Snail Squirrel

Part Five

Once again I sat in the dust outside the podulator, my back against the cold brick wall, idly jabbing at the dirt with a broken stick. Muffled voices came from within, accompanied by irritable protestations and the occasional high-pitched scream. Janet and Cathy were attempting to bandage the Professor’s nose. Good luck to ‘em. I had offered to help, but the Professor had refused my assistance, explaining, very calmly, that it might be better for all concerned if I was to go and fuck myself. Well, I had hit him with my breakfast, so I suppose he had a perfect right to be a little miffed.

And so I sat and waited, scrabbling around lazily in the dust and wondering how the hell I had managed to find myself here. More to the point, where was here? The other three were still insistent that we were on some alien world, but in spite of all that I had seen, I was reluctant to believe them. This dirt beneath me seemed like ordinary dirt. These rocks and twigs seemed like ordinary rocks and twigs. I noticed a little bug weaving towards me - a millipede or a centipede, or something like that. An ordinary little bug. It stopped before me, raised its hat and smiled. Then it said something in a bizarre alien tongue and carried on its merry way, whistling as it went.

I Jumped to my feet and stamped on the little bastard before it could get away. Just an ordinary little bug.

“Making new friends?” the Professor asked me in muffled tones as he emerged from the Podulator, Janet and Cathy in his wake. I was amused to see that his nose was in a splint, but I tried not to grin too broadly.

“It looked at me funny,” I responded in a deadpan voice. The Professor just huffed and walked past me, and stood staring out across the forest. “Okay,” I said. “So what do we do now?”

“Let’s play strip poker?” Janet suggested.

I looked at her with some distaste. “Maybe not,” I replied.

“Anyone fancy a game of table tennis?” said Cathy brightly.

“Table...?” I shook my head. “No, no, no - what I mean is, what are we going to do about exploring this place?” I turned to the Professor. “Or are you content to just sulk?”

The Professor suddenly snapped to attention. “Sulk!” he said. He turned sharply on his heel and marched up to me, stopping barely inches from my face. I looked deep into his bloodshot eyes and examined every blackhead on the end of his greasy nose in minute detail. When he opened his mouth to speak I was hit by a sudden hot blast of pure cheese and onion that made my eyes water and my stomach churn. “No time like the present,” he said. “Let’s go.”

With some difficulty I tore my eyes away from him. “Right,” I said purposefully, “well I suggest we head off in this direction. The going seems to be easier.” I began to lead the way, but he roughly grabbed me by the collar and swung me around. “What the -”

“Not so fast, you young idiot,” he snapped. “An expedition like this requires preparation. You don’t just go marching off into God-knows-what?”

“So, wha -?”

“So, change into this wetsuit and put a plastic bag on your head,” the Professor said smartly, producing the aforementioned items from behind his back.

I’ll say this for Professor Mendes: he can be a persuasive old boiler when he wants to be. I know this from experience, for several minutes later I emerged from the Podulator ready to begin our excursion, clad in a wetsuit and wearing a Woolworth’s carrier bag over my head. Apparently the bag would help to filter out any pockets of noxious gas we might pass through on our journey, and the wetsuit would protect me from the harmful rays of the alien sun. Something like that, anyway. Of course, now I come to think about it, the whole thing does seem a little suspicious, but at the time I thought it seemed perfectly reasonable. Like I said, the Prof. could be very persuasive.

“Right then!” the old git announced brightly. “Are we all set?”

“Well, I’ve got the sandwiches,” replied Cathy.

“And I’ve got the thermos,” said Janet.

“Then off we go,” said the Professor.

“Err, Professor,” I called out. I was beginning to have my doubts about all this. “Erm, I just, err...”

“Oh what is it, you insufferable little tit!” the Professor snapped.

“It’s this bag,” I said. “I know there’s a very good reason why I have to wear it. It’s just that it’s kind of, erm... awkward.”

“Awkward!” replied the Prof. “Yeah, well I dare say it is. Of course, you could take it off, but when the sunlight shrivels your head to the size of a walnut, you might find that kind of awkward as well. But if you want to take it off, then I’m not stopping you. On your own head be it - or not, as would seem to be the case.”

“No, no, no,” I protested. “I understand that. It’s just that, well, shouldn’t we have cut holes in it?

