6: Bloodshow: Leppor's Lookout Stalk
During his long dominion over Bloodshow, Leppor had cultivated his Lookout Stalk like a metal mushroom. He used a unique variety of concretion fungus that fed on blood. From the blood the fungus precipitated layers of iron atoms, along with reagents that converted the iron to red stainless steel. Even for an omnipotent ruler who practically bathed in Reality, that fungus came in handy.
Funded by steel kingpin CMYK Industries, Zur Panlectica researcher Lukor Cerullan studied the Lookout concretion fungus. Cerullan's report envisioned vast CMYK fungal bioreactor-refineries combined with citizen blood donation centers. Fourfold increases in steel output! Production costs after amortization practically zero! Board members read this report, or anyway the executive summary, and promptly started pricing condos in Lazuli Luxury Estates.
How sad, then, when Cerullan published an update. Exposure to Lookout fungus, it seemed, had unusual and deleterious effects. Of course a researcher's own health was insignificant beside the greater cause of science, but he could not in good conscience recommend exploiting a fungus that gradually coats arteries, veins, and even capillaries with high-grade steel.
Cerullan dictated this update to his wife through rapidly stiffening lips, then died. His body is polished daily by reverent researchers in the Panlectica Hall of Heroic Inquiry. Winning a liability lawsuit that bankrupted CMYK, Cerullan's widow moved to Lazuli Luxury Estates, which she now owns.
Edwin knew nothing about Lookout fungus. Lucky for him, Leppor had removed the fungus once the Lookout Stalk grew high enough. But the height of the Lookout Stalk -- that Edwin knew about. Moment by moment he understood more profoundly the Lookout Stalk's height, and specifically the outcome of falling from it.
"From the ground," he gasped, "it didn't seem -- this high --" He looked down. Mistake.
"Are we there yet?" asked the orange nub.
"Just a bit further, dear," said the green. She floated near the metal surface. "The construction of this pillar is quite intriguing."
"Intriguing? Try 'alarming.'" said the blue. "What's with these ornaments?"
Rusted cages hung from chains all the way up the slick stalk. Most cages were human-sized, either adult or kid, and many held onetime occupants -- full skeletons in odd shapes, or just piles of weird bones. For Edwin the cages made ghoulish handholds.
Higher up, the cages held the shells of dead Verminax. In the cage nearest the top, a bug still clung to life, twitching its twisted legs and many mandibles. Edwin had never seen this bizarre Verminax caste, and finally he understood why.
"These Verminax and these people -- Leppor used Reality on them." He winced.
"Experiments," said the blue nub. "He's quite the scientist, I guess."
The green nub sounded stern. "In my krome, Viridia, I am a scientist myself. This isn't science, it's torture. Please, set this wretched creature free."
Edwin fumbled with the cage latch. Suddenly the cage shook as the bug, maddened and twisted by Reality, lurched against the gate and drove it open. While Edwin scrambled to hold on, the Verminax staggered and fell out. The nubs moved to catch it, but the bug fell through them and plummeted to its death.
The nubs and the boy watched in ghastly silence.
"This place is awful!" the yellow nub cried. "Every moment is like being punished, and you live here all the time! What does that do to you?"
Edwin glared at her. "I'll tell you. I just killed my aunt, the last person left in the world who cared about me. It was an accident, and I feel really bad. But I can't stop to think about it. No one here stops. We just keep fighting. That's what this place does to us." He went back to climbing.
The yellow nub collapsed into silence. The others exchanged dot-eyed glances.
The blue floated after Edwin. "Um, kid, do you want to rest a while?"
"No. Leppor could show up." Here, near the top of the tall stalk, Edwin felt more exposed than ever. His heart was pounding, and not just with the climb.
Below him, the green nub examined the stalk wall. "Why, here's a little door."
Edwin wasn't listening. His realizer shrink-gun had almost run out of red Reality. The realizer still held droplets of other Reality colors, though. Could they power the shrinking ray? Or, come to think of it, could they turn the realizer into something else?
The green nub said, "I'll have a look inside." She drifted like a ghost through the closed door.
