Destination: Void: Prequel to the Pandora Sequence

BOOK: Destination: Void: Prequel to the Pandora Sequence
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DESTINATION: VOID

Frank Herbert

Destination: Void

by Frank Herbert

The starship Earthling, filled with thousands of hybernating colonists en route to a new world at Tau Ceti, is stranded beyond the solar system when the ship’s three Organic Mental Cores—disembodied human brains that control the vessel’s functions—go insane. An emergency skeleton crew sees only one chance for survival: to create an artificial consciousness in the Earthling’s primary computer, which could guide them to their destination . . . or could destroy the human race.

Frank Herbert’s classic novel that begins the epic Pandora Sequence (written with Bill Ransom), which also includes
The Jesus Incident
,
The Lazarus Effect
, and
The Ascension Factor
.

Destination: Void
© 1966, 1978 Herbert Properties LLC

Originally published in 1966 by Berkeley Medallion; revised 1978

A different version of this novel apeared in
Galaxy
, under the title “Do I Sleep or Wake”

Smashwords edition 2012

WordFire Press

www.wordfire.com

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61475-005-5

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Electronic version by Baen Books

Prologue

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator.

—Mary Shelley on the creation of
Frankenstein

It was the fifth clone ship to go out from Moonbase on Project Consciousness and he leaned forward to watch it carefully as his duty demanded. The view showed it passing the Pluto orbit and he knew that by this time the crew had encountered the usual programmed frustrations, even some deaths and serious injuries, but that was the pattern.

Earthling,
it was called.
Earthling Number Five.

The ship was a giant egg, one-half of it a dark shadow lambent on a starry background, the other half reflecting silver from the distant sun.

A nervous cough sounded from the darkness behind him and he suppressed a sympathetic repetition of that sound. Others were not as self-controlled.

By the time the coughing spasms had subsided, the
Earthling
had begun to make its turn. The movement was impossible, but there was no denying what they all saw. The ship turned through one hundred and eighty degrees and reversed, heading directly back down its outward track.

“Any clue at all on how they did that?” he asked.

“No, sir. Nothing.”

“I want you to go through the message capsule again,” he said. “We’re missing something.”

“Yes, sir.” It was a sigh of resignation.

Someone else spoke from the darkness: “Get ready for the capsule launching …”

Yes, they’d all seen this enough to anticipate the sequence.

The capsule was a silver needle that looped from the
Earthling
’s stern. It held to the ship’s blind spot (who knew what weapons such a ship might produce?) until it was lost among the stars.

From beneath their view a flame darted—the laser relay with its
destruct
message. A purple glow touched the ship’s bulbous nose. It held for no more than three heartbeats before the ship exploded in a blinding orange blossom.

“That Flattery model is sure as hell reliable,” someone said.

Nervous laughter went around the room, but he ignored it, concentrating on the viewer. Why the hell did they always think it was the Flattery model? It could be anyone on the crew.

Their view closed on the swollen blossom with the collapsing speed of time-lapse which made the explosion’s orange light wink out too rapidly. Presently, the movement slowed and their view moved into the spreading wreckage, probing with crystalline flares of light until it found what it sought—the recording box. That and the message capsule were the most important elements remaining from this failure.

Claw retractors could be seen grabbing the recording box and pulling it back beneath their view. The crystalline light continued to probe. Anything they saw here could be valuable. But the light picked out nothing but twisted metal, torn shreds of plastic and, here and there, limbs and other parts of the crew. There was one particularly brutal glimpse of a head with part of a shoulder and an arm that ended just below the elbow. Bloody frost globules had formed around the head but they still recognized it.

“Tim!” someone said.

A woman’s voice far to the rear of the room could be heard repeating: “Shit … shit … shit …” until someone silenced her.

The view blanked out and he leaned back, feeling the ache between his shoulders. He knew he would have to identify that woman and have her transferred. No mistaking the near hysteria in her voice. Some harsh catharsis was indicated. He shut down the holopack’s controls, flicked the switch for the room lights, then stood and turned in the blinking brilliance.

“They’re clones,” he said, keeping his voice cold. “They are not human; they are clones, as is indicated by their uniform middle name of ‘Lon.’ They are property! Anybody who forgets that is going off Moonbase in the next shuttle. That sign on my door says ‘Morgan Hempstead, Director.’ There will be no more emotional outbursts in this room as long as I am Director.”

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 contact

that’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 monster

doomed 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.

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