...
CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 26

There's a trait called initiative which is balanced against caution. Too tight a balance and you get oscillatory inaction, but that balancing act rides the wave of consciousness. All creatures display it in some form, but the sophisticated, symbol-juggling form displayed by humans has to be related to the kind of consciousness-answer we seek.

-Morgan Hempstead, Lectures at Moonbase

PRUDENCE WIPED PERSPIRATION from her cheek, returned her attention to the big board. For almost half an hour now she had been dividing her attention between the board and Bickel. It drained her.

Bickel, working in the shop with Timberlake, obviously was caught in unspoken indecision, skirting all around it. Something had happened . . . something which Bickel refused to share with the rest of the crew. He went through the motions of refining that Ox-monstrosity, but something was making him fearful beyond any normal caution.

A telltale on the board flickered into the red.

"We've just lost another sensor," Prudence said, reading the telltale. ". . . at 4CtB5K2."

"Second pi, fourth ring and in behind number five shielding layer," Timberlake said. "That's damn close to the hyb tanks."

"I'll check it," Flattery said, unlocking the bottom of his couch. He swung his feet to the deck, slipped his helmet forward, but left it unsealed.

"Is there a robox-R in that area?" Bickel asked.

"What's the difference?" Flattery asked. "By the time we found one and traced out the control sequence --"

"Are we going to check that sensor or aren't we?" Timberlake demanded. He glared into the screen at Flattery.

"I'm on my way," Flattery said. I mustn't let Tim preempt this job, he thought. I need the excuse to go past quarters for a quick check on what Bickel's done. It's something violent and dangerous. He has himself under very thin control.

"Raj," Prudence said.

He turned at the hatch.

"That . . . thing down there in the shop could reproduce itself with no help from us. Every machine tool, every robox monkey, every muscle and sensor is programmed through the computer. Once the last tie-in is made . . ."

Flattery wet his lips with his tongue, ducked out through the hatch without answering her.

Why'n hell did she bring that up now? Bickel wondered.

"That goddamn slowpoke," Timberlake said. "I should've gone myself."

Prudence shifted a corner of her board to monitor Flattery's progress. She glanced up at the screen. Bickel was staring back past her at the hatch where Flattery had gone.

Raj was depressed at the thought of reproduction being linked to consciousness, Bickel thought. What Prudence told him should've lifted some of that depression. It didn't.

A sense of foreboding poured through Bickel.

Programmed for destruction equals a need for destruction, he thought.

What am I afraid of? he wondered. What new thing? The fact that the Ox could reproduce itself by using the tool tapes and mechanical muscles of the ship?

"Prue, do you have a fix on Raj?" Bickel asked.

"He has a prime repair dolly and he'll be at the trouble spot in another minute or so," she said. "I ran a continuity check on the . . ."

"No sense in that," Bickel said. "The trouble's in the sensor itself. The continuity net has hundreds of backups and alternate circuits. What failed, a heat sensor?"

"Multiple," she said. "Heat-sound-visual."

"That thing's down near the temperature-control shutters in the baffle to the hyb tanks," Timberlake muttered. "Too goddamn close to them. You getting any heat shifts on the other sensors?"

"Nothing significant," she said.

Prudence flicked a switch, watching the shifting factors of temperature-weight-sound on her board, the telltales moving with Flattery. She hit another switch: "Raj, how much longer?"

Flattery's voice came out of the overhead command vocoder: "Another minute or so."

They waited in silence, listening to the sounds of Flattery's progress through the open command vocoder.

Prudence activated a guide beam to the dead sensor as Flattery passed the water baffles.

"Baffles secure," she said, reading her board.

"All secure," Flattery said.

He dogged that last hatch, knowing the action would register in front of Prudence in Com-central. The action sent a faint fear response through him. He had symbolically cut himself off from the core of the ship.

I'll fix this sensor and get back to quarters as soon as I can, he told himself. It'll seem natural for me to stop off there on my way back. I have to find out what Bickel's done, but I can't make him suspicious.

Flattery turned, studied his surroundings. He stood in the bulb lock that served as a hub for outer-hull communications tubes in this sector. It was an oval for strength, about six meters across its short diameter, and seven meters deep. He oriented himself by the faint pull of ship gravity.

The nonfunctioning sensor was up a tube that curved off at two o'clock on his right. Tube eight, ring K. The number checked. The failure would be at the five-line. He stared into the pale gray metal gap illuminated by cold light. A green guide beam beckoned in the tube.

