Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Something struck the yesman from behind. Shorty’s legs were now slaved to human reflexes, so he was knocked on his face. Adam felt the impact, scaled down by the feedback system, as a pat between his shoulder blades. He made Shorty roll over on the ground, and stared up at a circle of nightmare-handsome faces. He could feel his living breath sawing in his throat, and could see the kindly sky, the sky remote and indifferent beyond the sinuous gray necks, the clustered evil power.

The thought came flickering through Adam’s mind: How many in all the universe, have seen the universe this way-

A massive foot was coming slowly down on Shorty’s midsection-not with any weight on it. A dead victim would be no sport at all. Adam had to choke off a scream as one huge head, human-masked, sank toward Shorty’s face. The unspeakable mouth was gaping over him. Now, he thought, now, and he thrust up an arm, and the big yellow-brown teeth closed deliberately on Shorty’s child-sized fingers.

He closed Shorty’s fingers on one big tooth, yanked it out like a thumbtack, and flipped it away.

Adam heard his own near-hysterical laugh at the reaction he saw in the geryon’s face as the long neck whipped up and back, away from him. Another similar head loomed over Shorty now, lowering uncertainly. Adam drove an arm up, hard and fast this time. Shorty’s fusion-powered arm was slaved to follow Adam’s. The metal fingers stabbed through thick neck hide, and drove on spearlike through yielding tissue, until Adam could feel in his fist the greater hardness of the neck vertebrae. He clutched at bone, and squeezed, and had the sensation of crumpling paper in his hand.

He had Shorty out from underneath the thing quickly, before the mountainous convulsions of its death had ceased. Before the other animals could make up their minds that now it was time to run, Adam maneuvered Shorty between them and the narrow entrance to the canyon.

Startled and confused, unable to sense any familiar danger, the geryons ran in circles within the high-walled box, raising clouds of dust in the sunlight. Moving rapidly at last, they jumped and plunged and bellowed. And now the biggest animal turned toward Shorty, looking past the yesman to the one way out of the canyon. Adam/Shorty blocked the path, even as the animal charged him with a snarling howl; in a flash the geryon looked to Adam like the one that had been first to bite the little girl.

He leaned forward, bracing Shorty’s feet on firm rock footing beneath him. The geryon did not try to avoid the small figure in its path. The impact that came through to Adam felt like a swat from a pillow, and in it he could distinguish a sudden snapping yielding, that must mean that heavy bone had broken. The geryon fell sideways with a hideous scream, and the pack that had started to follow it halted again, its members colliding with each other in confusion.

Adam/Shorty strode toward them. Most of them scattered before him, not yet in panic, but wary, not knowing what was harming their kind. As one of the bigger geryons dodged past him he caught it by the tail in Shorty’s mangling grip, braced his feet on rock again and swung the two-ton squirming mass around hand over hand to face the yesman. The huge head came around biting; Adam swung Shorty’s fist with all his strength. Much of the geryon’s head vanished in a gory explosion, spattering the other beasts nearby. They howled and turned to frantic flight from Shorty, scrambling in every direction to escape.

Adam pushed his latest victim aside and stamped after the animals on Shorty’s tiny feet. With horror he saw that a couple of geryons were already climbing the steep canyon walls, their efforts so fueled by desperation that it looked as if they might succeed.

He grabbed up a loose rock the size of a basketball, and let fly with it at one of the madly scrambling animals. The yesman’s throwing arm was slaved to human speed, so the impact was not all that Adam had hoped for, but still the target beast came sliding and rolling down the slope.

Picking up some more rocks, Adam trotted Shorty forward. Something feral and howling took over completely now inside his own skull. The world shrank to a rocky arena where time was hate.

“Don’t forget to bring us a sample for Biology,” someone’s voice reminded him.

“What? Oh, sure.” Adam turned Shorty back to the first beast that he had slain-it was about the least damaged of any-grabbed it by one leg, and began to pull it toward the canyon exit. He noticed that his arms were all red, glistening and slimy. “I need a bath,” he muttered.

