The original draft was written on an electric typewriter. It was a rewrite of a story of the same name I'd written earlier that same year, which was itself an adaptation of a TRS-80 text adventure game of the same name, which in turn was an adventurization of the same-named story I'd written in 5th grade. All spellings, punctuation, capitalizations, oddly Earthlike conditions and species in the solar photosphere, etc. are as in the original.
Thousands of lights and numeric displays flashed by in front of Herb. Every instrument that controlled the lander was under his control by either its appropriate switch or entry from the keyboard-console. Though the computer commanded almost every system on board, Herb still couldn't afford to take his eyes off the status displays on this all-too-crucial landing. Steve Fullman was depending on him to get him down to the photosphere safely so that he could begin his own experimentation. So it was no wonder that when Steve opened the inner airlock with his B.T.A. space suit on, Herb took no notice.
Herb was most concerned with the intricate propulsion system on the SEM. Seeing that it was going down through the 2-million-degree corona, the capsule couldn't use an ordinary rocket-type propulsion system. Instead, the trust was derived from endothermic fuels that pumped their thrust through an intricate maze of pipes which eventually ended up all aimed downward at the ship's bottom. The fuel was extremely tenuous, and although it was constantly monitored by the patient on-board computer and by the larger computers up above in the command module, Herb still paid attention to it, wanting absolutely nothing to go wrong on thes landmark step of humanity.
Suddenly, a single warning light flashed into life, accompanied by a loud buzzer which superseded the continuous din of the instruments and the engine. The light indicated only that a non-engine part of the ship was becoming drastically overheated. Frantically, Herb searched for the cause of this, and found the reason in the fact that the sliding hallway which accessed the outside had been opened accidentally.
"Steve!" he shouted, but no response came. He looked around, nearly panicking, and suddenly realized that Steve was missing, along with his personal sun suit. With growing horror, Herb came to realize what had happened as he pressed the large green panel that would shut the hallway. As soon as the hallway was shut, Herb pressed the equilization button that would bring the atmosphere inside the airlock equal to that of the cabin, both in content and in temperature. When the process was completed, and Herb finally opened the inner airlock, he realized that it was too late. The walls of the chamber had been eaten into over half an inch on all sides by the highly evaporating heat of the corona, a major fuel line was now exposed, and nothing remained of Steve Fullman or his Hyperdiamond suit.
The only thought that passed through Herb's mind as he relayed this back to Warren in the command mod was, 'Drat.' He couldn't afford to get emotional on a mission of such importance. If he would have given any evidence of cracking under this sort of pressure in the Earthen simulators, NASA would've taken him off this mission without a second thought.
He was too low in altitude, too low on fuel, and too determined on succeeding to scrub the mission at this point. Though he knew full well that no rescue team could be sent to retrieve him this far from home, he was still going to go through with his mission, for Steve's sake if not for his own. Why Steve cracked under this pressure and decided to take a suicidal look at the middle corona, he would probably never know or find out. Unfeelingly, he turned back to the console and continued the final procedure to prepare for the setting down on the photosphere.
This mission, which was far more politically supported than it was scientifically, would never have been conceivable if not for the invention of Hyperdiamond. Thirty years previous, a European scientist had what would then have been considered a crazy idea: he designed a diamond-like crystal out of iodine molecules. At first, this seemed no more plausible than using rust to build ships, but nevertheless, it worked. The resulting crystalline structure was almost as hard as genuine diamond, and staggeringly more temperature resistant.
The first ideas of use for hyperdiamond were as a new indestructable armor. Not only was it hard enough to withstand rifle fire, but it was temperature resistant enough - it could stay perfectly uniform up to 3700 degrees Kelvin - to take the blast from an explosion in stride. This use was under serious consideration by the military, until it was discovered that though it was as hard as diamond, it was as brittle as diamond as well; a single, solid hit with a good sized sledge hammer could shatter the casing of a hyperdiamond protected tank instantly.
Soon enough, the colleagues that had worked with the man who'd discovered hyperdiamond had created an even more temperature resistant version of the iodine crystal, which was immediately labelled, "Tempered Hyperdiamond." This substance was put to heat tests upward of ten thousand degrees Kelvin in order to determine its evaporating point (it reacted like graphite to high temperatures - there was no melting point).
This seemed to be the most versatile human creation since the laser. Not only was it resistant to temperatures that were only normally found on the surfaces of stars, but it had an insulating capacity unparalleled by any non-metal, capable of reducing 10,000° of external heat into five degrees of heat inside a layer of it an eighth of an inch thick. By far the most impressive quality of hyperdiamond, though, was its ability to be woven into a flexible, coarse cloth just as temperature resistant as the solid form.
In that day when asbestos had been outlawed due to its damaging effects on the lungs, hyperdiamond fire-suits were truly a blessing, and affordable, at least in the non-tempered version. It was only because of the old firemen jokes about doing "asbestos they could" that the hyperdiamond fabric was nicknamed Better-Than-Asbestos, or B.T.A..
But against the two million K-degree burning fire of the solar corona, a thin layer of even tempered hyperdiamond was no match. What had to be done was that the capsule needed to be surrounded by not just a single layer of hyperdiamond, but by a full kilometer of it on all sides. Though tempered hyperdiamond would have ensured that the casing would stop dissolving when the SEM set down on the photosphere, tempered hyperdiamond was expensive and hard to manufacture in large quantities, unlike non-tempered hyperdiamond which could be produced by the ton in the orbital iodine compressors surrounding Earth. As such, it was the non-tempered type that NASA finally elected to use, by an almost unanimous decision. Even non-tempered hyperdiamond was slow at dissolving at a mere 4,000°K, the surface temperature of the sun. The ship could remain on the surface for an hour and still make it back up safely.
But, as Steve found out, two millimeters of hyperdiamond in the flexible, tempered form gave way to the middle corona almost without a fuss at all.
The edges of the granule that Herb was setting Diana-IV down onto were no longer visible to him. It was strange indeed to think that a granule, barely visible as a cell through even the strongest sun telescopes, was the size of the state of California. With the unstable surface of the sun the way it was, he could be swallowed up instantly by a sudden solar prominence, or blacked out in the radio-scrambling shadow of a sunspot before he knew it. Herb didn't even remember the scientific designation of the particular granule he was setting down on, although Steve would probably have known, had he still been alive.
At last, the probe came to rest, suspended near the top of the photosphere by the intense energy forces radiating outward from the sun's center. 'Frankly,' thought Herb, 'It would have been easier to trying to "land" on Jupiter!'
Herb looked down at all the displays as he was trained to do one last time before he would go out onto the photosphere and be the first human being on the sun. His adrenalin was working overtime with the mounting excitement of what he was about to do, undaunted by Steve's mysterious death. The casing was still in place, despite the fraction of a meter of the door Steve took off when he opened it; the engine was still intact; the communications equipment was working perfectly; but something was definitely wrong with the fuel.
Herb had only been scanning this readout, so it took a couple of seconds for the full impact of the fuel situation to reach him. Frantically, he looked back at the fuel readout, and read the number off to his growing disbelief. Somehow, the fuel line that ran parallel to the airlock chamber had developed a slow leak which let the escaping, expanding material fill the chamber and be flushed out again by the ship's internal maintenance. The fuel had been expanded from its normal, highly compressed solid form, and was still trickling through that pipe. By this time, enough fuel had escaped so as to make a takeoff impossible, even with the minimum possible hyperdiamond coating.
How could he have been so arrogant as to overlook that simple detail? He should have spotted the leak instantly; and with any luck, he probably did, but his mind wouldn't let things happen that way. He simply ignored it, until now, when it was far too late to do anything.
Reluctantly, he equalized the chamber, opened the inner door, and stepped in with a makeshift repair kit. In no time, he had the leak fixed and the fuel line was covered with two centimeters of hyperdiamond-T, T standing for Tempered in the repair kit's sparse instructions. He walked depressedly out of the chamber, shutting the door behind himself. and cursing quietly with his own private curses. Within 1½ hours, the hyperdiamond coating would have passed the point of no return, afterwhich he would never be able to take off. In three more hours, the cabin's oxygen supply would be gone. The Sun suit had only an hour-and-a-half of air pumped into its bulkless tanks, and after that was gone, Herb was as good as dead.
Nevertheless, now he would go down in history twice: as the first man to set foot on the sun, and as the first man to die there. He liked those titles; they suited him nicely. Now, half gallant and half regretting, he stepped into his B.T.A. sun suit, checking to see that everything was in working order, including the audio/visual communication equipment. No; there was one thing he deactivated, and that was the receiver.
"I am shutting off the receiver" he said into the transmitter, "Because this being my last hour of life, I don't wish to be interrupted. You can conduct all your scientific stuff on future missions, but for me, well ... I think I'll just go outside and enjoy the sunshine!" And before anyone could protest, the receiver went dead.
He closed the last latch on the suit, pressed the large, crimson button by the door, and watched it slide open to reveal the damaged, rough chamber within. Stepping inside and closing the door behind himself, he checked for the last time at a readout on the side of the wall that ensured that the airlock was safe. Taking a deep breath, he flung his supply pack over his shoulder and pulled down the darkscreen on his helmet in a single motion. Despite the intensity of the blue-white fluorescent lights in the chamber, the darkscreen was so little traslucent that the room appeared to be in utter darkness.
Feeling along the wall beside him, he found the triangular panel that would activate the outer door, and pressed it. He could begin to hear a faint grinding sound come through even the high soundproofing of the hyperdiamond-T suit as the powerful motors on board pulled half a kilometer of non-T hyperdiamond to one side and exposed the inner chamber to the first rays of solar heat. Though Herb couldn't feel it, the chamber was rapidly climbing in temperature, gaining more than 300°K in each second.
By the time the sliding door had moved six centimeters, Herb could beging to see the magically normal yellow light come pouring through and registering even through the darkscreen. He was also becoming aware of a deep-seated rumbling sound which far surpassed the motors of the door in intensity.
The line of light swept across the interior of the chamber, giving it a tint that looked nothing like what it was under fluorescent light. Herb's eyes were unreluctant to adjust to the extreme glare and try to look outside. There was little that could be seen at the end of the five hundred meter corridor except a small, upright rectangle of searing, yellow light. Herb felt a momentary twinge of fear, but he instantly put it aside as he reached into his supply pack and pulled out a small hyperdiamond cylinder. The object looked more like an aerosol can that what it was intended to be, but that was only to serve its purpose. Herb aimed the nozzle of the cylinder carefully behind himself, looked straight ahead, and pushed the button on its top.
Instantly his arm recoiled with the force of several hundred newtons. The doorsill fell away from him and disappeared to his rear as the half-meter corridor went rushing madly past him. Though he had practiced this maneuver over a dozen times in a high-gravity Earth simulator, the scene was new to his mind, and he was going to remember it for a long time to come.
Within a few seconds, the outer edge of the doorway had gone past him, and he was at last outside. Using up the small amount of propellant remaining in his Handjet, he slowed the momentum of his ride and settled down easily on the tenuous, plasmatic photosphere. The fins of his sunsuit rested mushily on what could only be called the sun's surface, even though the photosphere was only a gaseous outer shell of the sun. Even so, the incredibly powerful fusion energies in the heart of the yellow star were strong enough to support his own weight with the equivalent force of water. Clearing his throat, Herb recited the single line he had so heard practiced and which would have been Steve's: "Now, at last, the stars are for mankind."
Herb took one look back at the monstrous, black sphere of hyperdiamond that had brought him to this place of fire. From where he was standing, there was no way to tell that the outer shell was roughened by the intense, plasmatic heat, let alone that that same heat was slowly dissolving its exterior. He turned around in the watery photosphere, pumped the fins on the ends of his suit's feet, and propelled himself outward from the heavily protected space craft. His face displayed a deep sense of failure.
He wiped the failure from his mind, and decided once and for all to continue this mission out to its very end. As he paddled along with his feet, he removed the pack from his back, opened it, and inspected its familiar contents in the unfamiliar light and heat. It contained very little, as there was not much necessary for solar exploration, except for a scant few detecting and defensive items. The pack contained a highly advanced molecular analyzer which could identify any sibple substance, a homing dart which was armed with a charge of intense cold, and a hyperdiamond bucket.
Strapping the pack back over himself, he turned his glance back in the direction he was moving. The unstable, fluid solar surface was absolutely beautiful, and as he mockingly thought, it was certainly a sunny day.
