Sundiver sample chapters
3. Gestalt (conclusion)
The alien made a slight bow.
"I am Bubbacub."
The voice sounded artificial. It came from a disc that hung from the Pil's neck.
A Vodor! The Pil race required artificial assistance to speak English, then. From the simplicity of the device, much smaller than those used by alien visitors whose native tongues were twitters and squeaks, Jacob guessed that Bubbacub could actually pronouce human words, but in a frequency range beyond human hearing. He decided to assume that the being could hear him.
"I am Jacob. Welcome to Earth." He nodded.
Bubbacab's mouth snapped open and shut a few times silently.
"Thank you," the Vodor buzzed, in clipped, short words. "I am happy to be here."
"And I to be of service as your host." Jacob bowed ever so slightly deeper than he had seen Bubbacub do when he came forward. The alien seemed to be satisfied and stepped back.
Fagin recommenced his introductions.
"These worthy beings are of your race." A twig and a bunch of petals gestured vaguely in the direction of the two human beings. A gray-haired gentleman, dressed in tweed, stood next to a tall brown woman, in handsome middle age.
"I will now introduce you," Fagin continued, "in the informal manner preferred by humans.
"Jacob Demwa, meet Doctor Dwayne Kepler, of the Sundiver Expedition, and Doctor Mildred Martine, of the Department of Parapsychology at the University of La Paz."
Kepler's face was dominated by a substantial handlebar moustache. He smiled, but Jacob was too amazed to reply to his pleasantries with more than a monosyllable.
The Sundiver Expedition! The research on Mercury and in the solar chromosphere had been a football in the Confederacy Assembly, of late. The "Adapt & Survive" faction said that it made no sense to spend so much for knowledge that could be pulled out of the Library, when the same appropriation could employ several times as many unemployed scientists here on Earth with make-work projects. The "Self-Sufficiency" faction had so far had its way, though, in spite of abuse from the Danikenite press.
But to Jacob it was the idea of sending men and ships down into a star that sounded like insanity of the first degree.
"Kant Fagin was enthusiastic in his recommendations," Kepler said. The Sundiver leader smiled, but his eyes were reddened. They bore puffy outlines from some inner worry. He pressed Jacob's hand in both of his own and pumped quickly as he spoke. His voice was deep but it did not hide a quaver.
"We came to Earth only for a little while. It's an answered prayer that Fagin was able to persuade you to meet with us. We really hope you can join us on Mercury and give us the benefit of your experience in interspecies contact."
Jacob started. Oh no, not this time you don't, you leafy monster! He wanted to turn and glare at Fagin but even informal intrahuman propriety required that he face these people and make small talk. Mercury indeed!
Dr. Martine's face fell easily into a pleasant smile but she looked a little bored as he shook her hand.
Jacob wondered if he could ask what parapsychology had to do with solar physics without sounding as if he were interested, but Fagin beat him to it.
"I intrude, as is generally considered acceptable in informal conversations among human beings when a pause has occurred. There remains one worthy being to introduce."
Oops, thought Jacob, I hope this Eatee's not one of the hypersensitive ones. He turned to where the lizardlike extraterrestrial stood, to his right, next to a multicolored wall mosaic. It had risen from its cushion and now moved on six legs toward them. It was less than a meter in length and about twenty centimeters high. It walked right past him without a glance and proceeded to rub itself against Bubbacub's leg.
"Ahem," Fagin said. "That is a pet. The worthy whom you are about to meet is the estimable client who brought you to this room."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Jacob grinned, then forced a serious expression onto his face.
"Jacob Demwa, a-Human, ul-Dolphin-ul-Chimp, please meet Culla, a-Pring, ab-Pil-ab-Kisa-ab-Soro-ab-Hul-ab-Puber, Assistant to Bubbacub of the Libraries and Representative of the Library with the Sundiver Project."
As Jacob bad expected, the name had only patronymics. The Pring had no clients of their own. They were of the Puber/Soro line, though. Someday they would have high status as members of that old and powerful lineage. He had noticed that Bubbacub's species was also out of the Puber/Soro and wished he could recall if the Pila and Pring were Patron and Client.
The alien stepped forward but did not offer to shake hands. His hands were long and tentacular with six fingers each at the ends of long slender arms. They looked fragile. Culla had a faint odor, a bit like the smell of new mown hay, that was not at all unpleasant.
The huge columnar eyes flashed as Culla bowed for the formal Introduction. The E.T.'s "lips" curled back to display a pair of white, gleaming, grinder-mashie things, one on top and one on the bottom. The partially prehensile lips brought the cleavers together with a white porcelain "clack!"
That can't be a friendly gesture where he comes from, Jacob shuddered. The alien probably pulled his huge dentures out to imitate a human smile. The sight was disturbing and at the same time intriguing. Jacob wondered what they were for. He also hoped that Culla would keep his... lips curled back in the future.
Nodding slightly he said, "I am Jacob."
"I am Culla, Shir," the alien replied. "Your Earth ish very pleasant." The great red eyes were now dull. Culla backed away.
Bubbacub led them back to the cushions by the window. The little Pil sprawled into a prone position with his quadrilaterally symmetric hands dangling over the sides of the cushion. The "pet" followed and curled up next to him.
Kepler leaned forward and spoke hesitantly.
"I'm sorry we dragged you away from your important work, Mr. Demwa. I know you're already heavily engaged... I only hope that we can persuade you that, that our own little... problem is worth your time and worthy of your talents." Dr. Kepler's hands were knotted together on his lap.
Dr. Martine looked on Kepler's earnestness with an expression of mildly amused patience. There were nuances here that bothered Jacob.
"Well, Dr. Kepler, Fagin must have told you that since my wife's death, I've retired from the "mystery business," and I am pretty busy right now, probably too much so to get involved in a long journey off planet..."
Kepler's face fell. His expression became so bleak so suddenly that Jacob was moved.
"... However, since Kant Fagin is a perceptive indiviunal, I'll be happy to listen to anyone he refers to me, and decide on the merits of the case."
"Oh, you'll find this case interesting! I've been saying all along that we need fresh insight. And, of course, now that the Trustees have agreed to let us bring in some consultants..."
"Now, Dwayne," Dr. Martine said. "You're not being fair. I came in as a consultant six months ago and Culla brought the services of the Library even earlier. Now Bubbacub has kindly agreed to increase the Library support for the project and come personally with us to Mercury. I think the Trustees are being more than generous."
"I wish someone would explain what this is all about. Like you, Dr. Martine, perhaps you can tell me what your job is... on Mercury?" He found it difficult to say the word "Sundiver."
"I am a consultant, Mr. Demwa. I was hired to perform psychological and parapsychological tests on the crew and environment on Mercury."
"I assume they had to do with the problem Dr. Kepler mentioned?"
"Yes. It was thought at first that the phenomena were a hoax or some sort of mass-hallucination. I've eliminated both of those possibilities. It's clear now that they're real and actually take place in the solar chromosphere.
"For the last months I've been designing psi experiments to take down on solar dives. I've also been helping as a therapist for a number of Sundiver staff members; the pressures of conducting this kind of solar research have been telling on many of the men."
Martine sounded competent, but there was something about her attitude that put Jacob off. Flippancy, perhaps. Jacob wondered what else there was to her relationship with Kepler. Was she his personal therapist as well?
For that matter, am I here just to satisfy the whim of a sick, great man who must be kept going? The idea wasn't very attractive. Nor was the prospect of getting involved in politics.
Bubbacub, head of the entire Branch Library on Earth -- why is he involved in an obscure Terran project? In some ways, the little Pil was the most important E.T. on the Planet outside of the Tymbrimi Ambassador. His Library Institute, the biggest and most influential of the galactic organizations, made Fagin's Institute of Progress look like a drum and tambourine outfit. Did Martine say he's going to Mercury?
Bubbacub stared at the ceiling, apparently ignoring the conversation. His mouth worked as though singing in some range inaudible to humans.
Culla's bright eyes were on the littla Library Chief. Perhaps he could hear the singing, or perhaps he too was bored by the conversation so far.
Kepler, Martine, Bubbacub, Culla... I never thought I'd be in a room in which Fagin was the least strange!
The Kanten rustled nearby. Fagin was obviously excited. Jacob wondered what could have happened in the Sundiver project to get him so fired up.
"Dr. Kepler, it just might be possible that I could spare the time to help you out... maybe." Jacob shrugged. "But first, it would be nice to find out what this is all about!"
"Oh, didn't I ever actually say it? Oh my. I guess I just avoid thinking about it these days... just skirt around the subject, so to speak."
He straightened and took a deep breath.
"Mr. Demwa, it appears that the Sun is haunted."
In prehistoric and early times the Earth
was visited by unknown beings from the cosmos.
These unknown beings created human intelligence
by a deliberate genetic mutation.
The extraterrestrials ennobled hominids "in their own image."
That is why we resemble them and not they us.
Erich Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods
The sublime mental activities, such as religion, altruism and morality,
all evolved, and have a physical base.
Edward 0. Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard University Press
4. Virtual Image
The Bradbury was a new ship. It used a technology far ahead of its predecessors on the commercial line, taking off from sea level under its own power instead of riding to the station at the top of one of the equatorial "Needles," slung beneath a giant balloon. Bradbury was a huge sphere, titanically massive by earlier standards.
This was Jacob's first trip aboard a ship powered by the billion-year-old science of the Galactics. He watched from the first-class lounge as the Earth fell away, and Baja California became first a brown rib, separating two seas, then a mere finger along the coast of Mexico. The view was breathtaking, but a bit disappointing. The roar and acceleration of a jetliner, or the slow majesty of a cruise-zep had more romance. And the few times he had left Earth before, rising and returning by balloon, there have been the other ships to watch, bright and busy as they floated up to Power Station or back down the pressurized interior of one of the Needles.
Neither of the great Needles had ever been boring. The thin ceram walls that held the twenty-mile towers at sea-level pressures had been painted with gigantic murals -- huge swooping birds and pseudo science-fiction space battles copied from twenty-century magazines. It had never been claustrophobic.
Still, Jacob was glad to be aboard the Bradbury. Someday he might visit the Chocolate Needle, at the summit of Mt. Kenya, for nostalgia's sake. But the other one, the one in Ecuador -- Jacob hoped never to see the Vanilla Needle again.
No matter that the great tower was only a stone's throw from Caracas. No matter that he would be given a hero's welcome, if ever he came there, as the man who had saved the one engineering marvel on Earth to impress even the Galactics.
Saving the Needle had cost Jacob Demwa his wife and a large portion of his mind. The price had been too high.
Earth had gained a visible disc when Jacob went off to look for the ship's bar. Suddenly he was in the mood for company. He hadn't felt that way when he came aboard. He'd had a rough time making excuses to Gloria and the others at the Center. Makakai had raised a fit. Also, many of the research materials on Solar Physics he'd ordered had not arrived and would have to be forwarded to Mercury. Finally, he'd let himself get into a stew wondering how he'd been talked into coming along in the first place.
Now he made his way along the main corridor, at the ship's equator, until he found the crowded, dimly lit Saloon. Inside he squeezed past clots of talking, drinking passengers to get to the bar.
About forty persons, many of them contract workers bound for skilled labor on Mercury, crowded into the Saloon. More than a few, having drunk too much, spoke loudly to their neighbors or simply stared. For some, departure from Earth came hard.
A few extraterrestrials rested on cushions in the corner set aside for them. One, a Cynthian with shiny fur and thick sunglasses, sat across from Culla, whose great head nodded silently while he sipped daintily with a straw between his huge lips, from what appeared to be a bottle of vodka.
