The car shuddered and boomed as it reared above me, headlights flashing, front wheels spinning, its chassis creaking and groaning as it twisted its frame, ready for the lunge. I felt the breath catch in my throat, too terrified even to breathe. It was as if the air had turned into one solid lump. The ground shook - thump! thump! thump! - with every step as the great metal beast stomped steadily towards me on its powerful hind wheels. And when it blotted out the sun; when it toward over me, its great belly glistening with mud and rust and underseal; when it let out that final terrifying roar, accompanied by the ear-splitting shriek of its air horn, that’s when I knew I was finished.
I curled up into a ball, hands covering my face. The car came down towards me...
Suddenly I heard a dull thud. Then another and several more in quick succession. Looking up I saw the car shudder and stagger back several paces. There were arrows protruding from its belly, and more appearing all the time. Volley after volley of slender wooden shafts were being fired into the creature from all around me; from bushes, from treetops. The car roared in agony and rage. It lashed out wildly at the foliage around it, but the onslaught did not cease. Bolt after bolt sliced through its thin, fragile bodywork until it was bristling with tiny spines like some monstrous kind of porcupine. It wheeled around and I managed to drag myself behind a tree stump just in time to stop myself being trampled. Then one well-aimed arrow sliced straight through a brake pipe and a shower of fluid burst from the car’s engine compartment. The creature’s squeal of agony was drowned, reduced to a rasping, pathetic gurgle. It was weakening now; it was dying. As it lumbered close to me, I could see its body glistening with oil. Its fan belt had snapped, it was shedding bearings at an alarming rate and most of its exhaust pipe had come away and was dragging on the ground.
But it wasn’t quite finished yet. I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as it stole itself for one last assault. That blank, emotionless stare of its headlights had fixed on me. It hunched forward and revved its engine, then, its windscreen wipers waving in one last defiant act, it spun its wheels in the mud and accelerated straight towards me.
There was nowhere I could run; nowhere I could hide. I would have surely died had the vehicle not been blinded by an arrow to its left headlight. Sightless and confused, the car veered sharply to the left, collided with a tree and came to a sudden and permanent stop in a hissing cloud of steam.
The sudden silence was almost embarrassing. The car was quiet and still, save for the front nearside wheel slowly revolving, and the click-click-click of the left indicator, feebly illuminating the scene with flickering orange light. Of its attackers - our rescuers - there was no sign.
Then I heard a terrifying, ear-pummelling noise; a piercing scream shot through with the deepest, darkest sense of pure horror. It was the kind of sound that comes bubbling up from the pit of a man’s soul, dredging up his most primal of fears and mortal dread along with it.
“Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww FUCK!” it went.
I twisted around in panic to see who was making such an abominable sound, and it took me a few moments of utter confusion before I realised that it was me.
Next thing I knew, Janet was pulling me to my feet. “Aww, now then, everything’s all right,” she crooned. “The nasty motor car’s all dead now.” She pulled my face into her bosom and tenderly rubbed the back of my head. “There, there.”
I belched and pulled myself clear of her chest pretty sharpish. It was hell in there, I tell you. “I’m all right, you stupid woman,” I snapped, glowing with shame. “It takes more that a rust-riddled homicidal hatchback to phase me.”
At that moment the car creaked and shuddered, then with a final burst of life it tried to raise its shattered chassis from the ground. As it did so, a small figure stepped from the bushes: he was about two foot high, covered in red fur and with a long bushy tail arching up behind him. He was wearing a tin hat and chomping on a stubby cigar. Casually he pulled a large pistol from inside his flak jacket, levelled it at the underside of the car and shot it twice through the transmission. The car fell back to earth with a thump then lay still. The tiny figure calmly walked up to the vehicle, kicked the tyres to make sure it was dead, then turned to face us.
“It’s okay lady,” he said, without taking the cigar from his mouth. “It’s a goner. You can put your boyfriend down now.”
Put your boyfriend down? While I was pondering this strange statement, I was suddenly embarrassed to discover that I had leapt into Janet’s arms. “Hmm, well caught,” I mumbled and sheepishly climbed down.
“Thank you for saving us,” Janet replied politely. “But who are you?”
“General Twitchy Bushtail, ma’am,” the hairy little feller replied. “Pleased to you’re your acquaintance. Now, we gotta get clear of this area, people - there may be more of the automons about.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said, in earnest amazement.. “You’re a-a-a... You’re a squirrel.”
“Yeah, and you’re a dick” he replied. “Now let’s get moving. Squad forward!”
At his command the bushes around us swayed and shook and dozens of other squirrels stepped forward. Each wore a tiny uniform and carried a bow and arrow. Quickly and noiselessly they fell into rank and file, more orderly and more disciplined than any other woodland creatures I had ever seen.
“Okay, Squad leader,” the General ordered. “Move ‘em out!”
I winced as another voice started barking commands behind me. “At the double lads! Get those ‘orrible little paws moving, you idle lot!”
I looked down. The orders were coming from a vicious looking creature known, as I was to learn later, as Squad Leader Scratchy Knothole. He was a grizzled old thug, tough as boots with an appearance to match. His fur was dark and wiry, and a long purple scar ran down the side of his face, just missing his left eye. He stopped and glared at me. “Come on, move it!” he barked.
“Hang on -”
“I said move it, fat boy!” he snapped, and jabbed me painfully in the arse with a pointy stick. I felt it wise not to argue and fell into line with the others.
* * *
My question, the one I had not been allowed to complete, was answered in due course. General Bushtail explained to us that night was fast approaching, and that the forest was not safe after dark. From my experience it seemed that the place wasn’t exactly an ideal picnic location during the daytime either. The General went on to tell us that we were being taken back to his village. It was, so he said, only a small colony now, numbering about two thousand in total. The war, he explained, had taken a heavy toll on their numbers, but he assured us that they weren’t finished yet. They were planning one final push, which would decide this conflict once and for all.
As to the matter of who they were fighting and why, I’m afraid that information passed me by. He did tell us, but I just couldn’t be bothered to listen. In retrospect I now know this to have been a mistake, but at the time he was boring my tits off and I found myself unable to take any of it in.
I was much more interested in joining in with the dirty songs that the rest of the squad were singing to keep their spirits up. They all seemed to revolve around obvious double entendres involving the word ‘nuts’, but I enjoyed them in spite of their lack of sophistication. Even so, I soon began to get bored and increasingly restless. The path we took seemed to twist and turn alarmingly, and I quickly got the feeling that we were doubling back on ourselves. The vegetation began to get thicker, the atmosphere oppressive. I caught up with General Bushtail, who was still banging on to Janet about God knows what.
“Hey,” I said. “This is getting ridiculous. Do you people know where you’re going?”
The General was still chewing on his apparently everlasting cigar. “Hell, yes,” he said. “Do you, son?”
“Do I?” I repeated. “Haven’t got a clue,” I replied honestly.
“Guess you’d better quit bellyaching and try to stay in our good books then?” the General said. He briefly removed his cigar and spat out a thick wad of phlegm that may or may not have been meant for me. Either way, it missed and hit a tree by the side of the trail, killing it instantly.
“We’ve had to take the long way round,” Janet explained, “to avoid the breeding grounds of the automons.”
“Ah right,” I said. Then, after a pause, “And who are the automons?”
“Haven’t you been listening to anything the General’s been saying?” she replied in disgust.
I shrugged. “Not a word,” I said. “I didn’t know there was going to be a test.”
“That creature that attacked us,” Janet explained. “The thing that looked like a car - that was an automon. They live here in the forest, and we’ve arrived right in the middle of their breeding season. They’re very jumpy at this time of year.”
“You were lucky,” General Bushtail added. “The one that attacked you was a Ford. They’re usually very timid, very docile. It takes a helluva lot to get them started. You must have chanced across its nest. Of course, if it had been a Volkswagen or a Peugeot, you wouldn’t be standing here now.” His face twisted into a grin. “Which might not have been a bad thing, of course.”
“Look, there’s no need-”
General Bushtail suddenly help up his paw and the whole squad came to a well-practised halt. Only I carried on walking, cannoning straight into the back of Janet, and earning myself a mouthful of perm and a crumpled nose. “What is it?” I demanded angrily.
“Shush!” General Bushtail hissed.
“What is it?” I repeated, this time in a whisper.
The General crouched down and scooped something up from the forest floor. “They’ve been here,” he said. “Three at least, maybe more.” He opened out his paw for me to see. He was holding a small selection of spark plugs of various sizes. “Two Audis and a Maserati. And they’re still warm, so it can’t have been very long ago.”
He seemed very concerned, and suddenly so was I. “What do we do?” I asked.
The General grinned. “We shut up and keep moving,” he said. He threw the sparkplugs back into the undergrowth and brushed his hands. “Squad forward,” he barked, “at the double!”
And we were off again. As we quick marched along the tangled trail, Squad Leader Knothole nudged my elbow. “I shouldn’t worry too much,” he said, with an evil leer. “The General will look after you. I once saw him take on a fork lift truck single-handed.”
I looked at the General - squat and furry, with his stubby little paws held out in front of him - and tried to imagine him facing down a large piece of machinery. It was difficult to picture, but something in Squad Leader Knothole’s voice made me believe every word.
“Tied its prongs in a bow, so he did,” the Squad Leader said. “No contest, really.”
I don’t know whether General Bushtail’s easy dominance over various methods of vehicular transportation made me feel more or less on edge. Thankfully, however, the squirrels’ village was not far away. Before very long the path became less overgrown, the floor was sandy and strewn with small boulders as the trail started to head downwards. I could see buildings below us, made of bamboo and straw. Smoke curled up from open fires, and the whole settlement was ringed with watchtowers and walkways slung from tall trees. Rather more curiously, through the trees around us I saw open fields of neatly trimmed grass. There were little groups of squirrels ambling about, chatting, laughing and apparently poking at the ground with metal poles. It was only when I noticed the bags they were wheeling around with them that I realised what they were doing.
“Yeah, erm, golf is very popular around here,” General Bushtail explained, with a hint of embarrassment.
“No kidding,” I said, and I shuddered.
Janet was uncharacteristically quick to pick up on my reaction. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Don’t you like golf?”
“Like it?” I said. “I live in mortal fear of it.”
She shrugged. “I think that’s a bit of an over reaction.”
Oh the poor woman. She didn’t understand. When you watch someone playing golf, you’re being given a glimpse of your future. It gets us all in the end, as predictable and unavoidable as death, taxes and yearning for a kebab after six pints of lager. “Listen, Janet” I said. “One day, perhaps not too far from now, once industry and imagination have finally failed me, there will come a time when I will be unable to think of anything better to do than wander around a series of immaculately kept lawns, knocking a little white ball down holes with a stick. When that happens - and I want you to promise me this now - when that happens I want you to take me somewhere quiet - somewhere near a softly babbling brook, surrounded by fields of gently swaying corn, where the only sound is the wind in the treetops and the gentle chatter of the birds - and put a bullet between my eyes.”
“Okay,” Janet said, in far too casual a manner for my liking. “Shame though. Personally I rather like a round of golf.”
Too late. It had got her already.
We moved on down the last stretch of the trail. The pickets on the perimeter saluted smartly and let us enter the village. It was really quite an impressive settlement, with row upon row of dwellings, tall communal buildings, forges and sawmills powered by rickety looking wind turbines, a post office, two bingo halls and a cinema. Over on the far side of the settlement I could see some vast construction taking shape. “What’s happening over there?” I asked.
“New airport,” said General Bushtail, with some pride.
“You’ve discovered the principal of flight?” I asked, impressed.
“Not yet,” he replied. “But it’s only a matter of time. And by the time we’ve mastered it, we’ll already have the departure lounge up and running.”
We were shown into the King’s hut, a huge, domed structure, bedecked with ornamental acorns. The King wasn’t there, he was still out playing golf, but we didn’t have long to wait. His arrival was announced by a glorious fanfare, played by eight members of his personal guard on paper and comb.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for His Majesty King Flaky Nibbles IV!” announced a courtier. The King then swaggered in, a nine iron held jauntily over his shoulder. He sighed loudly, tossed the golf club into a corner then threw himself down on a cushion.
“I’m knackered!” he said, royally. Then he looked up and saw us for the first time. “Hello, what have we got here then?”
General Bushtail cleared his throat. “Ahem, your Majesty,” he began. “We found these two in the forest and rescued them from one of the automons.”
“Ooh nasty,” said the King.
“Err, yes,” General Bushtail said. “So anyway, we thought we’d better bring them to you and - ”
“Yes, yes, jolly good,” said King Flaky Nibbles IV as he jumped up and rubbed his paws together busily. “Well then,” he said, addressing Janet and I, “you two must have had a hell of a time of it. I expect you’ll want to get yourselves cleaned up?”
“Well yes,” I began, “we - ”
“Good, good,” his Kinginess continued. “So you two run along and get yourselves sorted out. Then it’s back here and we should just have enough time for a bite to eat and a drop to drink before the sacrifice. Okay?”
“Oh thank you,” I said. “That’s very kind of you, I...” Something made me stop; something he had said. Or rather, it was the way he had said it that made me uneasy. “Sacrifice?” I asked. “Err, what... I mean, who is...?”
“Why you, of course,” King Flaky Nibbles said with relish. Two of his guards stepped forwards and took a firm grip of my arms. “You’re to be the sacrifice.” He stepped up towards me and briefly tickled me in the trouser area with far too much familiarity.
“We’re going to harvest your nuts,” he said with a wink.