Birds of a Feather

by Robert Silverberg

Copyright© 2017 by Robert Silverberg

Science Fiction Story: Getting specimens for the interstellar zoo was no problem--they battled for the honor--but now I had to fight like a wildcat to keep a display from making a monkey of me!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It was our first day of recruiting on the planet, and the alien life-forms had lined up for hundreds of feet back from my rented office. As I came down the block from the hotel, I could hear and see and smell them with ease.

My three staff men, Auchinleck, Stebbins and Ludlow, walked shieldwise in front of me. I peered between them to size the crop up. The aliens came in every shape and form, in all colors and textures--and all of them eager for a Corrigan contract. The Galaxy is full of bizarre beings, but there’s barely a species anywhere that can resist the old exhibitionist urge.

“Send them in one at a time,” I told Stebbins. I ducked into the office, took my place back of the desk and waited for the procession to begin.

The name of the planet was MacTavish IV (if you went by the official Terran listing) or Ghryne (if you called it by what its people were accustomed to calling it). I thought of it privately as MacTavish IV and referred to it publicly as Ghryne. I believe in keeping the locals happy wherever I go.

Through the front window of the office, I could see our big gay tridim sign plastered to a facing wall: WANTED--EXTRATERRESTRIALS! We had saturated MacTavish IV with our promotional poop for a month preceding arrival. Stuff like this:

Want to visit Earth--see the Galaxy’s most glittering and exclusive world? Want to draw good pay, work short hours, experience the thrills of show business on romantic Terra? If you are a non-terrestrial, there may be a place for you in the Corrigan Institute of Morphological Science. No freaks wanted--normal beings only. J. F. Corrigan will hold interviews in person on Ghryne from Thirdday to Fifthday of Tenmonth. His last visit to the Caledonia Cluster until 2937, so don’t miss your chance! Hurry! A life of wonder and riches can be yours!

Broadsides like that, distributed wholesale in half a thousand languages, always bring them running. And the Corrigan Institute really packs in the crowds back on Earth. Why not? It’s the best of its kind, the only really decent place where Earthmen can get a gander at the other species of the universe.

The office buzzer sounded. Auchinleck said unctuously, “The first applicant is ready to see you, sir.”

“Send him, her or it in.”

The door opened and a timid-looking life-form advanced toward me on nervous little legs. He was a globular creature about the size of a big basketball, yellowish-green, with two spindly double-kneed legs and five double-elbowed arms, the latter spaced regularly around his body. There was a lidless eye at the top of his head and five lidded ones, one above each arm. Plus a big, gaping, toothless mouth.

His voice was a surprisingly resounding basso. “You are Mr. Corrigan?”

“That’s right.” I reached for a data blank. “Before we begin, I’ll need certain information about--”

“I am a being of Regulus II,” came the grave, booming reply, even before I had picked up the blank. “I need no special care and I am not a fugitive from the law of any world.”

“Your name?”

“Lawrence R. Fitzgerald.”

I throttled my exclamation of surprise, concealing it behind a quick cough. “Let me have that again, please?”

“Certainly. My name is Lawrence R. Fitzgerald. The ‘R’ stands for Raymond.”

“Of course, that’s not the name you were born with.”

The being closed his eyes and toddled around in a 360-degree rotation, remaining in place. On his world, that gesture is the equivalent of an apologetic smile. “My Regulan name no longer matters. I am now and shall evermore be Lawrence R. Fitzgerald. I am a Terraphile, you see.”

The little Regulan was as good as hired. Only the formalities remained. “You understand our terms, Mr. Fitzgerald?”

“I’ll be placed on exhibition at your Institute on Earth. You’ll pay for my services, transportation and expenses. I’ll be required to remain on exhibit no more than one-third of each Terran sidereal day.”

“And the pay will be--ah--$50 Galactic a week, plus expenses and transportation.”

The spherical creature clapped his hands in joy, three hands clapping on one side, two on the other. “Wonderful! I will see Earth at last! I accept the terms!”

