From ``Sundiver'', by David Brin.

Published by Bantam Books, New York, 1980.

In the center of the filament, the Sunship moved like a fish, caught in a swift current. The current was electrical, and the tide that swept the mirrored sphere along was a magnetized plasma of incredible complexity.

Lumps and streaming shreds of ionized gas seared thither and back, twisted by the forces that their very passage created. Flows of glowing matter popped suddenly in and out of visibility, as the Doppler effect took the emission lines of the gas into and then out of coincidence with the spectral line being used for observation.

The ship swooped through the turbulent chromospheric crosswinds, tacking on the plasma forces by subtle shifts in its own magnetic shields ... sailing with sheets made of almost corporeal mathematics. Lightning fast furling and thickening of those shields of force -- allowing the tug of the conflicting eddies to be felt in one direction and not another -- helped to cut down the buffeting dealt out by the storm.

Those same shields kept out most of the screaming heat, diverting the rest into tolerable forms. What got through was sucked up into a chamber to drive the Refrigerator Laser, the kidney whose filtered wasteflow was a stream of x-rays which clove aside even the plasma in its path.

Still, these were mere inventions of Earthmen. It was the science of the Galactics that made the Sunship graceful and safe. Gravity fields held back the amorous, crushing pull of the Sun so the ship fell or flew at will. The pounding forces of the center of the filament were absorbed or neutralized, and duration itself was altered by time-compression.

In relation to a fixed position on the Sun (if such a thing existed), it was swept along the magnetic arch at thousands of miles per hour. But relative to the surrounding clouds, the ship seemed to poke its way slowly, pursuing a quarry seen in glimpses.

Jacob watched the chase with half an eye, and kept Culla in sight the rest of the time. The slender alien was the ship's lookout. He stood by the helmsman, eyes glowing and arm pointing into the murk.

Culla's directions were only a little better than those given by the ship's own instruments, but the instruments were difficult for Jacob to read. He appreciated having someone there to show passengers, as well as the crew, the way to look.

For an hour they's chased after specks that glowed in the distant haze. The specks were extremely faint, in the blue and green lines deSilva had ordered opened, but occasionally a burst of greenish light stabbed out from one or another, like a searchlight that suddenly took in the ship and then swept past.

Now the glimpses occurred more frequently. There were at least a hundred of the objects, all about the same size. Jacob looked at the Proxmity Meter. Seven hundred kilometers.

At two hundred their shape became clear. Each of the ``magnetic grazers'' was a torus. At this range the colony looked like a large collection of tiny blue wedding rings. Every little ring was aligned the same way, along the filamentary arch.

``They line up along the magnetic field where it's most intense,'' deSilva said. ``And spin on their axes to generate an electric current. Heaven knows how they get from one active region to another when the fields shift. We're still trying to figure out what keeps them together.''

Toward the edge of the crowd a few toruses wobbled slowly as they spun. Precessing.

Suddenly, for an instant, the ship was bathed by a sharp green glow. Then the ochre hue returned. The pilot looked up at Jacob.

``We just passed through the laser tail of one torus. An occasional shot like that doesn't do any harm,'' he said. ``But if we were coming up from behind and below the main herd we might have had trouble~''

A clump of dark plasma, either cooler or moving much faster than the surrounding gas, passed in front of the ship, blocking their view.

``What purpose does the laser serve?'' Jacob asked.

DeSilva shrugged. ``Dynamic stability? Propulsion? Possibly they use it for cooling like we do. I suppose there might even be solid matter in their makeup, if that were true.

``Whatever the purpose, it sure is powerful to punch green light through these red-tuned screens. That's the only reason we discovered them. Big as they are, they're like pollen blowing in the wind down here. We could search for a million years and never find a toroid, without the laser for a trace. They're invisible in the hydrogen alpha, so to observe them better, we opened up a couple of bands in the green and blue. Naturally we won't be opening the wavelength that laser's turned to! The lines we choose are quiet and optically thick, so whatever you see that's green or blue comes from a beastie. It should come as a pleasant change.''

``Anything would be welcome but this damned red.''

The ship passed through the dark matter and suddenly they were almost among the creatures.

Jacob gulped and closed his eyes momentarily. When he looked again, he found that he couldn't swallow. On top of three days of unbelievable sights, what he saw left him helpless before a powerful tremor of emotion.

If a group of fish is called a ``school'' for its discipline, and several lions comprise a ``pride,'' named for their attitude, Jacob decided that the cluster of solar-beings could only be called a ``flare.'' So intense was its brilliance that its members seemed to shine against black space.

The nearer toroids shone with the colors of an Earth spring. Only with distance did the colors fade. Pale green shimmered below their axes, where laser light scatterd in the plasma.

Around all of them sparkled a diffuse halo of white light.

``Synchrotron radiation,'' a drewman said. ``Those babies must really be spinning! I'm picking up a big flux at 100 keV!''

Four hundred meters across and more than 2,000 distant, the nearest toroid spun madly. Around its rim geometric shapes flew past like beads on a necklace, changing, so that deep blue diamonds became purple sinuous bands, circuiting a brilliant emerald ring, all within seconds.

The Sunship captain stood by the Pilot Board, eyes darting from indicator to gauge and alert to every detail. To glance at her was to watch a softened version of the show outside the ship, for the fluxious, iridescent colors of the nearest toroid bathed her face and her white uniform and were thereby tamed and diffused for the second half of the trip to Jacob's eye. First faintly, then more brightly as green and blue mixed with and drove out the pink, the colors sparkled each time she looked up and smiled.

Suddenly, the blueness swelled as a burst of exuberance from the toroid coincided with an intricate display of patters, like a weaving of ganglia around the ring-beast's rim.

The performance was peerless. Arteries erupted in green and twined with veins drawn in pulsing, chase blue. These trobbed in counterpoint, then grew like gravid vines, peeling back to release clouds of tiny triangles -- sprays of two dimensional pollen that scattered in a multitude of miniscule three-point collisions around the non-Euclidian body of the torus. At one the motif became isosceles, and the doughnut-rim became a cacophote of sides and angles.

The display reached a peak of intensity, then receded. The rim patterns became less bright and the torus backed away, finding a place to spin among its fellows as the red started to return, pushing out greens and blues from the deck of the ship and from the faces of the watchers.

``That was a greeting,'' Helene deSilva said finally. ``There are skeptics back on Earch who still think that the magnetovores are just some form of magnetic aberration. Let them come and see for themselves, then. We are witnessing life. Clearly the Creator accepts few limits to the range of his handiwork.''

Jacob agreed with Helene, though her logic was unscientific. He had no doubts that the toroids were alive. The creature's display, whether it was a greeting or simply a territorial response to the presence of the ship, had been a sign of something vital, if not sentient.

The anachronistic reference to a supreme deity had sounded oddly fitting to the beauty of the moment.

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97.09.16 / Garth Huber