This is chapter two of our serialisation of Andrew Murray’s Shroom Raider.
Two – Strangleshroom
Icarus D. Earthstar felt the Strangleshroom bouncing about in his pack as he ran with his friends, Biff and Arla, through the batshroom orchard, thick with the heavy aroma of bat-beef. The Mark I Strangleshroom that he had pinched from his father’s Armoury and was carrying on his back just, you know, to be on the safe side. In case anything went wrong. Not that anything was going to go wrong…
They were celebrating Icarus’s fifteenth birthday by scrumping shroom-steaks from Farmer Blewit’s batshroom orchard, jumping up to pluck and cut the thick juicy fruits that hung heavily from the towering fungi, and smelled uncannily like real bat-beef…
‘Mmm…’ sighed Biff as he breathed in the rich meaty smell, ‘My family are going to love me tonight. Prime shroom-steaks all round, fried up a treat, with some crispy toad-potatoes and just a dash of hot moss-mustard…’
‘Biff, you greedy pig’, said Arla, ‘If you get any fatter on prime shroom-steaks you’ll be a perfect sphere, and me and Icarus are going to have to roll you around like a sweaty, meaty bowling ball…’
‘Hey!’ said Biff, reaching up with his pocket knife to cut down yet another juicy, dripping shroom-steak and shove it in his sack, ‘It’s not my fault I’m large-limbed. All my family are like that, you’ve seen them, Arla.’
‘They’re like that because you shove enough scrumped, stolen, pick-pocketed and black-market grub down their gobs to feed half of New London. I, on the other hand, show some self-control with my eatings. I’m not greedy like you, Biff, and I’m not rich like Mister Moneybags over there. I’m going to turn these steaks into hard cash, instead of flab and number twos – ain’t that right, Ick? Ick?’
Icarus had stopped. His eye was caught by something on the trunk of one of the batshrooms. Someone had carved it into the rubbery trunk with a knife, and the pale flesh exposed by the cuts was only starting to brown over. It hadn’t been cut long ago then.
Icarus was standing there, wondering what it meant, when he heard Arla shout –
‘MPs! We’re going to get it!’
Icarus looked round, just long enough to see them – three Military Policemen, two of them with Salamanders snapping and straining at their leashes. Then he ran – with Arla close behind him, Arla who was lean and quick and slowed down only by her falling-apart boots. But Biff was always the slowest, and now his chubby legs struggled to keep up with Icarus and Arla as they fled.
‘Don’t even think about running!’ came the MP’s voice. ‘I’ve seen your faces. I know who you are – and I mean you, Icarus D. Earthstar!’
Icarus recognised that voice. Heard his name. And all the strength drained from his legs.
No! Noooo! Of all the coppers in the world, why did it have to be him?
And Icarus stood there for what seemed an age, though it was really a moment, with confusion roaring in his head – until Arla’s firm grip shoved him on again.
‘I don’t care if he is your brother, Ick’, she snarled, ‘He’s a copper and we ain’t getting caught. Now move it!’
So they ran, and Icarus heard his brother’s command –
‘All right, they leave us no option. Release the Manders!’
His men let the Salamanders off their leashes, and on they raced, slithering and snarling. Icarus tried to keep up with Arla, but all he could think about was sharp Salamander teeth sinking into his calves, any moment now…
‘Lose the steaks!’ said Arla, as she swung her sack off her back, pulled out one shroom-steak after another, and scattered them behind her. Icarus did the same – though Biff, who was now as red from the running as a Ruby Deathcap, could only whine,
‘But that’s our dinner, that’s our dinner…’
And just as they had hoped, they glanced behind to see the Manders distracted by the steaks, stopping to devour a couple… But then, hunger satisfied, the Manders came on again, slithering, snapping, so much quicker than the boys…
‘Ick!’ wailed Biff, ‘I’m not going to make it, they’re going to get me…’
Icarus turned to see that the Manders would be all over Biff in moments. And then he knew he had no choice…
Icarus stopped and reached into his pack for the Mark I Strangleshroom that would do just the job, right here, right now. Just enough strangling, not too little, not too much… He found the blister-pack of pollen attached to the side of the Shroom and popped the blister, allowing the pollen to pierce the Shroom and bring it to life. Quickly he turned and threw the Shroom straight at the Manders – too quickly to notice that the label stamped on the side read ‘New London Army Issue Strangleshroom Mark II’… Mark II… He also realised too late that Biff was in the way…
And Biff, who always did what he was told, fell to the ground just as the Strangleshroom looped over him and hit the first Mander right in its broad snout.
