We understand synergy to mean the fortuitous working together of a set of components which we have assembled in our attempt to achieve artificial consciousness. Working together, the components produce more than . . .

-Prudence Lon Weygand (#3), Incomplete segment from message capsule

IT REQUIRED ALMOST twenty minutes for Prudence to regain her composure. By that time, Timberlake had run a check-list survey on every hyb-tank complex. He did it with a compulsive determination that none of them misunderstood. His function as life-systems engineer had been ignited.

Flattery let the thing run its course and a bit longer. Bickel was fretting to get back to his work, but Timberlake needed this role reinforcement. And Prudence needed recovery time.

Bickel finally had enough waiting.

"Can we get back to work?" he demanded.

"I can take the board now, Tim," Flattery said.

Timberlake studied his instruments. "Okay. On the count."

They shifted the board, and Timberlake sat up, a sharp ache across his back telling him how tense he had been.

"Let's get back to the shop," Bickel said.

"How far along are you?" Prudence asked.

"Barely beginning," Bickel said. "Let's get cracking."

"Is a man just a machine's way of making another machine?" she asked.

"Just like Sam Butler's hen," Timberlake said. "Philosophy 1."

"Philosophy some other time, huh?" Bickel suggested.

"Just a minute," she said. "By attempting to reproduce an artificial consciousness, we're monkeying with variation of variability. Now, there's a field that all good little divines" -- she nodded toward Flattery - "and most scientists have agreed by a compact of silence is the exclusive territory of God in Heaven and God's handiwork on earth -- the genes."

"Yeah," Bickel said. "That's great. Let's solve it some other time."

"You still don't get it, none of you," she said.

Bickel glared at her. "Don't I? Okay, Prue. Let's strip off the fancy verbiage. We're damned if we solve this problem and dead if we don't. Is that what you were trying to say?"

"Bravo!" she said, and turned to look at Flattery.

Flattery scowled at his board, pointedly ignoring her.

"You see, Raj?" she asked.

She can't possibly know my instructions, Flattery thought. She might guess, but she can't know. And certainly she couldn't stop me if I had to blow us all to Kingdom Come.

"Yes, I see," Flattery said. "Don't underestimate John Lon Bickel."

At the sound of his name, Bickel's head came up. He stared at Flattery's profile, seeing the way the man's sensitive fingers moved like spider legs across the big board.

"You're so very clever, Raj," she said. "And so damn stupid!"

"That's enough of that!" Bickel snapped, turning to glare at Prudence. "We'd better clear a little air, here. We're on our own, Prue. You've no idea how much on our own we are. We have to depend on each other because we sure as hell can't depend on the Tin Egg! We can't afford to snap and bite at each other."

Oh, can't we now, she thought.

"We're trapped on a ship that contains only one top-drawer mechanism," Bickel said. "We've only one thing that functions smoothly and beautifully the way it should -- our computer. Everything else works as though it'd been designed and built by six left-handed apes."

"Bickel thinks this was all deliberate," Timberlake said.

Prudence caught herself in an involuntary glance at Flattery, forced her attention away from Bickel and onto Timberlake. This is far too early for Bickel to suspect, she thought.

Timberlake avoided her eyes. He looked like a small boy who'd been caught stealing jam.

Flattery broke the silence. "Deliberate?" he asked.

"Yeah," Timberlake said. "He thinks the other six ships had the same kind of failure -- something rotten with the OMCs."

Bickel's far more alert and suspicious than anyone suspected, Prudence thought. Raj or I will have to side with him; there's no other way to keep control of the situation.

"Why . . . the OMCs?" Flattery asked.

"Let's not tiptoe around it," Bickel said. "The thing's obvious. What feature of these ships is never mentioned in the stress analyses? What feature do we assume is proof against failure?"

"Surely not the OMCs," Flattery said. He tried to hold his voice to a bantering level, failed, and thought: God help us. Bickel's seen through the sham far too soon.

"Certainly the OMCs," Bickel said. "And they gave us three of the damn things! One in service and two for backup. Never a hint that an OMC could fail, yet we had three on the Tin Egg!"

"Why?" Prudence asked.

"To make damn sure we got beyond the point of no return before we got the cold-turkey treatment," Bickel said.

I guess I'm elected, Prudence thought. She said: "More of Project's goddamn maneuvering! Sure. It'd be right in character."

Flattery shot a startled look at her, returned his attention to the big board before Bickel noticed.

"Cold turkey;" Bickel said. "This ship's one elaborate simulation device with a single purpose -- and my guess is the others were the same."

"Why?" Flattery demanded. "Why would they do such a thing?"

"Can't you see it?" Bickel asked. "Don't you recognize the purpose? It casts its shadow over everything around us. It's the only thing that makes any sense out of this charade. The secrecy, the mystery, the maneuvering -- everything's calculated to put us on a greased slide into a very special ocean. It's not just cold turkey, it's sink or swim. And the only way we can swim is to develop an artificial consciousness."

"Then why such an elaborate sham?" Flattery asked. "Why all the colonists, for example?"

"Why not the colonists?" Bickel countered. "Ready replacements for any members of the crew slaughtered on the way. Another arrow in the quiver just in case we do get over the hump to a habitable planet where we can plant the seed of humankind. And . . . maybe there's another reason."

"What?" Prudence demanded.

"I can't say just yet," Bickel said. "It's just a hunch . . . and there's something a hell of a lot more important we have to consider -- the destructive potential of this project."

"You'd better explain that," Flattery said, but he could feel in the dryness of his throat and mouth that Bickel already had seen through to the horror element of Project Consciousness.

"Let's not kid ourselves," Bickel said. "If we really solve this, the whatever-you-call-it we develop could be a kind of ultimate threat to humankind -- a rogue, Frankenstein's monster, cold intelligence without warm emotions, an angry horror." He shrugged. "Once there was an island in Puget Sound; you all know about it. What happened? Did they solve it?"

"So we install inhibitions, fail-safe features," Prudence said.

"How?" Bickel asked. "Can we develop this consciousness without giving it free will? Maybe that was the original problem with our Creator -- giving us consciousness without permitting us to turn against . . . what? God?"

Consciousness, the gift of the serpent, Flattery thought. He wet his lips with his tongue. "So?"

"So this ship has an ultimate fail-safe device to protect Earth and the rest of humanity," Bickel said. "The only sure one I can think of, given all the variables, is a human being -- one of us." He looked at each of them. "One of us set to pull the pin and blow us all to hell if we go sour."

"Oh, come now!" Flattery said.

"It could be you," Bickel said. "Probably is . . . but maybe you're too obvious."

Prudence put a hand to her breast, thought: Holy Jesus! I never once considered that. But Bickel's right . . . and it's Raj, of course. He's the only one that fits. What do I do now?

Timberlake stirred out of a deep silence. He had heard the argument and the only thing that surprised him was how easy it was to accept Bickel's summation. Why was Bickel right? He was right, of course. But why did they accept it when the thing really wasn't that obvious? Was it awe of Bickel -- clearly the strongest mind among them? Or was it that they already knew the facts -- unconsciously?

"I tell you something," Timberlake said. "Bickel's right and we know it. So one of us is set to pull the pin. I don't want to know who."

"No argument," Bickel said. "Whoever it is . . . if this thing goes sour, I'd be the last person in the . . . Tin Egg to stop him."