Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

It struck Adam that the drunken uproar was noticeably diminished. In the vicinity of the stage, a circle of heads were now turning toward the piano. The ring of quiet polarization widened. Now, even where he stood at the wall, Adam could hear some of the piano notes. And now he could hear more.

Ray’s music flowed out to where the night sky of Golden was curved around the bubble windows.I’ve never heard this , Adam thought.What can you call this kind of music? What is it ? He moved forward into the room again, until he stood gripping the back of someone’s chair.

He can do this, too, Adam thought.They can do this .

Now the vast room, or most of it, was almost quiet, expect for the music that Ray Kedro played. Somewhere at the far side of the room, among the distant trees and rocks, one person sobbed, loudly and drunkenly. Then a door opened in the wall near Adam, and a fat man in evening dress came hurrying out, as if the silence had alarmed him. Then the fat man too stood quietly listening.

Experience this, said the music.Feel this -you can almost touch it now. This is what life is about.

No. Adam turned away, heading again toward the elevators. How would you know, Ray, what human life is like?

Adam’s mind felt blurred. The alcohol and the sobering pill were fighting it out in his bloodstream.

The elevator door closed on him, shutting him in, cutting off the golden sounds. He was alone in the car going down. I usually am alone, he thought. You stupid drunk, he told himself, why don’t you go off somewhere and cry?

There were only a few people in the hotel lobby when he reached it. Adam looked at his timepiece. It was two in the morning. He hadn’t realized that it was so late.

He stepped out of the lobby onto the black and dully gleaming slideway. His head was full of vague thoughts, none of which really demanded his attention. The slideway shot him back toward Stem City, carrying him past observation platforms and alcoves. In one of these large recesses eight or ten young people were dancing to some music of their own. They had set up a screen on which the image of some retchsinger was contorting itself in three dimensions and unnatural color. No, at second glance it appeared that the screen was attached to a built-in, coin operated video that they were playing. Something new here every day.

The rest of the observation niches were empty as Adam glided past them. There were only a few people on the slideway, most of them riding in what looked like a grim hurry on the faster center strips.

Far ahead of Adam, going in the same direction as he was but on the slowest outer strip, a man and a woman moved along arm in arm. At a distance they looked like Merit and Vito; they were certainly dressed the same. But how could Merit and Vito possibly have got ahead of him?

Just as the couple were passing one of the observation alcoves, four figures erupted from concealment inside it. Like a pack of wild teeners, swinging fists and weapons, the four charged the couple from behind. The man and woman were both knocked down. Already they were being dragged off the slideway and back into the alcove.

The cold combat computer had flicked on automatically, and Adam was already hurtling forward, running in a curved path over slower and slower strips toward the alcove. He pounded off the slowest strip just in time to see the top of one pigtailed head vanish down through a utility trapdoor at the rear of the bubble-walled enclosure. The attackers were gone.

Vito Ling lay on the deck of the observation platform, twitching, wide-eyed, dead. His face and head were covered with his blood.

A few meters away. Merit.

Adam turned her over, to lie face up. She was unconscious, but she was alive, with no injury that his frantic examination could discover. A pulse throbbed in her wrist as Adam’s shaky fingers held it.

He looked away for a moment, toward the closed trapdoor. Would he have a chance of catching anyone? But no, he had better stay with Merit. He looked back at her.

Adam screamed, as his legs thrust him erect, away from the figure on the deck. His hands came slapping up to hide the world from his eyes.

Instead of Merit, he had seen Alice on the deck, pregnant and butchered and dead.

Behind his closed eyes, his mind scrambled for truth, some kind of truth that he could cling to. Fearfully he uncovered his eyes, looking toward the place where Vito-

Had been. Vito’s body was now gone. There were no bloodstains there on the deck now. Nothing.

Numbly Adam looked around. No Merit on the floor. No Alice either, of course not Alice. And no Vito Ling. No pigtailed attackers. Adam Mann was alone in the alcove, breathing hard and trembling.

A couple of people shot by on the fast strip of the slideway, paying him no attention.

Hallucination. Forcing himself to think, to act, Adam walked to the rear of the alcove and examined the trapdoor closely. It was locked shut, and a thin film of unmarked dust lay around it and over it, along with a little windblown litter. It looked as if no one had used the door for days at least.

Hallucination. He stumbled out onto the slide-way and resumed his journey. He was shaken, hardly aware of what was going on around him. To think that he sometimes envied others their parapsych powers.

But what could have brought on this experience? He had never had anything like it in his life before. Probably his feelings for Merit-relating her to Alice-but of course itmight have been genuine precognition, which would mean that some time in the future, Merit and Vito would travel this way, and would be attacked.

Shock hit Adam again. Merit had said something like: “I don’t mind a place like this-about once a .year.” It wasn’t likely that she and Vito would be on Golden that long. It wasn’t likely, Adam thought, that they would return to the Pioneer Hotel before they left. Tonight it was going to be, of course, tonight.

In a slow unthinking way Adam had moved again out to the rapid strip; now he spun around and raced back for the immobile utility walk along the outer edge of the slideway. He had to get back to that alcove-or might the attack be going to take place at a different one?

Looking down the long slideway toward the Pioneer Hotel, he could now see Merit and Vito in the distance, approaching arm in arm, gliding toward him along the slow outer strip.

Adam reached the utility walk and sprinted back toward them. Now his view of them was blocked by vending machines on the walk ahead of him. How far was it to that alcove? God, it mustn’t be far, the attack and killing took only a few seconds.

A lone man went by on the slideway, turning his head to watch Adam run, then turning away with determination, minding his own business.

Adam ran.

There was a scuffle and a faint outcry from close ahead. Adam rounded a vending machine and came dashing into the alcove. A figure at the rear was just putting coins into the video machine to turn it on, bringing the retchsinger figure gigantically alive upon the holostage above.

Vito Ling was not dead on the floor, he was still more or less on his feet, but he was being held in that position. One of his arms was being twisted behind his back bya tall powerful young man in teener garb, while another one stood before him with a brassknuckled fist drawn back, holding Vito’s bleeding head up by the hair while turning his own head to look at Adam. The fourth attacker, who appeared to be more or less directing matters, was a short, lightly built man with a face lined well beyond the teenpack age. He looked around with surprise at the sound of Adam’s entrance, then put a smile on his face and stepped toward Adam.

And there, behind the short man, Merit was lying on her face, just as in the vision.

The short man stepped forward. He was a cocky little character with dangerous eyes. But now he was going to do his imitation of polite reasonableness.

“Friend, we really don’t need no help here,” said the short man to Adam in a pleasant voice. The other three had paused, waiting and watching to see if there was going to be a real distraction.

Vito looked like he might be going to die.

Adam did not move or speak.

The short man said to Adam: “I mean the lady had a touch too much to drink, you know, and it’s just a friendly little argument.”

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