Allen Varney, Writer and Game Designer



4: Bloodshow: Ambit Reality Pressor

The Null consumed not only space -- land and air and life -- but also history and knowledge. When something disappeared into the Null, everyone forgot about it, forgot it had ever existed. Ultimate annihilation.

Sometimes people could imagine what they'd lost, because the Null left strange, creepy backtraces. Deep inside the Plasmodium lurked a few doleful outcast Verminax with inflatable leg bladders, obviously adapted for swimming. Yet Bloodshow had no lakes or rivers. So, the planners speculated, the krome had once had a lake. But the Null took it, and the memory of it, leaving only those pathetic obsolete swimmers.

Ominous Example 2: Many Verminax had oddly shaped scars like bites. Something bit those bugs, something with a mouth (beak?) shaped like a trowel, if trowels were lined with serrated teeth. Once the Verminax had lived in lethal fear of something -- presumably. But then it vanished into the Null, so no one remembered it.

Planners feared that as they pushed back the Null, they'd meet something again.

So: the Ambit, Bloodshow's current boundary. Until recently, when Leppor started his big drive to press trundler-loads of Reality and drive back the Null, the Ambit hadn't existed. But now that it did -- follow closely here -- everyone remembered that it always had.

When memory went one way and understanding another, the Null hung between.

Entering the Ambit through a narrow rock passage, Edwin saw many slaves in chains and manacles -- Leppor's prisoners. They were facing away, looking down like a grandstand crowd.

Among the shackled gawkers he spotted Willa, a tall bony woman under a wild billow of hair. Beside her, fidgeting, stood Skeet, all wiry strength and kill-me-now attitude.

Seeing a crevice in one wall, Edwin slid in and wriggled forward. (Well, why not crawl between enormous unstable boulders? What could go wrong?) The channel curved around, and in moments he stuck out his head right behind their shoulder blades.

They heard him with time to spare, of course. To sneak up on a Bloodshow slave, you needed foam rubber sandals and maybe a white-noise generator. But Skeet and Willa kept cool.

"Bad news, kid, bad news," Skeet whispered sidelong. "What I'm telling you is, we got a situation here, a situation. Get gone."

Edwin couldn't judge the danger from Skeet's voice. Skeet was always edgy, a nervous human jackknife, but Edwin still liked him. "Where's Aunt Elinor?"

Willa checked for eavesdroppers, then risked looking back. Edwin suppressed a shiver. One glance from Willa felt like a long tense stare from anyone normal.

"At the head of the line," she hissed. "Injecta wanted to make her an early example, teach the crowd a lesson. If I could get at Injecta with his own scalpels, I'd make him a lesson. You couldn't tear your eyes away, I'd teach my lesson so good."

When she turned forward again, Edwin exhaled in relief. Willa was a loyal friend to him and Elinor, but still. Bloodshow had put Willa through so much, and she had done so many terrible things to survive, that she now knew herself better than anyone should. Slaves who didn't know her thought she was ready to snap. Willa had already snapped, and then snapped back. Now stretched tighter than a caffeinated rubber band, she would do whatever it took to protect friends and loved ones. Whatever it took.

Edwin craned his neck to look past Willa and Skeet. He saw:

The Ambit: An open arena paved with flat stone. Single boulders rising like sheer cliffs all around.
Construction trestles, sawhorses, barrels, ramps. Smells of tar and rock dust. Everything looked new-built.
Small, freshly opened monitor blooms, staticking pinkly.
At one end, the Null, a swirling foggy nothing-wall. Way too close!
At the opposite end, Leppor's Reality pressor.

Leppor's Reality pressor: An elevated platform. Behind it, inlaid in the sheer rock wall, a bank of six rough-cut shafts faced with transparent pyroglass.
In each shaft, a ruby piston, shrouded in a magnetic field and poised to press the material wretch trapped under it.
A stone housing at the base of each shaft, to hide the awful details.

Verminax: All around the arena, swarms of spywasps and a few sluggish breedrones, clinging to the upper walls. Constant buzz-buzz. Down in front, dozens of little jumpy planners. Edwin had never seen so many planners together.

Slave audience: Arrayed in formation, maybe a thousand people, work gangs, separated by caste and mesmerized by monitors.
A dozen fat pitbosses pushing them around with official high-status I'm-the-big-man remote controls.
A few squads of larvandals, standing around, fidgeting, waiting for something to kill.

Prisoners: Lined up by the pressor, wretches waiting to be shoved under the Reality pistons. Ten or twelve chain-gangs of six slaves each. First slave in each gang anchored to the rock floor. Willa and Skeet in the last bunch, close by Edwin.
Among the human prisoners, a few malformed or injured Verminax nestors. The Verminax routinely pressed their own weak. Right beside the pressor, Elinor, alone, chained but standing tall.

