Tabitha had never seen a carnival.
The elders in the settlement claimed carnivals were an Old Earth tradition—exhibitions of talent and curiosity, amongst all manner of entertainment. So, when the small, metallic advertising satellite arrived on their colony planet, promoting the circus with its tiny red eyes flickering on and off, Tabitha’s grandmother was flush with excitement. A generation or so back—when her grandmother was still a little girl—a travelling show once made its way to their distant end of the galaxy.
“Everything comes to Dust,” her grandmother said, using the old name of the planet, before going on and on about the show. Still, she knew her grandmother described but a side show act, not a true carnival. True carnivals had circus tents and calliope-organ music, unusual species, freak shows, acts of skill and courage, fizzy lemonade, rides and games. The double-sphered advertising satellite showed pictures of all these things, but promised even more.
Word quickly spread across the colony, and Tabitha found her friends were even more excited than her grandmother had been. Halloway was beside herself about the chance to try licorice whips and funnel cakes. Benedict, on the other hand, could hardly wait to see the creatures of myth and legend, which were certainly hidden under the striped fabric of the tents. Someone had already started the rumor there was a zyglot among the carnival’s menagerie. For Benedict, the idea of a creature from so far away was as amazing as if they were to have a unicorn or a gorgon. Halloway and Benedict spoke animatedly, as they built up the carnival in their minds. Tabitha let them chatter, as her curiosity grew even stronger than theirs.
By the end of the week, there was a change in the breeze. A chill seemed to flow on the river of wind that arrived as the first star lorry landed—just outside the edge of their settlement’s borders. The wind carried with it the scent of popcorn and animal compost. To Halloway and Benedict, it may as well have been the scent of ambrosia. Overnight, tents were raised and handbills advertising the carnival’s arrival appeared on every door:
ROLL UP – ROLL UP
It’s festival time at the Shadow Show
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy!
COME ONE! COME ALL!
Opening in just two nights
Tabitha pulled one of the handbills from the door of her grandmother’s house. The paper had the sickly sweet scent of candy floss. It triggered something deep in her mind, and curiosity turned to desire.
The handbills were all the encouragement Tabitha and her friends needed to venture out after curfew. They secreted themselves down the dirt paths of the settlement, past the town gate, just up the hill to the edge of the colony borders. Halloway hoped to catch a glimpse of the merry-go-round, and Benedict strained to hear a pop from the miniature phaser range or crash of the dodgems. Tabitha knew there was something more—mysteries hiding within the tents and trailer shuttles. As she considered their hidden marvels, the scent of candy floss only intensified.
They stayed outside for hours that night.
The following night, the three found themselves all sitting at the same spot on the hill. This time, they could hear, over the slightly crackling loudspeaker system in the distance, bright cheerful music playing somewhat slower than it should. Posters had gone up around the vicinity of the carnival: Mags the Werewolf, Wobery the Human Serpent, Silhouette’s Magical Puppet Show, and Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle, among countless other amazements. As the wind ruffled the promotional canvases, it once more carried with it the candy floss aroma. Tabitha could no longer stop from succumbing to the desire of the carnival’s call.
It was Tabitha who braved crossing the outermost boundary of the colony, with Halloway and Benedict calling her back in panicked whispers. She ignored them both, as she slipped across the sawdust, and tiptoed past the star lorries and shuttle-trailers on the dusty circus field. She saw the edge of one of the candy-striped tents, and moved to quietly sneak under its tarpaulin, but she breathed in the sickly sweetness that called her, and her eyes were drawn to a baggage trailer nearby.
It hardly seemed spaceworthy—more a wheel-less vardo wagon, with a faux-wood roof, and a porch on the back. Despite the beautiful gold leafing and artistic matchboard style, someone had found it necessary to hastily spray paint graffiti above the door which read, “Beware the Carny: it bites!”
Tabitha didn’t heed the warning. She reached out to the door, only to find it gently gliding open before her hand could touch the handle. While dark inside, her eyes quickly adjusted. Soon, she found all manner of curiosities.
As she glanced directly to the back of the caravan, she saw a female-statue of broken glass, leaning against an enormous, shiny, twentieth century, standing arcade machine–seven feet tall, as wide as two ordinary machines—all screen and logos and flashing lights. A three-dimensional block city filled the glowing screen. Beneath the title “The Great Game,” the same screen begged Tabitha to “Insert Coins.”
She stepped into the trailer, past a group of life-sized rag dolls in baggy, colorful clothing and grotesque clown makeup. The dolls were robotic, but half-finished, or half-repaired. She pushed past them and a large stack of luggage—both new and ancient. She rested her hand on a large travelling chest, marked with stickers from such curious places as Moros Prime, Inter Minor, G-Lock and Sussex. A tag attached to the chest claimed it contained Kai costumes (of Kai or for, she couldn’t tell). Yet, the muffled buzzing that came from the box left her imagining a swarm of hornets within. So, she stepped back to give the container a wide berth.
Hidden behind the chest was a gaudily decorated pillar, with a cylindrical display screen on top, and a colorful hand-printed sign, reading, “Monster show! Live and clawing! Living wild in their natural habitat! A miracle of inter-galactic technology!”
On the opposite side from the luggage, there was a dusty bookshelf, which displayed further knickknacks and marvels: A Halkonite puzzle box that rattled when Tabitha shook it. A circular tin, labeled “The Night Travellers,” which contained a coiled length of darkened images. Six, twelve-inch, wands of black tortoise shell, each painted with a white line dividing one side. All this and so many more miniature miracles.
While she continued to explore the dark room, Tabitha was oblivious to the shadowed figure that crept into doorway behind her. He was a tall, commanding figure, with a bright red gash of a smile painted across his whiteface, but dressed in the clothes of an undertaker. He glared at Tabitha with cold-blue eyes. Almost as soon as he saw the girl, however, the Chief Clown allowed his false smile to take over, and his demeanor shifted to one of sinister joy.
“Hello little girl.” The clown in the dark clothes spoke, with a silky voice that startled Tabitha. She spun around, already starting to apologize, fearful at having been caught. Yet the clown’s lips curled into a wider grin, beneath his cruel, impassive eyes. He waved a hand with dramatic flair, and the pile of robot clowns slowly rose. Many were partially stripped of their bright costumes, cold metallic torsos laid bare, wires handing loose, heads half finished. And still they got up. At an achingly slow pace they gathered into a half circle before Tabitha. The light from the door was eclipsed by the wall of jesters, leaving only the flickering light of the video game cast a preternatural glow across their motionless, but absurdly painted faces.
“I see you’ve found my little secrets.” The Chief Clown inched forward, ever so slowly. “The Carnival Queen has opened the door to my masters’ realm. Now, I’m rebuilding my circus. Just as they rebuilt me.”
Robotic claws and cartoonishly gloved hands reached toward the girl, as the Chief Clown wiped a tear from her cheek.
“And you sensed the call—your imagination strong enough to lead you here. You’ll make a fine meal for my masters.” He let slip a perverse laugh. “Welcome to the Psychic Circus.”
Down the dirt paths of the settlement, past the town gate, just up the hill to the edge of the colony borders. Halloway and Benedict cheered, as the crackling loudspeaker in the distance played its merry music at increased speed. The lights from the Ferris wheel and the Graviton cut through the darkness. The quiet night was suddenly loud with the pop of the phaser range, the crash of dodgems, the roar of the rollercoaster, the jolly tune of the merry-go-round….
Beneath it all, no one could hear Tabitha’s screams.