1: Bloodshow: Fungus Caves of Leppor
WAAAAAAAY back when Edwin went up the Rainbow Kromes, the whole world was this wretched, brutal, teeming, feverish, all-subduing heartkiller turn-down-the-contrast monochrome RED.
Surveillance swarms of Verminax spywasps buzzed the scarlet sky, antenna-length over ruddfruit fields the color of raw sirloin. Leppor's ruby-skinned human slaves chopped with garnet chainscythes at ruddfruit bushes (Watch it! Hit the lower antebrachial nerve cluster straight on, or the razor-root erupts straight for your heart!), then heaved each bitter fruit into a trundler's leg sacs. (Trundler? Verminax, 30 tons, 60 legs, IQ 10. And, yes, red.)
Planner caste overseers, bossy whiny insect guys, kept the gangs within spazzer range of the Plasmodium: 300 floors of pure ugly, a sky-stabbing termite nest of crimson slime and neon, topped with scabby clouds and the cardinal spike of Leppor's Lookout Stalk.
Land, sky, people -- this whole dimension, this krome, showed colors of muscle and blood. That's what they called the place, Bloodshow.
Of course, any Bloodshow harvester slave who wanted relief from all this red could just face the horizon, any direction. There at the edge of reality, way too close, loomed the Null, a seething pink/gray/no-color wall stretching straight up to twice infinity. By minutes and hours, finger- and arm-lengths, acidically, the Null ate away at the krome. "Relief"! Right.
Down in Heartsick, the Plasmodium's deepest ultrasubterranean corescraper cavern, even the Null might have looked feasible to the old fugitive woman and the boy. Hmmm, you choose: oblivion in the Null (deletes you and anyone's memory of you) or running for hours from Devouring Maxellids (tear you apart and toss the parts on neon-fungus mulch heaps)?
These two runners, Elinor and her nephew Edwin, never got the choice. But after hardscrabble years of stepping soft, sleeping light, bolting food, testing floors, and kneeing jerks, any Plasmodium slave knew a hundred tricks to cheat everyday ordinary death, never mind the Null. Life under Leppor made them hard as anodized razor blades, slippery as fractionated fullerene-doped planner spit.
(Chase a sewer rat down grates and around pipe bends, track it crosstown with sonar and satellite infrared, run it ragged with bloodhounds in four-dog relay teams, and trap it in a titanium mesh cage under halogen floods. Now ask the rat what it's thinking. The rat will say, "If I had moves like those Bloodshow slaves, you'd never have got me, you creep.")
So when Elinor and Edwin, as they raced through Heartsick's tunnels, kept looking behind and shying from every little flickfly and gasping hoarsely and wondering if maybe the Null had good points after all -- when these amped-up cornerfighters got so spooked, it meant they had more pursuers than just Devouring Maxellids. Worse: Behind the maxellids walked the most dangerous man in Bloodshow.
Even worse yet! Years in Bloodshow had aged the aunt like decades in other kromes. True, her ruby eyes still gleamed witchily. Her straggling hair held its maroon color, and she moved with a sensei's lean hickory poise. Other harvesters loved Elinor, in the shifty sidelong Heartsick way that passed for love. They trusted her to Get It Done. A Bungee Village wirefight oddsmaker might have pegged Elinor as "shrewd sturdy oldster, nice moves, feisty infighter, 40% strange"-- lavish praise, aside from the high strangeness wildcard. But against a maxellid, she'd never get better than 334:3.
The nephew was just a kid -- wiry, big eyes, mop hair, likable, sharp as a whipvine. But physically? Kind of a sprat. Whatever his age, he looked too small for it.
Both runners had harvester caste barcode tattoos snaking along their left cheekbone. Both wore hackcloth slave tunics, ragged where they had torn out strips. Both wore the strips as bandages on their forearms, bloody where they had torn out Leppor's tracking squealers.
Heartsick: huge and humid tunnels of intestinal smoothness. Thumbscrew-size hotterbugs skittered along the ceiling, bits of concretion sludge in their mandibles, building wavy cooling vanes that kept the fervid Plasmodium unbaked.
Neon pipes, fungus-grown, branched down the walls like veins. Here and there TV screens blossomed.
Elinor stumbled, stopped, and leaned hard against a wall. "All right, Edwin, I'll stop telling you to go back to the barracks. But at least hang back and hide. They want me, not you."
Hiding his fear, Edwin managed a brave-soldier bluster. At his age he thought bluster sounded good. "Your mission is too important, Aunt Elinor. I won't let them stop you."
