- Author: Randall Garrett
Read book online «The Asses of Balaam by Randall Garrett (electronic book reader txt) 📕». Author - Randall Garrett
This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact Fiction October 1961. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
By DAVID GORDON
Illustrated by Schoenherr
The remarkable characteristic of Balaam's ass was that it was more perceptive than its master. Sometimes a child is more perceptive—because more straightforward and logical—than an adult....
It is written in the Book of Numbers that Balaam, a wise man of the Moabites, having been ordered by the King of Moab to put a curse upon the invading Israelites, mounted himself upon an ass and rode forth toward the camp of the Children of Israel. On the road, he met an angel with drawn sword, barring the way. Balaam, not seeing or recognizing the angel, kept urging his ass forward, but the ass recognized the angel and turned aside. Balaam smote the beast and forced it to return to the path, and again the angel blocked the way with drawn sword. And again the ass turned aside, despite the beating from Balaam, who, in his blindness, was unable to see the angel.
When the ass stopped for the third time and lay down, refusing to go further, Balaam waxed exceeding wrath and smote again the animal with a stick.
Then the ass spoke and said: "Why dost thou beat me? I have always obeyed thee and never have I failed thee. Have I ever been known to fail thee?"
And Balaam answered: "No." And at that moment his eyes were opened and he saw the angel before him.
—STUDIES IN SCRIPTURE
by Ceggawynn of Eboricum
ith the careful precision of controlled anger, Dodeth Pell rippled a stomp along his right side. Clopclopclopclop-clopclop-clopclop-clopclopclopclop.... Each of his twelve right feet came down in turn while he glared across the business bench at Wygor Bedis. He started the ripple again, while he waited for Wygor's answer. The ripple was a good deal more effective than just tapping one's fingers, and equally as satisfying.
Wygor Bedis twitched his mouth and allowed his eyelids to slide up over his eyeballs in a slow blink before answering. Dodeth had simply asked, "Why wasn't this reported to me before?" But Wygor couldn't find the answer as simply as that. Not that he didn't have a good answer; it was just that he wanted to couch it in exactly the right terms. Dodeth had a way with raking sarcasm that made a person tend to cringe.
Dodeth was perfectly well aware of that. He hadn't been in the Executive Office of Predator Council all these years for nothing; he knew how to handle people—when to praise them, when to flatter them, when to rebuke them, and when to drag them unmercifully over the shell-bed.
He waited, his right legs marching out their steady rhythm.
"Well," said Wygor at last, "it was just that I couldn't see any point in bothering you with it at that point. I mean, one specimen—"
"Of an entirely new species!" snapped Dodeth in a sudden interruption. His legs stopped their rhythmic tramp. His voice rose from its usual eight-thousand-cycle rumble to a shrill squeak. "Fry it, Wygor, if you weren't such a good field man, I'd have sacked you long ago! Your trouble is that you have a penchant for bringing me problems that you ought to be able to solve by yourself and then flipping right over on your back and holding off on some information that ought to be brought to my attention immediately!"
There wasn't much Wygor could say to that, so he didn't try. He simply waited for the raking to come, and, sure enough, it came.
Dodeth's voice lowered itself to a soft purr. "The next time you have to do anything as complicated as setting a snith-trap, you just hump right down here and ask me, and I'll tell you all about it. On the other hand, if the lower levels all suddenly become infested with shelks at the same time, why, you just take care of that little detail yourself, eh? The only other alternative is to learn to think."
Wygor winced a trifle and kept his mouth shut.
Having delivered himself of his jet of acid, Dodeth Pell looked down at the data booklet that Wygor had handed him. "Fortunately," he said, "there doesn't seem to be much to worry about. Only the Universal Motivator knows how this thing could have spawned, but it doesn't appear to be very efficient."
"No, sir, it doesn't," said Wygor, taking heart from his superior's mild tone. "The eating orifice is oddly placed, and the teeth are obviously for grinding purposes."
"I was thinking more of the method of locomotion," Dodeth said. "I believe this is a record, although I'll have to look in the files to make sure. I think that six locomotive limbs is the least I've ever heard of on an animal that size."
"I've checked the files," said Wygor. "There was a four-limbed leaf-eater recorded seven hundred years ago—four locomotive limbs, that is, and two grasping. But it was only as big as your hand."
Dodeth looked through the three pages of the booklet. There wasn't much there, really, but he knew Wygor well enough to know that all the data he had thus far was there. The only thing that rankled was that Wygor had delayed for three work periods before reporting the intrusion of the new beast, and now five of them had been spotted.
He looked at the page which showed the three bathygraphs that had been taken of the new animals from a distance. There was something odd about them, and Dodeth couldn't, for the hide of him, figure out what it was. It aroused an odd fear in him, and made him want to burrow deeper into the ground.
"I can't see what keeps 'em from falling over," he said at last. "Are they as slow-moving as they look?"
"They don't move very fast," Wygor admitted, "but we haven't seen any of them startled yet. I don't see how they could run very fast, though. It must take every bit of awareness they have to stay balanced on two legs."
Dodeth sighed whistlingly and pushed the data booklet back across the business bench to Wygor. "All right; I'll file the preliminary spotting report. Now get out there and get me some pertinent data on this queer beast. Scramble off."