Prue remembered to set the guide beam, he thought.

He took the repair dolly in his left hand, made the low-grav leap across to the tube and caught its access rung. He pushed the dolly in ahead of him, setting its sensors on the printed track, fed it low power to pull him into the tube.

The autolock's sphincter closed behind him: He suddenly remembered Anderson strangled in a rogue sphincter . . . but of course that was no problem now . . . with all the OMCs dead. The fact that one of the crew had to come out here and make this repair meant the dangers were of another sort.

"Something wrong?" Prudence asked, her voice filling his helmet.

She saw the telltales stop here, Flattery thought. It gave him a feeling of reassurance that she was so alert to his movements -- or lack of movements.

"Nothing wrong; just being cautious."

"You want Tim to come out and back you up?" Prudence asked.

"I don't need anyone to hold my hand!" Flattery snapped, and he wondered at the sudden anger he'd thrown into that rejection.

"You're at Station Two," Prudence said. "There's video on Two. Check."

Flattery glanced up at the ring of sensors on the tube, saw the one circled with yellow for video, waved at it as he passed.

The robox-R's imprinted track curved up the tube side to clear the base bulge for the next automatic lock. He went through, looked back as the transparent shutters squeezed closed behind him. The ship's core felt so far away back there.

He looked forward, letting the robox unit tow him with its faint hissing growl, letting the loneliness seep through him. With an OMC in control, an automatic roboxrepair unit could have been sent on this little chore. Mobility, that was the problem. Where there were fixed automatic repair units -- along the outer hull and at the major bulkhead locks, at the baffles and core-integrity barriers -- the ship took care of itself with only a little help from its crew. But let a little thing like this come up -- where you needed mobility and a decision factor -- then one of the crew had to risk himself.

Flattery cursed the Tin Egg's designers then. Hate poured out of him. He knew why they had done this -- the "planned increment of frustration" they called it. That was fine -- as long as one of the ship's designers didn't have to experience the frustration . . . or the deadliness.

He was at Station Four now, coming up on Five.

"Station Five coming up," he said. "Hey!" He cut the power on the robox, braked himself against the station's ring, stared up at the overhead arc of sensors. A neat, shiny hole plugged with gray foam-coagulant occupied the position where the multi-sensor had been. The yellow-green-red code rings on the tube around the hole had not been touched. He swung his gaze around the tube and the other sensors. All appeared to be functioning.

Flattery thought then of the island on Puget Sound -- sensors missing mysteriously . . . personnel missing. He felt cold sweat around his shoulders.

Prudence's voice filled his helmet: "Anything to report?"

He lowered the volume. "The multisensor seems to've been cut out in some way. It's gone. The hole's been plugged with foam."

"No foam automatics in that area," Prudence said.

"The thing's been plugged with foam anyway!" Flattery was unable to hide the angry irritation in his voice.

Prudence suddenly said, "John, I'm getting a demand drain on the computer. Is it something you're doing?"

"Nothing," Bickel said.

Flattery turned his head in the helmet. Bickel's voice had come in faintly as a pickup through Com-central. Action in the computer! Flattery forced himself to act calmly, removed a replacement sensor from his robox unit's parts compartment, checked it. The thing was about three inches in diameter, containing a warp-type thermal detector, standard vid-eye pickups like tiny jewels on its face, and three gridded ducts leading into the membrane of the audio unit.

Out of the corner of one eye, Flattery detected movement up the tube. He jerked upright, banged his head against the helmet liner, stared up toward Station Six.

A robox-R with its tool extensors clamped tightly to its sides was moving along the tape track toward him. The thing acted sick -- speeding and slowing.

His first thought was that Prudence had traced the robox remote controls for a unit in this area and was maneuvering the thing from her board. The crudity of Com-central's controls over the robox series would account for the unit's erratic behavior.

"You bringing another robox in here, Prue?" Flattery asked.

"No, why?"

"There's another robox-R coming down on this station," he said.

As he watched, the thing lost the tape track, relocated it.

"There can't be! Nothing at all shows on my board."

The thing stopped across the sensor ring from Flattery. An auger extension jerked away from its side, reached toward the foam-plugged hole, withdrew.

"Who's controlling that thing?" Flattery demanded.

"Not from here," Prudence said. "And I can see both Tim and John. They're not controlling it."

"You still getting drain on the computer?" Flattery whispered.

"Yes."

"Is the . . . Ox active?" Flattery asked.