Suddenly, the photospheric surface flared up before him, as though he had plowed through some sensitive region of the sun's surface. The flare would certainly never be called a solar flare; a solar prominence would never fit it either; it wouldn't even be classified as a solar disturbance. It was a micro-micro-disturbance, not even detectable from an orbital position. The temperature inside it must have been about eight thousand degrees Kelvin, but that mattered little to one clad in tempered hyperdiamond. Pulling his head down to avoid any unnecessary glare, which was a purely instinctive reaction, he slid right past the disturbance effortlessly.
The instant he walked through the wall of fire, a rather dark and long patch on the photospheric surface caught his attention. Puzzled, he swam over to it cautiously, noting how much darker it was than any ordinary sunspot. When he arrived at the thing, he was even further beguiled. What ever it was, the dark line was not staying in once place; the substance within it was swiftly moving to his right, although it was almost too dark to notice, like a stream of water.
He reached into his pack, felt around without the use of his eyes, and pulled out the molecular analyzer. He glanced once, briefly, at the hyperdiamond-plated LCD display, then plunged one end into the river. The display came to life in seconds, with the simple message: "NaCl."
"Salt," said Herb. "A river of ordinary salt." He glanced quickly at the inside of his helmet to make certain that the transmitter was still activated, which was a totally unnecessary action, and playfully removed the bucket from his supply pack. He moved the bucket swiftly through the molten salt as the liquid flowed into it. Even in the extreme solar gravity, which was twenty-eight times that of Earth, he was still able to move and react almost normally, suspended on a layer of plasma. Although his weight was 28 times what it was on Earth, his mass was still the same; his body still had the familiar amount of sluggishness.
Stowing the bucket in his pack in such a way that none of the salt would escape, Herb made the decision to follow the river downstream. "Who knows?" he said to the listening world. "Maybe it'll lead into an ocean or something."
The stream didn't lead to an ocean, but what it did lead to, Herb wouldn't have guessed in a long time. He had gone no further than fifty meters when something popped up from below the surface and stopped him cold in his tracks. The sun was the last place he had expected to find any form of tangible life!
The meter-tall figure standing no more than three meters before him looked like a cylindrical, upright pig with fins on the bottom in place of feet. Its eyes were most definitely just that, for they kept a fixed gaze on Herb, trying to line him up in some sort of way. As Herb watched it motionlessly, its mouth opened, a sound resembling "Gronk!" penetrated the air around him, his right "arm" raised a pointed finger, and a line of silver lanced straight out at him.
Herb was barely able to recover from the shock in time to tumble out of the way of the spear. The thing struck the photosphere and boiled away into nothingness with a loud "hiss." Hundreds of thoughts were passing through Herb's head at this time, but the most prominent was the instinct for survival which dominated all of the base drives of his brain. Moving as quickly as the photosphere and the increased gravity would allow, he reached over his head and pulled off his backpack, holding it in front of himself like a makeshift shield.
Just as he began to open the pack, the pig once more let out his deep-seated "Gronk!," aimed quickly, and lanced out again with a line of silver. This time, Herb successfully intercepted the attack with his backpack. Through the transparent hyperdiamond exterior, he could see the spear cut right through the outside and stop short only when it hit the bucket.
Doing a quick, spontaneous mental calculation, he roughly determined the force exerted by the pig's weapon. If it took six hundred newtons fixed at an approximate point to burst his own hyperdiamond suit, which was only two millimeters thick, then it would take something on the order of fifteen hundred newtons to get through the backpack, or at least it seemed that way. Horrified, he quickly reached into the backpack, removed the homing dart, primed it by pressing its rear button, and let it fly at the pig with all his strength.
Herb didn't have very good throwing aim, but with the specially designed homing dart, he didn't really need it. Instantly the four fins at the rear of the dart corrected its course through the solar pseudo-atmosphere, and homed it in on the slow-moving, piglike solar life form. As the pig uttered its final "Gronk" as it attempted to move out of the way, Herb could see the blue-green color of its skin more clearly. No form of hyperdiamond ever came out naturally colored blue-green.
The death throes of the pig were over before they had begun. At the moment the dart hit its victim, the cold, gaseous substance it contained was injected into the blue-green body, quick-freezing it from the inside out. Within half of a second, any of the bodily functions the pig had had ceased. Within another half of a second, the 4000-degree Kelvin temperature of the photospheric surface expanded choice parts of the pig's frozen exterior; and the first alien life form humankind had encountered shattered into a myriad of pieces.
Herb reached over near himself and picked up one of the larger pieces. Even as he held it, it was beginning to lose its frozen, crystalline form and become soft, like the substance of flesh. Thinking quickly, he once more removed the molecular analyzer from his backpack in a blur of motion, and stuck the sensing end of it into the blue-green mass. The display hesitated for an unusually long amount of time, and finally returned with a display longer than he cared to remember. He held the display in front of his helmet for several seconds, afterwhich he rhetorically asked, "Okay, that's what this stuff is. Got that?" Though he would never hear the answer, he somehow knew just how important this was to everyone watching.
As he put the analyzer and the chunk of pig in his supply pack for safe keeping, his mind was churning wildly. Of any stories he'd heard about the possibilities of life on a star, the only thing that could even have resembled life would have been a colony of living, flowing plasma impulses that was hundreds of kilometers across. It was commonly known that hyperdiamond could never be created by any natural process, whether on a planet or on a star. Hyperdiamond had to be produced by artificial means, just as did coherent light. In addition, no simple form of hyperdiamond was blue-green in color; and novhere in the archives of human achievement was there ever such a thing as soft hyperdiamond laying around.
He mentally pictured the pig as a whole once more. It was definitely not made of hyperdiamond; but what it was made of, Herb would probably never get any idea. Shaking his head rapidly, he returned his mind to the current situation. He was an explorer, the first person ever to be "on the sun," and it was his duty to give those viewing him all the information he could find. Presently, he decided to give the pig a name.
"I have no idea how the loud 'Gronk' ever reached me over the roar of the sun and the soundproofing of my sun suit. I think I'll name it for that sound: Hereby, the first alien life form that humankind has discovered shall be called a 'Gronk gronk.' Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
He lowered his body and began swimming forward again, not seriously expecting any reply from his last question.
He had gone scarcely twenty meters when his eyes caught hold of something else. From the distance he was from it, the patch of darkness could be any cool region of the photosphere, but as he turned to approach it, it took on the silhouette of a humanoid being. He shook his head madly. "Uh-uh," he said. "Couldn't be. I'd scarcely believe a cylindrical blue-green pig, and I'm certainly not gonna just walk over there and find some human. Aah, it's probably just a cooler surface region that's darker in that one spot - yeah, that's got to be it. It's only a sunspot."
As he approached the thing, though, having had his curiosity aroused, the outline of the silhouette became more and more defined, and came to look even closer to that of a human. Finally, when Herb was no more than four meters away, there was no question in his mind. Somehow, there was a life form on the sun that had the appearence of a bluish-green, two-meter-or-so tall, clothed human male.
Like he did with the Gronk Gronk, he was now staring in paralyzed astonishment at the humanoid form. Hundreds of thoughts were running through his head, among them the question of how this life form could evolve to look like a human by purely random chance, and the question of why there would be a humanoid, a land-based creature, on a sun whose surface consistency never got thicker than that of water.
Though he stared for countless seconds, the humanoid didn't even flinch. Shaking his head to return him to his situation once more, Herb shrugged his shoulders, pulled out the molecular analyzer, and approached the humanoid form ever so cautiously.
"Fuel?" came a sudden, booming word that vibrated the interior of his helmet. Frantically, Herb twisted his head inside his helmet, and looked at the receiver. A switch by the small speaker was set in the "off" position; the word had not come from any Earth-based communications. Slowly, he returned his gaze to the humanoid, this time with his eyes open almost as wide as they could stretch.
"Do you want fuel?" came the loud, almost sarcastic voice once more. The mouth of the humanoid was synchronized to the words.
Fighting back the questions he had, he almost choked as he said, "Fuel? Yes, I want fuel! I'm stranded here on this nuclear furnace with a rapidly dwindling oxygen supply, and my -"
"Yes, yes," the humanoid cut him off. "I know all that. I have access to the type of fuel you need."
Herb's eyes lit up behind the hyperdiamond dark screen. "Yeah? Well, can I have it?"
"Hold on there," it said, sensing the impatience in his voice. "If you want the fuel, you'll have to run a little ... errand ... for me."
Herb was stunned and shocked at the back of his mind to hear these lines, but the situation was of much greater concern to him. "Okay, all right, then. What do I have to do?"
"Our race built a small-scale experimental fighter craft. I want you to fly out with it and shoot down the Gronk Gronk's main fighter."
"Gronk Gronks? How'd you know about them?"
"They are our enemies for the time being. Besides, it should have occurred to you by now that I can read your thoughts." His voice became domineering, like that of an adult addressing a small child. "Now go on and fly out there. You want your fuel, don't you?"
Before Herb could reply, the humanoid handed Herb a gold-colored credit-card-shaped object and pointed off in the direction that their test model fighter was stationed, and finally fell silent.
Reluctantly, Herb turned and began moving in the direction the humanoid had indicated. He was as excited about finally getting a chance to rescue himself from the fiery world as he was disgusted with the way the humanoid treated him. "Kill the Gronk Gronk fighter or you don't get to leave this place of fire!" he said, imitating the humanoid's voice. "What a grouch! Why, for all I know, I might just be fighting on the wrong side in this war. After all, the Gronk Gronk probably attacked me only because I looked like a humanoid!"
As he propelled himself in the direction that supposedly led to the experimental aircraft, (actually, aircraft was an inappropriate term for it; the flier would probably be labelled a chromosphere-craft) he looked down at the gold card in his hand. In the matching light, the surface features of it were nearly invisible, but he could manage to make out the single letter "S" stamped on its front in relief printing. Whatever the purpose of the card itself was, he didn't deem it drastically important at this point, so he simply replaced his hand at his side and put the card out of his mind. Getting the fuel came first.
Within the space of a minute, he arrived at the fighter. The craft itself was not considerably large; it couldn't have been more than fifteen meters long. Yet, the whole structure of it reeked of power the likes of which human technology had never seen. The side door was open, in fact the craft had no side door in the first place; only a small, rectangular opening on one side and a large window covering the front end. Slapping his left hand against his leg, he put one foot up on the rock-hard surface of the floorboard, and stepped inside.
Sitting down on the single chair, he proceeded to examine the control console. The pilot-operated controls were exceedingly sparse, consisting only of a double-lever on the left side, a single lever on the right side, and a green, black, and orange button between them. He lightly touched the double-lever, and instantly a mechanical voice intoned in his helmet, saying: "Individual engine control." Likewise, when he touched the single lever, the same voice said, "Pitch control." Confused but undaunted, Herb simply announced, "First things first," and pressed the green button.
Instantly, the twin engines of the craft fired themselves up, and the craft took off automatically. Recoverng from the initial acceleration, Herb sat up and gazed out the window at the luminous panorama before him. The chromosphere was as gorgeous as he had remembered it on the way down from orbit. The yellow aurora-borealis appearance still captivated him as much as ever.
The sky was dim now, much dimmer than it had been when he was on the photosphere. The glass on the window was tinted, and somehow without knowing it, the portal to his left had closed up. He looked up at the top of the window, but all he could see was utter blackness. Quickly, Herb decided that there was one thing he had to see, even if it was for the last time. He put his right arm over the bottom of his field of view, looked up at the top of the window, and yanked up the dark screen that had been protecting his eyes.
The initial glare made him shut his eyes tightly, but after a few seconds he dared a squint. Through the thick haze surrounding the ocean of blackness, he could begin to make out some of the brighter stars. Finding the constellation he had remembered from orbit, he quickly located the object he was looking for. Though the window's field of view was only covering one-tenth of the spatial sky, he was looking at planet Earth, the place he'd been born.
Happily, he pulled down the dark screen once more. No sooner had he done this than the look of happiness faded as he made out a dark shape flying in the chromosphere that was definitely not a sunspot; in fact, its silhouette looked almost exactly like that of the craft he was flying, with only a few subtle differences. There was no doubt that this was the Gronk Gronk fighter that had at last found him.
Not knowing what to do, but willing to try almost anything at this point, he pressed the next button in line, the black button. Suddenly, a line of dark, icy cold sprang from the nose of his craft, flew through the chromosphere, and missed the Gronk Gronk fighter by a good thrity degrees (or pi/6 radians) of angle. "Ho boy," he announced, "I hope my skill at all those old video-arcade games can help me now!"
