Computers are just systems with a great amount of unconsciousness: everything held in immediate memory and subject to programs which the operator initiates. The operator, therefore, is the consciousness of the computer.
-Raja Lon Flattery, The Book of Ship
IT WAS AT least five minutes before Timberlake returned with Bickel. While she waited, Prudence ran through the experiment a second and a third time. Both tests produced the truncated readout.
She felt a constricting sensation in her chest. Every sound in the room pressed in on her -- each tiny metallic click, the low humming of a timer, the faint breathing of a ventilator. She felt that this thing in front of her was something profoundly dangerous. It required her to act with delicate care. Something new had come awake on the Earthling.
The hatch slammed open behind her. Bickel pushed her aside, bent over the terminal. "Let me see!" His fingers flew over the keys. He scanned the readout. "My God, it is!"
Timberlake moved up behind him, peered over Bickel's shoulder.
"Tim," Bickel directed, "take the panel off that storage bank. Check it with everything we have. There has to be a line from it into the main computer somehow . . . a line that doesn't show on the master plan."
"But why would this thing start feeding us the right answer now?" Prudence demanded.
"That?" Bickel dismissed it with a wave of the hand. "The program went in with a key showing what was expected. Every part of the program was worked out on the main computer. We never cleared our work. It's still in there . . . acting as a filter. It filtered out everything except the answer that was keyed for optimum. Hell, anybody can make a computer act like that kind of filter. It doesn't mean a thing."
"Not so fast," she said, excited by a sudden inspiration. "What do you really have over there in that test setup?" She looked at the construction which Bickel so irreverently referred to as "The Ox." It still stood there like a surrealistic extrusion from the flat expanse of panel.
"You call it a transducer . . . of sorts," she said. "What's that really mean? The thing you have there is composed of blocks of nerve-net simulators arranged to integrate three lines of energy. The operational term is nerve-net simulators."
She gets too excited and she talks too much, Bickel thought. He knew this was partly his fatigue thinking for him, but he felt keyed up, buoyed by the quick discovery of what had gone wrong. He wanted to cut the link with the computer and rerun the test.
Timberlake already was removing the panel to get at the storage bank. The panel cover grated on the deck as he pushed it aside.
"Yeah, nerve-net simulators," Bickel said. He kept his attention on Timberlake, admiring the direct, purposeful way the man went at it. Timberlake was good at this work.
Prudence misread Bickel's answer, said: "And what's a nerve-net but an imbedding space? It catches energy . . . the way a spiderweb might catch ink you threw at it. The net makes a record in four dimensions of the energy you throw at it."
"Not yet," Timberlake said. He was on his back now, his head, arms, and shoulders into the crawl space beneath the first wiring layer of the panel-to-storage system.
Noting where Timberlake had concentrated his attention, Bickel said: "I think you're right, Tim. It's most likely to be down there with the primary sheafs."
Prudence, concentrating on following her own train of thought, said: "So we have a multiple imbedding space, an energy catcher in four dimensions. The test program passes through this space as flux impulses in four dimensions and filters past the inhibitory roulette cycles in --"
"How's that again?" Bickel interrupted.
She looked up to find him staring at her.
"How's what again?" she asked.
"That about flux impulses."
"I said the test program passes through the imbedding space as flux impulses in four dimensions and filters past the inhibitory roulette . . ."
"By God, you're right," Bickel said. "The roulette cycles would be a filter. I never thought of it that way. You'd get a pileup of nodal pulses at random points in the net layers.. Your test program would have to find its own path through that, canceling out at some points, but passing on wherever it had a higher potential."
"And this filter screens the program through a system of random errors," Prudence said. "So you have to be wrong about the way it produced your truncated answers. The program that got through to the computer couldn't have been anything at all, like what you previously punched into the banks. Yet it produced the right answers."
"Lets play this over slowly," Bickel said. "We have circuitry here -- the Ox plus computer -- that should connect point-events in spacetime. Right?"
"Right. That's your imbedding space in four dimensions."
"So we sent energy pulses through it. And those --"
"Yoh!" Timberlake called, his voice echoing with a hollow resonance from the crawl space.
Bickel looked down, saw that only Timberlake's feet protruded into the shop now.
"Found it," Timberlake said. "It's a fifty-line sheaf, single plug. Shall I pull it?"
"Where does it lead?" Bickel asked.
"According to the color code it leads right down into the accessory storage banks," Timberlake said. His feet disappeared into the crawl space. "All these banks are linked that way! Why the hell doesn't it appear on the schematics?"
