This is chapter three of our serialisation of Andrew Murray’s Shroom Raider – make sure you check out the earlier chapters on STORGY Kids….
Chapter 3 – Shroom Recruits
‘Private Icarus Earthstar, you are a useless cockroach! What – are – you?’
‘I’m a – a useless cockroach, Sergeant…’
‘And what do useless cockroaches do, Private Earthstar?’ Sergeant Gus Toughshank loomed over Icarus, his broad, scarred face turning purple from the shouting, puce to the very ends of his lumpy, misshapen ears.
‘They…’ Icarus realised what Sergeant Gus – Augustus to his friends, but right now Icarus couldn’t imagine that the Sergeant had any friends – what Sgt Gus Toughshank was thinking… And Icarus looked at the assault course. The assault course consisting of walls to climb, ropes to swing across, climbing frames to hang from, and barbed wire to crawl under. Icarus and the thirty men and boys of his platoon had just finished the assault course once, and none of them, none of them ever wanted to go through it again.
It wasn’t the walls. It wasn’t the ropes, the climbing frames or the barbed wire that bothered them. It was the fact that every inch of the course was covered, dumped, smeared with fungi. Rotten stinking fungi. Black and soft and squelchy toadstools and mushrooms that the platoon had had to tread through, wade through, and finally crawl through, with the barbed wire just inches above their heads, so that the rotten stinking stuff had splattered into their faces and soaked through their drill fatigues, and so that now, as they stood before Sgt Gus Toughshank on the parade ground, the stink covered them and surrounded them and filled them so completely that they felt they would never, ever be able to wash the stink away.
Icarus took a deep breath, and continued. ‘Useless cockroaches crawl along the ground, Sergeant…’
‘That’s right, Private – so get your miserable stinking cockroach backside onto that assault course, and get crawling!’
‘Please, Sergeant’, a voice piped up. It was Biff. ‘Please, Sergeant, it wasn’t Icarus’s – I mean Private Earthstar’s – fault that he was so slow. He stayed back to help me…’
‘Who gave you permission to speak, Private?’ Sgt Gus swooped down on Biff like a bat pouncing on its prey. ‘Private Biff Woodwax, you are one sorry excuse for a Shroom Raider. You like your little friend helping you, do you? Well, you can help each other through the assault course again, that’ll be real cosy, won’t it? And after that you can help each other clean the latrines! Get moving, the pair of you!’
Useless cockroaches crawl along the ground… Useless cockroaches crawl along the ground… Useless cockroaches crawl along the ground…
As Icarus crawled through the rotten stinking mess, with toadstool gunk spattering in his face and getting into his mouth, with rotten fungal ooze seeping through his army fatigues and covering his whole body with rancid slime, those words played over and over in his head. Biff was straggling behind him, and Icarus could hear the ragged wheeze of his breath – but it seemed to come from far away. The only sound that mattered was the sound of those words –
Useless cockroaches crawl along the ground…
Icarus reached a slimy hand forward – and stopped. There, on a large half-rotten piece of bracket fungus, something was fluttering, a tiny speck of twinkling gold. Icarus peered closer. It was a goldfly, stopping to sip some festering ooze… and then it was fluttering its golden wings and flying, flying up, flying away from this awful mess, flying high and free… Icarus watched it go. And then he realised.
Cockroaches turn into goldflies, and then they can fly away. Then they are free. I’m not going to be a useless cockroach. I’m going to be free…
Icarus did what no recruit had ever done before. There, in the middle of the crawl obstacle, he stood up.
‘Ick!’ said Biff, ‘What are you doing?’
Covered from head to toe in ooze as he was, Icarus took a breath of higher, cleaner air. He felt liberated. He felt purified. He felt –
He felt Sgt Gus’s fist as it slammed into his cheekbone. Icarus fell sprawling into the ooze.
‘Do you have some kind of deathwish, cockroach?’ Sgt Gus stared at him with a burning rage – but as Icarus met his gaze and stared coolly back, it seemed to Icarus that there was something else there. Genuine surprise?
Gus hauled Icarus up by his collar.
‘You’re going to wish you were dead, cockroach. Because where you’re going, life is an everlasting death, and no death is going to come and rescue you from it. You’re going to the Heater, cockroach… Corporals! Take this scum to the Heater – two days!’
The Heater was a tiny box of corrugated iron that sat above a hydrothermal vent. They threw him in and dragged the door shut, locking it with a rusty bolt, so that all was darkness except for thin slits of light between the iron sheets. Then a small hatch opened and a hand shoved a tin mug full of brackish water inside.
‘Make it last’, said the Corporal. ‘That’s all the water you’re going to get…’
For a moment Icarus felt like he was stepping into a sauna; then a moment later he realised how wrong he was. This wasn’t a sauna. This was hell itself. The sulphurous steam scalded his skin and stung his eyes, and he felt as if he were being boiled alive. And straightaway a voice screamed in his head,
Two days! Two days! No no no no, not two days, please, let me out of here!…
But to his great surprise, another voice spoke over and above the voice of panic. A voice filled with calmness, a voice filled with a strength like iron –
I am not a useless maggot. I am free, and nothing he does can take that away from me. I am free…
As long as he lived, Icarus never said a word to anyone about those two days. Minutes turned into years, hours into eternities, and all that existed was the boiling, the thirst that made him lick the sweat from his arms, the burning in his eyes, and the boiling, boiling, boiling heat that would never ever end…
No, that wasn’t all. There was also the voice.
I am free, and nothing they do can take that away from me. Not Gus. Not the Army. Not my father, who never loved me. Not my brother, who hates me. Nothing they do can stop me flying free…
And when the rusty bolt slid back and Icarus stumbled out into the light, the Corporals holding him up by the armpits, those two days, that baptism of steam, had left him with a bright golden certainty. That he would fight Sgt Gus, to his face or behind his back, every moment of every day, in every way he could…
Sgt Gus Toughshank made it his personal mission, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to knock the new recruits of 2nd Platoon, 2nd Company, 1st Battalion of the 89th Airborne Raider Regiment into shape. And all the time Icarus was looking for ways to knock everything out of shape…
They learned to march:
‘By-the-left, quick march! Left-left-left-left-left-left-left… You horrible slovenly soldiers…’
They learned to look after their drill fatigues so that every collar was ironed and every button polished, every crease razor-sharp and every boot gleaming like a dark mirror:
‘Why is the hem of your trouser leg frayed, Private Woodwax? Have you been trying to eat your drill trousers, you horrible greedy little pig of a Private?’
And they learned to keep every inch of their barracks spick and span – from their beds to their foot lockers, from their wardrobes to their windowsills – because Sgt Gus saw everything, and missed nothing:
‘Why is there a dead fly on your windowsill, Private Earthstar? Are you saving it to make into a fly pie for your greedy pig of a friend? Or did you kill the fly in anger, Private, when you realised that the fly would make a better Airborne Raider than you will ever be?’
‘And this glass is filthy, Private Earthstar! Get it CLEANED!’
So Icarus took a cloth, and was rubbing away at the window pane, when, with his eye at a certain angle, he saw, faintly, that someone had breathed on the glass and written with a finger,
One day, Icarus saw his chance. He and Biff had been detailed to clean the toilets in the officers’ block, to scrub every inch of every toilet bowl and seat until they gleamed white, to polish every flush handle and tap until they shone like mirrors, and to grout the tiled walls with a tube of cement that set like rubberised concrete. And suddenly Icarus knew that they were alone. Every officer was elsewhere, drilling, exercising, running errands. This was his chance to do something… but what? Icarus padded into Sgt Gus’ office, and found an unlocked drawer. Paperwork, pencils, some loose change… boring.
Come on, think! What can I do that will cause some real damage?…
Then he saw the fire extinguisher. And the two days in the Heater came flooding back, with such force that he staggered and held onto the desk for support.
You like heat, do you Gus? All right, I’ll give you some heat…
And he fetched the tube of grouting cement and squirted it into the nozzle of the fire extinguisher, filling the tubing up until the cement spilled out of the nozzle. He was carefully wiping the nozzle clean when Biff appeared at the door. Biff’s eyes opened wide.
‘You didn’t see anything, right?’ said Icarus.
Biff’s face was a mask of confusion. Then he seemed to come to a decision. he slumped, and the light went out of his eyes.
‘Sure, Ick. I didn’t see anything…’
Icarus tip-toed round the officers’ quarters and found three more extinguishers, which all got the grouting treatment. Then he and Biff finished up in the toilets. And for the rest of that day, through the marching and meals and inspections and lectures, all Icarus could think about was the approach of night.
Midnight. Icarus crept from the recruit’s barracks to the officers’ quarters, keeping to the shadows, dodging the night sentries. In his pockets were a piece of rag, a tin of lighter fluid and a box of matches. The officers’ quarters loomed up, square and black. Not a light was on. Icarus smiled. He peered through the window of Sgt Gus’s dormitory, and could just make out his sleeping form. Icarus crept inside, and stood in the gloom of the corridor. He could feel their presence, a dozen officers slumbering in their cots. Icarus was soaking the rag with the lighter fluid, when suddenly he stopped. Suddenly he knew.
I can’t do it. Not this. I’ll find my revenges somewhere, that’s for sure. But not this…
And with a long, deep sigh he was turning to leave, when he heard a phone ring.
That’s Sgt Gus’s phone…
Icarus crept to Gus’s door, which was slightly ajar, and peered in as Sgt Gus hauled himself muttering and grumbling out of bed and picked up the phone.
‘What do you want this time of night, do you know what time it is?…’ he began – but then he suddenly stood bolt upright.
‘Oh sir, I’m sorry! Yes yes, I’m wide awake… How is he doing? Well… I’m not quite sure how to read him at the moment, sir. He seems to be biding his time, I can’t tell which way he’ll jump. Those two days in the Heater, well, something like that changes a person… I don’t know, all I can do is keep a close eye on him. Any news, I’ll report it ASAP, sir. Yes sir, goodnight.’
And as Icarus crept through the darkness back to the recruits’ barracks, he wondered –
‘Who would Gus be speaking to at midnight, about me?… Of course! It’s Dad! Dad’s behind all this, I should have guessed. Why else would Gus pick me out for special treatment?… Well thanks Dad, thanks for phoning tonight. That makes things a lot clearer…’
When Icarus padded back into the recruits’ barracks, strong hands grabbed him and hauled him into the toilets. Biff closed the toilet door as Arla switched on the light. Arla reached into Icarus’s pockets, pulling out the matches, rag and lighter fluid. She stared at Icarus in horror, then rushed to the window.
‘Biff, turn the light off!’
In the darkness the officers’ quarters stood black and still. Arla stood there for several long seconds. Then she turned.
‘All right, lights back on. So, Mister Fire-Starter, it looks like you didn’t have the guts to go through with it?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Arla…’
Arla hurled the matchbox at Icarus. It bounced off his temple and came open, spilling matches across the floor.
‘Don’t be pathetic’, said Arla. ‘Biff told me what you did with the fire extinguishers. What were you going to do? Murder a dozen officers? All because you can’t take a bit of heat from your Sergeant?’
‘A bit of heat? A bit of heat?’ Icarus shoved Arla up against the wall. ‘Do you have any idea what I went through in that Heater? Gus is singling me out – and for your information, I have just found out why.’
‘Go on then, amaze me.’
‘He was on the phone to my father. My father is the one piling the heat on me. How do you like that?’
Arla broke free from Icarus’s grip, and laughed.
‘Brilliant. I wish my family was a soap opera like yours. So you’re playing the rebel because General Daddykins didn’t get you anything nice for your fifteenth birthday. And you’ve always played at being the rebel, haven’t you, Ick? Gives you a thrill does it, to hang out with the likes of us, Biff and me? Only, when you finished playing, you could always go back to Daddy’s mansion for caviar and clotted cream….’
Arla plucked at her crisp fatigues and gleaming boots.
‘Do you realise, these are the first clothes I’ve ever had that aren’t full of holes and patches? That these are the first boots I’ve ever worn where the soles aren’t coming off, and I don’t have to stuff the holes with bits of cardboard? Ick, the Army is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m doing well in all the drills and tests, I’ve got a chance for a career, promotion… respect… and no General’s son is going to screw that up for me!’
Icarus’s punch took Arla by surprise, and she went spinning down, only to come back up, fists swinging. They went into a bear-hug, wrestling and twisting their way around the toilets, yet oddly quiet, as if at the back of their minds they still remembered the need to keep the noise down. Biff tried to prise them apart.
‘Come on you two, sort it out! It’s late, and we need to be up at five. Let’s sleep this off, and talk about it tomorrow…’
Without a word, Icarus and Arla stalked off to their bunks. But as he lay there, unable to sleep, Icarus came to a decision.
If I can’t bring myself to burn the place down… and if I can’t even trust my best friends any more… there’s only one option left. I’m going to go A.W.O.L…
– 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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