The trouble with wanting to do the right thing is that frequently the right thing today is the wrong thing for tomorrow, or the wrong thing for the people who are standing between you and your perfect, platonic future. The wild was the wrong place for our elephant, just like the recycler was the wrong place for Billie, and the cities were the wrong place for me. A tale of bioengineering, a carnival, and the cost of finding one’s right place.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
The trouble began a long time before it finished, but it felt like it first started when the westward portage rope snagged on a tree. That wouldn’t have been the end of the world—you float your equipment through a forested area, you learn to expect a little snag-and-tag from the landscape. The Greenies would rather we skirted our balloons higher to avoid branch breakage, but there’s no way to do that without burning more fuel and sacrificing maneuverability, which is more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, all the forests we have to contend with are the fast recovery kind, eucalyptus down NorCal way and pines and scrub fir in Cascadia. A few broken branches are nothing to trees like that, and the kind of damage we were apt to do fell well within the acceptable tolerances for our license. No big deal.
Thing was, the westward portage rope was attached to Billie’s harness, and Billie, for all her advantages as a draft animal, is about as smart as damp moss when it comes to things like “noticing external stimuli.” She’s a genework Indricothere that my Uncle Ren and I bought from a fly-by firm about six years back—a sort of precursor to the rhinoceros, and one of the largest land mammals ever to walk on the planet. When she put down her foot, the ground shook. There were no predators that could take her down and no threats that she recognized as worth giving a damn about, all of which combined to mean that there wasn’t much that could distract her from the essential task of eating her way through the foliage of the world. All nine tons of her continued plodding relentlessly forward, her massive teeth stripping branches as she walked. Her grazing license typed her as a firebreak, preventing fires by clearing out all the dead stuff before it could go up. It was more than halfway true, and it hadn’t caught us any trouble yet.
Her harness shook as the westward portage rope pulled, until the vibrations traveled all the way to the howdah on her back. The bench swayed alarmingly, causing my cousin Bay to flash me a look that was half terror, half accusation. The kids seated on Billie’s neck kicked her, to no avail. The Indricothere lumbered on.
My radio crackled. I unclipped it from my belt, already knowing what I was about to hear. “This is Ansley. You’re a go.”
“We’ve lost steerage and we’re about to snag the Ferris wheel on a treetop,” snapped the voice of my cousin Davo. “You want to stop your pony?”
“She’s not a pony. She’s an Indricothere.” I knew better than to correct him. Somehow I just couldn’t stop myself.
“Don’t care. Make her stop before she breaks something we can’t afford to repair.” The radio crackled again as Davo hung up on me. I said a bad word, clipped it back into place, and shoved Billie’s reins at Bay, who was only riding with me because she didn’t like being cooped up inside the howdah with the rest of the laydown team. “Here. Take her.”
Bay looked alarmed. Coward: I would have been thrilled to be given control of a giant prehistoric monster when I was seventeen and trying to prove myself with the carnival. Now I was just twenty-three and tired of dealing with younger cousins who didn’t have any flexibility in their spines. “What should I do if she tries to go somewhere I don’t want her to?”
“Go there,” I replied promptly. “You don’t think we can steer her, do you?”
Bay was still staring at me in horror as I grabbed the belay rope and swung myself down to Billie’s side. The hair there was thick and coarse, almost a foot long, and perfect for using as a handhold. After clipping the belay rope to my belt next to the radio, I pulled myself hand over fist along Billie’s neck, knocking younger cousins aside as I made my way to her head. The kids laughed, catching themselves with fistfuls of Billie’s shaggy hair as they let me pass. They knew the pecking order here, and that they rode on Billie at all thanks to my good temper.
It took almost five minutes, but I finally reached the base of her massive skull. I dropped the belay rope in favor of grabbing her right ear and using it to haul the rest of me onto the flat plain above her muzzle. She didn’t even twitch as she continued plodding patiently onward, a prehistoric eating machine content to do what she did best.
“Hiya, Billie-girl,” I said, settling into a cross-legged position atop her head. “Time to stop.” I grabbed both ears this time, pulling them sharply downward. It wasn’t enough to hurt her—nothing I could do would be enough to hurt her, unless I did it with a chainsaw or some monowire—but it was something she would notice, and her training was built on the back of things that actually caught her attention. Billie snorted, raising her head a little. I pulled down harder. Finally, with a geological shudder, the vast bulk of the Indricothere began drifting to a halt.
Shouts and callbacks rose from the wagons and carry-kits around us as the cousins spotted Billie’s change of pace and began stopping their own conveyances. Most of them were lucky: they were being pulled by more traditional draft animals, ponies and mules and one tired old elephant we’d rescued from an animal rights group that had been planning to return the poor gentleman to a “natural habitat” he’d never encountered and wasn’t equipped to survive. I’ve got nothing against Greenies who think that wild animals should be left there. Most of the zoos were closed before my day even dawned. But there’s a big difference between saying “we’re not going to breed any more tigers” and “we’re going to put oversized, temperamental housecats that have never hunted in their lives back in the jungle and figure that instinct can do the rest.” Those jungles have been littered with dead tigers—and dead elephants—since that aspect of the movement started rolling.
The trouble with wanting to do the right thing is that frequently the right thing today is the wrong thing for tomorrow, or the wrong thing for the people who are standing between you and your perfect, platonic future. The wild was the wrong place for our elephant, just like the recycler was the wrong place for Billie, and the cities were the wrong place for me.
The big Indricothere finally halted her forward drift. Putting her ears back to signal confusion and mild annoyance, she bowed her head and munched on a particularly appealing patch of overgrown blackberry tangle. I stood, turning to wave to the balloon that floated serenely above us, tethered to the howdah by the remaining ropes. My radio crackled again. I unclipped it.
“That damn pony of yours stopped for the night?” Davo still sounded annoyed. I was going to pay for that later. I always did.
I thought about reminding him again that Billie wasn’t a pony, and decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, or the argument that would inevitably follow. I looked back at her. She was still eating blackberries, jaws working with the single-minded focus of a creature that still had three or four tons of growth ahead of her. “Pretty sure,” I said.
“Then get up here. We have ropes to secure before we make camp, and I want us in Portland by tomorrow night.”
“Be right there,” I said, and clipped my radio back into place, taking a moment to stretch languidly before swinging myself down from Billie’s head and starting the climb toward the howdah. Behind me, Billie continued to chew contentedly, her teeth grinding blackberry vines so loudly that it was audible to everyone around us.
