The high data-rate sense perception and identification abilities of the human system mostly bypass verbal/analytic awareness. We are generally conscious of a cognitive recognition after the fact. In this way, what we understand as consciousness has to be identified as a reflexive monitoring ability with quite limited application. To produce consciousness (artificial or otherwise) we are stepping down, not up.

- John Lon Bickel (#5), Message Capsule datum


MORGAN HEMPSTEAD'S burst-depersonalized voice filled the control room as Bickel started the playback of the new message from Moonbase.

"Calling UMB ship Earthling. This is Project calling UMB ship Earthling."

A long, rolling silence followed and they grew aware of the hissing of the tape as it sped across its sorting heads.

To Prudence, that hiss was something primordial and perilous. It was a noise from the slime of evolution and she felt that some dangerous part of her own brain came awake at hearing it.

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That's foolish, she told herself. I'm reacting to my last injection.

That had to be it: the chemical experiments on her own flesh were creating imbalances. She was using a series of variations on tetrahydrocannabinol now, shifting the CH3 forms and adding oxygen.

That was just the hissing of tapes, she reminded herself. But her head wanted to move from side to side. Something within her was fascinated by that sound.

Bickel glanced around the room - Flattery at the big board yet, composed and so serenely sure of himself; Prudence in her action couch and with her eyes intent on the vocal translator at the AAT; Timberlake in his couch, eyes closed, breathing deeply. One might almost think he was asleep, but for the pulse at his temple. Bickel recognized that mannerism of Timberlake's. It meant the man was chewing over a heavy problem.

"Hit it," Hempstead said.

"That must be an error," Bickel said. "The AAT goofed on that one."

"We do worse ourselves sometimes," Flattery said.

"On the question of defining consciousness," Hempstead said. "Reference is made to nerve barrier and threshold data your computer. Best dive to date."

"Best definition to date," Flattery said. "That's what he must've said."

"New Organic Mental Core," Hempstead said. "Medical personnel are directed to abandon all such repeats in their waste of order."

"There's something wrong with the AAT," Prudence said.

"Not with the AAT," Bickel said. "With the translator circuits from the computer."

"That goddamn wild program we flushed through the system like a high colonic," Timberlake growled. He opened his eyes and stared accusingly at Bickel.

"Abandon all such attempts," Hempstead said. "Repeat: abandon all such attempts. This is a direct order."

"That sounds like him rightly enough," Prudence said.

"Under no circumstances are you to attempt to make inanimate components," Hempstead said.

"Try that one on your violin," Timberlake said.

"Analyze course and reaction data related to mass changes," Hempstead said. "Unknown area derived mathematically."

"Hash!" Timberlake snarled. "Garbage!"

"Project over and out," Hempstead said. "Acknowledge year compliance."

Timberlake sat up, swung his feet to the deck. "Go ahead, Bick, " he said. "Acknowledge year compliance."

Flattery glanced at Timberlake, returned his attention to the board. Timberlake obviously was making a bid to regain his authority. That could have been predicted. Their first setback would bring him charging out - from fear for all those lives dependent on the life systems, if not for any other reason. Flattery had watched the way Timberlake studied the life-systems repeaters - nothing wrong there... yet. But a threat to any part of the ship was a threat to all.

"Was he asking us to install a new brain?" Prudence asked.

"Where could we get one?" Timberlake asked.

"We've already been through that," she said, looking at each of them in turn.

And for the first time since taking her position with the umbilicus crew, Prudence allowed herself to wonder what it really would be like to become that fleshless embodiment, the mentality which was central to a driving behemoth such as this ship.

She shivered.

They taunt me with blasphemy, Flattery thought.

"Are you cold, Prudence?" he asked.

He watches me all the time, she thought. The medical part of her faced the feminine part then. "I'm quite comfortable," she said.

But she wasn't comfortable. Moods of depression and elation shot through her without warning and had to be concealed. Strange psychic aches tortured her mind - fantasies of godlike power competed with the urge for physical abasement.

