Anthropomorphic assumptions have tended to lead humankind far astray. The universe does not work by our rules.
-Raja Lon Flattery, The Book of Ship
SOMEWHERE IN HIS own consciousness, Flattery felt, an accumulation of answer-bits had poured out of their storage circuits, fed into an analyzer punched for decode, and produced a terrible answer.
The ship had to be destroyed -- and all its occupants with it.
As the lock hatch swung open, that one thought dominated him. He hurled himself through the hatchway and down the tube. The distance illusion that made the tube seem to contract ahead of him, filled him with a sensation that he must be growing smaller and smaller to pass through it. The thought intruded on him and he forced it aside.
He heard Timberlake close behind.
"You see that robox?" Timberlake panted. "What made it open up?"
Flattery sped on without answering.
"That voice," Timberlake said. "Was that Bickel, that voice? Sounded like Bickel."
They were at the Y-branch leading down to Com-central now, then at the hatch.
Flattery opened it, slipped through. His mind raced. Kill the ship now. Destroy this wild genie they had created. Timberlake mustn't suspect and try to stop him. And Bickel -- Bickel was in quarters where he could block off that red trigger. But there was another trigger.
I must act normal, Flattery thought. I must wait my moment. Tim could stop me.
Prudence lay on the deck halfway between hatch and couch.
Flattery knelt beside her, becoming totally physician for the necessities of this moment.
Pulse thin, ragged.Lips cyanotic. Liver spots at her neck where it showed within the edge of the helmet seal. He loosed the hinged helmet from the back of her neck, pressed a hand there. Skin clammy.
Did she think she was fooling me? he wondered. She went off the A-S and was experimenting on her own body. Medical stores showed a gradual depletion of serotonin and adrenalin fractions.
Flattery thought of the neuro-regulatory shifts, the psychic aches that would arise from manipulating body chemistry in this fashion. Prue's moods and strange behavior became clearer to him.
He stood up, retrieved the emergency medical pack from its clips on the bulkhead, saw that Timberlake had taken over on the big board.
What difference does it make if I save her? Flattery asked himself. But he returned his attention once more to the comatose woman, began ministering to her. He kept on checking her condition as he worked. No broken bones. No evidence of external injury he could detect through her suit.
Timberlake had ignored Prudence after the first glance. She was Flattery's problem. He had darted across to his action couch, snifted the big board, keyed first for open circuits.
There was a sense of dullness in the equipment. He had to wait while servos hummed slowly about their work, while circuits balked and produced sluggish results.
He could feel his own hairline awareness of every control and instrument, his consciousness keyed up by necessity. The interrelation of every device in this room and throughout the ship was like a complicated ballet, a pattern growing simpler and simpler in his mind even through its slowness.
Timberlake made a delicate adjustment in hull-shield control, saw the resultant temperature change register on his instruments as a power shift in the radiation-cell accumulators, a minuscule shift of weight in the ship-as-a-whole brought about by adjustment in mass-temperature-proton balance.
But how slow it was.And growing slower.
Timberlake swung his computer board to his left side, keyed for diagnosis, got no response.
Telltales were winking out on the big board. With an increasing sense of frenzy, Timberlake fought to find the trouble.
Keys on the main console began locking. No power in their circuits.
The last light winked out. Every key on the board was locked tight, all the servos silent. There was no whisper of air-circulation fans, no pulse of life to be felt in the ship. Slowly, Timberlake swung his gaze to the right, staring at the hyb-tank repeaters. The lights were dead, but the physical analogue gauges still showed feeder fluids flowing in the gross ducts of the system. Room lights flickered as local battery circuits took over the job of illumination.
The hyb-tank occupants were not dead . . . yet, Timberlake thought. Whatever the settings had been when the board went dead, that was the balance remaining for each tank -- as long as the auxiliary accumulators throughout the ship retained some power . . . as long as the pump motors kept running.
But the delicate feedback control and adjustment was gone.
Timberlake eased himself out of the action couch, looked around the oddly quiet Com-central. The only sound was Flattery working to revive Prudence.
Her eyelids fluttered and Timberlake thought bitterly: What good does it do to save her? We're dead.
Flattery sat back on his heels. I've done all I can for her, he thought. Now . . .
He grew conscious of the stillness in the room, looked up at the dead console, shot a questioning stare at Timberlake.
"Bickel's really done it this time," Timberlake said. "No power . . . computer off. Everything's dead."
All I need do is wait, Flattery thought. Without power, the ship will die.
