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CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 17

"Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. . . . Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence. . . . Satan had his companions, fellow devils to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred."

-Frankenstein's Monster speaks

FOR A LONG time after Timberlake's outburst they sat silently in the cocooned isolation of their action couches, absorbing their predicament. Only Flattery at the big board appeared animate. It was his couch which creaked with his movements. Switches clicked as he depressed them. The underlying stink of their enclosed quarters, by introspection, lifted across their awareness thresholds.

Take the brain from a colonist? Prudence thought. Had Hempstead really told them to commit such an atrocity? She believed it.

Bickel appeared almost asleep, but his hands clenched and unclenched.

Prudence looked at Timberlake, seeing how dark his face was, the way he instinctively bared his teeth. Those fools back at UMB, she thought. Didn't they realize they'd be stamping on the rawest inhibition of our life-systems engineer? Kill a helpless colonist in the hyb tanks!

No, she thought. What UMB asked was worse than killing.

Flattery, noting the effect of the message on Timberlake, felt the jangle of conscience . . . and personal fear. Where his own niche on the ship was concerned, Flattery maintained few illusions. He was both Judas goat and sacrificial goat, classic functions of religious extremity. He was giver of life and executioner -- and lest he feel godlike in these powers, he was the ultimate victim of whatever would be the Earthling's destiny.

"As a bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his place," he quoted to himself.

Aloud he said, "What they command, we cannot do that."

"You'd better not suggest it," Timberlake said.

"Then we'd better assess whatever it is we've built there in the computer shop, and go on from that point," Flattery said. "What have we built, John?"

"Damned if I know," Bickel said.

"Well, it doesn't seem to be a consciousness, anyway," Prudence said.

"Goddammit!" Bickel snapped. "There you go again! Consciousness! Conscious! It isn't flobblegobble! That's what you might as well say. You don't know how to define consciousness. You don't know what it is. But you go around throwing sentences together as though they had meaning and --"

"That's it," Timberlake said. "That's what hits me right in the pit of the stomach. We start out to build something and we don't know what it is we're building."

It's time to hit them with it, Flattery thought.

"You're wrong, Tim," Flattery said. "And so're you, John. Prudence does know what consciousness is, just as you do. She's a human being. Humans are the only creatures within our ken who can possibly know what consciousness is. Computers can't do that job; humans must."

"Then let her define it," Bickel said.

"Maybe she can't," Flattery said. "But she possesses it."

"A while back you were saying we might not have to define it," Prudence said, and she stared accusingly at Bickel.

"It's just damn poor engineering," Bickel said. "Copy the original and hope you get the same results. We can't be sure we're copying everything in the human model. What're we leaving out?"

He's frustrated and striking out, she thought. Now's the time to push, while Raj has him set up for me. "Okay, engineer, where do you think you're going with your field-theory idea?"

Bickel stared at her, realizing abruptly that she was deliberately pushing him. All right, I'll play her game, he thought. Am I supposed to be angry? No . . . that'd be too easy. The best attack comes from an unexpected quarter.

"Stretch yourself a bit, Prue, and try to follow what I'm saying," he challenged her. "The field-theory approach deals with three forces: first, you have the source of experience, the universe which inflicts itself upon us."

"That has to be deeply involved with the way your nervous system functions," she said. "Don't try to teach me my specialty."

"I wouldn't think of it. And you're right. That's the second element: there has to be someone who experiences that universe."

"And third?"

"Third, you have the really tricky one. This is the relationship between that someone and all of this neural raw material which we call experience. This relationship, this third-order phenomenon, that's our field."

"The self," she said.

"A field," Bickel countered.

She shrugged. "Huxley's 'spatio-temporal cage' with its 'confused swarm of ideas.'"

"Yeah, Huxley said the conscious self had to derive from memory, but he was just playing with words because he was frightened by what lay beyond the words."

"And you're not?" Flattery demanded.

"You'd better listen closer," Bickel said. "When you try to say that a conscious self derives only from our memory function, you're identifying the someone who experiences with that which supplies the experience."

"Memory is experience," Prudence agreed.

"We have to focus on this third-order relationship," Bickel said.

"The total field that's greater than the sum of its parts," she said.

She's ready for her shock, Bickel thought. For that matter, so's Raj.

"You self-satisfied medicos give me a pain. You say only humans are conscious. From Raj, that's sacrilege. From you, Prue, that's stupidity. You see one corner of the spectrum and immediately say you know what the whole universe of light is like. Never once has either one of you asked: Am I really conscious?"

Flattery felt an unexplainable pain across his chest. The console in front of him blurred for a heartbeat. Then he had himself under control.

Back at UMB, they laughed and quoted Edgar Allan Poe, Flattery thought. They had said individual humans might not have Poe's "organ of analysis," but that a whole society could create such an organ out of one of its members. Had they realized what a dangerous monster they were creating? What could you hide from Bickel if he turned his attention to it? That was what Prue meant, of course, when she cautioned against underestimating Bickel. But had the UMB manipulators known what a knight they had loosed among the pawns?

Perhaps they realized -- at least unconsciously -- when they set me to watch over him, Flattery thought.

"You try to resolve the basic question into smaller and smaller parts," Bickel said. "Smaller and smaller labels. But that's just avoiding the issue."

"Are we conscious?" Prudence whispered, rolling the thought over and over in her mind.

And she thought of her experience with the marijuana derivative, THC -- tetrahydrocannabinol. She'd sought an anti-ataraxic, a selective stimulator of consciousness -- something to hold the darkness at bay in a very special manner. But the instant she'd neared the stimulation experience, darkness had spilled over all the edges of her awareness.

Adrenochrome, she thought.

It was a sudden and explosive thought, as of something that had crouched in her path and leaped out at her.

Adrenochrome . . . nitrogen to CH3 If she inverted it and gave it a common CH3 bond with one of the THC forms . . . Ahhh, that was very like some of the deadly ones. But in an extremely small dosage . . . Would it get through the blood-brain barrier? And adrenochrome was one of the hallucinogens. What of that?

"You get your fingernails over the ledge," Bickel was saying, "and you haven't yet raised your eyes to the lip -- you can only see the dim reflection of light, but you lie and tell those around and below you that you can see to the horizon."

As though his words unlocked a door, the memory of a dream flooded through Prudence. She had dreamed it . . . sometime during a long sleep . . . sometime when . . .

In hyb!

She had dreamed it in the hybernation tank!

In the dream, there had been others around her, but she had been rejected by them. The others built a low wall and taunted her to climb it. But each time she tried, the others raised the wall higher.

Higher and higher.

Until she no longer even attempted it.

Finally, the others had ignored her, but she had heard them laughing and talking on the other side of the wall.

Remembering that dream, Prudence looked at Bickel and understood the thing he had probably seen from the beginning. The problem of creating an artificial consciousness was the problem of consciousness itself. It was an enormous structure, like a tall cliff (or a wall) that they must climb. It loomed over them, dour and black - with only the taunting hint of light at the top.

"You did that deliberately to make me feel small," she accused.

"Welcome to the club," Bickel said.

"What're you saying?" Timberlake demanded. "Are you trying to say that even if we build an analogue of a human, we still might not achieve this . . . this consciousness?"

"Let's take another look at what happened to the ship brains," Bickel said. "What's the basic command they were supposed to obey?"

"Remain conscious and alert at all times," Timberlake said. "But, hell, if you're saying they succumbed to fatigue, that's nonsense. They were buffered against all --"

"Not fatigue," Bickel said. "I'm just wondering, what if they took that order literally, that order to remain conscious?"

"The degree of consciousness," Prudence mused.

"Threshold," Flattery said and there was wonder in his voice.

"Yes," Prudence said. "A hyperconscious subject has a low threshold. Impulses pass into his awareness with ease. You're suggesting the OMC brains couldn't handle hyperconsciousness."

"Something like that."

"Look," she said, "the assault of nerve impulses on the human . . . consciousness . . ." She looked defensively at Bickel. "Well, what else are we going to call it?"

"Okay," Bickel said. "Go on."

She stared at him a moment. "This assault is constant, gigantic. The impulses are always present. They swarm around you. There has to be a limiting factor, a threshold. Impulses have to pass a certain threshold before you grow . . . aware of them."

"And that threshold varies from person to person, even minute to minute in the same person," Flattery said:

"But how do nerve impulses get over that wall?" Bickel asked.

Why did he use that word? she wondered.

"Sometimes the impulses grow stronger," Flattery said.

"But that isn't the whole story," Prudence said. "There's activity on the side of the . . . experiencer, too. You focus your attention on something and that lowers your threshold."

"Danger can lower it, too," Flattery said. And he waited to see if Bickel would pick up that cue.

Bickel looked at Flattery, wondering. "We're in danger right now, Raj. Is that something they did to us -- deliberately?"

"You think that danger out there isn't real?" Flattery asked, unconsciously hooking a thumb toward the shortest distance between himself and the outer hull.

Bickel held his silence, feeling his tongue go dry. Unreasoning terror pervaded him. It was a towering oblivion that threatened to engulf him.

"John," Prudence asked, "are you all right?"

"Just a touch of ship vertigo," Bickel managed. He forced a smile. "Perhaps . . . maybe I'm tired. I went more than two shifts at that haywire setup in the shop, and I haven't really had a good rest for I don't know how long."

Knowing when to relax the pressure is half the job, Prudence reminded herself. "Get some chow and shuteye. It might help if we let up on this problem a bit."

And she thought: I can give him that advice but I won't take it myself.

