FIRST PERSON

One of the fascinating things about the character of the Doctor in Doctor Who is his changing nature. He's an archetype made flesh, and like an archetype his form shifts, taking on different faces and personalities. This wasn't an aspect which the original television series (usually driven by action rather than character) made a lot of, but it's been a frequent theme of the Doctor Who novels published by Virgin and the BBC.

For me the most intriguing aspect of this is which elements of the Doctor are aspects of his current personality, and which are permanent. In the Virgin New Adventures novels, the manipulative and often sinister behaviour in the pursuit of good of the seventh Doctor (the Sylvester McCoy incarnation) was contrasted with other characters' fundamental ideas of how ‘the Doctor’ should behave. When in 1996 the Doctor Who telemovie introduced Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor – a far more carefree and innocent figure, with a joie de vivre his predecessor had never exhibited – the complexities of the Doctor's character became paradoxically all the more intricate.

‘First Person’ was my attempt to explore this tension. It was first published in the charity anthology Perfect Timing 2, edited by Helen Fayle and Julian Eales and published in 1999 in aid of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death.


FIRST PERSON

     Listen, I'll tell you how it happened.

     A Compiler knelt in its cell, working away at its daily tasks. It was of middle age, balding slightly, portly, grey-skinned.

     You know what it looked like. It looked exactly like you, if you're female. If you're male, it looked exactly like you except for the obvious. Do I have to spell it out? Leaving aside your ages and the occasional mutilating accident – which are really very rare these days on the Hive worlds – all of you clerical types look exactly the same as each other. Don't pretend you haven't noticed.

     Anyway, this Compiler knelt in its cell. It was comfortable and content – its kneelchair was a nicely padded one, the tasks it had to carry out were interesting to it and not particularly onerous. Its fullsuit was that very definite charcoal-with-a-hint-of-chalk grey which marks the work of a Compiler as more complex than that of, say, an Assessor or a Calculant, while remaining free of any of the heavy responsibilities of a Reductionist or a Discriminator. The Compiler took regular exercise; it had had sex the correct number of times in the last month for a sedentary worker of its age; and its diet was adequate to all its bodily requirements. Its hardship would have served no purpose. The Compiler had no cause for complaint.

     All of which was precisely as expected, obviously. I only mention it so that we're perfectly clear on the matter. Although the data's almost never accessed, apparently a capacity for slight unease with the status quo still surfaces every two or three millennia. There are a couple of genetics papers on it. The point is, even when this capacity exists it's never activated, because every body in the Cooperative has every cause to be content.

     I use the words ‘every body’ deliberately, of course.

     Anyway, this Compiler was kneeling at its desk, minding everyone else's business, directing the flow of data in and out of its temple sockets, comparing and cross-referencing and collating and all the other complicated processes which bring joy to a Compiler's life, when it heard a loud wrenching noise from the cubicle above. This went on for some twenty seconds, before coming to an end with a very definite thud.

     The Compiler sent a side-query through its temple-ports, and swiftly evinced the data that that particular cubicle was empty, in the absence of a replacement for the previous occupant. The Compiler in the cubicle above had reached severance age the previous day, was now with the Proteinators pending retirement, and was not due for replacement. A cross-reference explained that the sector of space the old Compiler had been monitoring was now in the unCooperative hands of the Francistine Order, and a replacement would be redundant until it was retaken by the Cooperative.

     The Compiler rattled off a quick memorandum mentioning a possible structural or plumbing problem in Cubicle 914/56 of the North-by-North-Eastern spur, Sigma Tau Block, Graphite Building, N Hive. It continued its interrupted examination of a particularly fascinating fiscal anomaly in the galactic cloth markets, centring round Chevron Central in the Schwa System.

     ‘Ah, there you are,’ said an unexpected voice. ‘I've been looking for you’.

     The Compiler looked up in absolute astonishment. A small humanoid was hanging nonchalantly by one arm from the top of the cubicle's archway, framed rather neatly against the line of cells opposite. In his other arm he held a black cloth-covered stick with a red handle. He was smiling pleasantly.

     The young male Compiler in the cell across the hallway looked up, saw what was going on, decided that the man was not its problem, and returned to work.

