Problem on Balak - Cover

Problem on Balak

by Roger D. Aycock

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Sometimes you can solve your problem by running out on it!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

What I’m getting at is that you don’t ever have to worry about being bored stiff in Solar Exploitations field work. It never gets dull--and in some pretty strange places, at that.

Take the S.E .2100’s discovery of Balak, which is a little planet circling 70 Ophiuchi some 20,000 light-years from Earth, for example. You’d never expect to run across the greatest race of surgeons in the Galaxy--structural, neural or what have you--on a little apple like that, any more than you’d expect a four man complement like ours to be handed the sort of life-and-death problem they put to us.

And, if by some miracle of prophecy you anticipated both, it’s a cinch you’d never expect that problem to be solved in the way ours was.

Captain Corelli and Gibbons and I couldn’t have gone more than a hundred yards from the S.E .2100 before we met our first Balakian native. Or, to be more accurate, before he met us.

Corelli and I were filling our little sterilized bottles with samples of soil and vegetation and keeping a wary eye out for possible predators when it happened. Gibbons, our ecologist and the scientific mainspring of our crew, was watching a swarm of little twelve-legged bugs that were busily pollinating a dwarf shrub at the top and collecting payment in drops of white sap that oozed out at the bottom in return. His eyes were shining behind their spectacles, and he was swearing to himself in a pleased monotone.

“Signal the ship and tell the Quack--if you can pry that hypochondriac idiot away from his gargles and germicide sprays--to bring out a live-specimen container,” he called to Captain Corelli. “We’ve stumbled onto something really new here, a conscious symbiosis between entirely dissimilar life-forms! If the rest of the flora and fauna cooperate like this...”

At the moment, Gibbons’ discovery didn’t register, because it was just then that the first Balakian showed himself.

The native looked at first glance something like a wrinkled pink octopus, standing three feet high and nearly as broad, and he walked in a skip-a-step swing like a man on crutches because his three short legs were set in a horizontal row. He had four arms to each side, the lower ones meant for grasping and holding and the upper ones for manipulation. He didn’t have a head, exactly, but there was a face of sorts up near the top of the body that looked like nothing so much as a politely grinning Oriental’s.

He wasn’t armed, but I took no chances--I dropped my specimen kit and yanked out the heat-gun that is a part of every S.E. field operative’s gear. Captain Corelli, who was on the point of calling the Quack at the ship, took his thumb off the mike button and grabbed for his own weapon. Gibbons, like a true scientist, stood by with his mouth open, too interested to be scared.

Then the Balakian spoke, and Corelli and I gaped wider than Gibbons. As I said before, Balak is some 20,000 light-years from Earth, and to our knowledge we were the first human beings ever to come within a hundred parsecs of the place.

“Please don’t shoot, gentlemen,” he said to us in Terran. “My name is Gaffa, and I assure you that I am quite friendly.”

I had to give Gibbons credit for being fast on his mental feet; he had taken over before Corelli and I could get our mouths closed, and was talking to the native as if this sort of thing happened every time we made planetfall.

“You speak Terran fluently,” Gibbons said. “Or is this some sort of telepathic contact that creates the illusion of oral communication?”

The native grinned delightedly. “The contact is oral. We learned your language from an independent planet-hunter named Haslop, who was wrecked here some years ago.”

In Solar Exploitations you learn to expect the unexpected, but to me this was stretching coincidence clear out of joint. We had the latest zero-interval-transference drive made, and I couldn’t believe that any independent planet-staker could have beaten us here with outmoded equipment.

“A Terran?” I asked. “Where is he now?”

“Coming up,” Gaffa said. “With my fellows.”

A couple of dozen other Balakians, looking exactly like him, bore down on us through the dwarf shrubbery, and with them were two lanky Terrans dressed in loose shirt-and-drawers ensembles which obviously had been made on Balak. Even at a distance the Terrans looked disturbingly alike, and when they got closer I could see that they were identical twins.

“You don’t count so good, chum,” I said. “I see two Terrans.”

“Only one,” Gaffa corrected, grinning wider. “The other is one of us.”

I didn’t believe it, of course. Corelli didn’t get it, either; his eyes had a glazed look, and he was shaking his head like a man with a gnat in his ear.

One of the Terrans rushed up to us with tears in his eyes and his Adam’s apple bobbing, so overcome with emotion that I was afraid he might kiss us.

“I’m Ira Haslop,” he said in a choked voice. “I’ve been marooned here for twenty-two eternal years, and I never thought I’d see a Terran face again. And now--”

He stopped, but not for breath. The other skinny Terran had grabbed his arm and swung him around.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, you masquerading nightmare?” the second one yelled. “I’m Ira Haslop, and you damn well know it! If you think you’re going to pass yourself off as me and go home to Earth in my place...”

The first Haslop gaped at him for a moment; then he slapped the other’s hand off his arm and shook a bony fist in his face.

“So that’s your game! That’s why these grinning freaks made you look like me and threw us together all these years--they’ve planned all along to ring in a switch and send you home instead of me! Well, it won’t work!”

The second Haslop swung on him then and the two of them went to the mat like a pair of loose-drawered tigers, cursing and gouging. The grinning natives separated them after a moment and examined them carefully for damage, chattering away with great satisfaction in their own language.

Corelli and Gibbons and I stared at each other like three fools. It was impossible to think that either of the two men could be anything but what he claimed to be, a perfectly normal and thoroughly angry Terran; but when each of them swore that one of them--the other one, of course--was an alien, and the natives backed up the accusation, what else could we believe?

