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CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 21

"No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. . . . A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses."

-Frankenstein's Monster speaks

PRUDENCE, AT THE controls less than an hour, already was beginning to feel the edge of fatigue which she knew would have her hanging on only by willpower at the end of her shift. Part of the load on her was the seemingly endless wordplay of those around her -- the concept-juggling.

Words were so pointless in their situation. They needed action -- determined, constructive action.

Timberlake cleared his throat. He felt a powerful curiosity to inspect and test what Bickel had built -- to trace out the circuitry and try to find out why it was not upsetting gross computer function.

"If we run into the Queen of Hearts problem," Timberlake said, "the ship stands a better chance if it's controlled by an imaginative, conscious intelligence."

"Our kind of consciousness?" Flattery asked.

There's what's eating him, Bickel thought. He's obviously the one charged with seeing we don't loose a killer machine in the universe. Homeostasis for a race can be different from the balance needed to keep an individual alive. But we're isolated out here -- an entire race in a test tube.

"We're talking about creating a machine with a specific quality," Flattery said. "It has to operate itself from the inside, by probability. We can't determine everything it's going to do." He raised a hand as Bickel started to speak.

"But we can determine some of its emotions. What if it actually cares about us? What if it admires and loves us?"

Bickel stared at him. That was an audacious idea -- completely in keeping with Flattery's function as chaplain, colored by his psychiatric training, and protective of the race as a whole.

"Think of consciousness as a behavior pattern," Flattery said. "What has contributed to the development of this pattern? If we go back . . ."

His voice was drowned in the klaxon blare of the emergency warning.

They all felt the ship lurch and the immediate weightlessness as the caged fail-safe switch disconnected the grav system.

Bickel drifted toward the forward end of the shop, caught a stanchion, swung himself around and kicked off toward the Com-central hatch, where he dislodged his lock. He went through the hatch in the same fluid motion of opening it, hurled himself toward his couch. He locked in, swept his gaze across his repeaters. Tim and Flattery were right behind.

Prudence was making only minimal corrections on the big console, studying the drain gauges.

Bickel saw that the computer was drawing almost eighty percent of its power capacity, began checking for fire and shorts. He heard cocoon triggers snap as Flattery and Timberlake took their places.

"Computer drain," Timberlake said.

"Radiation bleed-off in Stores Four," Prudence said, her voice hoarse. "Steady rise in temperature back of the second hull bulkheads -- no; it's beginning to level off."

She programmed for a hull-security check, watched the sensor telltales.

Bickel, looking over her shoulder at the big board, saw the implications of the flickering lights as soon as she did. "We've lost a section of outer shielding."

"And hull," she said.

Bickel lay back, keyed the repeater screen for monitoring the sensors, began an analysis outward into the indicated area. "You watch the board; I'll make the check."

Images flickered on and out in the little screen at the corner of his board as he keyed it to new sensors farther and father out. Halfway through Stores Four, he was staring into the star-sequined darkness of open space. The sensor eyes revealed foam coagulant flowing into a wide, oval hole from the hull-security automatics.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bickel saw Flattery running a micro-survey along the edge of the break in the hull. "It's as though it were sliced off with a knife," he said. "Smooth and even."

"Meteorite?" Timberlake asked. He looked up from a check of the hyb tanks.

"There's no fusing at the edge or evidence of friction heat," Flattery said. He took his hands off his board, thinking of the island in Puget Sound -- the wild destruction in the surrounding countryside. Rogue consciousness. Has it started already?

"What could make that cut through the outer shielding and hull without heating them at least to half-sun?" Bickel asked.

No one answered.

Bickel looked at Flattery, seeing the white, drawn look of the man's mouth, thought: He knows!

"Raj, what could do that?"

Flattery shook his head.

Bickel took a reading on the laser-pulsed timelog off his own repeaters, extracted a position assessment, noted transmission-delay time to UMB, swung his transmitter to his side and keyed it for AAT coding.

"What're you doing?" Flattery asked.

"This we'd better report," Bickel said. He began cutting the tape.

"How about some gravity?" Timberlake asked. He looked at Prudence.

"System reads functional," she said. "I'll try it." She thumbed the reset.

The ship's normal quarter gravity pulled at them.

Timberlake unlocked his cocoon, stepped out to the deck.

"Where're you going?" Prudence asked.

"I'm going out and have a look," Timberlake said. "Some force takes a slice off our hull without crisping the area or spreading a shatter pattern? There is no such force. This I've got to see."

"Stay right where you are," Bickel said. "There could be loose cargo out there . . . anything."

Timberlake thought of lovely Maida crushed by runaway cargo. He swallowed.

"What's to prevent it slicing us neatly right down the middle, next time?" Prudence asked.

"What's our speed, Prue?" Timberlake asked.

"C over one five two seven and holding."

"Did . . . whatever it was slow us at all?" Flattery asked.

Prudence ran the back check on the comparison log. "No."

Timberlake took a deep, quavering breath. "A virtually zero-impact phenomenon with a force effect of . . . what? Infinity?" He shook his head. "There's no kinetic equivalent."

Bickel tripped the transmission switch, waited for the interlock, looked at Timberlake. "Did the universe begin with Gamow's 'big bang' or are we in the middle of Hoyle's continuous creation? What if they're both . . ."

"That's just a mathematical game," Prudence said. "Oh, I know: the union of infinite mass and finite source can be accomplished by postulating zero impact -- infinite force, but it's still just a mathematical game, a canceling-out exercise. It doesn't prove anything."

"It proves the original power of Genesis," Flattery whispered.

"Oh, Raj, you're at it again," Prudence remonstrated, "trying to twist mathematics to prove the existence of God."

"God took a swipe at us?" Timberlake asked. "Is that what you're saying, Raj?"

"You know better than to take that attitude -- under these circumstances," Flattery retorted. When they get that message at UMB, they'll know we've achieved the stage of rogue consciousness. There's no other answer.

"You were going to make a guess, Bick," Timberlake said.

Bickel watched the signal timer creep around its circle. It had a long way to go yet before giving them the blip that would tell them the message had enough time to reach its mark.

"Maybe some kind of interface phenomenon that exists only out here in the trans-Saturnian area," Bickel said. "A field effect, maybe, from pressure waves originating in the solar convection zone. The universe contains a hell of a lot of oscillatory motion. Maybe we've hit a new combination."

"Is that what you suggested to UMB?" Flattery asked.

"Yes."

"What if it isn't a mathematical game?" Timberlake asked. "Could we program for a probability curve to predict the limits of such a hypothetical phenomenon?"

Bickel lifted his hands from the AAT keyboard, considered Timberlake's question.

Such a program could be figured in matrix functions, he felt. It was something like their hunt for the Consciousness Factor -- trying to trace an exceedingly complex system on the basis of scant data. They could approach it through stacks of linear simultaneous equations, each defining parallel hyperplanes in n-dimensional space.

"What about that, Prue?" he asked.

She saw where Bickel's imagination had led them, and took a trial run in her mind, visualizing the diagonal entries when they appeared as coefficients of the simultaneous equations.

The entire process was over in seconds, but she held herself to silence, savoring the experience. It was a new one. She had set up a programming simulation in her mind, checked it out and filed the results in memory, recalling the bits precisely where she needed them. It was a feat of which she had never thought herself capable. Her own mind . . . a computer.

She told Bickel what had happened, replayed the results for him. Bickel found himself filling in the gaps where she skipped over the process to the answers. Somewhere -- probably in the long skull sessions back at UMB -- he had absorbed an enormous amount of esoteric math. Necessity and Prue's lead had pushed him over onto a plateau where that knowledge became available.

He felt suddenly robust, inches taller. The mental effort had lifted him to a hyperawareness -- relaxed, yet ready, aware of his entire vascomuscular state and emotional tone.

The sensation began to fade. Bickel sensed the ship and its pressures on him -- the steady, solid motion of matter bound outward from the sun.

The entire experience had taken less than half a minute.

Bickel felt raging sadness as the sensation faded. He thought he had experienced something infinitely precious, and part of the experience remained with him in memory. It was like a thin thread linking him to the experience, holding out the hope of once more following that thread -- but the pressure of the ship and those around him wouldn't permit the indulgence.

He realized abruptly that he carried some enormous weight within him that might shatter that precious thread completely, and this sent a pang of fear through him.

"Do you think such a program's possible?" Timberlake pressed.

"Programming it is out!" Bickel snapped. "We can't limit the variables." He turned back to the AAT keyboard, began punching out the message with savage motions.

Bickel thought about the alterations he had made to the computer system. Black box -- white box. The ignition of this thing they were building required a black box and there was only one obvious black box to give itself over to the imprinting process on the computer's white box: a human brain.

I will be the pattern.

Would the computer/thing then be another Bickel?

Prudence stared up at the big console, wondering at Bickel's sudden anger, using the focus on this as an excuse for not thinking about what had happened to the ship. But she couldn't avoid that problem.

The damage had been caused by something outside the ship. There had been a faint lurch transmitted through the Tin Egg, but that had come afterward. The damage telltales already had been flaring out red and yellow. The lurch had been associated with power drain and a shift of switching equipment to the necessities of automatic damage control.

Zero impact -- infinite force.

Something outside the ship had sliced through them like a razor through soft butter. No -- infinitely sharper.

Something from outside.

She put a hand to her cheek. That pointed to something beyond the dangers programmed into the ship.

They'd encountered something out of the wide, blank unknown. She thought suddenly of sea monsters painted on ancient charts of the earth, of twelve-legged dragons and humanoid figures with fanged mouths in their chests.

She restored a degree of calmness by reminding herself that all these monsters had faded before humanity's monkey-like inquisitiveness.

Still -- something had struck the Tin Egg.

She ran another visual survey of her board, noting that automatic damage control had almost completely flooded out Stores Four with foam seal. Section doors were sealed off for two layers around the damage area.

Whatever had hit them, it had taken only a thin slice . . . this time.

Bickel raised his hand to the transmitter pulse switch, depressed it. The room around him filled with the hum of the instrument as it built up the energy to hurl its multiburst of information back across space. The "snap-click" of the transmission interlock with its dim smell of ozone came almost as an anticlimax.

"They won't make any more of this than we do," Timberlake said.

"UMB has some of the top men in particle physics," Bickel said. "Maybe they can solve it."

"A neutrino phenomenon?" Timberlake asked. "Nuts! They'll claim we misread the evidence."

"Time for my watch," Flattery said. "Prue?"

Flattery's words made her aware in a sudden rush of acceptance how tired she was. Her back ached and the muscles of her forearms trembled. She could remember only once before having been this tired -- after almost five hours of surgery.

In many ways, she was making too-heavy demands on her flesh -- with long watches, work in the shop, and the tests using her own body as a guinea pig. But theadrenochrome-THC was proving difficult. It wouldn't cross the blood-brain barrier into active contact with neural tissue . . . unless she dared use a near-fatal dosage. She hadn't yet dared, although the prize appeared dazzling.

If she could only inhibit the lower structures of the brain and release the higher structures to full activity, she could hand Bickel the sequential steps to duplicate as electronic functions.

"Shift the board on the count," she said.

As they shifted the big board, Flattery scanned the instruments preparing to fit himself into the mood of the ship. And the Tin Egg does have her moods.

Sometimes, he felt as though the ship carried ghosts within it -- of the sixteen clones killed by accident during the construction on the Moon, of umbilicus crew members killed by the ship's programmed savagery -- or perhaps of the OMCs sacrificed on this altar. An altar to human hubris. . . . Those previous tests -- all of the dead crews, colonists . . . and the OMCs. All ghosts riding with us.

Did those bodiless brains have souls? Flattery wondered. For that matter -- if we breathe consciousness into this machinery, will our creation have a soul?

"Have the automatics finished sealing the break?" Bickel asked.

"All sealed," Flattery said. And he asked himself: When will the rogue consciousness hit us again?

"What was in Stores Four?" Prudence asked. "What'd we lose?"

"Food concentrates," Bickel answered. "First thing I checked." His tone said, "You had the watch; you should've checked that."

"Raj, do you want us to start sharing watch and watch?" Timberlake asked. "After I've had some rest . . ."

"After you've had some rest, you can help me in the shop," Bickel said.

Flattery glanced at Bickel, then at Timberlake, wondering how the life-systems engineer would take that rebuke. Timberlake had his eyes closed. His fatigue was obvious in the pale, flaccid look of his face. He appeared almost asleep . . . except for tight, shallow breathing.

"You want to go right ahead, eh?" Prudence asked. "You don't think we should wait for Hempstead's trained seals to chew this over?"

"Whatever hit us came from outside," Bickel said. "That's another problem."

"John's right," Timberlake rasped. He cleared his throat, unsnapped his action couch, sat up. "I'm bushed."

"We've just decided," Prudence said, "just like that . . ." she snapped her fingers, "-- that you can go on stirring around in the computer like a wild man?"

"For Christ's sake!" Bickel said. "Haven't any of you realized yet we were supposed to use the computer as the basic element of attack?"

Bickel stared around at them -- Flattery busy on the board, Timberlake half asleep sitting up at his couch, Prudence glaring at him from her couch.

"That's no ordinary computer. It has elements we don't even suspect. It was hooked up with an Organic Mental Core for almost six years during the construction and programming of the ship. It has buffers and leads and cross-ties that its own designers may not even know about!"

"Are you suggesting it's already conscious?" Prudence asked.

"No, I'm only suggesting that we've come a long way using that computer and our Ox frontal-lobe simulator. We've come further than the UMB project did in twenty years! And we should go on with this. We're cutting a straight line through --"

"There are no straight lines in nature," Flattery said.

Bickel sighed. What now? he wondered. "If you've got something to say, spit it out."

"Consciousness is a type of behavior," Flattery said.

"Agreed."

But the roots of our behavior are buried so far away in the past we can't get at them directly."

"Emotion again, eh?" Bickel demanded.

"No," Flattery said.

"Instinct," Prudence said.

Flattery nodded. "The kind of genetic imprint that tells a chicken how to crack out of its shell."

"Emotions or instinct, what's the difference?" Bickel asked. "Emotions are produced by instinct. Are you, still saying we can't bring the Ox to consciousness unless it has instincts-cum-emotions?"

"You know what I'm saying," Flattery said.

"It has to love us," Bickel said. He chewed at his upper lip, caught again by the beautiful simplicity of the suggestion. Flattery was right, of course. Here was a loose rein that could satisfy the fail-safe requirements. It controlled without galling.

"It has to have an autonomic system of emotional reactions," Flattery said. "The system has to respond with a set of physical effects of which the Ox is . . . aware."

Emotion, Bickel thought. The characteristic that gives us our sense of person, the thing that summates personal judgments. A process in capsule form that can occur outof sequence.

Here was a break with all machine concepts of time -- emotion as process, an audacious way of looking at time.

"There's nothing of ourselves about which we can be objective," Bickel said, "except our own physical responses. Remember? It's what Dr. Ellers was always saying."

Flattery thought back to Ellers, UMB's chief of psych. "Bickel is 'purpose,' the force that will give direction to your search," Ellers had said. "You have substitutes, of course. Accidents do happen. But you've nothing honed as fine as Bickel. He's a creative discoverer."

A "creative discoverer" -- the failures of all who went before him . . . all of those clone-brothers, all was preparation for this assault on the problem. If we succeed we survive, and if we fail . . .

And Bickel was thinking: Emotion. How do we symbolize it and program for it? What does the body do? We're inside, in direct contact with whatever the body's doing. That's the only thing we can really be objective about. What does the body . . .

"It has to have a completely interfunctioning body," Bickel said, seeing the whole problem and answer as an abrupt revelation. "It has to have a body that's gone through trauma and crises." He stared at Flattery. "Guilt, too, Raj. It has to have guilt."

"Guilt?" Flattery asked, and wondered why the suggestion made him feel angry and half fearful. He started to object, grew conscious of a rhythmic rasping. He thought at first it was a malfunctioning alarm, realized then it was Timberlake. The life-systems engineer had reclasped himself in his action couch cocoon. He was asleep -- snoring.

"Guilt," Bickel said, holding his attention on Flattery.

"How?" Prudence asked.

"In program engineering terms," Bickel said, "we must install trapping functions, inner alarm systems -- monitors that interrupt operations according to the functional needs of the entire system."

"Guilt's an artificial emotion; it has nothing to do with consciousness," Flattery objected.

"Fear and guilt are parent and child. You can't have guilt without fear."

"But you can have fear without guilt," Flattery said.

"Can you?" Bickel asked. And he thought: It's the Cain-and-Abel syndrome. Where'd the race pick that one up?

"Not so fast," Prudence said. "Are you suggesting we install a . . . that we make this . . . Ox afraid?"

"Yeah."

"Absolutely not!" Flattery said. He had his couch exerciser going, but shut it off, turned to stare at Bickel.

"Our creature already has a large, fast memory," Bickel said. "It has fixed memory -- if you discount our addressing problems, which aren't interfering with function at any rate -- and I'll bet this thing has a protected area of memory that's even ready with illusions when they're necessary for self-protection."

"But fear!" Flattery said.

"This is the other side of your coin, Raj. You want it to love us? Okay. Love's a kind of need, eh? I'm willing to give it a need for external program sources -- that's us, you understand? I'll leave the necessary gaps in its makeup that only we can fill. It'll have emotions, but that means an unlimited spectrum of emotions, Raj. The spectrum includes fear."

Guilt and fear, Prudence thought. Raj will have to face it. She looked at Bickel, seeing the filmed-over, withdrawn look in his eyes.

"Pleasure and pain," Bickel muttered. He focused on Prudence, the sleeping Timberlake, on Flattery -- each in turn. Did they see that the Ox had to be able to reproduce itself, too?

Prudence felt her pulse quickening, tore her attention away from Bickel. She put a hand to her temple, checked the pulse there, related this to her quickened breathing, to body temperature, to hungers, to stage of fatigue and awareness. The chemical experiments on her body were giving her an acute awareness of her bodily functions, and that awareness told her she needed chemical readjustment.

"Well, Raj?" Bickel said.

I must compose myself, Flattery thought, turning back onto his couch. I must appear natural and calm. He kept his eyes away from the false panel on his repeater board. Under that panel lay death and destruction. Bickel was growing exceedingly alert to the tiniest clues. Flattery marked the quiet green of the flashboard, the ticking of relays through the graph counters. Everything about the ship felt soothing and ordinary -- all systems functioning.

Yet, deep inside himself, Flattery felt knotted up, like an animal poised at the sound of the hunter.

Pleasure and pain. It could be done, of course: the gradual orientation toward a goal, then denial . . . interference . . . removal. . . frustration . . . threat of destruction.

"I'm going back to the shop," Bickel said. "The way to do this is pretty clear, isn't it?"

"Perhaps to you," Flattery said.

"There's no stopping," Prudence said, and hoped Flattery heard the implication: There's no stopping him.

"Go ahead," Flattery said. "Assemble your blocks of nerve-net simulators. But let us think long and hard before we tie your system into the full computer." He looked at Bickel. "Do you still contemplate this black box -- white box experiment?"

Bickel merely stared at him.

"You know the danger," Flattery said.

Bickel felt elation, a breakthrough in some inner factor that had resisted him. The ship -- its living organisms, its problems -- all were like marionettes and marionette toys. The way out was so clear to him -- he'd only hinted at it before -- so clear. He could see the necessary schematics stacked in his mind, like transparencies piled one on another.

Four-dimensional construction, he reminded himself. We have to construct a net in depth that contains complex world-line tracks. It has to absorb nonsynchronous transmissions. It has to abstract discrete patterns out of the impulse oversend. The important thing is structure -- not the material. The important thing is topology. That's the key to the whole damn problem!

"Prue, give me a hand," Bickel said. He glanced at the chronometer beside the Com-central board, looked at Timberlake. Let him sleep; Prue could help. She did neat electronics work -- surgical in its exactness, clean and with minimal leads and tight couplings.

"We're going to need a coupling area for each group of multiple blocks," Bickel said, looking at Prudence. "I'm going to turn that job over to you while I build up the major block systems."

As though his words had accumulated in her mind, built up a certain pressure until they spilled over into understanding, she saw what Bickel intended. He was going to feed a continuous data load into an enormously expanded Ox-cum-computer linkup. He was going to project into the computer, like a film projected on a screen -- a giant spreadout, an almost infinite psychospace.

The array of required connectives set themselves up in her mind with parallel rows of binary numbers, crosslinked, interwoven. And she saw that she could reframe the problem, overlap it with matrix functions, creating a problem-solution array like a multidimensional chessboard.

In the instant of this revelation, she realized that Bickel could not have framed his approach to this solution without using the same mathematical crowbar to lever away the heavy work.

"You used adjacency matrices," she accused.

He nodded. She had seen that he was intruding into a new mathematical conception -- a calculus of qualities by which he could trace neuron impulses and juggle them within the imbedded psychospaces of the Ox-cum-computer.

Prudence had begun to see what he saw, but the others weren't ready yet for anything more than hints. The possibilities were staggering. The implied methods would permit construction of entirely new computers reduced in size and basic complexity by a factor of at least a thousand. But more important was the understanding this gave him of his own psychospaces and their function in abstraction -- the aggregate nerve-cell excitation of his own body and the way this was reduced to recognizable values.

Thinking within this framework, Bickel saw, put him on a threshold. A certain pressure here, a certain application of energy there, and he knew he would be projected into a consciousness that he had never before experienced.

The realization inspired fear and awe and at the same time it lured him. He turned, crossed to the hatch into the shop, opened it, looked back at Flattery.

"Raj," he said. "We're not conscious."

"What? Huh?" It was Timberlake rousing out of his sleep, rubbing his eyes, staring straight out at Bickel.

"We're not awake," Bickel said.



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