"Right away, sir."
"And ... Wygor—"
"It's apparent that we have a totally new species here. It will be called a wygorex, of course, but it would be better if we waited until we could make a full report to the Keepers. So don't let any of this out—especially to the other Septs."
"Certainly not, sir; not a whistle. Anything else?"
"Just keep me posted, that's all. Scramble off."
After Wygor had obediently scrambled off, Dodeth relaxed all his knees and sank to his belly in thought.
His job was not an easy one. He would like to have his office get full credit for discovering a new species, just as Wygor had—understandably enough—wanted to get his share of the credit. On the other hand, one had to be careful that holding back information did not constitute any danger to the Balance. Above all, the Balance must be preserved. Even the snith had its place in the Ecological Balance of the World—although one didn't like to think about sniths as being particularly useful.
After all, every animal, every planet had its place in the scheme; each contributed its little bit to maintaining the Balance. Each had its niche in the ecological architecture, as Dodeth liked to think of it. The trouble was that the Balance was a shifting, swinging, ever-changing thing. Living tissues carried the genes of heredity in them, and living tissues are notoriously plastic under the influence of the proper radiation or particle bombardment. And animals would cross the poles.
The World had been excellently designed by the Universal Motivator for the development and evolution of life. Again, the concept of the Balance showed in His mighty works. Suppose, for instance, that the World rotated more rapidly about its axis, thereby exposing the whole surface periodically to the deadly radiation of the Blue Sun, instead of having a rotation period that, combined with the eccentricity of the World's orbit, gave it just enough libration to expose only sixty-three per cent to the rays, leaving the remaining thirty-seven per cent in twilight or darkness. Or suppose the orbit were so nearly circular that there were no perceptible libration at all; one side would burn eternally, and the other side would freeze, since there would be no seasonal winds blowing first east, then west, bringing the warmth of the Blue Sun from the other side.
Or, again, suppose there were no Moon and no Yellow Sun to give light to the dark side. Who could live in an everlasting night?
Or suppose that the magnetic field of the World were too weak to focus the majority of the Blue Sun's output of electrons and ions on the poles. How could life have evolved at all?
Balance. And the Ultimate Universal Motivator had put part of the responsibility into the hands of His only intelligent species. And a part of that part had been put into the hands of Dodeth Pell as the head of Predator Control.
Fry it! Something was niggling at the back of Dodeth's mind, and no amount of philosophizing would shake it. He reached into the drawer of the business bench and pulled out the duplicate of Wygor's data booklet. He flipped it open and looked at the bathygraphs again.
There was no single thing about them that he could pinpoint, but the beasts just didn't look right. Dodeth Pell had seen many monstrous animals in his life, but none like this.
Most people disliked and were disgusted by a snith because of the uncanny resemblance the stupid beast had to the appearance of Dodeth's own race. There could be no question of the genetic linkage between the two species, but, in spite of the physical similarities, their actions were controlled almost entirely by instinct instead of reason. They were like some sort of idiot parody of intelligent beings.
But it was their similarity which made them loathsome. Why should Dodeth Pell feel a like emotion when he saw the bathygraphs of the two-legged thing? Certainly there was no similarity.
Wait a minute!
He looked carefully at the three-dimensional pictures again.
Fry it! He couldn't be sure—
After all, he wasn't a geneticist. Checking the files wouldn't be enough; he wouldn't know how to ask the proper cross-filing questions.
He lolled his tongue out and absently rasped at a slight itch on the back of his hand while he thought.
If his hunch were correct, then it was time to call in outside help now, instead of waiting for more information. Still, he needn't necessarily call in official expert help just yet. If he could just get a lead—enough to verify or disprove the possibility of his hunch being correct—that would be enough for a day or two, until Wygor got more data.
There was always Yerdeth, an older parabrother on his prime-father's side. Yerdeth had studied genetics—theoretical, not applied—with the thought of going into Control, and kept on dabbling in it even after he had discovered that his talents lay in the robot design field.
"Ardan!" he said sharply.
At the other end of the office, the robot assistant ceased his work for a moment. "Yes, sir?"
"Come here a minute; I want you to look at something."
The robot's segmented body was built very much like Dodeth's own, except that instead of the twelve pairs of legs that supported Dodeth's body, the robot was equipped with wheels, each suspended separately and equipped with its individual power source. Ardan rolled sedately across the floor, his metallic body gleaming in the light from the low ceiling. He came to a halt in front of Dodeth's business bench.
Dodeth handed Ardan the thin data booklet. "Scan through that."
Ardan went through it rapidly, his eyes carefully scanning each page, his brain recording everything permanently. After a few seconds, he looked back up at Dodeth. "A new species."
"Exactly. Did you notice anything odd about their appearance?"
"Naturally," said Ardan. "Since their like has never been seen before, it is axiomatic that they would appear odd."
Fry it! Dodeth thought. He should have known better than to ask a question like that of Ardan. To ask it to determine what might be called second-order strangeness in a pattern that was strange in the first place was asking too much of a robot.
"Very well, then. Make an appointment for this evening with Yerdeth Pell. I would