But the effort of reviving Prudence had softened his determination. Living, after all, held its attractions -- even if they were only a ship full of culture-grown flesh, clones, duplicates, expendable units.
"You are human types, never doubt that," Hempstead had insisted. "You were grown from selected cell cultures of select candidates. Clones are merely good common sense. We don't want to lose people if the ship has to be destroyed . . . as the others were. We can send you out again and again."
But if the ship died this way, it might not leave its capsule record to help the ones who came after . . . the next try.
"How is she?" Timberlake asked. He nodded toward Prudence.
"I think she will recover."
"To what?"Timberlake asked. "Do you want to go see what's wrong with Bickel?"
The question with its tone of utter submission to fate sent anger surging through Timberlake.
"Give up if you want, but if Bickel's alive he may know what he's done . . . and how to repair it." He pushed himself away from the couch, headed for the hatch to quarters.
"Wait," Flattery said. Timberlake's rejection had stung him and he found this surprising.
Have I acquired a new taste for living? Flattery wondered. God -- what is Thy will?
"You keep an eye on Prue," Flattery said. "It was chemical shock. She should stay quiet and warm. I have her suit heaters turned up. Leave them that . . ."
He broke off as the hatch from quarters slowly opened.
Bickel stumbled through it, would have fallen had he not caught a stanchion. A charred block of plastic slipped from his hands, tumbled to the deck. He ignored it, clung to the stanchion.
Flattery studied him. There were dark smudges beneath Bickel's eyes. His skin was powder white. His cheeks showed skull depressions as though they had wasted away in months of fasting.
"So your white box didn't kill you," Flattery said. "Too bad. All you did was kill the ship."
Bickel shook his head, still unable to speak.
The stillness of the ship had awakened him from a sleep so deep he could still feel the fog of it clinging to his mind. A profound weariness dragged at his muscles. Movement sent odd aches angling through his body, stirring this terrible torpor.
The first thing to catch his attention as he awakened had been the mobius energizer, his clever installation to give the Ox a constant source of energy reference. A fan of gray char crackled from its broken seals and its motors lay silent. The virtually frictionless motors and spools, the thousand-year units, were blobs of fused plastic and metal.
It had taken several minutes for him to gather enough energy to move close to the unit and study it. His mind had labored over the simplest observations -- charred insulation on the power leads and in the timing circuits. . . tape spools twisted out of line.Slowly, it came to him: something had altered the power to the motors . . . and their synchronization. Something had tried to change the timing of this pulse . . . and its intensity.
Forcing the movement of every muscle, he had unplugged the unit, stumbled and crawled with it back to Com-central. The dead stillness of the ship pressed him as he moved.
Raj . . . Tim . . . somebody with his mind turned on . . . has to see this, he thought.
But now that he had made it to Com-central, he couldn't find the energy to speak.
Timberlake recovered the fused energizer unit from the deck, studied it.
Flattery crossed to Bickel's side, felt the pulse at his temple, lifted an eyelid, looked at his lips and tongue. Presently, he stooped to the med'-kit, removed a slapshot and pressed it against Bickel's neck.
Energy began to burn through Bickel's veins.
Flattery pressed a squeeze bottle against his lips. "Here, drink this."
Something cool and tingling poured down Bickel's throat. Flattery removed the squeeze bottle.
Bickel found a husky half-whisper that would serve him as voice. "Tim," he rasped.
Timberlake looked at him.
Bickel nodded toward the energizer, began explaining what had happened.
Flattery interrupted: "Do you think the black box -- white box transfer was completed?"
Bickel examined the question. He could feel his mind clearing under the pressure of the stimulant -- and there in his memory was the sensation that the ship was his body, that he was a creature of hard metal and thousands of sensors.
"I . . . think so," he said.
Timberlake held up the block of plastic. "But . . . it destroyed this and . . . apparently shut itself down."
A thought began stirring in Bickel's mind and he said: "Could this be a message to us . . . a kind of ultimate message?" "God telling us we've gone too far," Flattery muttered.
"No!" Bickel snapped. "The Ox telling us . . . something."
"What?" Timberlake asked.
Bickel tried to wet his lips with his tongue. His mouth felt so dry. His lips ached.
"When nature transfers energy," Bickel said, "almost all that transfer is unconscious." He fell silent a moment. This was such a delicate plane of conceptualizing. It had to be handled so gently. "But most of the energy transfers for all the enormous amount of data in the Ox-computer is routed through master programs . . . and total consciousness would turn all of them on, force the system as a whole to suppress some while letting others through. It'd be like riding herd on billions of wild animals."