She suspected she was close to finding the selective stimulator of consciousness. Some of the combinations she was now using on herself provided enormous amounts of oxygen to the brain in abrupt bursts. There seemed to be a threshold effect involving the blood-brain barrier. The experiments produced residual effects, though. One of their by-products had forced her to complete abandonment of anti-S and its body-chemistry-balance substitutes. Lately, she'd had to mask and suppress acute withdrawal symptoms. And she had found herself unable to deny the profound, compulsive hungers for foods heavy in B-complex vitamins.

She also found herself plagued by sexual dream fantasies involving all of her companions.

Bickel turned from the AAT with a length of printer tape, said: "Garbage."

"What else?" Timberlake snapped.

Flattery started to speak, froze in the act while he studied the track graph on his board. He hadn't imagined it; the graph was climbing. "We've been gaining speed for several minutes. Slow... but steady."

"Drive problems now!" Timberlake snarled.

Flattery activated the drive readout, scanned it. "No, no emission. G/ R level shows the normal radiation drop."

"Mass register?" Bickel asked.

Flattery's hands flicked over the keyboard. He scanned his gauges. "Out of register! Mass reference is out of register!"

"What are your readings?" Bickel asked.

"They vary through ten argos," Flattery muttered. "They don't graph back... no series-constant in the curve of change. Mass is out of register with speed."

"What'd Hempstead say?" Bickel demanded, looking back at the printout tape. "'Analyze course and reaction data related to mass changes.' If he -"

"That could be garbage!" Timberlake snapped.

"Still that gradual speed increase," Flattery said. "A slow increment for about four minutes now."

The ship is programmed for emergencies, Prudence thought. That's what they said. But which are emergencies from that program... and which are emergencies from an unknown source?

Flattery took a comparator readout. "In the past minute and eight seconds, our speed has gone up .011002 against the fixed reference."

Bickel began shifting plugs on his computer board. His fingers danced over the keys. He checked the telltales, looked to the visual readout screen.

"Mass interference," he said.

Timberlake coughed. "Is that thing saying our speed has raised our mass to a point where something is... colliding with us?"

"We don't know," Bickel said.

"And with that computer, the answer could be garbage," Timberlake said.

"But the problem isn't garbage," Flattery said. "I'm getting direct reports."

"Speed and mass are our major variables," Bickel said. "Mass reference is cockeyed. Something outside their rated spectrum is colliding with our sensors. That'd throw the -"

"Prepare for retro-firing," Flattery said.

"Wouldn't it be wiser to turn ship?" Timberlake asked. He kicked the manual cocoon switch and the action couch snapped securely around him.

"Raj's right," Bickel said. "Use minimum change. Something's happening for which we have no experience."

"I am starting retro with micro-emission," Flattery said. "Prue, monitor the track graph. Tim, watch our mass reference. I am recording for later analysis."

"If there is a later," Timberlake muttered.

Flattery ignored him. "John, monitor hull temperature and Doppler comparison."

"Right." Bickel cleared his throat, thinking how crude was this quartered division of functions when compared with a properly working ship-control robobrain. The umbilicus crew was a pack of limping cripples by comparison... and in a situation where they needed to run and dodge and balance with the ability of an athlete.

"Starting retro," Flattery said.

He moved the micro-controls one notch.

Action couches made a slight adjustment to the change. It registered as a creeping movement of their repeater consoles against the conduits, pipes, and instruments of the fixed walls.

"Track graph report," Flattery said.

"Speed is dropping unevenly," Prudence answered. "Fits and jerks."

Bickel, watching the edge of his repeater where it aligned with the edge of a wall plate, could see the bucking movement of the ship as a series of tiny jerks. His hands on the console keys sensed a tremor in the ship.

"Tell me when the graph levels off," Flattery said. "Mass reference report."

"Uneven," Timberlake said. "Graph average is dropping, but the direct register is going up and down... it's .008, .0095... .0069..."

"Let me know if it levels," Flattery said.

Without being asked, Bickel said, "There's a micro-increase in temperature along the first quadrant, stern. Compensation system is taking care of it adequately. Doppler reference shows an actual speed decrease of .00904 plus."

