Venus Trap
by Robert Silverberg

They brought it to me, of course. I’m the head of this outfit, since they have the idea I’m a diplomat, and so they brought it to me.

It started in my office; I’m the Terran attaché to the Venusian Embassy in New York—the catch being that the Venusians don’t know that a fellow named Mart Robinson is attached to them.

My job, mostly, is simply to sit around and keep an eye on our blue-skinned brothers from space, and make sure they’re only double-crossing us and not pulling a triple cross. Which, knowing them, I consider altogether likely at any time.

The Venusian Embassy is a tall, imposing building in midtown Manhattan. It looks just like every other office building in the midtown section. The only difference is that you can get inside any of the other office buildings without much trouble. No Earthman has entered the Venusian Embassy since the day the Treaty was signed, and the windows are pleasantly opaque.

No Earthman except one, that is. His name was Hilary Bowie, and he was a short, sad-looking, washed-out little fellow with an uncommon faculty for getting into places he wasn’t expected to get into. He, and he alone, was my pipeline into the Venusian Embassy.

He walked into my office, carrying a fairly large, ominous-looking wooden box, and having a hard time of it. He sat it down in front of me, and let me contemplate it unopened for a couple of minutes. “A present for Daddy,” he said. He smiled. Somehow Hilary Bowie’s smile has a way of making me feel even gloomier.

I looked at the box. It was about two feet long, about the same high, and had airholes punched in it. “You bring me a pet?”

Hilary nodded. “A cute one,” he said. “Real cute.” He tapped the box, and I heard an unpleasant scrabbling sound come from within. It sounded like an army of crabs.

“Cut the suspense,” I told him. “I’m busy, Hilary. There’s a new Treaty revision coming up next month and I have to—”

“Sure,” Hilary said, and he smiled again. He’s got a smile that makes a person feel like crying. “But you’re going to have to write a different kind of treaty when you see what I’ve got here.” He shivered. “Now that I look back, I don’t see how I got the thing out of the building.”

But now I was starting to get impatient, but I didn’t dare open the box. “Go ahead,” I urged. “Show the damned thing to me, will you?”

“Get me a bird cage,” he said blandly.

What?”

“All right, so don’t get me a bird cage.” He reached for the lid of the box.

“Hold it,” I said nervously. I flipped on my intercom, with none too steady fingers.

“Cindy? I want a bird cage, on the double. About two feet high, and I want it here in five minutes, if not sooner. That’s all.”

“Yes, Mr. Robinson,” she said, sounding more than a little puzzled. I could imagine some vivid cursing going on in the outer office, but I knew she’d get the bird cage.

And sure enough, she did. That’s what I like so much about this job: when I say something, they hop. She walked into my office about three minutes later, clutching a great big gleaming bird cage in her lovely milk-white hand.

“Here you are, sir,” she said coolly, as if digging up bird cages on a moment’s notice were part of her everyday routine.

“Good girl. Just put it on the desk.” She looked queerly at Hilary’s canon for a moment and left. As she went out she shrugged her shoulders, making sure I caught the gesture. Hilary has never impressed the rest of my staff much, but he’s worth his weight in plutonium to me.

“There’s your bird cage,” I said. “Now show me.” I glanced at my watch. Hilary had used up fifteen minutes of valuable time, and I had sixty-two different projects on the line with the brass upstairs breathing on my neck about all of them.

“Here you are, Mart. A little bit of poultry I picked up while visiting the Embassy this morning. As far as I know, they haven’t missed it yet.”

He leaned the box up near the open door of the bird cage and gingerly slid the lid off. There was a flutter of snow-white wings, and then I heard the door of the bird cage clang shut in a hurry.

I stared at the creature inside. A good ten seconds passed, and I just stared.

“All right, Hilary. You’ve hit the jackpot. What is it?”

“Can’t you tell, Mark? It’s plain as day, of course. It’s a pigeon.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “A pigeon! I should have seen it immediately, beyond any doubt. But,” I asked, “where’d it get that extra head? And what about those talons?”

“That’s your problem, my friend,” Hilary said. It sure was. I stared glumly at the weird-looking thing in the bird cage.

Underneath it all, I could see now, there was a pigeon—an ordinary, perfectly conventional, harmless little fan-tail. But someone or something had redesigned this pigeon drastically.

Each of its two heads ended in a razor-sharp beak. Its legs were sturdy things tipped with claws like steel knives. Its four eyes were beady, bright, and, I thought, unnaturally intelligent. This particular pigeon had been converted into a pretty deadly sort of fighting machine. I gestured out the window at the gleaming, opaque-windowed, unapproachable Venusian Embassy.

“I suppose you got this little pet over there?”

“I did,” Hilary said. “I found him in a laboratory on—let me see—the forty-second floor. No, the forty-third. It was the devil’s own job getting him out, too, but I figured you’d like to have a look.

There were some other cuties in there too. A six-legged cat, a dog with three heads—an honest-to-God Cerberus—another cat with the damnedest mouthful of teeth you’d want to see, each one about six inches long and sharp as needles. They have a whole laboratory, filled with these pretty beasts.”

“Each one having the basic form of some common Terran animal,” I said.

“Right. They’ve taken our animals and built them into things like this.” He pointed to the bird cage. Just then the intercom buzzed.

“What is it, Cindy?”

“Mr. Garvey to see you, sir.”

I frowned. Garvey was a scientist in government service. He also happened to be my sister’s husband, and he felt that gave him some claim on my time. He had made a habit of dropping in on me every time he had some hair-brained project that he thought could use my political influence.

“Tell him I’m in conference, Cindy,” I said, watching the ex-pigeon making ferocious attempts to escape its cage and start slicing us up. “Tell him I can see him in a while, and he can wait if he’s in no hurry.”

“Yes, Mr. Robinson.”

I turned back to Bowie. “Look, Hilary. You say the Venusians are playing around with Earth animals?”

“That’s my guess, Mart. You know how shrewd they are at genetics. I guess this represents one of their little experiments.”

“You don’t have any notion why they’re doing this?” I asked.

“Not the slightest,” Hilary said. “For the sheer love of pure science, I suppose. Doesn’t that sound likely?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Real likely.”

I got up and walked to the window and stared out. My office faced the Embassy Building, and that gave me ample opportunity to spend long hours staring out, wondering what the hell was going on behind its opaque windows.

Earth had been on more-or-less friendly terms with Venus for nearly fifteen years, which meant we had an Embassy up there and they had one down here, and that was the size of it. It was an uneasy sort of friendship, with not much warmth about it. We were both somewhat scared—hell, scared stiff—of the Martian Combine, and the Earth-Venus alliance was one of pure convenience. Though we didn’t admit it publicly, of course.

The Venusians were fairly well humanoid, if you don’t mind the blue skin and the extra set of arms. But we didn’t trust them too much; they weren’t, after all, human, and you can never tell what an extraterrestrial will do next.

That unpleasant but painfully true fact explains why I had a job. Someone had to watch the Venusians; and I did, or tried to. I had a carefully-nurtured spy-system (consisting mostly of Hilary Bowie), and I had some contacts here and there who—well, there’s no point going into details which might better well be kept out of the open.

But there was a revision of the Earth-Venus treaty coming up next month, and I had been warned from upstairs to keep a double patrol out. Before we committed ourselves to yet another alliance with Venus, we wanted to make thoroughly sure that we weren’t tying ourselves into knots. The Venusians were too shifty to go signing peace treaties just like that.

And now this.

“You know the scoop on this, don’t you?” I asked. “If we don’t find out just what the hell is going on in that building, and stop it before that treaty gets signed, we may find that we’ve handed Earth over to the Venusians on a stainless-steel platter.”

Hilary nodded. “I’ll be in there digging, Chief. Meantime you can keep the pet.”

“Thanks,” I said. I buzzed Cindy. “Send in Mr. Garvey, will you, dear?”

As Garvey entered, I surreptitiously slipped the bird cage down out of view behind my desk. I didn’t want him to see it just yet.

“Hello, Frank,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”

“Just thought I’d drop in to see how business was going,” Garvey said cheerily. There are times when I wonder what Jackie sees in that utter fathead; but she never questions my tastes in women, and so I keep from venturing my opinions on her husband.

He took a package from under his coat. I couldn’t resist a quiver when he did that; after Hilary’s visit, I was half expecting Garvey to produce a six-headed leapfrog or something like that.

“I’ve been doing some experiments. Mart. I thought you’d like a sample.” He unpacked the little box. I watched, more nervously than usual.

And he drew out the biggest tomato you ever want to see. Pretty near the size of a melon.

I’m afraid I looked at him awfully impatiently. “Say, Frank—”

“Just a minute, Mart. Take a look at this tomato. Big, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “So what?” I glanced at my watch.

He grinned. “It’s mine; I grew it.”

