Authors: Deva Fagan
Tweaking the joystick shifts the image. Now I'm goggling down at the people in front of the Big Top as they crowd around the refreshment booth. The redheaded clown is handing out striped bags of popcorn and billowing cones of cotton candy.
"Jom, time to fly," says the Ringmaster. On my screen, the boy nods, tossing the last few bags at a pack of little kids, who cheer. He sprints off the screen into the Big Top.
I spin the joystick and curse myself for not saying something sooner. This is my fault. The Ringmaster handed me a ticket to the universe, and I returned the favor by leading his biggest enemy right to him. Nyl could have called up a whole army of other nasties by now. I clench the joystick tightly. No. I
to lose all this, not after I've just found it.
I'm passing over the chain-link fence along the rear of the circus grounds when I catch a flash that doesn't belong. A sleek black shape sits nearly hidden between a couple of trash bins. "Whoa. Now
The Ringmaster looks up, frowning. A tap on his baton, and suddenly one whole wall vanishes, replaced by the image on my screen. "The Mandate have such mundane concepts of spacecraft design."
"It's only one guy." I breathe a sigh of relief. Jiggling the joystick, I zoom in on the dark figure standing near the arrow-sharp nose of the craft. Nyl.
"One is enough."
"You're a million times bigger than he is. And you've all got superpowers. Can't we just ... fight him? Or something?"
I'd swear the Ringmaster looks afraid for a moment. "We've done what we came here to do. Time to be off. The universe awaits!" He gives the baton a last twirl, ending with a triumphant jab at the console.
The walls shudder. The overhead lights blink from orange to purple. Nola throws herself at the seat beside me. The small screen slides up into the ceiling. On the wall, Nyl's rocket starts giving off sparks from its tail end.
"He's going to follow," calls Nola.
"Let him try." The Ringmaster holds his ground, even as the entire room shifts. "Off we go!"
A huge weight presses down, stealing away my breath. I grip the arms of my seat.
"It's okay," Nola says through chattering teeth. "All perfectly normal."
Suddenly the weight is gone. My insides lurch as gravity shifts. The room spins. Please, please, don't let me get sick.
Then I forget about my stomach entirely as a field of stars opens up across the wallscreen. In one corner looms a gray, pockmarked surface, more detailed than I've ever seen, even through Dad's telescope.
"Yes, one does tend to run into such things in space," says the Ringmaster. His smile drops away. The gleam in his eyes catches me like the flare of a comet across the sky. "What do you think, Beatrix? Are you glad you came along?"
My heart is too full. I feel like a tongue-tied little kid. I'm such a dork. I can't even speakâall I can do is stare, at him, at the stars.
And then at the sleek black arrow racing onto the screen. "He's back!"
"Drives full up, Ringmaster," calls Nola.
I lean forward as blue light flares along the nose of the Mandate ship. "He's shooting at us!"
"Too late," says the Ringmaster. "Say goodbye to the Earth, Beatrix."
I get one glimpse of a blue and white marble hanging against the blackness of space. Then everything melts: the stars and the bridge and the ship about to shoot...
I blink crud from my eyes. I'm still in the chair on the bridge, but the straps are gone.
"Do you feel okay?" Nola's voice buzzes in my ear.
"Sure. If 'okay' covers feeling like you've been dunked in glue and held upside down for a few days." I groan.
"Jump sickness is always worst the first time. You'll get your space legs quick enough."
"So I guess we got away. Where's the Ringmaster?"
"Oh, you know. Well, actually you
being new. The Ringmaster never stays in one place very long. He knows the Big Top better than any of us. Always off doing something." She shrugs. "He asked me to take you on a tour. If you feel up to it, that is."
"I am the uppest of the up. If I spend another minute in this chair, I'll grow a drink holder."
"Good! What do you want to see first? There's the common room or the biohabitat or the infirmary orâ"
"Can we see outside? Can we see real space?"
"The viewing deck it is!"
A few minutes later, I'm gripping the viewing deck railing and taking deep breaths. I am
starting my new life on the Big Top as the girl who faints at the first sight of space. But it's so huge, and I'm so small. Yet at the same time, here I am. In a spaceship! In the middle of it all! Wherever that is.
"What system is this?" I ask. "I don't recognize anything."
