Read an Excerpt
Across the Sea of Suns
By Gregory Benford
Warner AspectCopyright © 1984 Gregory Benford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFire boils aft, pushing the ship close to the knife edge of light speed. Its magnetic throats dimple the smooth dipolar field.
-An arrow scratching across the black-
-blue-white exhaust plume of fizzing hydrogen-
-a granite-gray asteroid riding the roaring blowtorch-
It sucks in the interstellar dust. Mixes a caldron of isotopes. And spews them out the back, an ultraviolet flare in the swallowing abyss.
Inside, Nigel Walmsley was eating oysters.
The last of the wine, he thought moodily, peering into his cup. And it was. As nearly as ship's rumor had it, nobody else had brought more than a bottle or so, and that had been well exhausted in the last two years.
He swirled the cup and swallowed the final chilled mouthful. The Pinot Chardonnay cut the faintly metallic taste of the oysters and left only the sea flavor and the succulent texture, a memory of Earth. He drank the last cold liquid from the shells and savored it. Eight light years from Earth, the echo of the Gulf Stream faded.
"That's the lot," Nigel murmured.
"Uh ... what?"
He realized he had been neglecting his guest. Ted had arrived unannounced, after all, and dead on the supper hour, as well. "I doubt I'll be able to replace California Chardonnay, and certainly not oysters."
"Oh. No, I suppose not. Are ... are you sure the oysters were still okay?" Ted Landon shifted awkwardly.
"Considering they've been vac-stored for years, you mean?" Nigel shrugged. "We'll see." He lounged back on the tatami mat, nearly elbowing a lacquered lamp into oblivion. His nudity clearly bothered Ted. The man moved again, adjusting his cross-legged sitting position. Well, so be it; Nigel hadn't had time yet to run out some chairs in the wood shop.
Ted's tobacco pouch appeared. "Mind?" Nigel shook his head. During meals, he did, yes, but Ted probably knew that already. He knew everything. They had a personality profile on Nigel a yard long, even in ferrite storage. He'd seen it himself.
A slow, profound stuffing of the pipe. "Y'know, when I heard you were carving an apartment in the Low Amenity Area, I thought you'd be living pretty raw. But this looks great."
Nigel nodded and studied the living room, trying to see it with Ted's eyes.
-crimson vase, pale yellow flower sprouting, tray cupping single flake of smoldering incense, teakwood box, gossamer paper walls, oblique blades of yellow light drawing motes upward in the fanned air-wait until Ted had to excrete and found the loo, a hole lined with porcelain straight from Korea, closed with a wooden cover, on either side stepping-stones in the shape of feet for the slow learners: squat and deliver, why put a mask on a valuable moment of the day-
"What gives?" Nigel asked, lapsing into transatlantic shorthand.
Ted looked at him flatly, still slightly edgy. "I'm reorganizing staff."
Aha. "You're the new Works Manager."
"That's not the term, but-look, Nigel, there are some hard choices."
Ted gave a smile, reassuring and broad but capable of vanishing, along with the flicker of one eyelid, as suddenly as it had come.
"You've been an ExOp so far."
"Gridded, yes." Nigel was too old to do the work directly, with his own muscle power. But his coordination and reflexes, enhanced by constant medservice, were still good. So they linked him by grid into servo'd robots that operated outside the ship.
"Well, y'see, there's a big waiting list for that job classification. And you're ..."
"Too old," Nigel said bluntly.
"Well, a lot of people think so. When the community vote came in-the vote on who'll do what in Isis space-you got a lot of red flags."
"So I'm here to ask you to resign. Drop out of ExOp."
Surely it couldn't have been that difficult to follow. "No."
"But community votes are pretty near binding."
"No, they're merely indicative. My fellow crewmen can't give me the sack, zip, like that. You're the command structure, Ted. Surely you know you can overrule anything short of an absolute majority in the community."
"And with 1266 voting, I doubt a majority wanted me out of my slot. Most don't know my work, or care."
Ted had a small habit. He braced his jaw a bit and tightened his mouth, so slightly that Nigel could scarcely see the pressure whiten the red of his lips. Then he touched his front teeth together and rubbed them carefully back and forth, as though he were methodically sharpening them against each other. His jaw muscles rippled.
"Technically, Nigel, you're right."
"But your sense of community must lead you to see that active opposition by a significant minority is, well, contrary to the long-term interests of our mission and-"
Again Ted made his teeth-sharpening motion, jaw muscles flexing. "The alternative job I think you'll find quite attractive."
"What is it?"
"Heavy foundry work."
Fusing the asteroid rock, prestressing struts, using laser cutters and e-beams. "Socketed?"
"Uh, yes, of course."
They hooked you into the big machines, connected you at hip and knee and elbow and wrist, the delicate electronic interface matching directly to your nerves. And you sensed the machine, you felt the machine, you worked the machine, you served the machine, you were the machine. "No."
"You've been using that word a lot lately, Nigel."
"It's terribly economical."
Ted sighed-spontaneous, or calculated? Hard to tell-and clapped his big hands to his knees. The zazen position was uncomfortable for him, even with his shoes off. For some reason most guests adopted that position, even though Nigel usually sprawled on the cushions. Perhaps they felt the rectangular simplicity of this Oriental room suggested a spine-straightening discipline to its inhabitants. To Nigel it suggested just the opposite.
"Nigel, I know you won't like leaving external operations, but I think after you made the switch to foundry work, you'd feel-"
"Like a canceled stamp."
Ted's face reddened suddenly. "Damn it, I expect sacrifice from everyone on board! When I ask you to change jobs, elementary-"
Nigel waved him to silence. He had found that a particularly abrupt gesture, ending in a thrust forefinger, nearly always stopped Ted's rapid-fire attacks. A valuable trick. "And if I don't comply? The Slowslots?"
