This is the story of Lettuce from the novella Badger’s Waddle. Read, enjoy, spread it around (yes, so long as you acknowledge me as author I have no objection) and tell me what you think.
On the outskirts of Badgers Waddle, in the heart of a wild and rambling countryside stood Little Twee, the cottage home to the Prae family for many generations. Lettuce Mold, last in line, was in the back garden, an improbably long stretch of cultivated land bounded by high and prickly hedges that not only helped keep the world at bay but also safe.
Lettuce straightened up in the early evening, right hand supporting her stiff back, left maintaining a firm hold of her spade’s handle. She brushed back a few strands of grey hair.
“Al’us plant ’tween well-spaced ridges,” Papa Prae, had told her. “And if’n you’re plantin’ early remember to keep ’em covered through the spring, case of a late frost. And keep them hedges high and the fences in good repair,” he’d added. “Don’t never give them varmints an openin’.”
So she’d kept the hedges thick and healthy, and now they topped four metres; and the fences were the best money could buy. Each day at first light she’d drive for a while in papa’s old tractor, checking for perimeter damage, making repairs where needed. She didn’t know how far the garden extended. Neither had Leif, her late husband, rest his soul. Nor her even later father, rest his too. No one did. At some distant point vicious bramble and briar invaded, not to mention the swamp beyond, and the thing that haunted it; but she patrolled as far as she could. Of course, the hedge and fences weren’t the only defences. You couldn’t be too careful where varmints were concerned.
Lettuce surveyed the garden beneath an overcast sky, enjoying the rewarding vista of furrows disappearing into the distance. From the shallow drills where the seeds had been sown came a wonderful exuberance of green leaves. She’d pick them tomorrow. This was the last outdoor crop of the year. Summer – dull, dismal, and wet as it had been, when foliage rot had been a real challenge – was long gone and the autumn days were shortening towards winter. Last year Lettuce had tried an overwintering variety but it hadn’t proved much of a success. The yield had been small and the leaves insipid, lacking any real flavour or crispness. You couldn’t beat spring and summer for quantity and taste but sometimes the declining months could produce a crop of surprising quality, as this one promised.
After cleaning her tools and locking them away in the shed, Lettuce visited the greenhouse. Inside was cool and mostly quiet, smelling of clean, moist soil mixed with the scent of cherry tomatoes. The only sound came from motors that powered the heat exchangers and vents. They maintained the ambient temperature at an even fifty-five degrees. She checked for pests under leaves and was satisfied to find none. All being well she shut and secured the door then set off past the cold frames towards the beautiful white-walled cottage. Lettuce loved the place. Somehow she found the time to keep it in good order, not easy with all the tending the garden needed as well.
In the utility room she stripped off her gardening clothes and washed away the soil of her toil before slipping into a comfy, fluffy pink dressing gown and matching slippers. In the kitchen she made a nice mug of hot, malt-flavoured milk that she carried through to the control room.
Here was Lettuce’s command centre. Settling herself into the console chair, mug carefully placed on a drinks mat, she lit up the one true indulgence she cherished. Through the Havana smoke Lettuce expertly flicked switches, twirled dials and shifted levers. Surveillance monitors glowed. The screens illuminated a functional, Spartan room. Apart from the drinks mat the only objects not directly associated with the security system were an ashtray, a few old-fashioned books on a shelf, and a photograph behind cracked glass. The picture was of her departed husband. Lettuce smiled in fond reminiscence. Leif had been the one to introduce her to the delight of the Cuban harvest. She owed him so much, even in death. The compost heap had never been richer.
The monitors showed a panorama of the garden from the house but the images were dim and grey. She switched to low light mode. That was better. Familiar shapes became visible: the greenhouse, the cold frames, the compost heap.