The realizer!: Plugged into a little slot in the Reality pressor, at the bottom of that whole huge bank of shafts. It looked insignificant. But all six shafts narrowed and converged into thin pipes, ready to pump their Reality through the realizer.

Edwin could hardly stop staring at the realizer. Trying to focus, he whispered to Skeet and Willa, "How can we rescue Aunt Elinor?"

Skeet and Willa exchanged a look. "Uh, not to make trivial objections, kid," Skeet mumbled back, "but first off, taking in the whole situation I mean --" He rattled his chains.

Willa looked up and around. "Spywasps above. Pull back, Edwin. What I'd give for a chainscythe...."

Edwin never found out what price a chainscythe would fetch, nor how Willa planned to use it against spywasps. At that moment Doctor Injecta stepped onto the pressor platform. The audience fell deathly quiet.

"Loyal citizens," Injecta began, with the faintest smirk. "You have all worked hard on this second Plasmodium, bringing our glorious leader's vision to fruition. Now these traitors will do their part. When you watch me collect their Reality -- when you see me spray it on the Null boundary -- remember these traitors. Remember how Leppor can turn their betrayal into still greater glory."

Injecta turned his reflector gaze across the audience. "With the Reality we harvest today, our land's boundaries will grow like our mushrooms: large and fast. Then, from his high Lookout Stalk, great Leppor will send forth the germs of new gardens, the eggs of new Verminax colonies for this new Plasmodium."

Chattering cheers from the Verminax planners.

With the merest wave of a scalpel, Injecta brought silence. "Soon you may expect company. I shall visit other kro-- other places --" (Edwin thought: What other places?) "-- to recruit new citizens for our newly enlarged realm. New citizens like these."

He gestured at the pressor, and six victims screamed inside the shafts. In the leftmost shaft, the victim leaped up. Edwin saw a maimed Verminax nestor, thin, broken-winged, yet otherwise ordinary. That wasn't a new citizen. But in the other shafts….

Edwin glimpsed human hands and arms. He wasn't sure, given their helpless thrashing, but they definitely looked not-red, like that woman he'd seen. "Other places." Hmmm.

Meanwhile, the Verminax nestor in the first shaft scrambled desperately at the pyroglass. To everyone's amazement, it actually clawed its way up the smooth glass walls. (It helped to have a dozen arms.) It chattered, "Balatta-kakka-rattanerak-k-k."

The piston filled the shaft -- almost. With dull bug-minded persistence the injured Verminax squirmed, slithered, writhed up through a hand's-width gap. Screeching and shedding limbs as it went, it left smears of ichor down the glass.

The bug never spoke an intelligible word, yet the humans began to cheer as though hearing a campaign platform: Air! Freedom! Piston-Free Life! When Injecta frowned at this display, the pitbosses pushed buttons to quiet the slaves.

The wounded Verminax had now reached the shaft's top vent. It hooked its last remaining arm over the lip of the opening, about to struggle free. Gathering the nestor guards, Injecta prepared to dispose of this embarrassment.

But then....

An arc of shadow darkened the pressor. The wounded Verminax gabbled in terror, "Eeee-yakka! Nattablattamak!" and fell back into the shaft. Below, Injecta smiled, while his planner and everyone else -- even Elinor -- cowered.

The ground vibrated. The air throbbed with a bass feedback pulse.

Overhead, in a gulf of sky gone flat with haze, a giant sphere moved forth to block the sun. It floated there, a jewel, darkly crimson like bloodpools in a cave. And then it grew, it loomed, in slow unstoppable descent.

This was Leppor.

In its -- in his -- crystalline depths, silent flares of lightning traced myriad fractal flaws.

Leppor's shadow dwarfed the audience and shriveled their spirits. Reality supersaturated Leppor; even his shadow looked more vivid than they. A fog of potential surrounded him, where unsettling virtual things almost flashed into existence, then vanished.

Like all the slaves, Edwin had seen Leppor many times, and it always made him queasy. Leppor was a living warp in existence. Around him, strange thoughts lanced through onlookers' minds. Now Edwin thought, This whole world is Leppor's stage, and we're just his spear carriers. But Edwin had never seen or heard of a spear.

These weird insights gave shutterflash glimpses of Leppor's mysterious life before Bloodshow. They confused Edwin, but he still kept his own mind. How did he know? Because he was defiantly thinking, I'm more than his spear carrier!, even with no notion of why spear carriers lacked status.

Sunbursts in the jewel's heart. Leppor spoke.


(Yow! High volume! Edwin slapped his ears.)

"-- most pleasingly well here. You are indeed showing your leader true and genuine respect."

From deep within Leppor, a beam of bright light shone down. When it struck the crowd, many shrieked in panic. But it was a harmless spotlight -- this time.

