Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Adam was going to be First Out. First Out, onthis planet, where Total Investigation was a certainty. He had to remind himself that such an assignment didn’t necessarily mean that he was the best planeteer around. Without argument, it meant he was expected to be one of the best.

A hatch opened in the seamless-looking hull near the base of the landed scoutship, and a short ramp extended itself to the ground. A human figure, anonymous in an armored groundsuit, appeared in the opening. The morning sun glinted on its faceplate as the figure walked slowly down the ramp and into the kneehigh grass. A representative of Earth-descended humanity had set foot upon the soil of yet another planet.

Adam’s boots left a dark trail in the dew-silvered grass as he walked a slow circle, going completely around the scout. The sun was well clear of the horizon now, and he could see for kilometers in every direction. There was not another human being in sight, or, at the moment, even an animal, with the exception of a few birds high and far away to the south. The looming amplexicaul curve of the Field was of course still invisible to his eyes. The Field appeared to make no difference at all to anything that he could see. There was hardly a cloud in all the kindly blue vastness of Golden’s sky.

He had a sense that the whole planet was-not exactly watching him, maybe, but still aware of him, even if only in the back of its collective mind. Aware and waiting for what he might do.

“How’s it going, Mann?” asked General Grodsky’s voice. A majority of the hundreds of people aboard Alpha One, all of them who had the chance, were probably watching the video relay, sent to them through the scoutship from the tiny camera in Adam’s helmet.

“Fine, sir,” he answered. “It just looks good.” The words were of course inadequate, but at the moment, with no new facts to report, such words were the best he could come up with.

According to plan, Adam now turned his back on the parked scoutship, and walked about fifty meters to a place from which he could look down-hill to a bend of the river. A heavy growth of short trees and tall reed-like plants lined both banks closely. On worlds where native human beings existed, rivers were considered good places to spot them, traveling, fishing, or just getting a drink. In his mind Adam quickly ran through the basic procedures for first contact with Apparent Primitives. But at the moment there were no Apparent Primitives in sight.

As Adam turned and started to walk away, a small creature sprang away out of the long grass near his feet, giving him a start. More startled than its human discoverer, the thing went bounding away from him like a jackrabbit, down the slope toward the river. By all appearances it was an inoffensive herbivore. After the first few meters of its darting flight it began to tumble clownishly, leaping and playing with the exuberance of an otter. Near the heavy bush by the river the small animal stopped, looking back uphill at Adam with apparent good cheer.

Adam returned the look, grinning downhill. Then he gazed around him again at the peaceful river and hills and sky. He surprised himself, with a wish to-well, to pray. He was not ordinarily a consciously religious man. But now he felt a wish to pray, maybe to Whom it May Concern, that this world, new to its discoverers, could be treated right by them, that good would come from their discovery. It was a strange moment for Adam, one in which he felt himself in communion with-with the powers of the universe, perhaps. He had rarely had a similar feeling in his life, and never since Alice-

Something huge was moving, very quietly, down in the thick bush by the river. Then it burst into the open, a massive, bloated-looking quadruped that pounced with startling speed. The rabbit-thing was taken by surprise. One heavy clawed foot caught it in the middle of its first frightened leap, and crushed it down into the grass and dirt, where it wriggled helplessly and let out shrill faint screams.

Its prey secured, the big animal paused, speed leaving its movements as if a switch had been opened. The predator was a little smaller, Adam thought, than an adult hippopotamus, but just as graceless.

Adam thought that he had seen this large species before, or one very closely related to it. But those sightings had been distant ones, to which he had paid little attention amid the superabundance of new things to be observed. He had really seen nothing of the species but its gross overall shape, until now.

Now, when this specimen turned its head and looked up the hill at Adam from only fifty meters away, he felt a chill, even armed and armored as he was. Because the face of the gross beast was human. Not just a close resemblance. Almost exactly Earth-descended human in all its features, enlarged though they were to fit the massive head.

Adam could hear Brazil muttering something; his own shock was shared. Adam dialed magnification into his faceplate. Now, inspecting the beast’s face at an effectively closer range, he could see that it was covered with very short pale fur, from a distance resembling light-colored human skin. The red-rimmed yellow eyes of the animal were human in configuration, down to the smallest visible details of the lids and lashes. Something about the lids gave the eyes a look of arrogance, and above those haughty human eyes there rose a smooth shield of some horny substance, in a shape that in a man might very well have been described as a noble forehead. But behind this frontal shield the skull sloped off sharply into a dark and matted mane-there was no room for a proportional brain behind that mask-like face.

There was nothing like an animal’s snout on that flat face, but a human nose instead. Not even the great width of the mouth, the heavy jaw, or even the size of the omnivorous teeth-bared now in a sudden yawn-could destroy the impression, the illusion, of man-larger-than-life. Nor could the ears, half-hidden by the mane, and curving along the head in a shape that looked neither human nor animal. Only when the eye reached the longish scaly neck did the illusion fail.

Over most of its body the big animal wore the hide of an elephant, gray and wrinkled, scantily clothed with a thin coat of greenish-black hair. The feet were obviously weapons, half-adapted for gripping and clawing as well as for locomotion. Mud was beginning to cake dry now on the thick legs of this specimen, and a trickle of green slime drooled from a corner of the frowning mouth. Omnivore, thought Adam. It must have been feeding on some river plants, and then it decided to go for a morsel of meat.

With his right hand on the butt of his bolstered sidearm, he stared back at the creature. The mask-like face, taken by itself, would have to be called handsome-there was no other word for it. But when Adam saw it on the beast, the total effect was so hideous that he half wished, perhaps more than half, that the thing would charge him, that he might have a good reason to kill it.

“Ugly thing there,” said a fascinated voice in Adam’s helmet. “What’s that it’s caught?”

“Rabbit-theme,” he answered, without taking his eyes from the bigger creature’s face. “I think probably mammalian.”

The big animal now turned its full attention back to its victim, bent its long neck slowly and chewed with delicacy. The faint screams went to a higher frequency. Adam thought:Like an Earth housecat, playing with a victim . But on a deeper, stronger level, he was thinking also:Come on, you obscenity, come up where and try that on me. Come on .

But he was a damned fool, to be upset by the sight of one animal eating another one. He watched a little longer, answering a few more questions from above, then turned his back and went on with his job.

An hour later, when Adam had finished the rest of the scheduled First Out procedures, and was back in the control room of the scoutship, he found Brazil looking at him with an oddly fascinated expression. The first thing the Colonel said was: “I wonder why your big playmate out there didn’t have wings.”

Adam let himself sink into the right-hand seat with a tired sigh. “Wings? Why?”

“The original did; Geryon was his name. Remember? Or don’t you like to read?”

“Jur-who?” But something in Adam’s memory stirred faintly. Was it something he had read? Or something else?

But what?

“G-e-r-y-o-n.” The Colonel spelled it out. “A thing Dante met when he was visiting the Inferno. It had the face of a just and kindly man. And wings. Among other attributes.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred