Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Field, and started to take notice of the new world surrounding him.

A stair led down from the open space where the three men stood, down to a small dock where a couple of the indigenous people were sitting, onlookers without any visible purpose. The country on this side of the river looked to Vito like it was only beginning to be settled, and that on the other side was to all appearances utterly wild.

Kedro, still gazing out over the water, said: “Doctor Shishido, I think you’re going to meet Merit before this evening.”

Only now did Vito really notice the small boat that had been slowly and steadily approaching from upriver, with two figures in it. The two people were still too distant for any certain identification, but one of them was a blond woman wearing a bulky jacket that certainly looked like Merit’s. The other appeared to be a man, and not a Golden native.

Had Merit hired a boat? But she had said something about going to look up a childhood friend. Yes, some former planeteer who had lost his wife.

The three men at the railing watched in silence as the boat drew near, heading right for the dock. There was no doubt now that the woman was Merit. She waved up at them cheerfully, said something to the man who was with her, and then hopped out nimbly on the dock. Her companion was a rough-looking character, bearded and dirty, and wearing a knife at his belt. After one glance up at the three men watching, and a quick wave, he busied himself with securing the canoe. Then the two native men came over to him and began a conversation, while Merit started up the stairs.

Vito stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at her, while she climbed toward him, smiling happily.

“Who the devil isthat ?” It came out rougher than he had intended.

“An old friend.” Merit suddenly looked worried. “His name is Adam Mann. I told you about him, darling.”

The anger rose up in Vito, a flame finding new fuel. “Didn’t lose any time getting cozy with him, did you? He looks like a tramp. Is he another of your parapsych friends?”

“No-no.” Merit was shaken. She appeared to be too surprised by his outburst to know how to react to it; somehow that only made him worse.

“So, you got off the ship and went straight to see him.” The wrong words, meant to hurt, came out with perverse ease, like lines well-studied for a play, even when Vito knew that they were wrong.

“Yes, Vito, I did that.” Merit, as usual, had needed only a moment to regain complete control of herself. Still she was angry too. “And I even went to visit the cabin where he lives. So be angry if you must. If you can’t grow up. You could decide to trust me.”

“Oh, I could, could I? And what would happen then?”How good it would be, how really fine, to find some reason to hit someone . And meanwhile Dr. Shishido, looking more and more worried, was hovering almost beside them, watching the argument. He kept making little fussing starts of movement as if he yearned to interfere. And Kedro still stood at the railing, now looking down at his huge hands clamped onto the wood, determinedly minding his own business.

It was just at this point that the Earthman chatting with the natives on the dock below looked up at them all again and smiled pleasantly. To Vito, at the moment, there was no doubt of what that smile meant:She came straight to me, and I took her to my cabin, and what are you going to do about it ?

Vito growled in his throat, and started down the stairs. Mann, or whatever his name was down there, was shorter than Vito and a little lighter probably, but the bastard was carrying a knife, and if he wanted to try using his knife Vito right now didn’t give a damn.

“Vito, no!” Merit clutched at his arm belatedly as he went by her, and it afforded him minor satisfaction to be able to tear his sleeve free of her grip without a pause. Skipping downstairs with the unthinking balance of the natural athlete, he knew in the back of his mind that he was wrong, dead wrong and going overboard. But this was one of those times when temper just got out of hand, and afterward there could always be apologies.

He heard and ignored Shishido behind him, the little scientist raising his voice in some ineffectual protest. Then Vito hit the bottom of the stairs, and bounced along straight toward the man who owned what must be a very attractive cabin. The two natives saw Vito coming, and the way he looked, and they hastily backed away to stand with folded arms and wooden faces.

At close range, he could see that Man was well built, with a deep chest and strong arms; good. There wouldn’t be much difference in weight after all. Mann’s pleasant smile had changed to a look of startled caution.

Vito stopped just within his own long reach of the bearded man. “Havea good time with my wife today?” he asked. He felt his lips drawn back, the blood beating in his head, the muscles in his face hurting a little. He felt his fists big and hard, and his feet ready to shift, quickly and lightly.

“Yeah,” said Mann, plainly. He was squinting at Vito with his head a little tilted, as if he were trying to understand something.

Vito said a filthy name and shifted his weight and stabbed his left arm out in a well-aimed jab that shot past Mann’s instantly moving face. The second jab missed too, and the hard overhand right, thrown without having the range at all, missed so badly that Vito almost fell down.

He lost sight of Mann for just an instant, and spun around with his guard up. But Mann was only shuffling backward away from him. A clumsy-looking man of about average size, his arms down, still puzzled. “What goes on?” he asked, seeming no more than annoyed.

Vito moved after him, with cold precision, and no lessening of the urge to strike and destroy. He shifted and feinted, like the good amateur boxer that he was, but drew no response. He moved in with another left jab that also missed those unblinking elusive eyes, and a long hook that touched only air, and then a looping right that was stopped when his forearm caught on Mann’s, which came up with unhurried speed and felt like a wooden club

Vito stood there for a long instant, with his right arm caught and his left out of position, his feet somehow misplaced and his balance failing as Mann’s forearm pulled him slightly forward, and he knew he was ripe to be clobbered, by someone who knew how.

But Vito wasn’t clobbered. Mann disengaged at once and stepped back again.

“Keep it up, bud, and I’ll chuck you in the river,” he said in a flat voice. “Pretty cold this time of year.”

Vito too stepped back this time. He was breathing heavily. Merit was calling something to him. From the sound of her voice, she was almost in tears. Shishido like an angry schoolmaster was saying: “Here, now! Stop it, you two!”

And now Vito’s rage was burning out quickly, not with fear or frustration, though he began to feel both of those, but as if the fuel were being cut off. He backed away carefully from Mann, turned and headed for the stairway.

The draining out of anger left him shaky, going up the stairs. Oh, by all the Laws, he thought, I really popped my circuit breakers that time, He stopped and half-turned once on the stairs, intending to try to say something to Mann; but what was there to say?

Keeping his back turned to the dock, Vito climbed on. At the top of the stair he muttered some futile apology to Shishido, who favored him with a look of sad pity as he went by. Vito plunged right on into the lab; he had to be alone for a minute.

What kind of a damn foolam I? he thought. What have I done to Merit now? I never blew up likethat before in my whole adult life.

He leaned against a generator that was still humming itself down slowly into silence after the day’s futile experiment. After a few seconds he heard the door behind him, and then Merit’s blessed footsteps.

“Adam, the way you look seems to prove that going native here is healthy. I should have come to try it years ago.” It was Ray Kedro who said that, Ray grinning as of old, looking down from his great height and engulfing Adam’s right hand in his own, almost crushing it in greeting.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred