Johnny heaved a sigh as he leaned back in the passenger seat of a vehicle considerably less cool than the convertibles that he was used to driving. "Remind me again why I agreed to play Kindergarten Cop on this little hellbound handcart?" he asked.
"Well, junior," Ben said, clapping him on the shoulder with a rocky hand, "when a married couple with a house full o' kids love each other very much, and they find they're jonesin' for a little alone time-"
"Okay, okay, enough reminding!" Johnny hastily raised his hands. The less imagined about that particular scenario the better. He was sure his brother-in-law was perfectly capable of having cooked up his kids in a beaker scientific style, and really, wasn't everybody happier to run with that assumption?
So in the name of keeping some little pitchers with big ears - and alarmingly big brains - subscribed to that healthy delusion, he and Ben had volunteered to take the younger live-in members of the Future Foundation on an educational roadtrip. For dubious values of road - and education. Johnny was pretty sure when he'd agreed to this, no one had mentioned he was going to be spending a week driving a vehicle shaped like a giant caterpillar over a planet covered entirely in mushrooms.
Letting the kids pick their idea of a fun destination was never a good idea. Especially not this group of kids.
A small, bald, goggle-wearing Moloid head appeared between his and Ben's chairs. It was decapitated and floating in a bell jar, but that didn't seem to bother either the head or his little trio of Moloid buddies, so, okay. "We wish to enquire of the Ben whether we are yet in close proximity to our final destination," the head said politely in a helium-like Munchkin voice.
Behind Johnny, Bentley lunged forward to wrap his arms round the headrest. "Are we there yet?" he demanded.
Further back in the caterpillar, Franklin and Val were being suspiciously quiet, and smiled innocently when he looked at them. Johnny turned his head towards Ben. "Please tell me there's a rest stop coming up," he begged.
"Hey, kids!" Ben said with artificial enthusiasm, as the caterpillar's on-board computer popped up a translation of the marks etched into a nearby egg-shaped fungus. "How would you like to visit a museum of mushroom-climbing implements?"
Johnny thumped his head back against the headrest in despair.
"Ow," protested Bentley, and flicked him in the head.
Good times, good times.
Franklin really didn't think it could be counted as sneaking off. The Moloids were all talking to the tour guide, and Uncle Johnny had said he was tired and had to stay out in the caterpillar, and Uncle Ben was busy trying to stop Bentley from stealing a mushroom-climbing pickaxe - so really, there was nobody to tell where they were going.
Besides, if anyone here was doing the sneaking, it was Val. He was just being a responsible big brother by following her.
"Do you actually know where we're going?" he asked dubiously. The hallways of the museum were hollowed out from the inside of a giant dome-shaped mushroom, radiating out from the centre like the spokes of a wheel. Since the worm people who lived on this planet preferred really dim lighting, and the museum displays all looked pretty much identical, they could have been walking in circles and not noticed.
"Of course I do." Valeria hefted her backpack as she marched ahead of him. "I plotted the optimum search route to cover the most ground without crossing paths with the rest of our tour group."
Franklin rolled his eyes. "That's not the same as knowing where we're going," he pointed out.
His sister gave a put-upon sigh as they turned down another corridor. "The Dengorians obviously like to design their buildings around rotational axes of symmetry," she told him. "That means there should be another door leading to the outside right about-" she stretched up on tiptoe to seize one of the braided loops that the Dengorians used for door handles - "here."
She tugged the loop to open the door, and sunlight spilled into the gloomy hallway. She turned to face Franklin and smiled smugly.
He felt that the only mature and adult response was to stick his tongue out.
The door led out onto what seemed to be some kind of back route, much narrower than the rocky pathways they'd been following in the caterpillar. Purple fronds like sea anemones waved to either side of the track, and scattered among them were little clusters of black and red toadstools shaped like bowls. Beyond those grew a forest of pale pastel mushrooms that were tall enough to be counted as trees. It made for a colourful and varied landscape, provided you didn't mind that the variations were all on a theme of mushroom.
By the side of the track he could see one of the egg-shaped mushrooms the Dengorians liked to use to make their route markers. This one had been carved like a pumpkin into a cutout shape that looked like a pie with a slice missing. "What does that sign mean?" he asked Valeria.
