Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Adam gave a half-laugh. “He encountered it in a likely place, I think. Kind of took me by surprise, out there.”

Chapter Six

By the third standard day after First Landing, scoutships were shuttling in an almost continuous pattern between Alpha One and the tiny accessible area of Golden’s surface that the explorers had come to call the Stem. As everyone had expected, General Grodsky had decreed Total Investigation here; that meant that eventually everything within reach on Planet Golden was to be sampled and studied. Planeteer teams had already begun analyzing the air, the water, the soil, and many of the smaller forms of life. As yet no attempts had been made to obtain specimens of the larger animals. For one thing, the human natives might be inconvenienced or outraged by such activity, and for another, until more had been learned by observation there was at least a theoretical chance of getting an intelligent, non-primate-theme human being in the game bag by mistake. A very few such races were known to exist in the Galaxy, of intelligent beings therefore classified as human, but with no more physical resemblance to Earth-descended humans than to marigolds or mollusks.

The indications so far on Golden were that life here held at least fairly closely to the commonest Galactic theme patterns for Earth-type planets. Beside the natives who were obviously intelligent beings in the primate theme, there were deer-types and giraffe-types to be seen grazing on the green plains. Species of large animals strongly centered in the cat-theme of Galactic evolution had been observed, preying as might be expected upon the larger herbivores. And here on Golden, as on every habitable world that explorers from Earth had yet examined, there were also apparent exceptions to the standard Galactic themes-here, most notably so far, the species of large omnivores that were already being called geryons.

Day and night the radar equipment of the Earth-descended explorers never ceased for a millisecond to scan the Field. But still the Field was never observed to move or change. Every attempt to measure or analyze it had so far proven fruitless, as every technologically advanced instrument brought into contact with it died on contact. The Field simply existed, as it had since Fakhuri’s first sighting, shrouding the planet completely except for the tiny Stem area of the surface.

On the third day after First Landing-Golden’s rotation was only very slightly slower than that of Earth-a small group of women and men in protective groundsuits approached on foot the invisible but very sharply defined line where the Field came down in a nearly vertical wall to meet the soil of Golden.

These planeteers carried with them long wired probes, similar to the ones that had earlier been lowered into the Field from a scoutship. It was soon discovered that at ground level the result was the same. Electrical currents died as soon as any part of the wire carrying them was introduced into the Field. The surface of the Field was soon found to be very smooth in every region tested, and very sharply defined. The anomalous condition-now a favorite term of description-was soon shown to extend, in the same plane as aboveground, for at least a few meters below ground level. Plans were begun for deeper exploratory excavations.

Electrical devices of any kind invariably went dead when they were shoved across the invisible boundary. Yet the boundary appeared to mean nothing to birds and animals, or to the native people who like the birds and animals were observed passing in and out of the Field at will, with the bioelectric activities of their bodies presumably unaffected by it.

“Do you know what the word is on Golden?” asked Adam through his groundsuit’s airspeaker. He was sighting carefully into a radar instrument as he spoke, and a moment later he began to drive another marking pole into the soft ground, just inside the newly charted boundary of the Stem.

Kwame Chun Li, the only planeteer on this mission who was less of a veteran than Adam, moved his electrical probe a little further on, positioning it in accordance with Adam’s gestures. ” ‘Presumably’?” Chun Lui offered. “I hear the physicists are having it programmed into their writers on a single key.”

” ‘Apparently’ is the one I had in mind,” said Adam.

Small Earth animals, pushed into the Field inside a wheeled cage, showed no immediate effects from the exposure, and gave no sign that they were even aware of a change in their environment. But the second time the experiment was tried, and on a number of tries thereafter, the small padlock securing the door of the animals’ cage fell open. On examination the locks showed no sign of damage, nor could they ever be made to repeat their bizarre behavior outside the Field. A whole new set of experiments, having to do with the behavior of mechanism inside the Field, was launched.

Levers, screws, and other simple machines, when not part of any complex system, were always observed to perform normally inside the Field. But anymore complex mechanical combinations or systems tended to display wildly erratic behavior. A fine antique chronometer, put at risk by the devoted scientist who owned it, was almost-but not quite-certain to run at the wrong speed, or even backwards, when it was pushed across the border.

No pattern was apparent. Within the Field, the law of complex machines was Chaos. Hope for the life of Chief Planeteer Golden, never bright, faded again; it seemed that the complicated mechanism of his ejection capsule could never have carried him free of his falling scoutship.

Any forcefields that the explorers from Earth were capable of generating simply ceased to exist at the boundary of the Field. And beyond that border, many non-biological chemical reactions, especially the more complex ones, could not be induced to conduct themselves properly.

Over there, atomic clocks and power supplies failed quite dependably, as if their impelling isotopes had been turned to lead. Over there, a fusion power lamp flared out like a cheap candle-some-one wrote that as a note and then deleted it. Un the contrary, a cheap candle over there burned perfectly well. Yet the high-tech devices could always be made to resume proper operation again as soon as they were pulled out of the Field; and counters in the Stem picked up faint normal background radiation, probably from natural sources, coming from across the border.

Over there, fire burned as always, when kindled in wood or grass by lightning or by human hands, employing primitive means. Over there, animals and plants and people lived, and lightning darted when a rainstorm came. Nature and primitive invention alike appeared to be quite unperturbed by the Field’s presence. Only the advanced technology of the explorers from Earth was affected.

Some of those explorers concentrated their observations on the native branch of humanity. Men, women, and children were seen at a distance, repeatedly moving from Stem to Field and back again, without the least visible awareness of any change, or even of the fact that any boundary at all existed. Of course the native humans wore no groundsuits, complex with valves and circuits, and depended upon no machines more advanced than the knife or the bow.

The local people fled at every tentative approach of an explorer. The explorers did not try at all to press the issue. Brazil and his people had plenty to do as it was. Diplomacy, for the time being, could wait.

No objection was offered to the presence of the explorers; the hypothetical Field-builders failed to materialize. After several days Grodsky brought down his flagship to a mere fifty thousand kilometers or so above the Stem, and the distance lag in communication between the flagship and its people on the surface practically disappeared.

The odd Ringwall structure around on the other side of the planet, antipodal to the Stem, remained a mystery. New photos of the Ringwall taken from just above the Field at that point showed essentially no more than the first pictures of it had shown. The Ringwall was an irregular polygon of mountainous cliffs, several kilometers across, above which the lower atmosphere seemed always to be hazy enough to blur detail. If it was indeed to be classified as architecture, there was no other building on Golden anywhere near its size. Neither were there sizable cities anywhere on the planet, or large ocean-going ships, or cities big enough to make space-farers’ beacons in the night.

There came at last a lull in the explorers’ efforts to gather still more data, a pause while human brains and computers tried to digest the mass of detailed information they had so far accumulated. Brazil and almost his entire planeteering crew went up to attend a meeting on Alpha One, leaving just Adam Mann and Kwame Chun Lui, with a single scoutship, on the surface of the planet.

“You’re the boss until I get back this afternoon,” Colonel Brazil told Adam on departure. The Colonel glowered. “May the mighty spirits protect our cause on Golden.”

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