“I spent more than half my life looking into computers from Meat Space. Now, for the first time, I have to look at Meat Space from a computer. How do we do it?”
“An interface,” Martin said, calmly. “The best way to demonstrate is by simply going to The Center.”
I was growing to these abrupt changes in scene now. We were in what appeared to be the old New York Public Library. Ranks of computer terminals spread out around the paneled room. Most had people before them, working intently.
We stood before a desk, where Martin introduced himself to a librarian, one complete with glasses and even eyeglass hangers, but a face out of someone's dirty librarian fantasies, and a body to match. She looked at him skeptically over the frames.
“We're here to serve,” Martin told her quietly. He handed her what looked like two plastic ID cards – tokens, he explained, proving our identity.
Where had he come by mine, and what was he doing with it, I asked myself quickly. Then dismissed the thought as unworthy just as quickly. Martin is my sponsor here. It makes sense he would have command of my identity, until I know how to use it.
“You come at a good time,” the librarian responded upon seeing our proof of humanity. “We have needs.”
Martin nodded to her, and turned toward me. I followed his gaze around and suddenly found two desks appear before us, each mounted with a screen and keyboard. “Thank you,” he said, sitting down at one, and urging me to sit beside him.
“We're here to serve,” the librarian said.
We sat down. “I've never done this before” I said, as quietly as I could. “How does it work?”
“We're signed in,” Martin said calmly. “So we wait. And probably not for long. We're the help desk. Once a call is routed, you answer it.”
Within moments, my screen lit up. A woman's face appeared. She was harried. “I'm here to serve,” I said as cheerfully as I could.
She seemed startled. “Are you real?” she asked. “I haven't used this service before. I mean, I haven't talked to anyone dead before.”
Martin chuckled next to me. “Let me take it,” he said, pressing a few buttons so that the call transferred to his screen. “Hi, how may I help you?” he asked the woman who had just called me.
The woman seemed truly shocked now. First one face, then another. “Did I do something wrong? Did I get escalated? Are you a supervisor?
“He's new,” Martin said, in the most reassuring way he could manage. “Your question?”
“What's a tookis?” she said.
“A what?” Martin asked, incredulously.
“Ass,” I said. “Tookis is the Yiddish word for ass. Your behind. Back of the front. You needed the Interface for that?”
The woman on Martin's screen sighed slowly. “I can't spell well. I'm either dyslexic or stupid. I need to hear and speak to learn. And speech recognition is still so slow. So I took my boyfriend's suggestion and signed on. Thanks.”
“Wait a moment,” Martin said.
“Uh, how are things?”
“Things?” the woman on the screen asked, incredulously? What do you mean, things?”
“Well, things,” I interrupted. “My friend and I have been a little, shall we say, out of it, for a while. You know, being dead and all,”
“For starters, what's the date today?”
“You don't know?” she asked. “They don't have calendars in heaven?”
“Well, it's not precisely heaven,” said Martin. “I mean, we feel like we're still alive. We just don't have physical bodies any more.”
“But I can see you,” she said. “You look as real to me as I look to my husband. And it's November 3, 2037. So if you'll excuse me I have to go vote.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I left my body less than a week ago. I knew nothing about a coming election.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “It's a referendum, actually. A national referendum, being conducted online with authentication, aimed at giving executive authority to someone on your side, there. I'm surprised you don't know about it.”
“Would that someone be called The Doctor?” asked Martin.
“Yes, that's it,” she said. “Dr. Emile Hoskie, known as The Doctor. The notice of election appeared as an email two days ago. Everyone I know got it. The email was addressed from the President himself. She said she wanted to name The Doctor a special adviser for science, that Congress had refused to go along, and so he wanted to get the people's views on it.”
Email referenda had been part of the great Constitutional Reform of 2027, when a convention was called by both parties. At least a dozen amendments had been voted on at once that year, including one on email voting. I had voted No. Curmudgeon, me.
