Robert Sheckley

Squirrel Cage

"The most beautiful farmland in the Galaxy—ruined!" the Seerian moaned. He was seven feet tall and colored a deep blue. Large tears rolled out of the lubricating duct on his neck and stained his expensive shirt. For fifteen minutes, he had been mumbling incoherently about his ruined farmland.

"Calm yourself, sir," Richard Gregor said, sitting erect and alert behind his ancient walnut desk. "The AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service can solve your problem for you."

"Could you tell us the nature of that problem, sir?" Arnold asked.

The Seerian was still choked with emotion. He dried his lubrication duct with a large handkerchief and stared earnestly at the two partners.

"Ruin!" he cried. 'That's what I'm facing! The most beautiful farmland—"

"We understand, sir," Gregor said. "But what sort of ruin?"

"I own a farm in Bitter Lug, on the planet Seer," the Seerian said, quieting down with an effort. "I've planted eight hundred mulgs of land with catter, mow and barney. It will sprout inside of a month and the slegs will eat it all. I'll be ruined, destroyed, wiped out—"

"Slegs?" Arnold repeated.

"Rats, you would call them, of the species Alphyx Drex." The lubrication duct became moist at the thought and the Seerian hastily wiped it. "This year, there has been an infestation of slegs. My land is overrun with them. I've tried everything, but they multiply faster than I can kill them. Gentlemen, I will be fairly wealthy if I can harvest this crop. I will pay well if you can get rid of these beasts."

"I'm sure we can accommodate you," Gregor said, "Of course, there'll have to be a preliminary investigation. We like to know what we're getting into."

"That's what the other companies told me," the Seerian answered bitterly, "There just isn't time. I've invested everything in seed. It'll sprout in a few weeks and the slegs will wipe me out. They must be destroyed before the crop comes through."

Gregor's long, bony face became unhappy. He was a conservative operator and he didn't enjoy doing business this way. Because of Arnold's cockiness, AAA Ace had a habit of signing contracts with impossible conditions. Gregor resented it, but it was what came of running a planetary decontamination service on a shoestring. So far, they had been lucky. They were even beginning to show a mild profit. He didn't want to jeopardize that now and the gleam in his partner's eye made him apprehensive.

The Seerian seemed honest enough; but you could never tell. For all Gregor knew, these slegs were ten feet tall and armed with blasters. Stranger things had happened to AAA Ace.

"Have you had any trouble from slegs in the past?" Gregor asked.

"Of course. But they were no more a problem than the flying hangs, or the skegels, or the rotting mulch disease. They were a normal farming hazard."

"Why should they increase now?"

"How should I know?" the Seerian retorted impatiently. "Do you want the job or not?"

"We certainly do," Arnold said, "and we can start—"

"My partner and I must hold a conference first," Gregor cut in, and pulled Arnold into the hall.

Arnold was short, chubby and incurably enthusiastic. His degree was in chemistry, but his interests lay everywhere. He had an enormous amount of odd information, culled from the several dozen technical journals he subscribed to, at considerable expense to AAA Ace.

For the most part, his knowledge was of little practical value. Few people cared why the natives of Deneb X were searching for an efficient method of racial suicide, or why nothing but winged life ever evolved on the Drei worlds.

Still, if you wanted to know, Arnold could tell you.

"I'd like to find out what we're getting into," Gregor said. "What is species Alphyx Drex?"

"They're rodents," Arnold answered promptly, "a little smaller than Earth rats and more timid. They're vegetarians, living on grains, grasses and soft woods. Nothing unusual about them."

"Hmm. Suppose we find ten million of them?"

"Fine."

"Oh, stop it!"

"I'm serious! If he wanted every one of fifty rats destroyed, I wouldn't take the job. We could spend the rest of our lives hunting down the last five or six. What the Seerian needs is to have the sleg population reduced to its usual pre-epidemic proportions. That we can do and our contract will so state."

Gregor nodded. His partner could—very occasionally—show good business sense.

"But can we control them in time?" he asked,

"Absolutely. There are several modern rodent-control methods. Morganizing is one good way and the Tournier System is another. Well be able to decimate the rat population in a matter of days."

"All right," Gregor said. "And we'll specify in the contract that we are dealing only with species Alphyx Drex. Then we'll know where we stand."

"Right."

They returned to the office. A contract was drawn up at once, giving AAA Ace a month to rid the farm of the greater number of its slegs. There was a bonus for every day before deadline that the work was completed, and forfeitures for every day past.

"I'm going on vacation until the whole thing is over," the Seerian said. "Do you really think you can save my crops?"

"Don't worry about it." Arnold assured him. "We have Morganizing equipment and we're taking Tournier System apparatus, just in case. Both are very effective."

"I know," the Seerian said. "I tried them. But perhaps I was doing something wrong. Good day and the very best of luck, gentlemen."

Gregor and Arnold stared at the door after the Seerian left.

The next day, they loaded their ship with a variety of manuals, poisons, traps and other equipment guaranteed to make life difficult for rodents, and blasted off for Seer.

After four days of uneventful travel, Seer was a bright green beneath them. They descended and the coastline of Bitter Lug came into view. Finally they pinpointed their coordinates and touched down.

Barney Spirit, as the Seerian's farm was called, was a pretty place, with its neatly plowed fields and grassy meadows. The ancient shade trees were black and stately against the evening sky and twilight made the little reservoir a deep and translucent blue.

The signs of neglect and rodent infestation were everywhere. The great lawns were eaten bare in patches and the trees were drooping and unkempt. Within the farmhouse, the marks of sleg teeth were on furniture, walls, even the big supporting beams.

"He's got his troubles, all right," Arnold said.

"We've got his troubles," Gregor corrected.

Their inspection of the farmhouse was accompanied by a continual squealing from slegs hiding just out of sight. As they approached a room, frantic scurryings began; but somehow the slegs vanished into their holes before the partners could see them.

It was too late to begin work, so Arnold and Gregor set up a variety of traps, to find out which would be most effective. They set up their sleeping bags and turned in.

Arnold could sleep through anything, but Gregor spent an extremely uncomfortable night. Battalions and regiments of slegs could be heard running across the floors, banging into tables, biting at the doors and careening off the walls. Just as he was dozing off, an adventurous trio of slegs scampered across his chest. He brushed them off, burrowed lower into his sleeping bag, and managed to catch a few hours of fitful sleep.

In the morning, they inspected their traps and found every one of them empty.

They spent the next few hours dragging the ponderous Morganizing equipment from the ship, assembling it and adjusting the trigger relays and lures. While Arnold was making the last fine adjustments, Gregor unloaded the Tournier System apparatus and ran the field wires around the farm house. They turned both on and sat back to await the slaughter.

Midday came; Seer's hot little sun hung directly overhead. The Morganizing equipment hummed and grumbled to itself. The Tournier wires flashed blue sparks.

Nothing happened.

The hours dragged by, Arnold read every available manual on rodent control. Gregor dug out a pack of tattered cards and morosely played solitaire. The equipment murmured and buzzed, exactly as its manufacturers guaranteed. Enough power was consumed to light a medium-sized village.

Not a single rodent corpse was produced.

By evening, it was apparent that slegs were not susceptible to Morganizing or Tournierizing. It was time for dinner and a conference.

"What could make them so elusive?" Gregor puzzled, sitting worriedly on a kitchen chair with a can of self-heating hash.

"A mutation," Arnold stated.

"Yeah, that could do it. Superior intelligence, adaptability…" Mechanically, Gregor ate his hash. All around the kitchen, he could hear the patter of countless little sleg feet, slipping in and out of holes, staying just out of sight.

Arnold opened an apple pie. "They must be a mutation, and a damned clever one. We'd better catch one quick and find out what we're up against."

But catching one was no easier than killing a thousand. The slegs stayed out of sight, ignoring traps, lures, snares and doped bait.

At midnight, Arnold said, "This is ridiculous."

Gregor nodded abstractedly. He was putting the finishing touches on a new trap. It was a large sheet metal box with two sides left invitingly open. If a sleg were foolish enough to enter, a photo-electric cell closed the sides with the speed of a lightning ...

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