The thing about computers -- it's like training a dog. You have to be smarter than the dog. If you make a computer smarter than you are, that has to be accident, synergy, or divine intervention.

-Interview with John Bickel (original) at La /Paz

BICKEL WATCHED FLATTERY'S hands fight the gravity system back into balance. It had taken several bruising minutes, but the tugging and jerking had begun to ease. The system centered slowly. Flattery waited it out. Presently, he made a fine adjustment in the controls.

"Where were we?" Timberlake asked.

"We were raking through our data, seeking anything useful," Bickel said. "It's a clumsy way to operate, but necessary."

"Guilt-sharing," Flattery said.

"What?" Bickel was outraged.

"Never mind," Flattery said. "Back to square one: You will recall that OMC/Myrtle said: 'I have no incarnation: That may have been the only accurate thing in her jabbering. After all, except for gray matter, she had no flesh. But then, remember, after a long silence she said: 'I'm counting my fingers.' She had no fingers, no conscious memory of fingers. And that final question: 'Why are you all so dead?' The best guess is that any meaning in these statements and questions was purely accidental."

"I think she was referring to us, to the crew," Bickel said. "It's nuts, yes, but it was a direct question over the vocoders and we were the only possible audience."

"Unless she was referring to the colonists in the hyb tanks," Flattery said. "They might appear dead under some --"

"Myrtle had direct contact with the hyb-tank sensors," Timberlake pointed out. "She'd have known if they were alive."

Bickel nodded. "What do you make of Little Joe roaring out over every vocoder in the ship: 'I'm awake! God help me, I'm awake!'"

"A cry for help, perhaps," Flattery said. "Most insane raving is a cry for help in one form or another."

"That leaves Harvey," Bickel said. "Harvey screamed: 'You're forcing me to be unhealthy.' And when we --"

"What could we do?" Timberlake asked, and Bickel heard the note of hysteria in his voice. "There was nothing wrong with any of their life systems. I know there wasn't!"

"Easy does it, Tim," Flattery said. "That was just another nonsense statement."

"We all knew what it meant, though," Bickel said. "I did not see anybody showing surprise when Harvey said: 'I've lost it!' and signed off . . . permanently. And there we were with three dead brains and no spares."

The callous way Bickel put it sent a shudder through Timberlake, and he could not explain it. He had never been deeply attached to the OMCs. There had always been something faintly accusing about the "ship creatures." Raja Lon Flattery had assured him this was strictly subjective, something from his own attitudes. Raj had always been so positive that the OMC-ship-computer entities were perfectly reconciled to their way of life, happy with their own compensations.

What compensations? Timberlake wondered. Expectancy of long life? But what is three or four thousand years of living if each year is hell?

Timberlake realized then that none of the pat answers from his training classes really touched the basic issue of OMC happiness.

What if it really is a hellish way to live? he wondered. It must be. They are harnessed like engines to all this metal and glass and plastic and time stretches out ahead of them . . . forever. Maybe death was preferable.