“How were you planning on voting, if I may ask?” I said.
The woman hesitated. “I really hadn't thought about it. I was thinking of just flipping a coin.” She giggled. “No, it's the President. I voted for her. If she wants this, I guess I'm voting yes.”
“No,” Martin said suddenly, and rather more crossly than he may have intended. “You have to vote no.”
“No? Someone in heaven is telling me to vote no on what my leaders here want?”
“Well, let me explain, uh. uh…” I began.
“Oh, you want my name? I'm Tiffany.” A rather quaint old name from the 20th century. A lot of my friends had kids named Tiffany. She must be what, in her late 40s then? She looked about right.
“I'm Dave. Dave Blanks,” I said.
“That name's familiar.”
“I was a writer. A journalist. You may have seen my byline.”
“If you hung around the dark corners of the Internet's soul,” Martin said teasingly.
Tiffany ignored him. “My full name is Tiffany Williams. I'm a housewife here in Lorain, Ohio.”
“Not many can afford to be housewives, these days,” I said.
“Yes, it's marvelous. My husband is an engineer. He inherited a lot of money from his grandfather. Said, 'No wife of mine is going to work,' even before we got married. So I dropped out of Community College just a few credits before graduation, but I've never regretted it. Not in 20 years.” She grew wistful. “We have three beautiful daughters, a big family by today's standards…
“Anyway, why is someone in heaven telling me not to trust someone else in heaven whom the President tells me I should trust. I'm curious”
I hesitated. This was much harder than the question she'd come online to ask. “I'm not sure,” I said.
Tiffany giggled, the faint wattles on her neck appearing and disappearing. “You're inside a computer? You're in heaven? And you're not sure?”
“Look,” Martin said, as evenly as he could, although I knew there was some panic in his voice. “You're one person, right? I'm one person. And Dave here is one person.”
“One dead person,” she said, giggling again.
I nodded. “Point taken,” I said. “But still, a person. And I was alive, one of you, not that long ago.”
Tiffany nodded. She seemed to understand that.
So Martin charged on.
“Well, the Doctor is not one person. What we've found is that he is, in fact, thousands of people. Literally thousands. He's a lot of people who came here to escape eternity, then decided didn't want the hassle and that they wanted to die after all. Since since they couldn't do that literally, they gave their souls – their storage, their computing power, their memories, everything in their minds – over to The Doctor.”
“And we don't know how it's affecting him,” I added. “We don't know how to find that out, either. And I don't think the President knows, either. Once The Doctor is approved as a figure in Meat Space, either by Congress or this referendum, I think he would gain control of a lot of government interfaces. He might then absorb those government computers, as he has absorbed souls here. He's very powerful, from a computing point of view.”
“Meat Space?” Tiffany asked.
“Sorry. It's what we in the Cloud Community call the souls on your side of the screen.”
“Meat Space,” She considered that a moment. “I like it. And then what?” Tiffany added. “I mean, what happens if The Doctor is given all this power, all these, what you call them interfaces? If he becomes a factor in Meat Space.”
“And then…we don't know,” I said helplessly. “The point is, neither does the President. Neither do you. Neither does my friend Martin here. No one knows. It's the uncertainty that's the problem.
“Before you give a computer entity real power, an entity that can't die because it has already, shouldn't you give it more than a few days' study?”
Tiffany went quiet. Thoughtful. Martin held up a hand for me to be quiet. We waited, cycle-upon-cycle, for Tiffany to respond.
“You do sort of have a point. I mean, what's the rush, right?” she asked.
“Exactly,” I said.
“Now I have one more question,” she added. “If this Doctor is so powerful, and if he lives up there in heaven with you…”
“The Cloud,” said Martin quickly. “We call this place The Cloud.”
“Sounds like heaven to me,” said Tiffany. “Anyway if you're there, and he's there, and he has all this power and might be dangerous like you say, how are you free to warn me about it?”
