...
CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 24

Over a long period of time, clones offer us an extremely valuable tool for determining genetic drift. It is clear that our cloning techniques at UMB permit us to clone a clone indefinitely. Ten thousand years from now we could possess genetic material which is contemporary with this very moment . . . now! Perhaps this will be of greater service to humankind than the understanding of consciousness.

-Morgan Hempstead, Lectures at Moonbase

ROUTINE SENSOR FIRINGS sent telltale lights flickering across the computer wall. The passage of the lights produced a weird shift in the shop's illumination. The curved bulkhead opposite the computer face reflected yellow, then green, now mauve . . . red.

The color shift passed across a chart in Timberlake's hand as he read it and compared the chart's predictions with the readings in front of him.

The overhead screen showed Prudence on Com-central about midway through her watch and Flattery dozing in his action couch.

Strange he wouldn't take off for quarters, Timberlake thought.

Bickel emerged from between the Ox's two branchings just as a wash of green splashed down on him from the wall.

"That last reading's off only .008," Timberlake said.

"Insignificant," Bickel said. "Waveforms?"

Timberlake nodded at the oscilloscope in front of him, feeling a sharp pain shoot through his neck. He felt tired and stiff. Bickel had driven them, working through three shifts. Timberlake rubbed his neck.

Bickel turned from studying the scope. "Remember I told you to remind me about all the oscillations involved in life? Rhythms, vibrations just one great big series of drumbeats."

"Yeah," Timberlake said. "You about ready for the full-scale run-through?"

Bickel stared at the flickering lights reluctant to move now that the moment of test had come. He knew the source of his reluctance -- the secret thing he had done, and fear of its consequences.

One more test . . . and then . . . what?

Black box -- white box.

"You think it's not going to work?" Timberlake asked. He felt impatient with Bickel but sensed this couldn't be pushed.

"The human nervous system -- including the region of the brain we assume influences consciousness -- has come through one hell of a lot of tests," Bickel said.

"And this thing . . ." Timberlake nodded toward the Ox, "is a logically simple analogue of the human brain."

"Logical simplicity has damn little bearing on our problem. We're engineering something, all right, but not by the old bridge-building rules."

He's stalling, Timberlake thought. Why? "Then what're we doing?"

"It doesn't take much, just a word sometimes to upset the logical applecart," Bickel said. "The brain's had to meet a lot of requirements that had nothing whatsoever to do with design simplicity. For one thing, it had to survive while it developed. Its size and shape had a bearing on that. It had to adapt existing structure to new functions."

Bickel met Timberlake's eyes. "The human brain's an obvious hybrid mating of function and structure. There are strengths in that, but weaknesses, too."

"So?" Timberlake said, and shrugged. "What's upsetting the applecart now?"

"Raj's talking about psychospace and psychorelationships. That damn causal track of neuron impulses spreading out to form new kinds of space. It's quite possible for our normal universe to be twisted through an infinite number of psychospaces."

"Yeah?" Timberlake stared at him, wondering at the fear in Bickel's voice.

Bickel went on: "There can be an infinite number of types of consciousness. Every time I come near turning this thing loose, I start wondering what space it'll inhabit."

"Raj and his damn horror stories," Timberlake said.

Bickel continued to stare at the Ox structure, wondering if he had done the right thing to act secretly.

Was this damn electronic maze going to create its own guilt?

To reach a level where it could accept a black-box imprint the Ox-cum-computer had to surmount barriers, Bickel knew. It had to flex its mental muscles. And guilt was a barrier.

By blank-space programming, supplying data with obvious holes in it, he had inserted an information series on the subject of death. The on-line operative command was for the computer to fill in the gaps. Now, by parallel insertion of the address data for the life-maintenance program on a cow embryo in the farm-stock hyb tanks, Bickel had provided the computer with a simple way to fill the gaps in its information.

It could kill the embryo.

I had to act secretly, Bickel told himself. I couldn't ring in Timberlake -- now with his inhibitions. And any of the others might've told Tim.

"You think we're missing some fault in the system?" Timberlake asked. "What's bugging you? The fact that the random search stopped of its own accord?"

"No." Bickel shook his head. "That search pattern ran into an irregularity, a threshold it couldn't cross."

"Then what's holding you back, for Christ's sake?"

Bickel swallowed. He found it required increasing effort to hold his attention on an unbroken thread of reasoning where it concerned bringing the Ox to consciousness. There was a sensation of swimming against a stiff current.

With what kind of a mirror can consciousness look at itself? he wondered. How can the Ox say: "This is myself?" What will it see?

"Human nervous systems have the same kinds of irregularities and imperfections," Timberlake said. "Their properties vary statistically."

