Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“Yeah.” Mann was looking at him in a new way, as if the Colonel had somehow managed to make a previously unnoticed point. “Yeah, we’re stuck with being only human, aren’t we?”

Brazil blinked at him. “Right.” It was good that he had madesome point, but. the Colonel decided to let it lie. “Now bring back some geryon ears tomorrow, and as a special reward I’ll stop calling you Junior.”

Adam dozed, on the borderland of sleep. When he got tomorrow’s job out of the way, when he had smashed some of those damnable animals and taught the rest a lesson, maybe things in his life would somehow straighten out. Planeteering would once again mean everything to him that it had once meant-or that he had once thought that it was going to mean. Back in the days when there had been more meaning to a lot of things. Before Alice had been.

In sleep, Alice’s face came again to drift before him. She cried out again for help, only to be replaced by the image of the mangled Tenoka girl.

“Turns out she was an orphan,” Pamon had told him. “The woman who carried her to your ship was a widow, acting as a foster parent, supported by the tribe. Interesting institution.”

Later there was another dream, this one involving yellow teeth.

Chapter Eight

“Overseer reports another group of five animals, coming this way, bearing about one-two-oh,” said Colonel Brazil. He was speaking over the scoutship’s intercom system, and referring to an aerial survey of geryons within the chosen area of the Stem. “Range about a klick and a half. That makes twenty-two of the beasties within reasonable walking range. Be nice if you could get ’em all chasing after you.”

“I’ll walk by and give them the chance,” Adam answered, He was standing inside the puppet chamber now, trying to persuade the skin-tight operator’s suit to stretch into something like a comfortable fit. “Let’s hope they feel like playing.”

“Ready for chamber power?”


“Power coming on.”

Adam reached up to the top of the chamber, unhooked the operator’s helmet from its suspension there and fitted it carefully over his head. The helmet covered his eyes and ears completely, effectively shutting out surrounding sight and sound. Blindly he worked to get the mouth control, that managed certain of the robot’s functions, comfortably positioned where his teeth could operate it.

Now Adam let his arms drop to his sides. Color swam and steadied before his eyes, forming shapes and illusory distances, becoming the inside of the closed outer door of the scoutship’s airlock. The background noise changed subtly in his ears.

The illusion was well-nigh perfect. Both sight and hearing assured Adam that he was now standing inside the airlock, inside Shorty’s metal body, only a meter tall and still wrapped in the Tenoka cloth. He shrugged the stuff away from him, thinking himself probably lucky that the yesman had been provided with no functioning nose.

Adam stepped forward one child-sized stride, and raised one of his/Shorty’s little arms. The stiff latch of the airlock door eased open at a touch of Shorty’s baby-sized finger, steel-boned, electrically muscled, powered by a tiny hydrogen fusion lamp in Shorty’s chest.

Adam-Shorty toddled down the short landing ramp. He was barely able to see over the tallest grass.

“Robot,” Adam said, and let his legs relax, as the chamber controls read the code word, and the chamber forcefields tightened to support his human weight. The robot brain had now taken over the routine business of making step after step with the yesman’s legs. This might be an all-day job, and there was no point in wearing himself out hiking. Adam steered with the sterile-tasting mouth control, and with a light biting pressure held Shorty’s speed to that of a walking child.

Tall grass flowed easily by him, the long blades still bearing traces of morning dew.

“Bear about ten degrees left,” said the voice of the aerial observer in his ears. “You’re going to find the first group, four beasts, about two hundred meters ahead, moving down a little ravine, very slowly.”

Adam bore left as directed. He looked up into kindly blue. After a bit he was able to spot Overseer. If geryons were aware at all of distant scoutships, they ought to be accustomed to the sight of them by now. This one presumably would mean nothing in particular to the animals.

Adam didn’t want to run right into the four animals ahead. He preferred to go past them and let them stalk him, if they would. They were cunning creatures, and the lesson was to be spelled out for them precisely and plainly. Death-beams or bullets might not be connected in the geryons’ minds with the seeming child they were, Adam hoped, about to attack. Therefore beams and bullets would not be used.

He came to the ravine where he had been directed to go, and toddled along the top of the high bank. Soon he saw the four geryons, all adults, moving slowly along, grazing in sparse cover at the bottom. Adam/Shorty gave no sign that he had seen them. He walked past and let them become aware of him, then turned away from the ravine.

“Where’s the next bunch?” Adam whispered into his helmet mike. Then he chuckled at himself for whispering.

Ninety minutes later Adam-Shorty had fourteen of the animals interested enough to follow him. The geryons were moving in a widespread formation that still seemed to be trying to give the impression of aimless drifting. Adam, taking care to keep the little robot well clear of the Field, was headed now toward a certain eroded slope above a bend of the river. There was plenty of rocky ground there to offer the firm support that Shorty’s tiny feet might need, and there was a small box canyon that also figured in the plan.

He cast a quick look back over Shorty’s shoulder. The geryons, at a distance of a hundred meters or so, were following him a little more obviously now, a slow certainty of intention apparent in their movements. Less frequently now did the omnivorous animals stop to graze, or pretend to graze.

Adam took a quick count-there were fifteen of the animals now, three or four of them only half grown, with scaly-looking bodies and heavily furred legs. The faces of the adult females among the group were those of lovely but unhappy women. The males had men’s faces with a look of nobility about them, slight variations on the face of the first geryon that Adam had ever seen.

The illusion was intense of his actual presence out there on the plain, a child small and alone before gigantic predators. How many real children had turned to discover that the things were following them, how many real children had run and tripped and screamed.

The illusion was heightened further as Adam took Shorty’s legs back under his direct control. Now the rocks of the chosen slope were not far ahead. Out of nervous habit he felt with the yesman’s hand for a holster at its side. Then he grinned to himself. Shorty did not carry sidearms. Or need them.

As he neared the stony area, Adam began to run, imitating the movements of a frightened child. Glancing back at the animals, he saw them drop all pretense of innocence now and give chase. They were probably clever enough to know that a child might be able to find a sheltering crevice among the rocks.

Adam/Shorty toddled into the chosen box canyon only a few seconds ahead of the geryons, then turned and stood as if frozen in despair, near the center of the steep-walled natural trap. His pursuers came crowding after him through the canyon’s narrow entrance, snapping and shoving to get ahead of one another. None wanted to be left out. One child was not going to provide much sport for fifteen geryons.

Now Adam continued to stand as if paralyzed by fright, while the huge gray beasts first settled a pecking order among themselves, then waddled to form a ring around him. As soon as the ring was closed, they began to tighten it, moving almost as if in practiced ritual. Some moved toward Shorty with high dainty steps, looking down their human noses at him as if in righteous pride. Some crept forward on their bellies, scummy tongues lolling from their frowning mouths, an effect that ruined the nobility of their fine men’s and women’s faces.

Adam could feel his breathing quicken and his hands tremble. The sun beat down upon the barren arena. The pack around him gurgled and howled, but only softly.

He made Shorty run to and fro in quick uncertain rushes, as if he were seeking hopelessly to escape. He was no longer entirely pretending; he could feel himself living as a Tenoka child, out there alone in the canyon.

Now the animals’ deadly circle was less than four meters wide. Adam had to fight down genuine panic. He made Shorty spin wildly, and cry out in his high child’s voice.

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