McGuire’s Big Top Triumph was neither big nor a triumph. The one-ring circus had spent the past few months traveling Krim’s hinterlands, fighting off bandits, and risking life and limb on poorly-maintained equipment. Not just the lives and limbs of its performers, but the that of the audience members as well.
Each show carried the very real risk that one of the tigers would escape and maul someone, or a rope would snap and a trapeze artist would fall into the benches.
Still, there was something magical about it. It made some people want to give up their careers and go on the road.
Not Wynefrede. But some people. People like Raphe Faryndon.
Raphe and Wynefrede were paired up for the Royal Season’s First Date night. They were sitting in the middle of a section of precarious wooden benches, waiting for the show to start.
The organization had bought up the entire seating of the afternoon’s circus performance so that the ladies and gentlemen could enjoy the spectacles, and the numerous close calls with death, without having to rub shoulders with the unwashed masses. Literally unwashed, since heating up a bathtub of water was a time-consuming process and many Krim residents went days, or even weeks, between bathing.
“When I was a kid, I thought about running away and joining the circus,” said Raphe. “But I could never decide if I wanted to be a lion tamer or a magician.”
“One of my college roommates did that,” said Wynefrede. “The circus came to town during the summer. She had a boring data entry and statistics job that she hated. When the circus said they needed help taking down the tent, she stayed, and wound up going on the road with them.”
“She was a roustabout,” said Wynefrede. “Helped assemble and disassemble the tent and put up the benches. Tutored some of the circus kids.”
Raphe looked around at the tent. “That actually sounds like a lot of fun.” He sighed. “If I didn’t have to go back to work when this was over, I wouldn’t mind staying.”
“My friend said it wasn’t as much fun as it looked. The other roustabouts were all alcoholics that the circus picked up at homeless shelters and she slept on a dirty cot in a tiny room inside a horse trailer.”
“Homeless shelter? How long ago was this?”
“Ages. Anyway… you said you’re an engineer? What kind?”
“Aerospace. But I like to build just about anything. You?”
“Just your average paper-pusher. I’m the one who gets to say no to people who want to build things.”
“That’s a shame. You should say yes more often. I mean, to building things.”
“I say yes plenty.” Wynefrede smiled. “For example, just before coming here, I approved a new space hab construction project out near Vesta.”
“Really? My company is going to be the main contractor on a new habitat near Vesta.”
“One of the proposals had a very attractive 3D simulation.”
“That was me. I made the simulation.”
The two sat in companionable silence as the circus workers got ready for the performance.
“I wish we had some popcorn,” Wynefrede finally said. “Or peanuts.”
“If they hadn’t picked 1500 as their arbitrary historic time period, we could have had both,” said Raphe. “Why couldn’t they pick 1550, or 1600, or any date after they started bringing peanuts to Europe?”
“And tomatoes,” Wynefrede added.
“And potatoes and coffee, of course,” said Raphe.
Then the lights at the back of the tent were dimmed and the performance began.
The clowns were funny, in a desperate kind of way. None of the trapeze artists fell.
The highlight of the day was towards the end of the show, where an animal trainer attempted to get tigers to jump up on their stands. Instead, the animals revolved. They mawled the trainer, then broke down the door of their cage and excaped out into the audience.
There was an immediate rush for the exits, creating log jams at all the official entrances, but some of the smarter ladies and gentlemen simply crawled under the fabric Walls.
Wynefrede jumped up onto the bench she’d been sitting on. “We’re either going to get mauled or trampled to death.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic.” Raphe joined her on the bench, as though an extra foot or two of height could stop a tiger. “There’s no reason why it has to be one or the other. It could be both.”
The tiger headed for the northernmost side of the tent, across from the main entrance. It was also the least crowded.
“We’re going to be trapped in here with the tigers,” said Wynefrede.
“Tigers are smarter than people,” said Raphe. “They’ll just go under the edge of the tent.”
But the tigers didn’t. Instead, they circled around, drawing closer to where Raphe and Wynefrede were standing.
“Should we make a run for the entrance?” she asked.
Raphe looked behind him. The entrance was still crowded with people, most of them yelling for everyone else to get out of the way. “I can fix the cage,” he said. “Maybe we could trap the tigers.”
“I’m rooting for them to escape and go back home.” Wynefrede looked up. “Maybe we can climb up on a trapeze.”
“No, lets go fix the cage.” Raphe jumped down from the bench and started moving.
“I don’t want to catch the tigers,” Wynefrede mumbled. But she looked behind her and saw the the tigers were now walking in the other direction around the perimeter of the tent, still looking for a way out. She ran after Raphe.
“The whip is still inside the cage,” said Raphe, climbing over the low barrier that surrounded the central — and only — ring.
“So’s the trainer,” said Wynefrede. “Do you want to use his body to lure the tigers back in?”
“No,” he said. “I want to use the whip to hold the door shut so we can hide inside until the tigers either leave or are taken care of.”
He got to the door and swung it open and shut a couple of times, then examined the lock.
“I think I see where the latch got broken,” he said. “I might be able to fix it.”
“Or you can tie it closed with the whip,” she said.
“This will only take a minute.” Raphe pulled a took kit out of a pocket and opened it. “I think I’ve got a pair of pliers in here…”
Wynefrede looked past him at where the tigers were playing with something at the back of the tent. She hoped it wasn’t someone’s head.
“We should leave,” she said. “Or get into the cage and hide. One or the other.”
“I’m almost done,” he said. “And then I want to look at the hinges. There’s something about the way they move that I don’t like…”
But before he could finish the thought someone had come up next to him and dropped a large sack over his head and arms. Wynefrede had been too focused on the tigers to see anyone coming up behind them. She screamed and threw herself at the attacker but someone else pulled a second sack over her from behind. She kicked, tripped, and fell on top of what must have been Raphe, judging by the sound of him swearing.
Then she felt a sharp blow to her skull and everything faded to black.