There are tasks that are never finished. When you’re part of the last traveling carnival on the West Coast—and maybe beyond—that includes just plain staying alive.
It took the better part of the afternoon to let out enough air to bring the blimps down from the tree line. It was a slow process; not only did we have to control the bleed in order to keep the envelopes inflated enough that we’d be able to move in the morning, but we had to keep those same envelopes from being punctured by the trees as they descended. Our permits allowed for a certain amount of wear while we were traveling through fast recovery forest—nothing’s been forced down to zero impact when off the main roads, thank whoever’s up there, because when that day comes, we’re going to have a world of trouble land on our heads. What our permits didn’t allow was cutting branches just because we wanted to land a blimp in the middle of a forested area. The younger, spryer cousins swarmed up the trees like monkeys, risking their necks as they weighed the branches down or pulled them back, out of the way.
That used to be my duty, before age and puberty and common sense caught up with me and left me better suited for safer, less suicidal activities, like Indricothere wrangling. Billie might be a prehistoric horror from the dawn of the mammalian age, but she didn’t want me to climb thirty feet up a scrub pine, and that was good enough to make her my best friend in this or any other world.
Bit by bit, we reeled in the ropes and brought down the balloons, and we pulled a carnival out of the sky.
Davo took over the process once the first of the attractions touched the ground, pushing me to the side with a muttered instruction to see to the animals. I went without complaint. Davo and I haven’t gotten along since I was sixteen and refused his offer of an honest marriage, preferring to spend my time learning the trade of my fathers and the techniques of the modern world, which was changing our lives, whether we wanted it to or no. The pace of the carnival is an old thing, old and tired and slow, speeding up only when it comes time to illuminate the midway and chase down its prey. We were as much a living fossil as Billie. Maybe that was why I loved her so dearly. She was out of her time, and always would be, until the day that gravity proved to be too much for her huge and hammering heart.
Billie required no settling. She didn’t even need to have the howdah unstrapped from her back. The thick fur on her shoulders and haunches kept the straps from cutting into her skin, and she would be standing and eating until morning. Her metabolism was slow but steady. If she stopped eating for too long, she would die.
The other animals, the ponies and mules, the buffalo and the old elephant, they required a bit more care, in the form of loosening their harnesses in order to let them forage. Humans were the only animals forbidden to mess with the undergrowth ecosystem around here. The aggregate individuals formed by the smart-dust enhanced plant and animal communities in the forest might object, but they would come to the consensus that a horse was allowed to graze, that an elephant was allowed to urinate, and that a mule was allowed to kick its handlers in the ankles. Humans got a rougher saw, because we were more likely to be viewed as the enemy. Can’t say I blamed the biological communities for that. They had rights only because they were computer-centralized corporations now, and they knew—as much as they could “know” anything, being a collection of critters with short lifespans and shorter memories—that most of mankind would still be happy to strip those rights away.
Humans can swear and swear that we’re moving toward a better harmony with the living world, but it’s all a smokescreen. We’ve decided that green is good, that’s all. Give us a few more centuries and we’ll change our minds again. If there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s selfishness. Everything else is temporary, as the earth measures time and change.
Some of the smaller cousins ran by, laughing and blowing smoke-filled bubbles with their automated wands. The bubbles themselves were pure soysoap. They’d do no damage, and they might even help the local ecosystem a bit, since they made excellent fertilizer when they popped. Their smoky payload was a different matter. Genegineered fungus designed to bond with smart dust and drop it out of the atmosphere, clouding the sensors and tiny lenses until they couldn’t tell up from down, or rocks from people. More dust would propagate in a matter of days—we weren’t knocking anything offline long enough to hurt it—but in the meanwhile, we’d be able to make our camp and tend to our business in the closest thing this world has left to privacy.
“Ansley.” Bay emerged from the space between two wheel-wagons as she spoke, her brown hair a tangled veil across her brow and eyes. She was a pretty thing, all strong limbs and eyes that seemed too big for her face, thanks to some cunningly engineered bone structure arranged for her while she was in utero. Bay was carnival-born, same as me, but her mother took a few years to “find herself” out among the townies. Don’t know if she ever did “find herself.” She found Bay’s father, and she found some semilegal genetic shell games, and she found Bay. Lost her, too, or maybe left her: Bay fetched up in one of the cars on the Ferris wheel during a high-traffic night when we were camped up near Heddlebrook, putting on a show for the folk who didn’t even know how much they needed one. She was just an infant then, but she came with a mem chip that had all her information encoded on it, even down to the custom modifications on her genotype. That was all we needed to know for sure that she was family.
We never did see Bay’s mama after that. She did what she could for her little girl—she brought her home—and then she was gone. I guess, for her, that was doing the best that she could do.
“Yes, Bay?” I turned to face her, the curry brush still in my hand. Trick riding has been illegal for longer than I’ve been alive, classified as a form of animal cruelty, but owning horses is allowed, and we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to kill the ones we have with kindness. The daughter of a high-strung mustang doesn’t learn to be a wild thing just because you take her out of harness.
Maybe that comparison could apply to Bay as well. She flicked her hair out of her eyes with one hand and said, “Davo wants to see you.”
“Davo wants a lot of things,” I said genially. “I don’t for the most part care about what Davo wants.”
“He says it’s about Grandmamma.”
I froze, the levity dropping out of me like a half-filled balloon dropping out of the sky. “What about her?”
“He didn’t say.” Bay shrugged broadly. “He said to tell you I could finish with the ponies, and you needed to come to his tent right now, because you need to know what’s going on.”
That explained her irritated expression. Bay was a wizard with our twencen attractions, patched and rebuilt monstrosities that they were, but there was little call for a mechanic out here in the woods. Not unless one of the blimps had broken down, and we had a separate maintenance crew for those. And none of that made her even half-qualified to deal with animals.
“All right,” I said, and offered her the curry brush. “The horses still need to be wiped down before you let them loose. Billie isn’t going to move for at least eight hours, but they should get a chance to stretch their legs while we’re stationary.”
“I don’t see why,” she grumbled, and moved past me to take up the grooming duties where I’d left off. I watched for a moment—not long enough that she would take offense at being spied on, just enough to be sure that she remembered what she was supposed to do—before turning and walking into the forest, toward the distant sound of camp.
Even the densest forest has a surprising amount of open space hidden among the tree trunks and the underbrush. There are natural clearings formed by the competing roots of the towering giants that grow stretching ever toward the sun, and there are the unnatural clearings, places where old pollution and the toxins of a near-forgotten world have blighted the soil. Even those will be gone in a few decades, as remediation reaches them, but for now they provide a valuable stopping point for people like us, cutting our way through the land while trying to minimize our impact. If someone who passes this way tomorrow can tell that we were here, we didn’t do our jobs correctly.
We run on tradition as much as we do on solar and biodiesel and good, honest sweat. Youngest cousins are coddled and carried, learning the ways of the rope and the road until they’re old enough to start earning their keep. Younger cousins are the wild things of the midway. They range in age from seven to seventeen, and they work as hard as any of us, even if most of them aren’t doing anything more than unskilled labor. Above them stand the cousins, no modifiers needed, who manage the complex systems that keep us all in business, like me with the animals, or my cousin Carrie with the Ferris wheel, which she could probably take apart in her sleep if she felt the need.
And over us stand the Big Men, whose word is law.
Not everyone will be a Big Man. It’s inherited as much as earned, based on a complicated balance of skill and seniority and what your parents once did for the midway. Davo became one of the carnival’s Big Men when his father retired to the Bone Yard up near Portland. Uncle Ren offered to let me retire with him, even though I’m twenty years and two children away from earning my place in the Bones, but I refused. Everyone would know it was because I was getting special treatment, and because once, I had turned down my cousin when he asked me for my hand. He’d known that Davo would make things hard for me now that he was going to be a Big Man and I was still going to be myself. Uncle Ren had been trying to save me.
He didn’t understand how much I loved my charges within the carnival, the horses and the mules and Billie—maybe especially Billie, who would be mulch and gene frags by now if we hadn’t come along exactly when we did, if my Uncle Ren hadn’t foolishly believed that gene-cruncher when he swore that an adult female Indricothere would be no bigger than a bull elephant. I’d already accessed the network data on her species, seen recreated and simulated footage of their herds walking proud across plains that existed before mankind figured out how to come down from the trees. I’d already been in love. There was no way that I could leave her behind, not even to protect myself from the world of pain that I was walking into. So I’d taken her care onto my own shoulders, and there it had remained as she grew, giving me the kind of loyalty that only comes from big dumb herbivores just smart enough to know that it’s good to have a clever keeper.
As a Big Man, Davo got a big tent. It was expected that one day, he’d fill it with wives and brother-husbands and children, assuring his line’s dominion over our family business. In the meantime, it was just a huge, ostentatious thing, squatting mushroom-pale and bloated on the forest floor. Our tent walls were made of a synthetic silk compound, one that opened up when it encountered unyielding resistance, folding itself around whatever blocked its way and using that obstacle to provide additional support. Today, Davo’s tent encompassed five pine trees, their tops emerging proud and straight from the top of the fabric, which was anchored a good ten feet off the ground. No one needs that much headspace. You could run a trapeze in there and not feel like you were risking your performers. But then, Davo’s ego has always made demands that the rest of us were then expected to fulfill.
The tent flap was open as I approached. I stopped a few feet away, clapping my hands in lieu of ringing a bell, and called, “Cousin, I’m here. Bay said that you wanted to speak with me?”
There is very little in this world that I wanted to do less than I wanted to be alone with Davo. He would never touch me—his parents taught him better than that, and his fear of my temper means that their lessons have been reinforced on more than one occasion—but that doesn’t make spending time with him any more enjoyable. Still, he was the Big Man. I sighed, reaching up to adjust the kerchief that covered my hair, and stepped into his tent.
The carnival runs as clean and old fashioned as possible. If something can be handmade or run off of crank-power, that’s the way we go. If we do it right, people who step onto our midway should feel like they’re moving into a candy-coated vision of the past, before climate change and peak oil and the collapse of the old social models changed everything. There’s not much you can sell in today’s world. Too many people are self-sustaining, happy to synthesize everything they could possibly need, willing to swear that fake wine and fake beef and fake potatoes are just as good as the real thing. But you can’t synthesize a carnival.
You wouldn’t have been able to guess any of that by looking at Davo’s tent. Stepping through the door was like moving out of our artfully colored past and into the steel and static of the present, where nothing is forgiven, and everything is forgotten as quickly as it possibly can be.
Plasteel seals clasped the points where the tree trunks pierced the tent canopy, draping interior silk tubing to prevent the smell of forest from polluting the sterile, perfumed air of the tent. A platform covered the ground, raised on tiny, stilt-like legs that would ostensibly keep the tent and its occupants from damaging the forest floor. Davo didn’t care about that. He cared about keeping his precious feet from encountering moss, or—God forbid—the dreaded mud. Most of our tents had windows. Davo’s didn’t. Instead, flexible flat screens had been placed strategically around the room, streaming data, streaming news, streaming everything except for the real world, where we were really standing, right now. Hell, if he could have gotten away with a full-scale sensorium electronica, he would never have needed to see us at all. His physical surroundings were no better—his furniture was solid, ostentatious, more like the things you’d find in a permanent home than the things you’d find in the rest of the camp.
He’d always been like that. When we were kids, I honestly expected him to leave the carnival for one of the major city-settlements, Portland or Vancouver or even someplace far off and exotic, like Kansas City or Cleveland. Not the Cascadian daughter cities or one of those seasteads. Nothing like that for Davo. He liked roots, and the rest of us liked living without them. It was a contradiction that wasn’t going to bend forever without breaking. I just hoped that he was going to be the one to break, rather than breaking the carnival on the hard edge of his desire.
That was why I’d always known I couldn’t marry him. He would have made me his first wife and greatest trophy, and stored me in the Bone Yard for safekeeping, the first root he could really pin to ground. That life wasn’t for me.
Davo himself was sitting in one of those big, solid chairs, a mug of something thick and brown in his hand. He didn’t offer to share. That would have shown too much hospitality, and consequentially given me too much power over him.
“Bay said you wanted to see me, cousin,” I said, folding my hands and bowing my head to show respect. He was the Big Man here. I was just a visitor in his home. All the honorifics and family ties in the world wouldn’t change the fact that if he wanted to, he could ruin my life.
“Your damn pony nearly destroyed the Ferris wheel today,” he snapped.
I bit back the retort that sprung, fully formed, to my lips, and struggled to count to ten before I said, “Billie was following the charted path. The treetop clearance is the responsibility of the air crews, not the ground crews. Cousin.”
“If she didn’t pull so damn hard, she wouldn’t have snapped the portage rope, and we wouldn’t have had this problem,” said Davo. “We’d be fifty miles farther on, instead of stopped here for the night.”