She stared, panting. "And what can you do? Crazy kid!" But she rested her shaking hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
Far behind them squeaked a shrill styrofoam voice: "There! A-downtunnel! I spy now both stu-u-upid humaaans!"
Elinor froze without turning. "Tell me that planner isn't in this tunnel. It was an echo."
Edwin craned to look, then ducked. "It's crawling up the wall back there. It's looking this way!"
"Right." She sighed. "You don't see two other stupid humans?"
"We'd better run!"
They ran: toy soldiers in a storm drain.
A theremin eeeeoooeeeeooo wailed behind them, and Edwin and Elinor sped up. After them raced a slither of three Devouring Maxellids, Verminax millipede warriors that filled the tunnel like writhing subway trains.
From a safe distance, Verminologists have long thought the maxellidae smooth, like earthworms. Recently the Zur Panlectica researcher Ostrop Murillo disproved this.
Murillo fed seven hagbear carcasses doped with Ritingo-Bauzer Laboratories' SNOR® brand polyethyl-n,n-synthemorpheolene to a mature maxellid (subcaste devour), then examined it during post-prandial torpor. "Fine, fractally serrated, subdermally rooted scales, evidently cartilaginous, closely lapstraked," he radioed to his grad students, following seconds later with observations of the brevity of maxellidary post-prandial SNOR torpor, and ending with muffled yet heroic notes about the edentate palate and upper digestive tract.
This publish-and-perish discovery -- which forced Ritingo-Bauzer to pay Murillo's widow a settlement so large that she opened Devour Me, a popular theme restaurant -- explains the creatures' eerie wail. Maxellids in a slither entwine around one another while crawling, and their rubbed scales resonate like champagne glasses.
Riveting stuff, but not while you're running for your life. Edwin and Elinor hit the next tunnel two seconds ahead of the lead maxellid. Elinor spent one second to point out a low bolt-hole, shout "Go!" and turn to face the giant millipedes in noble sacrifice. This left Edwin the second second to grab her noble sacrificial rear and jump in the hole, jerking her backward head-between-ankles.
Now some Verminax, like spywasps, can brake and reverse twice an eyeblink. Edwin once saw a slave stumble over a low cliff edge, and while she started to fall -- while he took his first step toward her to help -- a wasp swarm buzzed in from all sides (any airborne slave being fair game), zip!zop! sucked her dry as a scab, then scooted out from under as the body hit and crumbled.
Some Verminax. Not Devouring Maxellids, headlong megabugs managing 30,000 legs. "Maxi-tough, size advantage, aggressive, tops in tunnels" (more bookie analysis here) "but zero strange, not team player, slowboat turns, inertia problem." The first inertia problem hit the bolt-hole like a rudderless cargo jet, and two more crashed on top.
The slither's prey had vanished. So, being Verminax, they bickered. Train wheels screeching on rusty axles: "Think you aaas we go a-down hole? Paaath is more small, for make of humaaan, crossleg mouther!"
"Naaay, slave-hind, you run a-front of I!"
"Lie you both a-top of I, squirming gorgers! Lift, separaaate!"
In a chamber beyond the bolt-hole tunnel, the two slaves crouched to listen. When yattering complaints became shrieks and thuds, Edwin exhaled. "They're starting on each other. We're clear."
"Stay focused. Bugs aren't our main problem -- he's still after us."
Edwin nodded. A thought chilled him: "The vial."
"I'll check it." From within her tunic Elinor drew a hackcloth parcel. As she unwrapped the tube within, a lustrous glow suffused the cave. Elinor and Edwin, the rock around them, and even the darkness itself went flat, like mere phosphor images projecting through the pyroglass vial to a truer world inside. Woman and boy looked, yearning, on the priceless liquid.
Elinor read the tiny field gauge. "The magnetic bottle is still holding." The light faded as she rewrapped the vial reverently. "A whole vial! If we get through this alive, Skeet and Willa can create enough land for all the runaways."
Runaways, slaves who had escaped Leppor's gangs, always fled to the deep tunnels. They never got far. They had nowhere to go, for the Null ate at their krome's edge, below as above. But now, at lethal risk, Elinor had sneaked this vial from Leppor's guarded stockpiles of Reality. This bottled Reality could drive back the Null and create a sanctuary for their runaway friends -- and, they hoped, themselves.
Edwin felt excited, and not just because Devouring Maxellids were currently thrashing each other senseless ten steps away. Seeing Reality always thrilled him. "Never mind the new land, I'd like to use that stuff on Leppor. Turn him into a flickfly and smoosh him!"
