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CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 27

"You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? You would not call it murder if you could . . . destroy my frame, the work of your own hands."

-Frankenstein's Monster speaks

WHILE TIMBERLAKE WORKED his way out through the access tubes toward Flattery, Bickel scanned the shop instruments, hunting for a clue to this behavior by the computer system. Every movement of light or dial, every automatic relay adjustment or swing of an instrument needle, sent fear through him. The lights were like eyes staring down at him.

As much to quiet his own fears as to help Flattery, he began to talk:

"Raj, have you done anything at all to pose a real threat to the computer system?"

"Quite the contrary. I've attempted to . . . work out the emotional program . . ."

"To make it care for us?"

"Yes. But I didn't insert any form of program."

Prudence intruded: "I think anything you do on this ship goes into the computer system."

"I agree." That was Bickel. "Specifically, what did you do?"

"Tried to show . . . it that I really care about it."

"That may be all that's keeping you alive right now," Bickel said.

Once more, Bickel scanned the shop panels. Not a clue there. Nothing!

Flattery's thoughts kept revolving around that order from Moonbase: Arbitrary turn-back command.

It had injected ice water into his veins.

"Kill ship!"

"Kill ship!"

It was a refrain chanted in his awareness.

A deep hypnotic command, he thought.

But he could not find it in himself to disobey. The rational arguments for this safety fuse were too compelling. The fate of all humankind was more important than the fate of one man . . . or of one ship.

Flattery felt his body knotted by frustration. Here he was out beyond the shields of the core. He had been conditioned to accept this order and execute it, sacrificing himself for the protection of the race. At this point, he couldn't muddy his mind with fanaticism. He knew the dangers to the human race from a runaway mechanical consciousness that nobody could . . .

A yell escaped him as something grabbed his leg.

"It's me, Raj."

Timberlake's voice. It filled Flattery's helmet phones, but he took a moment to accept the identification emotionally. His heart was still hammering as Timberlake pulled him past the next ring of sensors.

The nemesis robox increased its speed, maintained a distance of about three meters.

"Shall I burn it?" Timberlake whispered.

"Do nothing hostile," Flattery said.

The edge of the hub chamber entered Flattery's field of vision. Timberlake's hand released his ankle. Flattery felt the grating hump as the hatch to the inner lock was opened.

"In we go," Timberlake said. He gave Flattery a gentle tug as they drifted down into the hub chamber.

A lock stanchion came in front of Flattery and he grabbed it, feeling the inertial pull as he checked his motion. That following robox had stopped at the tube exit above them, but its sensor tip, remained pointed at them. Timberlake moved in front of him, cutting off the view of the robox. Flattery backed down through the lock's baffle angle, Timberlake following. The hatch was closed. Timberlake dogged it, turned.

Flattery crossed to the other hatch, breathing easier now that they were behind the shields and with a hatch between them and that robox. He grabbed the hatch dogs, twisted.

They remained firmly locked.

He applied more pressure.

The dogs wouldn't budge.

"Come on, let's go," Timberlake said. He added his hands to the effort.

The dogs remained seated as though frozen.

Flattery and Timberlake looked at each other, their faceplates almost touching. Flattery's hands felt slippery with perspiration inside his gloves. He could smell the stink of fear within his suit.

"Go . . . try the other hatch," Flattery said.

Timberlake nodded, kicked back up to the baffle and the hatch they had just dogged. Flattery could see Timberlake's muscles lift the shoulders of the suit with the effort of trying to reopen the other hatch.

It was obvious the other hatch also was blocked.

Timberlake dropped back down beside him, thumbed the command circuit switch beneath his helmet. "John."

"John's temporarily off the circuit," Prudence said. "You're out of danger . . . immediate danger, aren't you?"

In short, clipped sentences, Timberlake reported their situation.

"Trapped?" she asked. "How could you be?"

"Something's jammed the hatches," Flattery said. "Why's John off the circuit?"

"Oh . . ." Pause. "He left his helmet . . . down there. He just yanked it off, unplugged, grabbed up a bunch of equipment and headed for quarters."

"Your sensors! Where do they show him?" Flattery demanded.

Silence. Then: "In your quarters, Raj. I don't understand."

"What's this equipment he took?" Timberlake asked.

"A whole pile of stuff," she said, "mostly from that bin where you were working, Tim, under the middle of the bench."

In my quarters, Flattery thought. Our "organ of analysis" didn't miss a thing!

"Tim, your torch," Flattery said. He pointed to the cutting torch on its tool clip at Timberlake's waist.

Timberlake shook his head. "A minute ago you were saying do nothing hostile."

"Give me that torch!"

"No, sir, Raj. You know what's out there jamming that hatch as well as I do. Another robox unit or two or four or fifty. You had the right idea the first time. Let Bickel --"

"Don't you know what Bickel's doing?" Flattery demanded, not trying to keep the desperation from his voice.