"Only the original circuits," Bickel said. "Through the AAT bypass. The new doubled units haven't been connected."

"There can't be another robox in that area," Prudence insisted. "We haven't put any of the damn things on automatic. There's nothing showing on my board. The remotes would take a day and a half at least to --"

"It's right in front of me," Flattery said.

He watched it, fascinated. A tool arm extended with an empty sensor socket, reached toward the foam-plugged hole, retreated. A claw arm came up next. It probed the foam, drew back with a swiftness that startled Flattery.

"What's it doing?" Prudence asked.

"I'm not sure. It seems to be looking over the damage. Its vid-eyes are turned toward the hole. It acts like it can't decide which tool to use."

What can't decide?" That was Timberlake, his voice faint over the Com-central relay from the shop.

"Try fixing the sensor yourself," Bickel said.

Flattery swallowed in a dry throat. He lifted a feeler with a guide eye from the tool pouch on his own robox, probed into the foam plug looking for the leads from the conduit.

Instantly, a whiplike extension shot out of the other robox, trapped his arm, jerked it away. The pain in his arm where the thing had clamped on it was sharp and shocking. He dropped the tool, yelled.

"What's wrong?" Prudence demanded.

The whiplike extension slowly unwound, released his arm.

"The thing grabbed me," Flattery said. His voice was shaky with pain and surprise. "It used its circuit probe . . . grabbed my arm."

"It won't let you make the repair?" That was Bickel, his voice coming in loud over the helmet system, indicating he'd plugged into the command circuit from the shop.

"Doesn't look like it," Flattery said. And he wondered: Why doesn't one of us say what this thing has to be? Why're we avoiding the obvious?

With an abrupt sense of purpose, the other robox reached out a claw arm, lifted the replacement sensor from Flattery's left hand, matched sensor and socket. Another claw arm recovered the feeler guide, fitted it to the connections of its own circuit probe.

"What's it doing now?" Bickel asked.

"Making the repair itself," Flattery said.

The feeler came out of the hole pulling the leads.

"John, what's showing on your meters?" Prudence asked.

"A slight pulse from the servo banks," Bickel answered. "Very faint. It's like the cycling echo of a test pulse. Are you still showing current drain in there? I don't have it here."

"Drain from the mains into the computer. You should be registering it."

"Negative," Bickel said.

"It just fitted the new socket and sensor into the hole," Flattery said.

"It brought the correct spare parts?" Bickel asked.

"It took the sensor I brought," Flattery said.

"It just took it from you?" Prudence asked.

"That's right."

"Prue, that test pulse is stronger," Bickel said. "Are you sure nothing on your board is doing it?"

She scanned her console. "Nothing."

"Job's finished," Flattery said. "What's the big board show, Prue?"

"Sensor in service," she said. "I can see you . . . and it."

"Try touching that new sensor, Raj," Bickel said.

"The thing damn near took my arm out the last time I tried that," Flattery objected.

"Use a tool," Bickel said. "Something long. You've got a telescoping radiation probe there."

Flattery looked into his robox unit, removed the telescoping probe. He extended it to its limit, reached toward the sensor, touched it.

The whip-arm flashed out of the other robox. There came a jolting shock and Flattery stared wide-eyed at the stump of the probe in his hand. The severed end drifted upward along the tube, tumbling from the force of the blow.

"Keee-rist!" That was Timberlake, proving they had the shop's screen switched to this circuit and were watching.

Flattery swallowed, spoke in a muffled voice: "If that'd been my arm . . ."

He stared at the other robox. It sat there, quiescent, its vid-eyes pointed toward him.

We're playing with fire, Flattery thought. We don't know what's guiding that robox. It could be a repair program we've accidentally activated. It could be something the Tin Egg's designers built into the ship.

"You'd better get out of there, Raj," Prudence said.

"No, wait!" Bickel said. "Raj, don't move. You hear me?"

"I hear you," Flattery said. He stared at the robox, realizing the thing could cut him in half with one blow from that whipping circuit probe.

The sound of distant activity came through the helmet phones to Flattery.

"I should have the full computer showing here," Bickel said, "but I can't find that damn robox anywhere on my board. There's not even pulse resonance in any of the loops to hint at the source of control."

"I can't stay out here forever," Flattery whispered.

"What's showing on the meters, Prue?" Bickel asked.

"Still getting computer drain . . . and that pulse."

"Raj has been outside the shields for sixteen minutes," Timberlake said. "Prue, what's the radiation tolerance level for his area?"

