Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

As if looking over Fakhuri’s shoulder aboard theMarco , now cruising some four hundred thousand kilometers from Planet Four, Adam Mann and Colonel Boris Brazil watched and listened as the scoutship, piloted by Fakhuri’s Chief Planeteer, made one swing around the planet at about a hundred thousand kilometers, and another slower one at about twenty thousand. Both passes were uneventful.

During his swing at two thousand kilometers, the Chief Planeteer who was flying the scout solo reported observing something strange on the land surface below him.

“Like a lunar ringwall, or a half-buried foundation for a building eight or ten kilometers across,” said the radio voice. “Lots of clouds there-I couldn’t get a very good look.”

Fakhuri’s image rubbed its dark chin. “Make a lower pass over it.”

Six seconds passed, while the finite speed of radio carried the ship commander’s order on a tight beam down to the speeding scoutship, and brought the answer back.

“Roger. Descending to six hundred klicks.”

The magnification of Fakhuri’s screen showed a tiny dark scoutship creeping across the blue and green and brown of a sunlit alien continent. Then the scout almost disappeared against the background of a dark blue ocean.

“I’m jumping forward again in time,” said Grodsky. “We’ll pick up the recording again-here.”

They were still observing the image as if looking over Fakhuri’s shoulder. “Coming up toward that ringwall again,” said the planeteer’s voice from the little scout below. “I’ll go right over it, this time. Leveling off at six hundred klicks. Should get a little atmos-”

And that was all. The radio beam from the scout had for some reason been broken off. Fakhuri turned his head, this way and that, looking for a reason. He pressed things on his panel, trying to extract information from one instrument or another.

Seconds later, another watcher on Fakhuri’s ship cried out: “He’s falling, out of control!” A closeup of another screen showed how the motion of the scout’s flight had changed, from a nearly horizontal creeping to the steep curve of a dropped stone.

“Golden! Do you read me?” Fakhuri was shouting.

And yet another voice: “Radio beam’s unlocked, sir, we can’t reach him.”

“Get us right over him,” ordered Fakhuri, reaching with one hand for a red stud prominent at one side of the panel before him. At the bottom of the image on Grodsky’s holographic stage appeared the words: RED ALERT CALLED ABOARD MARCO POLO 7. There was justification. Scoutship drives did not fail, communications between scout and mothership simply did not break, not by accident, not just like that.

Now, through a low cloud cover, the huge ring-wall formation on the planet’s surface became partially visible in theMarco’s powerful scopes. The ringwall looked like stone, perhaps once splashed molten, perhaps deliberately piled. Details were still obscure, though the starship was accelerating powerfully in normal space, very quickly getting closer to the planet.

The screens on theMarco’s bridge showed the scoutship as an almost invisible dot, tumbling toward the ringwall formation as if toward the center of a target.

“No sign of his escape capsule.”

“Radio still out, sir.”

“Radar,” Fakhuri snapped. “Track him. Planeteering, have that standby scout ready. But don’t launch yet.”

Grodsky said to the onlookers in his office: “Watch now, here it comes.”

Fakhuri’s image switched its viewscreen to pick up the radar image when the bouncing pulses brought it back. The seconds of unavoidable distance delay crept by.

“Can’t pick up any flash of impact optically, sir. Maybe he hasn’t era-”

The echo came. Fakhuri’s screen showed only electronic hash for a moment. Then the radar computer gave up its search for a small moving target, and dispassionately showed the waiting humans exactly what it saw, the problem it was having to contend with.

Some watcher on Fakhuri’s ship cried out: “Captain!”

The radar picture electronically frozen on Fakhuri’s screen held him-and now Adam-frozen in disbelief. Not the expected rough semblance of the Earthlike planet shown by the optical scopes. Nothing like that-here instead was a bright spheroid, looking smooth and opaque as a steel ball, more than a thousand kilometers greater in diameter than the planet it shrouded.

Fakhuri quickly switched his screen back to present the image brought in by the optical telescopes. Planet Four still reflected the radiation of her own sun as naturally as Earth reflected that of hers-again Four appeared innocent and friendly in her bright aura of oxygen atmosphere, plain and ordinary behind a tattered white film of clouds where her spherical shape curved closest to theMarco .

