Interstellar Anthropologist, Part 7: Not Exactly Eden
Fortis was thinking how the situation resembled a child starting life over with an adult’s awareness. “How badly was the ship damaged?”
George grinned. “Should you stay with us long enough, and tolerate the travel, you will get a chance to see it yourself. The place was not level ground, but we were too high above it for the standard thrusters to do more than slow our descent some. The landing gear collapsed on the high side, though, and the whole thing leaned into the slope. The hull was breached where it struck the rocky ground, since even such an old ship was not built to withstand much physical impact.”
Fortis remembered the business about energy emissions not working on the planet. “So the impact resistant field generator failed?”
“Completely,” George said, shaking his head back and forth. “The generator was working, but there was no field.”
Fortis was puzzled. “My own ship does not have the old thruster technology, so I assumed it used the levitation field. Am I mistaken?”
George shrugged. “Most likely your ship had the beacon’s data about the exact depth of our cloud layer here at the pole. The military surveyor who visited us last used a ship with extensive failsafe landing capabilities, as most military ships do. I suppose he made note of the depth in his update of the beacon. Departure is much simpler, because it’s not based on fields, but on something else entirely.
“At any rate, our ship landed at the edge of the desert belt girdling our planet. According to our religion, the whole thing was miraculous. We couldn’t leave because the ship was damaged and our alternative thrust system was spent. In the middle of the desert, we would have died before we could find our way to greener lands. But in the middle of the greener lands were predators we could not fight at that time, since all we had were useless energy weapons. And in the northern hemisphere it’s all small rocky islands. Our ship would not have floated. Instead, we crash landed on the one place where conditions allowed us the most time to orient ourselves to the situation.
“Equally significant was the good fortune of having the one and only retired engineer with a collection of museum pieces he wasn’t supposed to bring. Hand tools, of all things. It’s not as if nothing electronic works here. Wherever there is a close circuit for electrons to flow through solids, it’s just fine. But we can’t generate anything in the air, aside from the visible spectrum. Well, just a little into the ultraviolet and infrared, but not far enough for something like a laser, even.”
Fortis thought for a moment. “So computers work, as I’ve already noted in my ship, because they are solid nano-circuitry. And you can create heat and light, and use powered tools, but how do you generate sufficient voltage?”
George gestured at the glowing patches on the tent ceiling. “The lighting is a coating extracted from insects. What powers it is the entire tent. It’s outer surface is coated with a modified native mildew. It doesn’t eat the tent material, but consumes what little energy comes through our cloud layer. It’s enough to light the patches, heat the water for tea, and in while, help prepare lunch.”
Fortis realized he was already hungry. It was one of the drawbacks of visiting other planets, because it meant shifting his circadian rhythm, but there was no way to avoid it. “Did you have the means to generate food, as most humans do these days, or have you found the local flora and fauna edible?”
George laughed, tipping his head back. “When we left Terra, most humans were still eating plants and animals in one form or another. We had learned about advances in artificial replacements much later. Again, fortunate it was for us what grows here was compatible to human biology. However, it took many years of serious health troubles to discover the absolute necessity of eating the fish here. The lack of sunlight creates a serious deficiency which only the fish satisfy. Our forefathers found them repulsive, which is why it took so long, but it’s something we now take for granted.
“It was hardly idyllic. We had the predators, deficiencies, diseases, and were thrown back to prehistoric living without energy weapons.” George pointed to a place near the doorway. “I suppose the light from outside prevented you from noticing the archery equipment there.”
Fortis turned, held up his hand to block the light from the doorway. Sure enough, there was a curved piece of wood, pulling a line taut between the ends, and a collection of thin wooden shafts clipped together in a neat row. The fletching was not feathers, but something resembling a stiff fabric with small panels joining them across the edges. The heads were hidden by a protective cover. Turning back, he asked, “Do you also have other sorts of melee weapons?”
“All sorts of toys,” George replied with a faint smile. “Very little of it is metal. As I said, we have precious little of that here, and almost no means of smelting if we did. Because we came with rather modern technology notions, we were fairly quick to develop alternatives. We make fabrics from both plant and animal sources, but with highly advanced variations in properties. The same with animal skins, wood, glass and ceramics. We use a great many microscopic plants and animals in the process. If it grows here, we likely have done something to breed it for special uses.
“In the past we have traded these specialties for metal and electronics. Most of what we have is wearing out, and we would like to get more soon. I know you saw the ‘bird’ circling Misty, or you would not have known where to land. That is almost entirely fabric and wood, with one tiny computer and transmitter attached. We use them mostly to harvest the hyperspace radio traffic, which can only be read above our atmosphere. The welcome signal takes quite a bit of energy, so it’s broadcast only once each lap. The bird absorbs as much energy as possible during the sun exposure, then makes that brief broadcast before having to save power during passage around the dark side.
“We have to do that because there are only three working birds. When we still had a dozen, the message was longer because we could rotate them more often. Now they have to stay aloft until the memory is about full, then it descends down while another slowly makes its way aloft. It takes a couple of our days each way, gliding and climbing the weak updraft over the marginally warmer deserts. We have winds aloft, of course, but they are due mostly to spin, since the temperature is very stable. The other problem is the mildew tends to weaken during exposure to space, so we have regrow it some each time.”
Fortis asked, “Have you never considered using an artificial satellite?”
His hands spread out in a powerless gesture, George said, “We thought about that. Bear in mind, for the first couple of centuries we were still fugitives from the Imperium. Why would we want them to find us so easily? Once that threat faded, we found it still very hard to establish regular trade relations. And while we do have a surplus for trade, it’s not enough to easily afford something like a full satellite system. We would still need the birds to ferry the data — physical closed circuits only down here.”
Fortis was silent.
George continued, “We are content for the most part. We are loathe to breach what has accomplished so very much in favor of our religion. Frankly, too much technology is the reason we feel the rest of humanity is having such a difficult time, with wars and such. It’s not as if we have no wars here, but they don’t amount to much. Our culture is the result of our religion, and our stability and peace and…” He paused and took a deep breath. “We hold to a totally different value system. We didn’t come here and gain those values because it was the best we could do in a bad situation. We had those values before we left Terra. We believe they came from God, and that it was His plan to put us here to keep them alive, because this world perfectly matched what we believed. We might not have known that so well when we got here, but the realization dawned on us as we made our way.”
His locked eyes with Fortis. “Whatever you do, Fortis, I beg you not to take any actions which would destroy what we have here. I have no doubt you are well trained in dealing with us while you are here, observing without interfering. But once you leave to take the knowledge of our world back to your galactic academic network, it would be all too easy for something in your report to precipitate a disaster.”