2: Bloodshow: Base of the Plasmodium
Pyroglass Smelting Facility 44 had once grown from the Plasmodium's lower slope like a boil, a big brutal blocky brick boil. A while back some nattering nestor had let a boiler get too hot. The explosion had been awful. But this kind of thing happened all the time, and the whole slope already looked awful, so no big deal.
Downslope from the wreckage, past the shattered limekilns and trundler-size mounds of vitreous rubble, Elinor and Edwin crawled out an access conduit and stood under a clouded red sky.
They ran to a ruddfruit bush and pinched the trunk nerve to prevent attack. Hidden by its thick leaves, they lay panting.
A buzz from a nearby tunnel exit. The Seeker-of-Evil flew out and made clumsy passes overhead. Dumbstruck, the slaves watched its rotating faces scan the ruddfruit field.
After the thing flew out of sight, Edwin looked at Elinor. "Did I do that to him?"
"Don't think of it like that. It's Reality." Shivering, Elinor rose and picked her way down the slope. "I doubt he saw us. He never had the smarts to trick us when he was human."
Edwin followed. "Where are we going?"
"They caught Skeets and Willa. We have to rescue them at the Ambit before they get pressed. Are you up for a trip?"
"Yeah." Edwin's stomach rumbled. "Do we have time to eat?"
"Maybe. Follow me."
They climbed down, swatting at ulcerflies. When the bites of these little gnats swelled, others would swarm to bite the same spot. With each bite they laid eggs or fertilized those already there. The wound would fester until the eggs hatched and newborn gnats chewed their way out.
The Plasmodium towered overhead. Think of a beehive where every bee had its own definite ideas about proper comb construction, or a wasp nest built by feuding architectural schools. From here, past its tumorous bulges, weird side platforms, and grotesque scaffolding, Edwin could just make out the Lookout Stalk and, perched on top, a dotlike sphere.
Seeing that sphere -- Leppor! -- Edwin shivered. With the Null all around, he felt trapped. "Why did we run away? There's nowhere to go."
Elinor helped him over a rash of dung fungus. "That can't be true. I can't remember, quite, but I know -- we're from somewhere else, all of us. Leppor brought us here to harvest our Reality, just the way we pick -- ah, here we are -- mushrooms."
She rapidly plucked breadmolds the size of dinner loaves. "Maybe we have no more chance against Leppor and Injecta than these mushrooms. But we must keep resisting. It's the right thing to do."
Edwin held his tunic apron to catch the moist fungi. "No argument there."
Elinor paused to size him up. "You're a sharp one, Edwin. When your folks passed on, I promised them we'd all raise you right. I've always said a clever child, raised right, can change the world. And you turned out clever. Leppor's screens can't control you. I'm proud of you."
Anywhere but Bloodshow, aunt and nephew would hug. Elinor the fighter fidgeted, looked away and back, and finally punched his shoulder. Go team.
Even this standoffish love-tap warmed Edwin's heart. But when he looked back up at the sphere atop the Lookout Stalk, that chilled him all over again. He hated the slave's life of fear, the grinding, hand-to-mouth duck-and-dodge rockscrabble struggle of daily existence.
Why did Bloodshow have to be this way? Because of that stalk, and that sphere.
Edwin clenched his fists. "We could steal more Reality and a fungicide sprayer, get them all at the pressor: Leppor, Doctor Injecta, the Verminax --"
Elinor smiled. "Nothing can hold Reality, except the magnetic vials. And that realizer. Besides, Leppor's already saturated in it. Maybe you're too clever by half -- too headstrong. That'll get you in troub--"
She froze. Edwin looked around, saw nothing, and whispered, "What?"
Elinor's jaw worked, but words caught in her throat. Her eyes rolled down.
Looking at her feet, Edwin cried in shock. Elinor had stood still too long, and from the mushroom patch a leechvine had quietly crept up her bare leg. Now the plant had reached the base of her spine and paralyzed her. The thin vine pulsed as it sucked her blood.
Horrified, Edwin pulled at the vine. No luck; leechvine glue held up half the Plasmodium. Without thinking, he cried, "Help! Help here!"
A spazzer blast struck the vine, exploding it almost under his fingers. Elinor collapsed in his arms, gasping.
Doctor Injecta stood behind her, backed by the hovering Seeker-of-Evil and a dozen Verminax nestor guards. Injecta smiled. "Indeed. I can help."
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