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CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 23

I feel the duties of a creator toward this Artificial Consciousness. It seems to me that my primary goal must be to render this creature happy, to provide it whatever joy I can. Else this entire project seems pointless. There already are enough unhappy creatures in this universe.

-Raja Lon Flattery, Private Communion with the Ox

IT TOOK SEVERAL minutes for the incoming message to search its way through the AAT and the Ox-accretions which Bickel had added to the system. They were tense minutes in Com-central. Flattery's gaze swept back and forth across the telltales of his board. There were big unknowns about the system now and any input might elicit strange behavior from dangerous quarters.

Behavior! Flattery thought, catching the word in his own mind.

There were anthropomorphic assumptions in that word.

Why should it play by our rules?

In the shop, Bickel felt his own waiting tensions. Was the incoming message going to be more garbage?

Prudence, standing near him, sensed the unwashed musks of his body, all the evidences of his concentration on their mutual problem.

Why not? He wants to live as much as I do.

Bickel swept his gaze across the repeater telltales in the shop, watched the needles kick over and come to rest in the normal range. There came the characteristic sharp AAT hum, felt now in the shop because the Ox was part of the circuitry. The sound raised a tingling sensation along Bickel's sides and arms.

The gauges registered the usual AAT pause. The multiple bursts of the message were being sorted, compared, translated, and fed into the output net.

Bickel glanced at the screen, saw that Flattery had the system on audio.

Morgan Hempstead's voice began rolling from the vocoders:

"This is Project calling UMB ship Earthling. This is Project calling. We are unable to give an exact determination of the force that damaged the ship. We suggest an error in transmission or insufficient data. The possibility of an encounter with a neutrino field of theoretical type A-G is suggested by one analysis. Why have you failed to acknowledge our directive on return procedure?"

Bickel watched his gauges. The message was coming in with remarkable clarity, no garbling at all apparent now that it was routed through the Ox circuits.

There came the distinct sound of Hempstead clearing his throat.

It gave Prudence a peculiar feeling to hear this ordinary sound -- a man clearing his throat. The inconsequential thing had been transmitted millions of miles to no effect other than to inform them Hempstead had been troubled by a bit of phlegm.

Again, Hempstead's voice rolled from the vocoders: "UMB is being subjected to heavy, repeat heavy political pressures as regards the abort order. You will acknowledge this transmission immediately. The ship is to be returned to orbit around UMB while disposition is made of yourselves and cargo."

"That's an awful word -- disposition," Prudence said. She glanced at Bickel. He seemed to be taking it calmly.

Flattery could feel the heavy beating of his heart. He wondered if the next few words would bring that deadly "kill ship" code signal from Hempstead.

Bickel stared at the vocoder with a puzzled frown. How clear Hempstead's voice sounded -- even to the throat-clearing which the AAT should have filtered from the message. He shifted his attention to the Ox's surrealistic growth on the computer wall.

Again, Hempstead's voice intruded: "We expect from this transmission a more complete analysis of your damage. The nature and extent of the damage of paramount importance. Acknowledge at once. Project over and out."

Bickel kept his voice low, casual. "Prue, how'd old Big Daddy sound to you?"

Worried," Prudence said. And she wondered why Bickel, with his inhibitions against return, could take this so calmly.

"If you wanted to convey the emotions in someone's message how would you do it, Prue?" Bickel asked.

She looked at him, puzzled. "I'd label the emotion or imitate the tone of the original. Why?"

"The AAT isn't supposed to be able to do that," Bickel said. He looked up, meeting Flattery's eyes in the screen. "Don't acknowledge that transmission, Raj."

"The AAT's working better than ever?" Prudence asked.

"No," Bickel said. "It's working in a way it shouldn't be able to. The laser-burst message is stripped to bare essentials. The original voice modulations are there, theoretically, and often strong enough to recognize certain mannerisms, but subtleties are supposed to be beyond it. That last message was high fidelity."

"The Ox circuits make the system more sensitive," she said.

"Maybe," Bickel said.

"Was there nerve-net activity accompanying that?" Flattery asked.

"A fish has nerve-net activity," Bickel said. "Nerve-net activity doesn't mean the thing's conscious."

"But sensitized the way consciousness is," Flattery said.

Bickel nodded.

"Selective raising and lowering of thresholds," Flattery said. "Threshold control."

Again Bickel nodded.

"What's this?" Prudence asked.

"This thing" -- Bickel pointed to the Ox -- "has just demonstrated threshold control . . . the way we do when we recognize something." He looked at her. "When you lower your reception threshold you spread the spatio-temporal message and project it across an internal 'recognition aura' for mental comparison. The message is a spatio-temporal configuration which you superimpose on a recognition region. That recognition region can discriminate quite broadly between 'just right,' which is maximum similarity, and a kind of 'blurring off' you could call 'somewhat alike.' Threshold control does the tuning for this kind of comparison."

With precisely controlled motions, Bickel returned to the circuitry he had been working on when the UMB message interrupted him. He picked up a sheaf of fibers, noting the neuron tag on them and slid the sheaf into a micro-manipulator where he finished the connection to a multijack.

In Com-central, Flattery stretched out his left hand, gripped the stanchion beside his action couch until his knuckles went white.

They were disobeying Hempstead in an outright, flagrant way. The chaplain-psychiatrist had precise instructions about such a contingency. Obey! If others try to stop you, blow the ship. But he could feel how Bickel was closing in on the solution to the Project's overriding problem. They were near success. That certainly allowed a bit of latitude.

Who can tell me what to do, O my soul? Who can tell me where my soul might be?

The words of the 139th Psalm slithered through his mind: "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

Do we betray God by making something fearful and wonderful? he wondered.

"Our Father which art in Heaven," he whispered.

But I am in the heavens, he thought. And the heavens expose me still to spiritual risk!

The sound of Bickel and Prudence working in the shop was almost a carrier wave for his thoughts.

Faith and knowledge, he thought. And he sensed the eternal clash that now had taken his body as its arena -- knowledge thrusting at the boundaries of faith. And he felt the constructive emotions his faith was engineered to contain.

I could end this nonsense, he thought. But we're all in the same bind and violence betrays us.

"Religion and psychiatry are but two branches of the healing art." He remembered the words clearly. The lecturer in "Uses of Faith," the second-year course preparing him for this role. "Religion and psychiatry share the same stem."

Heal thyself, he thought. Tears started from his eyes. Where were the faith, the hope and the laughter -- the love and creativeness he had been enjoined toemploy?

Flattery looked up through his tears, saw in the screen both Bickel and Prudence ignoring him, so intent were they on the project.

See how their hands touch; Flattery thought.

He felt guilt at the sight and remembered Brooks' admonition: "Keep clear of concealment; keep clear of the need of concealment."

"What an awful hour when we first meet the necessity of hiding something," he whispered. "Please God, have I forgotten how to pray?"

Flattery ignored the vital console in front of him, closed his eyes, and gripped the stanchion fiercely. "The Lord is my shepherd," he whispered. "I shall not want."

But the words had lost their power over him.

There are no still waters here . . . or green pastures, he thought.

There never had been these things for him -- or for any of them out of the axlotl tanks and the UMB's sterile creches. There had only been the valley of the shadow of death.

"DO NOT BROACH THIS HATCH WITHOUT READING AIR PRESSURE IN THE NEXT PASSAGE."

Every morning on his way to classes -- eleven years -- he had passed through the hatch with that warning.

"NO TRAVEL BEYOND THIS POINT WITHOUT FULL SPACESUIT."

That omnipresent sign had set the boundaries on their untrammeled activity. It still did.

The suit was like another social inhibition setting its own limits of behavior. It restricted your contact with other humans, reduced you to code tappings and depersonalized vuphones where every person became like a dancing doll on an oscilloscope screen.The omnipresent enemy was the outside -- that total absence of the things to support life that emptiness called space. It was evil and they feared it -- constantly. A rod and staff might comfort in the presence of space, but what you dreamed about was washed air and a womblike enclosed cell where you could divest yourself of the damnable suit. This was the true source of comfort no matter if it came from the Devil himself.

The only table you could count on in the presence of this enemy was a squeeze bottle slid from its rack. Oil on the head could only fog a faceplate. You had to crop your hair short and keep down the natural oils with detergent.

Goodness and mercy? That was anything which preserved the hope that you could one day walk unsuited beneath an open sky.

I've lost my faith, Flattery thought. God, why have You taken my faith from me?

"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God," he whispered.

You were a fool, Matthew, he thought. A harlot can't regain her virginity.

"The whole universe is a matter of chemistry and mechanics, of matter and energy," he whispered.

But only God was supposed to have complete control of manipulating the matter and energy.

We aren't gods, Flattery thought. We're blaspheming by trying to make a machine that thinks of itself by itself. That is why I was set to watch over this mission. We blaspheme by trying to put a soul into a machine. I should go down there now and smash the whole thing!

"Raj!"

It was Bickel's voice booming from the intercom.

Flattery looked up at the screen, his mouth suddenly dry.

"I'm getting independent action on the photosensory loops of the computer's record-and-store circuits," Bickel said. "Prue, check the current drain."

"Normal," she said. "It's no short circuit."

"It . . . isn't conscious," Flattery said, his voice wooden.

"Agreed," Bickel said. "But what the hell is it? The computer's programming itself in every . . ." There came a charged moment of silence then: "Damn!"

"What happened?" Prue demanded.

"It stopped," Bickel said.

"What . . . set it off?" Flattery asked.

"I tied an inhibitor block into one arm of a single nerve-net simulator and sent a test pattern through it. The test evidently set up a resonant pattern that searched right through the Ox and into the computer net via the monitor connections. That's when I started getting the self-programming reaction."

Prudence sighted along her finger, moving it to trace a thick color-coded connection that looped down from the Ox. "The monitor linkage goes only one way into record-and-store. It's buffered right there."

Bickel pulled the connection she indicated.

"What're you doing?" she asked.

"Disconnecting. I'm going to get the pattern of the experiment out of the memory banks and analyze it before proceeding."

Silence.

Flattery stared up at the screen with a deep sense of repugnance which he knew was grounded in his religious training.

It had been drummed into him: "You are not precisely someone. You are a clone."

There had always been too much emphasis on that statement for him to accept it completely. He understood the reasons for this conditioning, though, and accepted them.

But what about this thing that Bickel's making?

UMB had a complete bank of clones sufficient to recreate the Earthling's crew precisely as it had been at the moment of launching. Minor variables might intrude and the Organic Mental Cores could be different. He had never pinned that one down but he knew it was cheaper to take OMCs from damaged humans than to clone them and prepare them for the ship.

In a strange way the OMCs might be more genetically human than the crew.

Flattery knew he was not supposed to feel guilt at the thought of killing the ship -- himself included. The message had been clear: "We can recreate all of you here on the Moon. You are infinite. You cannot completely die because your cells will live on and on."

My exact cells? he wondered. My exact consciousness?

But wasn't that the central problem of this whole project?

What is consciousness?

Again, he looked at the screen. If I kill the ship/computer/brain now . . . will I be killing someone?



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