     The newcomer was entirely unexpected to the first Compiler on several counts. It stared at him for quite a while, during which time it accessed the Cooperative's extensive linguistic databases to find out what ‘I’ and ‘you’ meant. I'm sure you had to do exactly the same just now, when you started reading this. Whoops, there I go again.

     The man, who had politely lifted a round fabric covering from the top of his head, now replaced it, dropped from the archway and brushed rather ineffectually at his clothing. He was wearing several garments, the outermost of which were the startling white of an Omnicrat's fullsuit. He wore a patterned strip of cloth tied loosely round his neck. His skin was a kind of pale pinkish beige.

     ‘I'd prefer it if you didn't take me to your leader,’ he added briskly. ‘Supposing that you had a leader, of course. Do you mind if I sit down?’

     The little man vaulted up onto the Compiler's desk and crossed his legs, leaning his chin on the handle of the cloth-covered stick. The Compiler used visual pattern cues to probe the linguistic databases more deeply. Archaic words like ‘fedora’, ‘linen’, ‘trousers’ and ‘umbrella’ began to flood its brain. (Look them up – they're fascinating.) It shook its head, confused.

     ‘You're rather quiet,’ said the man, frowning deeply. ‘Is something on your mind?’

     ‘Um,’ said the Compiler, trying out its vocal cords. This was all needlessly difficult, it felt.

     ‘What's your name?’

     The Compiler felt on safe ground here. It cleared its throat. ‘The Nebular Cooperative’, it said, hesitantly. Speaking made its throat tickle. It didn't feel at all certain about all this.

     ‘No no, I mean your name’, said the newcomer. He stared piercingly into the Compiler's eyes. ‘Oh, I forgot,’ he added pointedly. ‘You don't have one, do you?’

     ‘A body doesn't need a name,’ it answered. It marvelled at the way familiar data sounded when transcribed into this bizarre and inefficient language of sounds.

     The man frowned again. ‘I'm going to call you Antonia. Do you mind?’

     The Compiler scratched at its throat, nervously. ‘Is that necessary?’ it asked tentatively.

     ‘I think so, yes. Now, Antonia. I want us to have a little talk together.’

     Curious to see what would happen, the Compiler essayed an attempt at taking the initiative. ‘There shouldn't be aliens here,’ it said. ‘This is an administrative Hive. There shouldn't even be aliens on this planet.’

     Of course it was an administrative Hive, and that means something's just occurred to me. When I said the Compiler looked exactly like you, I never thought that someone other than a clerical worker might read this. I mean, it just doesn't occur to you, does it? But nothing's beyond the bounds of possibility, as I know and as you're going to find out. I suppose I'd better amend that.

     If you're from one of the many military castes – well, then, this Compiler was much smaller and less muscular than you, you see? Delicate hands, with more fingers on them, and, as you'd expect, no innate organic weaponry. Are you a Broodster? Think tiny genitals, no breasts to speak of, high forehead. And – a thought which threatens to terrify the life out of me – if you're an Omnicrat, then of course you know damn well what a Compiler looks like. Small brain pan, big limbs, gets about the place a lot more than you lot manage. We're talking basic ur-human design, painful though it may be for any of you to admit it. Apart from sexual characteristics, skin colour and a minor difference in size, the Compiler and its visitor were very much the same in basic shape.

     Anyway. ‘I must have slipped through the net,’ suggested the small man airily. ‘So while I'm here, let me just tell you a little about the Nebular Cooperative.’

     ‘That would serve no purpose. All the data accumulated by the Cooperative is accessible from this datapoint,’ objected the Compiler, reasonably. ‘What is the purpose of this conversation?’

     What it really wanted to ask was ‘Why are you here, and what do you want with me?’. Unfortunately it lacked the vocabulary. The explanation the databases had supplied for the words ‘me’ and ‘you’ had been pretty much meaningless to it.

     The alien seemed to perceive the Compiler's discomfort. ‘I need a friend, Antonia. A friend within the Nebular Cooperative. I think you're admirably suited for the job.’

     The Compiler scanned the diplomatic databases. The man was notably absent from all of them. ‘The Cooperative is pleased to enter into relations with other human and posthuman species,’ it told the man, ‘but the standard method of application is through the Diplomatic Hive on -’

     ‘I don't want to be a friend of the Cooperative,’ he snapped. ‘I've seen what the Cooperative does to its friends. That's why I've come looking for you.’

     The Compiler waited politely, hoping that eventually its visitor might begin to make sense.

     ‘I've been warned,’ the little man told it. He leapt from the desk and began to pace, impatiently. ‘Warned by powers whom we'll currently leave nameless, of a future in which your race proliferates. All the other human and posthuman species are assimilated. The Fabers, the Neuranderthals, the Ritozhby, the NeoCyberSphere – even the few remaining ur-human groups, like the Francistines and the Morestran Tendency. The alien species as well, those that are left. They all become different members, different castes, in one great gestalt galactic Hive. They become like you, Antonia. Drones. Functionaries with all the individuality of cells in a muscle. No sense of self, no belief in their own worth except as loyal servants of the Hive. All their knowledge, all their experience worth nothing except when the Hive decides to call on it. No initiative except the instructions passed down to them, no life except the life the Nebular Cooperative chooses for them. No more life at all, Antonia. Just a living death. Death on that level is no part of time's plan.’

     The Compiler was puzzled. ‘But this is the Cooperative's long-term goal. It's fully acknowledged. Set out in all the corporate literature.’

     ‘I know.’ His face was ominous. ‘And that's why I need a friend on the inside. An individual.’

     ‘But there are no individuals,’ the Compiler told him, puzzled. ‘Not in the Cooperative.’

     He gave her a very long, cool look. ‘I'll be back, Antonia,’ he said. His face convoluted into wrinkles as he smiled.

     Striding from the cubicle, he hooked his umbrella handle matter-of-factly over the top of the entrance archway, and climbed up out of view with some expressive grunts. His hand returned to pull the umbrella after him. Moments later, the grinding noise came back.

     * * *

     Over the course of the next six months, the strange little man came to the Compiler's cell at irregular times every week. His arrival was always preceded, and his departure always followed, by the wrenching sound from the cell above. The Compiler sent a memorandum instructing the Maintenance caste to ignore its warning about the plumbing.

     The small man brought the Compiler books in ancient languages, which it read out of politeness. They had archaic titles, like Prometheus Unbound and Paradise Lost and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. They were ur-human literature, which the Compiler could have accessed at any time through the Cooperative databases, but it had never occurred to it to do so. All of them dealt with the phenomenon of rebellion, and the cataclysmic results which followed when an individual put its own worth ahead of the importance of a greater system. They were interesting historical records, and allowed some important insights into the mental workings of non-gestalt humans, which the Compiler wrote up and forwarded to the Diplomatists.

      (I think they're great, by the way. Particularly Paradise Lost. That Satan – what a wonderful concept for a hero. How does someone think of a character like that? Don't go confusing what I say with my actual opinion – I have to tell you what the Compiler thought, as accurately as I can. I'm sorry if it's confusing, but that kind of thing happens when people interact as individuals. You're going to have to get used to it.)

     They talked at length, the little alien and the Compiler, about what the greatest achievements of humanity had been. The Compiler thought the human race's greatest moment was superseding itself, creating the Cooperative to be its successor. The man felt otherwise. He spoke eloquently of art and music, of religion and philosophy, of love and democracy and cricket and Darjeeling, of heroism and self-sacrifice. The Compiler agreed with him over the self-sacrifice, pointing out that this was an acknowledgement on the part of an individual that there was something greater than itself. The visitor became rather irritated at this, and reiterated his dissatisfaction with the Cooperative's goals, to which the Compiler listened once again, politely.

     Meanwhile, the campaigns in the sectors the Compiler monitored went well. An entire NeoCyberClade had been brought into Cooperation when its central processing node was hacked by a military technical detachment and its programming subverted, while the Francistines were seen to be pulling back gradually towards their home sector. The effect on the exchanges was very favourable, particularly the prosthesis markets.

     After three months of these irregular meetings, the man brought a second visitor with him. She was a tall, brown-skinned ur-human with white hair, and facial prostheses which the databases hesitantly identified as spectacles. She must have been well past severance age. She looked deeply bewildered and angry. The Compiler looked up from the copy of Brave New World which it was reading, marking its place carefully with a hard copy of the latest memorandum concerning irregularities in gravel production.

      ‘Antonia, I'd like you to meet Jeremia Cooper,’ he said. ‘I think you'll recognise her name.’

     The Compiler checked data for a moment. ‘It is the name of a human individual who led a breakaway group from the Earth Empire and founded the Nebular Communities,’ it said. ‘Before the Communities developed their gestalt policy and became the Nebular Cooperative. That individual has been dead for ninety-eight millennia.’

     Cooper looked appalled. ‘My God, it's true, then. What have you done to me, Doctor?’

     The small man wrinkled his nose. The Compiler noted, for future reference, that his rank was apparently ‘Doctor’. It had never thought to ask. ‘Just what I promised, Ms Cooper,’ he said calmly. ‘I've brought you to your future.’

      ‘But this is horrible! All these zombies, sitting in their little boxes staring into space... Is this what my Communities have become?’

      ‘I'm afraid so,’ agreed the Doctor, perching himself once more on the Compiler's desk. He hooked his right leg over his left knee, took out a piece of pastry from his pocket (a ‘croissant’, whispered the linguistic databases gently) and started to munch on it nonchalantly. ‘Not quite what you had in mind, I imagine.’

      ‘Doctor, I'm – just overwhelmed. What can I possibly say?’ Cooper seemed to be having difficulty with her vocal cords, just as the Compiler itself had done when the Doctor first visited. ‘My people look up to me – that is, they looked up to me, to lead them out from under the tyranny of the Empire. I told them not to value me so highly. I tell them – I told them no individual could be as important as the cause. Never to forget that we are all part of something greater than ourselves. Is this how they understood me?’

      ‘As far as I can tell, yes,’ agreed the small man, conversationally. ‘Not immediately, of course. Your writings were respected at first, and then became revered, then holy writ. A group of radical bio-revolutionaries in the Federation Era laid down the basis of the Cooperative as it now exists. They're characterless, subservient and ravenously assimilationist. Isn't that right, Antonia?’

      ‘Essentially it is,’ the Compiler agreed. It seemed a reasonable description.

      ‘And doesn't that bother you?’ the Doctor wondered. ‘That your society is based on a false interpretation of some writings that were never meant to be sacred in the first place? That the form your Cooperative takes betrays absolutely the principles of the woman its creators honoured as their founder?’

      ‘It doesn't,’ answered the Compiler definitely. ‘Jeremia Cooper was only an individual. Compared with the Cooperative, Cooper is nothing. If Cooper disbelieved in the principles of gestalt, then Cooper's thinking was as limited as all pre-gestalt humans'. It makes no difference. The Cooperative knows the truth about the matter. It has no need to change.’

     Cooper was spluttering. ‘Goddess knows it's never going to get the chance now! I'll take the Communities apart myself if I have to, go crawling back to the Empress with my tail between my legs if it will stop this abomination coming into being! Thank you for warning me, Doctor. Now take me back, take me to my own time and I'll prevent any of this from ever happening.’

      ‘I can't let you do that, Ms Cooper,’ the small man said regretfully. He heaved himself off the desk, and rested an arm round Cooper's quaking shoulders. ‘Forget,’ he told her. Cooper's eyes glazed over, like a clerical worker accessing its temple-ports.

     The Doctor's turned his bright fierce eyes towards the Compiler. ‘Same time next week,’ he promised, and left.

     * * *

     The marketing campaigns continued to progress apace. With the NeoCyber input, the military and medical castes were making some astonishing breakthroughs, and the Francistine Order had lost a crucial engagement at their long-established colony at Lovelock Tree. The Cooperative's influence was booming in the sector. The Compiler received no reward for this beyond its satisfaction in its work. As you'd expect.

     Over the next few months, the Doctor brought the Compiler more books, engaged it in Socratic dialogues on the concepts of authority and freedom, and brought an ur-human called Mr Marx to visit. The Compiler listened to him with its usual politeness, before the Doctor led him away blank-faced. The Compiler found the experience a sociologically intriguing one, like so many of the Doctor's sessions.

