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CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 28

The correlation between chemistry and emotions is inescapable. Thus, with the chemical relationship between humankind and our mechanical simulators tenuous at best, an artificial consciousness, if it has emotions, may have emotions far outside the human range. Such emotions may appear godlike to the limited human understanding.

-Vincent Frame Speculations

FLATTERY'S PERSONAL CUBBY was enough like his own to give Bickel a sense of familiarity, but sufficiently different to fill him with disquiet. The life-system ducts appeared conventional -- a breather grid with its cap swung aside and the tube and mask clipped in their racks, the dome of repeater gauges above the action couch. Atmosphere samplers read normal, and the emergency feeder tubes were in place.

The sacred graphic imprinted on the bulkhead in front of the couch drew his attention. It was a compelling thing in pastel shades of blue, red, and gold with a dark and wavy hypnotic overprint suggesting faces out of dreams.

Bickel tore his attention from the graphic, studied the room's electronic equipment. The cubby's installations contained a surprise, and Bickel examined it carefully. No doubt about it -- the thing like a stiffened net that swung out over the couch from the side bulkhead fed impulses to a weaker, but more sophisticated version of the field generator sorter he had designed for the black box -- white box transfer. He traced the leads, found another surprise: the thing had been gated for one-way operation. It impressed its field reflections onto the cubby's occupant, but nothing of the occupant returned to the ship system.

Bickel absorbed the implications of the device, nodded slowly.

Presently, he stretched out on the couch, ran a short test on the generator, swinging the controls close, keeping his eyes on the gauges and the half-curve of the net grid which swung down on its rack to a position about ten centimeters above his head.

It took a few seconds for the generator's field to build up, then he felt a curious sense of watchfulness -- an observing-without-emotion. It was like a waking dream and he thought immediately of a reflector -- like a mirror in an angle of a hall to reveal people around a hidden corner . . . a one-way mirror which revealed only that alert watchfulness.

He saw at once that this installation gave a sensitized person the mood of the ship's computer. He felt a vague sensation as though his viscera had been exchanged for great baths of mercury, for discs and spools and tapes and print drums, that his nerve ends had been transmitted into thousands of delicate sensors reaching into strange dimensions.

But it was yet a dream. The great creature of wires and pseudoneurons, not fully awake to itself, lay watchful and alert but with its full potential still held in a rein of somnolence.

The mood changed.

Slowly, Bickel felt the field gear itself to his reflexes. He felt it arming him with a total-involvement program as though drawing a bow to its full capacity, marshaling his energies and throwing them suddenly into an afferent loop.

With a semidetached feeling of shock, Bickel saw his own right hand slam out and open a panel concealed by the lines of the religious graphic on Flattery's bulkhead. Behind the panel lay a trigger, red and ominous. Bickel found himself barely able to withhold his hand from that trigger. He slapped his left hand against the cutoff switch beside the couch, felt the generator's field whine down to silence.

Still, his fingers itched to push that red trigger.

He realized then how deeply Project had infected this ship with self-destruction fail-safe devices. He had been conditioned for the job . . . and doubtless all the other crew members, too.

Then how could I resist the conditioning? he wondered.

The implications filtered slowly through his awareness and he saw that he had been existing for days on a threshold above his reflexes, poised and waiting . . . for . . . something.

Bickel stared at the red switch. That was the ship killer to which Flattery . . . to which all of them had been wedded.

Palms slowly wet with perspiration, Bickel eased himself off the couch, closed the false panel over the switch, began altering Flattery's field-generator installation. The gate circuits showed up immediately on the color-coded sheafs. Bickel ripped them out, jacked in his own amplifier, began installing the black box -- white box circuitry.

The work went rapidly: clip-in, test; clip-in, test.

Now, he took the constant-energy source: a single plastic-sealed block -- air-bearing motors and spools, edge-coded tapes with mobius twists for continuous-loop operation, a single output through an Eng multiplier. He checked it, saw the strong, eccentric pulse on the meter, plugged it into the circuitry.

It was done . . . ready.

A deep sense of loneliness washed through Bickel then. He returned to the couch, stretched out on it, opened the command circuit transmitter, left the receiver dead.

"Now hear this," he said, thinking how his voice would roll out of the vocoders and shock the others to silence. "I'll be starting the white box interchange in just a few seconds. I've jammed the locks into quarters and my receiver's turned off. Don't waste your time trying to get in here or calling me."

Out in their lock trap, Timberlake turned, peered into Flattery's faceplate, saw the terror in the man's eyes.

"Everybody sit tight," Bickel said. "Don't try violence of any sort. That killer program's still loose in the circuits. The reason I decided to go ahead with this . . ." He paused, swallowed. "Tim, I'm sorry, but I got no response from two hyb-tank units. I think it may've killed two people the way it did the embryo. It's searching . . . experimenting . . . curious, like a monkey."

In the lock, Timberlake experienced a shortening of breath, felt himself sinking back through layers of fog. There was a sensation like hunger in his stomach. Two hybernating people killed. Oh, God!

In his position beside Timberlake, Flattery clutched a stanchion, asked himself: Where is Prue? He thought of the ship hurtling onward with no one at the big board . . . Prue a lifeless mass of protoplasm drifting somewhere in the control room. He closed his eyes, thinking: But I'm the ship's prime target. If it kills now, it'll kill me . . . to protect itself. He opened his eyes, stared around the metal walls of their trap. No way out. We've turned on the terrible genie, he thought, and we may not be able to turn it off. Then: Where is Prue?

Bickel cleared his throat. "Use extreme care until I've removed the killer program. Anything in the ship could be a murder instrument, do you understand? The air we breathe, the reclamation systems, robox units, any sharp edge with poison on it . . . anything."

He depressed the first action switch, said: "Countdown for field buildup starts in thirty seconds. Wish me luck."

And Flattery thought: He's committing suicide . . . a useless gesture.

Bickel watched the curve of gauges overhead. They registered power in the circuits, vocoder on and pulsing. A faint hum issued from the vocoder. It gave a sudden static burp.

Needles slammed against pins on the monitor dials.

I am the Sorcerer's Apprentice, he thought.

A rasping came from the vocoder now. Slowly it resolved itself into a guttural, almost unintelligible voice.

"To kill," it said.

Bickel studied the meters, saw the demand drain in the computer, pulse action in the Ox circuits.

It was the computer speaking on its own.

"To kill," it repeated, speaking more clearly this time. "To negate energy, dissolution of systems using energy in any form . . . symbolic approximations . . . nonmathematical."

Bickel activated a diagnostic circuit, read the meters. No energy in the command communications circuits, a pulse in the Ox, low energy drain to the computer.

To kill.

He stared at his board, thinking.

Information conveyed out of a tape had an exact mathematical equivalent. The tape message was at least two messages -- and probably many more. It was the functional message, the play of what it was supposed to do -- supply information, add, subtract, multiply, solve for an unknown . . . But it also produced the mathematical base which identified the message precisely for a human operator according to how much information was conveyed.

Beyond this, Bickel wondered, what?

He knew he had not energized the system or imprinted his own brand of consciousness on it. Yet, the thing acted independently. He felt himself on the edge of aborting this step, calling in the others for consultation . . . but the deadliness of this monster remained. To kill.



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