"Mark," Flattery said.

"S over C confirms," Prudence said.

Flattery advanced the micro-control another notch, feeling perspiration along his back and neck collecting too fast for his suit to compensate.

"Track," he said.

"Graph is now dipping below the fixed reference," Prudence said. "Still dropping unevenly."

"Ion reading," Flattery said.

"One over four point two eight double ought one," Timberlake answered. "Agreement with emission rate is positive. Retro normal."

"Rate of down-graph is now even on the track," Prudence said.

"Mass reference is level and .000001001 out of agreement," Timberlake said.

"Hull temperature?" Flattery asked.

"Holding." Bickel allowed himself a deep breath. Changes in hull temperature where they should not occur, changes in their speed without a positive explanation - these were more alarming than a physical breakdown that they could touch with their hands and repair.

Flattery heard the sigh and thought: The Tin Egg had a close call. But close to what? Does Bickel know? Did he tell us everything he got from the computer? Even so, how can we trust computer information now?

But Flattery recalled another part of Hempstead's possibly garbled message: "Unknown area derived mathematically."

What if that were pretty close to Hempstead's actual words? Flattery asked himself. An unknown of some kind derived mathematically. The ship had encountered a mass/speed problem.

Bickel said, "Raj, drop the speed another two points and hold. We'll want regular checks on mass/speed variations from here on out."

"Complying," Flattery said. "Report in order." He turned to the micro-controls, dropped them two more notches.

"Track graph declines on an even slope," Prudence said.

"Mass reference agrees," Timberlake said. "Ion emission normal."

"Temperature holding normal," Bickel reported. "Doppler comparison is positive-zero."

Bickel looked at those two thin black needles of the Doppler comparator. They were what put the bite in this emergency. They provided positive checks on speed through Doppler reference to fixed astronomical bodies. The Doppler comparison and change in speed had agreed one-for-one.

Bickel felt he knew only one area of probability to explain what had happened, but the area involved a theory that had always been treated as a kind of mathematical game. You first had to assume the universe contained two groups of matter, each moving faster than the speed of light in relation to the other. Then the Cavendish extrapolation on gravitational theory produced negative transformations. Wide holes were opened in the Newtonian theory that two bodies always attract each other with a force proportional to the square of the distance between them.

It was that word always and the implication that all matter exerted gravitational attraction, Bickel thought.

"I do not understand what happened," Flattery said, "but I have the distinct feeling we were close to the brink."

"The brink of what?" Prudence demanded. Fear was plain in her voice.

"We were close to running wild out of the solar system," Bickel said. "Out of control, unable to maneuver. Quite likely, we were close to being hurtled into another dimension."

"Without a prayer of escape," Timberlake said.

"The negative transformations in grav theory," Prudence whispered.

"What?" Timberlake barked.

"The implicit energy exchange for enormous mass shifts near the speed of light," Prudence answered him. "The negative forms in the equations don't all cancel out until you build hypothetical transformations beyond the speed of light. There is a region of mass/speed change wherein two bodies theoretically repel each other rather than attract."

"Now," Bickel said, "how do we tell Hempstead and his boys about this without blowing the whole show?"

"We've already blown the whole show," Timberlake growled. "The computer -"

"Isn't necessarily wrecked," Bickel said. "Our life systems still work. Ship servos and sensors appear to be in order. I get consistent replies to demands for information."

"Consistent doesn't mean correct," Timberlake said.

"Was Hempstead telling us to cease and desist?" Flattery asked. "If he was..."

"We don't know," Bickel said. "As long as we don't know, we don't have to obey."

Or disobey, Flattery thought. "How is it the computer seems to function on information demand, but not for AAT translation?"

"That could mean only one band to debug," Prudence said. "If it does..." She broke off staring at Bickel.

Bickel had his eyes closed. Perspiration beaded his forehead. The circuitry was as clear in his mind as though projected there from outside himself. He had never completely disconnected the Ox from the AAT system which they had used for the Ox's interpretive routines.

An empty sensation expanded through his chest as he realized every signal from outside into the AAT had gone through the Ox into the computer - there to be lost, there to mix up the AAT translator loops.

