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The Gentle Vultures

Isaac Asimov

  The Gentle Vultures

  Isaac Asimov

  The Gentle Vultures

  by Isaac Asimov

  For fifteen years now, the Hurrians had maintained their base on the other side of the Moon.

  It was unprecedented; unheard of. No Hurrian had dreamed it possible to be delayed so long. The decontamination squads had been ready; ready and waiting for fifteen years; ready to swoop down through the radioactive clouds and save what might be saved for the remnant of survivors.—In return, of course, for fair payment.

  But fifteen times the planet had revolved about its Sun. During each revolution, the satellite had rotated not quite thirteen times about the primary. And in all that time the nuclear war had not come.

  Nuclear bombs were exploded by the large-primate intelligences at various points on the planet’s surface. The planet’s stratosphere had grown amazingly warm with radioactive refuse. But still no war.

  Devi-en hoped ardently that he would be replaced. He was the fourth Captain-in-charge of this colonizing expedition (if it could still be called so after fifteen years of suspended animation) and he was quite content that there should be a fifth. Now that the home world was sending an Arch-administrator to make a personal survey of the situation, his replacement might come soon. Good!

  He stood on the surface of the Moon, encased in his space-suit, and thought of home, of Hurria. His long, thin arms moved restlessly with the thought, as though aching (through millions of years of instinct) for the ancestral trees. He stood only three feet high. What could be seen of him through the glass-fronted head plate was a black and wrinkled face with the fleshy, mobile nose dead-centered. The little tuft of fine beard was a pure white in contrast. In the rear of the suit, just below center, was the bulge within which the short and stubby Hurrian tail might rest comfortably.

  Devi-en took his appearance for granted, of course, but was well aware of the difference between the Hurrians and all the other intelligences in the Galaxy. The Hurrians alone were so small; they alone were tailed; they alone were vegetarians—they alone had escaped the inevitable nuclear war that had ruined every other known intelligent species.

  He stood on the walled plain that extended for so many miles that the raised and circular rim (which on Hurria would have been called a crater, if it were smaller) was invisible beyond the horizon. Against the southern edge of the rim, where there was always some protection against the direct rays of the Sun, a city had grown. It had begun as a temporary camp, of course, but with the years, women had been brought in, and children had been born in it. Now there were schools and elaborate hydroponics establishments, large water reservoirs, all that went with a city on an airless world.

  It was ridiculous! All because one planet had nuclear weapons and would not fight a nuclear war.

  The Arch-administrator, who would be arriving soon, would undoubtedly ask, almost at once, the same question that Devi-en had asked himself a wearisome number of times.

  Whyhad there not been a nuclear war?

  Devi-en watched the hulking Mauvs preparing the ground now for the landing, smoothing out the unevennesses and laying down the ceramic bed designed to absorb the hyperatomic field-thrusts with minimum discomfort to the passengers within the ship.

  Even in their space-suits, the Mauvs seemed to exude power, but it was the power of muscle only. Beyond them was the little figure of a Hurrian giving orders, and the docile Mauvs obeyed. Naturally.

  The Mauvian race, of all the large-primate intelligences, paid their fees in the most unusual coin, a quota of themselves, rather than of material goods. It was a surprisingly useful tribute, better than steel, aluminum, or fine drugs in many ways.

  Devi-en’s receiver stuttered to life. “The ship is sighted, sir,” came the report. “It will be landing within the hour.”

  “Very good,” said Devi-en. “Have my car made ready to take me to the ship as soon as landing is initiated.”

  He did not feel that it was very good at all.

  The Arch-administator came, flanked by a personal retinue of five Mauvs. They entered the city with him, one on each side, three following. They helped him off with his space-suit, then removed their own.

  Their thinly haired bodies, their large, coarse-featured faces, their broad noses and flat cheekbones were repulsive but not frightening. Though twice the height of the Hurrians and more than twice the breadth, there was a blankness about their eyes, something completely submissive about the way they stood, with their thick-sinewed necks slightly bent, their bulging arms hanging listlessly.

  The Arch-administrator dismissed them and they trooped out. He did not really need their protection, of course, but his position required a retinue of five and that was that.

  No business was discussed during the meal or during the almost endless ritual of welcome. At a time that might have been more appropriate for sleeping, the Arch-administrator passed small fingers through his tuft of beard and said, “How much longer must we wait for this planet, Captain?”

  He was visibly advancing in age. The hair on his upper arms was grizzled and the tufts at the elbows were almost as white as his beard.

  “I cannot say, your Height,” said Devi-en humbly. “They have not followed the path.”

  “That is obvious. The point is, why have they not followed the path? It is clear to the Council that your reports promise more than they deliver. You talk of theories but you give no details. Now we are tired of all this back on Hurria. If you know of anything you have not told us, now is the time to talk of it.”

  “The matter, your Height, is hard to prove. We have had no experience of spying on a people over such an extended period. Until recently, we weren’t watching for the right things. Each year we kept expecting the nuclear war the year after and it is only in my time as Captain that we have taken to studying the people more intensively. It is at least one benefit of the long waiting time that we have learned some of their principal languages.”

  “Indeed? Without even landing on their planet?”

  Devi-en explained. “A number of radio messages were recorded by those of our ships that penetrated the planetary atmosphere on observation missions, particularly in the early years. I set our linguistics computers to work on them, and for the last year I have been attempting to make sense out of it all.”

  The Arch-administrator stared. His bearing was such that any outright exclamation of surprise would have been superfluous. “And have you learned anything of interest?”

  “I may have, your Height, but what I have worked out is so strange and the underpinning of actual evidence is so uncertain that I dared not speak of it officially in my reports.”

  The Arch-administrator understood. He said, stiffly, “Would you object to explaining your views unofficially—to me?”

  “I would be glad to,” said Devi-en at once. “The inhabitants of this planet are, of course, large-primate in nature. And they are competitive.”

  The other blew out his breath in a kind of relief and passed his tongue quickly over his nose. ” I had the queer notion,” he muttered, “that they might not be competitive and that that might—But go on, go on.”

  “They are competitive,” Devi-en assured him. “Much more so than one would expect on the average.”

  “Then why doesn’t everything else follow?”

  “Up to a point it does, your Height. After the usual long incubation period, they began to mechanize; and after that, the usual large-primate killings became truly destructive warfare. At the conclusion of the most recent large-scale war, nuclear weapons were developed and the war ended at once.”

  The Arch-administrator nodded. “And then?”

  Devi-en said, “What should have happened was that a nucl
ear war ought to have begun shortly afterward and in the course of the war, nuclear weapons would have developed quickly in destructiveness, have been used nevertheless in typical large-primate fashion, and have quickly reduced the population to starving remnants in a ruined world.”

  “Of course, but that didn’t happen. Why not?”

  Devi-en said, “There is one point. I believe these people, once mechanization started, developed at an unusually high rate.”

  “And if so?” said the other. “Does that matter? They reached nuclear weapons the more quickly.”

  “True. But after the most recent general war, they continued to develop nuclear weapons at an unusual rate. That’s the trouble. The deadly potential had increased before the nuclear war had a chance to start and now it has reached a point where even large-primate intelligences dare not risk a war.”

  The Arch-administrator opened his small black eyes wide. “But that is impossible. I don’t care how technically talented these creatures are. Military science advances rapidly only during a war.”

  “Perhaps that is not true in the case of these particular creatures. But even if it were, it seems they are having a war; not a real war, but a war.”

  “Not a real war, but a war,” repeated the Arch-administrator blankly. “What does that mean?”

  “I’m not sure.” Devi-en wiggled his nose in exasperation. “This is where my attempts to draw logic out of the scattered material we have picked up is least satisfactory. This planet has something called a Cold War. Whatever it is, it drives them furiously onward in research and yet it does not involve complete nuclear destruction.”

  The Arch-administrator said, “Impossible!”

  Devi-en said, “There is the planet. Here we are. We have been waiting fifteen years.”

  The Arch-administrator’s long arms came up and crossed over his head and down again to the opposite shoulders. “Then there is only one thing to do. The Council has considered the possibilty that the planet may have achieved a stalemate, a kind of uneasy peace that balances just short of a nuclear war. Something of the sort you describe, though no one suggested the actual reasons you advance. But it’s something we can’t allow.”

  “No, your Height?”

  “No,” he seemed almost in pain. “The longer the stalemate continues, the greater the possibility that large-primate individuals may discover the methods of interstellar travel. They will leak out into the Galaxy, in full competitive strength. You see?”


  The Arch-administrator hunched his head deeper into his arms, as though not wishing to hear what he himself must say. His voice was a little muffled. “If they are balanced precariously, we must push them a little, Captain. We must push them.”

  Devi-en’s stomach churned and he suddenly tasted his dinner once more in the back of his throat. “Push them, your Height?” He didn’t want to understand.

  But the Arch-administrator put it bluntly, “We must help them start their nuclear war.” He looked as miserably sick as Devi-en felt. He whispered, “We must!”

  Devi-en could scarcely speak. He said, in a whisper, “But how could such a thing be done, your Height?”

  “I don’t know how.—And do not look at me so. It is not my decision. It is the decision of the Council. Surely you understand what would happen to the Galaxy if a large-primate intelligence were to enter space in full strength without having been tamed by nuclear war.”

  Devi-en shuddered at the thought. All that competitiveness loosed on the Galaxy. He persisted though. “But how does one start a nuclear war? How is it done?”

  “I don’t know, I tell you. But there must be some way; perhaps a—a message we might send or a—a crucial rainstorm we might start by cloud-seeding. We could manage a great deal with their weather conditions—”

  “How would that start a nuclear war?” said Devi-en, unimpressed.

  “Maybe it wouldn’t. I mention such a thing only as a possible example. But large-primates would know. After all, they are the ones who do start nuclear wars in actual fact. It is in their brain-pattern to know. That is the decision the Council came to.”

  Devi-en felt the soft noise his tail made as it thumped slowly against the chair. He tried to stop it and failed. “What decision, your Height?”

  “To trap a large-primate from the planet’s surface. To kidnap one.”