“Didn’t know you were a farmer Prank! A new sideline?”

“I grew this in my lab, Mart, I told you I’d been dabbling with hydroponics.” He held the thing out proudly. “Ever see one that big?”

“What did you do to it?” I asked. “Blow it up with hot air?”

Garvey looked hurt. “You never take my work seriously, do you? This tomato’s been treated with a growth hormone I’ve developed—an improved auxin.”

“I thought oxen pulled plows.”

“Very funny. For your information, auxin happens to be a well-known scientific term for the group of hormones that induce growth in plants. It’s a relatively simple hydrocarbon, and has been commercially available for years as beta-indolyl acetic acid. But I’ve been working on a sort of super-auxin that puts the old stuff to shame.”

He held out the tomato for my inspection. I hefted it in my hand. It was big all right.

“That was produced with a one-in-two-thousand concentration of my new drug, Mart! If I’d wanted to I could have grown a tomato the size of a watermelon! The size of a cow! But—”

Here comes the catch, I thought.

“My appropriation’s been cut off,” he said sadly. “And Jackie thought, if I saw you, perhaps you could—”

“—get you some money for experiments,” I completed. I started to say no, then stopped. Bluntness is wasted on him.

“I thought we might go partners on the deal,” he said timidly. “It has great commercial possibilities.”

“Let me think about it a while,” I said. “Sounds good.”

Suddenly he was all gratitude. “Would you, Mart? It—”

I quieted him with a gesture. “I’ve got something more on my mind than big tomatoes, Frank. What do you think of this baby?” I reached down and lifted the bird cage into view.

He stared silently for almost a minute. “Venusian?” he said at length.

“Partially,” I said.

“It was a pigeon once,” Garvey said. “I mean, is it the Venusians who—oh, it has to be. There’s not a geneticist on Earth who could produce a creature like that.”

“You’re sure of that, Frank?”

“It’s my field, isn’t it? That pigeon’s been genetically manipulated by experts, and I mean experts. The Venusians have forgotten more about genes and chromosomes than we’ve ever learned. I’d stake my reputation as a geneticist that that bird’s a Venusian product.”

I nodded. For once I took him seriously. Frank may be a featherhead in many ways, but I trust anything he says professionally.

“Any opinions?” I asked.

“That’s your job, isn’t it? All I can tell you is that he’s been manipulated, and a damned good job of it.” He leaned over and whispered confidentially. “Tell me—have you people made any progress in combing genetic techniques out of the blueskins? They know more about genetic engineering than—”

“I know,” I said. We’d been trying frantically to steal genetic info from the Venusians, but we hadn’t been half so successful as they had in lifting our atomics knowledge. “Do you think this thing will breed true?” I asked.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Garvey. “I’m sure he’s a genetic mutation, not a mere phenotype alteration. Nasty-looking thing, isn’t it?”

I nodded. “It’s a nasty business, Frank.” I stood up, and started to shoo him out. “Try me on that tomato deal soon, will you?”

“Sure, Mart, sure. I don’t want to interrupt anything—”

“And give my best to Jackie, and, uh, drop around sometime soon, huh?”

“Sure thing,” he said, as I nudged him through the door.

The brass reacted as expected. I took the bird to Pitman, my immediate superior, and spent about half an hour explaining the meaning of genetic manipulation—no easy job, since for one thing explaining things to Pitman is a task for a supergenius and for another I’m pretty vague myself about genes and chromosomes.

His reaction was a simple and predictable one.

“This looks dangerous to me, Robinson. I’d suggest you let Colonel Kennerly have a look at it before we go any further.”

Kennerly bounced me up to Madison, and Madison sent me on to the Chief. I half expected him to refer me to the Archangel Gabriel, or someone, but he didn’t.

“You say your men saw dozens of these experiments being carried on in the Embassy?” the Chief asked, his thin lips set in a grim mask.

I nodded.

“Hmmm. This looks dangerous to me, Robinson. Put a stop to it before the treaty’s signed.”

He looked at me with that what’s-the-matter-you-need-an-engraved-invitation? gleam in his eye, and I got out of there in a hurry.

Put a stop to it.

Sure. Walk into the Venusian Embassy, which is so bottled up that not even the Chief could get in there, and demand that they cut out their genetic monkeyshines. I could just see it now.

I pictured myself staring up at some big blueskin and saying pompously, “One of my spies has found out about your nefarious doings. On behalf of my government, I demand you, Bring These Activities to a Halt or else.”