Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Adam was moving forward, one cautious step at a time, under a thick growth of trees, when the stench hit him. The overpoweringly evil smell came at him in a wave, as suddenly as if some huge beast with bad teeth that yawned in the midnight darkness immediately in front of him.

But it was not really the odor of rottenness, though it was just as bad. It was not only repugnant but totally strange. It stopped Adam in his tracks, and sent him centimetering his way cautiously backward.

And then there was a voice out of the darkness ahead, a kind of voice that formed words, though it was otherwise an utterly inhuman, belching sound.

“Earthman,” it said, creating words in the common language of Earth, carving them out in a strange heavy accent. “Earthman, I like to think about your kind.”

“Uh-uh-” Adam stuttered; he nearly fell. An impulse to giggle fought within him against an even stronger urge to turn and run. Planeteering training won out, and he neither ran nor fell into hysterics, but only backed away another step, his arms rising automatically to a defensive position.

Talk, his training urged him. If someone on a strange world spoke to a planeteer, the planeteer was supposed to answer.

Adam replied: “You like to think of us? Why?” He experienced a trivial satisfaction at the steadiness of his voice.

The voice came again. “Why? I marvel at your grasping of the small. And why do you kill each other with such enthusiasm?” The basso barking, belching at him out of the night had a tympanic sound, like the deepest roar of a lion. Still Adam was able to sense nothing else about the speaker, except the smell-the smell was gradually fading now, and perhaps it did not really belong to him, or her, or it.

“I’m not sure why we do these things,” Adam temporized. “What do you want of me now?”

“You have come to an island where I am. Do you know why you have come here?” There was a pause, just long enough for Adam to have forced in an answer if he had had one ready. “Then follow me,” the voice commanded.

There was a receding sound. Adam’s imagination, trying to match that sound convincingly with something in the physical world, could picture nothing more likely than a hollow metal drum, being dragged away forcefully through dense thorny bushes.

Adam hesitated only briefly; then with a mental shrug he followed the sound, walking with slow lightless caution through the almost perfect darkness under the trees. Within a few strides, at approximately the location from which the voice had spoken to him, he stepped on something that quivered and scattered like small hard living creatures under his boots. A wave of the strange ugly odor rose overpoweringly about him, only to fade quickly as he moved on.

Under the trees Adam encountered neither thorn bushes nor metal drums, nor anything remotely like them. The ground was level and largely barren. The sound led him on steadily, at an easy pace. Adam paced cautiously after its maker through the darkness, sensing the tree trunks only just in time to avoid bumping into them.

Soon the source of the sound changed the direction of its movement sharply. Adam followed the change, and soon after that bumped up against a wall of something that felt like sandstone. His groping hands told him that the wall was no more than chest high, but thicker than he could reach across.

His guide seemed to be following the wall now, moving to the right.

After a few more turns, all made following the windings of the wall, Adam saw a yellowish light ahead. At about the same time, he and his guide emerged from under the trees. Now the starlight showed him the being he was following, but only as a vague shape, the size of a man perhaps. It was ten meters or so ahead of him and moving quite close to the ground. Whatever it might be, it was not a human of the primate theme.

The yellow glow ahead was coming from inside a one-story building. The structure was of a simple, flat-roofed design, with doorways and windows open to the tropic night. It appeared to be constructed of the same rough stone as the low wall. There was a gateway in the wall now, and they passed through it, Adam still following his guide, toward the building’s largest doorway.

“Go inside,” said the tympanic voice of Adam’s guide, who had now stopped at a little distance to one side. “Go inside and look. I want to see what effect on your parapsych theories is had by the sight of a possible result. Did I phrase that correctly? I am not one who knows your speech behavior well. But go and look. Be my fellow scientist, hey?”

Adam walked toward the open doorway at the center of the low building. Inside he could see a large, plain, stone-walled room, illuminated by the bright yellow glow that was coming from no visible source. The room contained nothing but a large, open pit or tank sunk into the middle of the floor and defended by a circular low wall.

The sight of a possible result. The Field-builders’ torture chamber, or one of them. Adam paused in the doorway, intuition whispering to him that in this room he was going to find the half-alive remains of Alexander Golden.

He didn’t want to see that. He hoped more fiercely than ever that the next teleportation jump would quickly come, come now, and take him out of this. But he made himself cross the floor to the low wall around the tank, and look over the wall and down.

“They came in past the robot picket ships ten hours ago,” said General Lorsch. For the first time in many days there was no tiredness in her voice. Her electronic pointer flashed as it marked the location of the sighting on the holographic model of the space around Golden. Around her the small, dimly lighted briefing room on the command deck of the flagship was quiet, the small group of people who filled it listening intently.

“The pickets have been following them,” the General went on, “and no doubt they are aware of that. Now they’re within fifteen hundred kilometers of planet surface, and holding position there. We’re going to surround them as best we can with our three manned ships, and then we’re going to ask them some questions. Yes, Colonel, what is it?”

Brazil stood up in the small group of senior officers present. “Ma’am, is an arrest certain?”

Lorsch paused for just a second before answering. “I’d say almost certain. This is the Jovian ship, and it’s illegal; we can’t have people jaunting anywhere they like in starships, involving all humanity in God knows what.

“I don’t know if the Jovians intend to resist arrest. We don’t know what weapons they may have. Considering their abilities, maybe something very new and very good.” She looked around her solemnly. “We’ll be three ships to one, but, frankly, this operation may develop into a battle. We must be ready for that.”

Another officer stood up. “Boarding parties, ma’am, I presume?”

“Correct. Colonel Brazil is going to be in command of that part of the operation. Colonel, I want you to me right after this meeting.”

Me and my hotshot record, Boris thought, sitting down again.

Adam stood looking down into the tank, feeling a kind of strained, puzzled relief, an anticlimax. Five meters below, an amphibious beast of a kind that he had never seen before splashed and wallowed in shallow water. There was nothing in the appearance of the beast to connect it with Alexander Golden, or indeed with humanity in any way; rather it looked vaguely like a seal. Assuming that the creature was native to Golden, it was hardly surprising that Adam had never encountered a member of its species before. Golden was after all an Earth-sized world, and he was now standing in a hemisphere of that world that had never before been explored by Earth-descended humans.

There was a tiny splash in the water, just beside the seal-like creature. And then another splash and then another. Something, a slow hail of small objects, was falling into the tank.

Adam looked up at a blank stone ceiling, close above. He could see the tiny objects materializing in the air now, a thin rain of them, looking like pebbles, coming out of the air under the low ceiling to fall and patter around the thing living in the tank. Suddenly, like an animated rubber toy, the creature stretched its body completely out of its old shape and into a new one, altering its form completely into something like that of an octopus. Still it never at any stage of the change looked anything like Alexander Golden, or any other human being of Earth.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred