Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

He climbed all the way up the side of the ravine, and stopped. He could see now that he was standing about halfway up the side of a larger slope. All along the wide valley below him, a wild nameless river tore itself over kilometers of rocks. Above the river’s opposite shoreline, rainbow-haunted clouds of mist climbed steadily, as if impelled by a rising wind. The clouds were ascending a steep, barren slope, kilometers long, to fog the morning sky above the Ringwall itself.

Built atop that long opposite slope, the outer cliff-face of the Ringwall went curving and angling away from Adam in both directions. It had a look of unreality, like a surrealist painting on a stage backdrop; yet it was real. Flying birds were distant specks between him and its bulk.

And it was not really a cliff face, or at least it was not completely natural. Looking at it this closely, from this angle, Earthly eyes could at last be sure of that. The Ringwall was at least in part deliberate construction, made according to some intelligent design.

There were outcroppings, along its top and upon its flanks, with lines as straight as those of any structure ever built on Earth, their shapes suggesting turrets and battlements. There were calculated niches, and true columns, and real buttresses, appearing here and there along the length and height of that awesome wall. In the blue-shadowed recesses between the larger projections there might be room for small villages-but Adam knew somehow that villages would not be there.

The Ringwall. Adam Mann looked down at the foot of its island, then looked up, up a kilometer and more, at the face of the wall itself. He could see now how a million niches and a million windows of various depths and shapes had been cut into the white or brown or gray rock. There were streaks of pure crimson, straight or in perfect curves, that ran among the openings and marked the joinings of stone blocks whose sides were measurable in hectares. Trees grew on the wall in places, miniature forests less like window-gardens than like moss upon a castle wall.

Adam thought of the thousands of pictures taken from Space Force scoutships, ships driving or floating six hundred kilometers or more above this scene. No telescopic camera had been able to see detail anything like this, not through the eternally rising mist and through whatever it was that fogged the films in infrared. Not simple heat, apparently. Adam, at his distance on the ground, could feel no radiant heat.

There were certainly structures on Earth at least as high as this one. There might be one or two as big, measured by volumes and distances. Measured by sight and feel, there was nothing to compare with it.

Adam tore his eyes away from the Ringwall at last. On his own side of the river he scanned the long bushy slope, cut with small winding ravines, that extended for a great distance to his right and left. He was looking for his companions, and once he began actively looking for them he quickly spotted Ray. The huge man, his body tiny against the backdrop of the river valley, was standing some distance below Adam, on a little rocky plateau directly above the river’s edge. Ray had his back turned to Adam, and was gazing steadily across the river, up to where the giants’ stonework waited.

Adam cupped his hands to his mouth, but the yell he had been about to utter died in his throat. When he looked at Ray more closely, he saw that Ray was standing firmly in midair, his feet half a meter above the rock.

It was no news to Adam that Ray Kedro had the power to do such things; but the sight of a para-psych trick now, here in the face of the enemy, gave Adam a sense of something indefinably wrong. Was the trick meant to impress someone? The Field-builders? If not that, what?

Adam looked around again in all directions, but could see nothing of either Merit or Vito. He turned and scrambled back down to the bottom of his small ravine, then followed its sinuously eroded curve down the larger slope toward Ray. Adam had lost his weapons, his food, and his canteen, but such losses might not matter much. Not if they could quickly complete whatever job Ray had in mind.

Adam halted for a moment, closing his eyes. For the first time, doubt came over him with dizzying force. What job did Ray expect to do here, exactly? No one knew that but Ray.

And Adam hurried on. Yes, complete the job-or quickly abandon the attempt, Adam thought to himself-and jump out of here again within a few hours.

He wondered at himself, as he trotted down the ravine. Why had he ever agreed to come here? Three men, one woman, against.

Against what, exactly? Adam thought of the creature who had spoken to him on the island, and of the burning man he had encountered there.

If it had been anyone else but Ray who had suggested that four of them come here and attack the Field-builders, Adam would have called it madness. But because it was Ray.

And then I even used what we call projection to present our case, Ray had said to him once.That method gives me very considerable powers of persuasion .

Did Rayactually mean for only the four of them to-

Adam stopped again. Somewhere down the ravine ahead of him, a woman was wailing. It was a low sound, expressing terrible grief. Slowly Adam moved forward. A terrible buried suspicion was rising in his mind, and he could not yet let himself see exactly what the suspicion was.

He came in sight of the woman, and she was Merit, collapsed and weeping on the ground, huddled over a hiking pack. Adam knelt beside her, to lift and turn her gently. Her face was contorted, in agony of some kind, in an agony of grief, and her blank eyes seemed to look up through Adam to the sky.

He saw now that the pack Merit was crouching over was the one that Vito had been wearing. Adam saw also that the shoulder straps of the pack now ended abruptly, in short stumps, and that the very ends of the .straps were burned black, as if a slow laser might have cut them away.

Still not really looking at him, Merit spoke to him suddenly, in a hurried and mumbling voice. It was as if she were hardly conscious of who she was speaking to or what she said.

“. he said, the time has come for defiance-of something. He said that now was the time for a bold decisive step. He told me he was behind what they did to Vito in Stem City.” Her eyes came to focus on Adam’s face at last. “And he was the one who made Vito try to fight you, at Fieldedge. I thought so, then, I feared so, but I couldn’t believe it.”

“Who?” Adam asked her. As if he did not already know.

“Ray. Ray, Ray, Raymond Kedro. Then they burned my husband to death just now, he and the others.”

“The others?” Adam whispered. He added dazedly: “I saw a burning man.”

“The others. Most of our siblings, up in the ship. Most of them follow Ray. They have for years. I followed him too. I did everything he wanted, all these years. Almost everything. I had no children. But still he had to kill Vito. Vito, Vito!”

Merit bent again, swaying from side to side as if in physical agony, and a long keening moan, an almost animal sound, came from her.

Adam spoke to her. He petted her and stroked her hair. Then after a few moments he abandoned the effort and stood up. He could do nothing for Merit right now. He moved on down the ravine.

The raging water was near at hand, and the sound of it was loud, when Adam reached the foot of the rock that Ray was standing on, or rather standing above. Ray still gazed as if entranced across the river, at the Ringwall. Ray’s right arm was now almost two meters long. The arm hung grotesquely out of its sleeve, the big hand trailing along the rock below Ray’s feet like something Ray had forgotten. The arm was stretched out of all natural shape and proportion. It suggested the deformed members of the creature that Adam had seen on the island, confined in the sunken tank.

Ray, continuing to gaze at the Ringwall, paid no attention to his altered arm, or to Adam, calling up to him.

Adam climbed the rock, with difficulty. By the time he reached the flat top, Ray’s feet were down on rock again, and his arm had regained a normal appearance. Adam noticed now that Ray was also missing his pack and weapons and canteen.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred