We climbed upwards, along the sandy path out of the village, Janet, myself and a thirty-strong squad of highly trained commando squirrels. Most of the village had turned out to see us off. King Flaky Nibbles had made a short, impassioned speech before presenting Janet with a new fighting stick, delicately engraved with the words ‘Stitch that slimeball’. He then kissed Commander Shagpaw firmly on the lips, kicked me in the bollocks and waved us goodbye. Ah, parting can be such sweet sorrow, I reflected, still bitterly aware of the constant throbbing of my family jewels.
Morning had barely broken, and the air was still crunchy enough to hurt your lungs. Already the dew-sodden golf courses were filling up with squirrels, and they wished us luck as we passed on by. Before long we had left them far behind and had plunged into the depths of the forest, General Bushtail marching at the head of the column, whilst Shagpaw scouted on ahead, zig-zagging randomly across the path like a manic bluebottle, alert for the slightest whisper of a rustle in the undergrowth. Occasionally he would disappear into the bushes and we would hear a frantic crashing and banging before he would return to the path, announce calmly that everything was all right, then disappear again to tussle with more potential hazards. Quite frankly, he was getting on my tits, but the squirrels seemed to be reassured by his constant vigilance, at least.
At one point he stopped dead and held up his hand, signalling us to remain motionless. He was staring down at the ground: at a rock half buried in the path. He watched it for quite a while. I, for one, failed to see what the fascination was, but when I calmly suggested that the Commander may have finally flipped, General Bushtail shushed me into silence. After a while, Shagpaw bent down to examine the rock more carefully, and held this position for a good three minutes, being careful not to get too close. Then he straightened up, told everyone that it was all right and our party proceeded.
As I passed over the rock in question - a perfectly normal rock, to all intents and purposes, I gave it an exploratory prod with the toe of my boot. It growled at me in response, and so I doubled my pace and caught up with the others.
We continued in this ridiculous fashion, shuffling along the pathway behind Commander Shagpaw, occasionally stopping whilst he inspected more potential hazards: a sly looking twig here, a suspect piece of rubble there - and an evil looking turd, to which the Commander instructed us to give a wide berth, lest we should awaken it from its slumber. It was all a bit over-the-top, but at least we weren’t leaving the squad open to a surprise attack.
That said, after a while I began to get a little uneasy. Having grown bored of Janet’s inane conversation, I had left her chatting to the General and had fallen back, trailing some distance behind the rest of the party. It wasn’t long before I began to get the impression we were being followed. It was just an odd feeling, that’s all, nothing concrete. I stopped a couple of times to check, but neither heard nor saw anything. Maybe I was letting my imagination run away with me? After all, the gentle swinging of the branches could easily have been precipitated by our own passage; the sharp crack of twigs could be just my imagination. I stopped to look around once more, and this time I did see something. It was brief, but unmistakable: something moved in the undergrowth.
I felt the blood run cold through my veins. “General!” I tried to call out, but my voice emerged as a whisper, as dry and dusty as the leaves that littered the forest floor. I was rooted to the spot. “General!” I called out again, more successfully this time. “General Bushtail, there’s something following us!”
“Yeah,” I heard the General’s voice float back to me. “Whatever.”
I risked a glance over my shoulder. The squad marched on, without breaking their stride. General Bushtail himself was deep in conversation with Janet, and didn’t spare me a second look. Turning back, I caught my breath: there was no movement in the undergrowth; the undergrowth was moving! Thick green leaves promptly wrapped themselves about my face, blocking off the air. All I could see was a mask of green; and all I could smell was mould and caterpillars.
Wriggling about helplessly, I was suddenly much relieved to hear muffled footsteps running back along the path. I was pulled clear, falling backwards in a heap on top of Janet, and since she was far too bony to be comfortable, I sprang quickly to my feet.
It was then that I saw my attacker for the first time: about ten feet tall, wrapped in a cocoon of dark green leaves, something white and glistening at the centre, like a massive brain. With a start I recognised my assailant was a cauliflower: a giant cauliflower, wriggling and squirming as the squirrel platoon around it tried to subdue it with small arms fire.
This was no ordinary cauliflower. I had seen ordinary cauliflowers before. Ordinary cauliflowers don’t try to rip your face off. Ordinary cauliflowers don’t stage surprise attacks on you while you’re wandering around the fruit and veg section of your local grocery store. Ordinary cauliflowers don’t - and I think I can say this without fear of contradiction, although I admit I am in no way an expert on the subject - they don’t execute a full frontal attack at the head of a small army of baby carrots whilst you’re walking past a farmyard.
This one was displaying a disturbing degree of animosity. What’s more, it seemed to be practically impervious to assault. The squirrels’ attempts to subdue it had about as much effect as attacking a cathedral with a toffee apple. Bullets just maddened it. I watched it roll forward and two of the platoon went beneath it. I didn’t see what happened to them, but from the sound of their agonised screams, I doubted whether we’d see them in one piece again.
“Fall back!” cried the General. “Fall back!” And as the squirrels retreated, the General himself stepped forward to tackle the mutant vegetable single-handed.
“What’s he doing?” Janet gasped. “How do you kill a cauliflower? He’ll be pulverised.”
And then suddenly I knew - I knew how to kill it! I snatched Janet’s engraved stick, ran forward and shoved the General aside. He muttered an oath as he fell to the floor, and I stood before the giant creature alone. It reared up and roared as only a giant cauliflower can. And then, as it fell back down towards me, I lunged at it.
“Die, you bastard! Die!” I screamed, and I plunged the stick into its fleshy white heart.
Much to my surprise, the creature didn’t die. Actually, ‘surprise’ isn’t really the word - much to my abject horror, the creature didn’t die. It didn’t even arrest its headlong flight towards me, and so I did the only thing anybody could do in a situation like this: I curled up into a ball, hands over my head and started to cry like a baby.
Moments later, I saw a blinding white flash and felt a searing wave of heat. By rights, by this time, I should have been dead, torn limb from limb. Instead, I was most definitely alive, if somewhat scorched and covered in something that I strongly suspected was shredded cauliflower. I slowly stood up, finding myself amongst the debris of the vegetable, which General Bushtail had very kindly, and in the nick of time, disassembled for me with the help of a small grenade.
He walked over to me, brushed the dirt from his uniform, lit a cigar and blew smoke into my eye. “Wanna tell me what all that was about?”
I looked down at the stick in my hand. It was broken. “Well, I thought...” I began, then quietly tailed off. “Stick,” I said, holding up the weapon, hoping that would explain everything.
“Are you a retard?” the General asked simply, with no discernible hint of malice.
“No, no,” I responded. “I just thought, you know, it’s a cauliflower - so I’d go for its heart.”
The General nodded disparagingly. “Uh huh,” he said. “The heart... Well, you know, I think we may have learnt a valuable lesson. You see, what you’ve done there is you’ve confused ‘heart’ - i.e. the muscular organ that plays such a vital part in the cardiovascular system of most animal life - with the ‘heart’ of a cabbage - which is just a thick lump of jack shit that doesn’t really do much at all. Just because it’s the same word, boy, don’t mean it’s the same thing.”
I nodded. “Yes, yes, I did,” I mumbled in my humiliation.
“Hell, you might find truth in mathematics, boy, but you ain’t gonna find it in lingo,” the General continued. “Words are just a whole bunch of airy-fairy nonsense, popularised by the type of know-nothing writers and faggot poets who are gonna find themselves getting seriously killed by giant vegetables if they don’t wise-up pretty damn sharpish. You should leave this kind of thing to us.”
“Sorry,” I replied. “I didn’t think.”
The General grinned. “Yeah well, that’s the fundamental difference between you and me kid,” he said. “You’re a stupid bastard and destined to die young. I’m smart and I’m gonna live to a ripe old age.”
As he spoke we all heard a sudden, loud hissing noise. The sky turned dark, the ground shook, and moments later a huge crater had opened up in exactly the spot where General Bushtail had been standing. As the dust cleared, I leaned over and looked down into the smoking chasm. The earth was scorched and blacked, small fires burned here and there, and there seemed to be a thin layer of squirrel pâté spread across the floor of the crater. Moments later I was joined by Commander Shagpaw, who made a sucking noise through his teeth as he stared down into the hole.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Struck by meteorite,” Commander Shagpaw replied simply. He shrugged, as if this sort of thing happened on a daily basis. “Shit happens,” he added, then led me away from the edge. “Come on, we’d better keep moving.”
“Yeah, this is the spot,” said Commander Shagpaw with a degree of satisfaction.
We were at the edge of the forest, before a vast plain of scrub that surrounded the Mucon city. Shagpaw was propped against a fallen tree trunk, watching the mighty walls through imaginary binoculars, made by looking through the pinched thumb and forefinger of both hands. “This is probably going to be the best way in,” he said, “but it won’t be easy. Here, see for yourself.”
He passed me the imaginary binoculars. I could see the imposing concrete walls, and beyond them tall, functional looking structures that reached up to the sky.
“Are you sure this is the Mucon city?” I asked doubtfully. “It looks more like a multi-storey car park to me.”
“Yeah, well, I expect this is where they park their cars,” said Shagpaw.
I looked again. There was a gatehouse about two thirds of the way along the wall. “It’s heavily guarded,” I said doubtfully. I passed the imaginary binoculars to Janet. “Here,” I said, “take a look.”
Janet already had one hand held up to her eye. “It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve already got a pretend telescope. I can see the gatehouse, and I think you’re right. We’re going to need some sort of plan.”
“A plan?” said Commander Shagpaw. “Ah well, if it’s a plan you’re wanting...”
Who would have thought that Commander Shagpaw would have had the presence of mind to bring an overhead projector with him? He seated the whole platoon before it and, with the help of various charts and diagrams, outlined his plan to get us into the Mucon city. Not that it was much of a plan - basically it was the old ‘prisoner and escort’ routine, with several of us disguised as Mucons using whatever materials we could scavenge from the immediate locality. And so, an hour later, I found myself ambling across the plain, wearing a couple of cardboard boxes and with an old waste bin strapped to my back.
There were five of us in disguise, including Commander Shagpaw. Janet and some of the other squirrels were masquerading as our ‘captives’. To complete the illusion, and to maximise my discomfort, I had been liberally smeared with axle grease, which made the journey not only foolhardy, but also treacherous underfoot.
It was a nerve-wracking trek to the gatehouse. I could barely make out anything through the slit cut in the cardboard box covering my face, but I could see the Mucons on guard watching our approach, at first with alarm, then with curiosity, then, bizarrely, with a sense of welcome. It seemed that the dumb bastards were actually going to fall for our subterfuge. In fact, as we drew close, one of them actually waved to me.
“All right Dave?” it said as we came to a halt before them. It leaned in towards me, its feelers constantly moving as it brought its black, glistening face next to mine. Its voice was soft and sibilant, its breath was hot and smelt of crisps. “How’s the family?”
I was shaking by now. Surely it must have spotted the words ‘this way up’ stamped across my cardboard torso? What’s more, I wasn’t really prepared for the small talk. “Oh, you know...” I mumbled. “Err, not bad... Dotting along... Can’t complain.”
The Mucon nodded. “How’s your eldest, then?” it enquired. “Does the daft bastard still want to be a tightrope walker?”
“Err, yeah,” I said, and I shrugged, rolled my eyes and tried to affect a polite laugh. “Heh heh, daft bastard, eh?” Commander Shagpaw gently nudged me, prompting me to get to the point. “Yeah, anyway,” I said, “we’ve got these here prisoners, to be taken for questioning. So if you could just let us through -”
“Prisoners, eh?” said the Mucon, looking down and consulting a clipboard. “Questioning, you say? Have you got a G-38b?”
“Erm...?” I began, uncertainly. I didn’t know what a G-38b was, but I was reasonably confident that I wasn’t currently in possession of one. I made a great show of patting imaginary pockets. “You know, I can’t seem to... that is, to say... well, I think I may have left it in my other shell.”
“Oh come on, Dave,” said the Mucon guard in a playfully exasperated tone. “You know we can’t let prisoners through without the right form. We need a properly signed and dated G-38b before we can let you through the gate, let alone start interrogating and and torturing them.”
“Ah yes,” I said, beginning to understand. “Silly me. I don’t suppose you could just overlook it this time? ”
“Don’t even ask,” the Mucon guard responded. “You know as well as I do that they’d have my stripes if I did that.”
I took a good long look at him. He didn’t actually have stripes, but I reasoned that he was speaking metaphorically. “Oh come on,” I said, trying one last time. “For old times’ sake?”