“Holes?” the Professor said, and something in his voice seemed to suggest that the concept was entirely alien to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s just that I can’t see out.”

“Oh, I get it,” the Professor said. “You want to see out.”

“Well, it would be nice,” I replied.

“And what about when giant eagles come and peck your eyes out?” the Professor asked. “How much would you be able to see then? Or what about if a giant squid attacks and sucks your eyeballs through your nose?”

“Is that really likely?”

“Happened once to my sister,” Janet chipped in.

“But of course, if you’re happy to take that chance…” the Professor said, and his voice tailed off into an ominous void.

“No, no, I’m sure everything will be all right,” I returned hastily.

“She was in the supermarket,” Janet continued, oblivious to the fact that no one was listening to her. “She had just rounded the corner of the freezer section when WHACK! Giant squid right in the face. She didn’t stand a chance.”

“Very well then,” the Professor said, and although I couldn’t see his face, I could tell from the tone of his voice that he must be wearing an expression of smug satisfaction. “If everybody’s happy, I think we can begin.”

And so stumbling and uncertain, I was led down into the forest, with nothing more to guide me than the small crescent of earth visible at my feet, an occasional prod from one of my companions and the sound of Janet’s inane gabbling drifting back to me on the wind.

“Well that’s your squid for you though, isn’t it?” she was saying. “Turn your back on them for one minute and they suck out your eyeballs and make off with your tinned peas… Bastards.”

I didn’t have an easy time of it in the forest. I don’t know if you have ever tried to cover any distance overland in a wetsuit and a plastic bag, but I can tell you from experience that it’s no picnic. The flippers and snorkel didn’t help matters much either. Neither was I given much assistance by Professor Mendes, who had made it his personal responsibility to guide me through the tangled undergrowth.

“Mind that rock,” he would say momentarily too late as I stumbled and crashed to the forest floor. “Watch out for that branch there,” he would chirp happily, shortly after I had smashed my face in on an overhanging bough. I was beginning to think that there was something very wrong with this situation; something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was starting to suspect that the Prof. was having a joke at my expense, a suspicion that was further fuelled by his unsuccessful attempts to stifle his giggles after each of my many mishaps.

“Professor?” I broached, after about twenty minutes of this treatment.

“Hmm?” he replied languidly.

“I was just wondering ... oof!”

“Oh, mind that branch, Dickington,” said the Professor as I picked myself off the floor.

“Perhaps,” I suggested bitterly, “you could warn me of any impending danger before I actually walk into the obstacle?”

“That’s an interesting notion,” the Professor said in a jolly fashion. “I’ll bear it in mind.”

I grunted in reply and trudged onwards. Then suddenly something occurred to me. There had been something bugging me all along, and I finally realised what it was. “Professor!” I called out.

“Oh what is it now!” he snapped. “Why all these insufferable questions?”

“Professor!” I repeated, more emphatically. I wasn’t to be put off. “Tell me this: how are you able to guide me when - “

I didn’t get to finish the sentence. Abruptly the ground fell away from me and I suddenly found myself spinning and rattling down a steep slope, accompanied by an avalanche of rocks and earth. The air was full of dust, and sharp stones tore at my skin and clothes as I tumbled over and over and over. “Ooh, careful of that ravine,” I heard Professor Mendes’ hollow voice shout after me, followed by gales of raucous laughter.

Then suddenly my journey stopped. My head was spinning and I could still hear the wind rushing past my ears, but I was quite certain that I had come to a halt. I jumped unsteadily to my feet, ripped the bag angrily from my head and found myself looking up at an awesome, shale-strewn slope. Janet, Cathy and the Professor were standing at the top, the latter almost doubled up with laughter. I was dismayed to note that the three of them were attired quite normally – no wetsuits, no snorkels, and certainly no tatty carrier bags pulled over their heads,

“Hey!” I shouted angrily. I paused to brush the dust from my hair and blow the gravel from my nose. “How come you’re not taking the same precautions as me?”

The Professor stilled his laughter and wiped a tear from his eye. “A valid question, young man,” he replied with easy confidence, a broad grin stretching from ear to ear. “The fact is that the atmosphere doesn’t affect us in the same way it does you.”

“Why not?” I demanded indignantly, although I knew deep down that I was not going to like the answer.