Bickel nodded agreement. Timberlake was right. That was the reason they had introduced random error into the Ox -- statistical imperfection.

"You worrying about pulse regulation?" Timberlake asked.

Bickel shook his head. "No." He put his palm against a plastic-encased neuron block protruding from the Ox. "We've got a homeostat whose main function is dealing with errors -- with negative reality. Consciousness is always looking at the back side of whatever confronts us, always staring back at us."

"You've left the gaps in it so it'll need us," Timberlake said. "You're fussed about threshold regulation."

Bickel looked at Timberlake, thinking: Threshold? Yes, that was part of it. The brain cells and peripheral neurons in a human tied together so that their differences averaged out. You got the effect of smooth gradation. The effect. Illusion.

"We're missing something," Bickel muttered.

Timberlake wondered at the fear in Bickel's voice, the way the man's head turned from side to side like a caged animal.

"If this thing takes off on its own, we have no control over it," Bickel said. "Raj is right."

"Raj's Golem stories!" Timberlake sneered.

"No," Bickel was fearfully serious. "This thing has new kinds of memories. They have only the vaguest relationship to human memories. But memories Tim -- the nerve gets stacked in psychospaces -- they're the patterns that create behavior. What's this thing going to do when we turn it on . . . if we don't give it experiences of the kind the human race has survived?"

"You don't know what the racial traumas are and that's where you're hung up."

The voice was Flattery's, and they looked up to the overhead screen to see him sitting still half-cocooned in his action couch and rubbing sleep from his eyes. Beyond him, Prudence maintained her vigil at the big board as though that were the only thing concerning her.

Bickel suppressed a feeling of irritation with Flattery. "You're the psychiatrist. Isn't knowledge of trauma supposed to be one of your tools?"

"You're asking about racial trauma," Flattery said. "We can only guess at racial trauma."

Flattery stared out of the screen at Bickel, thinking:

John's panicky. Why? Because the Ox suddenly started acting on its own?

"We have to bring this thing into being," Bickel said, looking at the Ox. "But we can't be sure what it is. This is the ultimate stranger. It can't be like one of us. And if it's different . . . yet alive and aware of its aliveness . . ."

"So you start casting around in your mind for ways to make it more like us," Flattery said.

Bickel nodded.

"And you think we're the products of our racial and personal trauma?" Flattery asked. "You don't think consciousness is the apparent effect of a receptor?"

"Dammit, Raj!" Bickel snapped. "We're within a short leap of solving this thing! Can't you feel that?"

"But you wonder," Flattery said, "are we making a creature that'll be invulnerable . . . at least invulnerable to us?"

Bickel swallowed.

"You think," Flattery went steadily on, "this beast we're creating has no sexual function; it can't possibly be like us. It has no flesh; it can't possibly know what flesh fears and loves. So now you're asking: How do we simulate flesh and sex and the racial sufferings through which humans have blundered? The answer's obvious: We can't do this. We don't know all our own instincts. We can't sort the shadows and reflections out of our history."

"We can sort out some of them," Bickel insisted. "We have an instinct to . . . win . . . to survive for . . ." He wet his lips with his tongue, looked around at the computer wall.

"Perhaps that's only hubris," Flattery said. "Maybe this is just monkey curiosity and we won't be satisfied until we've been creators the way God's a creator. But then it may be too late to turn back."

As though he hadn't heard, Bickel said. "And there's the killer instinct. That one goes right down into the slime where it was kill or be killed. You can see the other side of it all the time in our instinct to play it safe . . . to 'be practical'."

He has done something secret, Flattery thought. What has Bickel done? He has done something he's afraid of.

"And guilt feelings are grafted right onto that killer instinct," Bickel said. "That's the buffer . . . the way we keep human behavior within limits. If we implant . . ."

"Guilt involves sin," Flattery said. "Where do you find in either religion or psychiatry a need for sin?"

"Instinct's just a word," Bickel said. "And we're a long way from the word's source. What is it? We can raise fifty generations of chickens from embryo to chick in test tubes. They never see a shell. But the fifty-first generation, raised normally under a hen, still knows to peck its way out."

"Genetic imprint," Flattery said.

"Imprint." Bickel nodded. "Something stamped on us. Stamped hard. Oh, we know. We know these instincts without ever bringing them to consciousness. They're what lower our awareness, make us angry, violent, passionate . . ." Again, he nodded.

What has he done? Flattery asked himself. He's panicky because of it. I have to find out!

"The Cain-and-Abel syndrome," Bickel said. "Murder and guilt. It's back there someplace . . . stamped inside us. The cells remember."

