...
CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 31

Mundane existence is the source of renewed suffering. The human goal is to attain release from the bondage of material existence and, achieving release, to unite with the Supreme Self.

-Education of the Psychiatrist/Chaplain, Moonbase Documents

FOR A LONG, pulsing moment after Flattery spoke, they all gazed at that red button: the trigger of their destruction. They all knew this thing. Flattery's intrusion had ignited a mutual awareness. They were supposed to accept this moment of oblivion. But something new had happened on this venture.

"A few more seconds of life aren't important," Bickel said. He held up a hand, hesitant. "You can . . . wait for just a few seconds."

"You know I have to do this," Flattery said.

Even as he spoke, Flattery savored the "Ahhhhh" of suspense which charged this moment with an electrical sensation. It filled the air around them like ozone.

"You have control of the situation," Bickel said. His glance flickered toward the red switch with Flattery's hand poised to touch it. "The least you can do is hear what I have to say."

"We can't turn this thing loose upon the universe," Flattery said.

Timberlake swallowed, glanced down at Prudence. How odd, he thought, that we should die so soon after coming alive.

"How is it, Raj," Bickel asked, "that we can explain more about the unconscious networks of the human body than we can about the conscious?"

"You're wasting time," Flattery said.

"But the thing's dead," Bickel said.

"I have to be sure," Flattery said.

"Why can't you be sure after hearing what John has to say?" Prudence asked.

She looked at Bickel to draw Flattery's attention there. Two lights had begun blinking on the main computer console behind Flattery.

"It's a paradox," Bickel said. "We're asked to discard logical positivism while maintaining logic. We're asked to find a cause-and-effect system in a sea of probabilities where enormously large systems are based on even larger systems which are based on greater systems yet."

Flattery looked at him, caught by the trailing ends of Bickel's thoughts. "Cause and effect?" he asked.

"What happens if you push that key?" Bickel asked. He nodded to the trigger beneath Flattery's hand.

Prudence held her breath, praying Flattery would not turn. More lights were winking on the main computer console above Timberlake's couch. She couldn't say why the lights gave her hope, but the evidence of life in the ship . . .

"If I push this key," Flattery said, "an action sequence will be alerted in the computer." He glanced back at the winking lights. "You'll notice that part of the computer is becoming active. These circuits --" he returned his attention to Bickel "-- have extra buffering and emergency power. The master program set off by this key instructs the computer to destroy itself and the ship -- opening all the locks, exploding charges in key places."

"Cause and effect," Bickel said. And he marveled at how automatic Flattery's movements appeared. A zombie. "Cause and effect doesn't square with consciousness," he said.

A fascinating idea, Flattery thought.

"If any subsequent action proceeds with absolute and immediate causality from the sequence of past actions, then there can be no conscious influence of behavior," Bickel said. "Think of a row of dominoes falling. The human will power -- the muscle and arm of our consciousness -- couldn't decide what behavior to use because that behavior would all have been predetermined by a long line of preceding cause and effect."

Flattery felt the hand poised over the deadly key begin to ache. "We can't predict what this beast would do," he said. "I know."

Bickel's signing our death warrant, Prudence thought. She got to her feet. Her muscles still felt weak, but she sensed the stimulant doing its work. She gripped Timberlake's arm to steady herself.

Timberlake glanced at her hand, looked back at Flattery.

How calm Tim seems, she thought.

Maybe consciousness doesn't influence neural activity at all," Timberlake said. "Perhaps we only imagine --"

"Don't be ridiculous," Flattery said. "That'd have no survival value and wouldn't have arisen in nature. Conscious creatures would've died out long ago."

Well, at least we've got him arguing, Timberlake thought. He smiled at Prudence, but she was watching Bickel. Timberlake returned his attention to Flattery. How dull . . . almost dead the man looks.

"Think of an electronic tube," Bickel said. "A very tiny amount of energy applied at the critical bias junction produces a tremendous change in output. Consciousness does something on the same order, Tim. We have a neural amplifier."

"Instant causality," Flattery whispered.

Lord! How that hand ached -- as though it had been held above the trigger key for a century.

That's what we have to toss out of our thinking," Bickel said. "Instant causality says if we have complete knowledge of a natural law and complete knowledge of the given system at a given time, then we can predict exactly what the system will do from that point on. That sure as hell isn't true at the atomic level and it doesn't apply to consciousness. Consciousness is like a system of lenses that select and amplify, that enlarge objects out of the surround. It can delve deep into the microcosm or into the macrocosm. It reduces the gigantic to the manageable, or enlarges the invisible to the visible."

