Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“Wha-” He sat up with a grunt, and then almost toppled over sideways before he discovered that he was still half-paralyzed. “Uh. How long-?”

“You’ve been out about an hour,” said Chun Lui. Standing back a pace from the bunk now, components from the scoutship’s medical kit in hand, he looked relieved and at the same time a bit wary. “I had to do it, Ad. Good thing Otto still had that line tied to his ankle; I reeled him in, and he carried you in through decontamination.”

Adam said something vulgar, and let himself flop back on the bunk. He added an obscenity, and repeated it several times. “Why didn’t you use that damned thing onthem instead of on me?”

Chun Lui’s voice was quiet. “Well, I tried it on them, Ad. It did no more good than the main burner.”

Adam swore aimlessly once more, and then made another effort to sit up, this time with somewhat better success. He sat there on the edge of his bunk, stamping his feet, trying to rub and flex the woodenness out of his thick arms. There had been a chance, some kind of a chance, to help the kid, and they had stopped him. It was all he could think of.

The large communication screen on the bulkhead lit up, with General Grodsky’s image glaring sourly out of it at him. “Well, Mann. Since you disobey orders, I presume you possess some information about the conditions there that you didn’t have time to explain to me. Let’s have it.”

Adam stared back doggedly. “Sir. I just wanted to help that kid.”

“You think I didn’t want to help her?” The screen seemed to vibrate slightly with the volume of the General’s voice. Then the volume dropped, but the hardness grew. “What was your next step going to be, exactly?”

“I was. going to go on up the hill, sir. To do what I could.”

“What you could.” Grodsky almost smiled, projecting mock satisfaction now. “Would you outline for me, please, just what that was going to be?”

All right, he was in trouble. Adam told himself that he didn’t give a damn. Yet he did, but what else could he have done?

He replied to the General: “Distract the animals. Try and get the little girl away from them. Try to get her downhill to the scout again. Where we could give her medical attention.”

“How many of those animals were there?”

“Half a dozen, maybe. Sir.”

“And you were going up there unarmed, to take their prey away from them.” The General made it sound totally insane. Well, maybe it had been insane. No doubt it had. All Adam knew was that he had been unable to keep from trying. If the situation came up again, he’d have to try again.

The volume of Grodsky’s transmitted voice had decreased now by another level, but the tone had become if anything more vicious. “That Field you were so eager to enter, that air you were so anxious to breathe, are still completely unknown in terms of what their effects on an Earth-descended human being will be. Did you learn nothing at all on Killcrazy? Wasn’t everything there innocent and peaceful in the first days of exploration? Are you utterly stupid, Mann? We’ve already lost one planeteer here, and I don’t-”

“How about that little girl?” Adam heard himself shouting back. “Does she fit on your scorecard anywhere?”

Violence appeared behind Grodsky’s angry eyes. The possibility loomed suddenly, real as a brandished club, that a commanding General’s awesome authority in the field was about to be invoked with crushing impact. Adam was suddenly afraid. He knew that the General would have been legally justified in ordering him shot, for disobedience in the field. He wouldn’t be shot now, of course; the emergency was over, the situation stabilized. But he might be tried and imprisoned. He might be kicked out of the Space Force. He might be sent back to Earth to some meaningless desk job. Damn it, he had done what was right, and would do it again. But the girl was dead by now, and he wasn’t, and he was getting a little scared.

But the General’s club of authority-though it had been figuratively lifted from his shoulder-did not strike. Grodsky, as though with the purpose of impressing everyone with the need for caution and control, made his own anger disappear. Adam had observed before, with a touch of envy, how the high brass all seemed to be able to do that.

General Grodsky, his own intentions now as well hidden as a poker hand, asked Adam in a controlled voice: “Have you got anything more to say?”

Adam drew a deep breath. “Sir, apart from humanitarian considerations, it could help us to get on with the natives, to have pulled one of them out of trouble.”

“Sure it could,” said Grodsky, not impressed for a moment. “Or, that girl might have been a ritual sacrifice, and saving her might have ruined our chances to get on, as you put it-apart from humanitarian considerations. But that’s not the main point. The main point right now is that when I give an order it must be followed.”

“Yessir,” said Adam, meekly. He was beginning to dare to hope that he might survive. “If I was wrong, I. was wrong.”

“You were wrong, dammit.”


“But what?”

“But. I was left in command down here, General, and there occurred what I judged to be an emergency, and I took what steps I thought were best.”

There was a silence, long enough for Chun Lui to put in a few words. “Sir, with the turret firing and all, it’s possible we didn’t hear all of the General’s spoken orders very clearly at the time.”

Adam nodded. At the same time, Colonel Brazil, for once no trace of humor in his long, bony face, appeared behind Grodsky on the screen.

The General was considering the situation silently. Then he said: “I’m reserving judgment, for the time being, on the incident that’s just happened. We’ll carry on from where we are.”

There wasa little silence. Then after a moment Chun Lui said: “Sir, I think sooner or later we’re going to have to fight off those beasts in self-defense. More and more of them keep hanging around, watching us. And they seem to build up their courage in large groups.”

Grodsky nodded, confirming that the chewing-out was going to be allowed to turn into a planning session. The tension in the atmosphere drained rapidly as the General turned around. “Boris, those animals do seem devilish hard to frighten, don’t they? Of course we can defend ourselves against them within the Stem, but I want to hold the killing of any native fauna to a minimum, at least until we know-”

“Seven humans are approaching the scoutship on foot,” interrupted Otto’s robotic voice.

Chun Lui quickly switched the viewscreen to show the scene outside. Six naked warriors, armed with bows and bone knives, were approaching the landed ship with an air of timid determination. The one woman stumbling along in their midst wore a wrap of cloth about her hips, and was nearly hysterical with grief. The woman bore in her arms what the geryons had left of the little girl, and the woman’s body and her legs were stained with the child’s blood.

Brazil’s voice from the screen said: “I would suggest one of you two down there go out and say hello to the people, since it appears they finally want contact.” The Colonel turned away briefly and could be heard exchanging a few muttered words with Grodsky. Then Brazil went on: “Mann, you’re still the ranking planeteer down there. Take charge.”

And may the mighty spirits aid our cause on Golden, Adam thought.All right; here we go again . He stood up. His legs almost betrayed him.

“Damn. Chun, help me up to the left seat, will you? Then you go out and talk to them.”

Chun Lui assisted him. “Sorry I had to use that stun beam on you, Ad.”

“Dammit, quit saying you’re sorry. It’s all right. Just shut up and get outside quick.”

The seven natives knelt before the groundsuited figure of Chun Lui when he descended to greet them formally.

Dr. Osa Yamaguchi, head of Linguistics, was getting up in years. Whether as a result of her advancing age or not, she sometimes adopted a didactic manner, irrespective of her listeners’ rank.

“They’re undoubtedly appealing for our help against the geryons,” she informed General Grodsky, meanwhile tapping the papers and other records arrayed on the conference table before her. The language of the local people-the Tenoka, they called themselves-was now well on the way to being understood, at least well enough for some practical conversation. The job had taken several weeks of recording and computing and study, since Tenoka was not a simple tongue and the native speakers of it had been dwelling mostly on one subject.

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