Leppor's light played over the crowd, picking out starved youths and wretched children. "I see new faces here, a new generation of new young workers. By showing me respect, young ones, you show your legacy, your blood -- the great heritage of the older generation, who also have labored loyally to achieve my vision. With your service I will lead Bloodshow to new peaks of greatness."

With perfect literal-mindedness Leppor drove his point home by flashing his light to the jagged summit-in-progress of the new Plasmodium. The crowd spotted the applause cue and attempted a cheer.

"Yet we must remain vigilant," Leppor continued, "against the scheming traitors in our midst." The light turned to Elinor.

The cheering died as if strangled.

As Leppor spoke, the monitors flashed anew. "These insidious ingrates say you live in a sterile, worthless, savage land. A prison. Do not think that."

Pitbosses, laughing haw-haw-haw at this ludicrous notion, turned the slaves toward the monitor static. No, no, everybody, don't think that.

"Now these betrayers suffer the penalty for their lies. But our punishment of these conniving conspirators is not petty vengeance. Do not think that."

Static on monitors, static in eyes. Don't think that.

"No, now we turn these disloyal betrayers to our own good purposes. Let the fate of these treacherous renegades remind you all, especially those new young people I have already praised, of the importance of loyalty. Of respect."

Your basic Leppor speech: aimless blather, oil and acid in all directions. It never made much sense. But he controlled the monitors, so it didn't have to.

Now the big moment arrived. Leppor moved down to the pressor, and Injecta nodded to a pitboss. The portly middleman flourished his remote, raising a clamor from -- well --

Picture three dozen slaves toiling on harvest detail. They're nervous wrecks, trying not to hit the ruddfruit bushes' nerve cluster so the razor-root won't pierce their heart. They duck so many daily dangers, their lives resemble a prolonged assassination. And while these desperate sweat-damp workers strain to lift a fruit twice their weight, up waddles an obese headman. He drafts them out of the fields to, get this, sing.

Now came their debut as Leppor's newest brilliant idea, the badly misnamed Harmonious Effort Choir.

Poor yokels! Hold thirty unwilling fungus-farm slaves at spazzerpoint and shout, "Sing or die!" or "Crochet tablecloths or die!" or even "Mold, glaze, and fire elegant porcelain bud vases or die!" and you can't expect much spontaneous creative joy. Still, the shattering bud-vase crockery might sound better than Harmonious Effort's hopeless singalong gang-yammer.

But never mind the performance. What wretch invented those ghastly pentatonic adagios? Did anyone seriously think solemn major chords, creeping in single file like hearses, would inspire patriotism? What social-climbing pitboss's grotesquely untalented mind produced lyrics like, like, urrrgh!:

Pour forth your heart
Press from your lungs the air
To give full voice in praise
Of him we hold the first
In all our hearts
The hearts we now pour forth....

...And another lap round the track. That was Bloodshow's culture, if you could call it that: perpetual praise of leaders. Disagreement, or any hint that things weren't fully tiptop, equalled sedition. Bloodshow lacked laws and prisons, so traitors always got the same punishment.

They stood quiet, those "traitors," awaiting the Reality pressor. Many were runaways like Elinor, others invalids, and some had just griped aloud where a pitboss could hear. Ordinary folks in that line might have cried, or begged forgiveness, or collapsed. But these slaves took their cues from Elinor. Like her, they stood poised, watching for openings, testing their chains.

No silent poise for the victims already in the pressor, though. Hidden behind the column housings, they shouted for help. They made offers. They said the strangest things:

"Hey, you, Leppor! Fifty thousand zurins from Central Govbank, guaranteed untraceable! Yours, jacko! Just call this off."

"My tribe isn't gonna like this, you big red bubble!"

"Excuse me. Excuse me? I'm pretty sure there's been some kind of, uh, mistake?"

"Sir, please think of the loss to science...."

"Your Excellency! I require immediate release and safe transport under Section 9.9.2 of the Interkromal Diplomatic Conventions!"


Leppor ignored them all. He set to work.

In the sheer face of the cliff above the pressor, there yawned a deep round depression. Into this hole Leppor floated, snug as a ball bearing in a giant drill.

The air that had hummed with power now began to sing with it, drowning the caterwaul of Harmonious Effort. The ruby pistons pressed, and the victims screamed as their Reality flowed free.

What did that feel like?

If a Verminax bit off your index finger, you'd miss the finger, but you'd still be you. Fingers, limbs, belly, heart -- they're important, but they never touch that declarative sense-dot self behind your eyes. Now imagine crushing the idea of your index finger, so you forget you ever had it. Think of the Reality pressor shattering your template idea-body, deleting your mind's design spec.

