Otis flicks the ticker out of his HUD, clearing his vision. Steam rises off Otis’s meal; he doesn’t look down to identify it. The pale tendrils waver between him and Milada. She leans in over her stuffed pocket, eyes nearly closed as she eats. Otis slides a hand forward across the table, palm up, offering it to her, but she doesn’t notice it, doesn’t notice that Otis’s hand is almost shaking. Since it happened, Milada has been ravenous; this is the fourth meal she’s had, but Otis hasn’t eaten, hasn’t been able to eat.
Otis withdraws his hand and finally looks down. Soup, tomato. He feels sick. He knows it’s absurd, he knows he’s an asshole for thinking of it, even worse for checking, but he hasn’t been able to get an erection since he found Milada. He feels like he’s falling apart.
There is a crimson ripple.
Otis looks up from his soup but Milada is already halfway across the kitchen, heading toward the bedroom. He gets up, follows, but stops at the door, watching as she silently, still dressed, crawls under the sheets, back facing him. He doesn’t check in the Cloud but he knows she’s crying. She’s hiding her tears from him and he won’t look if she doesn’t want him to. A gesture shows that twelve million people are viewing her at this moment, but not Otis. He closes the door and mopes to the couch.
Still no response, but over twenty million views.
Otis is tired of being a spectacle, so he joins the spectators. He waves a window up and pinches the corners to stretch, filling the wall and covering the glass window until he sits in shadow, looking out on the world through the Cloud.
Virginia is still at her lab, but there is an unbelievable mob there now. It stretches far out of sight so that the farthest participants can see Virginia only on their own windows.
“Two thirds!” she shouts to the crowd, body tense with excitement. “Two thirds of us have now stepped forward to say, I knew! Before the proclamation, before I told the world, you all already knew!” The gathering cheers, echoed by other groups all over the world. Otis thought he’d witnessed the world change with the proclamation, but this…
“Lies! Terrorism!” Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Jeremy Amorth stands with his own crowd, just as large as the other. “For years, these Users have lived in fear, knowing about the Ghosts. They were so scared, you were so scared,” he says, pointing into the crowd, “that even the proclamation did not give you the confidence to speak. And now Virginia would have us embrace these deceitful Ghosts!”
“We were lying only to ourselves,” says Virginia. “It was a shared secret, a mystery we had each solved on our own. With the proclamation, I did nothing but point Ghosts out to the rest of us. For most of you it wasn’t even a surprise.”
“But you were still terrified!” says Jeremy, many in the crowd nodding. “You feared the Ghosts, rightly so as we now know, and when the proclamation came, you feared something might happen. And it has. Even knowing about the Ghosts, you weren’t safe!”
“Most of us already knew,” says Virginia, “most of us have nothing to learn. You knew, but you weren’t afraid. You showed that even we Users of the Cloud can coexist with the Ghosts. You have proven that!”
“You were the brave souls,” says Jeremy. “You stood your ground, you didn’t flee. You knew the Ghosts were real, but you kept believing in the Cloud. Now we can make that belief real!”
Otis waves away the views. He used to think he knew everything. Then he was enlightened that there was something he didn’t know. Now he feels like he never knew anything. Two out of every three people knew there were Ghosts. When Otis found out, he thought it was profound, or something, but the joke was on him. No, not on him. He was the joke. He thought his eyes had been opened when he found out about the Ghosts, but he was just catching up. Otis changed, not the world, and he’s not sure he likes his reflection anymore.
Still cast in darkness, Otis stumbles back to the bedroom. The door slides open for him and he slips silently under the covers, bending himself to match Milada’s sleeping posture. They are both still dressed but he can feel her warmth. He never should have left the tower, never should have left his studio, never should have left at all.