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Chapter 1

We call it Project Consciousness and our basic tools are the carefully selected clones, our Doppelgangers. The motivator is frustration; thus we design into our system false goals and things which will go wrong. That’s why we chose Tau Ceti as the target: there is no livable planet at Tau Ceti.

—Morgan Hempstead, Lectures at Moonbase

“It’s dead,” Bickel said.

He held up the severed end of a feeder tube, stared at the panel from which he had cut it. His heart was beating too fast and he could feel his hands trembling.

Fluorescent red letters eight centimeters high spelled out a warning on the panel in front of him. The warning seemed a mockery after what he had just done.

“Organic Mental Core—To Be Removed Only By Life-Systems Engineer.”

Bickel felt an extra sense of quiet in the ship. Something (not someone, he thought) was gone. It was as though the molecular stillness of outer space had invaded the Earthling’s concentric hulls and spread through to the heart of this egg-shaped chunk of metal hurtling toward Tau Ceti.

His two companions were wrapped in this silence, Bickel saw. They were afraid to break the quiet moment of shame and guilt and anger … and relief.

“What else could we do?’ Bickel demanded. He held up the severed tube, glared at it.

Raja Lon Flattery, their psychiatrist-chaplain, cleared his throat, said: “Easy, John. We share the blame equally.”

Bickel turned his glare on Flattery, noted the man’s quizzical expression, calculated and penetrating, the narrow, haughty face that somehow focused a sense of terrible superiority within remote brown eyes and upraked black eyebrows.

“You know what you can do with your blame!” Bickel growled, but Flattery’s words destroyed his anger, made him feel defeated.

Bickel swung his attention to Timberlake—Gerrill Lon Timberlake, life-systems engineer, the man who should have taken responsibility for this dirty business.

Timberlake, a quick and nervous scarecrow of a man with skin almost the color of his brown hair, stared at the metal deck near his feet, avoiding Bickel’s eyes.

Shame and fear—that’s all Tim feels, Bickel thought.

Timberlake’s weakness—his inability to kill the OMC even when it meant saving the ship with its thousands of helpless lives—had almost killed them. And all the man could feel now was shame … and fear.

There had been no doubt about what had to be done. The OMC had gone mad, a wild, runaway consciousness. It had been a sick ball of gray matter whose muscles turned every servo on the ship into a murder weapon, who stared out at them with madness from every sensor, who raged gibberish at them from every vocoder.

No, there had been no doubt—not with three of their number murdered—and the only wonder was that they had been allowed to destroy it.

Perhaps it wanted to die, Bickel thought.

And he wondered if that had been the fate of the six other Project ships which had vanished into nothingness without a trace.

Did their OMCs run wild? Did their umbilicus crews fail, when it was kill or be killed?

A tear began sliding down Timberlake’s left cheek. To Bickel, that was the final blow. Some of his anger returned. He faced Timberlake: “What do we do now, Captain!”

The title’s irony was not lost on either of Bickel’s companions. Flattery started to reply, thought better of it. If the starship Earthling could be said to have a captain (discounting an in-service Organic Mental Core), then unspoken agreement gave that title to an umbilicus crew’s life-systems engineer. None of them, though, had ever used the word officially.

At last Timberlake met Bickel’s stare, but all he said was: “You know why I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

Bickel continued to study Timberlake. What shabby conceit had given them this excuse for a life-systems engineer? Once the umbilicus crew had numbered six—the three here plus Ship Nurse Maida Lon Blaine, Tool Specialist Oscar Lon Anderson, and Biochemist Sam Lon Scheler. Now, Blaine, Anderson, and Scheler were dead—Scheler’s exploded corpse jamming an access tube on the aft perimeter, Anderson strangled by a rogue sphincter lock, and lovely Maida mangled by runaway cargo.

Bickel blamed most of the tragedy on Timberlake. If the damn fool had only taken the ruthless but obvious step at the first sign of trouble! There had been plenty of warning—with the first two of the ship’s three OMCs going catatonic. The seat of trouble had been obvious. And the symptoms—exactly the same symptoms that had preceded the breakdown of the old Artificial Consciousness project back on earth—insane destruction of people and materiel. But Tim had refused to see it. Tim had blathered about the sanctity of all life.

Life, hah! Bickel thought. They were all of them—even the colonists down in the hyb tanks—expendable biopsy material, Doppelgangers grown in gnotobiotic sterility in the Moonbase. “Untouched by human hands.” That had been their private joke. They had known their Earth-born teachers only as voices and doll-size images on cathode screens of the base intercom system—and only occasionally through the triple glass at the locks that sealed off the sterile crèche. They had emerged from the axolotl tanks to the padded metal claws of nursemaids that were servo extensors of Moonbase personnel, forever barred from intimate contact with those they served.

Out of contactthat’s the story of our lives, Bickel thought, and the thought softened his anger at Timberlake.

