“...And so these creatures brought us here and demanded that I sort out their plumbing,” explained Professor Mendes, with a shrug.
I was slumped on the bench with my chin in my hands, while the Professor, contrary to my wishes, told me about what kind of day he’d had.
“Apparently they get terrible trouble with blocked pipes,” the old boy continued. “Obviously, when they captured us, it must have been perfectly apparent to them that I am something of a technical genius.”
“Father is very clever,” Cathy chipped in.
“Well, quite,” the Professor acknowledged immodestly. “And so they naturally decided to harness my abilities. They demanded that I fix their waste disposal unit, then locked us in this impenetrable room, with no hope of escape.”
“Yes,” I said gloomily. “It’s something of a problem, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” the Professor shrugged. “All it needed was a new washer.”
“Not the waste disposal,” I snapped. “I meant that getting out of this room is going to be a problem.” I looked around at the four bare walls, and knew that if I didn’t escape soon, I would be driven insane. It wasn’t the confinement so much as the company that I found so distressing. “What I don’t understand is why lock us up at all?” I asked. “What can they want with us? Why not just finish us off and have done with it?”
“My, my,” said Professor Mendes, laying on the sarcasm. “You are a cheery soul, aren’t you? I’m glad you dropped in, you’ve really brightened my day. The fact is, you ignorant young tit, these snail things have a lot of very exotic machinery in this city of theirs, and they’re not too good at maintaining it themselves.”
“Yes, well,” I said, ”I don’t suppose they have the technical know-how.”
“It’s not that,” said the Professor. “They just can’t hold a screwdriver. But they do seem somewhat ignorant of technology. I think they buy a lot of it from the catalogue on easy terms. They have all sorts of stuff: juice extractors, vibrating foot massagers, electric tin openers. Do you know, they even have this wonderful machine that can blend two entirely different objects into one entity. They use it to make exotically flavoured crisps.”
“Professor Nutkins’ blender!” Janet exclaimed. And at the Professor’s puzzled expression she went on to explain all about our adventures: our meeting with the squirrel people, the origin of the blending machine, our assault on the city. She had just got to the bit with the speedboat when the door opened and one of the Mucons came in. It left a tray on the floor in front of us, then reversed backwards over its own trail, sealing the door once more.
“Ah!” the Professor said, clapping his hands together in delight. “Food.”
I looked down at the tray. On it were four bowls filled with a thick brown substance that looked not entirely unlike excrement. “What is it?” I asked.
“It’s excrement,” said the Professor.
“The Mucons seemed to have got it into their heads that this is what we eat,” Cathy said. “It’s really quite unpleasant. We’ve tried explaining to them that their menu is inadequate, but we’ve had trouble getting through to them.”
The Professor nevertheless scooped up one of the bowls and started to tuck in. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” he said, as he shovelled in another fork full. “You develop a taste for it after a while.”
I must admit that watching him eat was making me feel a little ill. I looked down at the remaining three bowls, then away at the door. “Well, I’m not putting up with this shit,” I said. “I mean to escape.”
“Escape!” said the Professor, looking up from his lunch. “Quite impossible!” he exclaimed. “If you seriously think you can get away from here, then you’re a bigger twat than I took you for - and I’ll have you know that I think you’re a pretty big twat.”
“Nevertheless,” I said, sounding far more determined than I actually felt. “I am, going to escape from here - and you’re coming with me.”
“Aww,” the Professor sighed. “But I like it here. I’ve got quite comfortable. And the Mucons have promised me a plate of sick for breakfast tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve changed my mind: I’m going to escape and you’re going to stay here, you twisted old bastard.”
Despite my determination, I realised it wasn’t going to be as easy as all that. I asked everybody to turn out their pockets to see that if there was anything we could use. All I had was a set of keys and a cigarette lighter. Janet had a packet of tissues, a comb and a small book of stamps. Cathy had a pocket diary, a miniature trampoline, two chainsaws and a small bag of charcoal briquettes. Nothing we could use amongst that lot, although the stamps might come in handy. Still, there was always the Professor. Unfortunately he stubbornly refused to turn out his pockets.
“An Englishman’s pockets are his castle,” he said. He patted his jacket pockets. “See, nothing there anyway.”
“What about your trousers?” I said.
“Ha!” replied the old coot. “If you think I’m letting you into my trousers, you can think again, you deviant.”
“Listen, the thought of going through your trousers gives me no pleasure, whatsoever,” I told him, and, indeed, the very mention of it made me shiver. “Nevertheless, you may have something in there that will help us out of this mess.”
The Professor grasped his waistband and adopted a firm stance. “How dare you!” he said. “I’ll have you know that the contents of my trousers are of no use to anybody!”
“That I can believe,” I muttered beneath my breath and turned away.
“What? What’s that?” the Professor responded. He fiddled around with something in his ear. “I can’t hear you. I think my batteries must be low.”
I turned to look at him. “You’re wearing a hearing aid?” I said. This could be the very thing we needed. Persuading Janet and Cathy to hold the protesting old man down, I used my front door key as a makeshift screwdriver and started to adjust the discreet little device in the Professor’s ear.
“Now, then,” I explained as I worked. “What we need is some sort of distraction. Something that will throw the Mucons into a panic. Something that they’re really not going to expect.”
The Professor wriggled and struggled, but he calmed down a little after Janet had thumped him a few times.
“So,” I continued, “simply by modifying the output range of the Prof’s hearing aid, looping back the signal, cross-fazing with the multi-wave inducer, reversing the polarity of the neutron flow and then flicking this switch to the on position...”
I finished working and stood back. “...We can generate a nice little effect.”
The Professor got slowly to his feet. There was a look of deep concern on his face. “I’m not going to like this, am I?” he said in an ominous voice.
I steadily shook my head. “No,” I said. “Not one bit.”
Suddenly there was a flash from the Professor’s left ear, we all heard a sharp crack, then his head caught fire.
“Cool!” said Cathy. “Where did you learn to do that?”
I shrugged. “Internet,” I replied. But there wasn’t a moment to lose. I hammered on the cell door. “Help! Help!” I shouted. “We’ve got a head fire!”
The door opened and the Mucon guard glided in, stopped dead in its slimy tracks and looked at the Professor with something approaching awe. Maybe it thought that the burning old man was some kind of deity sent from on high? Or maybe it thought that human beings regularly spontaneously ignited as a matter of habit? I guess we’ll never know, for while it was still trying to work out what was going on, Janet hit it with a chair and we all ran out into the corridor. Thankfully the Mucons took matters of health and safety very seriously, and we found a fire bucket full of sand just around the corner. We took a moment to snub out the Professor’s head, then Janet spotted a sign saying ‘Blending Room’. We hurried along, found the room vacant, and blocked the door after us with some furniture.
“This is it!” Janet said. “Professor Nutkins’ blender will be in here somewhere.”
“Oh, screw the blender!” I replied. I looked around. There was equipment piled up everywhere - gadgets, appliances, scraps of half-completed electronic apparatus. “We don’t even know what the damn thing looks like. Let’s just concentrate on getting out of here.”
“Father will know what it looks like,” said Cathy, and we all turned to look at the old man. I wasn’t too hopeful. From the look of him, it was doubtful whether the Prof even knew who he was. He wore a dazed expression, his face was black with soot and there were still wisps of grey smoke coming from his ears. Cathy tried to rouse him.
“Father, father,” she said. “Can you hear me father?”
“Hmmm,” muttered Professor Mendes. “Yes, yes... what? Tell the Arch Deacon he can have all the soup he wants. We won’t be needing the donkey until Tuesday.”
“Professor Mendes?” said Janet. “We need your help, Professor Mendes. The blender - where is it?”
The Professor suddenly looked up at her with wide eyes. “Do you know, I once met a man who could swallow his own foot,” he remarked. “Of course, it left him with a terrible taste in his mouth, and unable to walk for a fortnight.”
“Let me try,” I said. I bent over him. “Professor Mendes,” I said softly. “Professor Mendes, it’s me, Geoff.”
Then I hit him with a table lamp. That seemed to do the trick. He suddenly leapt up, hands reaching out for my neck, and roared: “You bastard! You set fire to my head!”
I hit him with the lamp again, and he careered head-first into the opposite wall. He slumped to the floor, got up again and staggered slightly as he tried to fix me in his sights.
“We don’t have time for this,” I said. “We need to get the blender and get out of here.”
He nodded his understanding. “Fair enough,” he said, rubbing his head. The blow seemed to have brought him to his senses. “I’ll kill you later. It’s that one - that one there.”
He pointed to a squat, dome-shaped device of polished steel. Two parabolic arms emerged on either side, and a third protrusion emerged from the rear, arched over the top and ended in something like an old fashioned gramophone horn, pointing forward. It looked like something cobbled together for a laugh in someone’s lunch hour.
“Is that it?” I said.