“More than my job’s worth,” said the big snail, and so we turned and trudged disappointedly away.
“Okay, so we were defeated by paperwork that time,” said Commander Shagpaw, standing at his overhead projector once more. “But my next idea is bound to succeed. I call it my ‘look at what you could have won’ routine.”
As plans go it was daring, certainly; audacious, undoubtedly. It would require great planning and organisation, and no small measure of craftsmanship. Personally, I thought it was bloody stupid, but despite the strength of my convictions, my feelings were not taken into consideration.
We built a giant speedboat out of wicker and old shoelaces, dragged it out onto the plain and hid inside it. Meanwhile, Commander Shagpaw, wearing an enormous false moustache over the top of his own - not inconsiderable - whiskers, trotted up to the gatehouse to announce to the Mucons that they had won this magnificent gift in a prize draw.
The idea, you will no doubt have gathered, was that they would take the speedboat into the city, and us along with it. It wasn’t the most original of schemes, admittedly, but it did have the advantage of having succeeded once before, and on that occasion our historic predecessors had made a much less exotic offering.
We waited in silence, our faces lit by the speckled patterns of light flitting through the wicker walls, alert for any movement, any sound. Eventually we heard Commander Shagpaw’s voice outside. “It’s all right, lads, you may as well come out,” he said gloomily. “They didn’t go for it.”
We unhooked the door and filed out onto the plain. “They turned it down?” I said, trying to effect surprise, but only managing to sound vaguely sarcastic.
“They said that they are essentially a terrestrial species,” Commander Shagpaw said with a sigh, “and since their city is land-locked they really have no use for a speedboat.” He shrugged. “They asked if there was a cash alternative.”
“How about a giant wicker tea service?” Janet suggested helpfully.
“No,” said Shagpaw. “I think what we need is a far less subtle approach.”
Plan C worked! and no one was more surprised that myself. Hiding around the corner, we watched as Squad Leader Knothole approached the Mucon guards and asked them if they had ever thought about letting Jesus into their lives. Whilst they were distracted by the Squad Leader’s devilishly convoluted religious arguments, we were able to slip past them completely unnoticed.
We headed straight for the main building and stopped to get our bearings. Passageways led off left and right, leading to further junctions and intersections. “Corridors!” I said. “I just knew there’d be corridors. So which way now?”
“We need to find Nutkins’ blender,” said Janet.
“Obviously,” I replied.
“And Professor Mendes and Cathy,” she added.
“If we must,” I muttered.
“Hang on, this should help,” said Commander Shagpaw, unrolling a large map. It showed the bare outline of the Mucon city, inside which was an empty white square with the words ‘Here Be Snails’ printed in large letters. “I think we must be somewhere here,” he said pointing to the blank space.
“Here, who are you?” said a voice behind us. We turned to find ourselves facing a Mucon.
“We’ve come about the guttering,” I replied, thinking quickly.
“Oh, that’s all right then,” the Mucon said, then looked puzzled. “Wait a minute, you’re not due until Wednesday.”
“Scatter!” Commander Shagpaw shouted.
“What?” I replied, as I found myself deserted. Suddenly Janet grabbed me and dragged me down and adjacent corridor, where we ran head first into an advancing detachment of Mucons.
We skidded to a halt. “Err, guttering?” I said hopefully.
The lead Mucon slowly shook his head.
“Oh, all right then,” I said, and suddenly pointed down the corridor. “They went that way!” I cried.
Again the Mucon shook his head and he and his squad started sliding steadily towards us.
“Don’t like that one either, eh?” I responded dejectedly as they grabbed us.
I looked at Janet with thinly veiled hatred as we were dragged, pushed, pummelled and kicked in the direction of the detainment cells. Promising to deal with us later, they threw us inside, and the door thumped closed behind us.
“You can’t do this to me!” I shouted in desperation, hammering on the impenetrable, immovable barrier. “You can’t keep me here - Doctor Who is on, and I haven’t set the video!”
Realising it was useless, I turned to find myself facing two familiar faces. There, sitting on a bench in front of us, looking pretty dishevelled and distraught, were Cathy and the Professor.
The Professor gazed up at me, a spark of recognition in his eyes. “Dickson!” he said, rising shakily to his feet. “Dickson, good heavens... Where the fuck have you been?”