I buzzed for Ludlow and gave him the fast signal that meant we were signing this alien up at half the usual pay, and Ludlow took him into the other office to sign him up.

I grinned, pleased with myself. We needed a green Regulan in our show; the last one had quit four years ago. But just because we needed him didn’t mean we had to be extravagant in hiring him. A Terraphile alien who goes to the extent of rechristening himself with a Terran monicker would work for nothing, or even pay us, just so long as we let him get to Earth. My conscience won’t let me really exploit a being, but I don’t believe in throwing money away, either.

The next applicant was a beefy ursinoid from Aldebaran IX. Our outfit has all the ursinoids it needs or is likely to need in the next few decades, and so I got rid of him in a couple of minutes. He was followed by a roly-poly blue-skinned humanoid from Donovan’s Planet, four feet high and five hundred pounds heavy. We already had a couple of his species in the show, but they made good crowd-pleasers, being so plump and cheerful. I passed him along to Auchinleck to sign at anything short of top rate.

Next came a bedraggled Sirian spider who was more interested in a handout than a job. If there’s any species we have a real over-supply of, it’s those silver-colored spiders, but this seedy specimen gave it a try anyway. He got the gate in half a minute, and he didn’t even get the handout he was angling for. I don’t approve of begging.

The flora of applicants was steady. Ghryne is in the heart of the Caledonia Cluster, where the interstellar crossroads meet. We had figured to pick up plenty of new exhibits here and we were right.

It was the isolationism of the late 29th century that turned me into the successful proprietor of Corrigan’s Institute, after some years as an impoverished carnival man in the Betelgeuse system. Back in 2903, the World Congress declared Terra off-bounds for non-terrestrial beings, as an offshoot of the Terra for Terrans movement.

Before then, anyone could visit Earth. After the gate clanged down, a non-terrestrial could only get onto Sol III as a specimen in a scientific collection--in short, as an exhibit in a zoo.

That’s what the Corrigan Institute of Morphological Science really is, of course. A zoo. But we don’t go out and hunt for our specimens; we advertise and they come flocking to us. Every alien wants to see Earth once in his lifetime, and there’s only one way he can do it.

We don’t keep too big an inventory. At last count, we had 690 specimens before this trip, representing 298 different intelligent life-forms. My goal is at least one member of at least 500 different races. When I reach that, I’ll sit back and let the competition catch up--if it can.

After an hour of steady work that morning, we had signed eleven new specimens. At the same time, we had turned away a dozen ursinoids, fifty of the reptilian natives of Ghryne, seven Sirian spiders, and no less than nineteen chlorine-breathing Procyonites wearing gas masks.

It was also my sad duty to nix a Vegan who was negotiating through a Ghrynian agent. A Vegan would be a top-flight attraction, being some 400 feet long and appropriately fearsome to the eye, but I didn’t see how we could take one on. They’re gentle and likable beings, but their upkeep runs into literally tons of fresh meat a day, and not just any old kind of meat either. So we had to do without the Vegan.

“One more specimen before lunch,” I told Stebbins, “to make it an even dozen.”

He looked at me queerly and nodded. A being entered. I took a long close look at the life-form when it came in, and after that I took another one. I wondered what kind of stunt was being pulled. So far as I could tell, the being was quite plainly nothing but an Earthman.

He sat down facing me without being asked and crossed his legs. He was tall and extremely thin, with pale blue eyes and dirty-blond hair, and though he was clean and reasonably well dressed, he had a shabby look about him. He said, in level Terran accents, “I’m looking for a job with your outfit, Corrigan.”

“There’s been a mistake. We’re interested in non-terrestrials only.”

“I’m a non-terrestrial. My name is Ildwar Gorb, of the planet Wazzenazz XIII.”

I don’t mind conning the public from time to time, but I draw the line at getting bilked myself. “Look, friend, I’m busy, and I’m not known for my sense of humor. Or my generosity.”

“I’m not panhandling. I’m looking for a job.”