Nola taps into a small console along the railing. Lines of blue alien gibberish fly up across the transparent bubble of the viewing deck, labeling each of the stars. "Oops!" She taps a few more buttons. "There, can you read that?"
"Um. Yeah." Most of the stars don't even have labels, and those that I can see are nothing but strings of numbers and letters. "We must be pretty far from Earth if they ran out of names. Are we even still in the Milky Way?"
"Oh, no. That's all part of the Excluded Territories. We're back in Core space now, all quarter-million inhabited systems of it. But here, we can zoom out." She fiddles with the console. The blue lines dance around, reforming a sort of inset star chart. Squinting, I see a tiny blob in the corner labeled
The larger area is now labeled
Good thing I did my last science project on the Great Attractor. At least I recognize something out here.
"We're in the Norma galaxy cluster? We just traveled 250 million light-years? This is one fast ship. Like, impossibly fast. How do you beat light speed?"
"It's more like bending space than going really fast. And we're not sure exactly how it works," admits Nola. "The Tinkers and the Mandate knew how, and this is a Tinker ship. The only one left, as far as we know. Most everything was destroyed in the War. There are a couple of Mandate ships kicking around, too, we think."
"You think? I thought they were, y'know, your big ancient enemy."
"Yeah, but they keep a pretty low profile. They don't want to get nabbed by the Core Governance any more than we do."
I tap my fingers against the railing. "So what are they doing?"
Nola shrugs. "Gathering strength. Trying to stay in one piece. Same thing as we are, but without the sequins and popcorn. The Core may not like either of us, but it doesn't stop the officials from appropriating any Tinker or Mandate tech they can grab. They'd love to get their hands on the Big Top, if they could find a way around the Ringmaster's lawyer."
"So if there are only a few of these space-bending ships, what does everyone else do? Hitchhike?"
"They use the pipelines. The Mandate set them up eons ago, using some sort of wormhole technology. Regular ships pop in one end and out the other. Most systems have at least one, except where the fighting was really bad during the War." Nola frowns. "You look confused. Is the translator going wonky? Sometimes it takes a while to come back to speed after a jump."
"No, I got it. It's just ... mind-blowing. I mean, interstellar plumbing!" I wave at the star field. "Which one's yours?"
"Oh." Nola coughs. "It's that one." She zooms in on one of the oblong galaxies in the midsection of the cluster, then points to a star along the edge. "Yamri. Pretty humdrum. The only thing we're famous for is agricultural machinery."
"How long since you left?"
"Five hundred and twenty-three days." She sighs. "I don't even remember what it smells like in the spring. That's when all the fields start blooming up, all green and gold. It was my favorite time of year."
She has a look on her face like Dad used to get whenever I begged him to tell me stories about growing up in Taiwan. He'd tell me about lanterns that asked riddles and filled the night with color, about hiking through misty green mountains, and the sweet crispness of sugarcane juice on a hot day. It was like this magical fairyland that he'd never get back to, not really. "Sorry," I say. "I guess you miss it?"
She shrugs it off. "Oh, it's not that bad. I love the Big Top. I've seen things a colony girl from Yamri would never even imagine. This is where I mean something. This is where I belong." She taps her sparky wrench badge proudly. "Speaking of which, we ought to get you some things. Come on."
NOLA LEADS ME THROUGH a maze of wheezy lifts, twisty corridors, and slithery ladders. I don't know how she keeps track of where we are. At one point I'm sure we're about to head back onto the bridge, but instead we end up in an oval room lined with giant iridescent kites.
"Spacewings," says Nola, pausing. She tucks back her wavy crop of brown hair. For the first time I notice the black gadgetry thing looped over her right ear. She fiddles with it. A slip of something dark and flexible slides out to cover her eye, like an odd black eye patch. As I watch, Nola waves her hands in the air, says "Dispensary," then waves some more. She nods and the eyepatch snaps back.
"Okay, we should be able to go this way." She pushes aside a pile of the spacewings, revealing a doorway. "Sorry for the roundabout route, but we're still decompacting after the performance and the jump. Lots of rooms are still smashed flat."
"To make room for the inside of the tent and the jump burst."
"You mean every time you perform, you have to squash down half the ship?"
