Children enjoyed great latitude in Catalpa. This was less a result of philosophy than pure pragmatism. There was too much to build to worry overmuch about regular bedtimes. Or meals. Catalpa’s children were (mostly) made of sturdy stuff. If a water-god or a girl with unbreakable skin chose to sleep under the stars, why worry? But even Catalpa had standards. When the same five children weren’t seen by adult eyes for two days, people got worried.
The sun was setting behind Freedom’s point. The sky was as red as the one Louise Michelson was born under. Normally in Catalpa, the sunset was welcome. It dulled the edge of the tropical heat. Tonight, it was like being abandoned by a friend. Catalpa needed daylight.
The tower canteen was buzzed with an energy caught between panic and pure exhaustion. Women passed empty-handed searchers hot cups of coffee and cold sandwiches from behind the tray-line. Guilty, anxious conversation warbled around the hall, tolerated only in fear of inviting silence. Blooms of translocated space opened and closed in the corner, disgorging men in ochre-stained boots and ladies with the hems of their dresses rolled up around their knees.
Fred Barnes sat alone at one of the tables with a pencil and a few pieces of grid paper. A thin, sand-blond man with a drawn, gaunt face walked solemnly up to him.
“Sectors thirty-three to forty-five are all empty, sorry to say, Mr. Barnes,” reported Peter Frum.
Fred found the correct boxes on his grid and crossed them out, grunting, “I’m sure you did your best.”
Peter Frum’s best was a lot more than most men. He was one of Hettie Haldor’s teammates in the Fearsome Three; Menagerie, able to command and see through the eyes of birds, lizards; pretty much anything dumber than a human. Fred had never asked if he could do frogs and mozzies as well, but he wouldn’t have been surprised. Hettie and her man had set him looking for her son before anyone else even thought to start worrying.
She hadn’t let anyone forget that, not that Fred could blame her.
Frum pointed his thumb back at the row of winking egg-portals. “I’m gonna get back out—”
“Mate, you haven’t slept since yesterday. Go get a bloody coffee. Hettie will understand.”
Frum opened his mouth to protest, but it was like his soul took the chance to escape. His shoulders slumped. The man almost lost a full inch of height. Peter nodded. “Yeah. Better do that.”
Fred watched the ex-supervillain drag himself to the serving line. He felt the man’s frustration. God knew he wanted to be out there, too.
Fred saw Hettie and Paul step together out of a portal. Paul was a tall man, but his wife was more than two heads taller than him. The woman’s polished concrete face was powdered with the dust she perspired, except for tell-tale tracks winding down from her eyes.
Poor things, Fred thought. Hettie and Paul couldn’t even tell themselves their boy was more dangerous than anything out in the wild.
Except Mabel had left her sketchbook in the Children’s Hall.
The bulk of Catalpa’s children were holed up in the dorms that night under Mrs Barnes’ unshakeable watch.
Not Allison Kinsey, though. She was too useful.
Allison sat behind the old warden’s desk, staring up at the mirrored ceiling. She still wondered about that. Did the boss need to be able to inspect the top of his head at a moment’s notice. Her mother sat beside her with an ancient Women’s Weekly, more a prop than reading material.
Allison screwed her eyes shut, trying to another peak at the future. Again, it looked wrong. The storm of futures had coalesced into one flat, monolithic surface. Ominous, but possibly more useful than the usual format—if only Allison could make out a single bloody detail. The future’s face rippled constantly, like a lake being riddled by torrential rains.
It felt diluted.
Drina reached over and squeezed her daughter’s hand. “They’ll be alright, love.”
Allison opened her eyes and forced a small smile. It’d been a long time since her mother’s reassurances felt like solid fact. “Yeah. David’s probably just taken them all to Hawaii or something.”
Allison wished the future agreed with either of them.
A portal ballooned in the office: a black and orange painted egg amongst pastel purples and pinks. The Crimson Comet, Mistress Quickly, and Tom Long stepped through. Even without telepathy, their faces told Allison nobody would be following.
“Nobody in Gan Gan, Ramingining, or Gapuwiyak has seen the kids,” Ralph reported.
“At least we’re pretty sure they haven’t,” added Maude. “Ran into a few language barriers. Can you believe there’s still folk born and bred in Australia that don’t speak any English? It’s wild.”
Tom scowled. “You do know they were here first, right?”
Maude shrugged. “Fair cop.”
Tom grunted. “Still don’t know why you brought me. I’m not even from around here! Like bringing a bloody Pom to negotiate with the fuckin’ French!”
Drina considered admonishing the boy’s language, but it didn’t feel like her place. Besides, she was too young to start talking like Angela.
