CAT AND MOUSE
BY RALPH WILLIAMS
Illustrated by van Dongen
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction June 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The Warden needed to have a certain very obnoxious pest eliminated ... and he knew just the pest-eradicator he needed....
The Harn first came to the Warden's attention through its effect on the game population of an area in World 7 of the Warden's sector. A natural ecology was being maintained on World 7 as a control for experimental seedings of intelligent life-forms in other similar worlds. How the Harn got there, the Warden never knew. In its free-moving larval state, the Harn was a ticklike creature which might have sifted through a natural inter-dimensional rift; or it might have come through as a hitchhiker on some legitimate traveler, possibly even the Warden himself.
In any event, it was there now. Free of natural enemies and competition, it had expanded enormously. So far, the effect in the control world was localized, but this would not be the case when the Harn seeded. Prompt action was indicated.
The Warden's inclination and training was in the direction of avoiding direct intervention in the ecology of the worlds under his jurisdiction, even in the field of predator control. He considered introduction of natural enemies of the Harn from its own world, and decided against it. That cure was as bad, if not worse, than the disease itself.
There was, however, in one adjacent world, a life-form not normally associated with the Harn; but which analysis indicated would be inimical to it, and reasonably amenable to control.
It was worth trying, anyway.
October 3rd, Ed Brown got up to the base cabin of his trap line with his winter's outfit.
He hung an N. C. Company calendar on the wall and started marking off the days.
October 8th, the hole into the other world opened.
In the meantime, of course, Ed had not been idle. All summer the cabin had stood empty. He got his bedding, stove, and other cabin gear down from the cache and made the place livable. The mice were thick, a good fur sign, but a nuisance otherwise. Down in the cellar hole, when he went to clear it out for the new spud crop, he found burrowings everywhere.
Well, old Tom would take care of that in short order. Tom was a big, black, bobtailed cat eleven years old who had lived with Ed since he was a kitten. Not having any feline companionship to distract him, his only interest was hunting mice. Generally he killed a lot more than he could eat, racking the surplus in neat piles beside the trail, on the doorstep, or on a slab in the cellar. He was the best mouser in interior Alaska.
Ed propped the cellar hatch with a stick so old Tom could come and go as he pleased, and went on about his chores, working with a methodical efficiency that matched Tom's and went with his thinning gray hair and forty years in the woods. He dug the spuds he had planted that spring. He made a swing around his beaver lakes, tallying the blankets in each house. He took the canoe and moved supplies to his upper cabin. He harvested some fat mallards that had moved down on the river with the coming of skim ice on the lakes. He bucked up firewood and stacked it to move into camp with the first snow.
On the fifth morning, as he was going down to the boat landing with a pail for water, he found the hole into the other world.
Ed had never seen a hole into another world, of course, nor even heard of such a thing. He was as surprised as any one would naturally be to find one not fifty feet from their front door.
Still, his experience had been all in the direction of believing what his eyes told him. He had seen a lot of strange things in his life, and one more didn't strain him too much. He stood stockstill where he had first noticed the hole and studied it warily.
It was two steps off the trail to the left, right beside the old leaning birch, a rectangular piece of scenery that did not fit. It looked to be, as nearly as he could judge, about man-size, six by three. At the bottom it was easy enough to see where this world left off and that one began. On the left side the two worlds matched pretty well, but on the right side there was a niggerhead in this world, the moss-covered relic of a centuries old stump, while that world continued level, so that the niggerhead was neatly sliced in two. Also, the vegetation was different, mossy on this side, grassy on that.
On up around the hole, though, it was harder to tell. There was no clear-cut line, just the difference in what you could see through it. In the other world, the ground seemed to fall away, with low scrubby brush in the foreground. Then, a mile or so away, there were rising hills with hardwood forests of some kind, still green with summer, covering them.
Ed stepped cautiously to one side. The view through the hole narrowed, as if it faced the trail squarely. He edged around the old birch to get behind it, and from that side there was no hole, just the same old Alaskan scenery, birch and rose bushes and spruce. From the front, though, it was still there.
He cut an alder shoot about eight feet long, trimmed it, and poked it through the hole. It went through easily enough. He prodded at the sod in the other world, digging up small tufts. When he pulled the stick back, some of the other world dirt was on the sharp end. It looked and smelled just about like any dirt.
Old Tom came stretching out into the morning sun and stalked over to investigate. After a careful inspection of the hole he settled down with his paws tucked under him to watch. Ed took a flat round can from his pocket, lined his lip frugally with snuff, and sat down on the up-ended bucket to watch too. At the moment, that seemed the likeliest thing to do.
It was nearly swarming time, the Harn had many things to preoccupy it, but it spared one unit to watch the hole into the other world. So far, nothing much had happened. A large biped had found the opening from the other side. It had been joined by a smaller quadruped; but neither showed any indication yet of coming through. The sun was shining through the hole, a large young yellow sun, and the air was crisp, with sharp interesting odors.
The biped ejected a thin squirt of brown liquid through the hole—venom of some sort, apparently. The Harn hastily drew back out of range.
The hole into the other world stayed there, as unobtrusively fixed as if it had been there since the beginning of time. Nothing came through, and nothing moved in the other world but leaves stirring now and then with a breeze, clouds drifting across the sky. Ed began to realize it was getting late in the morning, and he had not yet had breakfast. He left old Tom to watch the hole, got stiffly to his feet and went on down the trail to get the pail of water he had started for. From the cabin door, he could still see the hole into the other world. He kept one eye on it while he cooked breakfast.
As he was finishing his second cup of coffee, he noticed the view into the other world becoming duller, dimming in a peculiar fashion. He left the dirty dishes and went over to look more closely. What was happening, he found, was just that it was getting dark in the other world. The effect was strange, much like looking out the door of a brightly lighted room at dusk.