Good question, I thought.
But before I could come up with an answer, I felt what seemed like a hand on my shoulder, and the Interface with Tiffany was cut.
The hand belonged to the librarian, but it didn't feel like a librarian's hand. It felt much firmer, more masculine.
“Is there a problem?” asked Martin helpfully.
“You're here to answer questions, not ask them. You need to give the clients a chance to ask what they came here to ask. Don't get into conversations. You need to keep your own ego hidden. You're a computer interface now, nothing more. You exist to serve. Nothing more.”
I felt anger rising in me, but held it in check. “Why do you think people use these interfaces?” I asked the librarian. “To communicate with another person.”
“To get answers they can't get with any other computer interface,” replied the librarian, with a deathly calm. “Remember the First Law. We exist to serve. To serve them. We've been served.”
“When do you get off work?” asked Martin, brazenly taking one of the librarian's hands, and drawing her full attention onto him.
“I'm here 8 hours each day, on a schedule. It's posted.” She handed him what looked like a business card, but which I assumed was a short computer file, the address of the schedule.
Martin nodded. He closed his eyes, then opened them slowly, seeking to hold hers in his. I had been married so long I barely remembered romancing, and I wondered how much Martin knew of it, but he was coming up with it from somewhere. Maybe it's a program I can access, I thought.
“So you're off in a few hours. That's good,” Martin said.
“Why?” the librarian asked, suddenly gone coquettish. There was some serious flirting going on here, I thought. Sparks? Maybe.
“Two reasons,” Martin said reasonably, reminding me suddenly of another Martin, first name Dean. “First, I'd like to share a cup or a glass of something with you after you finish. I'd like to get to know you better.
“Second, I have a question, if you don't mind a mere Cloud member asking for this service. But just consider this between now and when we next meet. If we're all composed of just computer memory, why do you work 8-hour shifts?”
Martin kissed the fingertips of the librarian's hands, and let it fall from him. Then he tapped me on the shoulder, and I slid out of my seat, backing away from her. Soon I was out of her view, and I watched the interaction between Martin and the librarian from a discrete distance.
After a few minutes, the librarian was back behind her desk, talking to a new volunteer, and Martin was back by my side.
“What was that all about?” I asked as we moved away, through what appeared to be hallways toward the street, although I was certain it was all an illusion.
“Intelligence gathering,” said Martin calmly, as we continued walking. “You must admit I asked an important question there. The librarian answers questions, and that's a good one. Why do you think she works for just 8 hours at a stretch, if we don't have bodies that tire?
I had to think about that one. We had stopped near the library's entrance, and I wondered if, when we took that step, I'd be on 6th Avenue or back in my house.
“Well, even if we don't have bodies, we do have minds that tire. Or whoever runs the Cloud Community wants to give us that illusion, give us all a chance to recharge our mental batteries, keep us from getting bored with the illusion of life. Keep us, in some way, human.”
“Those are all good theories. They're well worth thinking about. Some may be true. But I want to know what the reason is from the perspective of the librarian. What does she do in her 'off-hours,' do you think?”
We stepped forward then, into the library-like calm of a coffee shop on what appeared to be a busy street, in some city I could not recognize. “Milan, Italy,” said Martin, quickly. “I'd never been there, but I studied many, many files and managed to find a way to recreate some parts of it. Unfortunately, we're inside a Starbuck's.”
“I was once in Milan. They do have Starbuck's there. They're very popular and considered exotic. An important American cultural export.”
The coffee table between us held two cups, one large and one small. “I think you like mocha grandes,” Martin said. “I've taken a liking to double espresso.”
The coffee was hot and warming. I settled back in my chair, looked through the windows at a gray day, ancient buildings, people hurrying by, or what appeared to be people. What would happen if I ran outside right now – would the illusion continue from my memory or would I just fade away?
