The monster cauliflower shuffled forwards, its thick leaves dragging over the adjacent rooftops and bringing chimneystacks and roof tiles crashing to the ground. I backed up, slowly, step by step, not daring to take my eyes from the terrible vegetable - until I collided with Commander Shagpaw.
“Why... why... why is it so big?” I hissed.
“Why are you so small?” the Commander replied unhelpfully.
“But the one we met in the forest was - ” I began.
“Just a baby,” Shagpaw completed for me. “That was a sprout compared to this. This one is an adult: a fully grown bull cauliflower.”
“Well do something!” I said, still staring at the monstrosity. “Do something!”
“I have done something,” Commander Shagpaw said, and for the first time I detected a shade of genuine fear in his voice. “I’ve soiled myself.”
I turned to look at him. The great Hamilton Shagpaw - undercover operative, tactical expert and secret squirrel - was terrified. “It must have got our scent,” he said. “They don’t normally bother us, but this one must have followed our trail back to the village after we blew up the youngster. Yeah, that’s it. That must have really pissed them off.”
Cathy suddenly screamed. Instinctively, I turned around and slapped her. The Professor slapped me in response, and an unruly scuffle broke out, until Janet broke it up by threatening to hit me with a big rock. “There’s another, look!” she said, and as we looked behind us we saw what had made Cathy scream: another of the giant creatures coming up from the rear.
“We’re trapped!” I said.
“We must try to reason with them,” said the Professor, “it’s our only chance.”
“How do you reason with a cauliflower, you mad bastard?” I responded, rapidly succumbing to panic. “Offer it cheese and biscuits and settle down to talk it over?”
“There is no reasoning with these things,” Commander Shagpaw said, suddenly sounding very determined; suddenly in control. “They’re tenacious, stubborn, utterly resistant to logic. They’re a lot like parsnips in that respect. No, we must stand and fight!”
He returned to the car, leapt up onto the roof and as he spun around to address us, there was something in his manner that made it obvious that he had been born to lead, to inspire and to win!
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” he announced, “once more; or close the wall up with our squirrel dead... In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a squirrel as modest stillness, and humility: but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the Volkswagen, stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage, then lend the eye a terrible aspect.”
“What’s he talking about?” I whispered to Janet.
She shrugged. “I think it’s a quote,” she said. “Sounds like Jean-Claude Van Damme.”
Shagpaw ripped a strut from the roof-rack and swung it menacingly through the air. “Show us here the mettle of your pasture,” he continued. “Let us swear that you are worth your breeding - which I doubt not.”
“Hang on, he’s missed a bit,” said Janet.
“Probably keen to get to the good part,” I suggested.
“For there is none of you,” the Commander announced, his voice rising in pitch and volume, “so mean and base that hath not noble lustre in your eyes. I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry, ‘God for Shagpaw, Squirreltopia and Saint Nuts!’”
At this point the squad cheered and the cauliflower let out an almighty raw.
“Fuck that,” I said, and I ran and hid under a water trough
Shagpaw jumped down from the car, then he and the others grabbed whatever weapons they could find and formed a defensive circle, waiting for the onslaught. Waiting, to be eaten, in fact - which I doubted not. As the cauliflowers closed in I just hoped that there would be enough panic, death and dismemberment to allow me to escape in the confusion. I lay on my belly in the dirt, waiting for the optimum moment to scarper, then I heard a door creak open behind me. “Hey, quick!” a voice hissed. “In here!”
I scrabbled round. There was a squirrel leaning out of the open door of the meeting hall, beckoning me over. “You?” I said, recognising the animal from our earlier meeting around the King’s campfire.
“Hurry!” he hissed. I jumped to my feet and ran to the door, but he stopped me as I tried to squeeze through. “What about the others?” he said, indicating the rest of our party as they prepared to make their final stand.
“What about them?” I answered peevishly.
“Surely you not going to leave them out there to die?”
I thought about this long and hard, then noting the expression on his little furry face I realised that the question was rhetorical. “No, no,” I said. “Of course not.” I whistled them over. Moments earlier they had been dead set on making their last stand, but I was pleased to note that an open door and a possible hiding place were more than enough to crack their resolve. They charged at the door, practically foaming at the mouth in their fervour, like senior citizens at a wedding buffet. I was roughly pushed aside in the panic. As soon as they were in, the door was closed and barred, leaving me on the outside.
“Hey!” I cried, hammering frantically on the door. “Come on! Come on! Stop pissing about and let me in!”
The door opened. A hairy arm reached out and pulled me inside, then the door was slammed behind me.
“My God,” breathed Commander Shagpaw, once we were all in. “Oh my God.”