Nola nods. "And even more when we need to jump. I helped fix some of the compactors after I came on board. We're up to sixty-eight percent now," she says proudly, leading me down yet another tunnel-like corridor. "If only the Ringmaster weren't such a pack rat, we could do much better." She wrinkles her nose. "Plus, there are parts of the ship even the Ringmaster can't get into. Who knows what's in there, gumming up the works? Poor Big Top." She pats the nearest wall.
The wall hums back.
I stop walking. "What was that?"
"Oh, you know, the Big Top likes being appreciated."
"Are you telling me it's
" I flinch away from the walls slightly.
"Honestly, we don't really know what the Big Top is. I mean, she's older than some planets. But the Tinkers made her and she's partly organic, so ... yeah, she's alive. Okay, here we are." Nola leads the way through an arched doorway that suddenly looks a lot more like an esophagus than it did a moment ago.
I can't actually see the walls. It looks like someone crammed the contents of about twenty thrift stores into a single room. I step gingerly around a set of giant-size Tinkertoys, a stack of holographic photographs, and a pile of orange bowling pins.
"Sorry about the mess." Nola pushes aside a rocking chair that's got tiny wings sprouting from its back. It rolls back and forth, knocking into a box covered in pipes, which starts tooting off-key and letting out puffs of purple steam.
all this stuff ?"
"This is peopleâand by people I mean the Ringmasterâgetting carried away with the dispenser." Nola plucks an umbrella off a freestanding console near the center of the room and glares at it. "Oh, I need a new acid-proof umbrella," she goes on in a fake drawl. "No, that's not the thing. What about something in mauve? No, that won't do. Let's try lime green this time, to match my costume." Nola tosses the umbrella aside. "I keeptelling people we shouldn't use it willy-nilly until we figure out how to put things back if we don't want them. When we all die smothered by acid-proof umbrellas, then they'll wish they'd listened."
She looks so fierce I hold up my hands. "Um, maybe we shouldn't bother, then. I don't need an acid-proof umbrella. Do I?"
"No." Nola smiles. "But you'll definitely need a know-it-all." She taps the black thing curled around her ear. "Your insignia will have to wait."
"Insignia? You mean that?" I point to the patch on her jacket.
"Right, I'm a Tech. The wrench is our symbol. One sec." She scrambles over to a monstrous pile of clothing and begins rooting through it. A few moments later she's back with her arms full of fabric. "There are four different insignias. See, this one's for the Clowns." Nola holds up a purple jacket with a patch on the shoulder that looks kind of like a Mardi Gras mask. "And this one's for the Principals." She points to the star decorating the end of a long scarf. "And then there's the Freaks," she finishes, holding up a poncho with a decoration that makes me shudder.
wearing an eyeball."
"You won't be wearing anything until we figure out where you belong."
"Didn't the mirror-door whatsit do that already?"
"Coming through the door means you're Tinker-touched. It doesn't tell us anything about how you'll fit into the show. Like if you'll be technical crew, or a supporting performer, or whatever. Can you do anything really neat? Bend gravity or turn water to ice? Oooh, can you control electricity? That would be amazing!"
I swallow a sudden lumpy feeling in my throat. What if I can't do anything? What if I'm not the real deal, just some wannabe spiffed up by my meteorite somehow? Are they going to drop me off with a "Sorry, go back to school, get a job selling pizza, have a swell life?" Or worse, will I end up stuck in a glass box under a sign:
MARVEL AT THE PINK-HAIRED GIRL?
I shrug, hoping it looks casual. "My hair turned pink. That's it so far. Anyway, what do you do? I mean, how did you figure out you were a Tech?"
"I've always been good with machines and that stuff. My aunt swears I fixed her combine when I was only five. By the time I was twelve, they were hiding me whenever Core inspectors came around. Didn't want them to see me doing this." Nola holds out her hand.
I gasp. Tiny silver ridges appear across her palm. In a moment her whole hand looks like something from the inside of a computer. Nola wiggles her fingers, laughing. "Weird, huh? I thought everybody could do it at first. I did all sorts of neat stuff. I programmed our auto-cook to put extra syrup in my porridge; I set the videocom to switch over to
Love Among the Stars
whenever a new episode came online. It was great!"