“Then try elsewhere. Suppose you stop wasting my time, bud. You’re as Earthborn as I am.”

“I’ve never been within a dozen parsecs of Earth,” he said smoothly. “I happen to be a representative of the only Earthlike race that exists anywhere in the Galaxy but on Earth itself. Wazzenazz XIII is a small and little-known planet in the Crab Nebula. Through an evolutionary fluke, my race is identical with yours. Now, don’t you want me in your circus?”

“No. And it’s not a circus. It’s--”

“A scientific institute. I stand corrected.”

There was something glib and appealing about this preposterous phony. I guess I recognized a kindred spirit or I would have tossed him out on his ear without another word. Instead I played along. “If you’re from such a distant place, how come you speak English so well?”

“I’m not speaking. I’m a telepath--not the kind that reads minds, just the kind that projects. I communicate in symbols that you translate back to colloquial speech.”

“Very clever, Mr. Gorb.” I grinned at him and shook my head. “You spin a good yarn--but for my money, you’re really Sam Jones or Phil Smith from Earth, stranded here and out of cash. You want a free trip back to Earth. No deal. The demand for beings from Wazzenazz XIII is pretty low these days. Zero, in fact. Good-by, Mr. Gorb.”

He pointed a finger squarely at me and said, “You’re making a big mistake. I’m just what your outfit needs. A representative of a hitherto utterly unknown race identical to humanity in every respect! Look here, examine my teeth. Absolutely like human teeth! And--”

I pulled away from his yawning mouth. “Good-by, Mr. Gorb,” I repeated.

“All I ask is a contract, Corrigan. It isn’t much. I’ll be a big attraction. I’ll--”

Good-by, Mr. Gorb!

He glowered at me reproachfully for a moment, stood up and sauntered to the door. “I thought you were a man of acumen, Corrigan. Well, think it over. Maybe you’ll regret your hastiness. I’ll be back to give you another chance.”

He slammed the door and I let my grim expression relax into a smile. This was the best con switch yet--an Earthman posing as an alien to get a job!

But I wasn’t buying it, even if I could appreciate his cleverness intellectually. There’s no such place as Wazzenazz XIII and there’s only one human race in the Galaxy--on Earth. I was going to need some real good reason before I gave a down-and-out grifter a free ticket home.

I didn’t know it then, but before the day was out, I would have that reason. And, with it, plenty of trouble on my hands.

The first harbinger of woe turned up after lunch in the person of a Kallerian. The Kallerian was the sixth applicant that afternoon. I had turned away three more ursinoids, hired a vegetable from Miazan, and said no to a scaly pseudo-armadillo from one of the Delta Worlds. Hardly had the ‘dillo scuttled dejectedly out of my office when the Kallerian came striding in, not even waiting for Stebbins to admit him officially.

He was big even for his kind--in the neighborhood of nine feet high, and getting on toward a ton. He planted himself firmly on his three stocky feet, extended his massive arms in a Kallerian greeting-gesture, and growled, “I am Vallo Heraal, Freeman of Kaller IV. You will sign me immediately to a contract.”

“Sit down, Freeman Heraal. I like to make my own decisions, thanks.”

“You will grant me a contract!”

“Will you please sit down?”

He said sulkily, “I will remain standing.”

“As you prefer.” My desk has a few concealed features which are sometimes useful in dealing with belligerent or disappointed life-forms. My fingers roamed to the meshgun trigger, just in case of trouble.

The Kallerian stood motionless before me. They’re hairy creatures, and this one had a coarse, thick mat of blue fur completely covering his body. Two fierce eyes glimmered out through the otherwise dense blanket of fur. He was wearing the kilt, girdle and ceremonial blaster of his warlike race.

I said, “You’ll have to understand, Freeman Heraal, that it’s not our policy to maintain more than a few members of each species at our Institute. And we’re not currently in need of any Kallerian males, because--”

“You will hire me or trouble I will make!”