"I don't know," she said, frowning over the computer tablet that she'd pulled from her backpack. "Dad's translation code isn't sophisticated enough to deal with purely symbolic representation." She sat down on the ground, crossing her legs. "I could easily reprogram it, given the parameters of what we know about the nature of Dengorian society-"
"Or, how about we just go look?" Franklin said sensibly. He moved a few steps further on, then turned back with a sly smile. "Race you to the end!" he said, and started to run.
"No fair!" Valeria shouted, scrambling up to chase him. "You had a head start! Franklin, waaait!"
Franklin did slow down to let his sister catch up to him eventually, but the winding path continued quite a way. He was starting to get the guilty feeling that they ought to turn back when he spotted a dark shadow beneath a wide flat mushroom ahead. "Is that a cave?" he said.
"Where? I can't see." Val scrambled up on top of a wobbling toadstool to see over the tall fronds, and he grabbed her arm to steady her as she looked. "It must be a natural formation," she said. "It doesn't look like Dengorian architecture."
No rotational symmetry. See, he had been paying attention. "Let's check it out," he said. Maybe if it was the entrance to a cave network they could bring the others here and go exploring.
They made their way towards the dark crevice. Beneath the overhanging shelf of fungus was soft dirt, and just enough room for Val to walk upright while Franklin had to stoop. The mushroom cap that formed the roof was shaped kind of like a clamshell, fanning outwards and upwards from the point at the back where it grew out of the ground.
"This would make an awesome secret hideout," Franklin said, touching the roof as he looked around. The fungus was firm but squishy, sort of like a mattress, and it felt surprisingly warm.
The hollow under the mushroom would have been dark, but he could see there was a faint green glow towards the back. An object the size of a baseball was emitting a pulsating light. "What's making that glow?" he asked as they crept closer.
"Probably bioluminescence," Valeria said. "There's a type of chemical called luciferin that emits light when it reacts with oxygen. Fireflies produce it, and so do some species of-"
"Mushroom?" he guessed, trying not to roll his eyes.
"You were the one who picked mushroom-world," she reminded him. "I wanted to study the ice formations on Vergessi, but you guys all voted me down."
"That's because you're boring," he said, and gave a big jaw-cracking yawn to prove it.
"I'm not booor-" she started to protest, but his yawn turned out to be contagious. "-ring," she finished weakly, and Franklin snickered. "Shut up, dorkface," she said with a glower.
Val always got cranky when she was overtired. He guessed the hike from the museum had been too much for her toddler stamina. Actually, Franklin realised, he was feeling pretty sleepy himself; there was something very peaceful about the softly glowing darkness under the mushroom cap, like being lulled to sleep by a nightlight. To get up close to the light source they almost had to crawl along the ground, and he blinked a lot, fighting to keep his eyes open.
Half buried in the dirt he saw there was a growth that looked like a glowing green onion, or maybe a seed bulb. "It's a light bulb!" Franklin said triumphantly.
Val didn't even bother to groan at the joke, staring at the glow through squinty eyes. "That's... weird," she said, yawning in the middle again.
"What's weird?" he asked, blinking again to clear his own eyes. The light was almost hypnotic, seeming to pulse in a subtle pattern he couldn't quite work out.
"The... angle of growth. And... why... just one?"
"Why one what?" Franklin asked, struggling to focus his fuzzy thoughts, but Val had flopped her head down to rest on her supporting arm, and the only answer was a quiet snore.
It was tempting to lie down and take a quick nap himself, but instead he stretched his fingers out to brush the dirt away from around the glowing fungus. It turned out to have a long stem running just under the surface, almost as if it really was a bulb with a wire connecting it up.
Or the bait on the end of a fishing line. Why were they both so tired all of a sudden? And when had it gotten so dark? Franklin looked back over his shoulder - and saw that the clamshell-shaped mushroom cap had started to close itself up, sinking inch by slow inch towards to the ground to seal them both inside.
He shook Val's shoulder urgently. "Valeria! Wake up!" She just gave a sleepy grumble. Franklin tugged at her arm, wondering if he could drag her out with him, but right now he was so tired he might as well be trying to haul Uncle Ben.
He wished his uncle was here with them now. What would he and Uncle Johnny do if they were in this trap?
Find something to clobber. Franklin grabbed the glowing fungus and yanked it out of the ground. The thin stem tore in his hands, and he hurled the bulb as far away as he could. Without the glow pulsing in his face he suddenly felt far less sleepy, and he poked Valeria in the arm again.
"Ow! Franklin," she protested, rolling away with her eyes still screwed shut. "I'm telling Mom."
"Mom's not here," he reminded her. "Come on, wake up!" He tugged at the strap of her backpack to pull her with him.
Val's eyes finally fluttered open. "Oh," she said abruptly, scrambling up on to her hands and knees as she saw the mushroom trap closing. "I told you! It was using the light as a lure like a deep sea anglerfish."
"You didn't tell me anything," he retorted as they both lunged for the exit, now barely high enough for them to squeeze out. "I worked it out all by myself."
"My backpack!" Val said as it got caught on the closing mushroom shell and slipped off to fall behind her. She stretched back underneath to grab the strap and yanked it out after her, the top flap tearing open as it just barely scraped out through the shrinking gap.
A few seconds later, and the edge of the giant mushroom had sealed tight against the ground, leaving no sign that the cave had ever been there.
"Whoa," Franklin said, standing up to stare at it. "We almost got mushed."
They exchanged looks, and then they both started giggling. "Race you back to the museum!" Val said suddenly, and took off back down the track.
"Doesn't matter if you've got a head start, I'll still beat you!" Franklin called out. He chased after her, grinning.
Johnny lifted the tourist brochure off of his face and sat up in the driver's seat as the kids scrambled aboard the caterpillar. "Fun times at the museum, Benjy boy?" he asked as Ben got in the passenger side, causing the vehicle to sink down by at least six inches.
Ben growled, a sound like gargling with gravel. "If I ever see another mushroom-climbing rope, remind me ta choke myself to death with it," he said.
"Will do," he promised easily. He twisted around to check on the kids. All the same ones that they'd started out with, no obvious extras - always a good start. "Everyone having a good time back there?" he asked, raising his voice.
"No," Bentley said sourly, kicking the back of his chair. He'd switched over sides just because Johnny had too. Dammit.
The Moloids trilled affirmatively. "We saw many interesting climbing and digging implements," said Turg.
"We are of the opinion that we would like to try mushroom-climbing," added Mik.
"Swell," said Johnny. "I'll pencil it in for the end of the trip." Anything to make Ben suffer. He looked to his niece and nephew, both sitting yawning in the back. "What about you guys?" he asked. "Do anything exciting?"
That brief glance shared between them could be the formulation of a cover story - or, he could just be horribly paranoid after spending three days on the road with these kids. Hard one to call.
"We went for a walk and saw some new types of mushrooms," Franklin said.
"Well, okay." Tough to see how that could be anything sinister. Johnny turned back and spread the stack of collected tourist brochures across the dash. "Okay, kiddos, I've been checking out potential destinations. We could swing by the Singing Mushroom Mound of-"
"No!" Franklin and Val blurted at once.
Ben turned round to look at them. "You kids got something against singing mushrooms we should know about?" he asked.
Another shared look. "Mushrooms with mouths are creepy," Valeria said.
Johnny considered that for a moment. "Okay, you got me there, kid," he admitted with a pointing finger. He joined it with a second finger to make a pistol, aimed it at the brochure, and set it ablaze with a casual puff of flame. "Not that one. Well, I guess that leaves us with the excitement of..." he shuffled the remaining brochures, "oh, boy - Dengor's second biggest root sculpture." The thrills just kept on coming.
"Can I drive?" Bentley asked, leaning forward.
"Sure - when you're thirty," Johnny said.
"Tong is past the required age of maturity," Korr volunteered.
"Yeah, but we have a special rule in here that says floating heads in jars don't get to drive," he said.
The Moloids conferred in a brief huddle. "We find your systems of selecting drivers arbitrary and discriminatory," they decided.
"I could set up an electronic harness system," Valeria said, sitting up in her seat. "If you just let me rewire the onboard computer so I can reconfigure the access points-"
Ben laid a heavy hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Just drive, match-head. Just drive," he advised.
And on they went.