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CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 22

Beyond the senses there are objects; beyond objects there is mind; beyond the mind there is intellect; beyond the intellect there is the Great Self.

-Katha-upanishad, Excerpt for instruction of Chaplain/Psychiatrists

"We're not awake."

During Flattery's watch, the words haunted him.

Timberlake had muttered something about, "Damn joker!" and gone off to finish his sleep in quarters.

But Flattery, dividing his attention between the console and the overhead screen that showed the shop with Prudence and Bickel at work there, felt the ship assume a curious identity in his mind.

He felt as though he and the others were merely cells of a larger organism -- that the telltales, the dials and gauges and sensors, the omnipresent visual intercom -- all these were senses and nerves and organs of something apart from himself.

"We are not awake."

We keep skirting that thought, Flattery reflected.

Bickel's voice talking to Prudence in the shop -- "Here's the main trunk to handle negative feedback. Follow the color code and tie it in across there." "Here's the damper circuit; we have to watch we don't introduce reverberating cycles into the random neural paths."

And Prudence, talking half to herself: "The human skull encloses about fifteen thousand million neurons. I've extrapolated from our building blocks and the computer -- we're going to wind up with more than twice that number in this . . . beast."

Their voices were like echoes in Flattery's mind.

Bickel: "Think of a threshold to be overcome. Several kinds of pressure will overcome that threshold. They're the pressures involved in entropy -- or the pressures of proliferating variability: call that one life. Entropy on one side, life on the other. Each drives past the threshold at a certain pressure level. When one gets through, that turns on the Consciousness Factor."

Prudence: "Which is it, homeostat or filter?"

Bickel: "Both."

Flattery thought then of the total ship, the great machine whose continued life required a certain optimum organization -- an ordering process. That involved entropy, certainly, because the system of a total ship tended to settle into a uniform distribution of its energies.

As far as the ship is concerned, order is more natural than chaos, Flattery thought. But we're playing the ship as though all its parts were an orchestra and Bickel the director. Bickel alone has the score to achieve the music we want.

Consciousness.

Bickel: "I tell you, Prue, consciousness has to be something that flows against the current of time. Time in which it's embedded."

Prudence: "I don't know. When a cell block fires, that sets up an impulse. The impulse divides and forms a multi-branched structure with a single stem -- in the nerve-nets, the embedding space. The stem contains that original firing, of course, and you have transmission shooting out through four-dimensional space -- it includes time."

Bickel: "And consciousness is like a boat breasting that flow."

Prudence: "Against the flow? You have to include time in the diagram, certainly, but the firing and branching are like a complex solid pushed into time, like the veins in a four-dimensional leaf."

Bickel: "Think of the ship's AAT system. What's that? The thing takes hundreds of duplicates on a single message -- all the duplicates having been transmitted in a single, compressed burst . . . a single firing -- and it slows them down, compares them, breaks off the error stems and passes along to you the translated corrected message."

Prudence: "But consciousness doesn't enter the picture until the message reaches its human receiver."

Bickel: "Negative feedback, Prue. Input adjusted to the output. If the system malfunctions, the human operator repairs it, like repairing a dam in a stream so you catch a significant amount of the flow."

Prudence (looking up from a length of neuron fiber she was feeding into a micro-manipulator): "Consciousness -- a kind of negative feedback?"

Bickel: "You ever think, Prue, that negative feedback is the most terrifying perfectionist in the universe? It won't permit failure. It's designed to keep the system running between certain limits no matter what the disturbance."

Prudence: "But . . . these Ox circuits . . . you've deliberately introduced errors that aren't --"

Bickel: "Why not? All our conventional ideas about feedback imply a certain uniformity of environment. But we live in a nonuniform universe. That place out there isn't completely predictable. We've got to keep it off balance out there . . . by changing the rules ourselves at random."

Order opposed to chaos, Flattery thought glancing at the overhead screen. Lord! How that block-upon-block extrusion was spreading out from the computer wall! It had proliferated into two major growths with a jungle of vinelike pseudoneuron sheafs between them and around them and over them.

Bickel lay on his back working beneath the structure. Loops of the main bus connections hung down just above his knees.

We are not awake, Flattery thought.

Oh, God! How easy it'd be to give up right now! He was here in the driver's seat, wasn't he? One of the triggers was at hand. Who'd ever know? The ship would die . . . the problem end. Let the bastards at UMB try again . . . with somebody else.

But that was the real problem: they'd try again, all right, but not with somebody else.

The same miserable charade -- over and over and over!

Look at Prue down there, he thought. She's stopped her anti-S injections. She's experimenting with her body chemistry. She'll be posturing and twisting in front of Bickel pretty soon. And the only way he sees her is as an expert with the micro-manipulator. She does good work!

We are not awake.

Consciousness itself created variety, developed offshoot probabilities. And variety thrived on variety. The very act of playing their own special music produced the unpredictable -- produced errors.

Where does communication break down?

Bickel (grunting as he squirmed out from beneath the Ox): "The generalized body and the specialized brain, Prue -- put 'em together and what've you got? Illusion. That's the buffer, illusion. It's the protective layer that lets virtually incompatible systems get in bed together. Consciousness is a producer of illusions."

Prudence: "Where'd you store the R4DBd neuron reel?"

Bickel: "Second rack, left end of the bench. Now, you take the illusion of central position."

Prudence: "That's the natural result of a baby's helpless dependence on its environment. A baby is the center of the universe. We never lose that memory."

Bickel: "Well, individual sense impressions are something like pebbles dropped in a four-dimensional pond. Consciousness locks onto the waves created by those pebbles, and gives them a spatial and temporal integration so they can be interpreted. Consciousness has to make sense out of things. But its major tool is illusion."

Spatio-temporal integration, Flattery thought.

The identity that was the ship -- their Tin Egg -- it lacked a certain integrating ability at the moment. Instead of an efficient self-regulating force, the ship was making do with the inadequate feedback system represented by four humans loosely connected to its "nervous system."

That was one way of looking at it.

But there was a point in the ship's future where damage passed beyond their ability to recover. The humans were failing.

Flattery felt then a deep bitterness toward the society that had sent this frail cargo into nowhere. He knew the reasons but reasons had never prevented bitterness.

"Think of society as a human construction, a very sophisticated defense mechanism," Hempstead and his cohorts had said. "Society's restrictions get bred into the cells themselves by a process of selection. And these restrictions become part of the self-regulating feedback in society's governing systems. There's a serious question whether humans actually can break out of their self-regulated pattern. It takes audacious methods indeed to explore beyond that pattern.

The law was stated, Flattery knew, thusly: "Individual human experience is not the overriding control factor in human behavior. The cellular social pattern dominates."

Flattery deliberately rapped his knuckles against the edge of his action couch to shock himself out of this reverie. He focused on the console, saw he had the usual temperature adjustments to make. The automatics could never quite hold the line.

Bickel: "Watch those lengths in the time-delay circuits. You'll confuse the Ox's psychological present."

Prudence: "Its what?"

Bickel: "Its psychological present -- its 'specious present' -- what you experience in any given instant: that short interval you call now. Prof. Ferrel -- remember old Prof. Ferrel-barrel?"

Prudence: "Who could forget Hempstead's son-in-law?"

Bickel: "Yeah, but he wasn't stupid. We were on the satellite tracker once -- him on his side of the sterile wall and me on ours. And he said: 'Look at that thing move!' It was a shuttle ship coming in from earth. And he said: 'You know for a fact it's changing position fast as hell. But you seem to see all those position changes right now -- in the present. No sharp edges; just a flow. That's the "specious present," boy. Don't you ever forget it.' And I never did."

Prudence: "Will the . . . Ox really experience time?"

Bickel: "It has to. Our time-delay circuits have to give it a way of internal measurement. It has to feel its own time. Otherwise, it'll be a big package ofconfusion."

Prudence: "The . . . now."

Bickel: "You think about it and you realize we don't interpret the immediate experience of time. We take big gulps of time. But real time, now, that has to be something gradual and progressive, a smooth change against a background of some measurement constant."

Prudence: "So we line up the Ox's physical time and set it going like some mechanical toy -- in one direction."

Bickel: "The more remote parts of its 'specious present' have to fade the way they do with us. The past has to be less intense than what's just appearing on its horizon. It needs a constant 'serial fadeout'; otherwise, it won't be able to distinguish points near in time from points remote in time."

Flattery looked up into the screen, saw Bickel hook an oscilloscope to the Ox, run a pulse check.

Entropy, Flattery thought. One direction in time.

He projected a picture in his mind: jets of water -- one labeled entropy and the other that thrusting probabilism they called Life. Balanced between the two like a ball on a fountain danced consciousness.

It's so simple, Flattery thought. But how do you reproduce it . . . unless you're God?

Bickel: "Hold on there! Don't hook in that layer without running your stepdown test."

Prudence: "You and your damn caution!"

Bickel: "Life is a very cautious proposition. An error in those stepdown circuits could screw us up royally. Remember this, Ox has to take complicated inputs and filter them down through simpler and simpler integrating systems until it finally displays the results as symbols on which to act. Think of your own sense of vision. How many receptor neurons in your retina?"

Prudence: "About a hundred and twenty million?"

Bickel: "But when the system gets back to the ganglion layer, how many cells there?"

Prudence: "Only about one and a quarter million."

Bickel: "Stepped down, see? The system takes hordes of sense impressions and combines them into fewer and fewer discrete signals. In the end, we get a sense datum called an image. But we interpret that image out of an enormous file of topological comparisons, all of them out of previously translated experience."

Prudence: "And you think our computer has enough . . . experiences for that kind of comparison?"

Bickel: "It will have when we're through with it."

And Flattery thought: Black box -- white box.

Prudence: "Aren't you likely to overload the computer, bog it down?"

Bickel: "For Chrissakes, woman! You personally receive all kinds of information constantly. Doesn't your own system sort through all that information, queue it up, program it, and evaluate the data?"

Prudence: "But the Tin Egg's very existence depends on the computer. If we blunder with . . ."

Bickel: "There's no other way. You should've realized that the instant you saw this whole ship was a set piece."

Prudence (angrily): "What do you mean? Why?"

Bickel: "Because the computer's the only place where that amount of information can be stored. You see, woman, we don't have time to train a completely uneducated infant."

Before she could answer, the transmission horn blared its warning. The AAT stood on manual bypass to keep its circuits from interfering with the work in the shop. The horn's trigger fired both Bickel and Flattery into action. Bickel threw the action switch in the shop. Flattery slapped the AAT master control switch on his console, realizing with a sense of detachment that the UMB message would pour through the Ox circuits before being displayed for them.



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