“Everyone was getting tired when the rope snapped, and I’m still not sure it was the bearing strain from Billie’s pull that broke it,” I said, in a measured tone. “We need to examine the whole rope for signs of fray and wear in the fibers. I know nanoweave isn’t cheap, but if we keep using monowire fill with a nylon exterior, we’re going to continue having breakage issues.”
Davo leaned forward, a dangerous gleam coming into his pale brown eyes. “So you’re an engineer now? Have you been taking courses in the datastream at night while you were supposed to be sleeping? Lack of rest is a safety hazard all on its own, you know, and we can be fined for things like that.”
As if that had ever once stopped him from ordering double shifts while we were on the move, or prevented him from rousting the younger cousins from their beds when there was scutwork to be done. He wasn’t the road’s only Big Man, but he was the one who ran the show between locations. “I haven’t been taking courses, no, but I know my rope,” I said. “I was air trained before I settled on a ground position, and I can tell the strength of a piece by the way it fits my hand. We’re using substandard rope. We have to expect the issues that come with using substandard rope.”
“We don’t have to do anything,” said Davo. “You have to control your damn pony, and I have to make some financial decisions to make up for this wasted day. You’ll get better about driving that thing, or you won’t be driving it at all anymore. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, cousin.” My fingers itched to find out what his throat would feel like as I strangled him. I kept my hands folded primly in front of me, hoping he wouldn’t notice the stress-whitened skin of my knuckles. “Bay said—”
“Bay said what?”
The urge to strangle him grew stronger. “She said you needed to speak to me about Grandmamma.”
“She remembered that, did she?” Davo leaned back in his chair, looking at me coolly. Sometimes I wondered if those eyes of his were capable of warmth. “Grandpapa called while we were in transit. He would have called you, but animals can be so unpredictable, don’t you think? It was better if you weren’t distracted.”
Meaning that our grandfather had called me, and that Davo had jiggered my phone commands to redirect the call to himself. It was a cheap, petty trick, and one that he’d been pulling on me since we were preteens. I didn’t have the computer skills to stop him, and he enjoyed stealing things from me. Even if they were only voices pulled from the air, they were still mine, and that meant he wanted them. “What did Grandpapa want?”
“For you to learn some patience and your place, but he’s going to be waiting a long time.” There was no venom in the barb; he was going through the motions, taunting me because the situation called for it, at least in his grasping little mind. “Grandmamma is doing worse. We’re to come home after the Portland show.” The Bone Yard was only an hour’s portage outside Portland if we were moving full speed. There was no point in cancelling the show when we were that close to home, not when the night’s take could mean a change in the situation.
I knew that, even as I knew that it was not, had never been, my call. The air in the tent still felt colder, like something had just died there. “Oh.” I wanted to rage at him. I wanted to shake him until he understood how inappropriate it was to keep playing his little power games while our grandmother was sick and dying and far away. All I could do was stand there like a good little cousin, waiting for him to dismiss me. There was nothing left for us to say to each other. We had used our words up long ago.
“You can go now,” he said, jerking his chin toward the door. “I have no more need of you.”
“Thank you, cousin,” I said, and turned, walking briskly away before he could change his mind. Once the airlock-like tent flap was sealed again behind me, I allowed myself to breathe out and unclasp my hands.
My palms were bleeding from the tiny half-moon wounds my fingernails had made. I keep my nails cropped short, to make it easier to handle the reins. It’s amazing what stress will do.
That cheap side-market rope wasn’t the only thing approaching its bearing strain.
Maybe I should have gone back to the animals and relieved Bay of her duty, but I was feeling petty and small, and so I left her there. Let Davo relieve her, if he didn’t want her stuck shoveling horseshit all night long. Freedom was rare for me while we were traveling, and so I took advantage of the chance to wander through the camp as it was being established around the roots of the surrounding trees. Little neighborhoods were springing up around the larger tents of the Big Men, most of which were as big as Davo’s but twice as welcoming. Seresa’s tent had walls of gauze and mosquito netting, and at least two of the cousins who worked midway entertainment were inside, the mournful cries of their fiddles sounding sweetly through the wood. Marcus’s tent had thick cloth walls and the doors were often closed, but only to keep the smoke inside: he was a firm believer in the restorative powers of marijuana, and his boys had probably been lighting up the second that the stop was called. Anyone who cared to join them would be welcome.
For a moment, I hesitated, considering the virtues of going to Marcus’s tent, slipping inside, and letting a haze of sweet smoke carry the day’s bruises away, taking all my troubles with them. I pushed the idea reluctantly aside. Forgetfulness was dangerous, even when it was the safe, sweet kind that Marcus and his carefully hydro-tended pot plants had to offer me. I still needed to pitch my tent, check on Billie, and call the Bone Yard.
Calling the Bone Yard may have been the most important part.
There was a time when a show like ours would have traveled by road, burning fossil fuels and leaving a carbon footprint the size of the sky behind us. That gave way to hybrids and biodiesel long before my time, but there are pictures hanging on the walls back in the Bone Yard, and some of the oldest costumes still smell of gas fumes and speed, like they caught the wind in their fibers and just refused to let it go. The highways were all torn out years ago, replaced by railroad tracks and narrow bike trails. There’s a sailboat “road” along the coast, artificial tide baffles designed to keep the little boats out of the undertow without interfering with the local ecosystem. Anything to reduce the damage that we humans can do to these places just by moving through them. Some travelers learned to have smaller feet, to leave narrower tracks behind them. Others learned to fly in private craft and self-powered machines, sparing the earth entirely.
And then there are those, like the carnival, who took to the air without letting go of the ground. It’s a neat trick, one that requires a constantly shifting balance of teamwork and technology, but it’s worthwhile, because as long as we can walk that razor’s edge, we’re free. We’re barely outside the reach of a hundred laws, and as long as we’re one of very few dandelions operating like this, we’re unlikely to ever have one of those laws really clamp down on us. We move like dandelions have always moved: roots on the ground, and seeds in the sky.
Cousins waved and called my name as I made my way through the camp, but none of them asked me to stop; they could see that I was distracted, and they were respectful enough to let me hold my peace. Most of the people who flew or rode with us were there for reasons of their own, and those reasons had taught them not to intrude on the private grief of others.