It was at this point that the craft's on board computer decided to softly intone, in the mechanical voice that had rung in his helmet before, "Red alert." Looking quickly at the incoming enemy craft, Herb could tell that the computer wasn't kidding; the fighter was heading straight for him and closing the gap between them rapidly. Not knowing what to do, he quickly pushed the last button on the panel to see what it would do. Instantly, the computer's voice sounded in his head once more, only this time with a question: "What is the password?"
"Password?" asked Herb. "What password?"
"Wrong," intoned the mechanical, pre-programmed voice.
Herb clenched one fist and rapidly brought it down on a blank spot on the dashboard. Sometimes, computer programming can be done so cheaply that anxiety will automatically follow. Unfortunately, that momentary release of angry tension had allowed the enemy fighter to get much too close, and to launch a ball of matter straight at him. Frantically, he grabbed for the individual engine control and twisted it rapibly counter-clockwise. The craft immediately responded by sharply banking to the left, just in time to miss the incoming cannon-ball.
EVen before the enemy left the field of view of his front screen, Herb could see it begin to bank around in a rather small arc to fly around for another pass. He clapped his hands together rapidly, and began sporadically glancing around for any non-existent controls. Within a few seconds, his irrational eyes had made a completel circuit of the instrument panel, and were looking at his clamped hands which held the humanoid's gold card.
He immediately broight this up to his front view, hesitated for a second, and then blurted out, "Of course!" as he pressed the orange button.
"What is the password?" droned the voice a second time.
"S," said Herb with mild triumph.
"Wrong" said the voice.
Herb's mouth fell open wide with astonishment, but only until the enemy craft entered his visible range again. Already it had launched its black material ball at him, and the aim seemed far off course. Herb gently pulled back on the pitch control, and leveled off a few meters higher, only to find that the cannonball had taken his move into account and was once more on a collision course with him. Frantically, he once more pressed the black button, and watched the line of cold sear out and connect with its spherical target. The ball was shattered, but the Gronk Gronk fighter remained.
Once more he looked at the gold card. The letter S still stood proudly on the left side of the card, while the remaining portion appeared smudged over. As he droned out the sound of, "Hmmm," he rubbed the card with his silver gloved right hand. The smudge instantly vanished, revealed the word "Srill," and almost immediately clouded over once more.
The Gronk Gronk was closing rapidly. There was not time to waste. He quickly pressed the orange button, and responded to the familiar question with, "Srill."
"Sadar tracking activated," recited the same dull voice.
The enemy fighter was now only a few seconds away. Without even aiming, or thinking about what "sadar" meant, Herb jabbed his index finger down on the black button.
The vewing screen before him suddenly became painted over by a glowing greenish quadrille pattern. The ship's course automatically adjusted itself to where the Gronk Gronk fighter was dead in its targeting center, all the while drawing at least one right triangle on the screen connected to the enemy craft. The fighter was outlined in green every fraction of a second, an outline which remained where it was drawn and slowly faded out as the fighter tried desperately to shift its position away from the craft's crossfire. The instant whatever on-board computer there was was certain the fighter was centered, the familiar beam of cold lept out of the front and dove straight for the fighter.
The beam connected dead-center on the Gronk Gronk craft. It quick-froze, shook, and finally shattered in under two seconds time, enough time for the fighter to have fired once more had it not been put on ice. Herb clapped his hands above his head, let out a loud whoop, and finally settled back in his seat with a relieved sigh. He had completed the mission assigned to him by the alien humanoid, and now he could get the fuel his lander needed. He pushed the green button a second time, as he felt he should, and hung on as the craft came around in a rather tight arc and approached the area where it had taken off from.
Herb bounded out of the craft as soon as its engines had stopped, excitement and anxiety both in his stride. This would definitely go down in the records, he thought, as the strangest mission of all time. Nowhere before had humankind encountered nonterrestrial intellect, and nowhere before had humans had to take part in their dealings just for survival.
Herb was stopped in mid-thought by feeling once again the gooey, gaseous plasma of the photosphere beneath him as opposed to the hard floor surface of the "air"-craft. As the scientific knowledge of his surroundings came flooding back to him, he quickly recalled the fact that the sun was exerting twenty-eight times Earth gravity on him and his current environment. How then, he puzzled, could he sit down comfortably in the fighter craft the alien humanoids had created? Had they too discovered the secret to controlled gravitation?
His mission, he thought. He hadn't much time remaining before Diana IV passed the point of no return. Resuming the pace he had used before, he made off in the direction where he remembered seeing the humanoid. Despite the constantly changing solar surface, his bearings were hardly off.
"Okay," he announced when he arrived, ever-so-slightly exhausted. The alien turned as he continued: "Where's my fuel?"
If the humanoid's changeless face could show any emotion at all, it would have displayed embarrassment at that point. "Well," it stalled, "Uh ... It isn't exactly retainable at the present time."
"Huh?!" demanded Herb, both astonished and angered.
"You see, there isn't much lower-temperature 'solid' substance around, and we need to protect what little we have from invading Gronk Gronks. We do this by locking it into sunspots behind constructed hyperdiamond doors, thus protecting it from Gronk Gronks by the lethally reduced temperature and at the same time preserving whatever substance it is should its hyperdiamond casing decompose.
"The type of fuel you desire is safely locked up in a sunspot relatively close to here. Sadly, though, a small group of Gronk Gronk renegades managed to steal the key to that lock, and -"
"You mean it's gone!?!" sneered Herb, further angered.
"Oh, no! The lock hasn't been tampered with yet. We have reason to believe that the Gronk Gronks 'hid' the key around here someplace. They were last reported going in that direction." He pointed in a direction ninety degrees from where the landing field had been. "Now, hurry along. You want your fuel, don't you?"
Herb fought back the choking sensation as he abruptly turned and sped off in the direction the humanoid had pointed, teeth and fists both clenched. How could anything or anyone not only fail to inform their First Contact that an important part of his escape had been stolen, but also tell it to him when the time arose in such a glib, loathful manner?! 'He'd better be unfamiliar with customs of our language,' thought Herb, 'Or he's just made a foe of myself and possibly all humankind!'
