed status checks on how The Doctor was proceeding with his plan to cross over to that world and, in effect, take control of it. Martin was looking into the rules of The Community, following threads in which souls considered a succession plan to the “benevolent” (their term) rule Dr. Emile Hoskie had given them for so long.
I had a terminal as well, but I didn't have it open to anything but an empty word processing window. I was typing this story from memory, trying to make sure it could all be told, from both sides of Life, and either published or (if necessary) squirreled away somewhere in deep memory for future generations. As most of my career had been.
It was a furious few hours, a time of high excitement, in which I felt more alive than I had in many decades.
I glanced over at Marian's screen, where dignitaries were gathered in one window awaiting the arrival of their new Overlord. I glanced over at Martin's screen, where he was reading a passionate argument on behalf of a more democratic system of Cloud governance. All I saw on Liza's screen was a collection of text-based windows, scripts and programs and tests only programmers could understand.
And it was while looking at Liza's screen that my heart broke again. Because that was the language Susan understood. That was her world. Say what you want about computing being a man's world. That has never really been the case. Ada Lovelace programmed for Babbage, Grace Hopper and her team did the same for ENIAC, and there had always been women at every industry meeting I'd ever attended. Maybe there weren't many of them, maybe they weren't doing much of the talking, but they were there, quietly organizing what the men were imagining into a coherent form, turning it into something that worked.
So now the moment had come. The transfer was at hand. Martin looked over at me and gave me a quick thumbs-up.
As with so many things relating to The Cloud, nothing seemed to happen, but everything happened. One moment The Doctor was here, the next he was there. The lights on the Exoskeleton Marian was looking at suddenly lit up, they came alive. A voice came from the creature, not the weak computer-based joke voice we'd become used to during the life of Emile Hoskie, weakened as he was by ALS, locked in his chair, head tilted to the side with barely a hint of expression. No, this was a real voice, a commanding voice, more like those heard on car commercials or movie trailers.
The voice was expressing great joy, although nothing in the expression of the creature betrayed emotion. The voice was exultant over his new strength, his new power, both physical and political, and making the kinds of promises I remember from Inaugural Addresses years ago. It was a little like Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon, if we'd all been there on the Moon with him, combined with Barack Obama's First Inaugural Address, so filled with hope and purpose.
Meanwhile, Liza's fingers were flying over her keyboard. I noticed that she was wearing a headset with a microphone, and was speaking quietly into it, nodding in response to whatever she was hearing.
Everyone in this room was busy except for me.
Even Martin was surprised when it happened.
Me, I was struck dumb. I felt like I'd just been shot.
Coming out of the terminal in front of Martin was a familiar voice, one I knew better than I'd ever known my own.
“Looks like we have a new leader,” Martin said, smiling. From somewhere in the center of what had been The Doctor, from among that tangled web of souls Anon had just torn asunder from him on this side of the Great Divide, and separated, there was one voice that was already quietly organizing, adapting, controlling, listening, and (now) speaking, not as a collection harvested but as a CIO hired.
“Who is it?” I croaked out.
“Says her name is Susan,” said Martin. “That was your wife's name, wasn't it?”
“But she died. We talked about it. She refused to cross over. I have her ashes...had.”
A few minutes later, I felt Liza's hand on my shoulder. “Had,” she said. “John promised not to tell you, but she did come over. She was recruited to The Cloud Community by The Doctor, and had never lived here as a separate entity, only as part of his larger plan.
“And with the plan gone to pieces, as it were, she's among the survivors. Apparently, the strongest one.”
“Go to her,” said Martin, tears in his eyes. “Go to your wife.”
And so I did.
Without a word John Willis' former assistant, pushed me aside and marched to the PC on my office desk.
She slipped a memory stick into a USB port, opened a browser window, typed in an address, then entered a user name and password. A few moments later she slipped out the stick and handed it to me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked incredulously.
“Traffic accident,” she said. “You know most cars drive themselves, but you can override the programming, and an amazing number of people in Atlanta do. Including one drunk. He plowed into me as my car was driving home from work, paramedics rushed me to the hospital but it was obviously no good.
“So John came to my bed, with a helmet, and these instructions we'd been talking about. He slipped a copy of this stick into my hand, he imprinted my mind with the files, he kissed me, and he sent me here.”
I stood there, mouth agape. She was as beautiful as I had remembered. Martin, so often unfazed, was impressed as well.
She continued. “What I just did was download the code that should help you download new constructs for your two friends, then split the personalities once you've got them outside. He's prepared to do that at your command. This key has the necessary files, encrypted, and subject to a password I memorized as John placed the helmet on me.”
“How did you get a physical key across?” I asked, incredulous.
“The same way you did, only your key was plugged in automatically,” she said. “Remember? You handed John a key right before you crossed over. It had your tangible memories, pictures from your life, your family. That's standard practice with The Community. It's an adjunct, an additional set of files each person can transfer over alongside themselves.”
I was still pretty dumbfounded. “How did John get you over....you said you had a traffic accident....”
“The remote helmet is experimental,” she said. “It's new, in beta test. It's for situations like mine, when people are going too quickly to be brought in.
“In time, we hope to get helmets, and instructions, to EMTs so those who are DOA or who have sudden heart attacks have a chance of coming over, if their living wills allow for it. I guess I was doing QA – quality assurance.”
“But what about your own personal files?” I asked. “What about your family, your friends?”
“You and Martin are my family now,” she said. “Let's see if this works.”
Explaining the situation to the Blaines was not easy. Liza was indispensable to us. She was trained in grief counseling as part of her work. She knows how to put these things to people.
She calmly led each personality through the drill. She made certain she got both to assent. She even put forms in front of each personality which, amazingly, were signed in two separate hands.
“But no one has ever come back from the dead,” said Sheri Blaine, after she signed.
Liza smiled and nodded.
“Yes, you will be the first. But it will be for only a few moments, and the body you'll be in will only be a husk, which has itself just sent its soul to the Community.
“But you're right, all this is experimental. Science is risky. Necessity breeds invention. Experiments don't always work, even when you think they should, and you need to understand this.”
So she repeated the concerns that had been running through my head for days.
“You could be lost on either end of the voyage, or parts of you could be. The personality you come back with may not be completely separate from your husband. There may be parts missing. But we think this will work.”
In contrast to his wife, Tory had asked no questions, just nodded his head and said “Approved.” Man of action, that Tory.
So glad I never voted for him.
“Mr. Prime Minister? Mr. Prime Minister?”
It was Dr. Cornwallis. He was shaking the shoulder of the “late” (again) Tory Blaine, lying in (apparent) comfort on a couch in his “private office” on “10 Downing Street.”
Liza said it was good news that the building hadn't disappeared while the transfer took place. To her it meant there was still something or someone holding it all together. That was something I hadn't considered. If you create your own reality, and that reality remains while you seem to be physically gone, it's proof you aren't. For someone freshly dead, it was an interesting observation.
In fact from our end nothing seemed to happen at all. Liza had laid the Blaine down with soothing words, placed one end of a plug she'd conjured up from instructions on the USB stick into the nose, which is the closest organ to the brain, instructed he/she to breath slowly through the mouth, then hit Enter on the Prime Minister's computer terminal.
It all seemed to take very little time. I had barely gotten through half a rosary (having found the old thing in a desk drawer, dredged from my earliest memories of childhood) when the expression on he/she's face changed, became briefly empty, and then became the the famous man's old warm-blooded smile.
Then, quite suddenly, his eyes popped open, like in an old science fiction movie.
“I'm here,” he said. “I'm here, and I'm alone!” Liza took the plug from out of Tory Blaine's nose and allowed him to sit up. “I'm free!”
He stood upright instantly but then, within moments, he was leaning into my arms, the way you might if you stand too quickly with low blood pressure and you suddenly go faint, the scene in front of you fading off into nothingness for a moment before returning.
“Sheri!” he cried. “Where is Sheri?”
I looked at Liza, who looked at me, shrugging her shoulders.
And with that there came a clattering down a nearby staircase. “Tory! Tory! Where are you?” It was the voice of Tory Blaine's wife, the lovely Sheri. She stood before us, radiant in the same dress she'd worn at her husband's first election in the late 1990s, and with the same beatific smile on her face she had worn then.
“Sheri!” cried Tory Blaine, reaching out to embrace his wife.
Liza, however, was already thinking of the next steps.
She pulled out what looked like an iPhone, and texted a brief message. A full exchange then took place, her little phone bonging with each incoming note.