“Come now, Tom” said Ralph Rivers, “a familiar looking face still couldn’t have hurt. Poor blighters looked scared stiff.”
Tom scowled up at the old superhero. “Bunch of pale folk in uniform asking about kids, I wonder why?” He looked about the office contemptuously. “Fucking white fellas…”
The boy turned transparent and sank down through the floor.
“Oh, Tom, honey…” Drina said as the top of Tom’s hair was subsumed by the shag carpet.
Allison sighed. “He’s just worried about Brit.” She thought about it for a second. “Okay, he’s also mad about the white people thing, but he’s always—”
Allison’s train-of-thought was violently derailed by two voices yelling over each other in her head:
“We saw the kids!”
“…Bloody circus behind the beach! Just appeared out of nothing right before—”
“The air felt all stupid!”
Allison clapped her hands over her ears and shouted, “Shut up!”
Everyone in the office was staring at her. Allison blushed and shrank into her chair slightly. “Miri and Alberto are back. I think they found something.”
Miri’s voice blared again, “We did!”
Allison winced and put her fingers to her temples in time honoured psychic tradition. “I’ll let them show you.”
Allison pushed the alien consciousnesses out of her head. Miri and Alberto appeared in the middle of the office. The man and child looked vaguely out of sync with their surroundings. Superimposed and oversaturated, light not so much reflected as seeping out of their skin and clothes. Like Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews dancing with penguins.
Alberto shot the Crimson Comet an acid smile. “Hey, Ralph. Long time no see.”
Ralph Rivers tried not to look at the spectre. He remembered Alberto Moretti as a mopey little boy. He’d rather not have a face to go with what he’d been told about the man.
“Just tell them what you saw or I’m sticking you in the day I called the teacher ‘Mummy’,” cautioned Allison.
“Fine,” spat Alberto.
Alberto and Miri’s bodies evaporated and swirled together. Images formed in the resulting cloud, like a projectionist had confused the art of cinema with the bat-signal. A dead fire on David’s favourite beach, its ghost rising into the air.
Alberto’s voice spoke within everyone in the office:
“Figured this had to be their doing, so me and Miri followed the smoke back a couple—”
Miri cut in. “Quiet, meanie! You’re gonna tell it wrong!”
Brit wielding a fish like it was a silver scaled sword against a madly, mutely cackling David. Gregory Collins was sitting dazedly in the sand, massaging a red patch on his cheek where the girl’s weapon had slapped him. Brit’s glow was more golden than usual. Her expression bore a Boudica-like severity.
Maude muttered, “Maybe you should’ve left Miri in your body…”
In the cloud, Brit had tripped up David and was standing with a foot on his chest and the fish at his throat, only for Mabel to run up to them and mouth something while pointing to the left.
“So Brit was being cool and beating up David and Not-So-David when Mabel was like ‘The no-powers boy is gone!’ and he was!”
Circus music got stuck in everyone’s head like a bad pop-song.
“Then they heard this music and… kinda forgot about him? The air got weird, too. Dumb. I didn’t know air could be dumb! ”
The image in the cloud broke up and reformed. The missing children were running towards a circus tent on a floodplain. Alberto spoke again:
“Apparently, two days ago, there was a whole circus between here and the beach for a couple of hours.”
“Did you check it out?” asked Allison.
The cloud dissipated.
“Couldn’t, sis,” said Miri. “It was in front of us but… really far away. At the same time.”
“Like trying to project to the Moon,” added Alberto.
Outside the tower, the sun finally slipped below the horizon, dipping the world into shadow.
Allison startled when she felt something land in her hair. “Ahh!” She scrambled to snatch whatever it was off, her hand finding a piece of paper.
“Where did that come from?” asked her mother, searching the ceiling for a vent or the like.
Allison looked down at the leaflet she was holding and read aloud, “Lieroinen Family Circus.”
The name was written in bold letters circling the likeness of a white stag, above a goateed ringmaster in a red tux and top-hat. The name felt weirdly familiar to Allison
Maude’s eyes widened. “Lieroinen?”
Allison’s hands trembled. The ringmaster was surrounded by circles, each containing one of the missing’s faces. They all looked like they’d been crying. Below the ringmaster was another message:
“This Christmas Eve, a special, PRIVATE show for one and a half special sisters.”
“Fuck,” said Mistress Quickly. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Ralph looked at the scientist. “You’ve heard about this outfit?”
“I’ve heard about their boss. Bad, bad news.”
Between the profanity and general confusion, only Drina saw the man and woman appear in the back of the office, silent as an eyeblink. Not the strangest thing in Catalpa, but the sight of the man’s armour made her go stiff.
He cleared his throat. “Do you folks need any extra hands?”
AU was standing beside the Mirror Mistress.
Ralph narrowed his eyes. “Chen?”
The Mirror Mistress pulled down her face-scarf and took off her mirrored sunglasses, revealing two very large brown eyes. She looked right at Allison. “Hello, Myriad.”
Allison tilted her head. “Therese?”
Therese Fletcher wished she didn’t understand the surprise.
David wasn’t sure if this circus’s hall of mirrors was defective or working far beyond expectation. None of his reflections were stretched or squashed. In fact, they were mostly absent. Other boys looked back at the water sprite from the polished silver. One was a pale, black-haired boy in a neatly tailored pinstripe with a mulberry coloured flower pinned to his breast pocket. Despite David’s puzzled frown, the other boy was smiling with a quiet, but unmistakable confidence. And if David wasn’t seeing things, his cheeks were flushed with hexagons.
Another boy looked a bit Chinese to David’s eyes, and seemed to share his taste in clothing, except for the gold bands and bracelets he wore on his wrists and arms. One mirror did reflect David, only with slightly denser muscles under even darker skin, his long hair tangled with seaweed and lichen. They all had his mother’s eyes, though. Except boy with irises like the sea at sunset and curly blond hair1 floating cross-legged in thin air wearing a tacky pair of hand-me down bell-bottoms.
David started hopping on one foot. The strange reflections all followed suit, the floating boy jabbing at the empty air with his toes. Then David waved his hands above his head. Again, the crowd of familiar strangers obeyed. It was like playing Simon Says with a crowd of new cousins.
David high-fived the Chinese boy, him and the rest of the kids moving in sync. The mirror predictably flexed and rattled in its fixture. Less predictably, so did all the others.
The strange boys were each joined by a girl. Specifically, a dozen so variations of Brit holding the same stick of blue fairy-floss. One had elaborate face-paint and a gold-trimmed red skirt that went down to her ankles, but no top. Another was shaved but dressed neck to toe in something shiny and black, with firm-edged creases clamped in place with metal. The most accurate Brit was just naked, but had utterly bloodless looking skin and very pronounced canines.
They all held out the fairy-floss2 to David. “You have got to try”—Brit caught sight of her altered reflections—“Woah.”
“Cool, innit?” asked David. He cocked his head as a thought occurred to him. “Why are all the reflections still you?”
“Dunno,” replied Brit. She grinned, adjusting her bangs. “Maybe I look too good not to show.” She pointed at the vampire looking Brit, who of course seemed equally puzzled by her living counterpart. “How does that mirror know what I look like without shorts?”
“Isn’t that hard to guess,” David said as he leaned forward and took a big, theatrical bite out of the fairy-floss. He chewed avidly for a second, stopping a moment, resuming, masticating like a sommelier savouring a mouthful of red. “…It tastes like the sky.”
“I know!” Brit turned toward the house of mirrors’ exit. “Come on, they’ve got a ton of flavours.”
The children burst back out onto the fairgrounds. The sun had set completely by then, but the stars were being outshone by the strands of red and green lights strung about like the web of some Christmas spider. An ornate traction engine trundled in a never ending circle around the silk big tent, dragging a calliope wailing Christmas carols with thirty-two (slightly off-pitch) tongues of spiced and scented steam.
There was snow on the ground. Neither Brit or David questioned it. Why should they have? It was Christmas, after all. They weaved through crowds of men in block colour sports coats, their arms around ladies in bouffants and pencil dresses. Their banter was a tide of “rhubarb” and “peas and carrots.” The children didn’t notice they all had the same faces, or that their clothing and hair differed only in colour. Who cared about grown ups?3
They came upon Mabel dominating the ring-toss. The girl was surrounded by prizes: a stuffed panda twice her size, a literal lava-lamp, and a weirdly flat colour-television the size and shape of a screen door4. She was in the middle of psyching herself up for another throw, arm raised to beside her head, tongue curled in the corner of her mouth as she gazed steel-eyed at the middle, tallest pillar.
David thumped her on the shoulder as he and Brit passed. “Good luck!”
Mabel jerked at the sudden contact, dropping the ring. It bounced impossibly hard off the stall’s counter, ricocheted wildly off the tarp walls, finally landing around the middle pillar with a satisfying rattle.
Mabel smiled proudly. Who knew she had such good aim?
“You win,” droned the melting soft-serve ice-cream cone of a man running the stall. He took a clear bag off the prize rack and plonked it down in front of Mabel. A small fish glinted within.
Mabel squinted at the creature. “That goldfish looks more silver.”