His anger slowly faded as the true nature of his situation weeded its way into his consciousness. Some of the Gronk Gronks had stolen his only hope for survival. All he knew was the direction they were suspected of heading in and that they had "hidden" the key somewhere. "With all the area - not to mention depth - in front of me, finding this is going to be like finding a ... well ... a key on a star!"
He eased his pace further as the figures came flooding into his brain. The total surface area on the sun was something of the order of six trillion square kilometers, and the key - probably no bigger than his little finger - could be hiding anywhere in that area. Not only that, but the odds were well against it being actually on the surface and not some meters - or kilometers - below.
Something caught his eye. Wheeling about as fast as he could in the dense plasma goop, he was just able to see a snake, the same blue-green color as the humanoid and about a meter-and-a-half long, slither down through the surface by a wriggling means of propulsion totally alien to him. He puzzled on this momentarily, then shrugged it off and continued on the way he'd been going. After seeing pigs that shoot and inconsiderate alien humanoids, a snake was far from unusual.
As the moments lugged by, so Herb's determination began to wither into nothingness. This whole keychase was completely futile. He was beginning to wear out, and he knew that there was less than an hour before the Point of No Return. Then suddenly, quite by accident, the fin on his right foot struck a definitely solid lump. Turning curiously, Herb reached his left arm down below the surface and retrieved the tennis ball sized object.
It was one of the most well-cut pieces of pure hyperdiamond he'd ever actually seen. The stone was cut in exactly the way carbon diamonds used to be cut to make jewelry, refracting and reflecting more light than it let pass through. Due to the gravity surrounding him it felt, as all his items did, extremely heavy; he was quite used to that by now.
The most intriguing feature of the hyperdiamond was the large imperfection in its center. It was long and narrow, branching at its ends rather than disappearing, almost in the shape of ... in the shape of ... an antique brass key!
This was it! This was what he'd been looking for! All that remained was for him to separate the key from the stone, and he'd be home free. He took off his backpack, set it between his knees, and bashed the hyperdiamond against its hard back surface. The backpack gave and swayed a little; the hyperdiamond wasn't even chipped.
He tried once more, this time harder, but with the same futile results. His body went limp as he simply stared at the stone in his left hand in disbelief. Hyperdiamond was nearly as hard as crystallized carbon in its solid form, and no conventional means could break it - not even impacting it against the hyperdiamond back side of his pack.
"Come to think of it," he said detachedly, "everything around me is made of that iodine stuff. All through this mission I've lived and breathed hyperdiamond; the ship's coated with half a kilometer of it, my equipment's made of it, even my own body is clad in two millimeters of hyperdiamond-T fabric. And just think: those are the two millimeters that stand between me and potential hell; one tiny little hole in this precariously thin crystal structure and the 4000 degree environment just starts pouring in - and in less than three seconds, I'm vaporized."
Through mild paranoia alone, he began to run his eyes carefully over the entire outside of his suit. The silvery coloration was doing its job well, and seemed to be flawless. Just then, he caught sight and instantly recalled the function of the two yellow backhand buttons. These buttons were designed to do exactly the reverse of what he'd just been worrying about; they allowed a thin blast of room-temperature air to jet out from a momentary one-way iris in their respective index finger, thus super-cooling whatever was in front of them. "Hmmm ..." pondered Herb, "I wonder how hyperdiamond reacts to extreme changes in temperature."
He recovered his backpack, placed it once again between his thighs, and perched the tempered hyperdiamond atop it. Taking careful aim at a distance of six centimeters with his left hand, he reached over and with his right button-pushing finger bore down on the left-handed yellow button. Nothing happened.
"Oh, yes!" He snapped his fingers and twisted the left button a half turn clockwise. A warning tone of high pitch and low volume rang noticeably in his ears, informing him that the "cold sprayer" had been activated. Once more, he took aim and pushed.
He heard a momentary hissing sound, and that was all. The hyperdiamond looked the same as ever, but he knew that its structure was now under extreme stress - yet it had not shattered. As te turned the button on his left backhand a half twist counterclockwise, he commented, "Hyperdiamond won't just shatter like that, who am I kidding. Tempered 'H' can take that change in temperature and more.... But how much more? ..."
Without a moment's hesitation, he picked up the hyperdiamond-T lump and brought it down squarely on the back of his pack as he had done before. Instantly, the crystal shattered, sending thousands of tiny fragments off in all directions to refract the surrounding yellow light into its constituent frequencies. The cascade looked like a momentary spark shower, but when it was over, a single piece stood proudly atop the pack: the dark, opaque key.
He smiled broadly and contentedly as he snatched up the key and put on his pack in a single, flowing motion. He had no timepiece, but he was pretty certain that the point of no return couldn't be more than thirty minutes away; he had to hurry. Twisting and diving back into the surface, he did the backstroke for a few meters, then flipped and began swimming freestyle again toward the alien humanoid.
Before he had gone fifty meters, though, he was stopped dead by a small prominence that flared up not six meters before him. He was taken aback momentarily by the sudden onslaught of new light and sound, but thereafter resumed pressing forward toward the wall of fire. When he was about three meters away, however, he was stopped again, this time by a loud mechanical warning beeper and a digital message displayed on the inside of his helmet. It took a little time for his eyes to focus in that closely, but he was soon able to read the message he had forgotten could even be displayed. It said simply 11540 K.
"Eleven thousand, five hundred-and-forty degrees Kelvin? Oh, yeah," he recalled, "The automatic high temperature level warning indicator. I almost forgot it existed, but I'm glad it does. That flare is too hot for my suit to pass through without decrystallizing - at least, those were the words they told us to say in the academy. They're just a fancy way of saying that if I went any further, I'd be a cinderblock, or worse. Now what? ..."
He scanned to both sides of the wall, but all that was visible was a limitless line of flames that melded into the yellow horizon in both directions. At this point, he began to get seriously worried. Should he rush through the prominance, he would disintegrate; but should he wait for it to subside, it would probably be too late for him to take off and he would die anyway. The only way to make it out was to find some way of crossing it, possibly by finding a cool spot, or possibly by cooling a spot off.
He sidestroked off to the left for a few meters, but at every point along it the readout on his helmet was the same: 11500 K, give or take a couple hundred degrees. More anxious now, he turned and sidepaddled to the right over the distance he'd covered plus a few meters more; still the warning indicator continued its bleating. "No good," he muttered. "I'll only be able to cross this by cooling off a spot myself."
