Symbolic behavior of some order has to be a requisite of consciousness. And it must be noted that symbols abstract -- they reduce a message to selected form.

-Morgan Hempstead, Lectures at Moonbase

"SPREAD OUT THAT software on the bench, Tim," Bickel directed. "Start by putting the pertinent parts of the loading plan on top what we need'll be in robot stores. I'll be with you in a minute."

Timberlake looked at Bickel's back. Control had passed so obviously into the man's hands. No one questioned it . . . now. He shrugged, began laying out the manifests and loading plans.

Bickel glanced around the room.

The computer maintenance shop was designed in such a way that Com-central nested partly into the curve of one wall. The shop presented one flax wall opposite Com-central, a wall about four and a half meters high and ten meters long-its face covered with plugboards, comparators, simultaneous multiplexers, buffer-system monitors, diagnostic instruments -- dials and telltales.

Behind that wall's hardware and shields lay the first banks of master-program routing that led down to core memory sections and the vast library of routines that marked out the limits of the equipment.

"We'll have to block-sort the system to find all the audio and visual links and the AAT bands," Bickel said. "It's going to be a bootstrap operation all the way and the only information going back into the system will have to come from us. That means one of us will have to monitor the readout at all times. We'll have to sort out the garbage as we go and keep a running check on every control sequence we use. Let's start with a gate-circuit system right here." Bickel indicated an optical character reader on the wall directly in front of him.

It was all clear to him -- this entrance into the problem. If only he could keep this gate of his own awareness open -- one step at a time.

But there remained the weight of those six previous failures . . . reasons unknown: more than eighteen thousand people lost.

They don't think of us as real people, Bickel told himself. We're expendable components, easily replaced.

What happened with the other six ships?

He wiped perspiration from his hands.

The conference hookups with station personnel had served only to frustrate him. He remembered sitting at his pickup desk staring into the vid-eye screen across his ink-stained blotter, watching the movement of faces in the screen divisions -- faces he knew only in an untouchable, secondhand way.

The memory was dominated by Hempstead's voice issuing from that harsh wide mouth with its even rows of teeth:

"Any theory introduced to explain the loss of those ships must remain a theory at present. In the final analysis, we must admit we simply do not know what happened. We can only guess."


System failure.

Mechanical failure.

Human failure.

And subdivisions within subdivisions to break down the rows of guesses.

But never a word of suspicion about the Organic Mental Cores. Not one hint or theory or guess. The brains were perfect.

"Why?" Bickel muttered, staring at the gauges of the computer panel.

The stacked schematics on the bench rustled as Timberlake looked up. "What?"

"Why didn't they suspect OMC failure?" Bickel asked.

"Stupid mistake."

"That's too pat," Bickel protested. "There's something . . . some overriding reason we weren't given all the facts." He approached the computer panel, wiped away a small smudged fingerprint.

"What're you getting at?" Timberlake asked.

"Think how easy it was to keep a secret from us. Everything we did or said or breathed or ate was under their absolute control. We're the orbiting orphans, remember? Sterile isolation. The story of our lives: sterile isolation -- physical . . . and mental."

"That's not reasonable," Timberlake said. "There're good reasons for sterile isolation, big advantages in a germ-free ship. But if you keep information from people who need it . . . well, that's not optimum."

"Don't you ever get tired of being manipulated?" Bickel asked.

"Ahhhh, they wouldn't."

"Wouldn't they?"

"But . . ."

"What do we really know about Tau Ceti Project?" Bickel asked. "Only what we've been told. Automatic probes were sent out. They say they found this one habitable planet circling Tau Ceti. So UMB began sending ships."

"Well, why not?" Timberlake asked.

"Lots of reasons why not."

"You're too damn suspicious."

"Sure I am. They tell us that because of the dangers, they send only duplicate-humans . . . Doppelgangers."

"It makes sense," Timberlake said.

"You don't see anything suspicious in this setup?"

"Hell, no!"

"I see." Bickel turned away from the glistening face of the computer panel, scowled at Timberlake. "Then let's try another tack. Don't you find it at all difficult to focus on this problem of consciousness?"

"On what?"

"We have to make an artificial consciousness," Bickel said. "That's our main chance. Project knows it . . . so do we. Do you find it difficult to face this problem?"

"What problem?"

"You don't think it'll be much of a problem manufacturing an artificial consciousness?"

"Well . . ."

"Your life depends on solving it," Bickel said.

"I guess so."

"You guess so! D'you have an alternative plan?"

"We could turn back."

Bickel fought down a surge of anger. "None of you see it!"

"See what?"

"The Tin Egg's almost totally dependent on computer function. The AAT system uses computer translation banks. All our ship sensors are sorted through the computer for priority of presentation on Com-central's screens. Every living soul in the hyb tanks has an individual life-system program -- through the computer. The drive is computer-governed. The crew life systems, the shields, the fail-safe circuits, hull integrity, the radiation reflectors . . ."

"Because everything was supposed to be left under the control of an OMC."

Bickel crossed the shop in one low-gravity step, slapped a hand onto the papers on the bench. The movement sent several papers fluttering to the deck, but he ignored them. "And all the brains on six -- no, seven! ships failed! I can feel it right in my guts. The OMCs failed . . . and we weren't given one word of warning."

Timberlake started to speak, thought better of it. He bent, collected the schematics from the deck, replaced them on the bench. Something about the force of Bickels words, some product of vehemence prevented argument.

He's right, Timberlake thought.

Timberlake looked up at Bickel, noting the perspiration on the man's forehead, the frown lines at the corners of his eyes. "We still could turn back," Timberlake said.

"I don't think we can. This is a one-way trip."

"Why not? If we headed back . . ."

"And had a computer malfunction?"

"We'd still be headed home."

"You call diving into the sun home?"

Timberlake wet his lips with his tongue.

"They used to teach kids to swim by tossing them into a lake," Bickel said. "Well, we've been tossed into the lake. We'd better start swimming, or sure as hell we're going to sink."

"Project wouldn't do that to us," Timberlake whispered.

"Oh, wouldn't they?"

"But . . . six ships . . . more than eighteen thousand people . . ."

"People? What people? The only losses I know about are 'Gangers, fairly easy to replace if you have a cheap energy source."

"We're people," Timberlake said, "not just Doppelgangers."

"To us we're people," Bickel said. "Now, I've a real honey of a question for you -- considering all those previous ship failures and the numerous possibilities of malfunction: Why didn't Project give us a code for talking about failure of OMCs, ours . . . or any others?"

"These suspicions are . . . crazy," Timberlake said.

"Yeah," Bickel said. "We're really on our way to Tau Ceti. Our lives are totally dependent on an all-or-nothing computer system -- quite by the merest oversight. We've aimed ships like ours all over the sky -- at Dubhe, at Schedar, at Hamal, at --"

"There was always the off chance those other six ships made it. You know that. They disappeared, sure, but --"

"Ahhhh, now we get down to the meat. Maybe they weren't failures, eh? Maybe they --"

"It wouldn't make sense to send two seeding ships to the same destination," Timberlake pointed out. "Not if you weren't sure what was happening to --"

"You really believe that, Tim?"

"Well . . ."

"I have a better suggestion, Tim. If some crazy bastard tossed you into a lake when you couldn't swim, and you learned to swim like that" -- Bickel snapped his fingers -- "and you found then you could just keep on going, wouldn't you swim like hell to get away from the crazy bastard?"