Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

The radar showed the smooth hump of the Field rising high above the scout on all sides, rising higher and higher as Brazil drove the small ship down in a slow descending spiral. It was as if they were dropping into the vortex of a whirpool, a solid maelstrom carved into some fluid invisible to human eyes. The walls of the funnel around them constricted gradually as they descended into it. Below them, a circle of planet surface some fifty kilometers in diameter was shown by radar as free of the Field, and to all appearances this comparatively small area was open to normal landings and exploration. The free area was mixed-looking countryside, to the eye indistinguishable from the land immediately surrounding it.

“I don’t see any bait,” said Adam. He was buttoned into the right seat, alertly watching a multitude of screens and indicators. “But we’re here, aren’t we? Maybe an obvious trap is bait enough for the curious.”

“Now’s a fine time to propound that theory,” Brazil growled. “How d’ya read me, Alpha One?”

The distance delay. Then: “We read you loud and clear. Good picture.”

Adam had an excellent imagination, which in his line of work was not always an asset. Right now he could readily imagine the Field-funnel around them closing in on the little scoutship with a sudden snap, dropping the ship rocklike with them inside it to share Alexander Golden’s fate. But the Field did not snap shut. The Field did not move at all. No change of any kind had been observed in it since Fakhuri’s first recorded sighting.

A few hours ago, long probes with loops of current-carrying wires attached to them had been lowered into the Field from a hovering scoutship. On the wires’ first contact with the Field the electrical currents in them had instantly ceased. But mice and other small forms of life, lowered into the Field in sealed boxes, had survived the mysterious condition for several minutes without any apparent ill effect. If Golden had survived the crash of his ship-that seemed a vanishingly faint hope -he might still be alive.

The field-free area of the surface, that the explorers from Earth were now beginning to refer to as the Stem, lay in the low north temperature zone, on Planet Golden’s second largest continent. Below the scoutship now, Adam’s viewscreens showed rolling, open plains, covered with a probably grass-like plant. The main themes of biology were repeated, sometimes with startling fidelity, from one world to the next, all across the explored Galaxy, wherever closely similar environments obtained in terms of gravity and chemistry, pressure and radiation. Here, patches of deciduous-looking forest were scattered over a line of hills that grew into a range of mountains some kilometers north of the Stem. One of the wide, winding rivers of this continent ran in several places briefly congruent with the intersection of Field and planet surface. But this, again, seemed accidental.

“Enough for today,” said Brazil abruptly, when they had cruised for ten minutes at about two hundred kilometers’ altitude. “Let’s ease up out of this hole.”

On a sunny afternoon a few days later, Adam and Boris were scouting again, cruising within a kilometer of the surface, now with the feeling of being part of the world below. The starship overhead was of course invisible to them beyond the sky.

Early summer was warming and brightening Golden’s northern hemisphere. The screens showed a view of green plains and forests that made the scoutship cabin feel stuffy.

“Makes me feel like I want to get out and go camping,” Adam commented.

Brazil only grunted. He was easing the scout still lower, losing altitude at a rate of a few meters per second. The small ship slid forward through the clear summer sky at a couple of hundred kilometers per hour.

“Looks like a herd of large herbivores over there.” Brazil was pointing to a scattering of animate dots on the plain ahead. Under moderate magnification these became deerlike creatures-another major interplanetary evolutionary theme identified on Golden. As the scout drew closer the lenses showed that the deer-like creatures had developed their own variation on the theme, in the form of stretch-able necks. In a few minutes the scout passed directly over the herd, gliding on the invisible force of its silent engines, still too high for its presence to alarm the animals.

Adam continued to sweep the landscape below the scout, and the air around it, with his instruments. He even scanned nearby birds suspiciously several times. “I don’t see any Field-generating superbeings.”

“Maybe they’ve all dried up and blown away. Are you keeping one eye on the Field, Junior? I have most of my attention on it.”

“Ah, roger. I have one screen on radar.”

But the Field only waited indifferently, whether they watched it or not. The smooth cliff of it rising up around them on all sides, as motionless as stone.

Boris drove the scout steadily lower. Inside another hour they were circling the Stem area just off the deck, dipping below hilltops and nearly brushing trees with the bottom of the scout’s nearly-spherical metal hull. Some of the flora below them stood fifteen meters tall and closely resembled the hardwood trees of Earth.

As their altitude decreased, Boris slowed their speed as well. Now the scoutship was moving not much faster than a man might run. Birds, singly and in squawking flights, fluttered out of its path, their cries coming plainly into the cabin through the outside microphones. On the ground an occasional animal fled, or crouched snarling in the scoutship’s moving shadow.

Brazil said: “Looks like a big trail over there, going down that ravine toward the river.”

“Animals only?”

“Maybe.” Boris turned the scout, and drove it down the ravine, going lower and slower than ever; and there was the little village, no more than a cluster of teepees whose colors blended with the muddy earth. The themes of Galactic life extended to humanity, on many worlds, and that the native humans on a planet as Earthlike as this one should morphologically resemble their cousins from Earth came as no real surprise.

But the native dwellers on Golden, or this sampling of them at least, were less sophisticated. For a long second, naked humanoid figures stood about their village in frozen poses, gaping up at the approaching scoutship, a gigantic mass of bright metal drifting silently through thin air; then the people below dropped fishnets and cooking pots and exploded into frenzied motion.

“Wow-get all those cameras going!” Boris ordered as he turned the scout again, taking it out over the river and there backing it slowly away from the village. “We’ll disappear for a while- starting a major panic isn’t going to do us any good.”

And now the delayed voices from Alpha One began to gabble in the ears of the two planeteers in the scout, urging them to turn viewscreens on this or that detail in the fast-emptying village.

Joined by other scoutships carrying other planeteering teams, Colonel Brazil and Spaceman Mann made one approach after another to the Stem area during the next few days. There were interesting discoveries, but no truly surprising ones, and none that appeared to have any direct connection with the Field. Nor were there any observable changes in that mysterious phenomenon. Whatever unknown powers there might be on Golden appeared to be still indifferent to the presence of the explorers from Earth.

There arrived a morning when Colonel Boris Brazil, with Spaceman Adam Mann aboard, launched early from Alpha One, and drove his scoutship down early into the Field-free funnel leading to the planet’s surface. On this flight the Colonel circled the Stem area only once, to let the red sunrise at surface level catch up with his measured descent. Then he drove toward a grassy hill near the river, a spot that had been carefully selected on an earlier trip.

The scout sank gently; landing struts extended themselves to touch down in the grass. The little ship settled quietly to rest on the hilltop.

The two men inside it examined the outside environment carefully, with eyes and radar and infrared. Here and there life moved, in the grass, in the tall reeds and bushes along the shore, and under the surface of the river.

Life moved, apparently going about its own business. Still nothing challenged their arrival.

“No reaction. Alpha One,” said Brazil finally.

“Roger, proceed as briefed,” said the delayed voice.

Brazil turned in his seat, and fixed Adam with what a stranger might have interpreted as an angry stare. “Well, Junior, I need a body outside, to lure these Field-formulating superbeings into my snare. Get your ass moving.”

Adam unfastened himself from his chair and stood up, already wearing his groundsuit. He gave his boss a half-smile through his faceplate and moved from the control cabin to the final decontamination chamber, in which he stood with his suited arms raised and legs spread, while poison gas and ultraviolet sterilized the outside of his suit, a last step in the effort to protect native life against possibly dangerous Earthly microorganisms.

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