|Circus World Series
a novel by
Barry B. Longyear
In the darkness above the atmosphere of the strange planet, ten smaller crafts detached themselves from a great ship, fired their entry burns, and fell toward the planet's surface. When the shuttles were little more than points of reflected light, the great ship seemed to wobble, then roll. For a moment the ship's movement seemed to stabilize, then its powerful engines gave a brief, blinding flash, the ship nosed over, and dived toward the planet.
A huge man with a bandaged head moaned and opened his eyes as he felt the reality around him shaking, then slamming to a devastating halt. He closed his eyes as pains that could melt steel shot through his head.
Noises. The smell of acid. The smell of smoke.
He drove awareness from his mind. There was so much to drive away. A dying ship, a dying show, a dying daughter. "Get these two patched up, fast! I need them back on the radios."
"Are we down?"
"Are we down, Mange? Hell yes we're down! Just put a dent in a goddamned mountain!"
... so much to keep away: a dying show, a dying daughter, dying itself, the bulls---
He opened his eyes and stared blankly at the blur of rushing, screaming bodies. Someone had said something about the bulls---
" Jesus, we're spread all over the place!"
"Fire control, down to the main carrousel! Pony? Pony Red, where are you?"
Unintelligible crackles, words.
"Get down to the main carrousel! The bulls and horses've broken loose and are shredding the place. Fire control, where'n the hell are you? Flame in the port carrousel!"
The bulls. Something about the bulls. And fire.
He lifted an arm. Tingling numbness covering his body. Data began to enter the blank circuits of his mind. The bulls. Have to get to the bulls.
"What about the atmospheric readings?"
"Screw 'em! If the air out there's no good, it doesn't matter much, does it? With that Hartford going in the port bay we don't have enough left in here to light a match. Open the damned vents and hit the fans!"
"That was some great landing, Fireball."
"You try and deadstick in one of these bastards, punk! It's got the glide angle of a brick."
"I said it was a good landing---"
"Where'n the hell are the others?"
"Try the radio, stupid---wait. What's that call?"
"It ... it's the Baraboo, skipper. It's out of control.... It's diving into the atmosphere.... Signal's dead."
The voices. He pushed himself up from the couch and stumbled toward the voices. But now the control cabin was silent.
There was a breath of fresh air on his face, and he inhaled. He gulped at the air, and gulped again. His vision cleared a bit and he could make out the shuttle crew standing like statues before the control banks.
"You. Fireball. What is it?"
The command pilot of the Number Three car turned her head and looked at him. She seemed not to notice the blood dripping from her forehead. "The Baraboo. It ... it just got exed. We got away just in time."
Fireball nodded at another crew member. "Try and raise the other cars."
The crew member stabbed at some buttons. "Any cars, this is Number Three. Where are you?" She listened, then tried again. "This is Number Three. Any cars, where are you?"
He rubbed his eyes, sat down on the edge of a couch, and looked at the shuttle's pilot. "Somebody said something about the bulls."
Fireball Hanah Sanagi squatted next to him. "Bullhook, it's hell down there. The outside hatch to the loading runs is jammed. The bulls are going crazy." The pilot stood and shouted toward the hands that stabbed at the communications bank. "What about fire control?"
"Anything yet from the other cars?"
Bullhook Willy got to his feet and supported himself against the couch's backrest as a crackle filled the compartment. "Hey! It's Number Ten! One, Four, Five, and Ten are within sight of each other near a big body of water." The crew member talked rapidly into the communications system. "We're pretty bunged up. Came to a stop against a mountain. Heard anything from the others?"
He squinted his eyes against the light coming through the cockpit observation ports. Through them he could see bright sky, green trees hung with golden hair, a range of mountains.
More crackling. "Wait! I'm getting a strong signal from Number Six. Six can see Number Eight. Eight can't see Nine, but is getting a good signal. Number Two? Where are you, Number Two?" Silence. "Can anyone get a signal from Two? What about Seven?" Crackles, desperate calls, silence. "Okay, let's try and figure out how far we are from each other and in what relation."
On the couch rested a meter long gold tipped hook-and-goad. Bullhook Willy picked it up, turned, pulled himself through the compartment door, and headed down the dark companionway. The smell of it. Hot insulation, boiling hydraulic fluid, and overpowering every other odor, the smell of burning flesh---
The frantic calls from the control cabin were soon covered by the screams of the animals. He turned into the companion-way leading to the huge cage of rotating tubes that held the elephants. An emergency light flashed in his face, then out of the darkness and smoke a voice yelled. "Pony! Pony Red! It's Bullhook! The boss elephant man is here!"
Bullhook held his hand between the light and his eyes. "Waxy, you want to get that damn light out of my face."
The beam of light dropped as Bullhook supported himself by placing a hand against a bulkhead. The bulkhead was hot. Too hot. That was the smaller port carrousel containing half of the remaining Perches. Bullhook withdrew his hand. "Waxy, what about the horses?"
The dark shape holding the emergency light shook his head. "No good. Pony Red had to seal off the port carrousel to try and contain the fire. Doesn't look good. There's no fire in the starboard horse barn and in the main carrousel, but the smoke and lack of air is driving the nags and bulls crazy."
"There'll be air soon."
Another shape joined the one holding the lamp. "Mother Machree, but it's the hell of Hartford down there." The voice belonged to Pony Red Miira, boss animal man. "Waxy, why'd you put out the call?"
The one holding the lamp pointed at Bullhook. "The boss elephant man."
Pony Red moved next to Bullhook and placed a hand on the boss elephant man's shoulder. "Are you all right? The last time I saw you the back of your skull was caved in."
"I'm on my feet. We're down. We got to get the lead stock out of here. Why aren't the bay doors open?"
The boss animal man shook his head. "The last I heard from the crew back there, the doors were jammed. They can't get to the control that blows the damn doors off because of the bulls. Two of 'em are loose in the runs tearing up the place. Now we can't raise the aft crew at all."
Bullhook rubbed his eyes. "The carrousel. Can it still rotate?"
"Get some lights on and move tube number one to the bottom, facing the doors. I'll get 'em open."
Pony Red shook Bullhook's shoulder. "You can't get through any of the tubes; especially number one. Six of the eight bulls in there have broken loose. We're trying now to get a crew around to open the doors from the outside."
Bullhook began to pull himself down the companionway.
"Dammit, Pony, if they won't open from the inside, they sure as hell can't be opened from the outside. Not in time. Just get tube number one facing the doors. I'll get through."
"Why number one?"
"Ming is in number one."
Crying. Just barely audible, there was crying among the screams. Lights went on in the access tube, turning the blackness into a dark gray pall. Bullhook Willy lowered himself another rung, then another, until he stood on the lower deck access compartment to the main carrousel. The air was a bit better. Fresh, cool air. He glanced to his left and could see the hazy outline of an open maintenance port. Through the man-sized doorway, he could see green grass. He turned from the ladder and lurched toward the closed doors that opened into the tubes as the rumble of the main carrousel turning vibrated the shuttle.
Before the doors, three figures knelt over a fourth. One of the kneeling figures stood and grabbed Bullhook. "What're you doin' here, Bullhook? You can hardly stand."
Bullhook forced his eyes to resolve the images before him. Packy Dern was holding him; Waco Whacko and Dot the Pot were kneeling over the still body of Haystack Harry. "What happened, Packy?"
The bullhand nodded toward Haystack. "Waco and I managed to pull him out of the number four tube. Too late." He looked back at Bullhook. "There's some others still in there."
"What about the rest of the bullhands?"
Packy shook his head. "God, I don't know. Most of 'em must be out of the shuttle by now."
Bullhook closed his eyes for a moment. "Waco. Get Dot out of here. Go through that open maintenance port."
The snake charmer looked over his shoulder at the boss elephant man. "What about you?"
Bullhook moved over and pulled Dot the Pot to her feet. "Haystack's been exed, Dot. You have to get out of here."
Dot wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I can't just leave him. Don't make me leave him."
"Packy and I'll take care of him. You go with Waco now. You're just in the way."
The snake charmer stood, held Dot's arm, and looked at Bullhook. "What about you?"
"I'll be along."
The snake charmer studied Bullhook with dark, narrowed eyes. "There aren't any heroes in the circus, Bullhook; just dead troupers and live ones."
"Get along, Waco." He placed a hand on the snake charmer's shoulder. "I'll be all right."
Waco spat on the deck and turned Dot the Pot toward the maintenance port. As the pair moved toward the opening, Bullhook pointed at the body. "Packy, grab Haystack and get out of here."
Packy Dem shook his head. "I heard the big cage turning, Bullhook. If you open those doors, it'll take about two seconds for this compartment to be full up with damned mad pachyderms. "
The boss elephant man motioned with his bullhook toward the body. "Get Haystack and beat it. I have to get to the other end and open the main hatch."
"There's a crew outside working on it now."
"Packy, there's no time to work through from the outside. Now get moving."
"You can't make it!"
"Ming and I can." Bullhook pointed again at the body. "Now beat it."
Packy shook his head and lifted the dead bullhand's shoulders. "Maybe I can help."
Bullhook Willy stared at the closed doors to the main carrousel. "Beat it. And get that crew away from the doors."
Packy pulled Haystack's body away, and just before he reached the maintenance port, Bullhook called out. "Hey, Packy!"
"Little Will. Take care of her. You know."
"Yeah. I know." The bullhand lowered Haystack's body through the port, then dropped himself through to the outside.
Bullhook Willy weaved before the closed doors, looking at the red square that needed to be pressed to open them. "Just hope to hell Ming is the first one out."
He reached out his left hand, slapped the red square, and stumbled to the right of the doors as they hissed open. There was no addition to the smoke, but the sound of the screaming bulls deafened him. A panic-driven elephant thundered through the open doorway, her shredded left ear dripping blood. It took only a split second for Bullhook to recognize Cambo. As Cambo rumbled around the compartment looking for a pachyderm-sized exit, she was immediately followed by Queenie. Queenie's trunk was almost severed through.
Bullhook looked around the edge of the door and screamed. "Ming! Here, Ming! Goddammit, Ming, where are you?"
Down the length of the tube, three bulls were in the aisle on their sides either dead or dying. The remaining five bulls were loose and stampeding in the confined area.
"Ming! Dammit, Ming!" Bullhook sagged against the open door as his vision blurred. One of the five bulls paused, turned toward the forward end, then began walking toward the compartment. "Ming. That's it, baby. Right here."
Bullhook felt a thunderous whack across his shoulders, his face smashed against the bulkhead. He stopped himself from sagging to the deck, reached out, grabbed the rungs of an access ladder, and began pulling himself out of danger. Queenie rushed at him again and tried to pull him down, but she could not raise her wounded trunk. Just as he managed to pull himself above her, Queenie rammed the ladder and bulkhead.
Ming entered the compartment and bellowed. Bullhook called from his perch upon the ladder. "Ming! Over here, girl! Get Queenie away from the ladder! C'mon, Ming, you beautiful thing!"
Bullhook saw Ming look up at him. The sound she made was a blast of relief and joy.
"That's right, Ming. I'm here. Come on over and save old Bullhook's ass."
Ming lowered her head, tucked her trunk down, and charged at Queenie's side. The impact vibrated the entire compartment, almost causing Bullhook to lose his grip. Frightened by the attack, Queenie moved away from the ladder.
"Over here, Ming!" He smacked his bullhook against the bulkhead and Ming moved toward the ladder. The pachyderm presented her port side to the boss elephant man when she saw him whirl his bullhook in a circle. When she was close enough, Bullhook Willy leaped from the ladder and landed upon Ming's back. Painfully he pulled himself forward until he sat straddling the great beast's neck, the toes of his boots behind her ears.
"All right, babe! Let's get us the hell out of here!" He tapped Ming's right shoulder with his bullhook. "Shy, babe! Shy!"
The elephant turned to the right, and when she was facing the doors, Bullhook lowered himself until his right cheek was against the top of Ming's head. The stink of burned flesh filled his nostrils. "Let's go, babe! Mule up that damned machine! Go!"
Ming went through the doors and entered the number one tube of the main carrousel, first at a fast walk, then at a trot. With screamed commands and taps with his bullhook, the boss elephant man steered Ming around the three dead elephants. With butts of her head, swats with her trunk, and goads with her tusks, Ming bulldozed the frightened elephants out of her path. One of the bulls attempted to fight back, and Bullhook felt a tusk enter the calf of his left leg. "Go, dammit! Go Ming!"
At the other end of the tube, the smoke was still thick. "Tut, babe. Park that thing until I can find the doorknob."
Ming stopped and the boss elephant man tried to clear his vision. "Great Boolabong, show me the doorknob. Show me." He shook his head, but the motion did more to increase the pain in his head than it did to clarify his vision. "Hell." He leaned to his right, reached down, and tapped the front of the elephant's shoulder.
"Give old Bullhook a kneel, babe. Let's go. Down, Ming."
As the elephant slowly knelt, Bullhook slid from her neck until his feet touched the hot deck plates. His left leg collapsed, and he crawled upon his hands and knees until he came to the aft tube doors. Pulling himself up, he felt for the door panel. Once he found it, he pounded it with his fist, causing the doors to hiss open. On the other side of the door, the two bulls that had broken loose from the number four tube were screaming and stampeding up and down the runs that led from the three carrousel doors to the main hatch. The bulkhead panels above the port carrousel door radiated orange heat. The remains of two human bodies smeared against the cleated surface of the runs explained why Pony Red Miira hadn't been able to raise the aft watch.
Bullhook pushed away from the bulkhead, collapsing upon the deck. He looked at the bull. Ming stood patiently awaiting further instructions. The boss elephant man thought he blacked out for a second, then was brought wide awake by the blinding pains that coursed through his leg, back, and head. The pains eased for a moment, and Bullhook called out. "Ming. I can't make it. Get that durante out and log me out of here!" He smacked his bullhook against the deck. "Ming, let's go!"
The pachyderm moved to her right until she faced the boss elephant man's prone figure. Then she reared up on her hind legs and screamed. Her front legs came down hard, and Bullhook knew what was in her mind. He knew because he had been there. "Ming! This is Bullhook, honey. Bullhook." The elephant snorted, rocking back and forth. "That was another crash, another time, another place. Years ago, babe. This is Bullhook, Ming." He held up his gold-tipped hook and goad. "Bullhook."
Ming stood still for a moment, then she lowered her head, lifted her trunk, and gently shoved her tusks beneath Bullhook's body. The boss elephant man held his gold tipped bullhook out so that it would not be out of the elephant's sight. "Remember me, Ming. You gore me and it's liable to ruin my whole day."
The elephant's trunk wrapped gently around Bullhook's waist as her head came up. "Okay, babe. Let's lead this parade out of here. Go, babe, go!"
Ming moved out toward the main hatch. The two bulls rampaging in the runs moved toward her. "Mile, babe! Get me to that damned switch box! Go!" Ming crossed the runs and stopped before the huge hatch door. The heavy metal door was warped from the impact against the bottom of the shuttle. Nothing short of blowing the thing off of its bolts would open it. "Shy, babe. Get me over! Shy!"
The elephant moved Bullhook to the right, and the boss elephant man reached out and flipped open the cover on the emergency switch. He pulled down the bright red handle inside and then blackened out as two hundred exploding bolts went off at the same time that a bull smashed into Ming's side. When he opened his eyes, his body was being shaken unmercifully as Ming stampeded through the open air and tall grass of the strange planet. Voices called after them, but Ming wasn't listening.
"Ming! Ming!" The elephant slowed to a trot, then to a walk. "Tut, babe! Put me down, honey."
The huge beast shuddered and then lowered her head, depositing the boss elephant man upon the grass. Her head lifted and she stood, snorting and shaking her head. "Good girl. Good girl."
The voices again. Louder. Feet running through the grass. Bullhook opened his eyes and looked at the clear, blue sky. Parade weather. Damn, but it's a beautiful day. Packy Dern's face came into view as the bullhand knelt and quickly examined the boss elephant man. Bullhook felt something placed beneath his head and pressure being applied to his left leg. Other hands; other faces. Waco, Dot the Pot, Madman, Pony Red, Moll ...
Packy's face looked at him and smiled. "Whatcha been up to, Bullhook?"
"A little this; a little that."
Bullhook felt a needle being poked into his arm. Packy nodded. "Well, it sure looks like it was fun."
"You know what they say, Packy ... life with the circus is just one long uninterrupted dee-light."
The blue sky grew black, Packy's face faded, and the sharp jags and angles of pain smoothed into a calm night sea of slow motions and soft sounds.
There was more touching against his body, dim voices, a bullhand singing "Elephant Kindergarten" to her pachyderm. That's Kim's voice. That's right, honey. The car crashed, I don't know where in the hell we are, no one will ever find us, don't know where our next meal is coming from, but calm down. Some things are still the same. I'm still here, and mule up still means trot....
And life? It's the same as its always been: life with the circus is just one long uninterrupted dee-light.
Step right up and feast your little bug-eyes on the wonderous monsters from the planet Earth! Peruse the ponderous pachyderms---
---That's what I said, sir, or madam, or thing, as the case may be. Pachyderms---
---'Cause that's what they're called, sonny.
One quarter credit, a mere twenty-five percent of a one note will admit you to feast your eyes, bulbs, sensors, or whatever the hell it is you use---
Beat it boy, you bother me.Now, folks, slither right up ...
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