This doesn't change anything, Flattery thought. Why are we talking? Is he just trying to gain a little time? The pressures of the terrible necessity which had been built into him were becoming almost unbearable.

Bickel saw the faint stirrings of life in Flattery's eyes. "But this consciousness factor isn't a completely random thing. In a universe packed with random possibility of destruction, random activity equals the certainty of encountering that destruction -- and we're assuming consciousness is survival-oriented:"

"Unless it's a healing process," Flattery said.

"But the healing process would have to completely counteract any destruction," Bickel said. And he saw the light of vitality grow in Flattery's eyes, his manner.

"I have to push this key, John," Flattery said. "Do you know that?"

"In a moment," Bickel said.

"Raj, you can't," Prudence said. "Think of all those helpless lives down in the hyb tanks. Think of --"

"Think of all those helpless lives back on Earth," Flattery said. "What would we turn loose on them? John's black box -- white box transfer put his life -- his entire ancestry -- into the computer. Don't you see that? Any of you?"

Prudence put a hand to her mouth.

Bickel saw the alertness in Flattery, the vital consciousness expressed in every movement, realized that death-conditioning tensions had pushed him over the threshold into something near full potential. But the new argument Flattery had produced staggered Bickel.

If we restore it . . . awaken it . . . I'd be its unconscious, Bickel thought. I'd be its emotional monitor, its id, its ego and its ancestors. He swallowed. And Raj . . .

"Raj, don't push that key," Bickel said.

"I must," Flattery said. And as he spoke he sensed the poignancy of their awareness -- this new vitality.

"You don't understand," Bickel said. "That field generator in your cubby -- you think there was no feedback from you into the system, but there was. Your voice, your prayers -- every gross or subtle reaction went back into the system through its sensors. Whatever religion is to you, that's what it'd be to the Ox. Whatever --"

"Whatever religion was to me," Flattery said.

And he pushed the key. It clicked, locked.

"How long do we have, Raj?" Timberlake asked.

"Perhaps a few minutes," Flattery said.

"And perhaps more," Bickel said.

"Don't you think we should've tried to limp back to UMB?" Prudence asked. "Awake as we are now, the ship-control necessities would've been so much simpler."

"Some fool would be certain to play with this ship -- just testing," Flattery said. "And we . . ." He gestured to include all four of them. "This potential we've discovered without ourselves would've been engulfed on Earth, smothered, killed." He shrugged. "What are a few minutes or a few years, more or less? I had a responsibility . . . and fulfilled it."

"You had a death wish, too," Bickel said.

"That, too," Flattery agreed, recognizing how the deadly impulse had helped project him into his full awareness.

With that realization, Flattery began to glimpse the train of Bickel's cryptic words -- their other meaning.

"There were Greeks who said that even the gods must die," Bickel said.

Flattery turned, looked at the big board. It was fully alight now, not a warning telltale showing, every gauge zeroed normal.

"It's programmed to take us to Tau Ceti," Bickel said.

Flattery began to laugh, almost hysterically. Presently, he stopped. "But there's no inhabitable planet at Tau Ceti. You know what all this is, John -- a set piece. We know what we are -- cell-culture humans! A host gave a bit of himself containing the template of the total and the axolotl tanks took care of the rest. We were expendables!" He sighed, put down the urge to sink back into the deadly torpor. They're already growing our replacements, our duplicates, building another Tin Egg . . .back at UMB. Each failure teaches them something back at UMB. They've had a continuous monitor on the computer. When I depressed that key, that also launched a capsule back toward Earth -- the complete report."

"Not quite complete," Bickel said.

"The ship is going to take us to Tau Ceti," Timberlake said.

"But the self-destruction program," Prudence said. And as she spoke, she saw what the others already had seen. The ship held control of its own death. It could die. And this was what had given it life. The impulse welled up into the AAT from the Ox circuits . . . and was repressed, the way humans repressed it. The ship had come to life the way they had -- in the midst of death. Death was the background against which life could know itself. Without death -- an ending -- they were confronted by the infinite design problem, an impossibility.

All Flattery had done was to provide the AAT -- the seat of consciousness -- with a superenergizer.

"Nothing at Tau Ceti, you're sure?" Bickel asked.