The two main displays surveyed the endless lengths of the left and right boundaries, each demarcation watched over by a series of cameras. Lettuce had no idea how many there were. On screen she could clearly see the high chain-link barrier, separated from the boundary hedges by rolls of razor wire. All was in good order. She’d patrolled that morning as usual, removing the remains of two pheasants, a vole, and a mouse that had strayed too close. The razor wire intercepted larger interlopers but small creatures weren’t deterred by the coils. Once they touched the fence, however…
Security was absolutely Lettuce’s concern. No one was going to intrude without her knowledge. In addition to the hedge, fence, razor wire and CCTV there was also the fire pit, a shallow but wide trench filled with a highly combustible sludge and primed by a set of wired charges ready to be activated at need. The main triggering mechanism was a set of pressure pads placed strategically between the fence and the trench, but the conflagration could also be initiated directly from the control room. Any breach of the outer defences would activate an alarm summoning Lettuce to respond, but just in case she wasn’t quick enough motion sensors would feed information to the security cameras that would zoom to the source of movement and activate an area denial weapons system capable of hurling 40 mm projectiles at a rate of up to 6,000 per minute.
A third screen iterated a selection of static views from several additional lenses strategically placed to cover those aspects close to the house that didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the main cameras. The pictures cycled endlessly in five-second intervals. This evening the fifth frame in the sequence was black. What should have been an image of the power relay from the grid to the fence was instead a void, an empty vision of night. Lettuce checked the console connections. They seemed okay. Pulling open a panel she scanned the bank of fuses protecting the surveillance and countermeasure systems from overload. Nothing wrong there. Most likely a simple mechanical or electrical fault was to blame; she’d have to check it out. Leaving the cigar in the ashtray, Lettuce tooled up.
The sky was almost black with clouds by the time Lettuce emerged. Though it wasn’t yet night it might as well have been. A strong breeze was whistling through the hedge. Lettuce flicked down the Kork & Spick night-vision viewer on her Kevlar headgear. The world changed to shades of grey-green, ghostly and alien as she traced her path to the faulty camera. She could hear the unsubtle vibration of the fences as power coursed through them; a comforting sound. Flipping the night-vision up she inspected the system with the aid of a small torch mounted to the side of her helmet. Everything looked fine from where she stood. The fault could be in the camera itself. Lettuce trudged to the shed with a sigh, returning with a stepladder. From the top step she inspected the outer casing. Still nothing obvious. She’d have to take the unit indoors for closer examination. There wasn’t enough light to effect repairs out here.
Halfway through unfastening the mounting bolts Lettuce heard a noise above the wind, a muffled sound like a stifled sneeze. She switched off the torch and dropped the K & S back in place. Turning carefully so as not to overbalance she scanned the top line of the hedge beyond the fence. A shimmer in the dusk, a flutter on the edge of sight, a pair of luminous orbs staring covetously over the boundary; a cuniculus gigantica if ever there was one – and the biggest she’d yet seen. Damn! They must have been breeding this one for years!
Abandoning camera and ladder Lettuce raced for the command centre. Seconds later the back garden was bathed in brilliance as floodlights burst into life. How much time did she have? Thumping a large red button on the console Lettuce deployed the chaff: five hundred orange torpedoes launched through slots in the cottage roof. Would they be enough? Would the daucus carota sativus be a sufficient distraction for a grabbit that big?
Little Twee cottage was the salad filling in a turf war sandwich. The open fields and gentle hills to the west were the domain of the Mordults, the nibbling, nose twitching, foot stomping Vengeful Biters. Land grabbers, they were. Grabbits, as Lettuce called them. The east side, with its heaths and overgrown waterways, was the province of the Curserippers, the greedy, pouch stuffing, crepuscular Riverbank Runners, sworn foe of the Mordults. Their feud had gone on for longer than anyone could remember. Not only was Lettuce’s cottage and garden the barrier that kept them apart but the garden of delicious, fresh, crunchy roots and vegetables was a great prize in its own right…
There was no time to change into fatigues. She’d have to make do with just the helmet. Well, the bigger they come the harder they fall, Lettuce thought grimly as she negotiated the Chesterfield in the sitting room to reach the arsenal. The 12-bore wouldn’t make a dent in a cuniculus that size. With luck the area denial system would distract the intruder, turn him aside, but just in case she picked out a GM-94 43mm multi-shot grenade launcher and a compact variant XM8 carbine SMG with shortened barrel. She loaded three thermobaric shells into the GM-94 overhead chamber, slammed a magazine into the SMG, attached spare munitions clips for the rifle to her belt and slipped a grenade bandolier over her head. Recovering and relighting her indulgence Lettuce clenched the butt firmly between her teeth and charged back outside.