Several humans stood near the aliens, typical of the Xenophiles who hang on every word of an eavesdropped E.T. conversation and who wait eagerly for chances to ask questions.
Jacob considered edging through the crowd to get to the ET. corner. The Cynthian might be someone he knew. But there were too many people at that end of the room. He chose instead to get a drink and see if anyone had started storytelling.
Soon he was part of a group listening to a mining engineer tell an enjoyably exaggerated tale of blow-ins and rescues in the deep Hermetian mines. Though he had to strain to hear over the noise, Jacob still felt he could conveniently ignore the headache that was coming on... at least long enough to listen to the end of the story, when a finger jabbed in his ribs made him jump.
"Demwa! It's you!" Pierre LaRoque cried. "How fortunate! We shall travel together and now I know that there will always be someone with whom I can exchange witticisms!"
LaRoque wore a loose shiny robe. Blue PurSmok drifted into the air from the pipe he puffed with earnest.
Jacob tried to smile but with someone behind him stepping on his heel, it came out more like gritting his teeth.
"Hello, LaRoque. Why are you going to Mercury? Wouldn't your readers be more interested in stories about the Peruvian excavations or..."
"Or similar dramatic evidence that our primitive ancestors were nurtured by ancient astronauts?" LaRoque interrupted. "Yes, Demwa, such evidence shall soon be so overwhelming that even the Skins and skeptics who sit on the Confederacy Council will see the error of their ways!"
"I see you wear the Shirt yourself." Jacob pointed to LaRoque's silvery tunic.
"I wear the robe of the Daniken Society on my last day on Earth, in honor of the older ones who gave us the power to go into space." LaRoque shifted pipe and drink into one hand and with the other straightened the gold medallion and chain that hung from his neck.
Jacob thought the effect was a bit theatrical for a grown man. The robe and jewelry seemed effeminate, in contrast to the Frenchman's gruff manner. He had to admit, though, that it went well with the outrageous, affected accent.
"Oh come on, LaRoque," Jacob smiled. "Even you have to admit we got into space by ourselves, and we discovered the extraterrestrials, not they us."
"I admit nothing!" LaRoque answered hotly. "When we prove ourselves worthy of the Patrons who gave us our intelligence in the dim past, when they acknowledge us, then we'll know how much they have covertly helped us all these years!"
Jacob shrugged. There was nothing new in the Skin-Shirt controversy. One side insisted that man should be proud of his unique heritage as a self-evolved race, having won intelligence from Nature herself on the savanna and shoreline of East Africa. The other side held that homo sapiens -- just as every other known race of sophonts -- was part of a chain of genetic and cultural uplifting that stretched back to the fabled early days of the galaxy, the time of the Progenitors.
Many, like Jacob, were studiously neutral in the conflict of views, but humanity, and humanity's client races, awaited the outcome with interest. Archaeology and Paleontology had become the great new hobbies since Contact.
However, LaRoque's arguments were so stale they could be used for croutons. And the headache was getting worse.
"That's very interesting, LaRoque," he said as he began to edge past. "Perhaps we can discuss it some other time..." But LaRoque wasn't finished yet.
"Space is filled with Neanderthaler sentiment, you know. The men on our ships would prefer to wear animal skins and grunt like apes! They resent the Older Ones, and they actively snub sensible people who practice humility!"
LaRoque made his point while jabbing in Jacob's direction with the stem of his pipe. Jacob backed away, trying to stay polite but having difficulty.
"Well, now I think that's going a little too far, LaRoque. I mean you're talking about astronauts! Emotional and political stability are prime criteria in their selection..."
"Aha! What you do not know about the very thing you just mentioned! You joke, no? I know a thing or two about 'emotional and political stability' of astronauts!
"I'll tell you about it sometime," he continued. "Someday the whole story will come out about the Confederacy's plan to isolate a large part of humanity away from the elder races, and from their heritage in the stars! All the poor 'unreliables'! But by then it will be too late to seal the leak!"
