Chapter 25

Chapter 25

There must be a threshold of consciousness such that when you pass it you acquire godlike attributes.

Raja Lon Flattery, The Book of Ship

As THOUGH THE computer display were a hypnotic trigger, all four of them waited it out with minimal reaction. Both Bickel and Flattery shared the same reason for inaction -- fear that anything they did might be enough to destroy the entire system. Timberlake sat in sweating fear that his charges in hybernation were threatened by this computer display. Only Prudence was frozen by guilt.

She found herself breathing in shallow gasps, acutely aware of every mechanical sound from the flashing display -- every click and hum and buzz, every hissing tape -- as though she had a direct sensory connection to the system.

Abruptly, she put the back of her left hand over her mouth, horrified realization flooding her: The whole computer's routed through the Ox now!

"What've you done?" Flattery demanded.

"Nothing!" Bickel said without turning.

Timberlake said, "Shouldn't we . . ."

"Leave it alone!" Bickel snapped.

In a low voice, Prudence said, "I did it. I fed a question into the computer."

"What question?" Bickel demanded. He pointed to a large meter above him. "Look at that current drain! I've never seen anything like it."

"I traced out sixty-eight sequential steps of fourth-order biochemical configuration. I programmed it as a comparator of optical isomers for a first step in trying to detect where and how our instincts are imprinted on us."

"It's gone into the monitor banks," Bickel said, nodding at a new play of lights on the wall. "We're getting multitrack reinforcement . . ."

"Like a man concentrating on a tough problem," Timberlake said.

Bickel nodded.

The output beside Prudence began hissing as tape sped from it into the strip viewer.

Bickel whirled. "What're you getting?"

She studied the viewer, forcing calmness. "A pyramided answer. I only asked for the first four probables. It's already into the tenth step! It's the nucleic acids, all right . . . down there with the genetic information. But it's tracing out all the dead ends . . . the molecular weights and --"

"It's talking it over with you," Bickel said. "It's asking your opinion. Cut in on it and eliminate the obvious dead ends as you see them."

Prudence scanned back along the strip viewer, checked off useless sequences. Hydrogen catalysis . . . obviously not. Too much opportunity for contamination. She cut into the output tape, began deleting and feeding the tape back into the computer.

Output went suddenly silent, but the play of lights against the computer wall raised to a new frenzy. Power drain showed a new surge with a pulse in it.

"Are you feeding a resonant cycle into the system?" Prudence asked. She was surprised at how much effort it took to hold her voice level.

"That pulse is identical to the timing of the Ox's response loops," Bickel said.

As he spoke, the output beside Prudence renewed its chattering. Tape surged into the strip viewer.

Prudence stared at it silently.

"Well, what is it?" Bickel demanded.

The output tape rolled to a stop. In the abrupt hush, Prudence said: "It's linked to acid phosphatase . . . amino acid catalysis in the DNA coils." And she made the functional comparison, relating this to her tests on her own body. Adrenochrome -- if she filled out the OH to C511 (n) . . . would that take it through the blood-brain barrier at a less-than-fatal dosage?

"Is it . . . conscious?" Flattery whispered.

Bickel looked up at the computer wall where lights were winking out, leaving only that somnolent play of telltales -- green . . . mauve . . . gold . . .

"No," Bickel said. "We've merely produced a computer that can program itself, concentrate all its bits of information on a problem . . . hunt for data even if that data comes from outside its banks. It knew when to ask a question of one of us."

"And that isn't conscious?" Timberlake demanded.

"Not the way we are," Bickel said. "You have to ask it a question before it . . . comes to life."

"Acid phosphatase," Prudence mused. "What do we know about acid phosphatase?" She knew she was asking questions about the DNA language of life, questions pertinent to their consciousness problem. And she longed to confide in the others, discuss her experiments openly . . . but more than worry about the inhibitions of her companions held her to silence. In some way, she had gone too far down a road that she had to continue on . . . alone.

"Acid phosphatase is widely distributed in the body," Flattery said. He turned, looked at Prudence as though seeing her for the first time. She would understand, of course -- almost at once. He looked up to the screen at Timberlake and Bickel. They might have to have it explained to them. He returned his attention to Prudence. How thin and tired she looked.

Prudence nodded to herself, eyes glazed in thought. "Body chemistry, yes," she said. "Male prostates rich in acid phosphatase. Males store more of it than females."

And she thought: Testosterone! The male hormone's level in the body was directly related to position in a hierarchy. Bickel would have the crew's highest T-level.

Flattery spoke cautiously: "Body tissue requires a minimum level before a person can be awakened."

She jerked upright, met his gaze. "An enzyme involved in the physiology of sex and awakening." She turned away, thinking: Sex and awakening.

"Is that what anti-S suppresses?" Bickel asked.

"Not directly," Timberlake answered. "A-S works primarily on serum phenolsulfatase discrimination. It inhibits transfer and action."

Timberlake, the life-systems specialist, the biophysicist, would see it, too, Flattery thought.

Flattery looked into the screen, seeing Bickel standing there so silent and thoughtful, feeling a sudden pity for the man. Such a simple fact: Awakening and sex are tied together.

Prudence kept her face turned toward the big control board, studied it without really seeing it. The ship could have gone into wild gyrations at the moment and she would have been seconds responding. As she had looked at Flattery, she had seen what he was thinking as though there were words written on his forehead.

Consciousness linked to reproduction.

There was no doubt of it: both came out of the same genetic well. History had washed them in the same waters, transferring the needs of one to the needs of the other.

Slowly, Bickel turned, looked through the screen at the big laser-pulsed autolog in Com-central recording the passage of Earth-time. It recorded eighteen weeks, twenty-one hours; and twenty-nine seconds. It clicked over another minute as he watched it.

For most of those pulse-counted minutes, Bickel thought, the Tin Egg's crew had been under the pressures of a ship in peril. The danger was real, no matter its source or intent; he had only to study the report on damage accretion to confirm this. But the pressure on the umbilicus crew had started with the loss of the Organic Mental Cores. The pressure had started when they were no longer shielded by another consciousness.

For the first time, Bickel turned his thoughts onto the concept of consciousness as a shield -- a way of protecting its possessor from the shocks of the unknown. It was an "I can do anything!" answer hurled at a universe that threatened you with everything.

He lowered his attention to Flattery who still sat half cocooned in the action couch, and Bickel sensed defeat in the curve of the man's shoulders and the set of his face.

Why is he so quick to accept defeat? Bickel wondered. It's almost as though he wanted it.

The answer came to him on the heels of the question: If you're programmed for destruction, you have a need for destruction. With a sense of growing awareness, Bickel turned to look at the Ox construction, focusing on the angles and blocks and the tangle of neuron connections.

But I've programmed this beast for violence!

Forcing himself to appear calm and natural, Bickel shifted the jackboard for a diagnostic check on the program, traced out the condition of the routine. His throat went dry as he scanned the readout.

The embryo he had placed at the Ox's mercy -- it was dead. No . . . dead was too simple a word for what had happened to that embryo. It had been disintegrated, torn asunder, broken down to its constituent molecules. The record was all here on the tapes and discs, betraying also the reason for the destruction.

Prue's question!

The embryo had been subjected to a violent experiment in the computer's search for information.

A violent and useless experiment. This certainly could not have produced much data -- except for some of the more grossly apparent characteristics of acid phosphatase -- and perhaps negative data about other biochemistry.

It'll kill to get information, Bickel thought. It has an ability of sorts to accept motivation -- if we give it motivation.