This had the intended effect. Dragging the Slowslots suddenly to stage center raised the stakes. This in turn disturbed the controlled way administrators liked to negotiate, and also brought floating to Ted's mind the fact that Nigel had helped develop the Slowslots as a volunteer guinea pig; he had already paid dues that were more than metaphorical.
"Nigel ..." Ted drawled, shaking his head soberly. "I'm surprised you would think in those terms. No one in the Lancer community wants to stick you into a sleep box. Your friends are simply trying to tell you that perhaps it is time to step aside from the tasks that require reflexes, skill, and stamina which-let's face the facts-you're gradually losing. We all-"
"Right. In other words, they've always seen my appointment to a real, working exo job as a political fish thrown to a 3-D-elevated seal."
"Harsh words, Nigel. And of course completely untrue."
Nigel smiled and laced his hands behind his neck, leaning back with elbows high, easing the quiet chorus of strain in his lower back muscles. "Not so far from the mark as you might think," he said almost dreamily. "Not so far ..." His mind flitted over old pictures: the alien incursion into the solar system, the pearly sphere of the Snark, an exploratory vessel he had met for only moments, beyond the Moon; the Mare Marginis wreck, a crushed eggshell that had fallen from the stars a million years ago; the webbed logic of the Marginis alien computer that had taught them how to build Lancer. He had been there, he had seen it, but now the pictures were faded.
* * *
Ted said solemnly, "I had hoped to impress you with the weight of opinion behind this vote. We'll be in Isis space within months. The surface teams must begin practicing in earnest. I cannot in all good-"
"I'll go on fallback status," Nigel said casually.
"Put me in the reserve exploration unit. There'll be dead times when we're on the surface, surely. Times when most of the crew is asleep or working on something else. You won't want those servo'd modules standing idle on the surface, will you? I'll simply hold down the position, keep watch until the real working crew comes back on control."
"Ummmm. Well, it's not exactly what I had-"
"I don't give a ruddy toss for your plans, if you must know the truth. I'm offering a compromise."
"Backup isn't a full-time position."
"I'll do scutwork, then."
"Hydro jobs. Agri, perhaps. Yes, I'd like that."
He watched Ted savor this new possibility. The man treated the idea like a small quick animal, probably no threat but unpredictable, as likely to sink fangs into his thumb as it was to suddenly dart off in unexpected directions. Nigel was neither snake nor sturgeon, though, and Ted disliked things without labels. Behind Lancer's cosmetic groupgov policy lurked these traditional topdown managers, with instincts as old as Tyre.
Ted's smile suddenly reappeared. "Good. Good. Nigel, I'm happy you were able to see it our way."
A weighty silence. "There's something more, Ted."
"Yes, there is. I think you ought to realize that you are kind of ... distant ... from your fellow crew members. That might have influenced this vote."
Ted looked around at the flat, mute surfaces of the room. Most interiors in Lancer covered every wall with a crisp image of forest or ocean or mountains. Here there were severe angles and no ersatz exteriors. Ted seemed to find it unsettling. Nigel watched him shift his sitting again and tried to read what the man was thinking. It was becoming harder for Nigel to understand people like Ted without committing himself to the draining process of letting himself go into them completely. Then, too, Ted was an American. Nigel had lived in the United States a great portion of his life but he retained his English habits of mind. Many of the senior positions on Lancer were held by the affable American managerial types like Ted, and more than age differences separated Nigel from them.
"Look," Ted began again, his voice resolute and factual, "we all know you're ... well, your neural activity was somehow maximized by the Marginis computer. So your sensory input, your processing, your data correlation-it can all occur on a lot of levels. Simultaneously. With clarity."
"You're going to seem a little odd, sure." He smiled winningly. "But do you have to be so standoffish? I mean, if you even gave some sign of trying to get through to us about what it's like, even, I think "
"Tanaka and Xiaoping and Klein and Mauscher ..."
Nigel gave the names a drum-roll cadence. Those men had come after him and experimented with the alien Marginis computer net. They had all been altered, all thought differently, all reported seeing the world with an oblique intensity.
"Yes, I know their work," Ted broke in. "Still-"
"You've read their descriptions. Seen the tapes."
"If it's any help. I can't make much out of that stuff, myself."
"Really? I'd guess that you would all have a lot in common."
"We do. For example, none of us talks very well about it."
"What's the point? That's scarcely the way to go."
"The 3-D that Xiaoping made, that means a lot to us. If you-"
"But it doesn't to me. And that fact itself is more important than anything else I can tell you."
"If you'd just-"
"Very well. Look, there are four states of consciousness. There's Aha! and Yum-yum and Oy vey! But most of the time there's Ho-hum." Nigel grinned madly.
"Okay, okay. I should know better." Ted smiled wanly. He sipped the dregs of his tea. Nigel shifted position, taking less of his weight on the knobby end of his spine. This apartment was farther out from Lancer's spin axis, so the local centrifugal tug was stronger than at his old digs in the dome. As he moved his skin crinkled and folded like a bag used too long. He was still sinewy, but he knew better than anyone how his muscles were tightening, growing stringy and uncertain. He looked at the blotchy red freckles on his hands and allowed himself a sigh. Ted would misinterpret the sound, but what the hell.
Ted chuckled. "I'll have to remember that. Hu-hum, yes. Hey, look," he said brightly, preparing to leave, "your response on this job thing was first-class. Glad it worked out. Glad we stopped the problem before it got, well, harder."
Nigel smiled, knowing they hadn't stopped anything at all.
Excerpted from Across the Sea of Suns by Gregory Benford Copyright © 1984 by Gregory Benford. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.