"You gave it too much consciousness?" Timberlake asked.
Bickel looked at the transceiver panel of the Accept And Translate system beside his own action couch.
Timberlake turned, followed the direction of Bickel's stare.
Prudence stirred and moaned. Flattery bent to her.
But Timberlake ignored them, beginning to see the direction of Bickel's thoughts. The ship was dying, but here was hope.
"All the master programs dealing with translation of symbols are monitored through feedback loops linked to the AAT," Timberlake said. "Symbols!"
"Remember," Bickel said, "that impulses going out from the human central nervous system have that additional integration/modulation factor added to them -- synergy. An unconscious energy transfer."
Flattery, kneeling beside Prudence, wondered why he could bring only part of his awareness to bear on ministering to her. The conversation between Timberlake and Bickel electrified him.
Something was added to impulses going out from the central nervous system.
The thought boiled in Flattery's mind, and he had to force his attention onto Prudence, pressing a stimulant shot against her neck.
An addition.Gestalt addition.
To be addible, qualities had to have sufficient similarity. Otherwise, how could human sense take two superimposed sensations of a color and say one was a more intense version of the color than the other? What made one green more intense than another -- to the senses? Increase in intensity had to be a form of addition.
"It could be in the axon collaterals of the Ox's high-speed convergence fibers," Bickel said.
Flattery sank back on his heels, waiting for the stimulant to work on Prudence.
Bickel's right, he thought. If you superimposed a sufficiently rapid convergence of sense data, that itself could be interpreted as intensification. One of the images
wouldcontain more bits than the other.
But bits of what? All this didn't account for the way data overlapped in the human consciousness . . . awareness . . .
Flattery looked up at Bickel and Timberlake. They appeared lost in their own thoughts.
Prudence said: "Fmmmsh."
Almost automatically, Flattery put a hand to her temple, checking her pulse.
When I search my memory, Flattery thought, I find data separated against a background. Whatever that background is, consciousness operates against it. That background is what gives consciousness its size and reference -- its dimension.
"The Ox's sense organs were modeled on ours but with a wider range," Timberlake said.
Bickel nodded. "The differences," he said. And he remembered the nightmare quality of those superimposed and merging globes of radiation.
"How about all that contact with the hybernating humans and livestock in the tanks?" Timberlake asked. "Has any woman ever carried that many . . . children . . . in just that way?"
"If consciousness results from combining sensations," Bickel said.
"Of course it does!" Timberlake said.
"Very likely;" Bickel said. "And it can receive and discriminate across the entire radiation spectrum. You can't say it hears or sees or smells . . . or feels. Those are just different forms of radiation."
"And the combinations could produce strange sense qualities, ones we can't even visualize," Timberlake said.
"They do," Bickel whispered, remembering.
"But it's dead," Flattery said. "It . . . refused to live." He looked up at them while still keeping a check on Prudence's return to consciousness.
"It's not like a human, though," Bickel said. "If we can find the answer -- why it turned itself off -- why it sent us this message . . ."
"You'd turn it back on?" Flattery asked.
"Wouldn't you?" Timberlake demanded.
"Are you forgetting how it turned vicious?" Flattery asked. "You were there with me . . . trapped."
We're playing a kind of blind man's bluff, Bickel thought. We know something's out there -- something useful and something dangerous. We grope for it and try to grasp it and describe it, but Raj is right. We don't know if what we get will be the useful thing or the monster -- the tool or the Golem.
"It contains an infinite progression of shades of consciousness, all within that new form of awareness," Bickel said. "We've built a kind of ultimate alien here. Raj's question is as good as yours. Should we turn it on? Can we turn it on?"
Prudence reached up, groping, pushed Flattery's hand away from her head. She tried to sit up. Flattery helped her.
"Easy now," he said.
She put her hand to her throat. How sore her throat felt. She had been absorbing the conversation around her for several minutes, remembering. She remembered there had been a train of thought, frantic efforts to raise Bickel on the intercom and communicate with him. She remembered the effort and the urgency, but the precise reason for abandoning her post and rushing off to try to tell Bickel eluded her.
"We have to weed false information out of our minds," Bickel said. "We're assuming a totally conscious robot, all of its activity directed by consciousness. That cannot be, unless every action is monitored simultaneously."
His words aroused a vague sense of anger in Prudence. He kept skirting the . . . what was that thought?
"Would it have the illusion that it's the center of the universe?" Timberlake asked.
"No." Bickel shook his head, remembering: "The universe has no center." That's what it had said to him.