Timberlake had begun to fidget under Bickel’s stare.

Flattery intervened. “Well … we’d better do something,” he said.

He had to get them moving, Flattery knew. That was part of his job—keep them active, working, moving, even if they moved into open conflict. That could be solved when and if it happened.

Raj is right, Timberlake thought. We have to do something. He took a deep breath, trying to shake off his sense of shame and failure … and the resentment of Bickel—damned Bickel, superior Bickel, special Bickel, the man of countless talents, Bickel upon whom their lives depended.

Timberlake glanced around at the familiar Command Central room in the ship’s core—a space twenty-seven meters long and twelve meters on the short axis. Like the ship, Com-central was vaguely egg-shaped. Four cocoon like action couches with almost identical control boards lay roughly parallel in the curve of the room’s wider end. Color-coded pipes and wires, dials and instrument controls, switch banks and warning telltales spread patterned confusion against the gray metal walls. Here were the necessities for monitoring the ship and its autonomous consciousness—an Organic Mental Core.

Organic Mental Core, Timberlake thought, and he felt the full return of his feelings of guilt and grief. Not human brain, oh no. An Organic Mental Core. Better yet, an OMC. The euphemism makes it easier to forget that the core once was a human brain in an infant monsterdoomed to die. We take only terminal cases since that makes the morality of the act less questionable.

And now we’ve killed it.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” Bickel said. He looked at the Accept-And-Translate board auxiliary to the transmitter on his personal control console. “I’m going to report back to Moonbase what’s happened.” He turned from the raped panel, dropped the severed feeder tube to the deck without looking at it. The tube drifted downward slowly in the ship’s quarter gravity.

“We’ve no code for this … this kind of emergency.” Timberlake confronted Bickel, stared angrily at the man’s square face, disliking every feature of it from the close-cropped blond hair to the wide mouth and pugnacious jaw.

“I know,” Bickel said, and he stepped around Timberlake. “I’m sending it clear speech.”

“You can’t do that!” Timberlake protested, turning to glare at Bickel’s back.

“Every second’s delay adds to the time lag,” Bickel said. “As it is, it has to go more than a fourth of the way across the solar system.” He dropped into his couch, set the cocoon to half enclose him, swung the transmitter into position.

“You’ll be blatting it to everyone on Earth, including you-know-who!” Timberlake said.

Because he half agreed with Timberlake and wanted to gain time, Flattery moved to a position looking down on Bickel in the couch: “What specifically are you going to tell them?”

“I’m not about to mince words,” Bickel retorted. He threw the transmitter warmup switches, began checking the sequence tape. “I’m going to tell ’em we had to unhook the last brain from the ship’s controls … and kill it in the process.”

“They’ll tell us to abort,” Timberlake said.

The merest hesitation of his hands on the tape-punch keyboard told that Bickel had heard.

“And what’ll you say happened to the brains?’ Flattery asked.

“They went nuts,” Bickel said. “I’m just going to report our casualties.”

“That’s not precisely what happened,” Flattery said.

“We’d better talk this over,” Timberlake said, and he felt the beginnings of desperation.

“Look, you,” Bickel said, shifting his attention to Timberlake, “you’re supposed to be crew captain on this chunk of tin and here we are drifting without any hands on the controls at all.” He returned his attention to the keyboard. “You think you’re qualified to tell me what to do?”

Timberlake went pale with anger. Bickel defeats me so easily, he thought. He muttered: “The whole world’ll be listening.” But he turned away to his own couch, jacked in the temporary controls they had rigged shortly after the first ship brain had begun acting up. Presently, he sank onto the couch, tested the computer circuits, and asked for course data.

“The Organic Mental Cores did not go nuts,” Flattery said. “You can’t …”

“As far as we’re concerned they did.” Bickel threw the master switch. A skin-creeping hum filled Com-central as the laser amplifiers built up to full potential.

I could stop him, Flattery thought as Bickel fed the vocotape into the transmitter. But we have to get the message out and clear speech is the only way.

There came the click-click-click as the message was compressed and multiplied for its laser jump across the solar system.

With a chopping motion that carried its own subtle betrayal of self-doubt, Bickel slapped the orange transmitter key. He sank back as the transmit-command sequence took over. The sound of relays snapping closed dominated the ovoid room.

Do something even if it’s wrong, Flattery reminded himself. The rule books don’t work out here. And now it’s too late to stop Bickel.

It came to Flattery then that it had been too late to stop Bickel from the moment their ship left its moon orbit. This direct-authoritarian-violent man (or one of his backups in the hyb tanks) held the key to the Earthling’s real purpose. The rest of them were just along for the ride.

At the sound of the relays snapping, Timberlake reached up to a handgrip, squeezed it fiercely in frustration. He knew he could not blame Bickel for feeling angry. The dirty job of killing their last Organic Mental Core should have fallen to the life-systems engineer. But surely Bickel must know the inhibitions that had been droned into the life-systems specialist.

