Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“There is much pain, too, in being human,” Golden said. “But there is only one way we can turn to rid ourselves of that. And that is backward.”

“I defy you, Field-builder, torturer.” It came out as a mad scream. “I will destroy you yet!”

Now Adam could no longer see Ray anywhere. The big man had disappeared again. But Adam could spare no time or strength for Ray, wherever he might be. Adam was thinking, and thinking now was as hard a climbing a cliff. He dared not slacken his grip for a moment.

“The scoutship is still here, then,” he said aloud, staring at Alexander Golden. Adam could feel the throbbing in his arm, going faster and faster. The sun shone down on him. He was awake, he must be. “Even if you’re not real, it’s still here, crashed or landed. A lot of it would survive a crash. At least there’ll be a first aid kit.”

Golden stood erect again. Now his head turned to one side, so that his eyes looked toward the open space, the vast unroofed center of the Ring-wall. Then he too was gone.

Adam stood up straight with a gasp, lurching away from the rock that had supported him. Only Merit was still with him now. He bent over her and slapped her, trying to wake her up; she only moaned. With his one good arm he dragged her to her feet. His bad arm had started to hurt like hell now. Good. It would keep him awake.

He laughed aloud, and there was a mad horrible echo from the laugh, and the geryons who had started to come out shrank back again among the rocks. Maybe he had been keeping the pack at bay for an hour with the loud sounds of delirium, maybe this time neither Ray nor Golden had been any more than fever dreams. But it didn’t matter. Because, somewhere near here, landed or crashed, the scoutship had to be real.

He shook Merit by the hair. “C’mon, get moving, kid! We’ve got to travel!”

He got her walking down the slope, angling away from the geryons, taking the direction in which Golden had turned his head.

In the middle of a grassy meadow the scoutship waited undamaged, in perfect landing position. As Adam finished the last dragging step, he could hear the geryons moaning behind him, still not quite daring to charge and kill the beings who had fought them for so long.

If an illusion cast a long shadow in the afternoon sun, if it felt like solid smooth metal when you leaned against it, then an illusion was enough, no one could ask for more. Adam was gathering his strength to knock on the ground level hatch, when it swung open. The standard model planeteering robot stepped out and caught him as he started to fall.

He was aware of not hurting anywhere-not until he tried to move. Even then, a blanket of protective numbness enfolded his body, thickly enough to constitute a vast improvement. He tried the fingers of his right hand and thought that he could feel them rub against each other. Not bad, then. It wasn’t bad at all.

Adam opened his eyes to find himself in the familiar setting of a scoutship’s small control room, strapped into the right seat. Maybe the last seven years had been all a dream, and when he turned his head he would see Boris-but no, the robot was bending over him.

“How do you feel, sir?” the robot asked.

“The woman who was with me-”

The robot pointed, and Adam turned his head, heavy skull swiveling on neck muscles that cried out with pain when forced to work again. There was Merit, securely tucked into a bunk.

“She is asleep now, sir, and seems to be in no immediate danger from her injuries, though she needs further medical attention as you doubtless know. I have administered first aid treatment to both of you. Now, will you please identify yourself to me, sir?”

“My name is Adam Mann.” It sounded strange, it even tasted strange as he pronounced it. “I used to be a planeteer. Oh, one thing, very important. I’m a human being, nothing more.”

“Certainly, sir,” said the robot, unperturbed. It knew a human when it saw one, or it thought it did. Probably its programming included instructions to humor crazed wanderers, or accident victims, when they said strange things.

But the robot wasn’t going to let his identification go at that. “Please answer this question,” it requested, and then queried him on a technical detail of scoutship operation. Not one civilian in ten thousand would know the answer, but not one planeteer, or former planeteer, in ten thousand would have forgotten it.

Adam consulted his memory, and gave the correct reply.

“I accept that you have had planeteering training,” said the machine. “I place myself, within limits, under your orders.”

Adam took thought. Thinking, at least, was not painful. “What were your last orders?”

“My last orders were given me more than seven years ago, by Chief Planeteer Alexander Golden.” As the robot quoted, it reproduced the tones of Golden’s voice: ” ‘Stay with the ship and keep it in good shape until another Earth-descended human comes.’ The type of order is unique in my experience, as are the conditions under which this scoutship landed here.”

“You fell, through a condition we have named the Field, which surrounds this planet almost completely.”

“I was inoperative through the fall,” said the robot, “but since landing I have observed this Field, as you term it, on the radar screens.”

“What happened to Golden, after the landing?”

“Immediately after giving me the order I have just quoted, he walked away. I have had no contact with him, or any other human, since then.”

“So.” Adam drew a deep breath; his ribs hurt too. “Can we take off from here, and get back into space?”

“Yes. I have computed that there is room enough under the Field for the necessary acceleration. The scoutship can be made to coast upward through the Field, on a ballistic path, if it is assumed that control and power can be re-established above six hundred kilometers altitude.”

“They can be.” Adam let his eyes close; a robot could make the takeoff, if it could be made. “Let’s go, then. You’ll probably see some Space Force ships when we get above the Field. There may be fighting in progress.”

“Fighting, sir? In space?”

“Yes. If you see any, avoid the fighting ships and drive around the planet to the antipodal point- there’s a shuttle port there now.”

“First there is another matter.”

Adam opened his eyes again.

“It requires human judgment to decide,” said the machine. “Since shortly after your arrival, a creature I cannot identify has been outside the ship, moving among the large animals that pursued you. I cannot decide whether or not it is human.”

The robot switched on a viewscreen in front of Adam, showing the meadow outside the scout. Adam watched, for long, long seconds.

“Did you say ‘no’?” the robot asked.

“Yes,” said Adam. “Yes, he’s human. Go out and bring him in. Lock him in the alien room. You must stun him if he resists; I order that, and take responsibility. He is mentally and physically ill.”

“I will obey. Then we must leave the surface and obtain medical help.”

“Yes.” Adam let himself slump back in his seat.

He could let go, now. Drifting toward a pleasant stupor, he watched the screen, where a somewhat smaller animal cavorted among the geryons. It had a scaly body and furred legs, like one of their young, but it lacked the true geryon shape. It lacked true shape of any kind. Suddenly the creature went down, as if hit by a stun beam; a second later the robot appeared in the viewscreen’s picture, to drive off the larger beasts and lift the small one carefully. Its head swung loosely, dangling on the long geryon neck, and it had the wide powerful geryon jaws. But he nose and eyes and forehead were those of Raymond Kedro.

Adam realized that he was lying in a bed. He blinked his eyes open and shut a couple of times, without really comprehending anything they saw. He rolled over, and grunted when his arm twinged fiercely.

“The beauty sleepeth,” said a familiar male voice, quite near at hand. “And where in all the realm can be found a maiden desperate enough to awakeneth him with a kiss?”

Adam opened his eyes again. “Boris.”

Brazil sat bathrobed in a wheelchair, his left leg sealed into a cabled mold. “Howdy, bub. Anything interesting happen to you lately?”

They were in the sick bay of some big Space Force ship, Adam realized. The place was crowded, with casualties overflowing into extra beds. The background feeling and faint sounds suggested that they were in space.

“Yeah, she’s all right,” Brazil said. “No need to strain your neck looking. She’s up and walking around already.”

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