“Huh? You’re still here in the scoutship, remember?”

“Sure-Imean I’m sweating.” I’d better pull myself together, he thought, or Psych will be examining me half to death.

The carcass that he was towing caught and tore and abraded on rocks. Shorty could pull the leg right off if the operator wasn’t careful, and naturally the biologists wanted a specimen that was in reasonably good condition.

Already the scavenger birds were gathering overhead. They came from kilometers around in no time.

Adam stopped, got Shorty right underneath the hulk, and lifted it. It did not feel heavy to him, but it was an awkward thing to handle. The awkwardness was worse after he got out of the canyon and away from the rocky slope. Now the ground was softer under Shorty’s tiny feet, and the burdened yesman kept sinking into the soil. Even when Shorty sank waist deep, almost swimming in the alien earth, Adam could still plow ahead with little physical effort.

The dead beast wobbled repulsively in Adam’s grip, the geryon head trailing on the long broken neck, the human face that was no longer handsome abrading away on the ground.

He, Adam Mann, or someone else, would probably have to repeat today’s performance, over and over, until every geryon that survived in the Stem had learned to fear and flee from Tenoka children. A good cause, but an unpleasant job.

The “touch” of the dead bulk became suddenly so repellent that he dropped it.

“Pretty tough going here,” he said. “Can’t you send a scout or a copter?”

Presently a voice from Alpha One reached him. “All right, a couple of biologists are coming down anyway, and they can pick up the specimen right there. They’ll be there in a minute or two. Good job, Mann.”

As soon as he saw the scout descending, Adam abandoned the dead geryon and began walking Shorty in the direction of his own scoutship. Blood was drying thickly on the yesman and swarms of insects were beginning to follow it. The parallel themes of Galactic insect life were strongly supported here.

He trudged on, a little metal man under the enormous sky of Golden.


Chapter Nine

The man in the canoe, gliding on the tranquil river, lifted the hand-carved wooden paddle out of the water, and a moment later lowered the small outboard motor into operating position at the squared-off stern. The canoe was handmade too, of bark and wood, designed in the native Tenoka style, except for that square stern. Now, as the craft glided from Field to Stem between moss-grown marker poles, the outboard purred smoothly into life, propelling Adam Mann toward the small boat dock at Far Landing.

People from Earth, as it had turned out, could live perfectly well on the surface of Golden without benefit of groundsuits. They could live perfectly well inside the Field, as long as they were willing to leave all high technology behind them. One implication of that was that seven years ago a certain Earthman, if he had been allowed to take the risk and remove his groundsuit’s helmet, might have had some small chance of saving a certain ins

Tenoka child from death at the fangs of timid monsters.

Or, on the other hand he might not.

After seven years, Adam Mann no longer remembered that day’s horror very often, or thought about it at all that much.

An Earthman like Adam Mann, who a few years ago had surprised the few friends who thought , they knew him well, by resigning from the Space Force, giving up an enviable career to live a mostly primitive life on one particular strange planet- well, such a man with his planeteering experience might have made himself wealthy on a raw world just opened to colonization. In fact, everyone who learned of his decision to resign from the Space Force assumed that that had been his motive.

If it had been, he didn’t have a lot of wealth to show for it as yet. Nor any great prospects of much in the foreseeable future. But he was doing all right.

A couple of hours earlier on this mild winter morning, Adam had looked out of the window of his isolated cabin on the Field side of the river, and had seen a shuttle descending to the Stem City spaceport. The civilian starships were coming out to Golden more and more frequently now, bringing with them tourists and adventurers and business people from Earth and a hundred other worlds. Three hundred thousand colonists were now living in Stem City, amid a continual roar of construction. On Earth demand was high for certain exotic products of this world, among them natural furs. Furs like those in the silvery bundle that now rode in the bottom of Adam Mann’s canoe.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred