Robert Sheckley

Sarkanger

Richard Gregor and Frank Arnold sat in the offices of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Corporation filling in the long slow time between customers. Gregor, tall, thin, and lachrymose, was playing a complicated game of solitaire. Arnold, short and plump, with thinning canary yellow hair and china blue eyes, was watching an old Fred Astaire movie on a small TV.

Then, miracle of miracles, a customer walked in.

He was a Sarkanger, a weasel-headed alien from Sarkan II. He was dressed in a white lounge suit and carried an expensive briefcase.

"I have a planet that needs exterminating," the Sarkanger said.

"You've come to the right place," Arnold said. "What seems to be the matter?"

"It's the Meegs," the Sarkanger told him. "We tolerated them as long as they stayed in their burrows. But now they are attacking our saunicus and something must be done."

"What are these Meegs?" Gregor asked.

"They are small, ugly creatures of low intelligence with long claws and matted fur."

"And what is saunicus?"

"The saunicus is a leafy green vegetable not unlike your terrestrial cabbage. It is the sole diet of the Sarkangers."

"And now the Meegs are eating your vegetables?"

"Not eating them. Mutilating them. Wantonly destroying them."

"For what reason?"

"Who can understand why a Meeg does anything?"

"True enough," Arnold said, laughing. "Yes sir, that's certainly true! Well, sir, I think we can help you. There's really only one problem."

Gregor gave his partner a look of alarm.

"The question is," Arnold said, "whether we can fit you into our schedule."

He opened his appointment book. The pages were crowded with names and dates which Arnold had written in hoping for just such a chance as this.

"That's a bit of luck," he said. "We have an open slot this weekend. All we need do is arrange the fee and be on our way. I have our standard contract form right here."

"I have brought my own," the Sarkanger said, taking a document from his briefcase and giving it to Arnold. "You will notice that a very substantial fee is already filled in."

"Why yes," Arnold said, signing with a flourish, "I did notice that."

Gregor studied the paper. "You've also doubled the penalty clause in case of failure to complete our work."

"That's why I made the fee so substantial," the Sarkanger said. "We need results now, before the end of the planting season."

Gregor didn't like it. But his partner gave him a hard look compounded of unpaid bills and overdue bank loans. With reluctance Gregor scribbled his signature.

Four days later their ship popped out of subspace in the vicinity of the red dwarf star Sarkan. A few hours later they had landed on Sarkan II, home of the Sarkangers and their pests, the Meegs.

There was no one to greet them at Sarkan's largest city, Sulkers. The entire population had gone to the satellite Ulvis Minor for a vacation, at considerable expense despite mass bookings, to wait in gaily colored cabanas until their planet was cleansed.

The partners toured Sulkers and were unimpressed by the mud wall architecture. They set up their base camp outside of the city, on the edge of a saunicus field. Just as the Sarkanger had told them, many of the cabbages had been rended, ripped, slashed, filleted, and generally messed about.

They would begin exterminating in the morning. Arnold had discovered that Meegs were susceptible to papayin, an enzyme of the papaya plant. Exposed to concentrations as low as twenty parts in a million, Meegs went into a coma from which they could be revived only by the immediate application of cold compresses. It was not a bad way to go when you consider the many less pleasant ways the galaxy has for killing people. They had brought a sufficient supply of canned, fresh, frozen, and desiccated papayas to wipe out several planetfuls of Meegs.

They set up tents and deck chairs, built a campfire, and watched Sarkan's red dwarf sun sink into a sculptured frieze of sunset clouds.

They had just finished a dinner of reconstituted chili and beans when they heard a rustling sound in the bushes nearby. A small creature stepped out cautiously. It was about the size and shape of a cat, with thick orange-brown fur.

Gregor said to Arnold, "Do you think that might be a Meeg?"

The creature said, "Of course I am a Meeg. And you gentlemen are the AAA Ace Decontamination Service?"

"That is correct," Gregor said.

"Wonderful! Then you've come about the Sarkangers!"

"Not exactly," Arnold said.

"You mean you didn't get our letter? I knew we should have sent it spacemail special delivery… But why are you here?"

"This is a little embarrassing," Gregor said. "We didn't know you Meegs spoke English."

"Not all of us do," the Meeg said. "But I happen to be a graduate of your Cornell University."

"Look," Gregor said, "the fact is, a Sarkanger came to our office a few days ago and paid us to rid his planet of vermin."

"Vermin?" the Meeg said. "What was he referring to?"

"You," Arnold said.

"Me? Us? Vermin? A Sarkanger called us that? I know we've had our disagreements, but that's carrying matters a bit too far. And he paid you to kill us? And you took his money?"

"Frankly," Arnold said, "we had expected Meegs to be more rudimentary. More verminlike, if you know what I mean."

"But this is preposterous!" the Meeg cried. "They are the vermin! We are civilized!"

"I'm not so sure about that," Gregor said. "What about the way you tear apart saunicus?"

"You should not comment ignorantly on the religious practices of an alien people."

"What's religious about rending cabbage?" Arnold demanded.

"It's not the act itself," the Meeg explained. "It's the meaning attached to it. Ever since Meeg Gh'tan, known as the Great Feline, discovered supreme enlightenment in the simple act of shredding cabbage, we his followers reenact the rite every year."

"But you tear apart the Sarkangers' cabbages," Gregor pointed out. "Why not tear apart your own?"

"The Sarkangers refuse to let us cultivate the saunicus because of some silly religion they have. Of course we'd prefer to tear apart our own cabbages. Wouldn't anyone?"

"The Sarkangers didn't mention that," Arnold said.

"Puts matters in a different light, doesn't it?"

"It doesn't change the fact that we have a contract with the Sarkangers."

"A contract for murder!"

"I understand how you feel," Arnold said, "and I do sympathize. But you see, if we don't fulfill our contract, it will mean bankruptcy for us. That's a kind of death, too, you know."

"Suppose," the Meeg said, "we Meegs were to offer you a new contract?"

"We have a prior agreement with the Sarkangers," Gregor said. "It wouldn't be legal."

"It would be perfectly legal in any Meeg court," the Meeg said. "A basic principle of Meeg jurisprudence is that no contract with a Sarkanger is binding."

"My partner and I will have to think about it," Arnold said. "It's a difficult position."

"I appreciate that," the Meeg said. "I'll give you a change to think it over. Just remember that the Sarkangers deserve to be exterminated and that you'll make a handsome profit as well as earning the undying gratitude of a race of intelligent and not, I think, unlikable cats."

After the Meeg had left, Gregor said, "Let's just get out of here. This is not a very nice business."

"We can't just up and leave," Arnold said. "Non-fulfillment of contract is a serious matter. We're going to have to exterminate one race or the other."

"I won't do it," Gregor said.

"You don't seem to understand our extremely precarious legal position," Arnold told him. "The courts will crucify us if we don't wipe out the Meegs as we promised. But if we exterminate the Sarkangers we could at least claim an honest mistake."

"It's morally complicated," Gregor said. "I don't like problems like that."

"It gets even more complicated," a voice said behind them.

Arnold jumped as though touched by an electric wire. Gregor went into a state of frozen immobility.

"I'm over here," the voice said.

They looked around. There was nobody there. Only a large saunicus cabbage on the ground all by itself at the edge of their camp. Somehow this saunicus looked more intelligent than most of the ones they had seen. But could it have spoken?

"Yes, yes," said the saunicus. "I spoke to you. Telepathically, of course, since vegetables — in whose family I am proud to consider myself a member — have no organs of articulation."

"But vegetables can't telepathize," Arnold said. "They have no brains or other organs to telepathize with. Excuse me, I don't mean to be offensive."

"We don't need organs," the saunicus said. "Don't you know that all matter with a sufficiently complex degree of organization possesses intelligence? Communication is the inevitable concomitant of intelligence. Only the higher vegetables such as myself can telepathize. Saunicus intelligence is being studied at your Harvard University. We have even applied for observer status at your United Planets. Under the circumstances, I think we should have a say in this matter of who gets exterminated."

"True, it's only fair," Gregor said. "After all, it's you the Meegs and the Sarkangers are fighting over."

"To be more precise," the saunicus said, "they are fighting over which race will have the exclusive right to rend, tear, and mutilate us. Or d ...

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