Bickel got down on his hands and knees at the mouth of the crawl hole. "Is there any kind of buffer or gating system in those lines?"
A hand light wavered back and forth in the crawl space. "Yeah, by God!" Timberlake said. "How'd you know?"
"Had to be," Bickel said. "That's a computer fail-safe system . . . and something else. Don't mess with it."
"Why . . . what do you mean?" Prudence asked.
"It's a recording system," Bickel said. And he had his answer to an earlier question. Would Moonbase install hidden elements in the ship-plus-computer system? Yes, and here was one of those hidden elements.
"Recording?" Prudence was puzzled.
"Yes!" He was angry. "Everything the computer does, everything we do -- all recorded."
"So they can recover it and analyze it even if we're not around to help."
"But why wouldn't they tell us about --"
"They didn't want us questioning the purpose of this . . . this voyage until it was too late for us to change course."
She was defensive. "We could still go back to --" "Don't be dense, Prue. A one-way trip. They don't want us back. We could be very dangerous. The only useful thing we have to offer is information . . . discovery."
Bickel rocked back on his heels, fighting a lost, sinking sensation.
Those bastards! he thought. They knew we'd find this the first time we went looking into the computer's innards. They've tied our hands.
Timberlake came scooting out of the crawl space, stood up. "There's a cover plate down there with a red-letter warning: 'Extreme Danger! To be opened by Moonbase personnel only!' Does that make sense to you?"
"I wish it didn't," Bickel said. He peered into the hole.
Timberlake was as puzzled as Prudence had been. "But a recorder and fail-safe system with such --"
"That has 'don't touch' written all over it," Bickel said. "I guarantee you -- mess with it and something really destructive happens. Don't change a damn thing." He stood up, removed the blocking plugs they had installed to isolate their test system. His movements were wooden and poorly coordinated.
Isolate! He pushed past Prudence who still appeared puzzled. Did any of the others understand what was really happening here? The test leads clattered as he threw them onto the bench.
All he'd done with his experiment was change the potential at one point and insure that they would not have the addresses on any of the test information they had just sent into the total computer system.
Timberlake followed him to the bench. "But what about those results, the truncated --"
"Use your head!" Bickel whirled on him. "This computer has a random-access system as far as we're Concerned -- enormous blocks of information filed in it bit by bit in such a way that only the total computer can reproduce it for us. That's why we have so many special-function routines and subroutines and sub-subroutines ad infinitum. The addresses of those we know."
"But the fail-safe, the warning . . ."
"That's a special kind of message to us," Bickel said.
Prudence knew she had to head him away from this conjecture. She spoke quickly:
"The Organic Cores must've known where their information was."
"And they're dead," Bickel said. "Get the message?"
"Wait a minute!" Timberlake said. "Are you trying to tell us . . ."
"The computer is what keeps us alive," Bickel said. "That's all that keeps us alive. We win or lose with that computer."
Timberlake turned to stare at the open access panel. "But we . . ." He broke off.
Prudence, seeing what Timberlake had just realized, felt her mouth go dry. Some of the information in this monster would be filed many times, depending on the power with which it had been inserted. Some information was filed just once and could be lost through the kick of a proton. And that total system controlled their destiny.
"This computer's storage banks amount to one enormous internally balanced system," Bickel said.
Prudence nodded. It was like a superb human memory in some respects -- even worked something like a human memory -- but it was a fine instrument with all the delicate weaknesses implied by that term.
"Jeeeeesus."Timberlake whispered. "And we shot an unknown program through it."
"Worse than that," Bickel said. "Because of that unrecorded tie-in to the computer . . ." He swallowed, wondering if they already appreciated the extent of this disaster. Turning, he indicated the piled cubes and rectangles, the sheafs of quasibiological nerve fiber that constituted his "Ox."
The others turned in the direction he pointed.
"That setup is, in effect, an extension of the computer," Bickel said.
"The error factor!"Prudence said. She put a hand to her mouth.
"We've introduced an error factor into the computer," Bickel said. "And that means, first, that we've introduced the probability -- no, the certainty, of an unknown number of subspaces within the computer's space time. The program we've just thrown into the computer . . . to land, we know not where, will produce unknown topological linkages, new networks all through the system."
"In the memory storage banks, primarily," Timberlake said.
"And in the transducer nets," Bickel said.
"But this storage unit here produced the circuit-analysis information when I asked for it," Prudence said.