I opened our inventory chart. I showed him that we were already carrying four Kallerians, and that was more than plenty.

The beady little eyes flashed like beacons in the fur. “Yes, you have four representatives--of the Clan Verdrokh! None of the Clan Gursdrinn! For three years, I have waited for a chance to avenge this insult to the noble Clan Gursdrinn!”

At the key-word avenge, I readied myself to ensnarl the Kallerian in a spume of tanglemesh the instant he went for his blaster, but he didn’t move. He bellowed, “I have vowed a vow, Earthman. Take me to Earth, enroll a Gursdrinn, or the consequences will be terrible!”

I’m a man of principles, like all straightforward double-dealers, and one of the most important of those principles is that I never let myself be bullied by anyone. “I deeply regret having unintentionally insulted your clan, Freeman Heraal. Will you accept my apologies?”

He glared at me in silence.

I went on, “Please be assured that I’ll undo the insult at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s not feasible for us to hire another Kallerian now, but I’ll give preference to the Clan Gursdrinn as soon as a vacancy--”

“No. You will hire me now.”

“It can’t be done, Freeman Heraal. We have a budget, and we stick to it.”

“You will rue! I will take drastic measures!”

“Threats will get you nowhere, Freeman Heraal. I give you my word I’ll get in touch with you as soon as our organization has room for another Kallerian. And now, please, there are many applicants waiting--”

You’d think it would be sort of humiliating to become a specimen in a zoo, but most of these races take it as an honor. And there’s always the chance that, by picking a given member of a race, we’re insulting all the others.

I nudged the trouble-button on the side of my desk and Auchinleck and Ludlow appeared simultaneously from the two doors at right and left. They surrounded the towering Kallerian and sweet-talkingly led him away. He wasn’t minded to quarrel physically, or he could have knocked them both into the next city with a backhand swipe of his shaggy paw, but he kept up a growling flow of invective and threats until he was out in the hall.

I mopped sweat from my forehead and began to buzz Stebbins for the next applicant. But before my finger touched the button, the door popped open and a small being came scooting in, followed by an angry Stebbins.

“Come here, you!”

“Stebbins?” I said gently.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Corrigan. I lost sight of this one for a moment, and he came running in--”

“Please, please,” squeaked the little alien pitifully. “I must see you, honored sir!”

“It isn’t his turn in line,” Stebbins protested. “There are at least fifty ahead of him.”

“All right,” I said tiredly. “As long as he’s in here already, I might as well see him. Be more careful next time, Stebbins.”

Stebbins nodded dolefully and backed out.

The alien was a pathetic sight: a Stortulian, a squirrely-looking creature about three feet high. His fur, which should have been a lustrous black, was a dull gray, and his eyes were wet and sad. His tail drooped. His voice was little more than a faint whimper, even at full volume.

“Begging your most honored pardon most humbly, important sir. I am a being of Stortul XII, having sold my last few possessions to travel to Ghryne for the miserable purpose of obtaining an interview with yourself.”

I said, “I’d better tell you right at the outset that we’re already carrying our full complement of Stortulians. We have both a male and a female now and--”

“This is known to me. The female--is her name perchance Tiress?”

I glanced down at the inventory chart until I found the Stortulian entry. “Yes, that’s her name.”

The little being immediately emitted a soul-shaking gasp. “It is she! It is she!”

“I’m afraid we don’t have room for any more--”

“You are not in full understanding of my plight. The female Tiress, she is--was--my own Fire-sent spouse, my comfort and my warmth, my life and my love.”

“Funny,” I said. “When we signed her three years ago, she said she was single. It’s right here on the chart.”

“She lied! She left my burrow because she longed to see the splendors of Earth. And I am alone, bound by our sacred customs never to remarry, languishing in sadness and pining for her return. You must take me to Earth!”


“I must see her--her and this disgrace-bringing lover of hers. I must reason with her. Earthman, can’t you see I must appeal to her inner flame? I must bring her back!