You're still present, still feeling that piston grrrrrrind you down slowly. But all the you-hooks to materiality are snapping like string. Goodbye, hands (SNAP) -- did I have hands? How many? Bye, legs (SNAP), if that's what they were called. The bones of my skull SNAP I feel them go SNAP leaving only...?

The crowd, and Edwin, watched in morbid fascination. As the victims' screams died away, bright liquid flowed from the base of each column's housing. The realizer automatically generated pyroglass vials, complete with magnetic bottles, to catch and contain the Reality.

That liquid drew every gaze in the arena. You couldn't not look at it. Edwin watched red liquid drain from the Verminax worker's shaft. Then -- hey!

The Reality trickling from the other five shafts wasn't red!

Like the woman he'd seen, the five new colors dazzled Edwin. He knew no words to (orange) to describe the sight of (yellow), of these spectacular visions (green) and the effect (blue indigo) they -- wait, hold it.

Once again, strobing glimpses of Leppor's past were flashing through Edwin's mind. Now, somehow, he could name the colors. But where did they come from? How did these strange victims produce those Reality colors?

Ruby pistons hit bottom. Six colors trickled through the realizer and filled six Reality vials. The pressor and choir halted together.

At the base of one shaft, in deafening silence, something drifted through the housing.

It moved like a ghost, transparent to matter. It floated like a soap bubble, shimmering and bobbling. Within the bubble, twin indigo eye-dots looked around in consternation.

Injecta frowned. "Drat. We need to recharge the containment field."

Flipping end-for-end in the air, the bubble creature looked down at itself. In loud despair it cried:

"Oh no, I'm a nub!"

The pressor didn't kill its victims. A dead body would not give up its Reality, for nothing is more real than death. But draining a live victim's Reality left the unreal residue of its mind. That ghostly mental pattern survived as a nub.

But did the nub like it? Not this indigo bubble floating over the audience, nor the others -- orange, green, yellow, blue -- drifting out after it. "Waaahh!"-- "I'm sure this will set back my research."-- "Can I at least go home now, please?"-- "Now I'm definitely gonna complain, you jerks!"

Last came the Verminax nub, a small blob of bright red. Edwin noticed the thing was wobbling and stretching. With rubbery balloon squeaks the bobbing blob was bloating back to its original form.

Doctor Injecta noticed too. "Master Leppor!" he called. "Catch the native victim before it reabsorbs its Reality!"

Bright light flashed in Leppor's interior. A static charge built, elevating hair on nearby heads and forearms. As one, the whole audience thought, Uh-oh.

A beam of fire lanced from Leppor toward the red nub, missing it by an antenna's width. The blast struck the stone floor of the arena, melting the rock. The air itself burned with an ozone stench.

This was Leppor's Scorching Agony Beam. Even this, the weakest of Leppor's three internal weapons, wrought terror. Verminax flew and slaves ran.

Everyone feared the Scorching Agony. Not just for its immeasurable power, but also because Leppor was, in fact, a poor shot. His energies defied tight control. Taking aim at the side of the Plasmodium, Leppor might hit an innocent bystander in a ruddfruit field over the next hill. Nobody joked about this, because anybody could be that bystander.

Amid the chaos, Edwin saw Elinor and the other slaves in the pressor line getting ready to bolt. But! There stood Injecta, calmly holding them at spazzerpoint.

Leppor let fly with Scorching Agony over and over, shattering construction trestles and brick hods. The Verminax nub yelped with every bob and dodge. With every second it was sprouting legs, vestigial wings, and looking more like its old self. "Quickly, Master!" Injecta called.

Their rush baffled Edwin. Why weren't the other nubs reforming too? Nobody seemed concerned about them reabsorbing Reality -- only the Verminax.

And Injecta had called it "native." Weren't the others native? Was there somewhere else to be from?

Did the not-red woman come from there?

As Leppor's beams flew wild, the crowd panicked, even while the pitbosses tried to steer their gazes to the static monitors. (A dozen headman hearts quivered with a single thought: "What is this? They do not obey my mighty fungoplastic scepter!")

Scorching Agony finally hit home. Dispersing the Verminax nub like a flamethrower through gelatin, the blast cratered just beyond. The explosion took out some slow-moving breedrones and, oops, the Seeker-of-Evil.

Injecta, Verminax, and slaves looked at the black smear that had been a headman, a bug-thing, a petty Plasmodium power. Oh, how the Seeker had preened and postured! How he'd gloried in his middling-high status! Now how would his survivors assess his legacy?

Injecta shrugged for them all. "If we may continue."

He passed his spazzer pistol to a nestor guard. "The distillation should soon be -- ah." A pressor panel went ding! The first batch of six Reality vials was ready.

Injecta solemnly took down the first one, the red vial. He pulled the realizer from its docking slot and plugged it into the vial.

With a few button-pushes and some dial-turns, Injecta got the device to open a side panel and extrude a metal spray nozzle. He went to the Null boundary and tried an experimental squirt.

A fine aerosol of Reality flew out, hit the Null, and dissolved it like fog under a hairdryer. The dissipating Null revealed a bite-shaped chunk of land. Edwin saw a tall thin mushroom stalk, or just the base actually, at the edge of the new land. The Null still hung beyond it, roiling.

As the pitbosses pushed their buttons, the slaves dutifully gasped an impressed gasp. The sight stirred Edwin deeply, but he also felt a pang of disappointment. He hadn't known that driving back the Null required --


-- driving back the Null required the realizer. You couldn't just throw a vial of Reality. You needed to channel the stuff, shape it. Nothing could shape Reality except the realizer.

Edwin's disappointment turned to frustration. Elinor had gone to such trouble to steal that vial, yet the runaways could never have used it. She was about to be pressed, all for a big zero.

Injecta stepped deeper into the reclaimed area, spraying on all sides. The Null didn't pull back, for it never appeared to move. It just... wasn't at that spot. (In the observers' memories it suddenly never had been, but they had gotten wise to sudden memories.)

The mushroom stalk emerged by hand-widths, taller, its crown still lost in seething nothingness. Injecta peered at the shiny crimson stem. "I believe we may be recovering a new species," he said pleasantly, spraying higher, looking for the crown.

A glowing mist of Reality reached the top of the stalk, revealing --

A knee.

Very few sights fazed Doctor Injecta, but this counted. Seeing the flanged insectile joint, the chitinous femur reaching into the Null high over his head, the Doctor stared dropmouthed, while his planner made helpless fumfuh sounds.

Then the leg twitched.

Injecta dropped the realizer and ran. All the Verminax with sharp reflexes turned and flew, or hopped, or skittered.

The prisoners, almost as fast, began screaming. Skeet and Willa jerked at their chains. "Get us loose! Let us go!"

Last on the uptake, the pitbosses frantically prodded their remotes. Hit by a hundred wild signals, the monitors blew. The slaves, those who weren't chained, turned and ran after Doctor Injecta.

The huge leg moved. Out of the Null, its feet hammering the stone, thok-thok-thok, ran the most fearsome bug Edwin had ever seen -- the something that left those evil bite scars in various Verminax.

At once he recognized it: a Nefarious Biter. He had always known that, except when the Null stole the knowledge.

In a krome that defined ugliness, the Nefarious Biter presented a good shot at total unrivaled Hideous. The misshapen assassin bug had a bloated maroon thorax, armored underneath. Topside, weird pulsing growths adhered to its shell. The Biter's toothy garden-trowel jaws, actually mandibles, clacked at the end of a long sharp snout. Double ranks of compound eyes (small above, big below) rotated independently like radar dishes.

But on the bright side: For once, people were actually glad to see the spywasps.

An entire patrol swarm, flying in perfect Inverted Pyramid Formation B-2, plunged at the Biter. These Verminax spywasps -- living hypodermics, long as your arm -- could barrel-roll through a corkscrew backwards. They zeroed in on eyestalks, on leg joints, on gaps in the armor plates, and bored straight in.

And promptly got stuck. As everybody had always known for the last ten seconds, the Nefarious Biter had muscles inside its muscles. Get through its carapace, and it could just cinch up its guts and trap you tight. Maybe the spywasps hadn't quite internalized their recently revived Biter memories, or maybe they were just dim. Spywasps thought at lightspeed, but had definite learning-curve issues.

Hanging by their broken needlenoses, the spywasps swung like tassels while the monster rampaged among the larvandals. Everyone had always known, for going on twelve seconds now, that the Biter kills by crushing. Guards died screaming under a harsh descending thorax.

Leppor, overhead, must have taken offense at this flouting of his supreme authority. He fired Scorching Agony, but couldn't hit the fast-moving Biter. The bug, ignoring him, crushed another few slaves. On the bright side, this snapped the anchor chains, and the surviving prisoners hobbled for cover. Some panicked, but Willa and Skeet kept their heads.

"This way!" Skeet gestured toward the ramp with chained arms. Willa turned to the wall and said, "Edwin, pull back -- Edwin? Where is he?"

Now Leppor was clearly piqued. Pale pink lightning flickered in his depths, as the air's rumble rose a notch. A few people in the arena had heard that modulation and lived. They shouted, "Pulverizer!"

The prisoners hit the dirt. When Leppor prepared to let fly with the Pulverizer, #2 of his three internal weapons, nobody stayed upright.

Well, nobody sensible.

With the Biter kicking up broken chains, sending them spinning like chopper blades, Edwin dodged through the bug's legs on a duck-and-run path toward the Null -- and the realizer. Far away by the Reality pressor, Elinor looked up in time to see him. "No!" she shouted, and then a warning -- not "Watch out for the Biter legs," a point already uppermost in Edwin's mind, but about the bigger danger: "Pulverizer!"