Steven Haldor was parked in front of a stage where a beautiful woman was taking a frothy bubble-bath in a claw-footed tub, leg pointed almost horizontally. David felt sorry for the older boy. This was what happens when people had to wear clothes all the time. Greg was watching some clowns pull themselves in and out of each other. That at least looked interesting. David guessed their car was in the shop.
The cotton candy tasted the way butterfly wings looked. Of dreams and stars. The way Brit and David had imagined wine before actually tasting it. They were soon full to bursting. And sticky.
A megaphone echoed over the fairgrounds:
“The ring-show will be starting in five minutes.”
David looked at Brit, his mouth mottled with blue and pink sugar stains. “Wanna check it out?”
Brit giggled woozily. “Sure, why not?’
Exactly four minutes later, the adult circus patrons started feeding themselves to the plywood clown that framed the big-top’s entrance. Their feet thumped out the ghost of a marching beat as the five children found each other at the back of the throng. An aerial observer would have found their ambling, organic gait out of place in that crowd. Pillbugs crawling through clockwork. None of the children noticed.
In the dark silk cave of the tent, Mabel pointed to an empty stretch of seats dead centre in one of the stands. “Five chairs, right there!”
It only seemed right to the children that the rest of the audience had left them seats next to each other. What were they supposed to do, sit separately?
David misted into the right most seat. Brit made one of her Superman leaps, managing to land deftly next to him. Gregory followed, allowing an uncanny breeze to deliver him to his seat. Steven and Mabel, of course, went the long way, cursing their friends all the while. Nobody in the tent seemed to care that they’d witnessed the impossible before the show even started, but then, they didn’t seem to care that David was naked, either.
Almost the second the children settled in their seats, a spotlight clicked to life and gently burned a circle of bright blue and yellow tarpaulin into the middle of darkness, revealing a man decked out in a red tuxedo and top-hat. The artfully swirled corners of his moustache were visible from the cheap seats. His entire aura screamed “ring-master.”
The man swept a ruby topped cane in front of him. “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Gods and mortals!”
There was a quick wave of perfectly timed, almost metallic applause. David grinned. Inclusivity was important, especially when it involved him.
“Welcome to the Lieroinen Family Circus!”
“Lieroinen.” The name… sat funny in Mabel’s brain. She turned to David and whispered, “You heard the name before? It sounds…” Mabel tried to find a word.
It was the best she could do, even if it didn’t feel “ha ha” funny. Mabel bet Allison would’ve known the right word—if she wasn’t being a complete scab about the strike. Or Żywie. She had German words for everything.
Mabel found herself blinking back tears. She hadn’t thought about Eliza Winter for months. With the same impulse that drives children (and too many adults) to pick at healing sores, she tried to recall some of the healer’s turns of phrases, but it was like trying to focus on an eye-floater. Her thoughts kept drifting—
David shrugged. “Maybe it’s one of those famous circuses, like Barnum5 & Bailey?”
“It’s foreign,” said Steve, arms folded wisely. “Foreign names always sound funny.”
That made sense, Mabel decided. The ringmaster sounded foreign, too. Which was just right in her book. It wouldn’t be a proper circus if it wasn’t run by foreigners. In fact, Mabel thought, if all new qualified carnie-folk weren’t shipped somewhere they had an accent the day they qualified to run so much as a merry-go-round, they ought to be.
“Here, in this Alladin’s Cave of the here and now, Heaven’s wonders reach down and dazzle the eyes of man! A million, million sorcerers and miracle-workers couldn’t match us! God Himself wouldn’t make it past the auditions!”
A programmatic chuckle rumbled through the crowd; sedate for such a blasphemous remark. The effect was somewhat muddled by the children’s own raucous laughter, much like if an electronica track was interrupted by a campfire singalong.
“In this cynical age, we often forget the wonder of flight. We walk beneath birds without looking up. The rich sail through the clouds in metal mockeries of those wonderful creatures, and don’t even look out the window!” A smirk curled in the corner of his mouth. “And let’s not forget that busy-body flitting about the globe like bad news.”
Another round of uniform laughter. The kids didn’t join in this time.
“Does he think the Flying Man’s still alive?” hissed Steve. “Bloke’s been dead for months.”
“Maybe they don’t get the papers on the road,” suggested David, trying to imagine how a mailman could keep up with a Gypsy caravan or whatever. Maybe he would ask Allie’s mother.
The ringmaster raised his cane up at the shadows that shrouded the tent’s ceiling. “In case any of you good people need a reminder…”
A knowing smile played on the man’s lips. A drumroll started building. The upper-shadows faded, banished by gold and crimson light. A man and a woman stood waving atop a forty-foot high platform in matching fluorescent leotards, close-cousin to superhero uniforms everywhere.
A symbol was struck.
“…The Careening Capeks!”
The man ran fearlessly off the platform, arching his body and snatching a hanging catch-bar as he sailed forward into the air. He swung towards the other end of the tent. At the very pinnacle of his arc, just as his legs were in danger of disappearing in the shadows that still bordered the ring, his lady partner also leapt into the air.
A well-timed gasp rose from the crowd. No catch-bar for her.
Before gravity could even stop the lady Capek’s climbing height, her partner swung back and snatched her hands. The pair swung forward together as human rope. At the peak of momentum, the man let go. The pair twirled in the air like a windblown ribbon, the woman grabbing the catch-bar just before it swung out of reach.
Needless to say, there was no net.
David watched in awe as the Capeks swung and flew through their air, in time to music he hadn’t even heard start playing. The light reflecting off their leotards left watercolour streaks across his retinas. David knew a fair number of people who defied gravity, himself included, really. But people like Brit fought gravity. Allison ignored it all together. These people worked with gravity, the way David did water.
Soon they were barely touching the catch-bars. At one point the man landed feet-first on top of one, not even flinching when the woman landed in a handstand on his shoulders. Her grip remained just as steady as he fell face-forwards, clinging to the bar with his toes.
David had no real fear of heights, or even pain in general. Not anymore, at least. If he fell and broke a bone, water would carry the hurt away. But these people were trapped in their flesh…
They can’t be human, they can’t be…
“Eh, I could do all that,” commented Greg.
Steve scoffed. “But they’re not you. That’s the point.”
If the Capeks weren’t so high up, or if the kids paid any mind to their neighbours in the stands, they might’ve noticed a resemblance.
The ringmaster had his back to the children, seemingly as enraptured with the performance above his head as the audience, his shadow stretched out behind him like a wedding train.
“Go on! Put your back into it!”
The shadow folded upward and inflated from a black cut-out of the ringmaster into a three-dimensional double dipped in ink. The shadow glanced about at the audience, put a finger to where his lips would’ve been, tip-toed towards the man who cast him, and snatched his cane from under his hand.
Laughter. The ringmaster swung around and scowled at his shadow. “Why you—”
The shadow whacked him on the head. The two were quickly scuffling on the floor, until they were pulled apart by the quartet of clowns who ran into the light.
The ringmaster dusted himself off while his shadow struggled in the arms of two of the clowns. “Strap him to the board!”
The spotlight expanded to cover the whole ring, revealing a wheel of death behind the ringmaster and company. The clowns dragged the shadow kicking and screaming to the apparatus, strapping him spread-eagled to the wheel like they were going to offer the apparition to King Kong.
The clowns obeyed. The wheel became a blur of colour and black.
The ringmaster flicked his wrist, a dagger slipping out of his sleeve. He hurled it at the wheel faster than the human eye could comfortably follow.
A stalk of silver burst from the wood above the shadow’s head. Another dagger embedded itself next to his hand, and then another between his legs. The ringmaster was hurling blades with both arms, cackling grandly.
A sound like tearing velvet. A repeated gasp from the audience.
The ringmaster froze mid-throw, his whole body shaking. There was a dagger embedded in his chest. With a trembling hand, he pulled it free.
The blade was clean.
“Damn,” he said, casually appraising the dagger. “I didn’t miss.”
“Right, we need some volunteers for the next part of the show!”
The ringmaster looked about at the audience, turning a full circle on his feet before narrowing his eyes and pointing at the children. “You, the kids in the middle row! How would you like to join the circus for a day?”
He needn’t have specified. They were the only children in the big top.
The children glanced at each other. Their grins answered were all the answers they needed. David stood up on his seat. “Hell yeah!”
He felt hands on his shoulders. He looked up to find a lady with a dark smile standing over him.
“Thank you, David.”
David’s eyes widened. He recognized the woman.
1. “It was one time.”—Joe Allworth, a few timelines over. ↩
2. Cotton candy, for those living outside Australia. ↩
3. You must forgive the children for forgetting the ticket girl’s promise of “no grown-ups.” If she could be said to have broken it at all. ↩
4. It wouldn’t be much use to Mabel. Aside from issues with aspect ratios and that Australian broadcasters wouldn’t adopt colour for some years, much of the device’s functionality depended on a non-existent electronic global network. ↩
5. P.T Barnum survived many scandals and setbacks during his career, but none were quite so embarrassing when a magician he hired was outed as a fraud. In that he was a common wizard. ↩