“Because we’re not as gullible as you,” said the Professor simply and then gave way to further waves of laughter and guffaws. In fact, he was so overcome with hilarity, I am pleased to recount, that he quite lost his footing and tumbled over the edge of the precipice. Now it was my turn to laugh as I watched him ricocheting down the slope like a discarded football, emitting squeals and wails with each rock he bounced from. Then the danger of my own situation suddenly struck home as I realised that he was heading straight towards me. I stood aside at the last moment and watched him slide to a halt, face first, beside me.

“Nice of you to drop in,” I said.

“I don’t believe you just said that,” he groaned as he raised himself up with some difficulty.

“Well, it lightens the mood,” I said with a shrug.

He kicked me in the shin out of spite, then pointed back up the slope down which we had both so hastily descended. “Now look what you’ve done!” he barked. “How are we going to get back up there?”

I looked. It was obviously too steep to climb, but the Professor nevertheless felt it necessary to demonstrate the difficulty by attempting to scramble up on his hands and knees. For a brief moment he was a flurry of flailing limbs and furious curses, and to his credit he managed to climb about four feet before giving up and sliding back down again on his arse. It was a splendidly comical sight and I enjoyed it immensely.

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” I said with a shrug. “We can just continue along the floor of the ravine.”

“And leave Cathy and Janet to fend for themselves up there?” the Professor said.

I looked up to the two women silhouetted on the lip of the ravine, and waved out of courtesy. Cathy obviously mistook my gesture for a signal that it was ‘her turn’ and hurled herself headfirst off the edge. With a wail of delight she hurtled down the slope at terrifying speed and buried herself in a small mound of earth to my left.

Grabbing a leg each, the Professor and I pulled her out, whereupon she shook the dirt from her ears and cried excitedly, “Again! Again!”

We sat her down on a rock, gave her a biscuit and reassessed our predicament. “Okay then,” I said, “so the three of us can just continue along the floor of the ravine.”

“And leave Janet to fend for herself up there?” said the Professor. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, okay then… No, no, no – what am I thinking? We can’t leave the poor woman up there. She may be an irritating bitch, but we have to look out for one another.”

“Very well,” I sighed, and then I called up to Janet. “You’re going to have to lower yourself down gently, Janet,” I shouted.

She shouted something back, but she was too high up for me to make it out.

“I said you’ll have to join us down here, Janet,” I called again.

Once more I heard her brief reply, but could not make out the words.

“There’s nothing to it, Janet,” I tried to reassure her. “The slope looks worse than it really is. Just take it steady and you’ll have no problem.”

She seemed very, very nervous and actually took a step back from the edge. Once more I heard her call out, but the words were snatched away by the wind. “What’s wrong with her?” I muttered. “What’s she saying?”

“I think her actual words were ‘get stuffed’,” the Professor informed me. “Or something along those lines, anyway. It’s no good, Dickbury. If we’re going to get her down, we’ll have to help her.”

“Fair enough,” I replied, found a small, cricket ball-sized rock on the ground, and hurled it with all my might. It struck Janet a glancing blow to the temple. She staggered, backwards at first, then to the left, then a couple of paces to the right, and finally she pitched forward over the edge of the ravine. She was with us within the space of five seconds.

“Very well,” I said with some satisfaction. “So now the four of us can just continue along the floor of the ravine.”

“Yes!” said the Professor.

“Err, no,” said Janet, climbing unsteadily to her feet and pointing behind us. “I think that thing might have something to say about that.”

The Professor and I turned in unison and our mouths fell open in horror. Perched squarely on the trail before us was the most hideous thing I had ever seen. As tall as a man, if not taller, it appeared to be a huge amorphous, gelatinous sack, with terrible black eyes, a formless slit for a mouth and stubby feelers atop its head, swinging and bobbing in constant motion. It’s body continued for some distance behind it, and appeared to be surmounted with some kind of armoured protuberance, and as it moved slowly and steadily towards us, its whole frame seemed to undulate and wobble. It was truly disgusting, and yet the really disturbing thing was that it seemed somehow familiar.

“What the hell is that?” breathed the Professor, and I was pleased to detect that he was as mortified as I was.

“I don’t know,” I replied in hushed, almost reverent tones. “But I think I once went out with its sister.”

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