“Evasive action!” Fakhuri ordered. “Around the planet!” If this world was shielded from radar, it might well be armed in other unimaginable ways as well. Anything might be about to come up from it.

The brutal acceleration of evasive action was evidently too much for theMarco’s artificial gravity, for Fakhuri’s chair now folded itself protectively around its occupant. The chair also put forth to the control panel a pair of artificial arms, slaved to the captain’s motor-nerve impulses.

“Passive detection still blank screen, sir.” That meant that theMarco’s instruments could detect no artificially produced radiation from the planet.

“We lost him in the surface clouds, before we moved,” said an astronomer’s shaken voice. “Never got any indication of an impact where he went down.”

“Radar gear checks okay, captain, I don’t know what-”

“Pulse again, then! give me the whole planet again.”

TheMarco was over nightside now. The planet showed in the optical scopes as a vague dark bulk, embraced by a thin bright crescent. Then that image was gone, as Fakhuri switched his screen to receive the radar image again. The pulses would be hurtling down again toward the planet. down. down. back. back.

The marvelous thing flashed from the screen again, electrically beautiful. The only difference on this side of the planet was at the point antipodal to that where the scoutship had disappeared. Here, the radar-outlined, metallic-looking, optically invisible surface curved steeply down to meet the planet’s land surface, in an amplexicaul depression, like the dimple around the stem of an apple. Fakhuri sat staring at it, as if the wonder of it was stronger than alarm, for him.

But there were standing orders for exploration captains. Any technologically advanced strangers encountered were to be treated with the utmost caution. One starship could carry a weapon capable of destroying a planet in minutes. There was of course a chance that the scoutship pilot might still be alive; but one of the Fakhuri’s mechanical slave-hands was already moving, slamming down on a stud marked EMERGENCY FLIGHT.

The flight had been toward Antares, not Earth; no possible trail must be left toward home.

The holostage in Grodsky’s inner office went blank momentarily. Then the General said: “This is the planeteer who was lost, Mann. Colonel Brazil knew him.”

On the stage there appeared the figure of a heavily-built, cheerful-looking man. It was a picture made outdoors somewhere that showed its subject, walking quickly, wearing a planeteer’s groundsuit, carrying his helmet under one arm.

“Alexander Golden, Chief Planeteer,” said General Grodsky. His tone was oddly formal, as if he might be wondering what the name and title ultimately meant.

The secretary, who had re-entered the office a few moments earlier carrying some papers, had paused to watch, and now had a question. “Did he leave a family?” she asked, gazing into the stage.

“No.” Grodsky rubbed his eyes. “As I recall from his records, he grew up in some institution-like you, Mann. Never married. Very able spaceman.”

“And an able planeteer,” put in Colonel Brazil. After a moment he added: “Another happy bachelor bit the dust. Not many of us left. I guess I met him two or three times.”

Adam was staring at the last frozen frame of Alexander Golden on the little stage. Something about it was bothering him. “I. think I might have met him, somewhere.” But the vague sense of recognition eluded Adam and vanished when he tried to pin it down. He shrugged.

As the holostage dimmed down completely and the lights in the room came up to normal, Boris shifted around on his desk-top perch to face the General. “Well, boss, what do we do?”

“We go back there,” said Grodsky, swiveling his chair back to face his desk, and the two visitors in his office. The General’s face was lined and tight-looking. Obviously Fakhuri’s discovery was in his lap. The situation could not be managed from the distance of Earth, not when it took forty days by courier ship for a message to be sent and answered. No Earth government would be foolish enough to send more than broad instructions to Antares base, and in this case there was little doubt of what those instructions were going to say.

“Now,” said Grodsky, getting down to business. “That forcefield, or whatever it is, around that planet-let’s start calling it planet Golden-the field around planet Golden seems to me a flat impossibility. Consider:

“First, it almost entirely envelops an Earth-sized world. Second, the passive detection crew on theMarco were able to pick up no trace of it. Third, it allowed a scoutship to enter, but only as a falling object. It cut off the scout’s engines, its radio, and possibly everything else aboard.

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