Even as her foot crossed the threshold there came a cracking sound as the grabbit broke through the hedge, sending a shower of hawthorn, elder and bramble in all directions. There was never any subtlety about the Mordults; locate an objective and charge! Would the fence be sufficient? The creature’s hide had to be an inch thick but surely that wouldn’t be enough to withstand the burn of a 300 mA, 60-cycle AC blast of 60,000 volts! Would it? As it happened the destruction of the hedge mooted the question. The onslaught had felled woody growth in the direction of the fence. On its own the debris wouldn’t have been enough but reinforced by the mass of the giant Mordult a section of the fence collapsed in sparks and short stabs of lightning. The lights went out. Bugger! The circuit-breakers must have failed!
Restoring her night vision Lettuce refocused. This grabbit was a male. With a massive wide crown and huge drooping ears the thing must have weighed more than an elephant. No wonder the fence had crumpled – and the razor-wire curls had been as readily discounted as the fence. There remained only the trench between Lettuce and the invader – a good thing that the breeding of such monsters had the side effect of reducing their mobility; they were just too damn heavy to jump. A howl of hot air surged from the creature’s nostrils as it lumbered over the broken barricades. What had happened to the area denial guns? They must have been disabled by the power surge. And… why the hell hadn’t the pressure-pads triggered the fire trench? Damn! Weren’t any of the defences going to work tonight? There was nothing for it. She was going to have to take on the monster herself.
The first grenade thumped from the muzzle on a flat trajectory. The target was less than 100 metres away, well inside the GM’s range of 300. Even before it struck Lettuce had primed the lower barrel, drawing a second charge into the delivery chamber. A squeeze of the trigger saw the next grenade on its way. Meanwhile the first had scored, burying through the grabbit’s thick fur to lodge somewhere near a hip. The missile exploded, throwing chunks of seared pelt, flesh and bone into the night. The snarl of pain was ear-piercing. A side effect of the strike was that one lump of bone shrapnel intercepted the second shell, deflecting it. Rather than adding to the damage of the first, this grenade was sent careering towards the cottage, where it ricocheted from a wall and plunged into the goo of the fire pit. Flames instantly surged along the trench with a roar. The sudden burst of light blinded Lettuce for a moment, the flash totally confusing her night vision, and even at this distance she could feel the bite of heat. Ripping the helmet off was the quickest way to get her sight back but she was still disoriented when she fired the third round. She never did find out where that shot went but for the present she wasn’t bothered.
The ground trembled. Blearily Lettuce could see the beast thrashing beyond the wall of flame, red reflections in mad eyes, screams of anger and pain emerging from its toothy maw. Lettuce didn’t trust her recovering vision enough to try reloading the GM and instead brought the XM8 into play – but she needed to get closer; although the weapon could pump out over 700 rounds per minute the compact nature of the gun made it inaccurate at any real distance. Lettuce steeled herself and chomped down on the cigar.
“All right you motherlovin’sonofadoe,” she snarled, “you’re payin’ for that hedge! And the fence!”
Lettuce charged towards the inferno, SMG ready at her hip. Fifty metres out she squeezed the trigger. Sizzling lead spewed from the muzzle, yellow tracers that quickly became lost in the blaze from the fire pit – but the ammunition hit home. The grabbit’s roars increased in volume as the slugs bit. This ordnance was rather special. The bullets were hollow-point, each tipped with a contact explosive that added considerably to the damage inflicted when the shells ripped into flesh.
Lettuce continued to close the distance. Now she could smell the reek of the beast, raised on plumes of hot air from the blaze: the cloying stench of claustrophobic tunnels deep underground, home to a sweat-matted furry press of bodies; the solid smell of droppings crammed with twice-masticated vegetation; the acrid tang of urine born of an ancient, hereditary fear that no number of generations could extinguish. Lettuce ignored the miasma and ploughed on, staccato bursts flaring from the carbine.
Wounded though it was the cuniculus, pumped up on pain-fostered adrenalin, opened its maw and bellowed, spreading gallons of drool in all directions. Some reached Lettuce in a sticky drench. “You dirty, disgustin’ beast!” she screamed. “Do you have any idea how longr it takes to wash out grabbit phlegm?”
She squeezed the trigger venomously but all that came was a ‘click’. Without breaking stride Lettuce ejected the empty magazine and snapped a new one in place but the grabbit, disregarding – or perhaps because of – the torture of its wounds, ignored the searing flames and made a charge of its own. The beast broke through the wall of heat and before Lettuce could bring the reloaded gun to bear a huge paw slapped her aside. She felt the crunch of bone and knew at least one rib had given way. The monster towered above her, fearsome incisors ready to split her in two. Desperately Lettuce re-engaged the machine gun’s action. Ribbons of hot metal surged upwards, shattering the long, cruel teeth on a terminal journey to explode in the creature’s brain. The Mordult let out a dreadful cry but a second burst from the SMG slashed across its neck, converting the cry to a gurgling mewl while black blood gushed from a perforated artery. For long seconds the grabbit remained upright, ears flat, paws flailing, oversized feet engaged in a pounding, stomping, tap-dance macabre. Then the gross movements ceased and the body began to shudder, a paroxysmic silhouette to a backdrop of hellfire. When it finally toppled Lettuce had to move sharpish to avoid a crushing revenge.
Dirty, blood and spittle-stained, Lettuce regained her feet. Her chest hurt when she breathed, result of the damaged rib and the heat from the flames. She staggered to where the air was cooler and easier to inhale. Flames were already licking around her vanquished foe and would soon engulf it. That was a shame – there would’ve been enough stew in that carcase to last the whole year. A chunk of the crops would have to be written off too, she noted, but that was to be expected. More worryingly the fire was spreading towards the cottage – but the gods were smiling. The lowering skies finally began to release their cargo and Lettuce felt the first drops of rain. By the time she reached the cottage she was soaked from the deluge. She could hear the hissing and spitting and crackling as the flaming trench fought a losing battle with the weather. Thick smoke was beginning to smother the flames. From the doorway Lettuce surveyed the scene in the quickly spreading fume. What a mess! It would take an age to clear up! She removed the squashed cigar butt from between her teeth and inspected it. Bugger. She’d barely gotten a single decent drag. Oh well.
If the Mordults or the Curserippers chose to make a second raid now they were likely to succeed, she thought, but she couldn’t help that. Fortunately neither of the adversaries was particularly noted for cunning. The garden would have to look after itself for the rest of the night. Adrenaline and lactic acid were taking their toll and the damaged rib wasn’t helping. With difficulty Lettuce made her way upstairs to the bathroom where she indulged in a hot, steamy shower. After gasping at the initial sting of the powerful jet she spent a few minutes luxuriating in the scent of an all-over herbal body shampoo. The fragrance was a soothing balm to her hurts. In the morning she’d have to call on Goode Nurture for treatment, and then work like the devil to restore the defences before sundown. But that was for tomorrow. For the present, Lettuce retired to her bed and slept the exhausted sleep of one who could be satisfied in a day’s work well done.