"Certainly," Bickel said. "But your demand amounted to a program for a subroutine. Where the information came from God alone knows. Just in the first stage, there are fifty lines leading out of this unit. And those lines filter through a buffer system, remember. The bits go out of here, charge through that buffer system, and are split up fifty ways, according to their differences in potential. That's just the first stage. At the next stage, your division is fifty times fifty. And then fifty times fifty times fifty. And so on."
It was like trying to work with a memory whose only certain property was that everything stored in it was stored according to a scatter pattern and could only be recovered if you knew the pattern.
Guaranteed selective amnesia. But that . . . was kind of human.
"This bank here was just like a knitting machine," Prudence said. "It took the threads of the record from this test setup and knitted them out through the storage banks of the entire system . . . smearing that record across an unknown number of retainer cells."
"An unknown number of times," Bickel said. "Remember that. And we only have one address for the entire record of that test, the address of a subroutine program. If that's lost the whole record's lost . . . unless we manage to match enough pieces of it in another program to pull it out of the system again."
"But isn't that pretty much the way human memory works?"Prudence asked. "And here's another thing: It produced the right answer at the translator. The right answer."
Bickel looked at her, turning that fact over in his mind.
She was right, by God! And not for the reason he had so glibly spouted.
The thing had produced the right answers in spite of errors and misprogramming. The processing procedure stank. It was heuristic and should not under any circumstances have yielded the desired output.
But it had. Why?
Bickel experienced a mental sensation as though his mind lurched. It was so much like a physical sensation he wondered that the others didn't notice.
The beautiful clarity with which he understood what had happened in the computer washed through him like a stimulant.
Didn't the others see it?
He looked at Prudence, at Timberlake, realized this had all occurred in a fraction of a second.
"For motion produceth nothing but motion."
The words rang through his mind, producing awe at the way apparently disconnected bits -- a line of poetry here, a technical phrase there -- could link with a simple turn of mathematics to produce a right answer in his mind.
He nodded. "Prudence, you're our mathematician. What's pi?"
She stared at him, puzzled.
"I'm serious," Bickel said.
"The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter," she said. "A rational approximation would be approximately twenty-two over seven. A closer approximation would be three hundred and fifty-five over a hundred and thirteen."
"For most applications, that approximation of pi would give us significant results?" Bickel asked.
"You don't have to ask that. You know it would."
"Okay, now tell me why you didn't answer my question by saying pi is a sweet concoction of starchy crust enclosing a filling often of fruit?"
She saw his seriousness in the way he stared at her, waiting. This bore on the problem in some way. She looked at Timberlake and he interpreted her motion as an appeal for help.
"It's obvious," Timberlake said. "You set up a category first by saying, 'You're our mathematician.' Then you asked: 'What's pi?' You didn't say: 'What's a pie?'"
"Yeah," Bickel said. "You had two screening references through which to filter the question and come up with the right answer. Then, because you sensed this was a rhetorical question in some way, you didn't try to explain first that there's no rational number for pi; you just gave me the rational approximations."
"Well, I knew I didn't have to explain that to you," Prudence said.
"That was category 'common information,'" Bickel said. "All you had to do was produce the significant answer."
"Holy cow!" Timberlake exploded, seeing where Bickel was leading them.
"Holy Ox, you mean," Bickel said.
Prudence whirled, pointed wildly toward the computer panel. "But it wasn't conscious! It couldn't have been!"
"It wasn't conscious," Bickel agreed. "But first crack out of the box, we've produced a significant result. And it was no accident. What can we say about the results of this test? First, we can say that the computer had sufficient information to produce an accurate answer despite errors in the system. Second, we can say that we've introduced a new kind of sense data into the system previously called a computer. We can go on calling this a computer, but it's a step up from 'computer' now. It has learned how to use a new kind of sense data."
Prudence started to speak, stopped.
"Screen everything I've said here through field theory," Bickel said. He grinned at them. "Then remember that we matched three energy sources in the Ox. The integrator there set them up to go out identically. The buffer potential of this storage unit here scattered those pulses through the system. They were divided and redivided . . . but wherever they matched they reinforced each other."
"In itself, the original program pulse was a kind of comparator," Timberlake said. "The computer could compare for accuracy on the basis of signal strength."
"And the computer already knew how to compare the AAT signals for accuracy by screening them through a code-matching grid," Bickel said. "Signal strength was merely another kind of grid."
"If you're not too busy congratulating yourself," Prudence said, "consider how some of those rematched signals must've grown in strength. The probability is that some elements of the computer have been shocked out of --"
"We're still running," Bickel said, but he spoke defensively, realizing that Prudence was right. There were overload fuses throughout the filter to protect components, but stray signals overriding barrier potentials could have played hob with some of the master programs. He looked at the overhead screen which showed Flattery manning the Com-central board.
