Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“Observe classic symptom of falling stones,” boomed the guide’s voice, from somewhere in the darkness outside the building. “But do you not detect the sickness? I thought you were a sensitive, teleporting as you were.”

Adam turned to face the wide dark open doorway. All he could think of was to try to change the subject. In his growing state of shock, ingrained planteering methods won out again. “Will you tell me your name?” he asked.

“I am studying you, not the other way around. Co-operation, please.”

“I only want to-”

Afterward Adam could not remember just what he had meant to say he wanted. He found himself sitting on the stone floor, with his back against the low wall that guarded the tank, and with no idea of how long he had been sitting there. He felt no pain and had no memory of any, but the feeling that he had driven his will into some analog of a stone wall, so that his will had been bent back upon itself. The effect was disorganizing, like an electric shock to the central nervous system.

The guide’s concussive voice, patiently curious, now repeated its question from the outer darkness. “Do you sense the sickness of the one in the tank? Answer, please.”

It seemed wise to avoid further argument. Adam got to his feet and looked into the tank again. No further change in the occupant was observable. “No. This being looks-strange to me. But I can sense nothing wrong, in the sense of sickness.”Merit, Ray, where are you ?

They were nowhere, as far as he could tell.

Could he somehow have missed, been left out from, a teleportation jump?

If Adam’s guide was aware of his efforts at telepathy, it did not comment on them. “That being in the tank has deformed itself,” the creature outside in the night explained. “Crippled its mind and body, by using what you call parapsych forces in an attack upon another being. Such is the usual result of attempting such use-” The guide interrupted itself with a sudden skreeking noise. “Did you think he was one of your kind? Not so, he is one of mine, and this planet is his native world.

Such as he are brought to this island to reach for health, and I am here to help them. I think you came here because of that, and because I like to think about your kind.”

Adam knew that straining anxiously for the teleporting jump would not help him to attain it. He strained anyway. He got nowhere.

Again he tried to contact Merit’s mind, or Ray’s, and again he had no success.

The guide asked him again, with patient interest: “Why do you of Earth destroy each other with such enthusiasm?”

Trying to think of a reasonable answer, Adam for the first time and without trying caught a flash of the guide’s mind; a glimpse not of black threatening, foreshadowing wings, but of something incomprehensible but magnificent. Adam’s mind supplied the image of a carven alien palace.

Wasthis a Field-Builder? But no, it couldn’t be. Ray had been very vague in his physical descriptions of them, but he had said.

Now that Adam tried to think of it, he could not recall that Ray had given any physical description of his enemies at all. But their minds, their minds as Ray had pictured them, were vats of sickness.

Now the guide, with keen curiosity, was telepathically directing a question-Adam could not tell what question-to another of its kind. Adam sensed that other mind, too, for one instant, then both were gone from his perception. Through the open doorway he heard metallic scratching noises again, as his guide went moving away through darkness.

Adam was left alone with the thing, the creature, in the tank.But do you not detect the sickness ? He could not. Remembering his hallucination on the

Stem City slideway, he closed his eyes briefly; the low stone wall beneath his hands felt utterly and completely real.

Opening his eyes, he saw a light outside the building, and for an instant interpreted what he saw as the dawn. But this was a much closer fire, not far outside the doorway now and moving nearer still.

After another glance at the wallowing, stretching thing in the tank, Adam went to. the doorway and looked out.

The fire came walking quietly around the corner of the building and toward him, in the shape of a tall man. A man being consumed steadily by flame, pacing toward Adam, who backed away mechanically, with almost no capacity left for astonishment. With dim horror Adam saw that the flesh was already charred away from the bones of the man’s arms and fingers. The figure turned a blackened horror that was no longer a face toward Adam. Sound came from it, a parody of speech.

Only then was Adam able to react with some semblance of purpose. He dashed back into the building, with the vague thought of somehow getting water to throw on the burning man, or some flame-smothering thing to wrap him in. But there was no way to scoop up water from the tank, nothing within his reach but stone, no way to help. The seal-like creature in the tank still sloshed gently, in water far down out of Adam’s reach.

Adam turned away from the tank and ran outside again. He was just in time to see the flaming figure collapse. There was no writhing in pain or shock; the body was simply too structurally damaged now to stand.

As Adam watched the body shrivel on the sand, the next teleporting jump swept him up unexpectedly.

Chapter Seventeen

Colonel Boris Brazil had just left a last briefing session with the General, and now he was conducting a similar meeting of his own, meanwhile wondering in odd moments how he had ever managed to get himself into this.

“We’re about twenty-four thousand kilometers from them right now,” he was telling the hundred potential space marines-most of them really planeteers-who sat in rows looking up at him. “We’re keeping station. And they’re just sitting there, eight hundred klicks directly above the Ringwall. They won’t answer us, but they certainly know we’re here. In a few hours we’re going to start closing in on them from three directions, and do whatever we have to do to get their attention one way or another. If it does come to a fight, and the General does decide on a boarding action- well, you and I are elected.”

The hundred faces arrayed before him were all sober, and the great majority of them were young.

They asked him silently: Are you going to be able to lead an operation like that? What do you know about it? How many of us are going to get killed?

Boris went on: “I don’t need to tell you that a genuine battle would be something new for all of us. I’ve been in a little fight or two, here and there. And I did get a high score the last time I played at maneuvers with robot ships, if that kind of thing reassures anyone.”

His audience relieved him somewhat at this point by managing a faint perfunctory laugh, and he went on. “All right-let’s see who among you had the highest ratings in boarding techniques, last time you practiced. Anybody with A-one, raise your hands. Good. How about A-two?”

In a matter of minutes he had squad leaders chosen. Dismissing the rest temporarily, he called the handful of squad leaders, a much more manageable number, into a smaller meeting to sketch in a tentative battle plan.

“We have half a dozen yesmen available for what look like the dirtiest jobs. So I’m going to volunteer six people, I want you to suggest names, for the comparative safety of puppet chambers aboard this ship.”

Wish I had Adam Mann here for this job, Brazil thought to himself. He was remembering that first geryon hunt here on Golden, with Mann in the puppet chamber then. That seemed now like so many years ago.

Adam came out of the last teleportation jump into broad daylight, standing almost upright at the bottom of a ravine overgrown with low vegetation. He staggered, off balance for an instant, crashing through bushes of unfamiliar types. The sky visible above the steep sides of the ravine was a clear blue, with a few clouds in it red-tinged by a sun quite low in the sky. The time was either shortly after dawn, or late in the afternoon.

There was a sound like steady thunder, coming from somewhere in the middle distance.

No one else was in sight.

Adam started up one side of the ravine. When he had climbed a few meters he could see drifting, mountainous clouds of spray in the lower sky ahead of him, and he knew that he was very near the Ringwall now. The thunder in the air must issue from the vast falls and rapids of its surrounding rivers.

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