3: Bloodshow: Slime Train
Fastest route to the Ambit short of teleportation (and nobody but Leppor could do that so never mind), the Slime Train track curved down from Plasmodium Terminus station like one immense mandible.
Bony guiderails bounded twin tracks of gelatin. Every so often a two-slimecar train slid down the outbound track. With a shell like a streamlined periwinkle and a muscular foot, each car looked slow as a snail. But no! Outbound trains moved as fast as a snail dropped from a roof.
Return trips crawled. At the train's tail, electrodes twitched the track galvanically, jerking the cars uphill. Everyone complained, but not where Leppor could hear.
With half the workshift left to go, the Terminus colonnade waited empty, windy, dead as a midnight airport. Leppor had envisioned Plasmodium Terminus as a bustling nexus, a cheerily frenetic ganglion of activity. What did he get? "Gee, Mister Leppor sir" (gulp), "nicest fifty-acre square of crumbling asphalt we've ever seen!" Rows of pillars, big arcing shards of trundler shell, stood in parallel like a giant ribcage. The tracks' weedy stench wetted the air.
Doctor Injecta, gripping the realizer/spazzer, hustled Elinor toward a car. Behind him, alongside the fluttering Seeker-of-Evil, one nestor guard casually carried Edwin tucked under its two right arms.
The guards, bred twice the size of ordinary nestor workers through pre-hatch larvacosteroid injections, towered even over Injecta. They looked sort of like him, actually. Not the thorax with mottled shell, nor the four arms, nor the triangular mantis head with long arcing antennae. But they were thin like him, with knobby joints and an even gait.
Nestors didn't usually hurry. But this time, with Doctor Injecta setting the pace, they all hit the departure platform double-time. Edwin noticed that Injecta stole a glance at the horizon, where the Null had encroached close to a high, shapeless hill. Edwin, who didn't get aboveground much, had not seen that hill before. With all the scaffolding and gaping pits, it looked like a construction site.
Whatever it was, Injecta sped up. At the track circle he spoke sharply to the slave gang leader, a pitboss. "Ready a train. Now, or I'll have you all pressed!"
The pitboss thumbed his remote. His slaves, untouchables of the hated caste, raced to pull the next two slimecars onto the outbound rails. Just down the rails, hated children scraped up track secretions with bone gleaners. The stuff made ointment for anklerot.
Elinor had recovered from the leechvine attack. "Doctor, you don't want to press my nephew. He's too small to make much Reality. Why not just let him go? I won't try to escape."
The Seeker-monster (hit with Reality, still a small-minded twerp) gurgled. "Ga-a-argh! Thith boy hath wuined me! Bress him!"
Injecta considered the boy. Edwin felt like an insect, with Injecta deciding whether to slap or just wave him away.
"How tedious." Injecta sighed. "This child cost me an entire vial, the same vial you stole. I should make him an example to the rabble… Here is our train. Inside."
Two slimecars made sucking and splorching noises as the hateds gang-handled them onto the track. Both pairs of doors slid back. Injecta gestured Elinor and the nestors into the front car.
The guard holding Edwin bent its head to pass through. Its antenna dipped down, and in that moment Edwin grabbed and pulled. In a convulsion of pain the nestor dropped him. He hit the platform running.
Elinor started to follow, but Injecta's spazzer pistol targeted the knife-thin bridge of her nose. "No," he said.
Two nestors grabbed Elinor. She didn't waste energy struggling, but she shouted to Edwin, "Find Willa and Skeet!"
Injecta's smile, a one-corner mouth twitch, made him look even weirder. "They're at the Ambit, awaiting the pressor. You'll see them shortly. Wouldn't you rather call the boy back?" Then, to the guards: "Inside."
Two nestors bughandled Elinor into the slimecar. The other Verminax and the Seeker-monster made a start after Edwin, then belatedly looked back to Injecta for orders.
So they didn't see a slim figure dart behind a distant pillar. Only Injecta saw it -- a figure like nothing else in the Plasmodium.
A figure that was not red.
Injecta's eye widened. He called back the pursuers. "The boy makes no difference. We're short of time." To the gang pitboss he called, "Never mind hitching the rear car. We leave now!"
Injecta waved away the Seeker-of-Evil. "Too cramped for you. Ride on top." Grumbling from both mouths, the Seeker-monster settled onto the slimecar roof.
A fading shhhluuurp marked the first slimecar's slide into the distance. Elinor looked back longingly from a side porthole. Injecta, too, stole a few backward glances. (What was that expression in his eye? Not fear, that's crazy. Then what?)