He approached as closely as he dared - less than a meter away - and poised himself with his right finger pointing at the base of the wall, his left index finger over the yellow button on his right hand, and the key stowed temporarily in one of the external zipper pouches on the B.T.A. suit. Tapping the button, he watched the display intently as the thin stream of relative cold flashed between his index finger and the wall, instantaneously lowering the brightness of a point at the base of the disturbance before being absorbed in the rest of the superheated plasma. At no time during the entire process did the warning indicator's reading drop below ten thousand degrees Kelvin.
This would do no good. A concentrated blast of even supercooled gas (such as air) would affect an area too small for him to dash through. What he needed was something that was not necessarily cold, but cool enough and able to cover enough area for a momentary doorway to be created in the fire wall. Back on Earth, when a fire needed to be doused quickly without the aid of any extinguishers, throwing a bucket of water on it would work very nicely; on the sun, however, any water would be either vaporous (at the very least), decomposed into its oxygen and hydrogen components, or possibly even converted into a plasma. Liquid water didn't - couldn't - exist in this environment.
For some unknown reason, the bucket of water concept hung in his mind, desperately trying to link onto something concrete and existing with him at that very moment. Finally, the idea got through to him: he was carrying a bucket of liquid salt in his backpack, which might have the same desired effect as a bucket of water on a fire!
Suddenly excited, he snapped his fingers as the idea began working his physical body. Without even thinking about it, he whipped off his backpack, swung it around in front of himself, and removed the bucket with such speed and abandon that several ounces of the liquid sodium chloride splashed over the now uncovered sides. The bucket came around into a throwing position as Herb took coarse aim and launched the splashing, glowing salt liquid at the base of the prominence.
Instantly, the number on the inside of his helmet began to drop. Within two seconds, it reached the safety point as a mind-pleasing four digit temperature flashed on for a millisecond, and the display vanished. At last also, the warning beeper was silent.
His progress through the cold spot was a dive, which flung him through just centimeters ahead of the temperature regaining the critical level. Now he was out, and had to get back to the humanoid as fast as his finds would propel him, what with less than half an hour to go.
"Here's your ... er ... key," he panted when he arrived once more at the humanoid's apparent place. The alien hadn't boved since he'd first seen it. "Now get me my fuel, I don't have much time."
Painstakingly slowly, the right arm of the humanoid extended itself and grasped the key. The alien drew the arm back to its side, waited a few seconds, apparently for no reason, and then slowly turned as it said, "Come with me."
The progress was exceedingly slow. If Herb had not been so anxious, he would have noticed the humanoid was having serious problems manipulating its body into motion. As it was, though, he only saw its actions as pestering to his current situation. 'What's the matter with him?' he thought. 'Doesn't he know time's running short? If he keeps this up I'm going to punch him out, take his key, and go get the fuel myself! Why does he insist on intimidating me like this?!'
Fortunately, Herb abstained for the last couple of minutes before they reached the sunspot that had been converted into a storage area. It wasn't a large sunspot by any means; it wouldn't even be visible in space without supersensitive magnification equipment. It was, however, fixed in place and not shifting violently as the rest of the photosphere did. Some how, the creatures that constructed this storage area had also found a way to fix something in place on the solar surface. Herb was beginning to give these aliens more and more credit all the time. If only their personalities were a little less obnoxious....
The humanoid quickly located the keyhole, put the key up to it, and had to try three times before the poorly coordinated piece of refined hyperdiamond went clumsily in. As the lock tumbled into motion, deep within the sunspot structure a myriad of tiny parts began working to push the massive vault door open. A little crusty sediment which had generated itself about the edge of the door cracked apart, and the ten-centimeter-thick rectangle swung open revealing its gaping hole into the dark interior of the sunspot.
The alien humanoid poised himself for a moment, almost recoiling from the opening, and asked, "Could ... could you reach in there and retrieve the fuel yourself?"
"May I ask why," Herb responded, nearly sarcastic.
"Because it's too cold in there for me!"
'Well, that's true enough,' Herb thought as he entered the chamber slowly. 'The interior of a sunspot is hundreds of degrees cooler than the surrounding photosphere. If their temperature range is as limited as ours, it would be like going into the back of a meat freezer set on maximum.'
Not only was it several hundred degrees cooler inside, it was blindingly dark as well. He extended both arms, hoping to find a wall to guide him, but there was nothing but the darkened solar atmosphere within his reach. Getting an idea, he glanced in back of himself and noted that the entryway, which was barely a meter-and-a-half tall, was over two meters behind him. He turned back to where he was going, put his hands to either side of the front of his helmet and, with two of his free fingers, pulled the dark screen up for the second time in history.
This time, the onslaught of luminescence took only a few seconds for him to adapt to, and with some heavy squinting he could make out a good amount of the detail in the chamber. It was a room approximately three meters wide by five meters long by two-and-a-half meters high, containing small rectangular cases of paraphernalia varying in sizes. Situated against the far wall was a cylindrical case made of transparent hyperdiamond, inside of which rested a solid, brownish substance whose porous exterior could only be that of the endothermic rocket fuel which powered the Diana IV.
Smiling with the knowledge that he would soon be out of all this, he strode over to the log-shaped case, bent down, pulled down his dark screen, reached out and picked up the meter-long object, got up, turned around, and walked back out the door into the gaseous photosphere once more. Despite the intense solar gravity, the log felt quite light - until he left the solid-floored sunspot chamber.
'More gravity control,' he thought. 'But why would they need it in one of their own chambers? Certainly they could withstand the gravity on a solid surface...."
Herb did a quick goodbye salute to the alien as the door slowly drew itself shut. He would have dashed back to the SEM just then had not the humanoid began to look stranger than ever. At first, this was just a feeling Herb had, but it soon grew into a startling truth.
Its arm began to wither and retract into its body. Its outline became fuzzy and inobvious. The whole of its form was shifting itself to, perhaps, the way it truly was. When the transformation was complete, and its borders became rigidly defined once more, its body was in the shape of the snake that had slithered by Herb not a quarter hour ago.