Flattery appeared relaxed, but watchful, his gaze traversing the big board.
Damn her! he thought.
One instant everything had been rosy, full of elation that the Ox had come a short step up the ladder -- not into consciousness . . . but toward it. And all she could think to do was throw cold water on them.
Bickel met Flattery's gaze in the screen. "Have you been listening, Raj?"
"I've been listening," Flattery said.
"Have we gone sour, yet?" Bickel asked.
"You really think I'm this hypothetical human fail-safe device?" Flattery asked, holding his tone to a nice balance between mockery and injured innocence.
He almost goes too far, Prudence thought. If he isn't underestimating Bickel, he's pressing the limits. One course is as dangerous as the other.
"You're the logical candidate," Bickel said, "but I was asking for your comments on progress."
Flattery suppressed an abrupt feeling of jealousy. Bickel, in spite of the obvious flaw -- and that was a gaping thing -- balanced so beautifully. Or . . . he appeared to balance, which was much the same thing as far as this operation was concerned.
"Ahhh, progress," Flattery said. "If I understand your original test correctly, the pulse-time distances didn't check out with the space distances. They weren't proportional."
"That's essentially it." Bickel wondered why Flattery's tone made him feel so defensive. "They averaged out to almost a zero product."
"The artificial nerve nets produce something vaguely equivalent to psychological space." Flattery paused, scanned the Com-central board, returned his attention to the screen and Bickel. "You can say that the test pulses are more or less like sense data feeding into psychological space -- a region somewhat equivalent to what Prudence calls imbedding space. I like her cobweb-and-ink analogy. But there's a big difference between physical space and psychological space."
He let it hang there a long time, forcing Bickel to admit a dependency upon someone else's expertise.
"If you're going to explain it, then get at it," Bickel said. There was anger in his voice. He didn't enjoy depending on Flattery.
"Okay." Flattery kept his tone even and friendly.
"You can time a signal across physical space, repeat it and get matched results. Any difference will have a positive relationship to a change in distance. But psychological space . . . now, that's something else again. The time there could depend on mood. What's mood, John? Is it a comparison between this and previous experiences of a similar kind? Your pulse-time in psychological space will meet many more variables than it does in physical space."
"Are you saying we haven't analyzed our results correctly?" Timberlake asked. He glared up at the screen, feeling that he and Prudence and Bickel were arrayed somehow against Flattery.
"You're trying to arrive at some proportional comparison between the sense world and the physical world," Flattery said. "But you can't use the same rules of measurement. Each neuron in your net will introduce an element of random conduction time and you get more randomness from the similar variation in synaptic delay time. The difference between the sense world and the physical world is the difference between time distance and space distance. And the most casual examination of your setup indicates you'll have random time distances."
"Zero by probability," Bickel said. "That won't wash."
"That shot-effect test," Flattery said, his voice bored, "fired off impulses which weren't time-regulated. You got a variety of delay times there and in your system. That could average out statistically -- by probability mechanics."
"Over the entire net?"Bickel demanded.
"Why not? The bigger the net, the more likely this is to be true. And your net here took in the entire computer."
"But we got the right answer from the translator," Bickel said, his voice pouncing. "Try probability on that!"
"I wouldn't think of it," Flattery said. "No more than I'd think of coming to definite conclusions on the basis of one test run."
Bickel glared at him. "Okay, we'll run it again!"
"No, you won't," Flattery said. "Not without figuring how to isolate your Ox from the computer . . . and before you think of taking any storage units out of the system, ask yourself which one it'll be. Will it be a unit protecting the life of someone in the hyb tanks? How about a unit controlling the drive?"
"We can't tell one from the other without a complete block-sort of the entire system," Bickel protested.
"Exactly. That shouldn't take more than eight or nine years -- with the manpower available to us."
Flattery's argument was unassailable, Bickel knew. This didn't ease the anger that surged through him at the sight of the man's coldly superior attitude. Still, Bickel felt they had approached some unspoken, elusive, and vital fact that all of them should recognize. They had approached it and wandered away.
"Then we'll transmit the problem back to Moonbase and let them run it for us," Bickel said.
"Forgetting your analysis of why we were sent out here to solve it," Flattery said.
"Ahh, you're admitting we were sent out here to sink or swim."
"I'm admitting nothing, but I'd suggest you come in and man the AAT. A message has been reeling in from Moonbase for the past minute."