This was a coding problem contained in the concept of you and the concept of I -- of identity. Bickel nodded to himself. Are you aware? Am I aware? He looked at the others.
The object and its surround.
A moment of intense despair overcame him. He felt like groaning.
"Life as we know it," Timberlake said, "started evolving some three thousand million years ago. When it got to a certain point, then consciousness appeared. Before that, there was no consciousness . . . at least in our life form. Consciousness comes out of that unconscious sea of evolution." He looked at Bickel. "It exists right now immersed in that universal sea of unconsciousness."
As though Timberlake's words had released a dam, Prudence remembered the train of thought so urgent it had forced her to abandon her post to go in search of Bickel.
Determinism at work in a sea of indeterminism! And she held the mathematical key to the problem. That was the train of thought. She had been trying to narrow down a new definition, mathematically stated, of quantum probability. She had sensed a three-dimensional grid forming in her awareness and a probing beam of consciousness focusing into that grid.
Again, she felt that enormous increment of consciousness and the memory of that sudden knowledge -- she had pushed her body's chemistry beyond a balance point. She remembered how the darkness had engulfed her just as the mathematical beauty, the simplicity of the thought had spread itself out in her mind.
Everything depended on the origins of impulses and the reflection of them. It was a field of reflections -- and this held the key to the sensation of consciousness.
We construct consciousness this way.
Our bodies take us part of the way and then the identity takes over.
Identity . . . an illusion . . . an assumption.
But that was just a working tool . . . like a navigator assuming his position on a boundless sea . . . assuming his position on a chart -- an assumption on an assumption, symbol of symbols. Assuming such a position, even assuming a position which he knew to be wrong, the navigator could work his way mathematically to a close approximation of his correct position.
Particles or waves -- it was not important which, but it was important whether the assumption worked.
Her entire conceptual process took no more than an eye blink of time but it produced a flare of awareness which filled her with energy.
There was no doubt at all where this flare of awareness pointed -- at the AAT system. For a moment, she held the entire complex of the AAT system in her mind, manipulating the continuous interlocking pattern with her symbological grid. It was so simple. The AAT was a four-dimensional continuum, a piece of space-time geometry subject to considerations of curvature, duration-over-distance and particle/wave transfer through a multiplicity of sensor-traverse lines.
To the human nervous system, an instrument designed for the job, nothing could be simpler than visualizing and manipulating such a four-dimensional spiderweb -- once the nature of the spiderweb was understood.
"John," she said, "the Ox isn't the instrument of consciousness; it's the AAT, the manipulator of symbols. The Ox circuits are merely something this manipulator can use to stand up tall, to know its own dimensions."
"The object and its surround," Bickel whispered. "Subject and background, grid and map . . . consciousness and unconsciousness!"
"The Ox is the unconscious component," she said, "a machine for transferring energy."
And, still within this heightened awareness, she explained the mathematical clues that had led her to this point.
A matrix system," Bickel said, remembering his own plunge into this way of attacking the problem, and the blaze of consciousness which that plunge had whipped up. "And submatrices and sub-submatrices without end."
Flattery stood up, seeing where these thoughts must lead, dreading the moment of action to come. He looked down at Prudence seated on the deck, seeing her flushed cheeks, the glitter in her eyes.
"And where does this AAT-cum-Ox stand?" Flattery asked. "Have you thought of that?"
Prudence met his stare, understanding now why their hyb tanks had been filled with colonists. "The colonists," she said, nodding. "A field of unconsciousness from
whichany unconscious can draw -- a ground that sustains and buoys -- and the sleeping colonists provide it."
Flattery shook his head, feeling angry, confused.
Bickel stared beyond Prue, absorbing her words. Ideas merged and fitting -- orders evolved in his awareness. This ship had been armed, maneuvered, aimed and fired. He remembered Hempstead: gnome-wise face, eyes glittering, and that compelling voice saying: "What matters most is the search itself. This is more important than the searchers. Consciousness must dream, it must have a dreaming ground -- and, dreaming, must invoke ever new dreams."
"Knowledge is pitiless," Bickel said.
Prudence ignored him, keeping her attention on Flattery, aware of the psychiatrist-chaplain's confusion. "Don't you see it, Raj? To separate subject from object there has to be a background of some kind. You have to be able to see it against something. What's the background for consciousness? Unconsciousness."
"Zombies," Bickel said. "Remember, Raj? You called us zombies. And why not? We've existed for most of our lives in a state of light hypnosis."