Leppor fired. A lightless line of curdling energy struck the Biter's third portside leg. In half a second the Pulverizer shivered apart the molecular bonds among the leg's octillions of component atoms. Edwin dived for cover as the leg exploded into gas.

The Nefarious Biter shrieked, staggered, and turned a dozen eyes to scan the stub of its vaporized leg. It sniffed the air, unwittingly retrieving a few thousand lost atoms. Then, as Leppor warmed up another charge of his second-best weapon, the killer bug stumbled up the Ambit ramp and fled for the ruddfruit hills.

Leppor didn't follow. He was a vain tasteless blowhard, but he always kept his priorities straight. "BRING ME THE REALIZER!"

But no one stood near the edge of the Null, where Doctor Injecta had dropped the device -- no one but Edwin. As he caught it up, the box flowed to fit his hand as if custom-shaped. For an odd moment Edwin felt like his hand had been shaped for the box.

The realizer had six tiny windows along one edge, showing liquid Reality in six colors. Fresh-pressed Reality had flowed through the realizer into the pressor's magnetic bottles, and these six thimblefuls were the residue.

Edwin stared worshipfully. He didn't notice the five surviving nubs until they floated up to him. The nubs were wavering little soap-bubble spheres with limpid dots for eyes. The largest, colored indigo, said in a deep officious voice, "Quick, boy, turn us back!"

Edwin checked the many small knobs, dials, and switches. "Uh -- how?"

Too late! Leppor's planners and breedrones were homing in. Not that these Verminax presented much threat -- planners could only talk you to death, and breedrones (dome-shaped beetles with sharp senses and stupid singlemindedness) barely stayed awake outside the Plasmodium's egg chambers. But they could swarm over one harvester boy and bring him down by sheer weight.

With this writhing sheet of Verminax scuttling toward him, Edwin surprised himself. He randomly turned dials on the realizer, and a panel opened on one side. With a whirr the box extruded a raygun nozzle.

Most Bloodshow slaves would have dropped the thing and run, but for Edwin this was an invitation. He pushed a button.

From the nozzle shot a brilliant beam of crimson light, brrrzappp! It hit the leading line of Verminax, stodgy breedrones the planners had prudently shoved to the front. Breedrones grew about waist-high to Edwin, but when the beam hit, they imploded, just shrank down to hotterbug size so fast the air rushed in after them, thup. They milled around, bewildered, on an area about as big as Edwin's footprint.

The planners -- 50 times smarter than all other Verminax together -- stopped dead, instantly saw the unpleasant implication of "footprint size," and promptly scattered.

Edwin looked down at the realizer in drop-jawed wonder. From deep in his heart the boy said, "Wow."

"No gawking!" the indigo nub cried. "Get the rest!"

Edwin thumbed the button, and again the beam leapt forth. He played it over the fleeing planners, and they all shrank: thupthupthup, popcorn in reverse. For the first time in his life, Edwin was enjoying himself. "Yeah! Take that! You too, crawly! Weeeooo!"

"Crazy kidlet," the blue nub said -- a young woman's voice. "Up, up, Leppor's on your apex!"

The air grew crisp, more real, as the giant jewel loomed overhead. Edwin's new exhilaration rapidly gave way to the old familiar uh-now-what? Bringing up the realizer, he fired again.

It was impossible to miss. The beam pierced the globe's veneer, flickered in its dark depths, and vanished.

The nubs wailed. "Useless!"-- "Come on, run!"-- "I wanna go home!"

But Edwin held his ground. Was he figuring tactics like Elinor? Thinking, "Leppor won't try Scorching Agony, let alone Pulverize me, for fear of hitting the realizer"? No. He wasn't thinking at all. Now that he had the realizer, Edwin just felt he'd rather die than turn it loose. He fired again, longer.

The beam struck, sank, vanished…. Lightning in many colors flashed within Leppor, and the hum in the air faded like an engine losing power. The great jewel halted, hovered. Edwin shouted, "Get away, or I'll shoot again!"

A long assessing moment. Then Leppor shrank -- no -- he rocketed straight up. Overhead, space itself ripped open, a bright warp into a rainbow tunnel beyond. Leppor plunged into the warp and vanished. No exit line -- that wasn't his style.

The warp closed without a trace.

The smallest nub, an orange bubble with a child's thin voice, said, "Did you do that? Did you kill Leppor?"

Edwin stared upward. "No. He just … disappeared."

The indigo nub sniffed, "He left this krome. An excellent idea."

"What do you m --?" Edwin began, but then he looked to the Reality pressor. "Aunt Elinor! Watch out!"