LaRoque puffed and exhaled a cloud of blue PurSmok in Jacob's direction. Jacob felt a wave of dizziness.
"Yeah, LaRoque, whatever you say. You've got to tell me about it some time." He backed away.
LaRoque glowered on for a moment, then grinned and patted Jacob on the back as he edged his way to the door.
"Yes," he said. "I'll tell you all about it. But meanwhile, better you should lie down. You don't look so good at all! Bye bye!" He slapped Jacob's back once more then slipped back into the bar.
Jacob walked to the nearest port and rested his head against the pane. It was cool and it helped to ease the throbbing in his forehead. When he opened his eyes to look out, the Earth was not in sight... only a great field of stars, shining unblinking against blackness. The brighter ones were surrounded by diffraction rays, which he could lengthen or shorten by squinting. Except for the brightness, the effect was no different than looking at the stars on a night in the desert. They didn't twinkle, but they were the same stars.
Jacob knew he should feel more. The stars when viewed from space should be more mysterious, more... "philosophical." One of the things he could remember best about his adolescence was the asolopsistic roar of starry nights. It was nothing like the oceanic feeling he now got through hypnosis. It had been like half-remembered dreams of another life.
He found Dr. Keppler, Bubbacub, and Fagin in the main lounge. Kepler invited him to join them.
The group settled around a cluster of cushions near the view ports. Bubbacub carried with him a cup of something that looked and, from a chance whiff, smelled noxious. Fagin ambled slowly, twisting on his rootpods, carrying nothing.
The row of ports that ran along the curved periphery of the ship was broken in the lounge by a large circular disc, like a giant round window, that touched floor and ceiling. The flat side protruded into the room about a foot. Whatever lay within was hidden behind a tightly fixed panel.
"We are glad that you made it," Bubbacub barked through his Vodor. He had sprawled on one of the cushions and, after saying this, dipped his snout into the cup he carried and ignored Jacob and the others. Jacob wondered if the Pil was trying to be sociable, or if he came by his charm naturally.
Jacob thought of Bubbacub as "he" because he had no idea at all about Bubbacub's true gender. Though Bubbacub wore no clothes, other than the Vodor and a small pouch, what Jacob could see of the alien's anatomy only confused matters. He had learned, for instance, that the Pila were oviparous and did not suckle their young. But a row of what appeared to be teats lay like shirt buttons from throat to crotch. He couldn't even guess at their purpose. The Datanet did not mention them. Jacob had ordered a more complete summary from the Library.
Fagin and Kepler were talking about the history of Sunships. Fagin's voice was muffled because his upper foliage and blowhole brushed against the soundproofing panels on the ceiling. Jacob hoped that Kanten were not prone to claustrophobia. But then, what were talking vegetables afraid of anyway? Being nibbled on, he supposed. He wondered about the sexual mores of a race whose lovemaking required the intermediary of a sort of domesticated bumblebee.)
"Then these magnificent improvisations," Fagin said, "without benefit of the slightest help from outside, enabled you to convey packages of instruments into the very Photosphere! This is most impressive and I wonder that, in my years here, I never knew of this adventure of your period before Contact!"
Kepler beamed. "Yon must understand that the bathysphere project was only... the beginning, long before my time. When laser propulsion for pre-Contact interstellar craft was developed, they were able to drop robot ships that could hover and, by the thermodynamics of using a high temperature laser, they could dump excess heat and cool the probe's interior."
"Then you were only a short time away from sending men!"
Kepler smiled ruefully. "Well, perhaps. Plans were made. But sending living beings to the Sun and back involved more than just heat and gravity. The worst obstacle was the turbulence!
"It would have been great to see if we could have solved the problem, though." Kepler's eyes shone for a moment. "There were plans."
"But then the Vesarius found Tymbrimi ships in Cygnus," Jacob said.
"Yes. So we'll never find out. The plans were drawn up when I was just a boy. Now they're hopelessly obsolete. And it's probably just as well... There would have been inescapable losses, even deaths, if we'd done it without stasis.... Control of timeflow is the key to Sundiver now, and I certainly wouldn't complain about the results."