Elinor scowled. "Edwin. Our people -- who knows how many? -- got pressed to make this Reality. Show respect."
Edwin hung his head. After a moment the old woman reached out and gently rubbed his ear. That was her dehydrated spirit's closest approach to affection.
She looked around the chamber. "What's down there?"
With boulders like broken teeth lining the floor and ceiling, it was way too easy to imagine this small cave as a big mouth. The roof, lit with a tracery of neon veins, sloped sharply down into a dark throat. Bulb fungi clustered on an epiglottal ledge across the gap, and there, in place of uvula, Edwin spied a crawling worm, fat as a ripe cherry.
He pointed. "A tastelium! For once, good news."
Slaves considered this rare slime mold lucky, which shows Bloodshow's sad idea of luck. A colony of starving tastelium spores, each no bigger than a rice grain, would congregate to form this worm. The worm-colony crawled to a new food source, then extruded a kind of gun barrel and sprayed forth its slimy innard denizens, restarting the cycle. Eaten just before gun stage, the vitamin-rich worm tasted like buttered mushrooms.
Edwin eyed the narrow gap, looked around, saw nothing dangerous, and (Elinor: "Wait!") jumped for the ledge.
Edwin's leap was not dumb, just unconsidered. Many a Bloodshow harvester, however careful, might have made the same mistake. But when the far ledge proved totally fungal and crumbled under his toes, Edwin had no fallback plan except to, well, fall back.
Elinor grabbed his arm, she slipped on the oozy ground, and both slid downslope like oiled toboggans.
Tumble skid spin tumble slide. Two final dead-bug bounces threw Edwin and Elinor into a pile of fungal muck. What a rancorous stench! Spoiled eggs frying in rancid butter over burning hair in a pesticide mill.
The tastelium worm, perched on Edwin's forehead, spasmed with joyous hunger and blew up.
As powdery spores settled over them both, aunt stared piercingly at nephew. The boy muttered, "I almost got it."
"Edwin, the way you just zoom along by impulse, I wonder how you ever --"
"Hey, I see a sprayline! Can we clean up?"
They both looked like paprika-coated trundler droppings, so Elinor postponed her latest lecture. They crept down another gut-smooth tunnel to a water vein hung low on the wall. Turning the valve, they rinsed in spray that smelled of acetone. Then the two followed the vein further down. They saw piles of iron slag, regurgitated by Verminax rockeaters eating out this tunnel.
Soon Elinor and Edwin reached their goal: Farm 119, Heartsick's lowest fungus cavern. Here, rumor said, Leppor's security monitors had not yet budded.
In this steamy cave, fungi flourished. Sprays of neon pipes lit countless tree-size mushrooms in drifts marbled like cellulite thighs. Some crowns spread wider than a man; some grew high and thin.
At the feeder arteries along the walls, flickflies circled in the sewage stink. Children inched all-fours across the canopy and, in the shadows beneath, edged through thickets of stems striated with prune-pit wrinkles. The kids hunted gougeworm pests. Bleeding notches in their fingertips showed that the gougeworms hunted them too.
Men and women with chainscythes moved among the fungi. When a harvester revved his curving blade and cut deep, the stem's fibers seemed to splay and grasp and wrap with tentacular fingers. Caustic vapors shot from the core like a mist of battery acid. But they had to be cut. The Plasmodium used everything but the odor:
Here fungi flourished -- fungi, and more. Like Leppor's other caverns, Farm 119 fed the slaves' queasy suspicion that they didn't belong here. Not on this farm, not inside the Plasmodium, not anywhere. Sure, sweatshop hours of grinding servitude discourage patriotism, but this alienation grew in a deeper reach. It throve in the dark of lost memory, and bore pale fruits of listlessness, paranoia, and despair. Only the runaways could bring hope.
Elinor and Edwin sidled along the wall, behind rows of giant morels with hoods like folded umbrellas. They saw the prearranged rendezvous, a storage depot off the main cavern. The slaves scouted carefully, then stole into the depot through a narrow archway.
In this shadowed chamber, corded stems rose to the high ceiling. Heaps of fresh-cut crowns towered like mottled monster-truck tires. They smelled of acetylene.
Elinor whispered, "Hello?"
Aunt and nephew searched among stem heaps, spore kegs, spare scythe chains, acid flasks made of trundler shell, and chips of broken chitin. As the silence lengthened, the two drew back toward the archway, turning back to back.
Edwin said fearfully, "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
On every wall, pink static flared! From nested fungal petals, giant television blooms blared a gargling high-bandwidth babble -- the noise that made sense only to Leppor's goons.
"Monitors!" Elinor pushed Edwin toward the archway. "Run!"
From the stacks overhead, half a dozen dark shapes rappeled down on nestorsilk ropes. Toothed blades on double-handed chainscythes sputtered, then revved up to an ear-raking ragged-rip-roaOAARRRRR.
Elinor and Edwin looked back and forth. On all sides, tall stick-men ran at them. The soldiers wore chitin breastplates embossed with the Throat Ripper company emblem, helmets of hollowed breedrone heads, and -- the giveaway -- bulging bug-eye lenses.
"Larvandals." Elinor went to fighting stance. "Hit the ground and crawl for the door."
Was she stupid, announcing tactical advice with the enemy watching? Not to speak ill of these brutally effective shock troops, but they had maggots for brains. Leppor had taken them from their human mothers in squawling infancy and fed them brainworms. The tiny worms consumed all neurons and replaced them with high-efferent surrogates.
Grownup larvandals developed tremendous speed and, more important, absolute loyalty to Leppor and the Verminax. But overdrive metabolism made them flyweights, and they had twitchy espresso reflexes.
Also, brainworms coped badly with optic nerves (too much data compression). Larvandals compensated with a clumsy front-end fix: pyroplastic 90-lens eyeball covers anchored deep in cheekbone and brow ridge. Through these lenses they saw the world multiplex, 180-fold, about enough to make sure they got it.
Two Throat Rippers swept their chainscythes at Elinor, one high from the left, the other lower right. In younger times she could have jumped between. Now she had to duck right and step within the second soldier's swing. With a touch she helped its whirring blade along, straight into the first soldier's neck. She twisted the weapon away and rammed it backward under the second's chin, then raised it crosswise just in time to parry two more attackers.
Edwin, who had hit the rocky floor as ordered, watched with growing unease. As he reached cover he thought, She's getting slow.
Even in his short life he'd seen Elinor in better form. Once at Farm 86C a gang of trusty-slaves ran a racket extorting food from the harvesters. The Verminax planners did nothing, of course, so one sleep-shift Elinor snuck over. She drugged the nestor guards with illicit roanwood bugnip, then moved through the slave barracks like a buzzsaw's shadow.
It took her over an hour, that systematic seek-and-destroy. In the morning, the trusties were gone. The Verminax never did figure out how the farm's compost heaps got so big.
Glory days. Now Elinor had to fight smarter: no useless moves, fingers clasping exactly the right joint, pushing just so. A graceful step, one sharp twist, and a third larvandal fell with a broken arm. She kicked the grounded warrior on the armor straps under its armpit, not hard but just right, so the ribs snapped in sequence kk!kk!kk! like cancan dancers.
But (Edwin cringed) she was already gasping.
Then the fourth Ripper grabbed Elinor's tunic and (Edwin winced) swung her off-balance.
The cloth parcel fell out! The exposed vial rolled free across the floor! In its glow the fungal stacks seemed to quiver like a canvas backdrop.
For a breathless half-second everyone in the depot watched Reality roll.
Then Elinor, Edwin, and the three remaining larvandals all leaped for the vial. One soldier arrived first; Edwin slipped neatly under his legs, snatched the vial, and ran; the other troops raced after him. But Elinor stretched her leg just so, and somehow both men tripped into each other and fell.
As they hit the rock, Elinor called, "Get out, we're pressed!" She engaged the last soldier while Edwin reached the archway. Then, too soft-hearted, the boy stole one glance back at Elinor.
In that instant a huge hand darted from beyond the arch and seized the vial. "'Get out, we're pressed,'" a bass voice quoted. "Yes, soon enough, for you are not righteous."
At the entry stood the Seeker-of-Evil. Oh, great.
Heartsick's short, blubbery pitboss wore a maraschino-red caftan, festooned like a breedrone nest with crystals, bug shells, comm handsets, and assorted goony bits. On his chieftain headdress glittered mosaic designs in spywasp chitin, highlighting an earpiece receiver and adhesive throat mike.
Edwin cried out and lunged for the vial, but Elinor ran to the boy and stopped him short. She knew that the Seeker-of-Evil, a small-minded shovel-jawed demagogue windbag coward, never took risks without a backup. He always meant trouble -- annoying, sanctimonious, often lethal trouble.
Slaves in Bloodshow didn't know the word "sociopath," so they just said "like the Seeker-of-Evil." Leppor, sure he truckled to Leppor, oh indeed glorious master. And the Doctor, of course. Anyone else, the Seeker-of-Evil would cut their wrists just to watch the blood spurt, then explain why it was for their own good.
"Truly you walk a path of error," he said through plump and pursy lips. "Heed the sad example of your contacts, the runaways Skeet and Willa. My soldiers have already removed them."
Staggering over from the fallen larvandals, Elinor snorted. "Oh, 'my soldiers,' right! You'd check with Leppor before you ordered anyone to take a deep breath."
The Seeker-of-Evil stiffened and rose to his inconsiderable height. "If you had learned proper respect for me, your pitboss, you surely would never have fallen. Now you must meet the same sad fate as your friends."
"And what's that?"
"They will soon be pressed -- or, to speak properly, distilled." The pitboss gently shook the vial. Elinor looked past the Seeker-of-Evil and saw no guards. She tried to grab the vial.
But the pitboss was ready. "Tut!" he said primly, and thwacked her wrist with his scepter of office, a remote control. This macho fungoplastic fetish had so many buttons, it could have opened every garage and switched every channel across a large suburb.
The Seeker-of-Evil held the remote high and thumbed a rocker switch. Across Farm 119, neon pipes flickered and TV blooms crackled. Listless harvesters gathered at the monitors. Pink static strobed onscreen.
As the Seeker-of-Evil pressed more buttons, a warbling, wabbling soundtrack blared from every screen. Edwin understood none of it. But when the workers turned in unison to face him and Elinor, he saw that same pink static bleaching their dead eyes.
The people marched straight at them, zombie-like.
Edwin tried not to panic. "Do we fight them too?"
Elinor looked like she was sizing up the Seeker-of-Evil for a double eye jab and a nice snap of the clavicle. But his thumb hovered over those buttons, and his smug expression said Make me do it.
"No," she said. "It isn't their fault, it's his. And Leppor's."
"You speak from depraved ignorance. Of course, you may try to convince them." When the pitboss pointed the control, the crowd moved faster, jostling, stumbling, and then running. Straight at them. "But remember: I have the remote."
Elinor and Edwin fled. The mob stampeded after them. Fondling his remote control, the Seeker-of-Evil went tch-tch.
Downtunnel, someone had stuck a big breedrone skull on a pole, the Bloodshow version of UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Turpentine stench blew back from a detail of rockeaters. (Tunneling Verminax gourmands. Big as trundlers, but even stupider and covered with acid.)
Beyond the skull lay steaming piles of rock and metal, called "hurls" because rockeaters regurgitated them. Long scurrying lines of hotterbugs covered the hurls with furry rose-color fungus. And sprouting from the fungus....
With the mob close behind, Elinor stopped dead. "Concretion fungus. Now we're in trouble."
This fungus -- brrr. Concretion fungus feeds on hurls, acid, dirt, ruddfruit vines, people, anything the Verminax feel like shoving in the compost. It dissolves ore and deposits the residual metal as structural support coils. When hotterbugs carry away the sludgy coating for Plasmodium building material, they leave behind the skeleton: tanglewire.
This stuff chops the toughest thorn bush into niblets. Listen close and you can practically hear it slicing air molecules. Only the little hotterbugs move safely through it. Come to think, they may die by millions in there, but who misses a few million hotterbugs?
Elinor looked through the tangle. "I see a juncture ahead. If we get through this, we can escape."
"What, that tunnel? Those rockeaters are right by it!" Edwin stood on tiptoe. Past the wire he saw a milling assemblage -- a burrow -- of rockeaters. Acid gushed from long labial palps as the giants dully gouged yet another new tunnel.
"Rockeaters don't trouble you if you don't trouble them." She pulled Edwin close. "Come on, crawl."
They slid under the first coils of wire, just as the mob caught up. Even zombified, the harvesters still drew up short.
The Seeker-of-Evil caught up. He frowned in frustration. "Fugitives! You have no chance. Why squander your lives down here, when your Reality could serve the people you have so pettily rejected?"
"Blah blah blah-di-blah," Elinor muttered, then yelped as a low coil cut her hip.
Hotterbugs, noticing the intruders, sent out pungent alarm pheromones. As Edwin and Elinor shinnied forward, the tiny Verminax gathered around them. Then the scent drifted downtunnel, rousing the burrow of rockeaters from their torpid gnawing. They thrashed left and right, then turned, agile as bulldozers, to face the tangle.
Edwin gulped. "Uhh -- what was that about troubling rockeaters?"
"You won't believe this, but --" Elinor edged over to cover Edwin. "-- We've got worse problems." She braced as the hotterbug swarm grew to a solid seething ring. A second later, they attacked. Moronic, but effective in huge numbers: a metaphor for the whole Verminax experience.
The slaves slapped and brushed and crushed, but managed only to slice open their arms. Amid the clack of hungry mandibles, Edwin screamed.
"Stay cool, boy." Elinor kicked and rolled, crushing hundreds of bugs, which unfortunately released more alarm scent. Acid steamed off the agitated rockeaters. Still Elinor kept calm. "Look on the upside. If they kill us, they can't press us for our Reality."
Edwin screamed, "That's the upside?"
Just as things were getting gory, a new voice rang out: "Stop!"
The crowd shied back as a tall figure stepped forward, graceful as a spider.
Elinor looked back and sagged. "Oh no. Oh no."
Under her, Edwin twisted to look. "What? Who is it?"
"Him. Doctor Injecta."
Every slave in Bloodshow felt a curdling fear of Doctor Injecta, because Leppor forced them to watch this man at work. Routine thugs like the Seeker-of-Evil would cut you up, break some bones, yeah okay. But Leppor's sole lieutenant had a more surgical imagination.
Dragonfly-thin, Doctor Injecta had a skull like an inverted teardrop, big-brain-long-chin. Fine rust hair swept back from his high forehead, and his left eye gleamed like a cochineal beetle.
The other eye? Gone. Doctor Injecta had replaced his right eye orbicular -- socket, temple, zygomatic bone, the whole works, scooped out of his skull like a tremendous bite -- with a medical reflector. The shiny cavity arced from beside his nose back almost to his ear. An odd red orb glowed in its center. When Doctor Injecta faced you, WHAM just like that you were under interrogation.
Injecta's smock, darker than cinnabar, hid grisly stains. Under neon it looked black, as did his pants and jackboots. Likewise his belt, where he carried his personal armamentarium of hypodermics, lancets, suture needles, curettes, drills, and diathermy electrodes.
Yet his skin shone pale, pale.... No one knew where Doctor Injecta had come from, but obviously not from around here.
Scoping circumstances at a glance, Injecta murmured to the little planner Verminax perched across his shoulders. The knobby-legged planner chattered, "Ekinameverax! Off now do you move, off of a-top they! Kanivexaterak-k-k!"
At the planner's shrill datapulse squeals, the hotterbugs swarmed off Elinor and Edwin. The rockeaters cooled off.
Of all the humans in Bloodshow, only Injecta could talk to planners. Through them he could command the Verminax. That itself, never mind the rest, made Doctor Injecta dangerous.
He spoke quietly, yet his graveled voice carried easily to the fugitives. "Elinor, I commend your determination. However, this particular game has ended. Come back, and I promise we shall resolve matters quickly."
Elinor wriggled forward again, protecting Edwin from the hanging coils. "We're halfway there," she whispered. "Almost. Call it a third."
Injecta could never manage a cajoling tone. He sounded like a general offering terms of surrender. "You know we all must sacrifice to preserve our beloved homeland from the Null. Your resistance --"
Elinor, still crawling, called back, "It's not our homeland. Humans don't come from here!"
Injecta's single eye glanced sidelong at the mob. The harvesters were blinking and scratching their heads. Their eye static flickered.
The doctor's pale skin flushed. "Nonsense. There is nowhere else."
The Seeker-of-Evil spotted his cue. "Nonsense!"
Elinor halted at a dense thicket of wire. Edwin wondered at her confusion: "No. I'm sure. I -- I can't remember, but --"
Injecta exhaled. "The woman's unhinged. Perhaps we'd best expose her to -- Reality."
From the Seeker-of-Evil he took the hackcloth bundle. The pitboss held on almost too long. But that skull reflector shining down, that merciless eye -- oops! here you go sir.
With the planner chattering nervously behind his neck, Injecta unwrapped the pyroglass vial. He held it high, where its potent glow bathed the walls in ruby light.
The world went flat. Neon dimmed and static guttered.
As the slaves gazed in waking wonder, the pitboss tried to rezombie them with his remote. Fat chance. Press the usual buttons, thumb every power switch, shake shake shake that big commanding thing, doesn't matter. All the pitbosses, deputies, aides, overseers, recruiters, bureaucrats, whips, distributors, secretaries, vice principals, junior attorneys, second lieutenants -- the jealous middle-manager hatchets, the balloonhead bottleneck blowhard hirelings with their near and petty power -- shove 'em under the spotlight of big-R Reality, and hey, where'd your chevrons go, boss? Funny, now you look like one more slave.
While the Seeker-of-Evil cringed like a blindsided cockroach, Doctor Injecta appeared taller. He loomed. He seemed more deeply scary, a threat not only to soft organs but to hard convictions.
Or maybe not. Weird, suppressed, baseless yet undeniable notions -- visions of power, terror, limitless possibility -- bottled Reality brought them out.
Even under tanglewire, the two exhausted fugitives couldn't turn from that light. Edwin wondered if that red Reality came from the very runaways they'd wanted to meet.
Injecta snapped open his belt pouch and drew out --
-- the realizer.
Yes! Leppor's realizer.
Think of it: this little lose-it-in-a-handbag unit -- this quirky calculatoroid form factor with its puny touchscreen and eccentric blank pushbuttons that would never ever mar the sleek streamlined masculine superbness of a pitboss fetish remote -- this oddball gimcrack had created Bloodshow. By keeping back the Null, this same doodad now preserved the whole krome.
In fact, Leppor's realizer was certainly worth far more than all of Bloodshow together, though no one said this where Leppor could hear.
Edwin had never seen the realizer. Now he got one glimpse, and his eyes bulged. Just for an instant he'd seen a bright line of, of -- he had no words. Growing up in Bloodshow, he knew no colors but red.
Holding the realizer firmly in one slender hand, Doctor Injecta unstopped the Reality vial. A meaty odor leapt forth. As if handling nitro, Injecta oh-so-carefully poured a sparkling dram into the leftmost of the realizer's seven side intakes.
Capping the vial and handing it to the Seeker-of-Evil, Injecta pushed a button and touched a screen field. The realizer beeped, chimed, deedle-dummed. Everyone watched. (But why did Edwin stare so stone-still?)
The device's case bulked out. It opened two thin side panels and extruded a handgrip and barrel. Targeting flanges sprouted. In seconds Doctor Injecta held a brand-new superheterodyned double-pulse-chamber recoilless spazzer pistol.
"Uh-oh." Elinor crawled faster, pulling Edwin, trailing droplets of blood.
"Heeyaaa! Now do stu-u-upid humaaans a-shaaake they, and now rattleroll!"
Elinor began, "I wish that thing would sh--"
Injecta fired. The spazzer beam, visible only as a trembling of the humid air, struck the tanglewire close by. The near side of each strand instantly vibrated at gigahertz frequency, leaving the far side still. Wire shattered and flew out in an expanding shrapnel cloud.
A dust of blades showered over Elinor. Despite her efforts, one fell on Edwin, slicing his scalp. His cry got drowned by the stamping of the nervous rockeaters.
Injecta called, "Remarkable, isn't it? I'm told one drop of Reality gives 50 shots. And I've the whole vial left."
Elinor whispered, "How bad are you hurt?"
Edwin: "I'm all right, don't go back. Keep going!"
Another shot, another explosion. Before the debris settled, the panicked rockeaters slammed through the tanglewire. Their shell carapace, thick as vault doors, turned aside the blades, but piston legs split and acid ichor spilled. The wire field, already shaking in waves, steamed and twisted and, with a tortured screech, snapped.
Wounded rockeaters stampeded around the tangle, toppling mounds of concretion fungus. As coils of wire hurtled by, the mob shied back, pitboss rearmost.
Doctor Injecta, though, stood like an obelisk. "Forty-eight shots left, Elinor."
Bloodshow slaves could find three ways out of a block of cement. But as Elinor sized up the situation -- tanglewire, hotterbugs, spazzer blasts, rockeaters, acid vapor -- and Injecta -- she gritted her teeth. "I've slipped tighter spots than this." Another blast. Shrapnel cut her arms. "Wish I remembered when."
She shouted to Injecta, "If you let my nephew go, unharmed, I'll surrender."
Edwin tried not to cry. "No! Please!"
The doctor's words echoed through the tunnel. "That boy with you? Of course. I give you my word."
Elinor snorted. "For what that's worth." She gripped Edwin's hand tightly, and they crawled back toward the mob. She muttered, "Always another chance."
Three strong men held the old woman by arms and neck. Injecta's planner calmed the rockeaters. No one bothered with the boy.
"You perfidious woman," the Seeker-of-Evil began. "Independent, inflexible, impervious to our glorious leader's vital message of patriotism, of sacrifice for the good of all, of the struggle for the hearts of those benighted workers ignorant of our constant peril, our --"
Elinor sighed. "Can you get to a verb?"