Watching from hiding, Edwin wondered what to do. Follow in the second car? He had no idea how to run it. Already the pitboss was whipping the gang to pull it offtrack.
Would the slaves help Edwin or capture him? He set his jaw and started toward them....
Suddenly a thin figure, a young woman, darted past him. He stared, breathless. He could not name the colors of her hair or clothing.
Just seeing her made Edwin's world brighter.
The woman jumped into the slimecar. Moments later it gave a sickening squelch and oozed free of the hated gang. Amid the pitboss's angry shouts, mingled with yelps from freshly slimed slaves, the car started to slide.
Without thought -- wow, what a surprise -- Edwin raced for the departing slimecar. Leaping, he barely caught the whorled shell by its extreme caboose-end, the apex.
The car hit the downhill grade and accelerated. Hanging by his hands, Edwin watched the shiny track slip away below. The shell felt too smooth, his grip too loose.
He thought the same thought he had often thought after acting without thought: Ummm. Now what?
Electrode housings at the shell base offered a foothold. Against a strengthening wind Edwin clambered up to the apex, then (eeeasy...) over the shell whorl to the roof.
Safe for the moment, with hot gusts drying his sweat, he looked out at Bloodshow. He shuddered.
Edwin's real horror of this place transcended the Plasmodium. Granted, a grotesque tumorous Verminax-infested cone deserved a few shivers. So did its foothills, blanketed by overgrown ruddfruit fields so they looked like flayed carcasses. Even the red sun looked ugly, fixed at perpetual noon yet dim as a neon pipe. And, of course, the Null threatened oblivion at every moment. Granted.
But what freaked Edwin was that Leppor liked Bloodshow. He had wielded Reality to create land, sky, Verminax, and slaves for his empire. To be able to create anything, anything at all, and to come up with -- this? Ugh.
Now, how to get inside? Should he call out to that strange woman? Even Edwin thought that risky.
Then again, he had to move fast. Ahead of the speeding slimecar lay one of Leppor's rattletrap construction projects, New Horizon Bridge. Slaves called it Nearly Horizontal Bridge, thought not around Leppor's spies. Built on fungus stalks stiffened with concretion cement, the teetering, treacherous trestles squittered as the car hurtled onto the bridge.
That hot wind sweeping up. That garbage stench. Edwin said, "Uh-oh."
He looked down. He regretted that. First the ground, then some lower ground, the ground a bit lower still, then whoooosh the car was OUT THERE, rocketing into a gulf of empty air. There in Overbrink Chasm, in an abyss stretching down to vanishing point, the curbless bridge felt like a tightrope.
Cringing shellward, Edwin peered down at the gooey webwork that spanned Overbrink. A million antacid-pink strands splayed in all directions like the blast from a megaton glue-bomb.
No bomb, though. Those spiders, skating the strands, wove this web for their living.
Though he had never seen them, Edwin knew about trashspiders. The heated air in Heartsick's lowest reach blew through unknown deeps, carrying the Plasmodium's crumbs, trash, dead hotterbug husks, and assorted kipple. The wind blasted up through Overbrink Chasm. Trashspider colonies scavenged whatever hit their communal web, and wallclimbing slave families recycled (stole) the best trash. Deep in the canyon walls, wallclimbers said, lived four bloated spider queens, sisters who waged endless wars for trash and territory.
Leppor praised the spiders as "star workers, examples for us all," presumably because they never rested, never bothered him, and were dumber than lumps of mud. Wallclimber slaves called them "those stupid spiders," no cute slangy names because why waste the effort?
Edwin knew all that. What he didn't know: Every trashspider endured a swarming entourage of flickflies. The Overbrink wind caught a mere fraction, wafting them high into the crimson sky. Just imagine the flickflies' experience: Wow, awesome trip, man! Yeah, and scope this kid we're blowing by now. Yum, I could use a quick bite....
A chittering cloud of flies blew onto Edwin and chomped with enthusiasm. Parasites from Leppor's star workers eating a slave -- confused symbolism, but the boy had no time to ponder it. Slapping, thrashing, he slipped from his precarious perch.
Edwin hung by one hand from the speeding train over Overbrink Chasm. The bugs maddened him. The wind pulled at him. A scream rose as his grip began to give --
Suddenly the parasites jumped away. Edwin could think again. He thought, Finally, good news!
