Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“Though it doesn’t really look that much like a leopard at first glance. Right. You’re the expert.”

“But the rug-it isn’t real fur.” It covered much of the rough wooden floor.

“I bought the rug in Stem City,” he said. “Keeps my feet warm, when there’s no other way.” He was still standing just inside the front door, and now he gently made sure that the door was tightly closed, and pulled the latchstring in, not wanting interruption. Then he went to Merit, and turned her around so they were face to face, and pulled her gently, firmly against him.

She didn’t pull back. She didn’t argue, or protest, or say anything at all, but after a moment he knew that it was never going to be any good like this, not with her.

He said: “You didn’t always say no.”

“I wasn’t always married.”

Adam raised his hands to her shoulders, and held her that way, still very gently. He said: “I guess this husband is pretty important.”

Smiling, Merit hugged Adam as if she were his sister, with a kind of tired tenderness. “I’m glad to hear someone say that,” she told him.

And so it seemed that someone had said otherwise.

Chapter Ten

The outboard purred faithfully into life as soon as they had re-passed the line of markers in midstream. Adam asked: “Back to Far Landing?” He could be calm; he knew it wasn’t over yet between him and Merit.

Her voice was ordinary, and he supposed she knew it too. “Vito and Ray were heading for a place called Fieldedge, and since it’s a physics laboratory I’ve no doubt they’re still there. Is it far?”

“Fieldedge. No, not far, just a few kilometers. And we can take the boat right to the door.” Adam headed the canoe downstream.

Ahead of them now the river curved deeply into the Stem. Falling behind the canoe now, the line of marker poles marched in their great steady circle toward the river’s wild bank, up onto it, and on away from the water, vanishing from sight.

Now the land on both sides of the river bore new roads, a number of new buildings, and a great many enigmatic surveying markers, bright-colored poles and pylons. People and machines were at work at scattered sites on every hand, clearing nature from the land’s surface and building what they wanted in its place. Adam sat silently in the stern of the canoe, steering with the motor. Merit occupied the seat ahead of him, her trousered knees aimed at him but her face as often as not turned away, while she took in the sights of the new land around her.

Watching the beauty of her face, the curved grace of her body as she turned from side to side, Adam tried to imagine that they had grown up together in some normal family, that Merit was his sister.

The effort failed totally.

After curving majestically almost two kilometers into the Stem, the river’s course bent back to the Field again. The great circle of marker poles reappeared, marching toward the water and into it, here crossing a bend of the river at an acute angle. Just where the line of markers came closest to the Stem bank, a large new building of concrete and glass jutted out over the water, projecting deliberately across the invisible line. The relatively small portion of the laboratory building that extended beyond the markers into the Field had been constructed mainly of simple interlocking plastic slabs, resting on stone piers.

The canoe was still several hundred meters away from the building when Adam saw three men walk out of a door on an upper level of the structure, to stand on an esplanade steeply terraced above the Fieldedge dock.

Vito Ling’s mind, energized now by anger, was working with the speed and skill of an acrobat’s warmed-up musculature, juggling mathematical equations and shuttling values in and out of them. Every calculation he could make assured him that Kedro had been right: they should have insisted that the time-quanta device be redesigned, before they agreed to leave Earth with it. Now, of course, it was too late for design changes. And in its present form the device was not going to be of the least help to them in understanding the nature of the Field.

What really angered Vito most was the fact that Kedro had been a step ahead of him again. This time they had really been on the same side, arguing against the false economy of the Research Foundation administrators. But he, Vito, keen to come to grips with the Field directly, had been willing to give in to the administrators, for fear that otherwise they might call off his trip to Golden altogether; and Kedro on the other hand had remained firm in his opposition, only yielding at last, gracefully when he did so, to the opinion of Vito Ling who was supposedly the senior scientist.

It was as if Kedro had been using some precognitive talent to foresee their present trouble. Of course with the Jovian Kedro, something of the kind was possible. But looking back, Vito had to admit to himself that parapsych talent would not have been necessary to have predicted the trouble, the blind alley in which they already found themselves with their experiment. Looking back now, melding what he knew of physics with what he knew of the behavior of administrators, he was able to see it himself with perfect clarity. But only Kedro had been as certain of the result when looking forward, not letting himself be blinded by impatience or anything else.

The perfect intellect, thought Vito now, angrily, watching Kedro’s massive tapering back as the Jovian man moved ahead of Vito out the door at the side of the Fieldedge lab. The perfect man-or would Kedro perhaps object to being called a man? Would it be better to say the perfect being?

Vito was jealous and angry, and angrier because he knew himself to be thinking unreasonably now.

“Well, we can’t be sure today,” said the calm voice of little Dr. Shishido, director of the Fieldedge lab, coming outside behind Vito. “Tomorrow, we are certain to learn more.”

Vito suppressed an angry answer. They certainly knew enough now to be able to predict total failure for the time-quanta gadget in its present form. And if it failed, after much investment of time and money, what chance did they have of learning anything of importance without it? He might as well turn around and go back to Earth tomorrow.

He wouldn’t do that, of course. Having come this far, he would stay on for a while, and try.

Ray Kedro, his fair hair stirring in the faint breeze, was leaning now on a railing overlooking the small dock and the broad river, and had apparently given himself up to staring across the width of moving water. It was as if the Jovian were trying to pierce the mystery of the optically invisible Field with his unaided senses.

The hero posing, Vito thought. Challenging the mystery too great for mere humanity to solve. Well, we’ll see. I don’t admit a damned thing about your so-called Jovian superiority, and Merit is my wife, and she enjoys being my wife, and wouldn’t trade her life with me for anything that you could give her. And I bet that fact gripes you yet, for all you act like her older brother.

And I hope you’re reading my mind.

Then, for some reason, a recurring question nagged at Vito: Why, really, didn’t Merit yet want to have a child? Early on in their relationship they had agreed they would. But now.

Little Dr. Shishido, who had been last out of the lab, came to stand between Vito and Ray Kedro, drawing deep breaths of the mild winter air. “Why don’t both of you come and have dinner with my wife and me tonight?” the lab director asked. “And bring your, er, sister, of course, Dr. Kedro.” No doubt about who Shishido considered the senior scientist to be. “We’re looking forward to meeting her. And, ah-”

“Maybe I’ll bring my wife, too,” said Vito.

Ray turned round, sensing minor difficulty, “Ms. Creston I expect will be glad to attend, in both capacities. You’re right, of course, Dr. Shishido, Merit and I do usually consider ourselves as siblings for social purposes.”

“Er, yes. That’s what I was.”

Shishido actually appeared to be made somewhat nervous by the Jovian superman’s mere presence.Damn fool , thought Vito.

Out loud he said: “I usually consider Merit as my wife. We find it works out well. We’ll be glad to come.” It took him an effort right now, gritted teeth, to achieve even that modest degree of civility. Temper, if you could only watch your temper, friends sometimes said to him. To hell with them, he’d like to show them what real temper was.

But with another effort he managed now to ease his mental wrestler’s grip on the problem of the

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