The scientist's expression suddenly darkened. "That is, until now."
Kepler fell silent and stared at the carpet. Jacob watched him for a moment, then covered his mouth and coughed.
"While we're on the subject, I've noticed that there isn't any mention of Sun Ghosts on the Datanet, or even in a special request from the Library... and I have a 1-AB permit. I was wondering if you could spare some of your reports on the subject, to study during the trip?"
Kepler looked away from Jacob nervously.
"We weren't quite ready to let the data off Mercury yet, Mr. Demwa. There... are political considerations to this discovery that, uh, will delay your briefing until we get to the base. I'm sure that all of your questions will be answered there." He looked so genuinely ashamed that Jacob decided to drop the matter for the moment. But this was not a good sign.
"I might take a liberty in adding one piece of information," Fagin said. "There has been another dive since our meeting, Jacob, and on that dive, we are told, only the first and more prosaic species of Solarian was observed. Not the second variety which has caused Dr. Kepler so much concern."
Jacob was still confused by the hurried explanations Kepler had given of the two types of Sun-creatures so far observed.
"Now I take it that type was your herbivore?"
"Not herbivore!" Kepler interjected. "A magnetovore. It feeds on magnetic field energy. That type is actually becoming rather well understood, however..."
"I interrupt! In the most unctuous wish that I be forgiven for the intrusion, I urge discretion. A stranger approaches." Fagin's upper branches rustled against the ceiling.
Jacob turned to look at the doorway, a bit shocked that anything would bring Fagin to interrupt another's sentence. Dismally he realized that this was still another sign that he had stepped into a politically tense situation, and he still knew none of the rules.
I don't hear anything, he thought. Then Pierre LaRoque stood at the door, a drink in his hand and his always florid face further flushed. The man's initial smile broadened when he saw Fagin and Bubbacub. He entered and gave Jacob a jovial slap on the back, insisting that he be introduced right away.
Jacob internalized a shrug.
He performed the introductions slowly. LaRoque was impressed, and he bowed deeply to Bubbacub.
"Ab-Kisa-ab-Soro-ab-Hul-ab-Puber! And two clients, what were they, Demwa? Jello and something? I'm honored to meet a sophont of the Soro line in person! I have studied the language of your ancestrals, whom we may someday show to be ours as well! The Soro tongue is so similar to Proto-Semitic, and Proto-Bantu also!"
Bubbacub's cilia bristled above big eyes. The Pil, through his Vodor, began to make voice with a complicated, alliterative, incomprehensible speech. Then the alien's jaws made short, sharp snaps and a high pitched growling could be heard, half amplified by the Vodor.
From behind Jacob, Fagin answered in a clicking and rumbling tongue. Bubbacub turned to face him, black eyes hot as he answered with a throaty growl, waving a stubby arm in a slash in LaRoque's direction. The Kanten's trilling reply sent a chill down Jacob's back.
Bubbacub swiveled and stamped out of the room without a further word to the humans.
For a dumbfounded instant, LaRoque said nothing. Then, he looked at Jacob plaintively. "What is it I did, please?"
Jacob sighed, "Maybe he doesn't like being called a cousin of yours, LaRoque." He turned to Kepler to change the subject. The scientist was staring at the door through which Bubbacub left.
"Dr. Kepler, if you haven't any specific data on board, perhaps you could lend me some basic solar physics texts and some background histories on Sundiver itself?"
"I'd be delighted to, Mr. Demwa," Kepler nodded. "I'll send them to you by dinner time." His mind appeared to be elsewhere.
"I too!" LaRoque cried. "I am an accredited journalist and I demand the background upon your infamous endeavor, Mr. Director!"
After a moment's startlement, Jacob shrugged. Have to hand it to LaRoque. Chutzpa can be easily mistaken for resiliency.
Kepler smiled, as if he had not heard. "I beg your pardon?"
"The great conceit! This 'Sundiver Project' of yours, which takes money that could go to the deserts of Earth for reclamation, or to a greater Library for our world!
"The vanity of this project, to study what our betters understood perfectly before we were apes!"
"Now see here, sir. The Confederacy has funded this research..." Kepler reddened.
"Research! Ree-search, it is. Your re-search for that which is already in the Libraries of the Galaxy, and shame us all by making humans out to be fools!"
"LaRoque..." Jacob began, but the man wouldn't shut up.
"And what of your Confederacy! They stuff the Elders into reservations, like the old-time Indians of America! They keep access to the Branch Library out of the hands of the people! They allow continuation of this absurdity that all laugh at us for, this claim of spontaneous intelligence!"
Kepler backed away from LaRoque's vehemence. The color drained out of his face and he stammered.
"I... I don't think..."
"LaRoque! Come on, cut it out!"
Jacob grabbed his shoulder and pulled him over to whisper urgently in his ear.
"Come on man, you don't want to shame us in front of the venerable Kanten Fagin, do you?"
LaRoque's eyes widened. Over Jacob's shoulder Fagin's upper foliage rustled audibly in agitation. Finally, LaRoque's gaze dropped.
The second embarrassment must have been enough for him. He mumbled an apology to the alien, and with a parting glare at Kepler, took his leave.
"Thanks for the special effects, Fagin," Jacob said after LaRoque was gone.
He was answered by a whistle, short and low.
At 40 million kilometers, the Sun was a chained hell. It boiled in black space, no longer the brilliant dot that the children of Earth took for granted and easily, unconsciously, avoided with their eyes. Across millions of miles it pulled. Compulsively, one felt a need to look, but the need was dangerous.
From the Bradbury, it had the apparent size of a nickel held a foot away from the eye. The specter was too bright to be endured undiminished. To "catch a glimpse" of this orb, as one sometimes did on Earth, would invite blindness. The Captain ordered the ship's stasis screens polarized and the regular viewing ports sealed.
The Lyot window was unshuttered in the Lounge, so that passengers could examine the lifegiver without injury.
Jacob paused in front of the round window in a late night pilgrimage to the coffee machine, half awake from a fitful sleep in his tiny stateroom. For minutes he stared, blank faced, still only half conscious, until a lisping voice roused him.
"Dish ish the way your shun looksh from the Aphelion of the orbit of Mercury, Jacob."
Culla sat at one of the card tables in the dimly lit lounge. Just behind the alien, above a row of vending machines, a wall clock read "04:30" in glowing numbers.
Jacob's sleepy voice was thick in his throat. "Have... um... are we that close already?"
Culla nodded. "Yesh."
The alien's lip grinders were tucked away. His big folded lips pursed and let out a whistle each time he tried to pronounce an English long "s." In the dim light his eyes reflected a red glow from the viewing window.
"We have only two more days until we arrive," the alien said. His arms were crossed on the table in front of him. The loose folds of his silver gown covered half of the surface.
Jacob, swaying slightly, turned to glance back at the port. The solar orb wavered before his eyes.
"Are you all right?" the Pring asked anxiously. He started to rise.
"No. No, please." Jacob held up his hand. "I'm just groggy. Not 'nuff sleep. Need coffee."
He shambled toward the vending machines, but halfway there he stopped, turned, and peered again at the image of the furnace-sun.
"It's red!" he grunted in surprise.
"Shall I tell you why while you get your coffee?" Culla asked.
"Yes, please." Jacob turned back to the dark row of food and beverage dispensers, looking for a coffee spout.
"The Lyot window only allowsh in light in monochromatic form," Culla said. "It ish made of many round platesh; some polarizersh and some light retardersh. They are rotated with reshpect to one another to finely tune which wavelength ish allowed through.
"Itsh a most delicate and ingenioush device, although quite obsholete by Galactic standarsh... like one of the 'Shwiss' watchesh some humansh shtill wear in an age of electronicsh. When your people become adept with the Library such... Rube Goldbersh?... will be archaic."
