} What happened to the great questions about life, the universe and
} everything? All anybody seems to want me to do nowadays is tell them
} the details of what's really going on under the covers of national
} Oh well ...
} The nut-directed problem-solving proclivities of Sciurus Griseus
} have been widely recognised among academic researchers for a number
} of years. However, following their popular expose' in the early
} nineties (www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY9GBl7UmVs), a member of the
} British secret services came up with the idea of a rodent corps
} for servicing dead-drops in Eastern European cities. For a while,
} the proof-of-concept enjoyed some success (informants within foreign
} governments could just dangle some microfilm for collection on some
} string out of their 8th-floor apartment window, for example). However,
} it proved difficult to bring into full service, given the cut backs in
} funding for operations directed in that particular direction (while
} squirrels do quite well in almost any European city, the deserts
} of Kuwait and Iraq proved not so conducive to success). However,
} what finally put paid to the operation was the need to coat every
} microfilm, etc., with Nutella (to be fair, always seen as a downside
} to the system, even to its proponents). The chance uncovering of an
} informant in Sofia, with a 'live' deaddrop halfway up a pine tree in
} his garden, led to the mass training by foreign intelligence services
} of hazelnut-aware sniffer dogs, and the effective neutralisation of
} the squirrel service. (Don't be concerned if a police or intelligence
} officer of a former soviet republic sends his Alsatian at you shouting
} 'go for the nuts' - he's referring to possible concealed intelligence
} information.) (On second thoughts, DO be concerned.)
} So operation Nutkin was shut down and consigned to the archives, except
} that an amused MI6 desk officer posted a particularly impressive
} retrieval filmed in Belgrade to an internal humour mailing list,
} to which a Pentagon liaison officer was subscribed.
} All went quiet on the squirrel front until 2003, when the same liaison
} officer was involved in a brainstorming session on how they might
} find, and preferably dispatch, a certain individual thought to be
} hiding in the Tora Bora caves. "If only," the chair of the meeting
} was heard to muse, "we had an army of undetectable robots - about the
} size of rats - which were able to roam around above or below ground
} and skilled in locating things." Of such chance meetings between
} problems and solutions is history made.
} Of course, operation Snickers, the American version of Nutkin, was
} orders of magnitude more complex than the British version. There were
} four strands of genetic engineering - the first to ruggedise the
} 'standard' squirrel, without letting it appear any different to
} the casual observer. The second strand mixed squirrel and cobra
} DNA, enabling squirrels, under exactly the right stimulation, to
} deliver with a single bite a dose of venom lethal to human beings.
} The third strand was co-ordinated with an intensive program (under the
} auspices of departments more usually associated with interrogation
} and brainwashing techniques in humans) of 'repurposing', aimed at
} retraining away from conventional fixations on hazelnuts and acorns,
} and towards the human anatomy. (Given that researchers wanted to use
} squirrels' innate sense of smell to help home in on their targets,
} and that everything was aimed at a single individual, known to be male,
} the area of the body to target in training was fairly obvious, and the
} phrase 'go for the nuts' acquired a new lease of life, as a sort of
} unofficial project motto). Further aspects of this training involved
} specific training towards distinguishing physical characteristics of
} the single target.
} The fourth and final strand of genetic engineering was to modify the
} squirrels to produce a genome-specific toxin, in place of the generic
} cobra venom with which they started. Availability of appropriate
} genetic material was not good, but the boffins eventually managed to
} come up with a mix which they guaranteed would terminate the intended
} target, and 'only about 800 other people in the whole world'.
} And so, the stage was set. With advice from the few remaining members
} of the team responsible for the original cat-drop into Borneo (look
} it up), 4000 "really cute" parachutes and quick-release harnesses
} were made, and 4000 "really hard" genetically modified squirrels
} (though, it must be stressed, indistinguishable from ordinary grey
} squirrels under all but the most rigorous tests) were bred up.
} A Hercules transport was booked, and a date set for the overflying
} of Afghanistan at 50,000 feet.
} And here, Fate steps in (she's always poking her nose in - one of
} the most annoying, self-righteous, interfering anthropomorphisms I've
} ever met). On the first internal shipment flight, a loose catch on
} a travelling box combined with the unlucky co-incidence of a pilot
} who (a) was distinctly proud of his full black beard, and (b) had a
} little bit of Saudi Arabian ancestry somewhere in his background.
} Air traffic controllers report 'a terrible scream, indescribable
} except for being oddly highly-pitched', followed by several seconds
} of quiet whimpering, then a big bang and lots of white noise ...
} Of course, the cleanup teams got there too late. A factory in
} the area owned by one of the large confectionery manufacturers
} was 'accidentally' burned down the next night, though strangely
} the compensation from the insurers seems to have been boosted to a
} significant degree from some poorly-identified government source.
} The night watchman apparently perished in the fire - by all accounts
} a hard-working family man, of middle-eastern origin and with a black
} beard described by his neighbours as 'impressive'.
} Gray squirrel numbers in the US have been climbing recently, you
} might have noticed. What you probably won't have seen reported is
} the 'anomaly' in the statistics for missing persons - suddenly you
} seem much more likely than average to disappear if you're an immigrant
} with a full black beard.
} You owe the Oracle a stainless steel codpiece, and a dose of cobra
} venom anti-toxin.