My face was expressionless. “You don’t really intend to join our organization at all--you just want free passage to Earth?”

“Yes, yes!” wailed the Stortulian. “Find some other member of my race, if you must! Let me have my wife again, Earthman! Is your heart a dead lump of stone?”

It isn’t, but another of my principles is to refuse to be swayed by sentiment. I felt sorry for this being’s domestic troubles, but I wasn’t going to break up a good act just to make an alien squirrel happy--not to mention footing the transportation.

I said, “I don’t see how we can manage it. The laws are very strict on the subject of bringing alien life to Earth. It has to be for scientific purposes only. And if I know in advance that your purpose in coming isn’t scientific, I can’t in all conscience lie for you, can I?”


“Of course not.” I took advantage of his pathetic upset to steam right along. “Now if you had come in here and simply asked me to sign you up, I might conceivably have done it. But no--you had to go unburden your heart to me.”

“I thought the truth would move you.”

“It did. But in effect you’re now asking me to conspire in a fraudulent criminal act. Friend, I can’t do it. My reputation means too much to me,” I said piously.

“Then you will refuse me?”

“My heart melts to nothingness for you. But I can’t take you to Earth.”

“Perhaps you will send my wife to me here?”

There’s a clause in every contract that allows me to jettison an unwanted specimen. All I have to do is declare it no longer of scientific interest, and the World Government will deport the undesirable alien back to its home world. But I wouldn’t pull a low trick like that on our female Stortulian.

I said, “I’ll ask her about coming home. But I won’t ship her back against her will. And maybe she’s happier where she is.”

The Stortulian seemed to shrivel. His eyelids closed half-way to mask his tears. He turned and shambled slowly to the door, walking like a living dishrag. In a bleak voice, he said, “There is no hope then. All is lost. I will never see my soulmate again. Good day, Earthman.”

He spoke in a drab monotone that almost, but not quite, had me weeping. I watched him shuffle out. I do have some conscience, and I had the uneasy feeling I had just been talking to a being who was about to commit suicide on my account.

About fifty more applicants were processed without a hitch. Then life started to get complicated again.

Nine of the fifty were okay. The rest were unacceptable for one reason or another, and they took the bad news quietly enough. The haul for the day so far was close to two dozen new life-forms under contract.

I had just about begun to forget about the incidents of the Kallerian’s outraged pride and the Stortulian’s flighty wife when the door opened and the Earthman who called himself Ildwar Gorb of Wazzenazz XIII stepped in.

“How did you get in here?” I demanded.

“Your man happened to be looking the wrong way,” he said cheerily. “Change your mind about me yet?”

“Get out before I have you thrown out.”

Gorb shrugged. “I figured you hadn’t changed your mind, so I’ve changed my pitch a bit. If you won’t believe I’m from Wazzenazz XIII, suppose I tell you that I am Earthborn, and that I’m looking for a job on your staff.”

“I don’t care what your story is! Get out or--”

“--you’ll have me thrown out. Okay, okay. Just give me half a second. Corrigan, you’re no fool, and neither am I--but that fellow of yours outside is. He doesn’t know how to handle alien beings. How many times today has a life-form come in here unexpectedly?”

I scowled at him. “Too damn many.”

“You see? He’s incompetent. Suppose you fire him, take me on instead. I’ve been living in the outworlds half my life; I know all there is to know about alien life-forms. You can use me, Corrigan.”

I took a deep breath and glanced all around the paneled ceiling of the office before I spoke. “Listen, Gorb, or whatever your name is, I’ve had a hard day. There’s been a Kallerian in here who just about threatened murder, and there’s been a Stortulian in here who’s about to commit suicide because of me. I have a conscience and it’s troubling me. But get this: I just want to finish off my recruiting, pack up and go home to Earth. I don’t want you hanging around here bothering me. I’m not looking to hire new staff members, and if you switch back to claiming you’re an unknown life-form from Wazzenazz XIII, the answer is that I’m not looking for any of those either. Now will you scram or--”

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.