Thousands of squirrel faces were turned upon us. The entire village seemed to be sheltering here, crammed into every conceivable space. You could taste their fear in the air, see the hopelessness reflected in each pair of tiny, beady eyes. But on seeing Commander Shagpaw, their demeanour changed. Their hero had returned.
They pressed forward, chattering, gossiping, barely suppressing whoops of delight. “Quiet!” Shagpaw hissed. “Quiet now!” Their murmuring subsided. Shagpaw sought out a Lieutenant, one of the city guard, and asked him what had happened. The frightened young squirrel told of how the sentries had been taken by surprise. By the time the alarm had been raised, it was too late. The cauliflowers were already rampaging through the settlement. Many were dead or missing, homes had been destroyed, families torn apart -
“Yes, it’s a bit of a to-do, isn’t it?” This last comment came from King Flaky Nibbles IV. He scythed his way through the crowd, almost casually, carrying his beloved guinea pig beneath his arm. “Simon here got quite restless at one point.”
“Your Majesty!” said Commander Shagpaw. “Thank heavens you’re safe.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said the King. “Have you got the machine, then?”
“First things first, sir,” said Shagpaw. “I think our most important priority is to reinforce the doors. If these vegetables find out that - ”
“Oh, vegetables, smegetables,” said King Flaky Nibbles, with a grin. “The machine, Commander. The blending machine - did you get it?”
“But the safety of your subjects, sir,” the Commander protested.
“Stuff ‘em!” said the King. “Hand over the bloody machine!”
I was still holding the machine. Not wishing to draw any attention to myself, I slipped it behind my back. Luckily, the Professor chose this moment to interfere. He stepped forward.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said rather haughtily. “I don’t think you seemed to have grasped the gravity of the situation. We are in a great deal of danger here - all of us. Those things outside mean to kill us. We need to act now.”
The King looked at me quizzically. “Who’s this old twat?” he said, nodding in the Professor’s direction. I shrugged and pretended that I didn’t know him, so the King was forced to address the Professor directly: “Okay, so who are you - you old twat?”
“How dare you sir?” the Professor replied. “Why, I’ll have you know that - ”
He did not say another word, for at that moment the King pulled out a gun and shot him in the stomach. There was a stifled gasp from the rest of the room and then silence. Professor Mendes slumped to the floor. King Flaky Nibbles blew the smoke from the barrel of the gun like some Hollywood cowboy, then laughed.
“He shot him!” Cathy said, in a barely audible whisper. She knelt beside his prostrate form. “He shot my father!”
But the Professor was still with us. He groaned. He winced. Then Cathy helped him to his feet. “Straight in the colostomy bag,” he said. “Direct hit. That lamb chop I had yesterday just saved my life.”
The King turned scarlet with sudden rage. He levelled the gun again, this time at the Professor’s head. “Your lunch won’t save you next time,” he said. “Hand over the machine.”
“Go on, shoot him!” I said, recklessly. “Do your worst. We’re not scared.”
“Fair enough,” said the King.
“Hang on, hang on!” the Professor protested wildly. “I don’t remember anyone electing him as spokesman.”
It was then that I felt a paw upon my shoulder. “Hand over the machine,” said Commander Shagpaw in my ear. Reluctantly, I stepped forward and set down the blender in front of King Flaky Nibbles. His Majesty’s eyes lit up with wonder.
“What are you up to?” the Professor demanded. “What’s your fascination with that machine?”
“Power!” said the King simply. “The ultimate power.”
“I thought you wanted it to help your people,” Janet said. “To produce food to feed your starving citizens.”
“What, them?” King Flaky Nibbles said, spitting out the words in disgust as his subjects cowered in the gloom behind him. “All they’re interested in his golf and nuts. No, no - this machine is for me. With it, I shall become bigger, stronger, more terrifying than ever before. No one will laugh at my pointy little teeth and silly bushy tail again!”
“Ah, bullied at school, were you?” I taunted. “Well, exactly how are you going to do this?” I asked. “How is this machine going to make you less insignificant?”
“This is how,” said the King. Keeping his gun trained on us all the while, he placed his pet guinea pig in one of the machine’s receptor fields, then he himself stood in the other. “I shall combine myself with Simon here. I will become the ultimate creature - all the cunning, resourcefulness and intelligence of the squirrel, combined with the powerful dignity, the stamina and the ability to amuse myself by running around in a little wheel of a guinea pig. I will be unstoppable!” He reached out with his toe and activated the main switch. “Maximum blend!”
“Nuttier than a wheelbarrow full of pistachios!” exclaimed Professor Mendes.
We all jumped back as the machine hummed into life. The King and his pet both shimmied, shook, shuddered. We looked on in horror as their bodies were twisted and torn out of shape. Steadily they dissolved, unravelled, were pulled into the machine in wispy strands, until there was nothing left. The machine fell silent. Then with a sudden, terrifying electric belch - the kind of noise that a washing machine would make if it was throwing up - a strange amorphous shape began to squeeze out of the horn. Gradually it coalesced, wobbling uncertainly until it solidified into a horrific shape: half-squirrel, half-guinea pig, it stood up on its hind legs, a good fourteen feet tall if it was an inch, and roared in a way that only a half-squirrel, half-guinea pig can.
As it did so, the doors of the meeting hall bust open under the force of powerful, grasping leaves. The walls began to crumble and crack as the giant cauliflowers slowly started to grind the building into dust. We were finished; caught between a rock and a hard place; caught between and monster and a freak. But in a moment we witnessed our salvation.
The chimera that had once been King Flaky Nibbles looked upon the invader with sheer, unadulterated peckishness. He suddenly leapt up and began tearing them leaf from leaf. The creatures howled and made to escape, but they couldn’t get away, and within the space of a few short minutes they had been reduced to a couple of stubby stalks.
“Well, I think that your glorious leader had inadvertently provided a solution to your rampant vegetable problem,” Professor Mendes said, as he led the squirrels blinking out into the daylight. King Flaky Nibbles, his appetite satiated and his belly uncomfortably bloated, lay on his back and dozed in the sun. He even let Janet tickle his chest. “I imagine his new-found appetite will prove to be more than a match for them,” the Professor professed. “King Flaky Nibbles has done you a great favour.”
“Has he professor?” I said. I was standing over the blender - or rather, the remains of it. It had been smashed to pieces in the confusion.
“Yes,” the Professor said, most emphatically. “Oh yes, indeed.” He came over and sifted through the wreckage of the device with the toe of his boot. “This machine is a menace. Nobody should be in possession of such power.”
“But - ” Commander Shagpaw began.
“Nobody, I tell you,” the Professor insisted. “Just look at the Mucons. I suspect that without the influence of this device they will return to their normal, peaceable selves. All those additives in the snacks they were making were probably responsible for their sudden bouts of aggression. No, trust me - no good would ever come of this machine.”
At this point he spotted something and reached down to pick it up. “On the other hand, its destruction may well have done us a service.”
“What is it?” I asked.
The professor held up a bright orange ball on a stick. “A new ballcock, Dickson,” he said. “For the Podulator - finally, we can leave this place.”
We said our goodbyes and returned to the Podulator. I have never been so grateful to enter a smelly old toilet before in my life. Actually, I tell a lie, there was an occasion once in Weston Super Mare, but we won’t go into that right now. Professor Mendes fitted the new ballcock, stood back and wiped his hands on his coat.
“Fine, are we all right?” he said. “Everyone ready to go?”
“The sooner you pull that chain, the better,” I replied.
“Sure you don’t want to stay here?” he asked me one last time. He’d been trying to persuade me to remain ever since we’d left the squirrel settlement. “I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone’s going to miss you at home.”
“I’m coming with you,” I said firmly.
“Oh shit,” Professor Mendes muttered philosophically. “Never mind. Hold tight, here goes.”
He reached up and yanked on the chain. Once more the plumbing around us began to rattle and shake. The floor dipped and swayed, the stale air was rent by a fearsome gale as the Professor’s bizarre machine forced its way through the gaps in the fabric of the universe. It seemed like the walls around us were being dismantled, brick by brick, each one swirling around our heads in an impossible procession. I heard something screaming, then realised it was me. Slowly reality began to reform around me. My surroundings snapped back into place and Professor Mendes’ toilet came to a shuddering halt.
“Ah, I feel better for that,” the Professor said. He lifted the latch and stepped outside. We followed, expecting to find ourselves, as promised, back in Professor Mendes’ back garden, but instead we stepped out onto a baking hot plain of barren earth. Broken buildings littered the landscape; half-buried slabs of concrete, rusted girders and rotting timbers. Giant birds wheeled in the sky above us, occasionally diving down in great, swooping, suicidal arcs and smashing their tiny brains to atoms on the compacted ground. This was a truly horrible place.
“You’ve got it wrong,” I said. “This isn’t Earth.”
The Professor scowled at me. Then he stepped forward to a large metal sign, and wiped the dust from it with one sweep of his handkerchief. “Not Earth?” he said, and he stepped back. We could read the lettering now. It said ‘Cardiff 35 Miles’.
“It think you’ll find this is Swansea.”