They say that fear can paralyse you; that terror can strike you like a bolt from above, fusing you to the spot, stifling the scream in your throat, stopping your heart and turning your blood to ice. Fortunately, in my case, mortal dread makes me run like a bastard, which seems to me to be a far more sensible approach to impending disaster.
So when that huge sack of animated mucus reared up before me I lost no time in executing a swift, orderly retreat... Only to find my way blocked by two more of the disgusting things. Spinning round, I quickly ascertained that we were surrounded. There was no escape! Now would be a good time to panic
“What the hell are they?” I demanded.
“They do look very familiar,” said Professor Mendes.
One of the creatures leaned in towards me and I flinched as I felt its hot breath issuing from the shapeless slit of a mouth. Its antennae were in constant motion, twitching this way and that, entirely independently. Its skin was greenish-grey, and glistened with slime. “It-it-it looks like a...”
“It looks like a giant snail,” Cathy suddenly shouted excitedly. She clapped her hands. “Oh please, can I keep one?”
She was right, they did look like snails - although, judging by the size of them, this lot could have devoured your vegetable patch in ten seconds flat, then followed it up with your garage for dessert. Worryingly, they seemed to have something of a malevolent glint in their dead, black eyes. Not only that, but they were shuffling closer, gradually closing the circle around us.
“What are we going to do?” I spluttered. “They’re going to eat us, I know it. They’re going to mush us up and make us into soup.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous,” the Professor snapped. “Why would they want to do that? I’m sure they’re perfectly harmless and friendly.” He stepped forward towards the closest of them. It checked its advance, motionless save for the antennae that constantly probed the air.
The Professor coughed to clear his throat. The noise echoed along the ravine. Then he looked up into the amorphous face of the snail. “Good morning,” he announced. He gestured back at the three of us. “We are strangers on your world,” he said. “We come in peace to offer the hand of friendship.”
And to demonstrate this he stretched out his right hand. Quite what he expected the snail thing to do was beyond me, since it clearly didn’t have the social skills necessary to reciprocate. Nevertheless, it displayed some interest, craning its great head slowly forwards until what passed for its face was directly level with the Professor’s.
“Ah good,” Professor Mendes began, staring at his mirror image reflected in the snail’s great glassy eyes. “I’m sure this will prove to be a great day for our respective species. We stand here and the dawn of a new era of mmmmgggghhhg...”
The Professor’s words were cut short when, with a completely unexpected turn of speed, the snail suddenly opened its great gaping mouth and clamped itself over his head and shoulders. I watched with an odd mix of horror and amusement as the old boy started to flap and flail helplessly. “Help, help,” I heard his muffled cries. “It’s sucking my brain! It’s sucking my brain!”
My mirth was soon cut short as a realised that the others were moving in on us. One of them got close enough to touch me. Its skin was cold and clammy. I started, twisted around, only to find another of the slimy bastards coming straight for me. “We’re done for!” I shouted.
Cathy let out a piercing cry and made a run for it. “They’re going to kill us!” she shouted, but she didn’t get two yards before one of the monsters took hold of her leg and dragged her screaming to the ground.
“I don’t think they’re going to be our friends,” I heard the Professor shouting from halfway down the gullet of the ghastly gastropod.
“Hit them with sticks! Hit them with sticks!” I shouted, then dived to the floor and made a desperate attempt to burrow beneath a small rock for protection. I felt one of them glide straight over my back, and the feeling of that slimy residue pasted to my skin remains one of the most truly awful experiences of my life.
“I give up! I give up!” I screamed in absolute panic. “Just don’t eat my head.” And then, lying there with my face pressed into the dirt, I did the only thing a grown man in my position could do - I started to cry. As the shrieks and cries carried on the above me, as my prostrate form was buffeted by the struggling forms of my fellows, I gave myself over to great ear-splitting wails and shudders. Again and again I pleaded for release - and as I listened to the screams and shouts, and the terrible rending of flesh, all I could do was press my hands tightly over my ears, push myself harder into the ground and wait for my inevitable demise.
It never came. The sounds stopped. I was aware of stillness. Then someone tapped me gently on the shoulder. I rolled over and found myself looking up at Janet. She was streaked with dirt, and blood, and mucus. Her face was set hard, a strange gleam in her eyes. She gripped a sturdy branch in her right hand, freshly splintered halfway along its length, and that too was covered in dirt and slime. She was saying something now. I couldn’t hear anything, but I could see her lips moving. Oh my God, the attack had rendered me deaf! Oh... no... I suddenly realised that I was still covering my ears. I slowly, cautiously moved my hands away, as if I was still worried about hearing something that might upset me. “Sorry,” I said. “What did you say?”
“I said,” Janet repeated, “it’s okay, you can get up now.”
I took Janet’s arm and she helped me to my feet. Tremulously, I looked around me. There was no sign of the giant snails. Actually, that’s not strictly true - there was more than a little indication of one of them. It was smeared fairly liberally around the immediate vicinity, blobs of soft tissue clinging listlessly to fragments of its shattered shell. Janet threw down the stick. “They’re not so tough,” she said with a shrug.
I searched around again. “The Professor?” I hardly dared to ask. “And Cathy?”
Janet frowned. “The other snails beat a retreat when this one, erm...”
“Exploded?” I offered helpfully.
“Pretty much,” Janet agreed, nodding vigorously.
“Good,” I said distractedly as I wiped the dirt and debris from my face.
“They took the Professor and Cathy with them,” Janet added.
“Good,” I said again as I peeled a couple of fallen leaves and an old crisp packet from my forehead - Prawn and Lemon flavour, I think.
“God knows what’s going to happen to them,” Janet said. “They must have taken them back to their lair. Look, you can see their slime trails. I think we’d better get moving before it’s too late.”
I followed her pointing finger. You could clearly make out a number of glistening lines, weaving and criss-crossing as they snaked along the valley floor and into the distance. Janet was quite right, we really did ought to move. “Come on then,” I said. “Let’s get out of here before they come back with reinforcements.” I started to walk off in the opposite direction to the slime trails, but stopped after several paces when I realised that Janet wasn’t following. Looking back I saw that she was still standing on the same spot, surrounded by bits of dismembered snail.
“Well come on!”
“We have to go after them,” Janet said simply. “We have to rescue the Professor and Cathy.”
“Rescue...?” I spluttered. “Are you quite insane?” I asked, and as soon as I spoke I realised that I already knew the answer to that question. “Look, I’m all for comradeship and sticking by your buddies, and all that, but I’m not going to tussle with those snails again for anybody.” By ‘tussle’ I meant that I wasn’t prepared to roll around in the dirt, crying and pleading for mercy. It lacks dignity. So does running away, of course, but at least it doesn’t get your trousers dirty.
Janet, however, did not share my point of view. “Well I’m going to help them, even if you won’t,” she said, and she turned and started off. I did the same, in the opposite direction. My plan was to head back to the Podulator. And then? Well, if I couldn’t get it working, I’d phone a cab or something. Just then I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. Was there something moving up there on the edge of the ravine? I thought I glimpsed a flash of russet fur, the flick of a bushy tail. It was probably nothing. Maybe it was just my imagination. Even so, I suddenly felt quite vulnerable and alone.
I turned around. “Hey wait for me!” I shouted after Janet. “Wait! Wait! I’m coming with you!”
I ran to catch up with her. Hell, she may have been as mad a lemon in a hula skirt, but there was safety in numbers, and she wasn’t half handy with that stick.
The ravine twisted and turned for some considerable distance. In places it got quite narrow, and the cliffs on either side seemed to loom over us menacingly. Other sections were wider, shallower, but the loose shale that crunched underfoot made the going difficult and often treacherous. As we walked we spent the time in conversation, albeit a very one-sided one. Janet took it upon herself to tell me, completely unbidden, about her life, her loves, her pets, her family, and anything else that popped into existence in the space between her ears.
It is a tragic fact of life that the most loquacious people you meet are almost always the most boring. Janet spent at least half an hour telling me all about her hobby of collecting hinges: door hinges, drawer hinges, closet hinges, gate hinges, the fascinating variety of hinges you can get for drop-leaf tables, early mediaeval hinges, steel hinges, aluminium hinges, bronze hinges... bored yet? Well imagine that for half an hour. I never knew that there were so many hinges. Frankly, I never cared, and if the daft tart had possessed the decency to pause for breath once in a while, I would have told her so.
Admittedly, she did make the effort to draw me into the conversation on several occasions, but my responses to her questions were confined to monosyllabic muttering, accompanied by unenthusiastic grunts and nods. To be honest, I was giving more attention to our surroundings. I couldn’t help feeling that we were being watched, and several times I thought I saw movement up on the cliff edge.
Eventually the slime trail led us to a pathway that rose up out of the ravine. It was steep, very steep. Quite early on in my life I had made a conscious decision to forego the pleasures of hill walking to concentrate instead on the far more pleasurable vocation of sitting in front of the TV and eating pizza. This was why I now found myself seriously out of breath, and my heart was pounding fit to burst from my chest. Janet seemed to have no problem at all, and bounded up the hill with a breezy casualness that I found insufferable. I would have kicked the smug cow, if only I’d been able to catch her.
When I reached the top, some considerable time later, I found her waiting for me. She was grinning stupidly, but I didn’t have the energy to hit her. This area was thick with vegetation: long winding tendrils, wiry little bushes, tough creepers winding around thick trunks, upwards to a tightly meshed canopy of green that allowed little light to penetrate beneath. At least there was a pathway through it. Two boulders stood either side of a much-travelled track of hard, compacted earth. All the same, I didn’t like the look of it.
“We’re still hot on the trail,” Janet said, far too jauntily for my liking. I could see the slime trail of the snails, coating the ground, glistening from rocks and protruding roots. She took my hand and led me into the forest, as an over-protective mother might lead her child around a department store. At any other time I would have pulled free and slapped her for her impertinence, but as the foliage closed around us I found it oddly comforting.
We pressed on. She was quiet now. It might have been because she had nothing left to say, but I suspect the real reason was that she was starting to feel as nervous as I was. Several times we stopped and listened, and the looks we exchanged seemed to say it all. We could both feel it: we were being followed by someone - or something.
Suddenly Janet flung out a pointing finger, inadvertently striking me in the face. “Look!” she cried, genuine alarm in her voice. “What is it?”
“It’s my nose,” I said painfully as I extracted the stupid woman’s digit from my nostril, and thus cut short her nasal adventure. “And I’ll thank you not to shove your grubby digits up it.”
“No, no, no,” she cried, still pointing. “I mean behind your nose.”
Behind my nose? Could she mean my face? “That strange, twisted artefact,” she continued. I don’t think she meant my face. “Over there, by that tree,” she further elaborated. Ah! So she didn’t mean my face.
I looked to where she was pointing. Beyond a tangle of vegetation I could make out a patch of blue. It looked like metal. I took a step closer. “Be careful,” Janet called behind me. I took another step towards it - partly out of bravado, partly out of curiosity, but mostly because I had glimpsed a headlight.
“It’s all right,” I said. I started to clear away some of the vines and fronds and smothered it. “It’s nothing, look. Just an old car that’s someone’s dumped here.”
The windscreen was smashed, the nearside wing buckled and two of the wheels were missing. It was quite obviously a family hatchback, but Janet put an entirely different interpretation on it.
“It’s some sort of creature,” she said, her voice a mixture of wonder and fear. “A metallic creature. A life form entirely alien to our own. Is it dead.”
“Dead?” I repeated. “What are you talking about? It’s a Ford Fiesta.”
“No, no, no,” she insisted. “I tell you, it’s some kind of alien creature whose body chemistry is completely different from our own.”
“And I tell you it’s a Ford bloody Fiesta,” I replied, equally adamant. “Come on, even you must admit that any creature with wing mirrors, furry dice and two-speed windscreen wipers is implausible, not to say impossible.”
I moved closer, and peered in through the driver’s window. There was broken glass on the floor and seat, a tattered old map on the dashboard and a half-eaten packet of Beef and Cucumber crisps. “Of course, the real mystery is how it came to be here,” I said. “We’re nowhere near a road. Strange place to find an abandoned car.”
I walked around the front of the vehicle, and as I did so I jumped with alarm at a brief, sharp metallic growl. “Come away from there Geoff!” Janet screamed.
I silenced her. “It’s nothing,” I said, my heart gradually returning to its normal pace as I realised that all we had heard had been the shifting of metal. “I must have just disturbed something when I cleared that creeper.” I was standing directly in front of it now, staring at its bent front bumper and feeling fairly confident, when it did a most curious thing. In fact, I’m still not sure, even now, that I didn’t imagine it. It winked. One of the headlights just flicked closed for a moment. I remember standing there, not frightened as such, but riveted to the spot in a state of confusion.
“Janet,” I said slowly. “Janet, I think we’d better leave.”
“What is it?” she said, and the stupid woman took a step closer.
“Go, go now!” I said. Again we heard that weird metallic growl, longer this time. The car suddenly lurched forwards, straight towards me. I staggered backwards and fell, tangled up in a mesh of creeper and vine. The car reared up above me, growling once more, and with a shower of brake fluid dripping from its slavering engine compartment, it triumphantly blew its horn.
As I lay there, desperately trying to free myself of the binding undergrowth, it bore down upon me, and I knew that even Janet’s stick would not be able to save me now.