Yokel with Portfolio
by Robert Silverberg

It was just one of those coincidences that brought Kalainnen to Terra the very week that the bruug escaped from the New York Zoo. Since Kalainnen was the first Traskan to come to Terra in over a century, and since the bruug had lived peacefully in the zoo for all of the three or four hundred years or more since it had been brought there from outer space, the odds were greatly against the two events coinciding. But they did.

Kalainnen, never having been on a world more complex than the agrarian backwater of civilization that was his native Trask, was considerably astonished at his first sight of gleaming towers of New York, and stood open-mouthed at the landing depot, battered suitcase in hand, while the other passengers from his ship (Runfoot, Procyon-Rigel-Alpha-Centauri-Sol third-rate runner) flocked past him to waiting friends and relatives. In a very short time the depot was cleared, except for Kalainnen and a tall young Terran who had been waiting for someone, and who seemed evidently troubled.

He walked up to Kalainnen. “I’m from the Globe,” the young man said, looking down at him. “I was told there was an alien from Trask coming in on this ship, and I’m here to interview him. Sort of a feature angle—weird monster from a planet no one knows very much about. Know where I can find him?”

The young Terran’s hair was long and green. Kalainnen felt acutely aware of his own close-cropped, undyed hair. No one had warned him about Terran fashions, and he was beginning to realize that he was going to be terribly out of style here.

“I am from Trask,” Kalainnen said. “Can I help you?”

“Are you the one who came in just now? Impossible!”

Kalainnen frowned. “I assure you, sir, I am. I just arrived this very minute, from Trask.”

“But you look perfectly ordinary,” said the reporter, consulting some scribbled notes. “I was told that Traskans were reptiles, sort of like dinosaurs but smaller. Are you sure you’re from Trask? Procyon IV, that is.”

“So that’s it,” Kalainnen said. “You’re mistaken, young man. The inhabitants of Procyon IV are reptiles, all right, in more ways than one. But that’s Quange. Trask is Procyon of Terran descent; the Traskans are not aliens but from Terra. We were settled in—”

“That doesn’t matter,” said the reporter, closing his notebook. “No news in you. Reptiles would be different. Hope you enjoy your stay.”

He walked away, leaving Kalainnen alone in the depot. It had not been exactly a promising introduction to Terra, so far. And he hadn’t even had a chance to ask for anything yet.

He checked out of the depot, passed through customs without much difficulty (the only problem was explaining where and what Trask was; the planet wasn’t listed in the Registry any more) and headed out into the busy street.

It made him sick.

There were shining autos buzzing by, and slick little copters, and hordes of tall people in plastiline tunics, their hair dyed in fanciful colors, heading for unknown destinations at awesome speed. The pavement was a deep golden-red, while the buildings radiated soft bluish tones. It was not at all like Trask, quiet, peaceful Trask. For an unhappy moment Kalainnen wondered whether the best thing for Trask would not be for him to turn around and take the next liner back; did he really want to turn it into another Terra? But no: the technology of Trask had fallen centuries behind that of the rest of the galaxy’s, and he had come for aid. Trask had been virtually forgotten by Terra and was stagnating, off in its corner of the sky. Kalainnen’s mission was vital to Trask’s continued existence.

Before he left they had dressed him in what they thought were the latest Terran styles and cropped his hair in approved fashion. But, as he walked through the crowded streets of the metropolis, it became more and more apparent that they were centuries behind in dress, as well. He was hopelessly out of date.

“Yokel!” called a high, childish voice. “Look at the yokel!” Kalainnen glanced up and saw a small boy pointing at him and giggling. A woman with him—his mother, probably—seized him roughly by the wrist and pulled him along, telling him to hush. But Kalainnen could see on her face a surreptitious smile, as if she agreed with the boy’s derision.

The rest of the walk was a nightmare of snickers and open laughs. Even the occasional alien he saw seemed to be sneering at him, Kalainnen trudged along, feeling horridly short and dumpy-looking, regretting his old-fashioned clothes and close-cut hair and battered suitcase, and regretting the whole foolish journey. Finally he found the address he was heading for—a hotel for transient aliens—and checked in.

The hotel had facilities for all sorts of monstrosities, but, since Trask was an Earth-type planet, he accepted one of the ordinary rooms, and sank gratefully down on a pneumochair.

“Hello,” said the chair. “Welcome to Terra.”

Kalainnen leaped up in fright and looked around the room. There was no one else present. Probably some sort of advertising stunt, he concluded. Piped in from above. He sat down again in relief.

“Hello,” said the chair. “Welcome to Terra.”

He frowned. How often were they going to welcome him? He looked around the room for the loudspeaker, hoping to find it and rip it out. There was no sign of one. He sat down again.

“Hello,” the chair said a third time. “Welcome to Terra.”

“So that’s it!” Kalainnen said, looking at the chair. He wondered if every chair in the hotel spoke to its extraterrestrial occupant, and, if so, how long the occupants could stand it.

Pressing gingerly on the seat of the pneumochair revealed that the voice was activated by weight. He dropped his suitcase heavily on the chair, ignoring the fourth welcome, and sat carefully on the edge of the bed, waiting for chimes or some other sign of welcome. Nothing was forthcoming. He leaned back, and rested.

Tomorrow he would have to try to get an audience with the Colonial Minister, in hopes of arranging some sort of technical-assistance program for Trask. But now, he thought, as he swung his legs up and got under the covers, the first thing was to get some sleep. Terra was a cold and unfriendly world, and his appearance was not calculated to win him any friends. He would rest. The bed was much too soft, and he longed for the simple life on Trask.

Just as he began to drop off into sleep, a sudden and powerful buzzing noise jolted him out of bed.

Astonished, he looked around, wondering what the buzzing meant. It was repeated, and this time he realized it was a signal that someone was at the door. A visitor, so soon? There were no other Traskans on Terra; of that, he was fairly certain.

After a moment’s confusion with the photo-electric device that controlled the door, he got it open. The green, reptilian face of a Quangen stared blandly up at him.

* * *

“Oh,” the Quangen said. “They told me someone was here from the Procyon system, and I was sort of hoping—”

“Yes,” said Kalainnen. “I know. You were hoping I was from your planet, not mine. Sorry to disappoint you. Anything else I can do for you?” He stared at the Quangen coldly. Little love was lost between the neighboring planets.

“You needn’t be so inhospitable, friend,” said the Quangen. “Our peoples are not the best of friends at home, but we’re almost brothers this far from Procyon.”

The Quangen was right, Kalainnen conceded to himself. Poor company was better than none at all, anyway.

“You’re right. Come on in,” he said. The Quangen nodded his head—the equivalent of a smile—and stomped in, flicking his tail agilely over his shoulder to prevent it from being caught in the door.

“What brings you to Terra?” said the Quangen.

“I might ask the same of you,” Kalainnen said.

“You can, if you want too,” said the reptile. “Look, fellow: I told you before, maybe our planets don’t get along too well, but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t. I see no harm in telling you that I’m here on a technical-aid mission. It’s about time Quange caught up with the rest of the galaxy. I’ll bet that’s why you’re here, too.”

Kalainnen debated for a moment and then decided there was no reason why he shouldn’t admit it.

“You’re right,” he said. “I have an appointment with the Colonial Minister for tomorrow.” It wasn’t quite the truth—he was only going to try to get an appointment the next day—but an old Traskan proverb warns against being too honest with Quangens.

“Oh, you do, eh?” said the Quangen, twirling the prehensile tip of his tail around his throat in an expression of, Kalainnen knew, amusement. “That’s very interesting. I’ve been waiting two years and I haven’t even come close to him. How do you rate such quick service?” He looked meaningfully at Kalainnen, flicking his tail from side to side.

“Well,” said Kalainnen, nearly sitting down in the chair and avoiding it at the last moment, “well—”

“I know,” said the Quangen. “You can’t help being a Traskan, even on Terra. I’ll forgive you. But you don’t really have an appointment tomorrow, do you?”

“No,” Kalainnen said. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t even applied yet. I just got here.”

“I thought so,” the reptile said. “In two years I’ve gotten as far as the First Assistant Undersecretary. The Colonial Minister is a very busy man, and there are more outworld planets than you can imagine. I’ve been living here. The hotel’s full of outworlders like us who are stuck here waiting to see some bureaucrat or other. I’ll introduce you around tomorrow. After two years it’s good to see someone from the same system.”

Kalainnen frowned. They hadn’t told him the mission might go on and on for a matter of years. As it was, a single afternoon on Terra had been a profoundly distressing experience. And two years?