I sighted heavily. “Why do you think I enjoy this?” I asked finally. “Not just the coffee, but the relaxation, and the company. Assuming I have no body, that I am, what did you say, just computer memory?”
“Because, my friend. You have the illusion of a body, and memories, and a life, inside that computer memory. These are some of the more important circuits which are transferred over, the memory and experience of real living. There was never a way to model such things before. Programmers couldn't make the leap. It was too complicated. We're too complicated. We're drawn from algorithms on-the-fly and all we are comes out, including imagination, experience, everything it meant to be alive.” He said that last with relish.
“Was, Mr. Holmes?” I asked, laughing.
Martin shrugged. “So far as I've been able to investigate, is” he said, Then frowning. “But you ask a good question there, Watson. A very good question. Are we alive or just pretending at it?”
We sat a few moments, contemplating what appeared to be the scene outside, sipping our drinks, enjoying the gray Italian day.
“I miss being alive,” I said finally. “I mean, really alive.”
“I don't,” said Martin. “Bodies get sick. They fail. They die. In my case, decades before I was ready for it. Remember, I was disabled. Just like The Doctor. I have some sympathy for his joy at being here. Maybe more than a little.”
“Death, where is thy sting?” I asked.
“Death is peace. Death is silence,” said Martin. “Faced with real immortality, it can even seem attractive. Especially if you know you're going to be part of something larger. Something important, that can do enormous good in the world.”
“A cause like The Doctor?” I said.
Martin nodded ruefully.
“Does everyone come into The Cloud with pure motives, do you think?” I asked suddenly, leaning forward. “I mean, what if you said you wanted to serve, but secretly you just wanted to gain some influence on something larger, that you wanted to serve yourself, and use that greater power for some personal reason. Would the 'personality' in charge have to be aware of that? Could you hide your motivations from the larger Community, and then find a way to twist that larger personality in some other direction?”
Martin and I sat back in our chairs, the coffee ignored, looking at one another for what seemed a very long time, but couldn't have been more than a half-minute.
“Theoretically, it's possible,” Martin replied at last. “What we need to learn, still, is whether your theory is correct, and whether it in fact has happened. Whether The Doctor is here to serve, and whether he's still here to serve humanity, or serve himself.”
“And if he has perverted the interests of the Community, what can we do about it,” I added sadly. “Did you ever wish the really great minds of the past could be here, Martin? DaVinci, Descartes, Ben Franklin?”
“You don't think they'd come up with better answers than we can, do you? After all, in their time they couldn't have even conceived computing. I think therefore I am. Bah!”
He got up then. “But enough of this. Remember, I have a date with our librarian friend. And you should be getting back home yourself. Glad you don't have to sit in an airliner for 8 hours to do it?” He gave me the same look he'd given the librarian, but it didn't work on me.
I just smiled back, walked out the door, and walked back into my living room.
While waiting for Martin to get back from his “date” with the librarian, I had some time to think about the situation.
As an experiment, I walked out of my front door. I looked at my street. Or was it the memory of my street? I walked onto my sidewalk and smelled the air. It was spring. I sneezed. I listened closely and heard the subway, and freight trains in the distance. I heard the distant sound of traffic and, overhead, the sound of airplanes landing at the local airport.
I started walking. Halfway down the block I saw a hand wave through a screen door. My old friend! I headed up his walk, but when I knocked no one answered.
I went back toward my house and saw, across the street, a woman walking with a dog on a leash. I went across the street to greet them and suddenly lost any short-term contact with the memory of their having been there. Were they just a mirage?
And so it went. I could see and feel and smell the real air of home, I could walk all around my neighborhood if I chose, but I didn't tire and I couldn't make a real human connection.
Eternal life isn't that much of a gift if you have to go through it alone. I grieved now, not just for my dear wife Susan, but for all the old neighbors and friends I'd known here. The aged woman whose grandfather had been a slave. The couple that adopted 10 kids, and the one across the street that adopted two of them. There had been days when this street was filled with noise, I remember, children laughing, cars filled with them coming around to see grandma. And there were other days when these same children, now fully grown, drove over to take grandma to her dialysis.