For just a moment, Timberlake allowed his mind to dwell on the sterile crèche and labs back on the moon—the only home any of the Earthling’s occupants had ever known.

“Man’s greatest adventure: the jump to the stars!”

They had lived with that awesome concept from their first moments of awareness. Aboard the Earthling, they were a hand-picked lot, 3,006 survivors of the toughest weeding out process the Project directors could devise for their Doppelganger charges. The final six had been the choicest of the choice—the umbilicus crew to monitor the ship until it left the solar system, then tie off the few manual controls and turn the 200-year crossing to Tau Ceti over to that one lonely consciousness, an Organic Mental Core.

And while the 3,006 lay dormant behind the hyb tanks’ water shields in the heart of the ship, their lives were to remain subject to the servos and sensors surgically linked to the OMC.

But now we’re 3,003, Timberlake thought with that sense of grief, of shame and defeat. And our last OMC is dead.

Timberlake felt alone and vulnerable now, faced by their emergency controls. He had been reasonably confident while the brains existed and with one of them responsible for ultimate ship security. The existence of emergency controls had only added to his confidence … then.

Now, staring at the banks of switches, the gauges and telltales and manuals, the auxiliary computer board with its paired vocoder and tape-code inputs and readouts—now, Timberlake realized how inadequate were his poor human reactions in the face of the millisecond demands for even ordinary emergencies out here.

The ship’s moving too fast, he thought.

Their speed was slow, he knew, compared to what they should have been doing at this point … but still it was too fast. He activated a small sensor screen on his left, permitted himself a brief look at the exterior cosmos, staring out at the hard spots of brilliance that were stars against the energy void of space.

As usual, the sight reduced him to the feeling that he was a tiny spark at the mercy of unthinking chance. He blanked the screen.

Movement at his elbow drew Timberlake’s attention. He turned to see Bickel come up to lean against a guidepole beside the control console. There was such a look of relief on his face that Timberlake had a sudden insight, realizing that Bickel had sent his guilt winging back to Moonbase with that message. Timberlake wondered then what it had felt like to kill—even if the killing had involved a creature whose humanity had become hidden behind an aura of mechanistics long years back when it was removed from a dying body.

Bickel studied the drive board. They had disabled the drive-increment system when the second OMC had started going sour. But the Earthling still would be out of the solar system in ten months.

Ten months, Bickel thought. Too fast and too slow.

During those ten months, the computed possibility of a total ship emergency remained at its highest. The umbilicus crew had not been prepared for that kind of pressure.

Bickel shot a covert glance at Flattery, noting how silent and withdrawn the psychiatrist-chaplain appeared. There were times when it rasped Bickel’s nerves to think how little could be hidden from Flattery, but this was not one of those times. Out here, Bickel realized, each of them had to become a specialist on his companions. Otherwise, ship pressures coupled to psychological pressures might destroy them.

“How long do you suppose it’ll take Moonbase to answer?” Bickel asked, directing the question at Timberlake.

Flattery stiffened, studied the back of Bickel’s head. The question … such a nice balance of camaraderie and apology in the voice … Bickel had done that deliberately, Flattery realized. Bickel went deeper than they had suspected, but perhaps they should have suspected. He was, after all, the Earthling’s pivotal figure.

“It’ll take ’em a while to digest it,” Timberlake said. “I still think we should’ve waited.”

Wrong tack, Flattery thought. An overture should be accepted. He brushed a finger along one of his heavy eyebrows, moved forward with a calculated clumsiness, forcing them to be aware of him.

“Their first problem’s public relations,” Flattery said. “That’ll cause some delay.”

“Their first question’ll be, why’d the OMCs fail?” Timberlake said.

“There was no medical reason for it,” Flattery put in. He realized he had spoken too quickly, sensed his own defensiveness.

“It’ll turn out to be something new, something nobody anticipated, wait and see,” Timberlake said.

Something nobody anticipated? Bickel wondered. And he doubted that, but held his silence. For the first time since coming aboard, he felt the bulk of the Earthling around him and thought of all the hopes and energies that had launched this venture. It occurred to him then what a mountain of hard-headed planning had gone into the project.

He sensed the sleepless nights, the skull sessions of engineers and scientists, the pragmatic dreamers tossing their ideas back and forth across coffee cups and butt-mounded ashtrays.

Something nobody anticipated? Hardly.

Still, six other ships had vanished into silence out here—six other ships much like their Earthling.

He spoke then more to keep up his own courage than to argue: “This isn’t the kind of thing they’d let go by the board. Moonbase’ll have a plan. Somebody, somewhere along the line, thought of this possibility.”

“Then why didn’t they prepare us for it?” Timberlake asked.

Flattery watched Bickel carefully, aware of how that question had touched him. He will begin to have doubts now, Flattery thought. Now, he will start asking himself the really loaded questions.

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