     One day, when the Compiler was reading a book called The First Men in the Moon, the Doctor brought a baby along to see it.

     The Compiler had never seen a baby before, at least not since it had been one itself. It stared in astonishment at the tiny grey person wrinkling its face and yawning on the desk in front of it. It gave the baby a spare temple-jack to play with, rather at a loss, and the baby gripped it tightly in its small fat hand.

      ‘This is a baby,’ the Compiler pointed out astutely. ‘Where did it come from?’

      ‘I rescued him,’ the Doctor answered, leaning one-handed on his umbrella, ‘three thousand and forty-one years ago at the Hive on Tilda Thorn Prime. It was a one in a trillion chance. Two clerical workers who were scheduled to have sex both happened to have faulty genes for sterility. The mother had never even heard of natural pregnancy before.’

      ‘A baby born to a clerical worker,’ marvelled the Compiler. It accessed the records. ‘It's happened only once in Cooperative history, just as you said. The parents were both retired by the Proteinators. The baby vanished without trace.’

     The Doctor's deepset eyes were hawkishly excited at the interest the Compiler was showing. It felt that something more significant was expected of it. ‘And what will happen to it now?’ it asked.

      ‘Well, Antonia,’ the Doctor mused, ‘I'm not quite sure. I expect,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘I'll have to find someone to take care of him.’ He fluttered his fingers at the baby and made strange musical noises with his lips. The baby laughed, delighted.

      ‘An interesting experiment,’ the Compiler noted. ‘A genetically Cooperative baby raised away from any Hive might provide valuable sociological insight into the basis of Cooperation.’

      ‘Ye-es...?’ agreed the Doctor, prompting it.

      ‘Unfortunately, this baby is not genetically a Cooperator. The Broodsters carefully regulate the genes passed on at each conception. If the foetus is to be a Compiler, for instance, a greater degree of intuition and lateral thinking must be instilled than if it is to be a Calculant. A Calculant's mathematical skills must be concomitantly larger, however. This baby's genes will be random. It is likely to be fit for clerical work, but that is all one can say. Ur-human reproductive techniques are markedly deficient in this respect. The experiment will be flawed.’

     The Doctor had stopped amusing the baby, and was staring at the Compiler. Disappointed, the baby began to cry. ‘And that's all he's good for?’

      ‘Certainly. The concept, though, is valid. The genetic research technicians might be interested to receive a memorandum on the subject.’

     The Doctor's frown deepened. For the first time, he looked as if his self-control might one day fail him, as if something earthquake-like was trapped inside him. ‘Antonia, you disappoint me badly sometimes.’

     He gathered up the bawling baby, and calmed it to quietness with an intricately waving finger. ‘I'll be back,’ he said. ‘As usual. Posthumans!’ he spat. He left the cell, and moments later the cool Hive air was ruptured by the tormented sound of his departure.

     Five minutes later, the Compiler was startled from its perusal of the novel by a repetition of the noise. This was unprecedented. The least time the Doctor had ever allowed to elapse between visits was two days.

     In seconds, an entirely different man dropped into the entrance of the Compiler's cell. He, too, looked ur-human, with the Doctor's skin and hair coloration. But he was taller, with different coloured clothes and an entirely different face.

      ‘Antonia!’ he cried in exultation, one finger pointing joyfully towards the Compiler. ‘I've been looking for that for ages!’ The Compiler realised he was pointing at its book. New words were crowding noisily into its mind – words like ‘cravat’, ‘waistcoat’ and the confusing ‘frock-coat’. Also ‘byronic’, although it couldn't imagine what routine had called that one up.

     The newcomer made a lunge for the Compiler, and moments later the databases explained to it the concept of the ‘hug’.

      ‘Um – there shouldn't be aliens here. This is an administrative Hive,’ began the Compiler, although it recalled that this approach had been futile before.

      ‘Don't be ridiculous, Antonia, I'm the Doctor!’ exclaimed the man, absurdly but with finality. ‘You're looking well, how've you been? No, wait, it's not been quite so long for you, has it? Well, never mind. There's something I've got to show you. Come on!’ He waved The First Men in the Moon urgently at the Compiler in a beckoning gesture (it was briefly confused that he was holding it at all), and leapt up to grab the top of the cubicle archway. ‘Come on!’ his voice drifted down, excited, as his legs disappeared upwards.

     Perturbed, the Compiler realised that, unless it followed the newcomer, it would never be able to return the novel to its owner. It found that it was also keen, despite itself, to find out whether Mr Bedford and Professor Cavor would survive their ordeal at the hands of the inhuman Selenites.

     The Compiler anxiously unplugged its temple jacks, and climbed cautiously after the confusing man.

     It found out what had been making the wrenching noises.

     * * *

     The Compiler stood, in a large echoing chamber, rubbing its temples. The room was unlike any it had been in before. Angular where Hive rooms were gently rounded, cluttered where they were ergonomic, metal and marble and wood where they were organic polymer. N Hive had many larger rooms than this one, but only the Assembly Room in Leadblond Building had been remotely this impressive.

     It wasn't the room that was on the Compiler's mind right now, though. It had seen rooms before.

     There was a tree in space.

     As soon as they had entered the vast room, the new visitor – his rank must also be Doctor, the Compiler had decided – had begun fussing around an intricate construction in the room's centre, all wood and brass and glass. A piebald quadrupedal animal had started rubbing itself against his legs and mewing softly. The Compiler had regretted being unable to ask the databases what the creature was. And where it was itself. And how such a large space could fit in such a small container. And how it was ever going to get out through the immense and solid pair of closed doors, if this new Doctor tried to prevent it.

      ‘Got it!’ the new Doctor had exclaimed. ‘Lovelock Tree, sixty-one days ago. The TARDIS's calibration gets a little unreliable this late in history, but I think it's sorted now.’ The words were meaningless to the Compiler. The man threw an enormous switch on the console, and the room began to vibrate very gently.

      ‘This will take a few minutes,’ said the Doctor then. ‘Do you fancy some tea at all, Antonia?’

     It had taken a few minutes. And they had had some tea. And now the Compiler stood, mug forgotten in its hand, neck aching subliminally as it stared up at the ceiling, the enormous screen which showed it an enormous spacescape. In which there was an enormous twig.

     The twig was as big as a comet's tail, its leaves the size of mountain ranges. Their deep, rich green colour, product of Lovelock's blazing sunlight, was picked out with abnormal clarity against dark blue space. The twig was gnarled and knobbly, with crevasse-sized wrinkles.

     Like all of you, the Compiler had seen plants before, many times. Your Hives are full of them. They allow you to be self-sufficient in oxygen, and provide all the food you ever need, apart from protein supplement. The Compiler even had a small shrub in its cubicle. It watered it once every four days. It had never seen a tree remotely like this one before.

     There was a city on the nearest leaf. It covered barely a hundredth of its surface with arching spires and buttresses of warm sandstone. The human forms that filled it were so tiny as to be invisible, but groups could be seen: crowds flowing through the city streets, work gangs tending to the leaf's health, a public event of some kind in a stone amphitheatre set at the angle of two veins. A wood was visible, a huge plantation of trees rooted impossibly in the one single leaf: the Compiler saw a herd of vast animals cropping at the trees and, occasionally, the ground. A river flowed the length of the leaf, passing through the city to a large estuary at the stalk, in which a large number of hippopotami were lounging around.

     The next leaf along was curled up slightly at the edges. It held an ocean.

     The next was half full of sand; the next held fields and villages, with old stone spires. All of them swarmed with life. From one side of the ocean leaf, a constant waterfall poured, vanishing into the depths far below. A million tiny circular rainbows glittered around it, constantly changing. The atmosphere surrounding the twig was alive with air balloons and hang gliders and huge birds. A dragonfly the size of a skyscraper sipped at a vast flower.

     The Doctor touched a button, and the picture zoomed out. The Compiler saw the bough to which the twig was attached, then the great heaven-spanning tree itself. Its size gave the lie to all belief. Its trunk was wider round than a continent. It had no crown – the leafy branches sprang profusely from the middle of the trunk. Its ends were giant root systems covering whole hemispheres.