"You didn't disconnect the plugboard from the Ox," Timberlake whispered.

"But my computer readout comes through my AAT board," Bickel said. He could hear the desperation in his own voice. "Every program demand I put on the computer went through those same Ox circuits!"

"You were using subroutines with known addresses," Prudence pointed out.

"And everything you asked for has been scattered through the entire system and lost," Timberlake said.

"Has it?" Bickel asked. He opened his eyes. There was only one logical way to be certain, of course. It would not do any more damage than already, had been done... if there was damage.

We didn't think of Bickel cutting us off from UMB this way, Flattery thought. Destroying the translator loops!

Without the translator system to decode the multirepetitive laser-burst messages, the umbilicus crew might just as well use hand signals for its messages to and from Moonbase. Bickel could build a radio transmitter, of course. It would take only a few watts to punch a message across these distances, but no preparations had been made at UMB for such a communications method. And the number of eavesdroppers would be enormous.

Carefully, because he had to be certain the first time, Bickel switched five patches in his AAT board, triple-checked them.

"What're you doing?" Timberlake demanded.

"Be quiet," Prudence ordered, as she recognized what Bickel intended.

"But he's already -"

"A diagnostic routine," Bickel said. "We'll use a simulsynchronous B-register search with a repeat on our original test of the Ox circuitry. If harm has already been done, this will just go right through the same channels. It can't do any more harm."

"And the B-register search could tell us where our data went," Timberlake said. "Yeah."

"Are you sure?" Flattery asked.

"The technique is right," Prudence said.

Working quietly, triple-checking, Bickel patched together the necessary program. He took a deep breath, sent the first elements of the diagnostic routine through the inputs, setting the balance of the test for off-line operation. He had to keep a constant check on this, key each step himself.

Presently, he began to get DDA output. He put it on conditional transfer with printout at each step in the control sequence.

He felt breathing at his shoulder, looked up to see that Prudence had abandoned her action couch, knelt beside him to stare up at the readout.

"The data has been shifted, not lost," she whispered.

"That's how it looks," Bickel said.

"It might as well be lost!" Timberlake barked.

"No," Bickel refuted him. "The computer's fully operative as long as we route everything through the Ox."

"Why didn't the AAT work?" Timberlake demanded.

"Come off that, Tim," Bickel said. "You helped me build that test setup."

"The incoming messages were going through the AAT circuits twice," Timberlake said. "Sure."

"The bits canceled themselves out all along the line," Bickel said. "We probably didn't get a fifth of the message."

"It did seem short," Prudence said.

"That message is the only thing we've really lost," Bickel said. "I'll ask for a repeat on -"

"Wait!" Flattery said.

"Yes?" Bickel looked at him.

"What do you tell UMB happened to the original message!" Flattery asked. He glanced away from the big board, met Bickel's gaze. "And what if they were telling us to cease and desist?"

"You know something," Timberlake said, "the beginning and end of Hempstead's message didn't seem to be garbled at all."

"Standard call and signoff," Bickel said. "They could be recognized and translated from the smallest fractional bits."

"But the message load was lightest at the beginning," Timberlake said. "And that could be part of the explanation there. You'd get minimum cancellation. We might be able to salvage more of the message... especially in the first parts before the load jammed it up."

This is exceedingly cautious for Timberlake, Flattery thought. Is he coming around to Bickel's viewpoint?

Bickel found himself moving hesitantly, not knowing why, but unable to escape the logic in Timberlake's argument. He slid out the message print, shuttled it to the replay rack. If only the print had been the first step in the reception, instead of intermediate, he thought. He removed his feedback patches, sent the print directly into the Ox and then into AAT, routed the readout through the Optical Character Print system and into the screen above them.

Hempstead's original call appeared there, and they all looked up at it.

That had to be accurate, Bickel thought.


Bickel broke the sequence. "Do you want any more of it?"

"It's getting increasingly unreliable," Flattery said. "I see no need."

"Those callous, dirty sons-of-bitches!" Timberlake snarled.

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