Life changes. Life flows. This isn't life, I thought, but a pale imitation of life.
I felt fortunate, then, to have a friend in Martin, and began to understood why people like the librarian would work the interfaces without a qualm. It was for the human connection, for all the frailties out there, all the unanswered questions that might be answered, and thus ease someone else's way. The interaction with that person, as the questions came and went. Simple conversation.
No wonder the librarian would enforce any rules she was told to enforce, without question. The Interface was her connection to life, to reality.
Life requires connection.
This caused me to think about Tory Blaine again. He must have been so happy to find Sheri here, in what he could only call heaven, to be reunited again with her. And to take her soul into his, to become her, to make her part of him. What an intimacy, I imagined.
Yet it drove him mad, why? Easy to answer now. Because, in making two into one, that one became alone again.
I walked back into my house, and concentrated my mind on the scene in front of me, the door open. Here, coming up the walk, was not my last cat, but my first. A long-hair calico with a bottle-brush tail, who lived happily both inside and out, chasing birds or sunning himself by the window.
But he never lived in this house, I thought. He'd run away long before Susan and I ever came here. Yet here he was, walking back-and-forth against my leg, rubbing his head on my ankle, sharing scents as he'd always done, purring, happy to see me.
I picked him up. He felt just like he should. Was he real? I put him down, and he walked right through my legs, into the house, and into a bedroom as though he owned it. Not my bedroom, my son's bedroom. And since I seldom went in there once my son grew up, the cat was now out of sight. Out of mind? And, being out of mind, was he still real?
Was Mark Twain right? Are we, inside the Cloud, nothing but thought, as he wrote in “The Mysterious Stranger?” Are we nothing but dreams, and the dreamer as well? And is that a life, one worth living?
Things were getting heavy, metaphysical. I went into the kitchen, took out a soda I'd enjoyed in my childhood, but which I'd given up in middle age to keep my weight down. I popped the top, smelled the sugar, and chugged a few mouthfuls down, pushing the refrigerator door closed with one hip as I did so, more like a child than a man.
Or a ghost.
And what about The Doctor? What made him capable of absorbing so many other souls, apparently successfully, while continuing to do his work? What did he have that even the supposedly great Blaine didn't? Academic detachment? The kind a professor has? Or a cop, a nurse? Was it just a case that, since he was an authority figure and those he absorbed were seeking authority, that the absorption became easy, without conflict?
The people The Doctor was absorbing were, so far as I could tell, strangers to him. That would seem to allow a certain ruthlessness in adapting them to his own use. The detachment of a dictator.
What else might be in play? Ambition, perhaps? This idea of Dr. Hoskie's becoming an adviser to the President, of having a formal role in Meat Space, certainly indicated ambition of some sort. What sort? What was his motive? What is his game? What does he want?
I went to my computer, which I knew now was just an interface to internal resources, but those resources should include the bulk of the known Internet. And weren't there literally dozens of film repositories, every one of our greatest TV and movie classics going back more than a century?
Of course. We've seen the future before, I thought. Never accurately, always as a mere reflection of our own time, but we've imagined it. We've imagined many futures.
I dialed up an old movie. “I, Robot,” the Will Smith adaptation of Isaac Asimov's stories. The story, written in the mid-20th century and set in our own time, was still science fiction in the mid-21st century because the “positronic brain” did not exist. Does it exist now, I wondered, and is that what I've become, a brain and soul awaiting a robotic body
I became lost in the adventure for a while and tried to forget my larger concerns, as one might take a shower while working on an important paper, seeking a breakthrough in down time.
You can't enclose a real human mind in circuits whose reach is limited like that, I thought. Can you? Where are the circuits of my mind running – in one place or in many?
Or can you, I thought suddenly, as the end credits rolled and the door bell rang.