The pollen had done its job. The Strangleshroom came to life as it flew, and exploded in a mass of twisting, grasping tendrils that engulfed the first Mander in a choking, strangling embrace. Then a long flailing tendril caught the second Mander by the leg, and no matter how it writhed and twisted and bit at the tendril, it was drawn into the growing ball of fungal fury. Biff was still lying there – and Icarus saw another tendril come reaching for his ankle.
And somehow Biff managed to scrabble to his chubby feet – and Icarus could swear the tendril brushed his trousers, and grasped like a hand just a second too late – and came running on. As he joined his friends, all three took a moment to savour the scene. The Manders were completely hidden in the flailing mass. Arla laughed.
‘Nice bit of kit you nicked, Ick!’
‘Does the job, doesn’t it?’ said Icarus. ‘Gives us time to get out of here, then dies and wilts and crumbles and leaves our two Salamander friends shaken, stirred, angry but unhurt. Mark I Strangleshroom, does exactly what it says on the label!’
But that wasn’t what it said on the label…
As the three friends paused to enjoy the sight of the Strangleshroom at work on the Manders, with the Military Policemen still in the distance, running hard to catch up – Icarus saw that something strange was happening. A Mark I Strangleshroom was only supposed to stop an enemy for a minute or two. By now it should have been slowing down, turning black and brittle as it rapidly died… but instead the Strangleshroom began to grow, with new and longer and stronger tendrils sprouting with astonishing speed, tendrils that were now whipping and lashing in all directions…
Arla just had time to say,
‘You sure you got the right Shroom there, Ick?’
When Icarus cried, ‘Runnnn!’
And Biff and Arla ran… But Icarus lingered. He could see that the tendrils were lashing in the direction of the Military Policemen as they came racing up, the two Mander handlers concerned for their animals, and their Captain – Captain Ethan Earthstar, Icarus’s brother – staring through the writhing mass, staring Icarus straight in the eye. Icarus and his brother had had a thousand arguments, a thousand fights, in their time – but Icarus had never seen quite that look in Ethan’s eyes before. Gazing into those eyes, Icarus felt that his brother truly wanted him dead… Then, one after another, Icarus saw the Mander handlers go down, caught in the tendrils, and there was just time to see the hatred in Ethan’s eyes turn to fear as a grasping shoot reared over him…
… when Icarus sensed, rather than saw, the tendril that was coming after him…
He ducked to one side as the tip of the tendril snatched at where his neck had just been, and Icarus ran, ran as he had never run before, in a feverish fear of that grasping thing touching his flesh –
– and he blundered into the soft, squelchy trunk of a batshroom and bounced off –
– and he saw that Biff and Arla had come back to help him, but were caught themselves –
– and he saw the tendril looming over him, slipped, nearly fell, ran on, not looking where he was going –
– and then the ground disappeared from under him and he was falling out into space…
Icarus D. Earthstar looked down, and saw twenty miles of thin air beneath him, a twenty mile drop that would leave his body smashing upon Neufundland’s rocks, or splashing into the boiling acid waters of the Great Sea… And in one bright dazzling instant, Icarus D. Earthstar knew with complete certainty that this was the last thing he would ever see. The air whistled in his ears like a death-lullaby as he began to fall…
Then the tendril grasped his ankle. Stopped his fall. Held him there, dangling, like a fat ripe fruit. And then the vertigo hit him, and the world spun round and round in a sickening blur. Then, slowly, the tendril began to haul him back up…
General Willard D. Earthstar stood towering over Icarus. His useless, good-for-nothing son who seemed to have been sent into this world for the sole purpose of embarrassing him. Here was he, General of the New London Army, tasked with the fighting of the Enemy below – and the greatest pain in his backside, time and again, was his second son. Why couldn’t Icarus be more like Ethan? General Earthstar looked around to see the fire-fighters and rescue teams hacking away the last of the Strangleshroom tendrils, dousing them with weed-killer, stamping on any tendril that refused to die. Just beyond, medics were attending to Biff and Arla, sitting sheepishly under police supervision. They were also trying to treat Captain Ethan Earthstar, who was struggling to his feet and waving them away, and one of his two Mander handlers. The other was nowhere to be seen.
The General swung his mighty jaw back to his son. Part of him wanted to spit – but then he thought, one act of spitting in a day was enough for a General’s dignity. The General opened his mouth – and Icarus, still dizzy from the fall, expected the hair-dryer treatment, a blast of warm cigar-scented breath, sprinkled with spittle, accompanied by an A-Z of the choicest insults in the New London lexicon. But instead his father spoke calmly. Too calmly.
‘I’ve just been on the telephone to the hospital. Corporal Hollis was badly strangled, his windpipe partially crushed – but they say he’s going to pull through. If it hadn’t been for your brother’s quick actions, dousing the Strangleshroom with fungicidal spray…’
They heard a footstep, and turned to find Ethan standing there, with a torn uniform and red angry welts across his cheek and neck. He was shaking. Ethan glanced once at Icarus, then turned his attention to his father. At last, he said –
His father nodded.