She'd used the Biter's fallen leg to pry open her manacles. But just as the last chain fell free and she started toward Edwin, a crimson hypodermic with a monofilament needle drove deep into the rock floor before her. Doctor Injecta took a smooth step forward, scalpel shining bright. He said, politely, "Surrender."

A Bungee Village oddsmaker would size up the battle in two seconds. Seeing the raw welts on Elinor's wrists and ankles, he'd say, "Seasoned oldster, scrappy up close, great improv, munged stems." Yet Injecta, though he'd lost the realizer, still had his belt pouch, the armamentarium that gave slaves nightmares. "Champ spooker, prefers range, major gear, maximal strange."

Verdict? "Even; no bet."

Elinor flung the Biter leg at Injecta's own legs. He sidestepped easily, smirked -- and got a faceful of chain. His scalpel went flying. That feint had saved Elinor's life many times in the fungus caves. She followed it now as before, with a lunging kick to the side of the enemy's knee.

But Doctor Injecta had tricks Elinor had never heard of. The fungus caves taught ways to handle larvandals and Nefarious Biters, but Injecta worked on another plane entirely. Elinor fought opponents; Injecta ran an empire.

The doctor's long lab coat hid many secrets. Elinor's kick hit true, right on his knee -- and on his double-hardened duranium-alloy exosheath. This powered armor could stand a grenade blast, never mind a kick. Crying out, Elinor fell back, favoring her injured foot.

Motion inside the lab coat drew her gaze. Her kick had torn it, revealing the shiny crimson armature protecting Injecta's limb. As she watched, tiny mechanical bugs swarmed the edges of the tear. Crawling in precise formation, each bug deposited drops of saliva that hardened to plasticene. In moments the tear healed.

Elinor stared. Every Plasmodium slave knew bugs -- but not machine bugs. She looked up, to see in Injecta's eye-reflector her own dumb shock.

"Congratulations," Injecta said. "Only a few slaves have ever seen these little AntRoids. The other witnesses didn't live long either."

He swiped at Elinor with a bonesaw wand, a long rod tipped with a small whirring sawblade. In younger days she would have snatched the wand from Injecta's hand in mid-swing. Now the old woman jerked back, barely in time; the blade drew a line of blood across her cheek. Yet Elinor could still think fast. She ducked in past his arm, flipped open the catch of his armamentarium pouch, reached in, and grabbed.

Injecta rammed his exosheathed elbow under Elinor's chin. She fell, rolled, and rose to a crouch, triumphantly brandishing her stolen treasures. She scowled to see only a handful of pink plastic ampules. She started to throw them --

From above, Injecta's planner fell on her arm. Its weirdly human mouth-parts latched onto her knuckles and bit. Big deal -- what could a planner do, gum her to death? No, but as Elinor shook off the Verminax, she reflexively clenched her fist. The ampules burst.

A thick mist clouded the air. Elinor coughed and turned away, too late. Part sedative, part crowd control, the somnisium gas hit her, dazed her, dropped her. She collapsed against the pressor wall, under the Reality bottles.

Injecta stood over her. From his pouch he drew another syringe.

"No!" Edwin cried. He raised the realizer and pulled the trigger. Shrink Injecta, turn him into a flickfly and smoosh him --

Injecta heard him and ducked. Edwin's shrinking ray missed Injecta and hit the Reality pressor's magnetic bottles behind.

But you can't shrink pure Reality; you can't do anything to Reality. Edwin shrank only the pressor and the magnetic bottles that held the Reality. A disaster.

Pyroglass shattered as Reality in six colors burst from the squeezed bottles. Shrapnel wrecked the pressor. A liquid rainbow drenched both Elinor and Doctor Injecta. The planner scurried back, yammering and shielding its nasal patches from an assault of strange new smells.

The nubs wailed. Edwin cringed, remembering what one tiny vial of redness had done to the Seeker-of-Evil. "Aunt Elinor!" he yelled, running to her.

The largest nub called after him, "Never mind her, what about Injecta?"

Edwin spared only a glance at the doctor, who lay unconscious and already swelling. But Elinor crawled to her feet and leaned hard against the wall. Glowing rivulets coursed like centipedes over her body, never mixing, then sank in and vanished.

She looked the same. But her eyes, the eyes that had stared coolly at pitbosses, Verminax, and Doctor Injecta -- her eyes now showed the terror of pure unshielded Reality. She trembled.

Edwin tried not to cry. "What is it? Can I help?"

At his words, Elinor jerked upright. Seeing the boy as if for the first time, she pulled him close and held tight. "Oh my dear, you've -- it's too -- I can't --" She drew a deep breath. "This is it."

"This is what?"

She pushed him gently back. Her gaze showed calm sadness. Tendrils of color raced across her eyes, faster and faster, and then blazed white. Now, finally, Elinor began to change.

