Riya's Foundling

by Algis Budrys

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Now, if the animal we know as a cow were to evolve into a creature with near-human intelligence, so that she thought of herself as a "person".

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The loft of the feed-house, with its stacked grainsacks, was a B-72, a fort, a foxhole--any number of things, depending on Phildee’s moods.

Today it was a jumping-off place.

Phildee slipped out of his dormitory and ran across the yard to the feed-house. He dropped the big wooden latch behind him, and climbed up the ladder to the loft, depending on the slight strength of his young arms more than on his legs, which had to be lifted to straining heights before they could negotiate the man-sized rungs.

He reached the loft and stood panting, looking out over the farm through the loft door, at the light wooden fences around it, and the circling antenna of the radar tower.

Usually, he spent at least a little time each day crouched behind the grainsacks and being bigger and older, firing cooly and accurately into charging companies of burly, thick-lipped UES soldiers, or going over on one wing and whistling down on a flight of TT-34’s that scattered like frightened ducks before the fiery sleet of his wing rockets.

But today was different, today there was something he wanted to try.

He stood up on his toes and searched. He felt the touch of Miss Cowan’s mind, no different from that of anyone else--flat, unsystematic.

He sighed. Perhaps, somewhere, there was someone else like himself. For a moment, the fright of loneliness invaded him, but then faded. He took a last look at the farm, then moved away from the open door, letting his mind slip into another way of thinking.

His chubby features twisted into a scowl of concentration as he visualized reality. The scowl became a deeper grimace as he negated that reality, step by step, and substituted another.

F is for Phildee.
O is for Out.
R is for Reimann.
T is for Topology.
H is for heartsick hunger.
Abruptly, the Reimann fold became a concrete visualization. As though printed clearly in and around the air, which was simultaneously both around him and not around him, which existed/not existed in spacetime, he saw the sideslip diagram.

He twisted.

Spring had come to Riya’s world; spring and the thousand sounds of it. The melted snow in the mountaintops ran down in traceries of leaping water, and the spring-crests raced along the creeks into the rivers. The riverbank grasses sprang into life; the plains turned green again.

Riya made her way up the path across the foothills, conscious of her shame. The green plain below her was dotted, two by two, with the figures of her people. It was spring, and Time. Only she was alone.

There was a special significance in the fact that she was here on this path in this season. The plains on either side of the brown river were her people’s territory. During the summer, the couples ranged over the grass until the dams were ready to drop their calves. Then it became the bulls’ duty to forage for their entire families until the youngsters were able to travel south to the winter range.

Through the space of years, the people had increased in numbers, the pressure of this steady growth making itself felt as the yearlings filled out on the winter range. It had become usual, as the slow drift northward was made toward the end of winter, for some of the people to split away from the main body and range beyond the gray mountains that marked the western limits of the old territories. Since these wanderers were usually the most willful and headstrong, they were regarded as quasi-outcasts by the more settled people of the old range.

But--and here Riya felt the shame pierce more strongly than ever--they had their uses, occasionally. Preoccupied in her shame, she involuntarily turned her head downward, anxious that none of the people be staring derisively upward at the shaggy brown hump of fur that was she, toiling up the path.

She was not the first--but that was meaningless. That other female people had been ugly or old, that the same unforgotten force that urged her up the mountain path had brought others here before her, meant only that she was incapable of accepting the verdict of the years that had thinned her pelt, dimmed her eyes, and broken the smooth rhythm of her gait.

In short, it meant that Riya Sair, granddam times over, spurned by every male on the old range, was willing to cross the gray mountains and risk death from the resentful wild dams for the thin hope that there was a male among the wildlings who would sire her calf.

She turned her head back to the path and hurried on, cringing in inward self-reproach at her speed.

Except for her age, Riya presented a perfect average of her people. She stood two yards high and two wide at the shoulders, a yard at the haunches, and measured three and a half yards from her muzzle to the rudimentary tail. Her legs were short and stumpy, cloven-hooved. Her massive head hung slightly lower than her shoulders, and could be lowered to within an inch or two of the ground. She was herbivorous, ruminant, and mammalian. Moreover, she had intelligence--not of a very high order, but adequate for her needs.

From a Terrestrial point of view, none of this was remarkable. Many years of evolution had gone into her fashioning--more years for her one species than for all the varieties of man that have ever been. Nevertheless, she did have some remarkable attributes.

It was one of these attributes that now enabled her to sense what happened on the path ahead of her. She stopped still, only her long fur moving in the breeze.

Phildee--five, towheaded, round faced, chubby, dressed in a slightly grubby corduroy oversuit, and precocious--had his attributes, too. Grubby and tousled; branded with a thread of licorice from one corner of his mouth to his chin; involved in the loss of his first milk-tooth, as he was--he nevertheless slipped onto the path on Riya’s world, the highest product of Terrestrial evolution. Alice followed a white rabbit down a hole. Phildee followed Reimann down into a hole that, at the same time, followed him, and emerged--where?

Phildee didn’t know. He could have performed the calculation necessary to the task almost instantly, but he was five. It was too much trouble.

He looked up, and saw a gray slope of rock vaulting above him. He looked down, and saw it fall away toward a plain on which were scattered pairs of foraging animals. He felt a warm breeze, smelled it, saw it blow dust along the path, and saw Riya:


B is for big brown beast.

L is for looming large, looking lonely.

B? L? Bull? No--bison.


bison (bi’sn) n. The buffalo of the N. Amer. plains.

Phildee shook his head and scowled. No--not bison, either. What, then? He probed.

Riya took a step forward. The sight of a living organism other than a person was completely unfamiliar to her. Nevertheless, anything that small, and undeniably covered--in most areas, at least--with some kind of fur, could not, logically, be anything but a strange kind of calf. But--she stopped, and raised her head--if a calf, then where was the call?

Phildee’s probe swept past the laboring mind directly into her telepathic, instinctual centers.

Voiceless, with their environment so favorable that it had never been necessary for them to develop prehensile limbs, female people had nevertheless evolved a method of child care commensurate with their comparatively higher intelligence.

Soft as tender fingers, gentle as the human hand that smooths the awry hair back from the young forehead, Riya’s mental caress enfolded Phildee.

Phildee recoiled. The feeling was:

Not candy in the mouth
Candy in the mouth
The feeling was
Not Familiar
Not Good
Not Tasty
Not Nice
M is for many motionless months.
T is for tense temper tantrums.
R is for rabid--NO!--rapid rolling wrench.
MTR. Mother.
Phildee’s mother wanted Phildee’s father. Phildee’s mother wanted green grass and apple trees, tight skirts and fur jackets on Fifth Avenue, men to turn and look, a little room where nobody could see her. Phildee’s mother had radiation burns. Phildee’s mother was dead.

He wavered; physically. Maintaining his position in this world was a process that demanded constant attention from the segment of his mind devoted to it. For a moment, even that small group of brain cells almost became involved in his reaction.

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