Edwin didn't notice. Remembering Leppor's command of Reality, he climbed faster. Reality could do anything, become anything. Leppor could use it to turn invisible! He could be waiting here at the top, right now!
Below, a wail from inside the door: "Noooooo!"
"Yahhh!" Edwin lost his grip, hung flailing, slid (still flailing), and thudded onto the mutant Verminax cage, upside-down and squarely in front of the closed door.
Edwin righted himself (yet more flailing) and scrambled to point the realizer. The nubs cowered behind him.
Ten hammering heartbeats. No one said anything.
Then, from behind the door, a thin high voice: "I surrender!"
Out through the closed door drifted a nub. Not the green one -- a new nub, smaller than the rest. Edwin thought its color the prettiest: violet. The green nub floated close behind.
Edwin kept the realizer trained on the new nub, for all the good it would do against an immaterial bubble. "Who are you?"
"A friend!" The nub's voice squeaked with fear. "I mean, not an enemy. Prisoner."
The blue nub whispered, "Don't trust him." The yellow agreed. The orange repeated his earlier wish to go home.
But the indigo's eyedots widened. "He's violet. Talk to him!"
His urgency (or maybe Edwin's weapon) seemed to frighten the little nub, who darted back inside the tower.
The green nub goggled. "Is this how residents of this krome rescue a helpless prisoner?" She floated after the violet and gently coaxed it out. "Now, dear, tell us who you are and why you're here."
The little bubble simpered like a baby. To Edwin, that meant this nub couldn't be from Bloodshow, where even kids had to be steel-tough just to make it from morning to dinner. Still, seeing this creature's obvious terror, Edwin's heart softened. He'd seen slaves Leppor took for study. When the "study" was done and the victims returned to the fungus caves, they could hardly speak a sentence.
"Awful. Awful," the violet finally said. "A long time. I think it was a long time. Where is he?"
The green said, "We think he's gone."
"Oh no!" The violet shook himself back and forth. "No, no, he's never gone. I know him, he --" He broke off.
"How do you know him?" the indigo asked, but the green shushed him. She said, "Did Leppor press you for your Reality?"
"Yes. Three -- I think four -- several times."
"Several!" All the nubs, freshly pressed themselves, looked horrified.
"He pressed me -- put it back, made me different -- pressed me again -- I came back different each time --" The violet turned away.
The blue spoke from her nonexistent heart. "That's disgusting!"
As one, the nubs floated over to offer comfort. They murmured soothingly; some cried.
Edwin felt fresh loathing for Leppor, and a new resolve to stop him. Lowering his weapon, Edwin told the violet, "I'm sorry for you. We'll bring you with us to the other kromes. Do you live there?"
This seemed to rally the little nub. In a stronger voice he said, "I come from Jacaran, the Mother Krome of all the rest."
The other nubs shot back in all directions, crying "Jacaran!"
Edwin looked around, raised his realizer, and lowered it. He said, "Tell me."
The biggest recovered first. "No one from Jacaran has travelled the lower kromes for a generation!" said the indigo. "What brought you to this odious backwater?"
"I had a, a mission," the little nub began. "Important." He lapsed into nervous silence. The others asked more questions, but he started to weep.
Edwin shrugged and stepped between the nubs. "Time for that later. We have to get out of here."
They climbed the last sweep to the top. Here the Lookout Stalk flattened, bent, and curved far into empty air. On this hook-like perch the great sphere himself had rested, like a dark jewel held in a clasp.
On a flat place at the cusp, the boy crouched and looked around. He'd never seen the world from so high. A thin cold breeze brought smells of meat and filth. Bloodshow's red hills looked like they'd plopped from the sky in steaming piles, to be infested by fungus and bugs.
Edwin hated this place, as all the slaves hated it. The idea of an exit was the happiest news of his life. Never mind his usual headlong rush -- after the most hard-nosed slowpoke calculation he would still try any foolhardy stunt to get out.
Yet he wondered where he was going. Apparently these other kromes weren't as bad. In a way, this worried him. When he'd told the nubs about life here, they'd all gone silent. Edwin feared that this place had deformed him -- that this nightmare upbringing would color his actions forever. Wherever he went, he might be taking Bloodshow with him.
Creepy thought! But he was still determined to get out. "All right, now what?"
The indigo said, "For the transit to the next krome, we must depart from the highest fixed point in this one. We're not quite there." He looked out to the far end of the hook, a fraction higher than the cusp they stood on.
"Great." Edwin took a deep breath and crawled onto the narrow perch. The nubs followed in size order: little orange, the yellow slightly bigger, then green, blue, and the largest, the indigo. The tiny violet nub ended the line like a period in a sentence.
Edwin clutched the stalk like a drowning bug. Never had he felt so exposed. If Leppor returned….
As he crept out, he seemed to hear odd sound-clips, short drifts of spoken words and Verminax chittering drifting from below. Like a receiver scanning frequencies, the Spore Tower eavesdropped on all of Bloodshow; Leppor, resting on this curved antenna, would have spied the zeitgeist. But Edwin could hear little more than gabble, word salad, like the static from a monitor bloom. He ignored it and kept crawling.
At last he reached the far point. A flat spot offered barely enough room to stand.
Edwin looked at the long drop, looked away, looked around as if trapped. "So," he said. "Uh… you know, we haven't introduced ourselves! I'm Edwin."
"I'm Wonder!" said the orange nub.
"Tulip," the yellow said.
"My name is Tristess," said the green politely.
"Ivy, that's me," said the blue.
"For now, you may simply call me Quintal," said the indigo.
The violet spoke shyly. "I am Sixtus Duodecimus Hufandus Vergilius Drusus Magnificus. But I would be pleased if you call me Huff."
"I think that's a good idea, Huff." Edwin took another deep breath. "Okay, we're here. How do we get to these other kromes?"
"That is simple," said Quintal. "From the highest point in the krome, you step off."
Edwin's eyes bulged. "You're joking."
"No. At the edge you must extend one foot as far and as high as you can reach, then step forward. And you must keep your eyes tightly closed."
"I couldn't do it any other way. But that's not how that woman did it, or Leppor!"
"I've heard there are at least a dozen ways to travel up the kromes," said Quintal. "I myself know only four. Do you have a restricted-issue Teknikon KTD, a Kromal Transilience Device?"
Edwin held up his realizer. "Is this one?"
"No. What about a Heynes-Pettrey continuum collapsar portal?"
"And I'll guess you're not carrying a 30-gigaton warp bomb, so that leaves the edge. Remember to stretch as far as you can."
"For a clean fall," Edwin muttered. With eyes tight shut, he lifted one foot.
"Wait," Quintal said, and Edwin instantly stopped. "I neglected to mention --"
"-- the Traveller's Goal," Ivy finished. "I was gonna ask if you jackos have that in other kromes."
"Actually, I intended to mention that Edwin should hold his realizer high, so that we can ride up with him. As nubs, we cannot hold on to anything except raw Reality. But as you mention, there is the minor ceremony of the Goal."
Tristess explained to Edwin, "The Traveller's Goal is a ritual statement we make before a major journey."
"Great! Let's go down and do it." Edwin turned back.
"No, it's just very brief. We speak aloud our reason for travel. I'll start: I travel to get home."
"Me too!" said Wonder, and the others echoed.
"Okay." Edwin said aloud, "I travel to catch that woman and bring back a Reality pressor." But he was actually thinking, "To get out of here, and beat up Leppor, and when I get back I'll save everyone, and they won't hate me for blasting the pressor, and they'll have a feast."
For one moment he also thought of Elinor. For her, too, he had to succeed. To atone.
Finally he ran out of excuses. With the realizer held high and the nubs clinging to it like a bunch of balloons, Edwin stretched his foot into empty air as high and far as he could.
He leaned off the precipice -- he started to fall --
He found solid ground!
In shock Edwin almost opened his eyes. But he knew he would see nothing, and would fall to his death. He stretched further -- further --
He tripped, fell an arm's length to a hard surface, and rolled over twice.
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