Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

Timeless and bloody, the fight wore on.

Adam stood watching Ray’s head sway back and forth. It was an almost hypnotic movement against the background of the Ringwall, and Adam could not tell how much of the unsteadiness was Ray’s and how much was his own. But Adam had to pause for a moment, to gasp for breath, he had to rest. He felt as if a gang had been beating him, though he could remember no details of the times that Ray had been able to get to him.

Ray’s head swayed farther to one side; then all at once the huge man sank into a half-sitting, half-kneeling position. His hands lay down at his sides, his arms moving, quivering as if he were trying to lift them and could not. His throat made a choking whistle with each breath, and now before he could speak he had to spit out something bloody.

“I must conquer you.” Ray could get out the words only a few at a time, with little sobbing breaths between. “Or I must kill you. Can’t you see. I am the leader. I am. The greatest. Jovian of all.”

Adam could still stand up. And he could still talk. “You killed Alice.”

The blue eyes of the superman were filled with pain. Once before, long ago, Adam had seen those eyes look just like that. But now Adam bent and picked up a sharp piece of rock. Just the right size. His hard hands hurt, and a rock would be a handy thing with which to crush a skull.

Ray was trying to say something more. “I-I-if youare the leader, Adam-” He gasped, and shook his head. “Lead them well, Adam.” He looked up, pleading. “Don’t get them into trouble. I-I-sometimes I feel sick-”

Ray managed to lift his hands all the way up to his head. Then he rolled over sideways, writhing on the rock. From the clear sky there came a fall of pebbles to patter around him.

The rock in Adam’s hand felt far too heavy now; his bruised hand was trembling under the weight of it. He turned and pitched it out into the river. Now there was nothing left.

No, one thing, one person. Merit. He had to get to her.

Climbing down from the little plateau of rock was painful. And after he had climbed down he could not rest, but had to go staggering back up the little ravine. Because Merit was there.

From across the river the Ringwall looked down on him, as indifferent as the sun. Someday, he told it, we’ll learn what you really are. But now he had no emotion left for it.

Merit was sitting almost where he had left her. No more contortions of grief, but apathetic calm.

Adam sank down beside her, looked into her eyes that followed him gently, and reached out with his hand. Without meaning to, his fingers left blood on her cheek. Maybe it was the feel of the blood that pulled her up to full awareness.

“Adam, you’re hurt.” Gently she took him by the neck, and pulled his head down into her lap and held it there, her hands pressing and rubbing the back of his head tenderly. “I was afraid for a long time that they’d do something to Vito,” she said softly. “Still when it happened I couldn’t believe it.”

Adam closed his eyes. His whole body trembled violently for a moment, then was able to let go in utter relaxation. “I fought with Ray,” he told her. As if he were a child hoping for an explanation from Merit, for reassurance, for something that would make sense. “He’s still alive, sitting up there.”

“I know, I know.” Her fingers soothed him. “Later we’ll worry about him. Rest now. Heal.”

Time passed. Adam felt the strengthening morning sun on his back. Suddenly he became aware of two things: he was intensely thirsty, and his cheek was resting on the thigh of a very desirable woman.

He raised his head and opened his eyes, and saw a geryon looking at him, from only thirty meters up the ravine.

Chapter Nineteen

They had one knife between the two of them, one small blade with which to try to defend themselves. Looking over the upper edge of their little ravine, Adam spotted four more geryons, higher on the broad slope, and working their way slowly down. The hides of these animals were darker than those of the geryons of the Stem area, and these were perhaps on the average a little larger; but from what Adam could see of them so far, their hunting formation appeared to be the same. He had no doubt that they were hunting now, and little doubt of what they had selected as their prey.

He held a quick discussion with Merit, and they began to make their way down toward the river; no other direction appeared to offer any chance at all of avoiding the animals.

When they came in sight of the high rock on the shoreline, Ray was no longer there. He was nowhere to be seen.


He paused. They were almost at the shoreline now. “What?”

Merit was holding both hands to her head. Then she looked up, as Ray had, squinting toward the few high clouds that trailed through the calm silent sky above the endlessly rising mist. She said: “Something terrible is happening-there’s killing and killing, out there.”

“The Field-builders?”

“No. I don’t know if they even exist. All I know about them is what Ray. I mean our people, and. our people. We can’t expect any help, down here, from anyone.”

“You teleport,” said Adam. “Jump out of here. Try to get back to the Stem, or up to a ship, whatever. We’ll forget about the Field-builders, they don’t seem to be bothering us. I’ll be all right, until you can get some kind of help back to me.”

“No.” She looked at him. “I wouldn’t leave you.”

“Go, I tell you. I’m used to this kind of thing. I enjoy it. I’ll be all right.”

“No. Anyway, you don’t understand. I can’t tele-port alone. Not now.”

Adam had no breath or strength left in him for argument. He looked back. The things with human faces were getting closer, coming slowly and methodically down the slope in their fan-shaped formation. A couple more of them had appeared from somewhere. They were able to smell the blood on him, of course, Ray’s blood and some of his own; they could tell a kilometer away when something was hurt and weakened.

Should he separate from Merit? Not yet, anyway; there were advantages for her as well as for him in the two of them being together. He would try to get away with her down the river, or across it; the water ought to wash him clean of blood and that might help.

They forced their way through a shoreline row of tall bushes, and emerged from it with the river right at their feet. They were in full view now of the Ringwall, towering distantly atop the rocky slope that went up from the far shore. The river here was swift foaming water a hundred meters wide, everywhere shallow and dotted with small rocky islets. Not far from where Adam and Merit were standing, a fallen tree made a bridge from shore out to the nearest of these islands.

The geryons were closing in on the two humans quickly now, their hunting formation only fifty meters away. Adam urged Merit out onto the fallen tree.

It was sturdy enough to bear them, and they both reached the nearest island easily. But the island promised no safety. Within a minute there were seven geryons gathered only a log’s length away, on the shore that the two people had just left. The animals began cautiously testing the water with massive feet.

“They’re going to come after us,” said Adam.

“Then we’ll have to cross the river.”

“All right. Let’s go.” It did not look absolutely impossible-and there really was no other choice.

Gripping hands, they slid into the water, that was here about waist deep.

Behind them, the animals were entering the water together, beginning a slow swimming and wading progress toward the first island.

The crossing would have been a perilous one, even starting fresh and with no danger in pursuit. Wherever the water was deep, the man and woman swam and were swept downstream. When a sandbar or one of the small islands came within reach, or the stream shallowed sufficiently, they would brace their feet on the bottom and wade again, or grip and climb on rock.

Their lead over the cautious animals steadily lengthened.

There were periods of time, some of them lasting for many seconds, when Adam found that his mind and Merit’s were in contact, when without using precious breath they could trade exact pictures of grips and footing and the distance of the pursuing animals. Perhaps it was this mental contact that tipped the scales, and brought them across the river alive.

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