"Gag her." As a slave shoved cloth in the woman's mouth, the Seeker-of-Evil also stood like an obelisk -- a blunted, stubby obelisk. "As I was saying. I have tried to like you, Elinor, oh how I've tried. But --"
"She makes you look bad," Edwin prompted.
"-- you make me look b--" The Seeker-of-Evil tongue-stumbled, then scowled. "Here, who is this boy? As much a troublemaker as the woman." He waved the Reality vial threateningly. "Doctor, perhaps Leppor may find it prudent to distill this one too."
Doctor Injecta casually considered this, as though planning one more experiment. Elinor, gagged, shouted protest.Injecta looked at her in mock surprise. "Don't worry, I keep my word. You asked me to let him go, unharmed. I shall."
Smiling at Edwin whimsically, he added, "And with a fair head start."
The slaves stirred, glancing around restively. Even Bloodshow had its unwritten codes. Leppor had never yet pressed a child.
Injecta, hearing the murmurs, glared at the Seeker-of-Evil. While the pitboss worked his remote to calm the crowd, Edwin impulsively reached down and found a small hurl fragment. His gaze on the pitboss's headdress, he threw.
The stone, a porphyric agglomerate with veins of pure nickel and titanium, had a specific gravity not far short of a depleted uranium bullet. It would have hit the pitboss's scalp squarely -- but he happened to turn, so that the rock hit the Reality vial. Pyroglass shattered, the magnetic field failed, and syrupy liquid shimmered as it splashed across the pitboss's big belly.
The smell of red Reality washed through the tunnel: gamy, nauseating.
Edwin filled the silence with a word. "Oops."
As the liquid seeped into his skin, the Seeker-of-Evil blew his cool. "Aah! What's happened?"
Doctor Injecta's eye widened. "Oh, dear. My poor man, you've been drenched with pure Reality." He scrutinized the pitboss as he would a breedrone larva on a slide. "This may be interesting."
"Wh-why? What does it do?"
"It makes you more like what you really are."
With rubbery squeaks, and whining every second, the helpless pitboss began to change. Who knew that rolls of fat could ooze like lava, bulging forth fold on fold? That fingers could distend like inflated surgical gloves? Could stretch further, submerging arm and belly and neck? Where now, that oozing obelisk?
"Mwaauh..." Through wide melting lips the Seeker-of-Evil blabbed, though with a putty head quickly flattening. "Heeeuuup!"
Doctor Injecta gazed in fascination. "Tut, man. Look on it as a learning experience."
The pitboss became a squat oval globe webbed with pulsing arteries. Continents of leathery hide grew and joined. As they engulfed his arms, he dropped the remote. Its fungoplastic housing cracked. The slaves, freed from control, shied far back.
Doctor Injecta calmly stepped back, spazzer ready. His planner Verminax sputtered and queeped.
No one noticed Elinor pulling Edwin uptunnel. She whispered, "Always another chance."
From the polar crevasse of the Seeker-of-Evil's mouth there slathered forth a razorstrop length of tongue. It flopped left and right until lost under the cancerously spreading hide.
Under Doctor Injecta's piercing gaze, the globe --
-- the egg --
-- tore open. Leather flaps flew back as one four-clawed limb slashed free. Another, a third, a fourth knobby limb emerged, then two giant housefly wings. From the fleshy inner lining crawled a major revision of the Seeker-of-Evil, smaller (not much left but belly fat), uglier (those four arching spider legs, yeesh!), head more bullet-like, eyes bulgier, jowls jowlier, what a simpering twerp --
Zbrrripppp! With ratcheting clicks the head whipped around on its spindle neck. On the skull's other side, a second face had compound fly eyes, steaming nostril slots, black antennae, and teeeeeeth, what a rack of teeth! Fangs bright with saliva, jutting incisors big as a hand, overbite so horrendous that when the bottom row sliced your nose, the uppers scraped the nape of your neck.
The slaves got one glimpse of this bad dream and they were gone, racing uptunnel so fast the wind rattled the tanglewire. When the thing fluttered its wings and lurched upward, even the rockeaters ran.
Injecta held off the Seeker-monster with controlled spazzer bursts.
The inglorious two-faced head spun twerpside. A barbed tongue slithered out. "Helllb!" Then back turned the hideous mouth-face.
One eye against a thousand, Injecta stared it down. "I'll see what I can do. First, get that woman."
The Seeker-of-Elinor rose higher and buzzed away uptunnel.
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