“Gentlemen, we’ve nothing like that, anywhere!”
After a little silence, Brazil spoke up, casually. “Are we taking a fleet when we go back?”
“I think not. I think just three ships. A whole fleet might look like an attack, to-them. Whoever they are.” The General shrugged. “Ifthey even exist. We have no proof that this-field-is not a natural phenomenon. Golden couldn’t see it without his radar on, and he just drove right into it.”
“And just accidentally happened to drop right into that ringwall,” said Boris. “That was just coincidence, right?” No one answered him, and he went on: “If I ever drive a scout near that thing, I won’t be so damn sneaky about it. Next time we go in radiating the whole damn frequency spectrum in every direction. If someone spots me, it won’t be by accident.”
Adam couldn’t tell if the Colonel was serious about his announced plan or not.
“I intend to take a very good look around there before anyone drives near it again,” said the General grimly. “Boris, I want you ready for the best job you ever did, if and when we do go down on Golden. You can pick any planeteers you want, from any crews in the fleet.”
“If you mean to launch from just one ship, my own people are as good as any.”
The General looked at Adam, then back to the Colonel.
“My crew will be up to full strength now,” Brazil added casually. Adam felt a sudden surge of pride and loyalty, about which he would never speak.
Grodsky considered a moment, then nodded decisively. “All right. Mann, consider yourself aboard. You can go look up your quarters, or whatever you have to do.”
“Yessir!” This time Adam’s salute was even sharper than before.
When the doors of the inner and outer offices were both closed after him, he took a quick look up and down the long main corridor of the flagship to make sure that he was unobserved. Then he snapped his body into a flip, a somersault in the air without touching his hands to the deck. He walked away grinning widely.
He was still quite a young man. For a time, in time, even the murdered love could be forgotten.
When the young Spaceman Mann had gone out, leaving the two of them alone, the General said thoughtfully: “Boris, I wonder if we can really function as a military outfit.” They both knew, everyone knew, that the Space Force was organized and equipped and trained for exploration, not for conquest. It had never faced a real war, or anything remotely like one. Who knew what would happen if one came?
“I do believe that courier captain thoughtme unmilitary,” Brazil answered. “And all I had done was-well, never mind. You really expect we’ll get into a fight this time, boss?”
On an impulse, Grodsky flicked on his big view-screen. The hellish red bulk of nearby Antares seemed to fill the room. Then the slow rotation of the flagship brought into view the tiny green companion star, and then the other multicolored sparks, cloud behind cloud of them, reaching ever farther and dimmer out to infinity.
“This time, or the next,” the General said. “Sooner or later.”
General Grodsky’s flagship was a big craft, fast and tough, designed for battle as much as any ship could be when battles between ships were virtually unknown. The outer hull of the flagship formed a sphere almost a kilometer in diameter, and like most Space Force ships it bore no permanent name. Its code designation for this mission was Alpha One.
After a couple of days’ passage in flightspace from An tares Base, the flagship appeared in normal space near the Golden system, at a couple of astronomical units’ distance above the north pole of Golden’s sun. After an hour of general observation from that vantage point the flagship began to move again, staying in normal space this time, traversing a curve that in three unhurried days would bring the explorers aboard into the close vicinity of Planet Four.
Alpha Two, also custom designed, was a much smaller ship, built for high interstellar speed and long range observation. It winked into existence near the point in space where Alpha One had previously appeared, just as One began to move sunward. Two would alternate with Three, its twin, in observing the activities of One and in carrying news back to An tares Base.
At a distance of thirty million kilometers General Grodsky ordered his first radar probe of Planet Golden’s surface. He found the enveloping forcefield to be exactly as Fakhuri’s recordings showed it, covering the world entirely except for an area of a few hundred square kilometers at most, where the field came down in its amplexicaul curve to meet the land surface of one continent. With that verification in hand, Grodsky turned his flagship away from Golden, and spent a standard month in methodical preliminary survey of the system’s seven other major planets. On none of them, nor on any of their major satellites, did his teams find any indication of the presence of intelligent life. Or anything at all to suggest an explanation of Planet Golden’s unique and mysterious field.
The preliminary system survey completed, Alpha One returned to the near vicinity of Golden. And now the crew of explorers focused their instruments with great interest upon the surface formation that resembled a lunar ringwall.
The Ringwall, as the human observers now began to call it, occupied most of a roughly triangular river island eight kilometers across, at the confluence of two great streams in a country of low, rocky hills and subtropical jungle. The big island seemed always to be at least partially obscured by clouds and low mist. And infra-red observations of the area were perpetually fogged as if by volcanic heat.
For all the observers above the atmosphere were able to tell, the irregular polygon of mountainous walls might be titanic architecture, now partially obscured by jungle growth as well as by mists and clouds. Or it might still have been accepted as an accidental formation. But, if the ambiguous feature were truly accidental, was it only by another accident that it lay exactly at the antipodal point from the place where the Field curved down to planet surface?
And careful study of Fakhuri’s optical recordings showed that, of all the planet’s area, Golden’s scout had apparently fallen directly into the Ring-wall, scoring a kind of crazy, inexplicable bullseye. Another accident?
Wherever the scoutship or its wreckage might be now, optical observation from the flagship could detect no trace of it. And the Field continued to prevent all other kinds of observation.
Colonel Boris Brazil, in the first scoutship launched from Grodsky’s flagship toward Golden, drove twice around the planet, keeping about fifteen hundred kilometers above the upper surface of the Field as it was outlined for him by his radar. True to his promise, Colonel Brazil had his ship continuously radiating a wide assortment of signals.
There was no response from below.
That evening, ship’s time, the Colonel knocked at the door of Adam Mann’s tiny cabin, and on hearing a response from inside slid it open. “Alpha Three should be in the system tomorrow, Junior,” Brazil announced. “Two will be heading back to Antares; we’re sending a robocourier over to her in a couple of hours with mail, if you want to send some.”
Adam was seated at the small desk that folded out of the bulkhead. “Thanks, I was just writing one.” He paused. “How did it look today from down there?”
“Everything looked a lot closer. Here, I’ll drop that in the mail bag for you.” Leaning in the doorway, the Colonel shamelessly inspected the address on the envelope he had just been handed. Then he held it down at his side, snapping it between long nervous fingers. “Tell you what, Junior, you get ready for a little ride tomorrow. I want someone along to make sure that my scout keeps transmitting on all fifty frequencies. Briefing at oh-five-hundred.”
“Don’t look so damned happy. It’s disgusting. My good planeteers will be driving their own scouts tomorrow.” Boris started to close the door, then paused, waving the little envelope. “Say, this Doctor Emiliano Nowell you’re writing to-isn’t he the one who had that secret biological lab on Ganymede years ago? The geneticist who started all that Jovian superkid business?”
“Yeah. I used to be invited to visit his estate on Earth a couple of times a year. Got to know some of them. Tell you about it sometime.”
Boris’s brows rose over his innocent blue eyes. “You move in exalted circles,” he whispered, and made his exit.
In the morning, Colonel Brazil was all business from the start. “This reminds me a little bit of a mousetrap,” he was muttering, as he sat strapped and cushioned in the left seat of the scoutship’s little control room, staring at the radar screen in front of him. Alpha One was now something more than a million airless kilometers above the scout; the fair true surface of Planet Golden was only a few hundred klicks below.