Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Adam and Chun Lui were not to remain idle. They began hopping in the scout around the perimeter of the Stem, following a circular path more than a hundred and fifty kilometers in diameter, repeating earlier tests with probes and meters to see if anything about the Field had changed since the tests began. There was no sign that it had.

Shortly after midday, Adam looked up from his drudgery with marker poles and electric probes, and commented: “More of the damned things.”

A hundred meters away, on the other side of the boundary, three geryons had just come over a hilltop. Now another of the beasts appeared on the hill, and presently two more came into view at one side of it.

“They’re after something,” said Adam. “That’s how they hunt anything bigger than a rabbit-in a pack.” He had been watching them whenever he could, beyond his normal duties of observation; he felt a kind of private fascination.

“After us, maybe?” Chun Lui wondered. The geryons’ dead-looking yellow eyes were turned down the hill in the general direction of the two men.

“Maybe they are. All right, let’s go back to the ship for a while. I wouldn’t care to start messing around with weapons right here at the edge of the Field.”

“Roger.” Chun Lui pulled firmly on the rope that he was holding. The rope’s other end was tied around the ankle of a humanoid robot, and the robot lay fallen on its face just beyond the line of marking poles that defined the Stem-Field border. One of the routine tests now used was to send the robot walking into the Field and haul it out after the inevitable collapse. Someone in one of the departments on the flagship had evidently thought it would be an informative procedure. Now, as soon as Chun Lui had dragged the heavy metal body back into the Stem, animation returned to it. The man-shaped thing climbed to its feet and took an unsteady step back toward the boundary.

“Halt, Otto,” Chun Lui ordered in a crisp voice. The machine stopped in its tracks obediently. Its lenses, halfway eyelike projections on the front of its head, moved slightly, watching the animals on the hill.

“Carry this back to the scout, Otto.” Adam told it. “And these things.” The robot turned, picked up the indicated equipment, and strode purposefully toward the scoutship, which waited about forty meters inside the Stem.

Adam and Chun Lui followed, carrying the rest of the gear and looking back over their shoulders. The geryons were now moving slowly toward them in a spread-out line.

“Hey, it’s not us they’re after,” said Chun Lui when the walking men had almost reached the scoutship. “Looks like they’ve caught-” His eyes went wide behind his faceplate, and he stopped so suddenly that Adam almost walked into him.

Adam spun around, just as the machine called Otto hurtled past him, running faster than any man could run, accelerating like a racing motorcycle back toward the boundary of the Field. Fifty meters beyond that boundary the geryons were now ringed around a native child who danced in panic, looking too terrified to scream. The robot’s programmed compulsion to protect human life drove it toward the animals, into the Field. At the boundary it instantly collapsed again, tumbling forward in the grass with its momentum.

Adam was only vaguely aware of hearing the first excited comments from Alpha One. Already he had turned and barked to Chun Lui: “Get in the scout and man the turret!” Then he took off running back toward the animals on the hill, the servo-powered legs of the groundsuit churning him forward as fast as any unburdened human sprinter.

He stopped only a couple of paces before he reached the Field. The heavy machine pistol, as if by itself, had already come out of the holster and into his armored hand. Fifty meters up the slope the child-looked like a little girl-was trying to dodge out of the geryons’ circle, but the gray bodies moved with graceless, efficient speed to block her in. Adam could see the irregular white teeth in the girl’s open mouth, and hear her thin wailing cry.

He thumbed the pistol’s safety off and locked the optical sight onto the largest geryon as it moved. He fired a burst that should have torn its backbone out. The tracers snuffed out when they hit the Field, and thin trails of smoke curved down into the grass not far beyond the boundary. There was a faint pattering disturbance on the far side of the line, as if he had tossed a handful of gravel over.

The geryons ignored the demonstration. The largest of them had caught the child’s arm in its teeth now, and Adam could see the blood. The others hovered ponderously, as if impatiently waiting their turns to bite.

“Fire the turret!” Adam shouted. “For effect!” It occurred to him that main turret fire might kill the child, too, if indeed the beams managed to break through the Field at all. But to try it looked like the only chance.

“What’s going on?” General Grodsky’s voice asked loudly in Adam’s helmet. Then that voice was drowned in a burst of noise, as the sharp, nearly invisible beams stabbed out from the scoutship’s main turret. The air thundered around Adam, and his armor glowed in the mighty splash of heat that billowed up and down the Field’s surface from the point where the beams struck it. On the Stem side, the grass at Adam’s feet went up in smoke, while centimeters away, across the invisible barrier, the blades stood green and fresh.

Several of the animals on the hillside turned their heads and looked toward the scoutship, as if the sound of the blast had annoyed them.

“The siren!” Adam shouted. “Turn the siren on!”

Another geryon had caught the child in its teeth now, and was nibbling at her delicately. Her rising scream was drowned with all other sounds when the scoutship’s siren climbed to a full-volume howl. Adam turned off his air mikes, and realized that Grodsky was shouting questions at him.

“Native attacked by animals, inside the Field,” he called back. “We’re trying to help.”

Adam did not really hear what the General said next. The effort to help was not succeeding. The siren did not greatly distract the beasts. Now Chun Lui was trying an optical laser in their eyes, but the beam began to diffuse as soon as it hit the Field. The geryons snarled and squinted and turned their heads away from the glaring light. They kept on with what they were doing, like starving animals at food.

But it was not food they wanted, only bloody sport. Adam caught another glimpse, between massive gray bodies, of the child, and could see only too well that she still lived.

If he entered the Field in his groundsuit, valves would malfunction and he would collapse at once, unable to breathe. He brought an arm in from its groundsuit sleeve and had two fasteners loose inside his helmet when the General’s voice blasted at him: “Mann, what are you doing?”

“Going up there.”

“No! That’s an order! Fasten your helmet!”

A third fastener fell loose. “There’s nothing else left to try.”

“Chun Lui, stop him! Stun him!”

Adam dashed toward the Field, which he expected would protect him from stunbeams. Once across the border, he would have to get his helmet off very quickly, to let himself breathe, then run up the hill and distract the animals. And get the girl to the scout. There might be some chance yet-

The paralyzing beam from the scoutship struck him before he could reach the line of marker poles, and the grassy ground swung heavily up to hit his faceplate. His groundsuit was poor protection against the scout’s heavy projector at this close range. But somehow he rolled on one side, reached out an arm. If he could drag himself across. it was surprising that he could move at all.

The beam struck him again, and his body went dead as ice. The last thing Adam saw before darkness came was a geryon looking down the hill at him, frowning haughtily, displaying red-stained teeth.

Chapter Seven

Alice was holding out her arms toward him, crying for his help. But Adam could not reach her, because the terrible fight in the playground was still going on and he was still trapped in it, pinned up against the wall that was covered with painted murals, unable to break free. Then he was flat on his back. Strangers with hate-filled faces had surrounded him; they were looking down at Adam and shouting hate, for he was somehow odd or different. They kicked at Adam and he tried to hit back at them, but his arms had gone heavy and numb and useless. Then the faces were gone, all of them except one-

-the face of Kwame Chun Lui, who was bending over him. Adam was lying on his back in his bunk in the scoutship. His helmet and groundsuit had been removed. He could tell from the way the ship felt around him, and from the quality of background sounds, that the ship was still parked on the surface.

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