This is chapter five of our serialisation of Andrew Murray’s Shroom Raider – make sure you check out the earlier chapters on STORGY Kids….
Chapter 5 – Ashes
‘You need to plead guilty, Ick.’
‘Why, so you can watch me grovel?’
Ethan put a hand to his forehead, squeezing his temples between fingers and thumb. Icarus could see his hands were shaking.
‘No, Icarus,’ he said at last, ‘It’s because you are going to be found guilty anyway. The evidence is conclusive…
But Icarus, understand that if you plead not guilty to the charge of desertion, and you are found guilty, I am bound by law to condemn you to death. I have no alternative.
Whereas, if you plead guilty now, you give me some room for manoeuvre. I can do some special pleading with the Council of Law-Lords Martial, pull a few favours – and I know a loophole or two that will get you through this alive. You’re going to be shut away for a long time – but you’re still going to be breathing. Understand?’
Icarus was quiet for a long time. The whole thing seemed unreal: he and his brother, alone together in a big, soulless room, gearing themselves up for yet another flaming row…
I might as well be back at home…
‘Okay’, he said at last. ‘Guilty. Guilty as charged. So no change there then.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Ethan.
‘You know exactly what I mean.’
‘Well Ick, yes, your disciplinary record in the Army so far does give you some room for improvement…’
‘I’m not talking about the Army! I’m talking about you, and Dad, treating me all my life like a… like a criminal! Like I was found guilty the day I was born!’
‘Oh grow up, Ick. Grow up. Do you know how sick I am of your special pleading? Your persecution complex? Ohhh, you don’t like to hear that, do you? Go on then Ick, run away. Do what you always do when life gets a bit unpleasant. Run away. Run away from your responsibilities, from the family that loves you…’
‘Ha! HA! You are having a laugh, aren’t you? Biff and Arla – they’re the only family I’ve ever had. I’ve spent my life running towards my family..’
‘Why, Ick? Why do you say these things? Why do you do everything you can to hurt your father and me? You seem to… hate us… Why?’
‘Because you’ve always hated me.’
‘Oh, for – ! Why do you come out with this – drivel? Do you actually believe what you just said?’
‘You’ve hated me since the day I was born. Because that was the day I killed your mother.’
Ethan’s face turned white. He stared at Icarus, and in the stillness Icarus could hear his ragged breathing.
‘Is that what you think? Seriously, Icarus, do you actually believe that? Do you think we think that? Your father and I? Our mother died in childbirth, and that hurts me every day, but I’ve got news for you, Ick. That happens. People die. We’re not the only ones…’
‘I killed her. That’s what you’ve always thought, deep down. And now you’re tricking me into pleading Guilty, so you can finally get what you want. You can finally put me up before a firing squad, and then you can tell Mum’s ghost that her murder has been avenged…’
The punch broke Icarus’s eye socket. The floor lurched up towards him in a blur, sparkling with squibs of silver light, as he waited for the second punch… But the second punch never came. He just heard the door flung open as Ethan stormed out.
‘I hope a Neufundland raid gets you!’ Icarus called after him, in a thin, wobbly voice. ‘You and Dad both… I wish you were dead!’
Icarus lay there for a while, until the silver squibs faded away. But a throbbing ache around his eyes, his temples, his whole face, rose up to take their place. Icarus lay there and throbbed, expecting Ethan to return, the court martial to be reconvened, at any moment. But there was a long silence. Then, from outside, the sounds of activity – a sense that a large number of people had arrived and were busy with some task, with shouts and conversations, the marching of boots, the opening and slamming of doors…
Suddenly he was grasped by strong hands. An MP sergeant he had never seen before hauled him to his feet.
‘Come on lad, we’re getting you to a cell. And we’ll get a doc to look at that eye.’
‘A cell?’ said Icarus faintly. ‘What about the, the court mar…’
‘The court martial’s been adjourned, son. Your brother, Captain Earthstar I should say, has got a more pressing matter to attend to. A raid’s just come back, and they’ve got a prisoner. Needs to be interrogated without delay…’
The sergeant guided him out into the corridor, where Icarus came suddenly face to face with the new prisoner. His wrists were cuffed, and he was flanked by one MP and one Shroom Raider, tired and grimy from the raid. With blurred and teary vision Icarus tried to make out the rank on the prisoner’s slate grey uniform – a lieutenant, maybe a captain… But one thing Icarus did see clearly. The look in the prisoner’s eyes. The MP sergeant guided him out of the officers’ quarters and half-carried him to his cell, which was in a detention block a hundred yards away. As he stumbled along as best he could, Icarus’s dizzy brain tried to figure out –
What was it about the prisoner’s eyes?
The cell was bare and basic, with tiles of a nasty cream colour, and an overpowering smell of bleach. Some kind of junior medic came to look at Icarus’s eye, applied a dressing and bandage, and gave him painkillers which had no noticeable effect.
Icarus woke with a start, from a dream where his brother and everyone at the court martial had turned into juicy steakshrooms, and he was frying them up in a huge frying pan. He was lying on the bottom bunk, and the coarse blanket was scratching his neck.
How long was I asleep? And what woke me up? Something… a sound, maybe?
Then he smelled it. Smoke. Burning…
He swallowed hard, and suddenly his ears cleared, and what had been distant muffled murmurs became sounds sharp, clear and close. There was shouting, and boots clattering along the corridor outside, at a run this time… but above all was the clanging of the fire alarm.
Icarus leapt up, cracking his head against the bunk above. He was immediately sick, and the world lurched like a ship in a storm, and the silver squibs returned… but Icarus leaned against the wall and forced himself to take deep breaths.
He heard a voice in the corridor –
‘Where are the fire tenders? Get Response on the phone, damn you – where are the fire tenders?’
Icarus looked up. Smoke was pouring in through the small barred window above the bunks. He climbed up, nearly fell, kneeled on the top bunk and looked out…
The officers’ quarters was an inferno. Icarus could feel the heat on his face. Flames were pouring out of every door and window, and a thick black cloud was boiling and roiling up, and out, and drifting back down as a black snow. There were people there, people blackened with smoke and soot, staggering to and fro, or sitting, or lying down, waving for help, and now people from all over the base were rushing to help, Shroom Raiders, medics, admin staff, anyone… And at long last the fire tenders came driving up, bells ringing, and the crews tumbled out and hooked their hoses onto the nearest water hydrants, and now began pouring water onto the base of the fire.
Then Icarus heard a voice. He peered as far down as the window bars would let him, and saw one of the smoke-blackened survivors there under the wall, with a nurse trying to calm him down.
‘The prisoner…’ said the voice… ‘That, that Neufundlander pig, he had some kind of – bomb or something under his clothes, and he grinned and laughed, and then the whole room was ablaze, just like that… And I grabbed a fire extinguisher… I did, I got a fire extinguisher, but, but…
Nurse, the fire extinguisher didn’t work…’
‘My brother, have you seen my brother? Captain Earthstar?…’
‘Out of the way, kid, stretcher coming through…’
‘Captain Earthstar, I’m looking for Ethan Earthstar, please, have you seen him…’
‘I’m sorry son, I don’t know, it’s chaos out there. Try the doctors over there, they might know…’
‘Please, I’m looking for my brother, Captain Ethan Earthstar…’
‘Captain Earthstar, let me see… Earthstar, Earthstar… No, no Earthstar on my list… But wait, that doesn’t prove anything, there are still casualties coming in…’
‘I don’t know, I was trying – the damn fire extinguisher wouldn’t work…’
‘No, I haven’t seen your brother, sorry…’
‘No, I haven’t…’
‘No, I didn’t…’
‘Captain Earthstar? He was there with that Neufundland animal, right there in the courtroom. And then – the blaze happened so quickly, it’s a miracle almost everyone got out somehow. But your brother… I don’t think he… I don’t think… I’m sorry…’
Icarus floated through his brother’s funeral like a ghost in a dream. Their father, General Earthstar, was there, sitting at the front with his gleaming medals as the army chaplain droned on, something about duty and honour and loss…
His father was close enough to touch, and a million miles away…
A lot of faces Icarus had never seen before loomed up and expressed their sorrow and condolence. And Icarus squinted with his one good eye, and nodded, until the nodding gave him a headache, and wished they would all go away. Ethan was cremated. His coffin slid slowly out of sight, and minutes later Icarus could smell the smoke again, and the smell brought all the memories flooding back…
Suddenly he found himself standing alone with the chaplain, who was handing him a small glazed urn, the plinth inscribed ‘Capt. Ethan Willard Earthstar’. He looked around. He had no idea how much time had passed – but the chapel was almost empty. The congregation had gone. General Earthstar had gone. As far as Icarus knew, he had not spoken a word to him. Not even looked at him. The General had gone – and Icarus was left holding his son, his brother, in his hands.
That night Icarus needed to take Ethan somewhere quiet – and a sympathetic MP sentry let him into the Armoury. It was a vast chamber lined with rows and rows of shroom-shooters – the fungal weapons of the Shroom Raiders, lying there in their soil beds. Icarus was alone with Ethan’s urn, and everything was still and quiet. But the whole place felt alive – a soft, mossy, pulsing sense of life, and growth, that was somehow comforting. Icarus sat there, cradling Ethan in his arms, as the hours passed – sometimes rocking to and fro, sometimes sitting still, sometimes speaking softly to his brother. But all through the night he saw the same images over and over again…
The Neufundlander prisoner being led past him, with that look in his eyes… The look of a prey that knows it is about to become the predator…
His brother, trapped in the inferno, with the Neufundlander laughing as he turned to ash, Ethan, trapped, reaching for the fire extinguisher, to find that it didn’t work…
Reaching for the fire extinguisher, which Icarus had blocked with cement…
Ethan trapped there, with the flames licking all around him, choking on the fumes, trying again and again to get the extinguisher to work, as the Neufundlander laughed and turned to ash…
And that earlier day, when Icarus had squirted the grouting cement into the nozzle of the extinguisher… What jolly fun, what a laugh…
Ethan trapped in the flames, trying to get the extinguisher to work, suddenly looking up at Icarus and saying something – but Icarus’s ears were blocked, and he swallowed hard to clear them – and then he heard his brother clearly –
‘Ick, why have you killed me?
‘I’m sorry, Ethan. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…’
And Icarus sat there through the night, with his brother in his arms, as a thousand times his brother asked the same question, and a thousand times Icarus could only say,
Icarus looked up. There were the shroom-shooters lying in their avenues of soil beds, still but full of earthy life. The shroom-shooters, the weapons of the Shroom Raiders. The weapons of the New London Army, which Ethan had served and loved. Suddenly Icarus knew what to do. He stood up, hugging Ethan close to his chest, and he walked slowly over to the first row of shroom-shooters – and he took off the lid of the urn and gently scooped out a handful of ash. This was Ethan, all that was left of him in this world.
Icarus stood there for a long time, looking at the ash in his hand… and then he scattered the ash onto the soil bed of the shroom-shooter. He walked along the row, scattering ash onto one soil bed after another, making Ethan a part of the earth that would feed and nourish the shroom-shooters. Bringing Ethan back to life. Making Ethan a living, working part of the New London Army again. Icarus scattered the ashes, scattered, scattered, until there was no more ash to scatter – and the shroom-shooters pulsed, and grew, and lived, and seemed to silently thank him.
Then Icarus sat back down with the empty urn, and replaced the lid. He read the inscription – ‘Capt. Ethan Willard Earthstar.’
‘No more running away’, said Icarus. ‘No more running… I promise to you now, Captain Ethan Willard Earthstar, I promise that I’m going to be the best Shroom Raider I can possibly be…’
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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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