Gaffa, who seemed to be a sort of headman, took over and explained the situation--which seemed to be an incredibly long-range gag cooked up by these octopod jokers, without the original Haslop’s knowledge, against the day when another Terran ship might land on Balak. Their real intent, Gaffa said, was to present us with a problem that could be solved only by a species with a real understanding of its own kind. If we could solve it, his people stood ready to assist us in any way possible. If not...

I didn’t like the sound of it, so I reached for my heat-gun again. So did Captain Corelli and Gibbons, but we were too slow.

A little stinging bug--another link in the cooperative Balakian ecology--bit each of us on the back of the neck and we passed out cold. When we woke up again, we were “guests” of Gaffa and his tribe in a sort of settlement miles from the S.E .2100, and there wasn’t so much as a nail file among us in the way of weapons.

The natives hadn’t bothered to shackle us or lock us up. We found ourselves lying instead in the middle of a circular court surrounded by mossy mounds that looked like flattened beehives, but which were actually dwellings where the Balakians lived.

We learned later that the buildings were constructed by swarms of tiny burrowing brutes like termites, who built them up grain by grain according to specifications. I can’t begin to explain the principle behind the harmony existing between all living things on Balak; it just was, and seemed to operate like a sort of hyper-sympathy or interlocking telepathy between species. Every creature on the planet performed some service for some other creature--even the plants, which grew edibles without pain-nerves so it wouldn’t hurt to be plucked, and which sent up clouds of dust-dry spores once a week to make it rain.

And the three-legged, eight-armed natives were right at the top of this screwy utopia, lords of it all.

Not that any of us were interested at first in it as an ecological marvel, of course. From the moment we woke up we were too busy with plans for escaping the trap we’d fallen into.

“The Quack is our only hope,” Captain Corelli said, and groaned at the thought. “If that hypochondriac idiot has brains enough to sit tight, we may have a chance. If they get him, too, we’re lost.”

The Quack was a damned poor reed to lean on.

His name was Alvin Frick, but no one ever used it. He was twenty-nine, and would never have rated a space berth as anything but a hydroponics attendant, which is one step above manual labor. He was short, plump and scrubbed to the pink, and he was the only hypochondriac I ever knew in this modern age of almost no sickness. He groused about the germs swarming in his reduction tanks, and he was scared green, in spite of his permanent immunization shots, that he’d contract some nameless alien disease at every planetfall. He dosed himself continuously with concoctions whipped up from an old medical book he had found somewhere, and he spent most of his off-duty time spraying himself and his quarters with disinfectant. His mania had only one good facet--if he had been the careless sort, hydroponics being what it is, he’d have smelled like a barnyard instead of a dispensary.

We had never made any attempt to get rid of him, since we might have drawn an even worse tank-farmer, but we began to wish now that we had. We had hardly begun to figure ways and means of escaping when a bunch of grinning natives swung into our court and deposited the Quack, sleeping soundly, in our midst.

He came to just before sundown, and when we told him what had happened, he promptly passed out again--this time from fright.

“A fine lot of help you are, you super-sterile slob,” I said when he woke up for the second time. I’d probably have said worse, but it was just then that the real squeeze began.

Gaffa came back with the two scowling Haslops in tow and handed us the problem his tribe had spent twenty-two years in working up.

“We have learned enough already from Haslop,” Gaffa said, “to know something of the pressures and complexities that follow the expansion of your Terran Realm through the galaxy, and to assure us that in time we must either become a part of that Realm or isolate ourselves completely.

“We are a peaceful species and feel that we should probably benefit as much from your physical sciences as your people would from our biological skills, but there is a question of compatibility that must be settled first, before we may risk making ourselves known to Terra. So we have devised a test to determine what our course shall be.”

We raised our brows at one another over that, not guessing at the time just what the Balakians really had on the ball.

“For thousands of generations, we have devoted our energies to knowing ourselves and our environment,” Gaffa said, “because we know that no species can be truly balanced unless it understands itself. The symbiosis between all life-forms on our planet is the result of that knowledge. We should like to assure ourselves that you are capable of understanding your own kind as well before we offer our services to your Terran Realm--and therein lies the test we have arranged for you.”

Captain Corelli drew himself up stiffly. “I think,” he said, “that the three of us should be able to unravel your little riddle, if you’ll condescend to tell us what it is.”

Gaffa sent a puzzled look at the Quack, and I could see that he was wondering why Corelli hadn’t included him in the boast. But Gaffa didn’t know how simple the Quack could be, nor how preoccupied with his own physiology he was.

“One of these two,” said Gaffa, pointing to the two Haslops, “is the original Ira Haslop, who was stranded here twenty-two Terran years ago. The other is a synthetic creation of ours--an android, if you like, who is identical, cell by cell, with the original so far as exterior likeness is concerned. We could not duplicate the interior without dissection, which of course was out of the question, so we were forced to make compromises that--”

Gibbons interrupted him incredulously. “You mean you’ve created a living creature, brain and all?”

“Only the body,” Gaffa said. “Creation of intelligence is still beyond us. The brain of the duplicate Haslop is one of our own, transplanted and conditioned to Haslop’s knowledge, memories and ideology.”

He paused for a moment, and the waiting circle of Balakians grinned with him in anticipation.

“Your problem is this,” Gaffa said. “If you know yourselves well enough to merit our help, then you should be able to distinguish readily between the real and false Haslops. If you fail, we shall have no alternative but to keep you here on Balak for the rest of your lives, since to release you would bring other Terrans down on us in force.”

And that was it. All we had to do was to take these two identical twins--who looked alike, thought alike and cursed alike--and determine which was real and which was bogus.

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