‘Stan’s going to make it, son. He’s a good man and he’ll be back in uniform in no time.’
Ethan paused a moment, gave a slight nod, then turned and went to see how his other man was doing. Icarus was left with the memory of his glance. Ethan hadn’t looked at Icarus as if he’d wanted to kill him. He’d looked at him as if he was already dead.
‘So Icarus, what’s it to be?’
‘Dad, I’m really sorry, truly I am, we were just messing about in the orchard and…’
His father’s granite face leaned close to his. But still his voice was quiet. Dangerously so.
‘I’m not interested, Icarus. I’ve heard too many excuses, too many sorrys… and from you, I know they mean as much as spit in the wind…’
The General sighed.
‘You came so close to being up on a murder charge. As it is, it’s three counts of attempted murder of servicemen of the New London Army. Theft of a Grade A weapon from a New London Army facility. Trespass on aforementioned Army property. Use of aforementioned weapon in the aforementioned three attempted murders. Not to mention trespass on property used to produce food, and theft of such food, in a time of war…’
The General leaned close to Icarus.
‘Do you understand what I’m saying, Icarus? I’m merely a General. I don’t make the Law, and this time I couldn’t protect you from the Law. Even if I wanted to…’
The General smiled, a dry smile without any joy or humour.
‘And you know what, Icarus? I don’t want to. This time you are going to take your medicine.’
Icarus frowned. He was used to the hot rage, the rants and raves, the threatening and cajoling… But this was different. He had never seen his father behave like this before – and suddenly he felt like a tiny cave newt, sensing the shadow of the great bat above…
‘Look Dad, I’ll do whatever you want to make amends, I promise…’
‘Oh yes’, said the General. ‘I assure you, you will. For this time, Icarus, making amends means making a choice. A simple choice:
A – you can go to prison. For a very long time. It’s only your age that saves you from the hangman’s noose. Believe me, Icarus, you will have grey hairs in your beard before you get out of there.
Or B – you can join the Shroom Raiders. You and your chums, all three of you.
That’s your choice, Icarus. There is no third way.’
Icarus sat very still and quiet as he tried to take in everything his father had said. Suddenly the world felt a great deal larger, and colder.
‘But, Dad’, he tried, ‘I’m a kid. I’m not old enough to be tried, to go to jail…’
‘Have you not been keeping up with current affairs, Icarus?’ His dad’s eyes were hard and chilly. ‘It’s your fifteenth birthday today. And fifteen is the age of responsibility in the eyes of the Law.’
Icarus felt the bat’s jaws closing around him, as he looked desperately for an escape route.
‘Dad, wait – you said I could join the Shroom Raiders? But you have to be eighteen to join them…’
‘You have to be eighteen to join up, unless you are joining as an alternative to serving prison time, which you can choose to do from your fifteenth birthday. Many happy returns, by the way…’ The General coughed out a dry laugh.
‘So what’s it to be, Icarus D. Earthstar? What’s your choice?’
And Icarus sat there, as it gradually dawned on him that there was really no choice at all.
As of today, his fifteenth birthday, he was doomed to become a Shroom Raider…
– Useful Links –
About the Author
‘Andrew Murray’ doesn’t exist. He is the pseudonym of Vic ‘Lucky Strike’ Stryker, who also officially doesn’t exist. As far as the Government of New London will admit, Vic didn’t serve for fourteen years with the elite, top secret Special Drop Service (SDS), and didn’t reach the rank of Regimental Drop Sergeant.
Vic definitely didn’t play a key role in a number of operations that are now the stuff of legend. These don’t include Operation Deathcap, the daring rescue of a group of senior New London scientists held captive deep within the Enemy’s Rock – for which Vic wasn’t awarded the Distinguished Drop Medal with Gold Shroom Clusters. Nor was Vic wounded in Operation Destroying Angel, to sabotage a Neufundland radar station and steal vital technology and blueprints – during which, in the act of rescuing a comrade, Vic received serious burns from an SDS Incendi-Shroom, and was awarded the Purple Woundshroom and mentioned in dispatches.
Since retiring from the SDS, Vic Stryker has in no way acted as a consultant on film and television productions, nor has he founded his own personal security firm, Lucky Strike Solutions.
He is not 6’ 0”, with eyes that are frequently referred to as ‘laser beam blue’.
He does not have a burn on his face, which pulls his lips into a permanent, enigmatic half-smile.
He has not been tasked with performing surveillance on you.
He has not been watching you, 24/7.
He does not know about that thing you did last week.
He is definitely not behind you, right now…
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