I made my apologies to the happy couple, took Liza by the hand, and walked out onto the “street,” then along a foggy lane to what now appeared to be my own home in Atlanta. Along the way Liza talked, describing her correspondence in something like real time.
John Willis was thrilled to get my notes and references, she said. He had made contact with the people who had written the Indian code, gotten together some additional recruits from among the old boys at Anon, which was still kicking after all these years, and brought together the software we had just used to separate the Blaines from one another.
Now that we had the software, and a successful beta test, Liza responded immediately we could scale it up and go after The Doctor.
“How can you do that?” I asked.
“Well, we can't,” she said. “But others can, on the outside. By making himself visible to the outside world, The Doctor has sealed his own doom.
“Anon?” I asked.
“Anon,” said Martin and Liza together.
Anonymous. The infamous computer terror group of the early 21st century. The openers of secrets, the harassers of the powerful, the masked vigilantes of the Web.
“I thought they disappeared after the massive Visa attack in 2018,” I said.
I remembered that. It had been terrible, one of the last big stories I'd covered.
For a few days no one's money worked. Not online, hardly at all offline. People were digging up dollar bills out of seat cushions, flooding into banks that had stopped issuing bills from ATMs two years before. There were stories of barter. The global financial system was collapsing before our very eyes.
Liza smiled. “They did disappear, in a way. The loosely organized Anon you knew disappeared. But gradually it came back together, with more command-and-control, and a much more limited mission.
“Now there is a process of consensus that all members subscribe to, and there are rules controlling the kinds of things that can be done and the kinds of causes they can be done in. It's modeled on the old Apache Software Foundation.”
“Anarchists with rules?” I asked. “You can't have anarchists with rules!”
“No, you can,” said Liza. “When those anarchists are organized alongside governments rather than in opposition to them. It's complicated, a cross between the CIA and the UN Security Council. It takes a mountain to move them to do anything.”
“And I take it The Cloud Community in this case is the mountain,” said Martin. “The Doctor is Mohammed.”
“That's right,” said Liza excitedly. “Despite the Referendum, there are many global elites, important people and institutions, that don't think the Doctor is the answer to a prayer. People who monitor The Stalls Project. Even people who run The Cloud Community from the outside.”
“People like John Willis?” I suggested. “And you?”
Liza nodded. “Ours is a minority view, but combine a minority view with hidden government power and a group that works under government authority but has an anti-authoritarian bias, and things can happen. Action can be taken. It's the final check on a balanced system.”
“What can happen?” I asked.
“How do you think we got the Blaines apart so quickly?” Liza asked. “It took a lot of people using a lot of computers to turn the code you found into a working prototype.”
“And then there was the lucky stroke of you having your unlucky stroke,” I said.
“Something like that,” she said. “If that had not happened, we would have found some other way of getting this to you. Maybe a volunteer who would have been willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.”
“A suicide data bomber?” Martin said. “I'm not sure I like that idea.”
Liza shrugged. “What do you think I've turned out to be? And what does that make you, but a Cloud Terrorist? If we fail, that is just what you'll be.”
That sobered Martin up quickly.
“So what do we do now?” I asked. “What's the plan?”
“The plan is we lay low and let things take their course for a while,” said Lisa. “The less The Doctor knows about us, the better. We wait for our opportunity, and then we strike at just the right moment.”
“Any idea what that moment might be?” I asked.
“I think I know,” said Martin.
It was a big deal, a very big deal in The Cloud.
The Doctor had tested, and accepted, the robotic body created for him by a consortium headed by General Defense Corp. There was enough computing power in the prototype to hold both his giant mind and his soul, along with a continuous wireless connection back to The Community, a first for The Cloud.
The Exoskeleton built around it looked, and seemed to work, like something out of the old Ironman movies from 30 years before. It was very impressive, and it was all anyone in The Cloud Community could talk about.
Because if The Doctor could emerge in reality, we were told, maybe the rest of us could, too. Imagine, both power and immortality, virtual back-ups here tied to powerful skeletons there. From a philosophical point of view, it was all becoming a bit much.
But it was settled. On July 4, 2039, The Doctor would emerge from the Community, cross into the Exoskeleton, and become “a real man.” The ruler of us all.
Was this to be a dream or a nightmare? Once again, I wasn't really certain. All I knew was it was something I didn't want coming true in my lifetime. Or rather, my death time.
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.
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.”