  “A wild one?”

  “It’s the only kind that exists at the moment on the planet. Of course, a wild one.”

  “And what do you expect him to tell us?”

  “That doesn’t matter, Captain. As long as he says enough about anything, mentalic analysis will give us the answer.”

  Devi-en withdrew his head as far as he could into the space between his shoulder blades. The skin just under his armpits quivered with repulsion. A wild large-primate being! He tried to picture one, untouched by the stunning aftermath of nuclear war, unaltered by the civilizing influence of Human eugenic breeding.

  The Arch-administrator made no attempt to hide the fact that he shared the repulsion, but he said, “You will have to lead the trapping expedition, Captain. It is for the good of the Galaxy.”

  Devi-en had seen the planet a number of times before but each time a ship swung about the Moon and placed the world in his line of sight a wave of unbearable homesickness swept him.

  It was a beautiful planet, so like Hurria itself in dimensions and characteristics but wilder and grander. The sight of it, after the desolation of the Moon, was like a blow.

  How many other planets like it were on Hurrian master listings at this moment, he wondered. How many other planets were there concerning which meticulous observers had reported seasonal changes in appearance that could be interpreted only as being caused by artificial cultivation of food plants? How many times in the future would a day come when the radioactivity in the stratosphere of one of these planets would begin to climb; when colonizing squadrons would have to be sent out at once?

  —As they were to this planet.

  It was almost pathetic, the confidence with which the Hurrians had proceeded at first. Devi-en could have laughed as he read through those initial reports, if he weren’t trapped in this project himself now. The Hurrian scoutships had moved close to the planet to gather geographical information, to locate population centers. They were sighted, of course, but what did it matter? Any time, now, they thought, the final explosion.

  Any time—But useless years passed and the scoutships wondered if they ought not to be cautious. They moved back.

  Devi-en’s ship was cautious now. The crew was on edge because of the unpleasantness of the mission; not all Devi-en’s assurances that there was no harm intended to the large-primate could quite calm them. Even so, they could not hurry matters. It had to be over a fairly deserted and uncultivated tract of uneven ground that they hovered. They stayed at a height of ten miles for days, while the crew became edgier and only the ever-stolid Mauvs maintained calm.

  Then the scope showed them a creature, alone on the uneven ground, a long staff in one hand, a pack across the upper portion of his back.

  They lowered silently, supersonically. Devi-en himself, skin crawling, was at the controls.

  The creature was heard to say two definite things before he was taken, and they were the first comments recorded for use in mentalic computing.

  The first, when the large-primate caught sight of the ship almost upon him, was picked up by the direction telemike. It was, “My God! A flying saucer!”

  Devi-en understood the second phrase. That was a term for the Hurrian ships that had grown common among the large-primates those first careless years.

  The second remark was made when the wild creature was brought into the ship, struggling with amazing strength, but helpless in the iron grip of the unperturbed Mauvs.

  Devi-en, panting, with his fleshy nose quivering slightly, advanced to receive him, and the creature (whose unpleasantly hairless face had become oily with some sort of f
luid secretion) yelled, “Holy Toledo, a monkey!”

  Again, Devi-en understood the second part. It was the word for little-primate in one of the chief languages of the planet.

  The wild creature was almost impossible to handle. He required infinite patience before he could be spoken to reasonably. At first, there was nothing but a series of crises. The creature realized almost at once that he was being taken off Earth, and what Devi-en thought might prove an exciting experience for him, proved nothing of the sort. He talked instead of his offspring and of a large-primate female.

  (They have wives and children, thought Devi-en, compassionately, and, in their way, love them, for all they are large-primate.)

  Then he had to be made to understand that the Mauvs who kept him under guard and who restrained him when his violence made that necessary would not hurt him, that he was not to be damaged in any way.

  (Devi-en was sickened at the thought that one intelligent being might be damaged by another. It was very difficult to discuss the subject, even if only to admit the possibility long enough to deny it. The creature from the planet treated the very hesitation with great suspicion. It was the way the large-primates were.)

  On the fifth day, when out of sheer exhaustion, perhaps, the creature remained quiet over a fairly extended period, they talked in Devi-en’s private quarters, and suddenly he grew angry again when the Human first explained, matter-of-factly, that they were waiting for a nuclear war.

  “Waiting!” cried the creature. “What makes you so sure there will be one?”

  Devi-en wasn’t sure, of course, but he said, “There is always a nuclear war. It is our purpose to help you afterward.”

  “Help us afterward.” His words grew incoherent. He waved his arms violently, and the Mauvs who flanked him had to restrain him gently once again and lead him away.

  Devi-en sighed. The creature’s remarks were building in quantity and perhaps mentalics could do something with them. His own unaided mind could make nothing of them.

  And meanwhile the creature was not thriving. His body was almost completely hairless, a fact that long-distance observation had not revealed owing to the artificial skins worn by them. This was either for warmth or because of an instinctive repulsion even on the part of these particular large-primates themselves for hairless skin. (It might be an interesting subject to take up. Mentalics computation could make as much out of one set of remarks as another.)