"You haven't the vaguest idea what you're saying," Flattery accused. "You're separating positive and negative pairs, confusing moral judgments with reasoning, reversing the normal course of --"

"Reversing!" Bickel pounded. "That's what I was trying to think of -- reversing. The ability to turn pleasure into pain or pain into pleasure . . . that's a part of consciousness we haven't --"

"That's sickness," Flattery said.

"The power to be sane is also the power to go mad," Bickel said. "Your own words!"

Flattery stared out of the screen at him, caught up short by this turn of the argument . . . and a sudden suspicion about what Bickel could have done.

"You know," Timberlake said, speaking in a low, reasonable tone, "if an instinct is something to which the whole system must refer in a moment of stress, that's something like a computer's trapping function mated to a supervisory program."

"We're beyond the point of engineering and have been for some time," Flattery said.

"Right back where we started from," Bickel agreed. "We can duplicate synapses with unijunction transistors; juggle conduction rate and absolute refractory periods by choice of pseudoneuron fibers, fit our neural networks with multiplying and inhibitory endbulbs at will . . . but, in the end, we always come up against that inescapable question . . ."

"How do you control what must remain beyond control? I've already told you. Love."

"You don't control it," Bickel declared. "You merely aim it . . . and the aiming device has to be instincts. As you say, Raj, it must love us, be loyal to us. But does that mean it will worship us? Are we to be its gods? And if it's to be loyal, does that mean it has to have a conscience? Can there be loyalty without a conscience? And can it have a conscience without experiencing guilt?"

"Guilt's a prison!" Flattery protested. "You can't imprison a free --"

"Who says it has to be free?" Bickel demanded. "You're arguing against yourself! That's the whole damned idea: How do we control it? When you come right down to it: Am I free? Are you?"

Flattery glared at him.

"We're instinct-ridden, conscience-ridden bits of protoplasm," Bickel said:

"What instincts?" Flattery asked.

"You sound like a damn broken record!" Bickel snapped. "What instincts? You can't trace the instincts! Well, for one thing, we've an instinct to kill -- to kill and eat. We don't really give one particle of a damn where we get our energy -- not down there in the psychic basement we don't."

"If it were only that simple," Flattery said.

"When you get below stairs it is," Bickel said. "I don't need a doctorate in psychiatry to tell me what I'd do if the veneer were stripped off."

"You'd revert to the savage, eh? To the animal!"

"To find out what's engineered into the system, you're damn right I would ! What the hell have you head doctors been studying all these years with your dreams and your complexes and your Christ? You've trapped yourselves into an endless formal dance with fixed postures and . . . Christ! You remind me of a pack of fops doing the minuet!"

"We've employed reverence and caution to approach God in Man," Flattery said. "You don't gouge into the human psyche with an egg beater and stir up all the --"

"The hell you don't!"

They glared at each other, Bickel desperate with indecision, and Flattery's suspicions verging on certainty.

He has given the Ox the means to kill, Flattery thought. His argument and his anger betray it. But kill what? Not one of us, certainly. A colonist in the hyb tanks? No. One of the stock animals! He'd dip his toe into violence first, see if the Ox could really do it.

But he cannot have already made the black box -- white box transfer.

Prudence, dividing her attention between the control console and the clash of wills, felt herself shift further and further into a state of heightened awareness. She sensed Com-central's minute temperature variations, heard the constant metallic creakings of deck and bulkheads around her, saw Flattery's growing suspicions and Bickel's desperate defensiveness, knew her own heartbeats and tiny variations in her body chemistry.

It was the chemistry that fascinated her: the thought that all through this subtle play of organic and inorganic matter which she called "myself," messages of which she was only dimly aware (if at all) were being transmitted and acted upon.

The computer with its enormous library of data culled from millions of minds had offered her a way to explore the issue Bickel had raised, and she could not resist this.

Where and how are the instincts carried?

While the argument between Flattery and Bickel raged, she had translated the question onto an edge-coded tape, shifted it into the computer section of her board, tripped the action switch.

This went beyond chemical-base sequence, she knew, and into the area where knowledge of protein structure itself was only theoretical code. But if the computer gave her an answer that could be translated into a physical function, she knew she could explore the answer through experiments on her own body.

"Bickel, what've you done?" Flattery demanded.

Prudence looked up from her console, saw Flattery, his shoulders tensed as though about to leap, staring into the screen. The screen revealed Bickel and Timberlake, their backs turned, staring at the computer wall and the blocks-and-angles contortion that was the Ox.

The hum of the computer could be felt throughout the shop and Com-central. The play of sensor and telltale lights across the big board and the shop's panels had reached a glittering tempo. Drain gauges showed energy consumption almost at the limits the system could tolerate.



...