Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“That’s definite?”


Grodsky turned to the head of Anthropology. “How does it look to you?”

“They’re not really too surprised at our presence, though they’ve never seen anything like us before. They accept us as some kind of demigods.” The Chief Anthropologist was a small man named Pamon, usually vague of manner and sometimes indeterminate in his appearance. He tended to absorb the behavior of whatever people he was working with; already he was sitting with his hands clasped in the fashion of a Tenoka warrior, though he had not yet seen one of the Golden natives except on a screen.

“So, they ask our help,” Pamon went on. “I gather they’ve had more than the usual trouble with geryons lately. The beasts don’t often attack healthy adults, and it seems probable that they can tell when a human is armed. For a child, or even two of them together, to leave the village unescorted is quite dangerous; and yet the children do. I suppose they must, to learn the adult skills.”

“Girls too?”

“Perhaps. Or, she might have sneaked out just to watch our planeteering work, just out of curiosity.” Pamon sighed.

Grodsky frowned. “Have they any taboo against killing these particular animals? I don’t mean to slaughter ’em wholesale, of course; no telling what that might do to the ecology. But if the beasts are cunning enough to avoid armed adults, it occurs to me that we might find a way to teach ’em that from now on attacking children is dangerous also.”

“No taboo against killing them, General. But they’re doubtless hard to put away with primitive weapons.”

“I think we can educate ’em,” said Colonel Brazil, breaking a thoughtful silence.

“We have made this magic-doll, in the semblance of a child of your people,” Brazil announced a few days later. He spoke in the Tenoka tongue, in which some days of intensive training had made him almost fluent, and he was standing outside his own scoutship on the surface of the planet. “The doll has no spirit of its own. When we wish it, the spirit of one of our warriors will enter into it. Thus we hope that the geryons will come to fear the children of your people.”

The Tenoka delegation, twelve or fifteen strong and including both men and women, shifted their feet uncertainly. Strong Breather, who seemed to be the most influential available leader, grunted thoughtfully. Pierced Arms, the local shaman, gave no sign of what he might be thinking, at least no sign that Boris could interpret. Pierced Arms was daubed over most of his gaunt, aged body with colored goo, and the scarred loops of tissue on his arms and shoulders were strung with feathered cords.

The entire Tenoka delegation kept looking at the semblance of a child. A modified small robot, it stood with its back almost against one of the scoutship’s extended landing struts. About a meter tall, the robot had been transformed into a tolerably good likeness of a naked native youngster, though if you looked at it closely it was obviously not alive. A breeze now stirred the realistic hair; otherwise the small figure was motionless. When turned on, it answered to the name of Shorty.

“I will tell you now,” Brazil resumed, “how we of the far land of Earth plan to help our friends, the Tenoka. As is well known, the Tenoka are fearless warriors; if they see any one of their tribe in danger, they will rush fiercely to help.”

Two of the fearless warriors listening to him giggled suddenly, holding sun-darkened-hands over their mouths. Strong Breather looked at them sternly, but his own mouth twitched. Wait a moment, thought Boris-did I use the word for ‘fiercely’ or ‘drunkenly’? But in any case it seemed no great harm had been done.

“This magic-doll,” he went on, “will not need the help of the great Tenoka warriors. Our magic within the circle of our power is stronger than any number of the geryons. Therefore if you should see this seeming child pursued or attacked by geryons tomorrow, you must make no move to interfere. Will you inform all of your people of this?”

Strong Breather and Pierced Arms exchanged a look. Then Boris got the chin-thrusts and grunts that meant agreement.

Brazil added: “And tomorrow all of the real children must be kept in the villages, so there will be no mistake.”

Again the leaders of the delegation signified that they were willing.

Now came what might well be the most ticklish part of the negotiation. “You have brought the used blankets, and the clothing worn but not washed.” Brazil made it a statement and not a question; he could see that they had brought the stuff along as requested, tied into a bundle. But such things were often considered potentially powerful tools of magic against their owners. Pamon had been worried that the Tenoka might refuse at the last moment to turn them over.

The technicians aboard Alpha One had given Shorty no odor of his own, but had provided the robot with a plastic skin that would absorb any smells it came in contact with after activation. The plan was to immerse Shorty in the bundle of Tenoka-redolent cloth for a day. To a geryon, smell might well be a more important sense than sight.

“Take up the cloth things now,” Boris instructed the Tenoka, “and wrap the child-doll in them, so it may convey to the geryons the danger of attacking your children. Tomorrow you may take back the things.”

After a brief pause, and another exchange of looks with Strong Breather, Pierced Arms stepped forward and delivered a sing-song harangue to Shorty, who received it stoically; then another to Boris, who understood not a word of either speech.

But apparently this did not matter. The old man untied the bundle of laundry and began draping it around Shorty, piece by piece.

“Well, you’re the combat expert,” Brazil said to Adam in the grounded scoutship that evening. “Ready to go tomorrow?”

“All set.” Adam glanced at the puppet chamber that had come down with Shorty from Alpha One, and now filled most of the scoutship’s living space.

Right now the puppet chamber resembled an empty shower room, its glass walls enclosing enough space for a man to stand or jump or turn a somersault, but very little more. When the power was turned on, the interior of the chamber was filled by a fine, three-dimensional grid of forcefield lines. The grid recorded every instantaneous position of a human operator inside the chamber, data that could then be passed on by radio to Shorty or any other yesman, allowing a robot to be controlled exactly by the human. There was a return transmission also. Whatever experience presented itself to Shorty’s electronic senses would be radioed back to the puppet chamber, and translated there into forcefield effects, with their intensity modified as necessary for the human operator’s safety and comfort. A forcefield floor in the chamber acted as a treadmill, and continually modified its shape to imitate whatever terrain was under the yesman.

Shorty was now standing in the scoutship’s airlock, still wrapped in the Tenoka bedding and garments. Adam had spent some time in practice with the puppet chamber, marching the small yesman around in the vicinity of the scout. It had not taken long for him, with his reflexes, to regain the walking gait and habits of childhood, with his legs effectively reduced to about half their adult length. Shorty also possessed a kind of autopilot mode, useful for steady travel, in which the robotic brain took over control of legs and balance.

“I’d just like to get started on the job,” Adam added. Then abruptly he got up and paced, moving restlessly in the little space that was left outside the puppet chamber.

Since there was scarcely room for two men to walk about, Brazil sat down at the table. The Colonel produced a deck of cards from somewhere, and began in an abstracted way to deal out two hands.

Adam stopped his pacing and watched the fall of cards. “Two-handed poker?”

“Not necessarily. Look, Junior, don’t find some new way to go wild tomorrow. Grodsky and I are both sticking our necks out quite a bit by keeping you on the job after what happened.”

Mann stared at him for a moment, then said “Thanks” as if he possibly meant it, and spun away with nervous speed to pace again. He came back and stopped. “It’s just that I keep thinking about that kid.”

“I know.” Brazil’s own life was not yet very long, as years were counted, but it was crowded with experience. “You’ll see a lot of bad things in this job. You can’t get too involved.”

“But Iwas involved. I was right there.”

“You did what you could.”


“Possibly we were wrong to stop you. Maybe Grodsky made a mistake there. He’s only human. But maybe you made one, you’re only human too.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred