...
CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 29

"The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed."

-Victor Frankenstein's lament

A DEEP SENSE of stirring could be felt in the ship. Timberlake felt it, and Flattery -- but especially Bickel. It was like a sleeper turning over in his hammock, the supportive lines twisting, stretching, molecules displaced.

To kill, Bickel thought.

Whatever had stirred within the ship, it already knew this verb. Did it feel guilt at how it had learned? Tim and Raj had not yet been subjected to this violent educational process.

To kill.

The red button was still there behind its wall panel.

Is Flattery's duty, my duty?

Was it already too late for such concerns?

The field generator which he had reworked for his purposes remained a magnet for Bickel's attention. He looked at the controls to the generator, the switch.

If I blow the ship, I'll never know whether it would've worked. Some other Bickel -- a clone of a clone of a clone -- might have to sit here confronted by this same indecision.

It's my choice.

Before he could change his mind, Bickel depressed the action switch on the reworked field generator. He felt it building up around him, making his skin crawl. Every hair follicle tingled. His eyes watered and the backs of his hands trembled. He felt suspended in a basket of energy.

Something was fishing for him, casting out with a net, dangling hooked lines at him. He knew this for the symbol juggling it had to be -- the mind trying to box anew experience within known symbols.

One of the nets caught him.

The shot-effect burst struck with an infinity of sparks.

It was like an electric shock, pungent with reality. He felt himself bound up in looped spirals, being towed with an undulating rhythm. His entire sensorium had become a worm being towed through a net . . . no: through holes and tubes and burrows. He felt that valves opened for him and closed behind him. It was like traveling through the ship's interior access tubes.

Except that he was a worm with every sense concentrated on his skin, seeing, breathing, hearing, feeling through every pore. And all the while he was being towed down that dizzy spiraling with an undulant rhythm.

Labels began flashing against that sensitized skin and he saw them with a billion eyes.

"aural sense data"

"linear accretion of information"

"latent addition adjustment"

"closed-system matching factor"

"16,000-year memory dropoff"

"total sense-quality approximation"

"internal counting mechanism"

Internal counting mechanism, he thought.

His worm-self grew a pseudopod, jacked the mobius energizer into a glowing, flickering board.

Immediately, he felt the beat of it like another heart and the labels began flashing past faster and faster.

"psychorelation form-chart" . . . "sense-modality interchange" . . . "form-outline analogue" . . . "infinite submatrix channel" . . . "sense intensity adjustment" . . . "data overlap network" . . . "approximate similarity comparison"

The whole pattern of labels and valves began to make an odd kind of sense to him, a coherence within coherence . . . like a dream that had to be interpreted as a whole.

The probability of a sufficient number of cells in the computer failing at any given moment could be given as 16 X 10-15 [16 times 10 to the negative fifteenth power]: The fact, loomed in his awareness. 16,000-year memory dropoff.

The system in which he found himself was such that it had had a probability of losing one bit out of every 16,000 memories through system malfunction . . . but classification memory in this context meant a partial bit, not an entire incident.

Is this system the computer, or is it me? he wondered.

"YOU!"

The sound slammed against every pore of his sensitized skin and he momentarily blanked out.

As he floated back, something whispered: "Synergy."

It was a cool bath of sound against his worm-self.

Synergy, Bickel thought. Cooperation in work. Synergy. Coordination.

"Human consciousness," something whispered. "Definition too broad. Generalized body and specialized brain -- a relationship."

Past his skin-eyes there swept a pattern of interlaced lines, a lacing together. It writhed and knotted and locked, put out symbols and arrows.

A schematic!

It kept flowing past his awareness. Cell-net continuities arranged as equilateral triangles on their contact faces. Bundles of parallel circuits tripled, each functioning as a nerve net and each monitoring the other two nets in the tripled circuitry. They were grouped in afferent units at first. Each cell in a layer of a net had an excitatory linkage to each of the three synapses on the next layer.

The flow shifted to the efferent net, the feedback system, and he saw the one-third twist, the mobius twist that required each feedback monitor to be filtered through at least one other net before functioning as a control on the net of its origin.

"God, hear thy sinner," said a voice, and Bickel recognized Flattery's tones.

How could Flattery be in here? he asked himself.

The answer paraded before his awareness -- Flattery's field generator had amplified voice resonances against the walls of the cubby and these had been cycled back into the total ship system. The gate circuits had been useless. Every sensor in this room was a unit of feedback.

"The eye hath not seen, nor ear heard," said the voice of Flattery. "Neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him."

What's this mean? Bickel asked himself.

But there was no answer other than that voice flowing across the skin of his worm-self.

"God, be merciful to us. Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Let our cheeks become as furrowed with tears as were those of Blessed Peter, that we may repent for all. We drown in sin. Lead us, Lord, as the Blessed Buddha led the seeker after salvation. We gasp for the air of Thy mercy."

It was the voice of Flattery praying, Bickel knew. But when? A recording? Was he kneeling even now in Com-central? But if he was praying, why would the computer-cum-Ox feed that prayer into this . . . field?

Flattery's voice pursued him: "Let us commit ourselves to the will of God as did the Mahatma, the Blessed Gandhi. Those who surrender to God possess God. In all our ways, let us acknowledge God that He may direct our steps. In Thy will, Lord, is our peace. Let us not squander ourselves in sin, but let us instead, rise up and do Thy will."