     The tree connected Lovelock with its moon. It was surrounded by tiny motes which shone in the powerful sunlight: spaceships, gliders, balloons, aerial and spacegoing life forms. A constant dance of tiny life. The Compiler felt as if life was flooding into it from the tree even as it watched: complexity, diversity and interdependence, invading its consciousness like an infection. Belief, compassion, anger, desire.

     The Doctor was watching, wistful. ‘You like it?’ he said.

     Antonia stared up at the great tree. ‘It's sublime,’ she said, remembering how she'd had to check the databases when she found the word in Milton.

      ‘The Francistines planted it,’ the Doctor told her, ‘thirteen thousand years ago. They believe all life is sacred, so it's their duty to allow as much of it to flourish as they can.’

      ‘I know,’ she said.

     The Doctor did a double-take. ‘What did you say?’

      ‘I know,’ I said again.

     The Doctor stared at me for a moment, his jaw slack in surprise, then an enormous grin cracked his face in two. He punched the air in triumph.

      ‘Oh, yes!’ he shouted.

     And that's how ‘I’ was born. How I became.

     * * *

     I watched, then, as our mobile Military Hives came out of hyperspace, their plasma streamers blazing. I watched as they methodically destroyed that tree. The Doctor was in tears. I can't describe it.

     The engagement at Lovelock Tree increased the Cooperative's influence on the galactic markets by more than half of one percent of one percentile. It caused the Francistines to be all but eliminated from the sector I used to monitor. And it destroyed a biosphere twenty thousand years old, where animal, plant and other species from a million planets lived in careful ecological equilibrium. The paltry remains of the ur-human society left there after the attack were brought into Cooperation. Their children will be just like you.

     Over my dead body, will they.

     The Doctor and I didn't have to say much more to each other before I knew. ‘You're the first individual,’ he said. ‘The first person to come out of the Cooperative for a hundred thousand years.’ He was excited, his grief at the tree's death apparently forgotten.

      ‘There will be more,’ I said.

     The old Doctor had talked to me about time's plan. This new one showed me the vivid reality of life. My first visitor told me of the future, my second showed me the present. The fact that it was a present now destroyed just made it all the more immediate. The newcomer achieved what the old Doctor had tried, but never managed. He made me live.

     But now, of course, the original Doctor's plan kicks in. He needed a friend, an individual, inside the Cooperative. Well, then, that's what he's got. I'm the first individual to arise from the Cooperator species for ninety-six millennia. The first person.

     The second person, I'm hoping very much, is you.

     The Doctor showed me other things. The Francistine home system, a living spaceborn sea urchin they grew in place around a sun – a Dyson sphere of life, light-minutes across, containing wonder upon living wonder. A poly-species wedding service in New Sybaris. A singing nebula that called me by my name. The birth of a litter of kittens on Pandora.

     He brought me back ten minutes ago. I've left him time to get the TARDIS far away from here, and now I'm sending out this message through my data ports. It will propagate slowly, though the Compilation department first, then trickle gradually out to the other clerical workers.

      (Of course, I know what you're thinking. I'm just doing what the Doctor tried at first, trying to convince me with his ur-human novels. I wasn't changed by reading the stories of others, Winston Smith and Satan and Prometheus. Why should you take notice of my story, then?)

     But listen. The Broodsters make us as uniform as possible – and after a hundred thousand years, that's very identical indeed. Our talents and trainings differ, but never our personalities. That's the whole basis of the Cooperative, after all – disagreements are genetically impossible, because our decisions and opinions never differ.

     For all intents and purposes, you are me.

      (All that will change, of course.)

     But reading this, you know this to be true: if this becoming has happened for me, then it can happen for you. You, too, can come alive.

     In me you see life, just as I saw it at Lovelock Tree. And life itself will open you up and show you your insides and leave you gasping. Life will spread through our Hive like a joyous infection. To other Hives. To other cities, other planets. The Cooperative just doesn't have the slightest idea what's coming.

     I'm sure the military will come for me eventually, but they're not used to this situation. They're hidebound, as we all have been: it could take them days to work out what to do. And by then, there will be more of us. You will be here with me.

     Are you looking forward to this future we're going to make together?

     I know I am.


© Philip Purser-Hallard 1999.



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