“By the way,” the Quangen said. “There’s one little feature of the furniture here that must be bothering you. We more experienced hands know how to circumvent it.” He extended his tail under the seat of the pneumochair, explored the insides of the chair for a moment, and then pulled his tail out quickly. An abortive “Hello, welcome to—” started out of the chair and died.

“Sit down,” the Quangen said. Kalainnen did, The chair was silent.

“Thank you,” Kalainnen said. “The chair was bothering me.”

“It won’t any longer,” said the Quangen. “I’m Hork Frandel, by the way.”

“My name’s Kalainnen,” Kalainnen said. He stared glumly out the window. “What’s that box over there?” he said.

“The video,” Frandel explained. “Put a quarter in the slot and it plays. It’s entertaining, but it’s one aspect of Terran technology I’d just as soon not bring back to Quange. You may like it, of course.”

“I don’t have any coins,” Kalainnen said. “All I have is Galactic Traveler’s Checks.”

“Allow me,” said the Quangen. He reached into his upper hip pocket with his tail and withdrew a small coin, which he inserted in the appropriate slot. The video flickered and came to life.

“The big news of the day!” said a deep, robust voice, and the screen showed a fleeing multitude, “All New York is in terror today. For the first time in over a century, a dangerous alien beast has escaped from New York’s famed Zoological Gardens and is roaming the city.” The camera showed a deserted cage.

The scene cut to a very scientific-looking office and the camera focused on a dapper man with extravagant mustaches. “I’m Carlson,” he said, “head of the zoo. We’re unable to account for the escape. The animal lived here peacefully for centuries. It’s something like an ape, something like a tiger. Eats anything. Completely indestructible, perhaps immortal, hitherto quite docile though frightening-looking. Skin like stone, but flexible. Origin is somewhere on one of the smaller outworlds; unfortunately our records have been misfiled and we’re not sure exactly where the animal comes from. My guess is Rigel II, possibly Alpheraz VI.” He smiled, doing impossible things with his mustaches, and radiating an aura of complete confidence.

“We’re taking all possible steps for the beast’s recapture; meantime DO NOT PANIC, but avoid unnecessary going out.”

Kalainnen looked at the Quangen, who looked back balefully.

“Things like this happen all the time?” Kalainnen asked.

“Not too often,” Frandel said. He looked boredly at the screen, which was showing shots of some incomprehensible sporting event, apparently having lost interest in the escaped animal. He glanced at his watch—Kalainnen noted how incongrous the Terran-type watch seemed against the Quangen’s scaly skin—and got up.

“I’ve got to be moving on,” he said. “But maybe I’ll see you at the Colonial Ministry tomorrow, if it’s safe to go out. I’ve got an appointment to ask for an appointment.” The Quangen grinned, waved his tail in salute, and left.

* * *

Kalainnen watched the video until the time Frandel had bought for him expired. The camera had gone to another office, the mayor’s, and he was discussing the situation. The plans being concocted for capture of the beast were growing more and more elaborate as the minutes went on; the animal had taken up headquarters in an office building (hastily evacuated) and Terran police had established a cordon around the building, with heavy artillery trained on the entrance waiting for the animal to appear. Kalainnen wondered what the point of using artillery on an indestructible beast was, but the mayor did not dwell on the point.

Suggestions offered by various authorities over the video included flooding the building with radiation, building a steel wall around the edifice, and bombing the whole area. Erecting the wall seemed the only solution of any value, but there was always the consideration that the hungry animal might appear before the wall was finished, causing all sorts of difficulties. Kalainnen had no coins, and so he climbed into the too-soft bed and, after a while, fell asleep, pondering the state of affairs.

The next morning he went down to the Colonial Ministry. Since the animal was, at least in theory, under control, people were going about business as usual, but they were moving quickly and cautiously through the streets as if they expected to be devoured at any instant.

It was not difficult to find the Ministry—it was one of the biggest of a great many immense buildings. But it was crowded. There were colonists of all shapes and sizes pleading their various cases. Lines of outworlders extended in all directions—humans, humanoids, and grotesque total-aliens wearing protective devices of great complexity. Besides those on line, many more milled around aimlessly, apparently too confused and too deafened by the enormous hubbub to do anything else. Kalainnen could see now why the Quangen had got no farther than a First Assistant Undersecretary in two years.