Neat concept, but less fun than it could have been. May be shorter text would have worked better.
Story summary.You are in a zoo that has collected animals from multiple worlds - each in a cage with its own air, temperature, & other environmental aspects; many with completely different body chemistry. You know exactly one of these is not only a sentient species, but are crew of a spaceship only they can pilot & on which you must have a ride. Story is primarily about unraveling the puzzle to identify the sentients.
Zoo in question is inside a spaceship - an alien spaceship going home after capturing or otherwise collecting animals from many worlds.
This alien ship was forcibly boarded by the crew of a far more technologically advanced human ship with a wrecked FTL engine. Aliens have no desire to meet humans, let alone give them a ride - hence forcible boarding. Because a human pirate gang ("Adderkops") had been wrecking worlds around aliens' home, though they'd never before directly met pirates.
OK - so aliens recognize humans, but not the other way round. Before humans could board, aliens destroyed all clues to their shape - like furniture, drained their ship's atmosphere, set autopilot on course to their world, & have put themselves in one of many zoo cages (which retain world specific atmospheres)! Ship's instrument panels do contain clues, but none of the animals in the zoo seem fit to operate these controls!
Nicholas van Rijn, the brainy playboy merchant owner of human boarding ship will eventually solve the puzzle & work out an amiable deal with aliens.
- Jack Vance's "Meet Miss Universe": Another, & funny, story that features a veritable zoo of many kinds of aliens - only it's not a zoo, but beauty contest! Cross-galaxy beauty contest among species that don't even necessarily share the idea of "female", let alone agree on the what is beautiful!
Fact sheet.First published: Analog, March 1961.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.
Related: Stories of Poul Anderson.