Monday, November 24, 2014

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Bulletproof Squirrels

On the way home from dinner last night -- in a perfectly ordinary car, after eating at a perfectly ordinary restaurant; one must keep up appearances, after all -- we found a squirrel in the road. It had obviously been struck by a car, but it hadn't been killed outright. Instead, it was sort of dazed and staggering around.

My son is now twelve, and I fear he has grown a bit... sensitive. He asked me to save the poor beast. It was easy enough that I didn't mind indulging him, so I pulled a Collector from the trunk and sent it scuttling over on its spidery robotic legs. It unfolded its collecting unit, boxed the the squirrel up, and brought it back. Naturally, when we reached the house, my son took possession of the beast and carried it down to the secret lab.

I had meant to oversee his work, but my assistant, Cara stopped me on the way in. Apparently the Crypto-Zookeeper was having trouble with some sort of fungal outbreak. It didn't turn out to be terribly difficult to resolve, but these things do have a way of getting out of hand if you don't deal with them immediately. So it wasn't until a bit later that I was able to catch up with my son.

The squirrel had not only survived its experience, it was moving around and chittering quietly in a brand-new cage at one end of the Mortal Sciences Laboratory. My son was happy to see the beast restored to life, awareness, and energy; and for my part, I was pleased by the sophistication of the repairs he had made to it. Cybernetic limbs are tricky to manage on a human scale; for something the size of a squirrel, it requires a precisely calculated design, and delicate touch during the augmentation. He'd managed it, though: a tiny metal foreleg, fully articulated and under the beast's control (through a liquid crystal neural interface, he tells me; not terribly novel, but there's something to be said for using a classic approach, and the small scale was still impressive). He'd also reinforced the spine, using a nano-mesh sheath to hold everything together without any loss of flexibility.

I asked him why he hadn't gone for a full cybernetic conversion, and he said: "Well, then it wouldn't be cute and fluffy anymore." Definitely sensitive. He added some additional reasons, though: in its current condition, it could still live on its regular diet, it wouldn't have to re-learn balance and movement, and the odds of it going completely insane and trying to kill us were much lower. And I must admit, those are all valid points. It's just that I'm quite certain that for my son they ranked considerably lower than "cute and fluffy".

This would all be nothing more than an amusing anecdote, another milestone in my son's development that I could chuckle over with my colleagues and perhaps even share with the boy's mother, except... Well, one of the neighbors stopped me yesterday. (I was collecting the mail, and she was walking her dog.) She asked me if I'd been having any trouble with, yes, squirrels. I explained that I had not, and asked after what sorts of troubles she had in mind. She told me that a squirrel had chewed its way into her attic, but apparently she was far from the only one having difficulty with them.

Our neighborhood, it seems, has been infested with a new and hardy breed of squirrels. They're every bit as fast and agile as regular squirrels, or close enough; but they've begun to chew through vinyl siding, sheets of tin, and one of those metal no-kill cages that our local Animal Services department loans out to people who need to get rid of pests. One neighbor, a fellow up the street, swears that he ran over one of the animals -- it darted out in front of his car, as squirrels sometimes do -- and it shrugged off the impact, bit clean through the tire, and then zipped up a nearby tree... where it sat and threw acorns at his head (with, apparently, somewhat alarming accuracy) while he tried to change the flat tire.

They aren't hostile (yet), but they're definitely a nuisance. I fear my son has been at it again, and I'll have to ask him what he's done when I get my time with him this weekend.

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