She crossed the comparison lines against the time gauge on her main board scope, read the difference. "He should be back inside the shield lock within thirty-eight minutes."

Movement up the tube caught Flattery's attention. The end of the radiation probe. It had reached the top of its energy curve, was beginning to fall back down toward the grav-center in the core of the ship. As the severed end of the tool neared the other robox, the tip of one of its sensor arms -- just the tip -- turned to track the passage.

That minimal activity, that watchfulness, filled Flattery with greater dread than if the robox had attacked the length of tool and torn it apart. There was a sense of waiting about the thing -- of waiting and gathering information.

"Raj." It was Bickel's voice.

"Yes?"

"Is there any information in the computer -- even a hint -- that you might destroy it?"

Did he send me out here to trap me into answering that question? Flattery asked himself. But the fear in Bickel's voice ruled out that suggestion.

"Why?" Flattery asked.

Bickel cleared his throat, told about the programmed violence against the cow embryo and the destructive experiment. "It was programmed to fill in the blanks in its information, Raj, and I put no limiting factor on that. The violence proves it'll stop at nothing to maintain its own integrity. If you pose any threat at all . . ."

"You're saying it's conscious?" Prue asked.

"Not the way we're conscious," Bickel said. "Like an animal -- aware . . . and with at least one drive we can recognize: self-preservation."

"Raj, answer the question," Prudence said.

She knows the answer, Flattery thought. He could hear the awareness in her voice. Why doesn't she answer it for me?

"The computer may well have such information in it," Flattery said. And he thought: I'm trapped! I must get back to quarters, destroy this thing . . . it's already out of hand. But if I move, it'll kill me.

He stared at the robox. There was the thing that gave the computer mobility -- the thousands of special-function utility robox units throughout the ship -- even the one under his hands -- if it were shifted to automatic and keyed for program control . . . and if a consciousness directed it. These were what gave the Ox-cum-computer its gonads and ovaries -- these and the computer-linked tools.

"Would . . . it react with violence if Raj tried to move?" Prudence asked.

Silence.

"What about it, Bick?" Timberlake asked.

"Very likely," Bickel said. "You saw the violence it used when he tried to touch that sensor."

"What would you do if someone poked a finger in your eye?" Timberlake asked.

"It's approaching me," Flattery said, and he felt a flicker of pride at how calm his voice sounded.

"Stay put," Bickel said. "Tim! Take a cutting torch and --"

"I'm on my way," Timberlake said.

"Raj . . . I think your only hope's to play dead . . . remain absolutely still," Bickel said.

A sensor tip was in front of Flattery's eyes now and he found himself staring for a second into a baleful red and yellow glow. The tip retracted, and the robox backed off half a meter, clearing the repair unit by a hair.

"Let go of your own robox," Bickel whispered.

Flattery saw his own knuckles white with the force of their grip on the robox control bar. He relaxed the hand.

"Gravity will set you drifting presently back down the tube," Bickel whispered. "Just let it happen. Stay limp."

The motion was barely perceptible at first.

"The locks are part of the central system." That was Prue's voice. "What if they don't . . ."

She didn't finish the question, but it was obvious she, too, remembered how the rogue sphincter lock had crushed the life out of Anderson.

Now, Flattery could see he definitely was drifting back. The two robox units receded up the tube. And that sensor tip remained pointed at him.

The first lock passed his eyes. It had opened!

But the lock's transparent leaves remained open after his passage and that ambulant robox was following, hesitantly at first, then faster.

The AAT klaxon blared in Flattery's helmet, transmitted through the open net from Com-central.

"Oh, Jesus!" That was Prudence.

"Was the transceiver open?" That was Bickel.

"The message is already into the system," Prudence said. "We left it on automatic."

"Tim, where are you?" Bickel asked.

"At the hub lock," Timberlake said.

"Take the message, Prue," Bickel said. "Visio."

Relays clicked as she shunted the AAT to Com-central. Presently, she said: "Short and sweet. Hempstead tells us to cease ignoring communications. We are ordered to turn back and make no mistake about it. Odd choice of words: 'This is an arbitrary turn-back command.'"

"He knows what he can do with his arbitrary turn-back command," Bickel said.

At the sound of Prudence's voice, Flattery had gone cold. The chill of ice water gripped his chest. "Arbitrary turn-back command." It was the coded order he had both dreaded and almost longed for -- the "kill-ship" command.



...