Bickel felt himself being pushed then, herded, compressed. He became a single sensor, a vid-eye looking down into Com-central. All the action couches were empty and Prudence lay sprawled across the deck, one arm stretched out toward the hatch to quarters.

With a great burst of awareness, Bickel realized she was near death. Minutes! This was real. He knew it was real. He was being shown through a ship sensor a reality within the ship. The big console above her empty couch winked and flickered with its telltales untended.

Where are Raj and Tim? Bickel asked himself. Is the ship killing them, too?

The view of Com-central blanked out. Bickel floated in darkness where a voice whispered: "Do you wish to be disembodied?"

Instant terror was all the answer he could give. He could not locate his muscles or control his senses. This must be something of what the mental cores experienced, he thought. They awakened to something like this . . . forced to learn new muscles. Am I being converted into a bodiless brain?

"The universe has no center," whispered that surrounding voice.

Darkness so deep it was like a total absence of energy enveloped Bickel.

And silence.

But I'm conscious, he thought.

A disembodied consciousness? he wondered. That's impossible. There has to be a body. But a body brings many problems. Have I become part of the ship's consciousness?

He sensed breathing. Someone was breathing. And heartbeats. And muscle tensions.

Infinite numbers of pinpricks on countless nerve ends.

A bright pulse of light -- painfully bright.

A diaphanous sensation of reality seeped through his awareness.

The sensation lacked a harsh, direct contact with sensors. It was as smooth as flowing oil now. A complete globe of olfactory sensations, sharp and immediate, spread through this oil, displacing it. The sensation penetrated space and time.

He recoiled from it.

Now, an aural sensory globe attacked his awareness, demanding, shrilling. He could distinguish tiny creakings of displaced metallic particles.

I'm hearing as the ship hears, feeling as the ship feels, he realized. Has it taken my brain?

Sounds and sonal combinations he had never before imagined could exist played through his awareness. He tried to retreat as it grew more intense, but now the olfactory globe returned to plague him. The two globes danced together, separated, merged.

Alien sensory interaction thrust itself upon him -- spectrum upon spectrum, globe of radiation upon globe of radiation. He was powerless to hide from it. He couldn't react -- only receive.

A globe of tactility threatened to overwhelm him. He felt movements -- both gross and minuscule -- atom by atom -- gasses and semisolids and semi-semisolids.

Nothing possessed hardness or substance except the sensations bombarding his raw nerve ends.

Vision!

Impossible colors and borealis blankets of visual sensation wove through the other nerve assaults.

Pharyngeal cilia and gas pressures intruded with their messages. He found he could hear colors, see the flow of fluids within his ship-body, could even smell the balanced structure of atoms.

For one brief instant, the interplay of radiation merged, became a totally alien receptor that responded as though it were an artist creating new sensations for the sake of the creation -- outflow and inflow, eccentric mergings. His awareness faltered at the edge of it and fell back.

Now, he sensed himself retreating, still pounded by that multidimensional nerve bombardment. He felt himself pulling inward - inward -- inward, a structure collapsing inward -- through the sensation-oriented skin awareness of a worm-self - inward -- inward. The nerve bombardment dulled, leveled off, and he felt himself to be merely a body of flesh and bone cocooned in a sleep couch.

Bickel sensed his heart pounding, the slickness of perspiration against his back, the adrenalin urgency within his arteries. The roof of this mouth felt dry and painful. His upper lip trembled.

An emotion of terrible loss poured through him. It was as though he had glimpsed Heaven and been denied entrance. Tears passed from beneath his eyelids, rolled down his cheeks.

Now, he saw what had happened to the Organic Mental Cores.

The human-type brain had been prepared genetically for manipulating a limited sensory input -- self-limiting. They had thrust these human-type brains into a full-on situation, permitted them no real unconsciousness, inflicted them with the sensory input of an organism infinitely more sensitive and more complex than the bodies of which they had been deprived.

The OMCs had tried to adapt, had grown themselves heavier conduction fibers, added switching capacity . . . but it had not been enough. When the necessities of existence reached a certain fierce tempo, they shorted out their own internal connections. They died.

They had been forced into hyperconsciousness by the pressures of enormous sensory data and the lonely knowledge of responsibility. They awoke to the full potential of being humans, but couldn't be humans because they'd been deprived of their autonomic emotional register, the organism. The ship had no equivalents.

Prue is near death.

The thought lifted into his mind from some great depth.

Bickel tried to make his muscles move, but they refused.

Raj! Where was Raj?

A flicker of awareness drifted through his bruised nervous system. As though through a gauze screen, he saw Flattery and Timberlake trapped in the lock, robox units holding the hatch dogs tightly closed.

Raj has to get out of there to help Prue, he thought.

He felt the thought go out like a free-standing program, feed through a memory-bank auxiliary while it gathered in the necessary data, become a reflexive pulse in control loops.

The robox at the inner hatch whirled the dogs, opened the hatch, and scurried aside.

"Raj," he whispered. "Com-central . . . quick . . . Prue . . . help."

He sensed the amplified whisper booming out through the memory bank and the vocoder loops, become a roaring hiss in the lock.

Flattery was already out the hatch heading down tube to ward Com-central.

Bickel felt himself fading. His awareness was a brilliant point of light that grew dimmer and dimmer, changing color as it went. It started almost violet, somewhere around 4,000 angstrom units, and traced a continuous wave shift until it flickered out at the red end.

In the instant before unconsciousness, Bickel wondered if he could be dying, and he thought: Red shift! Awareness fades like the red shift.



...