The boxy cube of my tent was sitting untended on the forest floor near the larger, already erected tent that held the animal husbandry supplies. I pressed my thumb to the tag, waiting long enough for the microsensors to register my identity before jumping back and out of the way. Our tents were rejected milspec, the sort of thing that seemed like a dandy idea on paper, and proved to be more trouble than they were worth once they started rolling out of the replicators and into actual field conditions. Confirm your ID with a tent and watch it unpack like magic, preparing to surround you in all the comforts of home while out in the wilderness! And technically that was true—the tents unpacked themselves, handling the setup process with a speed and elegance that human hands could only envy.
That was the problem. They unpacked so quickly that people could be seriously injured if they stood too close. One of the younger cousins had suffered a broken leg. One of the older cousins had managed to lose a hand. Those were the sort of injuries that resulted from standing too close to an opening tent when it was wrapping itself around obstacles. A closing tent . . .
None of us would ever forget Cousin Mae, who had decided that she could no longer live with her life and its contradictions, and had ordered her tent to collapse itself while she was standing inside. The synthsilk was capable of applying far more pressure than the human body could withstand. It was also watertight. Mae died quickly, and she didn’t leave any mess for anyone else to clean up. Knowing her, she would have been proud at how successful a suicide she was.
The tent finished unpacking itself in less than thirty seconds. Unlike Davo, I had no furniture to move in; just the cot, wall shelves, and comms terminal that were built into the tent itself. I wiggled my toes in the dust outside the door once, like a prayer or a promise to the forest, before I opened the flap and let myself inside.
Supposedly, the entire West Coast has free, reliable connectivity through the cloud, which accounts for the trees and raccoons and robust weather patterns all being considered individuals who have a right to be heard. And that’s generally true when you’re near the heart of Cascadia, or skirting the poppy fields outside of Oakland. They have strong repeaters and self-propagating smart dust there, and they keep the signals flying. With the carnival camped deep in the mossy, damp-aired heart of the forest outside Portland, I had to negotiate with eight different local channels before I could get them to share signal strength and boost my call high enough to catch the attention of a relay satellite. Those are free and reliable, once you can establish a connection.
The Bone Yard runs on a virtually antiquated VoIP system once a local connection has been made, which is in turn rigged to screamers for those occasions when calls come in and there’s no one in the house to answer them. I sat on the edge of my bed, pleating my skirt between my fingers, and waited for the screamer to catch somebody’s attention.
I was in luck: I had only waited about a minute when the neutral black screen was replaced by the weathered, well-loved face of my grandfather, Angelo Freeman. He smiled when he saw me, his teeth still white against the brown of his skin, despite his advanced age. Unlike most of the men in our family, he had never smoked, never chewed tobacco, never even taken up drinking coffee. He swore the world was stimulant enough, and that a midway man needed a smile that could outshine the moon. From most people, that would have sounded stupid. From Grandpapa, it sounded like scripture.
“Ansley,” he said, eyes crinkling at the edges. His voice held all the warmth that Davo’s lacked. “My dearest girl. What moves you to call an old man so late in the evening?”
“As if you didn’t know,” I said, my smile echoing his. It was an involuntary response. Even in my darkest moments, my grandfather had always been able to make me smile. “How is Grandmamma?”
His smile faltered, although it didn’t die completely. “So Davo spoke with you.”
“He did.” He would have kept the news from me if he could, but being a Big Man didn’t free him from the demands of family. If Grandpapa wanted me to know something, I would know it, although Davo had doubtless put off sending Bay to find me for as long as he possibly could. “I’m sorry he intercepted your call.”
Grandpapa’s barely perceptible wince told me that I’d guessed right about Davo setting a snoop on my phone. Dammit. “I shouldn’t have called while you were working. I did my turns on the circuit. I know better than a thing like that.”
“I’m never too busy for you and you know it,” I said, waving his concerns away. “You’re answering everything except for my question, Grandpapa. How is Grandmamma?”
“Eh.” His bony shoulders rose and fell in a shrug that was half admission of defeat, half exhaustion. “The doctors, they do what they can, and the aunts, they do a little more, but this isn’t a disease her blood knows how to fight. It burns her, and every day she’s a little further gone.”
I didn’t say anything. I waited. After a few minutes of awkward silence, he sighed.
“She coughed up blood and froth this morning. She’s been moved out of the Bone Yard and into a hospital clean room, where she won’t have to worry about me when she’s already unwell. She hasn’t infected a one of us, but that doesn’t get to matter now. The virus is most virulent when its host is running out of things to burn. Sixty years my wife, and now that she’s dying, they take her away from me.” For a moment, he looked very small and very frail, a skeleton wrapped in the winding shroud of his own worn-out skin. Not for the first time, I wondered how long he would hold himself to life after she left us.
Not long, I was sure.
“Davo said you want us home after the Portland show.”
“I would want you before that, my little crow, but we have commitments to keep, and those people paid their deposit for a slice of history. Our troubles don’t give us the right to deny them.” He straightened, a bit of the strength coming back into him. “How is Davo?”
I hesitated. There was every chance in the world that he had taps on this line, or clever little listening devices creeping up the walls of my tent, ready to catch and magnify any hint of insurrection. It was easy to blame it on the fact that I had refused to marry him, but even then, he hadn’t proposed out of love: he’d done it because he wanted to possess me, because I was better with my hands and better with my voice and better in the eyes of our grandparents. He was a Big Man here. Speaking against him would be foolish.
But this was my grandfather asking, and I had never lied to him. “He’s getting worse,” I said. “He gives orders that don’t make sense. He sets the younger cousins to tasks that they don’t know how to do, and then he blames them when things go wrong, when they get hurt. I’m afraid something’s going to break soon.” I was afraid that it was going to be me.
“Ah.” Grandfather shook his head, looking honestly sorry. “There was a time when he would never have been made Big Man, and when you would never have been asked to serve in a show where he was a Big Man. I’m sorry, my dear. If there had been any other choice—”
But Davo’s father had been a Big Man, and my grandfather’s eldest son. To refuse the title to his son would have been the kind of insult that could tear our family, and our carnival, apart. It’s hard to be a living fossil. Sometimes you have to yield, even when everything you have screams at you to hold the line.
“There wasn’t another choice,” I said, more harshly than I intended to. “He leaves me alone with the animals, for the most part. He hasn’t come to my tent in over a year.”
“Ah. The animals.”
There was something in Grandpapa’s tone that made my blood run cold. “What did Davo say?”
“He has another offer on your pet. A serious offer. One that’s big enough to . . . well. Big enough to do a lot of things.”