Those last chemical experiments on her own body were playing hob with her sense of reality. She wondered if she should take Raj into her confidence, but rejected this thought as soon as it occurred. Raj would say she was meddling. He'd force her to stop and she felt that she didn't dare stop now. There was something . . . something . . . something so close. . . .

"What about answering Hempstead?" Bickel asked.

"Let 'em sweat," Timberlake growled.

"They'll figure it was a transmission breakdown if we go too long beyond the delay period," Bickel said. "They'll retransmit the message."

"That gets us the retransmission without committing ourselves," Flattery said.

"Isn't that a rather devious suggestion for our cleric?" Bickel asked.

"That was the psychiatrist speaking," Prudence said. "Go on, get your sleep."

"And I can sit here and twiddle my thumbs," Timberlake said.

Bickel looked at Timberlake, recalling the man's bitter anger over Hempstead's suggestion. For the first time in many hours, Bickel focused his full attention on Timberlake, seeing the pride the man had swallowed in relinquishing command of the ship, seeing Timberlake's primary concern -- for the human lives around him.

There was no easing Timberlake's tensions right now, Bickel realized. The lives were in danger . . . every life on the Tin Egg from the lowliest chick embryo in the hyb tanks right up to Timberlake himself.

Timberlake sometimes saw through things intuitively, Bickel realized. And Timberlake was an engineer. It might help him if he were kept occupied . . . and this crew could use any available edge.

"Tim," Bickel said, "we have to solve for consciousness the way you solve for a specific effect in a transceiver or a tuner or an amplifier. You might be chewing that over while I get some rest. I need specific answers that can be translated into working schematics."

"But we're stuck with that thing in the shop," Timberlake protested.

"Only as a beginning. We have to use the Ox, yeah, because it's our only entrance into the computer for some of our vital data . . . now. But it's still a place to begin. Nothing's changed, really."

"Except we're two days closer to our deadline and no closer to a solution," Timberlake growled.

Bickel put down a surge of anger. "Suit yourself." He turned away, crossed to the hatch into quarters, let himself through, sealed the hatch behind him.

The sound of the hatch expanders hissed through him like a sigh and he found himself standing in the galley-round wondering if he had enough energy left to eat and get into a sleeping cubicle.

"I have to eat," he whispered. "Got to keep my strength up."

He pushed himself across to the quick-bar, sent half a heat charge through a squeeze tube of soup, gulped it. Chicken. He could feel the broth pouring energy back into him, took a tube of hot chocolate after the soup.

He crossed to his padded tank, checked the cubicle's life-systems repeaters. Every gauge was normal. He let himself into the tank, closed its hatch, pulled the pneumopin. Slowly, gently, the tank enclosed him, buoyed him. He felt the flow of oxygen-rich air across his face, the air filtered and refiltered so many times that it had lost most of its ship stink.

His muscles began to unwind and, as usual when he prepared for sleep in the cubicle, he wondered at the soothing effect. It was like a return to the womb.

What womb bore the original me? he wondered. Somewhere, there was a mother . . . and a father. Even if I was grown in a gestation chamber, somewhere flesh and blood conceived me. Who were they? I'll never know. Useless even to think about it.

He forced his attention instead onto the "cube" around him, the artificial womb with its deep sense of security to insure sound sleep.

Why do we get more and better rest in a "cube"? A quick nap on an action couch is nowhere near as restful. Why? Is it something atavistic, a phylogenetic return to the sea? Or is it something else, something we have yet to recognize?

Bickel focused his awareness on the billowing softness of the enclosure, the rich moist air. Sleep was sending its tendrils through him and he sensed how slow and even his breathing had become.

How rhythmic.

The set rhythms, he thought, holding back sleep. There's an oscillation factor in our problem. Oscillation is present in hypnotic captivation, in sleep-breathing, in the heartbeat . . . in sex . . .

And living cells possess north and south magnetic poles, he thought.

He recalled the biologist-designer, Vincent Frame, expounding on that theme in a lecture for Biological Engineering back at UMB.

I am a structure composed of many different cells, Bickel reminded himself. Coordinated.

Frame had hammered at this theme, pointing to vital clues in the oscillations and pulses of human activities -- cell energies.

In that remembered lecture, Frame had been explaining the design of a low-gravity lounge chair.

Rhythms . . . characteristic rhythms of living.

Frame had returned to that concept time and again.

Oscillation.

Despite his fatigue and the sleep lurking at the edge of his awareness, Bickel felt the urgency of this "hot track" onto which his mind had stumbled. He thumbed his intercom alive, looked up to the tiny monitor screen.

Timberlake's face peered back at him.

"Remember Dr. Frame's lectures. Oscillation. Discuss it later." Bickel released the intercom switch before Timberlake could answer.

As he sank back, Bickel felt sleep come up from some dark place underneath to engulf him.



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