Flattery knew Bickel had said something, but the words refused to link in any understandable form. It was as though Bickel had said: "Hop limbo promise the insect watering class to be erected to a first behavior preserve." The words trailed off through his mind as though they had been flashed in front of his awareness to screen him from something else.
A profound silence filled Com-central, broken by the sound of Prudence shifting her position on the deck.
Bickel felt himself go as calm as that silence, as though some other self had waited for that silence to take the reins. The sensation lasted for a single heartbeat and expanded into a sense of well-being, a relaxed poise that illuminated everything around him. It was as if one universe had been substituted for another, as if a sensory amplification of enormous intensity had been turned on his universe.
He saw the stark unconsciousness in Flattery's face, in Timberlake's -- and the semi-consciousness of Prudence.
Zombies, he thought.
"Raj, you called us zombies," Bickel repeated. "If we were lightly hypnotized we'd appear partially dead to someone in a higher state of consciousness."
"Do you have to mumble?" Timberlake demanded.
Flattery glared at Bickel. He felt that the man was using real words and that communication was intended, but all the meanings slipped and slithered through his mind without making connection.
Prudence felt Bickel's words lifting her. There came an instant in which the universe turned upon one still point that was herself. The feeling shifted: self no longer was confined within her. As she gave up the self, clarity came. Flattery's words returned to her: "There's nothing concerning ourselves about which we can be truly objective except our physical responses."
The chemical experiments on her own body had never offered a real chance to solve their problem, but they had provided a ground for understanding her own identity. The hope of more had been illusory . . . because the experiments could not be conducted simultaneously on every occupant of the Tin Egg -- their isolated world.
We share unconsciousness! she thought.
And she realized this must be the true reason the hyb tanks were filled with sleeping humans. Somewhere along the line, Project had seen that necessity. The umbilicus crew had to have a minimal ground of shared unconsciousness upon which to stand. They had to have a reference point, a tiny island in the vast dark which they could share with whatever they might produce out of their neuron fibers, and Eng multipliers. They'd needed a ground upon which to stand before they could reach up tall.
The mirror cannot reflect itself, she thought.
"Hypnotized," Bickel said. "We accept it as normal because it's virtually the only form of consciousness we've ever seen. You've watched the Earth video. You wouldn't expect an idiot to be fooled by the commercials, but that rhythmic hammering, that repetition . . ."
"Half dead," Prudence said. "Zombies."
She said, "Zombies," Flattery thought. Her voice frightened him.
Bickel saw the alertness spread through her eyes, the awakening.
"We should've thought of the AAT when the thing came alive during reception from UMB," Bickel said.
"You see what has to be done?" Prudence asked. "The energizer --"
"Stimulator," Bickel said.
"Stimulator," she said. "It has to be part of the AAT's input."
"Slack lines," Bickel said. "You can't hold the reins too tightly because the signals have multiple functions. They need room to spread!"
Timberlake looked from one to the other. He felt a sense of dullness lifting from his mind. Slack lines . . . sensory modules.
Timberlake's memory shot back to their conversation about the energizer. "All the master programs dealing with translation of symbols are monitored through feedback loops linked to the AAT." He heard his own voice replaying in his mind.
The whole form of their problem arrayed itself in Timberlake's memory with the sudden force of something thrown at him. Problem and solution set themselves up as a physical arrangement and he saw the nerve-nets they had built all arrayed as a series of triangular faces with a Mobius twist -- prisms of cell triangles interlaced and marching with their energy flows through infinite dimensions, forming sense data and memory images outside conventional space, storing bits and altering relationships in limitless dimensional extensions.
Bickel saw the vitality flowing into Timberlake, said: "Think of the AAT, Tim. Remember what we were saying?"
Timberlake nodded. The AAT. It received hundreds of duplicates of the same message compressed into the modulated laser burst. It averaged out the blanks and distortions, filtered for noise, compared for probable meaning on the doubtful bits, fed the result into a vocoder and produced it at an output as intelligible sound.
"It closely approximates what we do when we hear someone say something to us . . . then repeat it to check if we heard correctly," Timberlake said.
"You're all forgetting something," Flattery said.
They turned, saw Flattery at his own action couch, his hand on his own repeater console. A single red light had come alive there.
Flattery stared from Bickel to Prudence to Timberlake, seeing the unnatural brilliance in their eyes. Madness! And the deep color in their faces, their sense of excitement.
"Raj, wait," Bickel said. He spoke soothingly, watching Flattery's hand poised over a key beneath that single red light.
I should've known there'd be another trigger, Bickel thought.