“She’s mine. That was what we agreed on when I found her.” Little snuffling thing in the junkyard of a firm that should never have been allowed to play with genes, all lanky limbs and outsized head. I hadn’t known what she was at first—I’d looked up all her vitals later, while Uncle Ren was arguing over her purchase price—but she’d been mine from that very first look. We were kindred spirits, she and I, creatures that were never meant to walk this world, in this place and this time.
“I know. And what he says he can get for her isn’t worth what it would cost us as a family. But I am not there to protect you, my crow girl, and he can make decisions without me. Be careful. He means you ill.” Grandpapa looked sharply to the side, sighed, and then looked back to me. “I must go. Give my love to Bay.” Then the screen went black as the connection was severed from his end.
I sat frozen on the edge of my bed, lips and fingers numb with the implications of what he had just said to me.
“But she’s mine,” I whispered.
Only silence answered me.
There are people who’ll tell you that we live in a virtually post-money world now, where everything is freely available for the taking, and no one should ever want for anything. They’re right, in a way. No one is hungry when they don’t choose to be, except for maybe the children of people who have chosen a Paleolithic lifestyle. No one sleeps without a roof over their heads unless that’s what they’ve decided to do. Basic medical care is available to everyone. It’s a utopia by twencen standards, and everything would be wonderful if it weren’t a utopia that’s full of humans. And we are still human, no matter how far some people push the limit of what that means.
Some things will always be for sale. Favors. Information. Specialty goods, like wine or Marcus’s weed, or Seresa’s musicians, who vanished into private parties and museum galas whenever we stopped by a large-enough habitation. It’s the primate in us. It wants ownership, and once it has ownership, it doesn’t want to give it up unless it’s for something it views as a fair trade. Society can kill money as much as it wants to. Barter will endure.
There was a fad, some thirty years back—before my time—for genegineered diseases, things so bad they’d turn your bowels inside out and send your eyes running down your cheeks like tears. They all started from things that Nature had done, and Nature is a bitch who doesn’t like having her toys played with by the wrong people. Some of those bugs got out. Not many, not the ones where the kill rate was so far out of control that they would have created a post-money economy, largely by creating a post-human world, but enough of them that they could linger in the fringes of the population like weeds, sprouting up every now and then and destroying someone’s garden.
The disease that was killing Grandmamma was one of those. It had been built from a dozen different sources, but the nastiest was something called the Hendra virus, which killed its victims in a variety of ways, all of them racing against one another to deliver the final blow. It was a horrible, brutal way to die, and the nastier strains had burned themselves out decades ago. The ones that were left were rare and hard to cure, making them a nasty surprise for people who wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. Grandmamma had what the doctors considered a “mild” case. It was destroying her lungs, her heart, and her mind, but it was difficult to transmit between humans, and everyone at the Bone Yard had been immunized after she got sick.
It wasn’t a standard immunization. Talk about closing the barn door.
If Davo said that he could find a buyer for Billie who was willing to offer enough—enough favors, enough appointments with specialists who couldn’t normally be reached, enough of everything that the family thought we needed—no one would fault him for taking the deal. And if that deal fell through after it was made, well. At least he’d tried, right? That was part of his job as a Big Man. Trying.
I hadn’t been aware that I was crying until I reached up and felt the hot dampness of my cheek. Angrily, I wiped the tears aside, grabbed my pillow from the bed, and stood. I was going to sleep with Billie tonight. Davo could do what he wanted to me, but I’d be damned before I let him hurt her.
Morning woke me with birdsong and the distant sound of the camp being torn down, filtered by the trees between me and most of the camp. I blearily raised my head, bracing my palms against the wide sweep of Billie’s skull as I peered down from my high platform at the cousins who scurried even now between the ponies and the mules, getting them fed, getting them into harness. I yawned, sinking back down into the tangled nest I had made for myself from the hair atop the Indricothere’s head. Feeding and tack were jobs for younger cousins. I might not be a Big Man—I might never be a Big Man—but I had status enough that I hadn’t overslept. Not quite, anyway. Judging by the angle of the sun and by the timing of our Portland show, it was time for me to start moving.
Billie continued to methodically chew her latest mouthful of the local foliage as I tucked my pillow under my arm, kissed her ear, and finally swung myself hand over hand down her side to the ground some twelve feet below. She didn’t so much as flinch as I suspended my entire bodyweight from fistfuls of her hair. Knowing Billie, she might have not even realized that I was there.
Everyone was too busy tearing down to acknowledge me as I walked back through the camp to my tent . . . and paused, looking in bewilderment at the open flap, at the footprints in the mud. “Hello?” I called, feeling instantly foolish.
No one answered, and after a long moment of holding my breath, I stepped forward, pushing the flap aside.
I didn’t have many possessions, and what little I did have was usually stored in the howdah on Billie’s back, since there were many reasons for me to need a change of clothes without having the freedom to leave my position. What little I did have was strewn around the tent: the blanket thrown to the floor, the mattress liner pulled askew and stomped on, the screen curled at the edges where someone had tried to pry it loose.
We were supposed to be more respectful than this. We were supposed to leave one another’s temporary homes alone, because all homes were temporary if you didn’t share them with the love and consideration of your family. I looked uncomprehendingly at the mess, petty as it was, as I counted slowly to ten. Then I turned and stepped out of the tent, pressing my thumb against the tag that would cause it to collapse again. In a matter of seconds it had been reduced to a small square sitting in the forest mud. I turned my back and walked away from it. One of the cousins would pick it up, read the tag, and return it to the pile. That wasn’t my job, and hadn’t been for years. That was for the best. Right now, I would have been tempted to discard it in the underbrush, and let the local constituencies hit me with a littering penalty.
Bay was already in position atop the howdah when I made my way back to the loading area. She looked tired. “Where have you been?” she demanded.
“Do you want to know, or does Davo?” I asked.
She turned her eyes away.
“I thought as much.” I settled onto the bench, leaning back to visually check the ropes before pulling up the small display screen built into the side of the howdah. Both visual and virtual data confirmed that the knots were tied, the ropes were in position, and we were ready to make tracks for Portland.
You can’t drive an Indricothere the way you do a horse. They’re too big, and their skin is too thick. I tugged on Billie’s reins as hard as I could—barely hard enough to catch her attention—and shouted, “Opre, Billie! Opre!” As always, my words were followed by a moment of stillness as she considered my request with her ponderous herbivore’s mind. Then, finally, she began to move forward, letting the pull of the reins guide her. She had been with me for most of her life. She trusted me to steer her truly.