He stared at the alien's new form with renewed awe and appreciation, not just because it could change its shape, but mostly due to the extreme empathy he was now sharing with it. In its humanoid form, Herb had detected no emotionalism from it simply because it was patterning itself after the only human it had seen (Herb), and was running itself like a complex computer program; it took all its concentration to maintain its human likeness. Now, with all the barriers down, Herb could finally feel the emotional, caring being it truly was.
The snake sopke once more, fixing his darkened photoreceptors (they did not look like eyes) on Herb's. The snake's mouth didn't move: "I am sorry for having put you through this ordeal, but please believe me, it was necessary for us.
"As you can tell, our natural talents are developed to a level that far exceeds yours - our shape-changing and telepathic/telesonic abilities, for instance. Our technology would have been just as far ahead of yours - just as incomprehensibly more advanced - had we been able to figure out a way to penetrate the corona. As it was, no one could - or would - think of a possible solution, so our technology eventually became stagnant and withered down to the sub-mechanical level. For centuries of your time we did absolutely nothing, and as a result the recessive Gronk Gronk race grew in strength which soon equaled our own.
"It has only been during the last few of your centuries that we have been able to rebuild our lost glory and dominate the less-intelligent, warlike Gronk Gronks once more. We were soon becoming afraid that history would repeat itself and that the impassible barrier of the solar corona would bring us to decadence once more, when you came along.
"You gave us the simple answer that we had for hundreds of millenia tried and failed to acquire! Should there not be a substance which a thin layer could withstand the coronal heat, then a superthick shell of some easy-to-produce form of hyperdiamond would allow enough time for a small ship to escape the corona! We haven't your human quality of superdetermination and drive to succeed, you see."
"Wait a minute," Herb interrupted. "What do you mean by an 'easy-to produce form' of hyperdiamond?"
"We live here," it replied, instantly picking up the connotation of his question. "We've had all the time in the universe to figure out new ways of combining plasmas into solids. From what I've read of your mind, you've only been at it some thirty Earth revolutions.
"The test-flying of our newest craft, and certainly the search for the 'stolen' key, were tests of your determination to succeed. Had any of us been put under the same conditions, we would have given up without a second thought. Your people are strong-willed indeed. I ... hope that we might meet again sometime.... Just us two.
"Goodbye," the final words rang in his helmet as the snake dove head-long into the photosphere. It emerged five seconds later and twenty meters away, coming a good half-meter up off the surface before leveling off and swimming away at a rather impressive velocity.
"Why did you have to leave," Herb said to the listening world. "How could I have been so completely wrong about you?! You are ... my friend!!"
Never, on this mission or at any other time, had any single event made him ponder so deeply. He completely engrossed himself in the words the snake had spoken, and all the telepathic and empathic truth behind them. He became so deeply rooted in these thoughts that he nearly forgot that the mission was not over yet....
A minute later, he snapped himself out of it as the memory of the dissolving Diana IV came flooding back to him. Taking off his backpack, he immediately located the built-in homing indicator which continually displayed the direction of the SEM from its present location. He sighted down the old-fashioned needle, made out the outline of the sphere against the sunspotted background, replaced the backpack, and sped off freestyle with the determination to succeed the snake had mentioned not two minutes before.
Bracing himself against the doorsill when he finally returned, he tood out the second cylindrical Handject from a zippered compartment in his sunsuit, braced his arm behind himself, and pushed the actuating button. The trip bock inside was quicker than when leaving, requiring him to reverse the aim of his propellant can only halfway through the flight.
He was flung into the small airlock chamber and rebounded off the far wall not seven meters from the outside entrance. Clambering to his feet with the unstable yet degravitated fuel log in his right arm, he found the large red button that would move the outer door shut. Before he pressed it, though, he turned to face the rectangle of light, and finished, "So long, O heavenly hell!" The door moved shut.
In the darkness, the only sound Herb could hear was the ringing of his own ears. He'd been so accustomed to the deep-seated solar rumble that its absence left him feeling nearly dead; the blackness only enhanced this feeling. When a beeper broke the silence indicating atmospheric equalization, he twisted off his helmet.
The harsh blue fluorescent lights stung his eyes as did the humming and clanking of the ship his now unprotected ears. He was home.
Entering the control center, he immediately rushed for the Fuel Line Access Hatch; he would worry about his B.T.A. sunsuit later. He opened it haphazardly, popped the seal on the cylindrical hyperdiamond case, and dropped the log of fuel in where it was accepted with a loud "clank." Evidently their fuel was good enough to get by the impurity testers.
Closing the hatch, he rushed to his seat at the console and brought its communication equipment to life once more. "Warren, this is Herb. Have you been following my conversation outside?"
"You bet I have!" came the excited response. "The whole world was rooting for you all the way along. You can still make it; you have several minutes left. But you'll have to launch immediately."
"I'm way ahead of you, ol' buddy. Countdown set at T-minus twenty seconds, and counting."
The display screen, which had been for days putting out screenfuls of small-lettered data, was now occupied by a giant, low-resolution number twenty which almost immediately switched to a nineteen. This was the way the people at Houston made the takeoffs more suspenseful.
As the number approached zero, Herb's fingers went dashing about the instrument panel, bringing systems to life which would have taken twice as long to activate by computer. He was exceptionally good at what he did, but he knew that one mistake ...
As the number hit four, the thrust compressors hummed into action as the endothermic fuel began to absorb the incoming solar energy. At zero, the craft at last began to fall upward.
The middle corona seemed a lot more beautiful to a person who knew he was going to make it back. For the first time since Steve took his fatal steps outside, Herb relaxed and accounted everything that had happened on this mission as his mind would do while sleeping. This was the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, he noted as he chewed on a zero-gravity nutrition pill. The world would be a different place in the next few years. Maybe we'd even go as far as interspecies politics.
But aside from the far-reaching implications of his meeting, what about the near-future? Now that they knew the secret of extracoronal navigation, it wouldn't be long before they visited Earth. Wouldn't that be something, alien snakes using hyperdiamond suits to keep the 4000-degree heat in! Actually, the idea wasn't too far-fetched.
And then, he began to recall an old joke made up in the days before hyperdiamond existed:
"We're going to be the first people to land on Mars."
"Oh, yeah? We're going to be the first to land on Mercury!"
"Well, WE'RE going to be the first to land on the Sun!"
"You can't land on the Sun; it's too hot. You'll burn up!"
"No we won't. We're going at night!!!"