17

I'm trying to track down the title of a short story I read at least twenty years ago, probably nearer 30 and may not have been new at the time. Almost certainly in an anthology.

The starting premise is a human crew stranded in space and with some sort of time constraint - it may have been specific to them (limited food or air), or an external issue (limited time to complete a mission). They find what appears to be an abandoned ship which acts as a zoo - a number of different alien species are on board, each in their own enclosure - but no crew.

The determine that one of the species on board is actually the crew, acting like unintelligent animals to throw the humans off the track. The humans have some sort of mind probe that can test for intelligence - but only one species at a time, and it will take too long to run through them all.

Someone - quite possibly not the 'obvious' character - works out that the crew are actually symbiotes. There is a small, intelligent species (possibly looking like a helmet) paired with a larger species (possibly humanoid, bear-like, or ape-like) that actually pilot the ship. Once the actual crew is identified, they appear to reach an amicable arrangement fairly easily.

A couple of other elements:

When the control room is found, they activate a control for a 'jet boost'. The switch was on a light contact, which they used to rule out a high-g species.

Exploring the ship, they found living quarters with bunks and some small shelves, which turned out to be bunks for the two symbiotic aliens.

There was an attempt to use the atmosphere as a discriminator, but the ship had a device that would reproduce an atmosphere it was exposed to; once the humans had gone, they would 'open the door of their cell a crack', release some of the atmosphere, and wait until it was made dominant by this device.

22

I think this is the Van Rijn story "Hiding Place" (1961) by Poul Anderson, originally published in Analog and collected in Trader to the Stars.

The story starts with the ship Van Rijn is on having suffered damage in an escape from some hostile ships, with only a limited amount of time before critical systems shut down. They search along their course for a ship, hoping to find some help, and discover the zoo-ship.

The time constraint is that they need to repair their ship and be underway before the hostiles they are fleeing from can get in front of them and put up pickets to intercept them.

The ship they find tries to fire at them, tries to flee, and Van Rijn's ship pursues, locks on and the crew burn their way in. That's when they discover the zoo:

Torrance chose to answer the last question first. "It seems to be an interstellar animal collector's transport vessel. The main hold is full of cages-environmentally controlled compartments, I should say-with the damnedest assortment of creatures I've ever seen outside Luna City Zoo."

As you say, there's no time to test them all:

"Horse maneuvers!" Van Rijn's fist struck the table. The bottle and glasses jumped. "How long it takes to catch and check each one? Hours, nie? And in between times, takes many more hours to adjust the apparatus and chase out all the hiccups it develops under a new set of, conditions. Also, Yamamura will collapse if he can't sleep soon, and who else we got can do this? All the whiles, the forstunken Adderkops get closer. We have not got time for that method! If the gorilloids don't fan out, then only logic will help us. We must deduce from the facts we have, who the Eksers are."

The aliens do indeed take the form of helmets and are symbiotic:

Jukh grunted something. The gorilloid was too busy to talk, squatting where a pilot seat should have been, his big hands slapping control plates as he edged the ship into a hyperbolic path. BarkIakh, the helmet beast on his shoulders, who had no vocal cords of his own, waved a tentacle before he dipped it into the protective shaftlet to turn a delicate adjustment key. The other tentacle remained buried on its side of the gorilloid's massive neck, drawing nourishment from the bloodstream, receiving sensory impulses, and emitting the motor-nerve commands of a skilled space pilot.

At first the arrangement had looked vampirish to Torrance. But though the ancestors of the helmet beasts might once have been parasites on the ancestors of the gorilloids, they were so no longer. They were symbionts. They supplied the effective eyes and intellect, while the big animals supplied strength and hands. Neither species was good for much without the other; in combination, they were something rather special.

2
  • And the titular Van Rijn is a civilian, not a crew member, and initially appears to be a bombastic, alcoholic, not-so-bright character, before spotting everything that the others missed. Spot on - although looking through ISFDB I can't work out where I read it.
    – Michael
    Nov 6 '21 at 18:04
  • I would have sworn this was asked before, but I can't find it. Nice answer. Nov 6 '21 at 23:27
10

I think that is is almost certainly - maybe 99.99 percent - a Poul Anderson story which I read back in the 1960s. It might be part of a series about a specific character.

I think that it was a Nicholas van Rijn story, and searching through them at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database the title "Hiding Place", first published in Analog Science Fiction Science Fact, March 1961, stands out to me.

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?3

And I see that the only time it was reprinted before I could have read it was in Anderson's Trader to the Stars collection.

Here is a link to pictures of some of the covers of magazines and books which included "Hiding Place":

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/titlecovers.cgi?55496

And this review says that "Hiding Place" is the story I remember as being very similar to the story you asked about:

http://variety-sf.blogspot.com/2009/09/poul-anderson-hiding-place-novelette.html

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