I will never fail you, I thought, and held fast to the reins as the carnival began to move once more.
We chewed up distance and spat out dust. Not as fast as a carnival might have traveled once, when it relied on fossil fuels and roads instead of well-worn paths and the strength of hands, but fast enough that it always seemed a little bit like magic. From deep forest to Portland in the passing of a day, in the single wink of the sun’s eye—magic.
Sometimes I wonder if that was the true crime of the twencen world. Not destroying the environment or overpopulating the planet or anything else like that. But they forgot that every day they lived was filled with magic and with little miracles, and they needed to be punished for what they chose not to know.
Cyclists passed us as we traveled, some of them craning their necks to catch a wide-eyed glance at our little procession at the expense of their own safety. The travelers lucky enough to have private aircraft small enough to fly within our airspace pressed their noses against the windows and stared. The younger cousins swarmed up the portage ropes and along the decks of the storage balloons, waving their arms and whooping and hollering like they thought the people inside those planes could hear them. People who could afford planes of their own could afford most anything they wanted, including rarities like the last traveling carnival on the West Coast. More than one night’s engagement had been paid by folks who’d just happened to pass by while we were on our way to someplace that they weren’t intending to be. We didn’t even need to worry about flying a flag or showing unified colors: when you’re the only local example of a dying breed, word gets around. They’d find out who we were quick enough, if they decided to spend their time looking.
Billie plodded gamely onward, obeying my tugs on her reins without pause to consider what I might be planning for her. She didn’t understand pasts, or futures. She only understood that I had always looked out for her, and that I would steer her where there were good green things to eat, and no predators large enough to take her on. The fact that there were no predators left in the world that could pose a threat to her didn’t matter; instinct was instinct.
Throughout the day, Bay sat next to me and watched my work with an intensity that made my skin crawl, occasionally asking questions about steerage that were as unusual as they were unexpected. Finally, an hour outside of Portland, my patience ran out. I turned to her and snapped, “Why the sudden interest? I know you’re not Billie’s greatest fan.”
“She’s too big,” said Bay automatically, before some instruction she’d been given when I wasn’t around kicked in, and she added, “It’s a little spooky, that’s all. Nothing’s supposed to be as big as she is.”
I eyed her with open suspicion. Bay looked back at me, her beautifully genegineered eyes wide and guileless the way that natural eyes could never be. For the first time, it occurred to me that Bay was as much Billie’s family as she was mine: both of them were products of labs running as fast as they could to stay ahead of the cutting edge of legality. Bay was an enhanced human and Billie was a prehistoric recreation based on a few cell scrapings, but they shared an origin. Maybe that was why Bay had disliked her on sight. Sibling rivalry is always hard.
“It doesn’t matter how big she is,” I said finally. “She does whatever I ask her to do, because she trusts me not to steer her wrong.”
“But you’re a good trainer, right?” pressed Bay. “Whatever she’ll do for you, she’ll do for someone else.”
“Why would she have to?”
Bay had played her cards too openly, and she knew it. There was a momentary pause while she considered her answer, finally saying, “Your grandmother. I know she’s not feeling well, and maybe you’ll want to go and take care of her for a while. That’s all.”
“If I have to go home to help care for Grandmamma, Billie will come with me,” I said, trying to keep the quaver out of my voice. “We’ve done that before, during the off-season. She doesn’t bother the goats or the chickens, and Grandpapa says that having her around does some real good for the local forest. She cuts down on the English ivy and Scotch broom.”
“She can’t always go with you,” said Bay, almost sullenly. “You’ll have to go where she can’t follow one of these days. So you shouldn’t be nasty about answering my questions. I’m supposed to be here to learn.”
There was nothing I could say to that—nothing that would be appropriate for the ears of someone who was technically my younger cousin, anyway. Especially not given the way Davo had been looking at her lately, or the number of little errands she’d been running for him. I’d seen their bloodwork and genome recordings. They were as distantly related to each other as Davo and I had been, and our marriage had been okayed by the older generations of our family, even if it wasn’t okayed by me. Bay might be a younger cousin for now, but I had the strong suspicion that she was going to be a Big Man’s wife soon enough, and above me in all the ways that mattered.
“Then learn,” I said briskly, and shoved the reins into her hands. She was still shouting as I slid down the side of Billie’s neck, stopping myself at the last moment by gathering two large handfuls of the longer hair that grew on her belly. From there, I lowered my feet to the ground, standing easily in the cathedral space beneath the Indricothere’s body, where all other sounds were blocked out by the heartbeat echo of her footsteps on the stony trail.
We were almost there.
Some professions reinvent themselves with every generation, becoming strange and new to the practitioners and craftsmen who came before. Carnivals aren’t like that. Good ones—and I like to flatter myself by believing that we were a good one—keep everything they’ve ever known, tucking it away like treasure and pulling it out when it’s needed. We build the future on the foundations of the past, and we never let anything go. That doesn’t mean we can’t innovate. It just means we never lose sight of what we’re changing, and why. Without history, a carnival is just a bunch of booths and shoddy rides standing in the middle of a field, unwanted, unneeded, and unloved.
We arrived in Portland an hour shy of our scheduled open, which was cutting it close, even for us. We’d been hired this time by a farming collective, working in conjunction with a software seedgroup and a local community center. Our pay was going to be almost entirely in favors, connections, and fresh produce, but that was fine. It was a good bargain, and we’d come away with even more than we’d agreed on in advance once the townies got a whiff of Marcus’s pot or heard Seresa’s musicians play. Everything would go into the common pool and then we, and it, would return to the farm, where it could be put toward the important business of getting us through the off-season.
The field we’d be using for our performance was a wide, green expanse of wildflowers and hardy local grasses. The forest had tried to reclaim it a few times since the suburb that used to sprawl here found itself razed to the ground, but the grass fought back until it had battled the forest to a standstill, and now here we were, on the edge of a natural midway. The draft animals and ground vehicles hung back, letting the engineering team measure out the space that we’d be using for the show. They moved quickly, their feet barely seeming to dent the grass.
“Clear!” shouted a voice. The call was taken up by the other engineers, one after the other, until the entire circle had checked in. Then, and only then, did someone push the button that would cause our midway to unfold.
Old-style carnivals were built on the ground. A show site would be devastated when the trucks rolled on—local plants crushed, local wildlife displaced and dismayed. The Greenies would never have allowed us to operate like that, and the inability to adjust had killed more than a few of the traveling shows. We’d put together an alternative, in the form of a mobile midway, something that could be assembled and disassembled without damaging the land.