“Yes, not very impressive, is it?” the Professor said, somehow knowing exactly what I was thinking. “It looks like something cobbled together in someone’s lunch hour. Nevertheless, it is remarkably effective. The Mucons only seem to be interested in making crisps, but the machine is capable of combining anything - flavours, colours, metals, electronic components. Anything you care to mention.”
“Even living things?” asked Janet.
“Yes, yes, theoretically,” the Professor said. “I don’t see why not.” He moved nearer to the machine in order to point out its functions. “You see, the two objects are placed in the receptor fields generated by these two dishes here, and the resulting combination emerges from the funnel that - ”
There was a sudden sharp banging at the door. “Mucons!” said Janet. “They’ve found us.”
“Time for the lecture later, Prof,” I said, snatching up the machine. “We’ve gotta make a move.” I looked around for an escape route, but we seemed to be short of options.
“What about the ventilation duct?” said Cathy.
Yes, it looked like the only way. It would probably be a bit tight, but it was bound to lead to the outside. I knelt beside it and frantically started to unscrew the cover. Janet was less than encouraging.
“It looks a bit grubby,” she said, doubtfully.
“Yeah, well, that can’t be helped, can it?” I replied grumpily.
“Are you sure we’ll be able to get through it?” Janet persisted.
“We’ll have to,” I muttered, still struggling with the cover.
“It’s just that - ”
“Give it a rest, you soppy woman!” I snapped. I paused, looking up. The banging on the door had increased and the barrier had started to give way. “You can either grit your teeth and bear it, or you can stay here and wait for the Mucons,” I told her bluntly. “Unless, that is, you have a better idea?”
“Well, yes,” said Janet. “We could just use the fire exit.” She pointed to a door with an illuminated ‘Fire Exit’ sign above it.
“Ooh, excellent idea,” said Professor Mendes.
“Nice one,” said Cathy.
“Yes, a fire exit,” I said, stumbling over the words. “Well, yes, I was wondering when you were going to spot that.” Realising that I wasn’t fooling anyone, I tucked the blender beneath my arm and led the way through. We found ourselves outside, on a patch of gravel near the outer wall.
“Now which way?” said Janet.
I was about to reply, when suddenly there was a voice at my elbow. “This way,” said Commander Shagpaw, suddenly appearing from the shadow of a nearby building. Follow me, I’ve got a car waiting.”
The car was a Ford, exactly the same model and colour as the one that had attacked me in the forest the previous day. I held back, the memory of that fearful encounter still fresh in my mind. Commander Shagpaw, acknowledging my reticence assured me that it was quite dead, then held open the door for me. It was also quite full. The survivors of the squirrel raiding party were all crammed inside, a tangle of limbs and torsos, wet noses pressed up against windows. Finding a space amongst them was something of an ordeal in itself. Nevertheless, Cathy, Professor Mendes and I managed to squeeze into the back, while Janet sat up front.
“Hang on,” I said. A thought had occurred to me. “If this car is dead, how is it going to move?”
Commander Shagpaw clambered into the driving seat and buckled up. “Watch,” he said mysteriously. “Squad Leader Knothole, if you please.”
“Sir!” barked the Squad Leader, from somewhere amongst the melee of fur. “Platoon - engage motive units!”
At his command the squirrels all stuck their legs through holes in the floor and started to punt us along. Surprisingly, we began to move forward at something approaching a respectable pace. We were out through the main gate and halfway across the plain before Janet, leaning out of the open window, announced that we had been spotted.
“They’re giving chase!” she cried in alarm.
“Fat lot of good that will do them,” I scoffed, confident that we weren’t likely to be outstripped by a bunch of snails. “What would you say their top speed is? About three metres per day, with the wind behind them - and that’s providing they don’t get distracted by the odd lettuce leaf.”
I laughed, but I saw that Janet was very worried. “You don’t understand,” she said. “They’ve got a motorbike.”
“They’re on motorbikes?” I responded.
“Not ‘motorbikes’ - a motorbike,” Janet clarified. “They’re all balanced on the back of it in pyramid formation.”
I twisted around to see, roughly heaving a couple of my furry fellow passengers aside to afford a proper view. Janet was quite right. A pyramid of fifteen Mucons, balanced on the back of a battered but perfectly serviceable motorbike was giving chase. What’s more, they were gaining on us.”
The Professor had seen it too. “Can’t this thing go any faster?” he demanded.
“Quick march!” Squad Leader Knothole commanded. The vehicle picked up speed, but we were still going too slowly. Nevertheless, we were nearing the edge of the forest, and Commander Shagpaw was confident that we would lose them there. Entering the cover of the trees, he announced that we were going to take a shortcut. He wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right and we left the track, crashing through bushes and narrowly avoiding thick trunks and tangled vines.