"Planets, but not inhabitable," Flattery said.

A green action light began to glow on the main console.

"No sense going into hyb," Bickel said.

"We are happy," Prudence said. She stared at the green light. "It isn't fully conscious yet -- the ship."

"Of course not," Timberlake said, and he thought how deftly she had phrased their emotional state. I would've said we are filled with joy. But joy has somewhat religious overtones. Prue's way is better.

Prudence grew aware that Flattery was looking at her. "Why not?" he said.

Yes, why not? she agreed.

But no woman had ever presided at a stranger birth.

She crossed to the main console, switched the computer's audio pickup into the main input channel.

"You," she said.

She kept her hand on the switch, the new sensitivity of her skin reporting the molecular shift of metal in direct contact.

They waited, knowing the outline of what was happening inside their robotic construction. That one word, internally powered by programmed curiosity and self-preservation directives, was winding its way through the as-yet semiconscious creation. Preservation -- but there were many kinds of preservation, many things to preserve.

But there was only one receptor upon which "You" could impress itself.

Programs were firing, new cross-links being created, comparisons and balances being made.

Abruptly, the board in front of Prudence went dead. Every light extinguished, every gauge at dead rest. She waggled the computer switch, got no response. The entire ship began to tremble.

"Is that the self-destruction program?" Bickel asked.

A single word, metallic and harsh, boomed from the vocoder above them: "Negative."

The ship vibration eased, resumed, cut off sharply.

There came a weighted sense of drifting, a profound silence which they felt extended throughout the ship.

Again, the vocoder came to life, but softer: "Now, you will see on your screens a lateral view."

The overhead screen and the fore bulkhead screen came alight with the identical scene: a view of a solar system, planets picked out by the telltale red arrows of computer reference.

"Six planets," Flattery whispered. "Notice the pattern -- and the sky beyond.""You recognize it?" Timberlake asked.

"It's the view the probes brought back," Flattery said. "The Tau Ceti system."

"Why would it reproduce the probe view?" Prudence asked.

"Prudence," said the vocoder, "this is not a probe view. These radiations are what I . . . see now around me."

"We're already at Tau Ceti?" Prudence asked. "How can that be? We can't be there!"

"The symbol there is an inaccuracy," said the vocoder. "There and here shift according to a polarity dependent upon dimension."

"But we're there!" Prudence said.

"A statement of the obvious may be used to reinforce your awareness," the vocoder said. "You were to be conveyed safely to Tau Ceti. You have arrived at Tau Ceti."

"Safely," Flattery said. "There's no place for us to land."

"An inconvenience, no more," said the vocoder.

Every arrow but one on the screen winked out.

"This planet has been prepared for you," said the vocoder.

Bickel glanced sideways at Flattery, saw the psychiatrist-chaplain mopping perspiration from his brow.

"Something's wrong," the vocoder said. "You have but to look around you. You are safe. Observe."

The scene on the screens shifted.

"The fourth planet," said the vocoder. "That which is prepared can be preserved."

Flattery gripped Bickel's arm. "Can't you hear it?

But Bickel was staring at the view on the fore screen -- a planet growing larger, filling the screen: a green planet with atmosphere and clouds.

"How did we get here?" Bickel asked. "Is it possible for me to understand?"

"Your understanding is limited," said the vocoder. "The symbols that you have given me possess strange variance with nonsymbolized reality."

"But you understand it," Bickel said.

The vocoder seemed to take on a chiding tone: "My understanding transcends all possibilities of this universe. I do not need to know this universe because I possess this universe as a direct experience."

"Can't you hear it?" Flattery demanded, his grip on Bickel's arm tightening.

Bickel ignored the distraction, remembered that moment in the force of the field generator when he had faltered and fallen back from a transcendental awareness. He had not possessed the capacity. It was a built-in lack, functional.

He could only accept the accomplished fact because the evidence was visible on the viewscreen. They were coming down through clouds -- a meadow with trees beyond it and a snowcapped mountain lifted in the background. He could feel the G-pull increasing, steadying as the ship came to rest.

"You will find the gravity just a fraction less than that of Earth," said the vocoder. "I am now awakening colonists in hybernation. Remain where you are until all are awake. You must be together when you make your decision."

His voice rasping in a suddenly dry throat, Bickel glanced up at the vocoder, said: "Decision? What decision?"

"Flattery knows," said the vocoder. "You must decide how you will WorShip Me."



...