Jacob bent forward to peer at the nearest machine. It looked like a coffee machine. There was a transparent panel door, and behind that a little platform with a metal grill drain at the bottom. Now, if he pushed the right button, a disposable cup should drop onto the platform and then, from some mechanical artery would pour a stream of the bitter black beverage he wanted.
As Culla's voice droned on in his ears, Jacob made polite sounds. "Uh, huh... yes, I see."
At the far left, one of the buttons was lit with a green light. On impulse, he pressed it.
He watched the machine blearily. Now! That was a buzz and a click! There's the cup! Now... what the hell?
A large yellow and green pill fell into the cup.
Jacob lifted the panel and took out the cup. A second later a stream of hot liquid spilled through the empty space where the cup had been, disappearing in the drain below.
Dubiously, he glowered down at the pill. Whatever it was, it wasn't coffee. He rubbed his eyes with his left wrist, one at a time. Then he sent an accusing glance at the button he'd pressed.
That button had a label, he now saw. It read "E.T. Nutrient Synthesis." Below the label a computer card stuck out from a data slot. The words "Pring: Dietary SupplementóCoumarin Protein Complex" were printed along the protruding end.
Jacob looked quickly at Culla. The alien continued his explanation while he faced the Lyot window. Culla waved one arm toward the Sun's Dantean brilliance to emphasize a point.
"Thish ish now the red alpha line of Hydrogen," he said. "A very useful shpectral line. Inshtead of being overwhelmed by huge amountsh of random light from all levelsh of the Shun, we can now look at only those regions where elemental Hydrogen absorbsh or emitsh more than normal..."
Culla pointed to the Sun's mottled surface. It was covered with dark reddish speckles and feathery arches.
Jacob had read about them. The feathery arches were "filaments." Viewed against space, at the solar limb, they were the prominences that had been seen since the first time a telescope was used during an eclipse. Culla apparently was explaining the way these objects were viewed head-on.
Jacob considered. Throughout the voyage from Earth, Culla had refrained from eating his meals with the others. All he would do is sip an occasional vodka or beer with a straw. Although he had given no reasons, Jacob could only assume that the being had some cultural inhibition against eating in public.
Come to think of it, he thought, with those mashies for teeth it could get a little messy. Apparently I've barged in while he's having breakfast and he's too polite to mention it.
He glanced at the tablet which still lay in the cup in his hand. He dropped the pill into his jacket pocket and crumpled the cup into a nearby trash bin.
Now he could see the button which was labeled "Coffee-Black." He smiled ruefully. Maybe it would be best to skip the coffee and not run the risk of offending Culla. Although the E.T. had made no objections, be had kept his back turned while Jacob visited the food and beverage machines.
Culla looked up as Jacob approached. He opened his mouth slightly and for an instant the human caught a glimpse of white porcelain.
"Are you lesh... groggy, now?" the alien asked solicitously.
"Yesh, uh yea, thanks... thanks also for the explanation. I always thought of the Sun as a pretty smooth place... except for Sunspots and prominences. But I guess it's actually pretty complicated."
Culla nodded. "Doctor Kepler ish the expert. You will get a better explanation from him when you go on a dive with ush."
Jacob smiled politely. How carefully these Galactic Emissaries were trained! When Culla nodded, was the gesture personally meaningful? Or was it something he had been taught to do at certain times and places around humans?
Dive with us!?
He decided not to ask Culla to repeat the remark.
Better not to press my luck, he thought.
He started to yawn. Just in time he remembered to stifle it behind his hand. No telling what a similar gesture would mean on the Pring home planet! "Well, Culla, I think I'm going to go back to my room and try for a little more sleep. Thanks for the talk."
"You are mosht entirely welcome, Jacob. Good night."
He shuffled down the hall and barely made it to bed before he was fast asleep.
This is the end of the sample chapters for Sundiver. To continue reading, purchase Sundiver from any store on this page.