Much to my surprise we suddenly found ourselves racing across a busy market square where a cosmopolitan selection of woodland creatures were busily searching for bargains. Narrowly missing a badger pushing a pram, Commander Shagpaw swerved, ploughed through a stack of cardboard boxes and demolished a barrow full of shellfish, before hurtling once more into the depths of the forest.
“That was close,” I said, as I wiped the winkles from my eyes.
“I’ll say,” said Professor Mendes. “Two feet to the left and we’d have scored a direct hit on the fish stall.” He shook his head and dislodged five whelks and a king prawn. “There’s no knowing what might have happened if this car had been hit by a turbot at this sort of velocity.”
Janet had crabs up her nose. “The Mucons!” she said, staring anxiously out of the window. “They’re still following us!”
Actually, I seem to recall that she’d had crabs up her nose when I’d first met her, so circumstances don’t seem to have altered all that much for her.
“No need to worry,” Commander Shagpaw promised. “We’ll shake them off at the bridge,” he said, and we veered off sharply down a side trail.
“Ah yes, the bridge,” I said.
“The bridge, indeed,” the Professor said, with some satisfaction.
“Yes, we’ll lose them at the bridge,” Janet said, nodding her agreement.
“Hey!” Cathy said. “This is just like one of those movies, isn’t it?” she observed. “You know, where the good guys are being chased by the evil police sheriff, and they have to jump the river because the bridge is out.” She smiled. Janet, the Professor and myself exchanged a look of trepidation. Then we passed a painted wooden sign that said ‘bridge out’.
“Don’t panic, we can make this,” Commander Shagpaw said, as we crashed through a barrier, and the broken bridge came in sight.
“I’d like to get out now, please,” I said calmly and firmly.
“Everybody hold tight, it’s going to be a bit rough,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
“Anywhere just here will be fine,” I said, not wanting to be any trouble.
“Here we go!” The Commander gripped the wheel. The squirrels but on an extra spurt of speed. We hit the first section of the bridge then launched ourselves into the space beyond.
I shouted something about wanting the catch the bus, then started to cry; Janet screamed with delight and called out for more; Cathy said that she could see her house from here; and the Professor shit himself. Then, moments later, I was delighted to realise that we had reached the opposite bank, that we were still moving and that I wasn’t dead.
“Done it!” Commander Shagpaw announced with delight, and there was something in his voice that suggested he was more surprised than any of us.
Through the trees we could now see the neat, closely cropped greens of neighbouring golf courses. “We can’t be far from the village now,” Shagpaw said. Suddenly the car hit a rock, one of the squirrels had a blowout and we careered wildly out of control. Wrestling frantically with the wheel, the Commander desperately tried to keep the vehicle steady, but we burst though the trees onto the links, ricocheted off the flag marking the fifteenth hole, leapt a bunker and charged recklessly down the fairway. We clipped an abandoned golf cart and went into a spin, flipped over several times and finally landed in the ornamental fountain in the market square.
We sat for a moment to catch our breath, get our bearings and check to see that there hadn’t been any displacement of our internal organs. Then, finally, Commander Shagpaw spoke. “Well,” he said, unnecessarily. “We’re home”
He wound up his window, opened the door and jumped out. We followed, unceremoniously scrambling over each other as we squeezed out of the car.
“Hallo!” shouted Commander Shagpaw. “We’re back!”
The market square was empty, no one about. In fact, we hadn’t seen a soul playing golf, either. It was all very strange.
“Is there anybody here?” I shouted. “We’re back, and we’ve got the blender!”
Nothing. Shop doors stood open, with no sign of life. Half-eaten meals congealed on the tables outside a nearby restaurant.
“Where is everybody?” said Cathy. “Surely they wouldn’t just - ”
“Shush,” the Professor hissed. He stepped forward, head to one side as he strained to listen. At least, I think that’s what he was doing. It’s just possible that he had wet himself. However, we could all hear something approaching. It was a soft, rustling, leathery sound; the noise of something very big dragging itself over the rough ground.
“It sounds like -” I began, and then stopped suddenly when I realised it had gone dark. There was something behind us. Something large enough to blot out the sun. I turned slowly to see a giant vegetable towering over the buildings to the rear: a cauliflower, dark green, its leaves like thick canvas, and ten times the size of the one that had attacked us on the trail.
“It sounds,” I said, and pointed up at the monster that filled my field of vision. “It sounds like one of those...”