She still looked old. Age was her truth, and nothing could change that. But she stood tall, and Leppor's barcode tattoo under her eye vanished utterly. Her hair grew long, full, like a mane. She stared into the sky, as if seeing very far, and then back down at Edwin.

"Oh, my sweet child --" she began, in a resonant voice, firm yet tender. "I never had it in me to call you that before, to say I love you. Sweet child, I don't know what will become of you. You would have died six times a day without us. Me, and your folks, and their friends -- we protected you from yourself. But they're gone, and now I'm going. And that thing --"

Her lolling gaze dropped to the realizer. "That thing has got you, and no one can protect you."

"Why? Is it dangerous?"

"The realizer is what you make of it. The trouble is, you become what it makes of you. Remember: If you improve the world, the world will improve you. I love you dearly, Edwin. I hope I'll see you at Liminus."


The light in her eyes dimmed, and her mouth gaped. From it flew a flickfly -- no -- a white moth, the only spot of white in all Bloodshow. It fluttered briefly around Edwin, then flew up and vanished in the reach of the sky.

Edwin watched it go until tears blurred his view. He'd never felt so alone.

Yet not for long; the nubs floated over. "I suggest," said the large indigo bubble in a tone of command, "that you dispose of Doctor Injecta while he's incapacitated."

The green nub said gently, "Please show the boy some compassion."

The blue one spoke more sharply. "Yeah, stuffy, the kidlet just lost his aunt!"

Beady indigo eyes enlarged to show affront. "Yes, yes, I'm sorry and all that. Do you suppose Injecta will show the same respect?"

Still sniffling, Edwin looked at the platform. Elinor's body stood deserted. Beyond, Injecta's swelling body had turned into a cocoon of flesh, engulfing his garments and equipment. Along one of its many folds Edwin could still see a line of lab-coat buttons. From inside the cocoon came a low papery rustling.

Edwin fired his shrinking ray at the cocoon. Nothing happened.

"He's saturated with six kroma-distillates," the green nub said. "Changing him would take more Reality than you have in that realizer, I'm sorry to say."

"But all the Reality is gone!" The little orange bubble's voice quavered. "He and that woman soaked it all up, so we can't change back, right? I don't wanna stay like this!"

"Better this than dead," said the yellow nub meekly.

"Speak for yourself," the blue nub answered. "I feel like I'm not even here."

The yellow sphere bobbed up and down -- a nod. "That's what I mean. I always wanted to feel like that."

Edwin wiped his eyes. The squabbling nubs had one thing right: There was no time for grief. Turning away from Elinor's body, he said, "I'm sorry about losing your Reality. If we could find more, somewhere --"

The indigo nub shook side to side. "This Reality pressor was the only source in this krome, until you absentmindedly destroyed it."

A flash of movement on the Ambit ramp, and this time Edwin could name the colors: a sleeveless coverall of blue, yellow-blond hair, hazel eyes. "That woman!" Edwin cried. "She has some Reality, I saw it!" He ran toward her, with the bewildered nubs bobbing after.

The not-red woman saw him and pointed her index finger, as she had before. Edwin leapt for cover, then peered out in time to see her point straight up. Her finger was spinning in place. No --some kind of blades were rotating around it, faster and faster, tracing a blue circle with her finger in its center. That was all Edwin could make of a Kromintel ROTO4-6000 HoverBlade Personal Digital Transport Unit. Even that was pretty good for a kid who'd just learned the word "blue."

The young woman rose slowly into the air. Edwin saw that with her finger pointing up, she couldn't fire it at him. Her other hand held the case of Reality he'd seen before. He thought: Great! Just as her feet left the ground, he ran and tackled her, arriving just above her ankles.

"You again." She tried to shake free. "Hands away!"

"Give us that Reality! We need it to hold back the Null!"

"Drop off, kid!"

Clinging tighter than a breedrone, Edwin found he was, in fact, flying off. He was still low enough to drop without harm, but then he'd lose the case of Reality. Umm -- now what?

He shut his eyes and held on. After a while she stopped trying to kick him off, and then he knew they must be high enough for the fall to kill him. Overbrink Chasm -- he stopped thinking about Overbrink Chasm.

Carefully looking straight up, he opened his eyes. The woman hung by her finger under a blue disk, looking like an orator dramatically making a point. From the altitude of her shin, Edwin once again noticed her high collar and the strange bulge it covered.

She smiled the thinnest of smiles. "Well, now you're stuck. Happy?"

A stern voice behind him -- the indigo nub. "Don't drop now, boy! We'd lose the realizer!"

Edwin looked back to see all five nubs floating after him. Below yawned the bottomless gulf of Overbrink Chasm. He shut his eyes tight. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."

What had Elinor said? "You would have died six times a day without us." Edwin had already made that quota, and he had a scary feeling this day was just getting started.

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