"Just as well as you do, Raj. I assembled most of that gear in the center bin according to his schematics. It's a field-effect generator synchronized to a shot-effect generator. There's an electroencephalographic feedback unit . . . a man-amplifier, he calls it."

"White box -- black box," Flattery said. "We've got to stop him."

"Why?"

"He'll wreck the computer."

"Not that computer."

Bickel has infected him with his cynicism, Flattery thought. "Then he'll kill himself."

"That's his lookout, but I don't think he will."

"When that shot-effect hits him, his muscles will break every bone in his body! That's a hideous way to die."

"Maybe if he were connected directly to the generator," Timberlake said. "But he won't be. He's going to get the shot-effect through that generator's field -- attenuated, buffered."

"Do you know what's in my quarters?" Flattery asked.

"A snooping device of some kind," Timberlake said. "I've seen the clues on the meters."

"A field sorter," Flattery said. "It's tuned to the computer, gated for output. If Bickel takes out those gate circuits . . ."

"And he will. Now sit down and be quiet. It's our only chance."

Flattery glared at him. "If Bickel turns that mechanical monster loose it could wipe out the Earth!"

"Why don't you try ghost stories for a change?" Timberlake asked.

"I don't have time to tell you the whole story. That monster has to be stopped. You've got to take my word for it."

"You're an engineer," Flattery said. "You're a structuralist. You know Bickel's reasoning?"

"What're you driving at?"

"He's arguing from the internal evidence of the human body," Flattery said, speaking with desperate quickness. "Structure's vital to the mechanical origins -- teeth, jaw muscles, digestive system, and so on. The evidence says humans are descended from carnivores -- and he insists a killer instinct is an absolute necessity for a carnivore."

"Are you saying a killer instinct is a necessary preliminary to consciousness?"

"Bickel's saying that! I'm not."

"Why're you so sure of this?"

"His actions leave no doubt of it!"

"Ahhh . . . you're making this up."

"Give me that torch," Flattery said.

"No," Timberlake shook his head.

"I'm going to take that torch if I have to kill you to get it," Flattery said. He inched toward Timberlake.

"Prue, did you hear this madman?" Timberlake asked, backing one step.

The command net remained silent.

"Prue?"

Flattery drew himself up straight, his own words replaying in his mind. ". . . if I have to kill you to get it." He felt suddenly that he had been herded into a completely vulnerable corner.

Killer instinct? he wondered.

"Prue!" Timberlake called. Then: "Raj, snap out of it! Prue isn't answering!"

Flattery had stepped backward. He felt nausea, extreme chill, a shaking in the calves of his legs and in his shoulders. Half-screened thoughts flitted about on the edge of his awareness.

I'm avoiding something, he thought. Hiding my awareness from something . . . that . . . frightens . . .

"What's wrong with you, Raj?" Timberlake demanded; there was sudden concern in his voice.

Flattery put out a hand, grasped a stanchion to keep himself from collapsing. He closed his eyes, conjured up the image of the sacred graphic imprinted on his cell in quarters -- picturing against his eyelids the field of serenity with its suggestion of holy faces and the dynamics of the overprinting that combined the religious symbols on which men had spent their faith and yearning throughout evolutionary eons.

They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, Flattery told himself. Lord, let this strength be transformed in the renewal of our minds. Let us share the light.

The litany hung suspended in his consciousness, focused on the word "mind," and Flattery's mental image of the sacred graphic took on motion. The field of serenity and sacred symbols dissolved into writhing atoms, drew a new pattern like the outline of a great river with its watershed.

Flattery opened his eyes to find the interior of this metal trap were he stood with Timberlake washed in golden light -- glaring, yet soft.

Timberlake seemed unaware of the light, frozen in some private instant.

And Flattery found himself caught by the wonder of that revelation -- a great river and its watershed.

All men are parts of the total stream, he thought. We are tributaries -- and our minds are tributaries, and our most private thoughts. Every pattern in the universe contributes to the whole -- some gushing like a freshet and some no more than a single touch of dew. All structure is an expression of the same law.

It was holographic -- he saw that. The essential elements of the whole were carried in the smallest part. From the grain of sand you could project the universe. It could very well be the most elemental law of this universe.

The law was like a pulsing thread that he could experience but not express -- simplicity becoming new complexity and again a greater simplicity that fragmented into a greater complexity that produced a greater simplicity . . .

He felt it in the touch of the suit's fabric against his skin, in the awareness of the washed air entering his lungs, in every sensory impression.

How clean and unique was this shower of molecules upon his person and upon this place he occupied in the dancing pattern!

"I thank Thee, Lord, for this enlightenment," he whispered.

And Flattery held himself in this supraliminal awareness, staring now at Timberlake. Timberlake appeared to him . . . somehow dead. He moved, but his eyes behind the faceplate were like holes in skull sockets. Each movement was the sticklike articulation of a skeleton.

Remembering Prudence and Bickel, Flattery felt that they shared this deadness: eyes empty of life. Their breasts moved with breathing, but the labored irregularity of that motion contained the same pattern (differing only in degree) as the breathing of a terminal sickness, the breathing of a dying person preserved beyond his time by artificial means.

We're doomed, Flattery thought. Lord, why didst Thou enlighten me only to show me this?

The skeletonlike Timberlake and dead-alive images in his memory filled Flattery with rage. He pulled himself upright against the stanchion, screamed: "You're dead! Zombies! You're already dead! Zombies!"

As quickly as the rage had come it fled him, and he felt himself crying softly. The feeling of enlightenment drained away. It had come in the space of ten heartbeats and left in the space of a single pulse. The golden light faded and the plasteel lock that trapped him with Timberlake was only that -- a room of too solid walls, too small, its light too cold, and the air his suit provided was too charged with the omnipresent stinks of recycling.

"Raj, you've got to control yourself," Timberlake was saying.

But God controls us, Flattery thought. And God has told me what I must do. He permitted me a religious experience that I might see our doom and -- encompassing it -- fulfill it.

Timberlake took a deep breath, feeling the tightness in his chest. He felt faintly ill, his fear at their helplessness compounded by Flattery's near panic. He and Flattery were as trapped here as that cow embryo had been.

He thought of that helpless embryo in the Holstein section of the farm-stock hyb tanks -- a bit of protoplasm attached to the life-system tubes with its own special code. It had been a unique identity, and Timberlake felt he had known that particular animal -- could project its lost potential forward in his mind to see it grazing and fulfilling its natural functions as a producer of energy.

All that natural potential had been sacrificed, becoming merely units of cerebral excitation in the development of a mechanical consciousness. Any other function of possibility had been lost in the instant of its deliberate destruction. It had become a thing of the senses -- unreal, receding into the past, its atoms dissipated in the time void. There could be nothing private or individual or unique about it from that instant of death onward.

Timberlake swallowed. His throat felt sore as though from remembered anguish. He knew this feeling was rooted in his training as a life-systems engineer -- his inhibitions as a preserver of life. He shook his head, trying to drive out the sense of confusion.It was an unborn creature, an animal, he told himself. It wasn't really a being the way we are beings. The physical complexity of that dead creature was enormous, yet it never could have been conscious the way we are . . . even if it had lived out its normal life.

How empty the argument sounded even as it echoed silently in his mind.

Flattery wasn't screaming anymore. He stood there clutching a stanchion, glaring out of the faceplate.

"Take it easy, Raj." Timberlake said. He spoke softly, as though soothing a child who had been hurt. Then, louder: "Prue?"

Still no answer.

She could be too busy to answer, Timberlake thought.

He listened to the gentle burbling and whirring of his suit, assessing their position. Prue wasn't answering -- reason unknown. Bickel had taken off for his quarters -- obviously intent on completing the white box -- black box step in his theory, transferring his own pattern of consciousness onto the white box that was the Ox-cum-computer. Would the Ox be like Bickel then? No . . . it couldn't be.

Timberlake felt suddenly that he had passed beyond some major obstacle in understanding his own personal mind-brain-body relationship. He sensed that he had entered a new, but as yet unidentified territory.

He saw that Flattery was almost drained of energy -- a result of having been emotionally and physically overtaxed. The man had been through one hell of an experience up there in the tube. As Timberlake watched him, Flattery swayed against the stanchion, said: "Sorry . . . I threatened you."

The rhythms in Flattery's voice fascinated Timberlake. He found himself confronted by an abrupt awareness of how those rhythms blended into other rhythms and proceeded from still other rhythms. He sensed the rhythms of his own life and the compounded Fourier curves that radiated from him and to him.

Something Bickel had said while they worked on the Ox rose up then in Timberlake's mind:

"If we give this thing life, we have to remember that life is a constant variable with eccentric behavior. The life we create has to think in the round as well as in a straight line -- even if its thinking is derived from patterns on tapes and webs of pseudoneurons."

It was as though consciousness were a valve whose function was to simplify. All the complexities had to flow through it and be reduced to an orderly alignment.

Energy flowed into the system at all times -- enormous amounts of energy -- sufficient to overload a conventional four-dimensional system.

Overload -- overload -- overload! Down it poured through the valve of consciousness. As the load increased, the valve could deflect it . . . or expand to receive it.

Timberlake felt that he moved up through enormous layers of fog -- layer upon layer upon layer . . . until he reached a place of clarity and balance.

I am awake, he thought. It was a fear-inspiring thought.



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