The Seeker-of-Evil hit him like a load of bricks. Slammed against a hard shell by a flying two-faced bug! True hurt! However, (A) the vengeful but ungainly pitboss had hit the boy from below, unwittingly shoving him higher up the shell, and (B) the collision did the transformed pitboss no good either, Reality having played up its thick skull but also (oops) its thin skin.
The stunned Seeker-monster fell back, ichor droplets trailing from its wounds. Edwin scrambled for his perch, but only managed to stand awkwardly on the upper casing of a porthole. No handholds -- he'd have to climb down and open the window --
Too late. The Seeker-of-Evil shook its head, swivel swivel, and buzzed up over the slimecar. With a righteous "Brebaaare to suvver by wevenge!" (or something like that), it started its dive-bomb run at the helpless boy.
Under Edwin's feet the porthole slid aside. He looked back and down to see a slender hand reach out. The woman's empty right hand clenched, with her thumb straight up and her index finger pointing at the Seeker-thing.
She just pointed. Like saying, "I'm watching you, buster."
The Seeker-of-Evil turned human-face-out. It shrieked in -- was it fear? Edwin watched, bewildered, as the bug-man fell away like a bee from a hive, arced over the chasm, and raced ahead toward Injecta's car.
The woman's hand withdrew and the porthole slid shut. Edwin wondered if she'd even seen him.
At that moment the car crossed onto solid ground. Here the track angled up, and the car slowed. If he fell, he'd hit safely on hillocks of red sweatgrass.
What to do? Approach the woman directly? Errr....
Too weird, Edwin thought. He squirmed down, stood on a maintenance runningboard at the slimecar's base, and peeked through the window.
The woman sat on a hard bench grown from the inner shell. Her un-redness fascinated Edwin. Where had she come from? Her fine short hair -- never mind the not-red color, no one in Bloodshow could keep hair so clean. And how could that sleeveless doublet cling so gracefully to her thin frame? Ordinary hackcloth clung like a sack.
The shirt had an oddly high collar that completely covered her neck. Her neck -- long, muscular, but what was that strange rectangular bulge? It looked like some kind of box.
On the woman's lap rested a not-red strongbox that looked like metal. The box's temperfoam insert had six large slots. Several were empty, but Edwin's jaw dropped to see the rest.
She was sorting three large, fist-sized vials of red Reality. How many lives, whether people or Verminax, had gone through the pressor to make that much?
The woman painstakingly opened one magnetic bottle and poured the precious liquid into some object in her hand. What object? Edwin couldn't tell, but he frowned. No one should waste Reality like that.
(Important: Only bottled Reality could hold back the Null and keep it from consuming Bloodshow.)
Whup! The train jerked to a halt. Edwin slipped and stumbled across a patch of dirt -- well, "patch of dirt" to anybody but Leppor, who called it the Ambit Primary Transit Nexus. Leppor had reclaimed this area not long ago, by spraying Reality to push back the Null boundary. Yet like all reclaimed land, the Ambit's mammoth boulders looked old, as alien as anywhere in Bloodshow. Edwin saw it the way a tiny hotterbug sees a heap of crushed cinderblock. Lift a mountain knee-high, then drop it.
The slimecar door slid back, and the woman dashed out at top speed. She skidded when she saw Edwin, sized him up, dismissed him, and kept running. She headed up a ramp between steep rock walls.
Edwin spotted a glyph of parallel lines carved beside the ramp. Every slave knew that symbol: the Reality pressor. Spooked, Edwin chased after the woman.
The path ran narrow between high slanting walls, open to the sky. A bend, another, a turn -- and the woman was waiting. Edwin almost collided with her.
She had large eyes, a thin face, and a round chin. Nothing was red. Despite himself, he stared.
She spoke sharply, like a gang pitboss, but her vibrant voice thrilled him. "Who are you?"
With a choice of many sensible answers, Edwin instead asked, "What colors are those?"
"Quit tagging me, kid." With thumb held high, she pointed her index finger at his head. "Fly off, or you'll sorry up fast."
Edwin watched, baffled. "Is your finger supposed to scare me?"
"This is a digital weapon."
"Oh, right. 'Look out, she's got a finger! And she's not afraid to use it!'"
She fired. No projectile, no beam, just pa-KOWWW!
Edwin looked at the superheated crater in the wall beside him, then at the steam swirling from the woman's fingertip. He threw up his arms. "Sorry! Sorry! I'm scared now."
Without a word or backward glance, the woman ran down a side path.
Edwin decided to head elsewhere. Seeing a ramp up, he followed the chatter of many Verminax voices.
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