One piece at a time, the delicate plasteel frame that would form the temporary stage unpacked itself, spreading to cover the field like a blanket. The legs were narrow, fitting into the landscape without crushing more than a few blades of grass, but there were so many of them that it didn’t matter. They would still hold our weight, and the weight of an entire city, if it came to that. The stage itself came next, a racing sheen of clear pseudoglass filling in the gaps between the plasteel legs. It was made of an alloy I couldn’t pronounce, cooked up in a lab that never saw a problem it didn’t think could be solved. As soon as the last gap had closed, the clear gloss turned opaque, and darkened until it was the traditional sawdust gold of the carnival midway. The newly opaque stage formed soft ridges, springing up into a spongy, stable surface that would allow for walking and even running without a risk of slipping.
Still we held our places, until three of the engineers had walked across that new surface and made the gesture that meant everything was good, everything was going to hold up to what we were about to throw at it. Then, and only then, did the rest of us move.
Young cousins raced from place to place, dropping small cubes that unpacked themselves into tents, while the uncles and older cousins set to assembling the rides. Seresa and her little crew began setting up the midway, building the individual stalls so quickly that it almost seemed like sleight of hand, even though the games were one of the more traditional parts of our carnival. They would be stocked with useless trinkets and pretty handicrafts for the townies to win, and even as I watched, Bay walked past with the broadsheets giving our prices in the local barter. Two eggs for a game of darts, three good apples for a chance at the shooting gallery. Nothing too out of line; nothing that would cause a potential mark to blanch and walk away from the chance to win a pretty prize, even if that prize would be meaningless in the morning.
Billie and I moved through the chaos with slow grace, hauling heavy pieces of equipment, helping to shift the rides into position, and generally showing that there’s virtue to having a piece of prehistoric megafauna doing the job of a lot of heavy machinery without requiring the gas or solar charge. Finally, I tugged her reins and she plodded her slow way into the corral that had been designed just for her. There was a mountain of hay already waiting in the center. I slid down from her back and stood stroking her broad, flat nose as several of the cousins unstrapped and removed the howdah. Townies would pay to stand underneath her and gape at her size, even knowing that she was an artificial traveler to our modern age. Knowledge somehow dimmed before the splendor of reality.
“Lollygagging?” asked a voice from behind me.
“Keeping her calm before the townies swarm in,” I replied, without turning. “Last thing we want is her getting anxious and stomping some kid into blackberry jam.”
“You could pay me the respect of facing me while you’re speaking,” said Davo. He was starting to sound annoyed.
Much as I would have loved to annoy Davo all the way out of the corral, I couldn’t afford that; not now. With a sigh I stopped stroking Billie’s nose and turned to face him, folding my hands decorously behind me. “Hello, cousin,” I said.
“That’s better,” said Davo. “I want you on gate tonight. Bay can work the corral.”
My eyes widened. “What? But she’s never—”
“Because you never let her,” said Davo. “No one is supposed to keep a job all to themselves, Ansley. You know the rules. Share and train, and don’t get greedy. Billie works the corral tonight, you work the gate. There’s no argument here.”
“Bay doesn’t even like Billie,” I said. The protest sounded weak even to my own ears.
“Then that’s all the more reason she should be the one taking care of her tonight,” said Davo. “If you get called back to the farm, we’ll need someone to take care of the pony.”
“She’s not a pony,” I said automatically. “She’s an Indricothere.”
“I know,” said Davo. His gaze slid past me, landing on Billie, who was continuing to munch her way through the pile of hay like she didn’t realize that anything was wrong. “That’s what makes her valuable.”
In the end, there was nothing I could do to argue my case. The carnival wasn’t a democracy, never had been, and as a Big Man, he had the authority to change my assignment so long as he wasn’t endangering the animals. Bay could handle Billie around the townies, no matter how much it put my back up to know that she was going to have the chance. I bowed stiffly and turned to walk away, heading toward the skeleton of what would be the ticket booth.
It’s a cliché, but I could have sworn that I felt Davo’s eyes on me the whole way.
I changed into a long skirt and an old-style blouse before we opened the curtains, leaving my hair loose around my shoulders. The townies liked it when we looked like throwbacks to another time. They enjoyed pretending that our show was exactly as it had been a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago. They could shut out things like the artificial ground beneath their feet or the high-grav safety bars on the roller coaster, but let one of the gate girls wear modern clothes and somehow the con was up. That’s another primate trait: atmosphere and psychological tricks mean more than empirical truths, half the time. Maybe more than half the time.
“You ready for this?” asked the woman beside me, a laughing brunette whose name I couldn’t quite remember.
I shook my head.
She laughed again, and threw the shutters wide. The tide of humanity rushed in, and there was no more time for thought.
The gate was bustling all evening long, both with prepaid locals who needed to scan their IDs and confirm that they were part of the funding collective that had brought us here, and with lookie-loos from the farms, encampments, and city-seedlings all around us. Even Portlanders who hadn’t chosen to buy into bringing us to town came in, enticed by the sound of the music rolling off the midway or the chatter of people sending giddy on-the-fly virteos to their friends and virtual communities. Seresa and her camp had set themselves to earning their keep tonight, and they were accomplishing their mission with a vengeance. To make matters worse, since we had posted barter sheets, no two paying customers used the same currency. I’d never been in the position of calculating the appropriate amount of change to give for a chicken before.
“You’ve been dodging gate for too long, cousin,” said the brunette. She accepted a bag of tomatoes from a townie, tossing over two apples to settle the balance between them. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.”
“What, and have you teasing me about it for the next three seasons?”
She shrugged, showing me a quick, gap-toothed grin, before she went back to handling the press of townies who were anxious for their little taste of carnival. I waved a reader over my head, trying to attract more of the prepaid attendees to my side of the booth. Some of them also wanted to buy tickets for the midway attractions, but that was easier; I had a clear conversion rate for those, and if I made a mistake and credited someone’s ID with too many tickets, no one would ever notice. Our tickets were the ultimate in disposable currencies, good for one night only, gone as soon as we pulled up stakes. As long as the gate was good and the ticket sales were roughly equivalent to the number of tickets exchanged, we weren’t going to be looked at too closely.
It wasn’t until the clock began sliding toward midnight and the end of carnival time that my brown-haired cousin turned to me and said, “You’re free to go. I can handle the rest of the take without you, and you’ll be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes time to settle out.”
Meaning she was planning to claim part of my work share for her own. Not enough to make me look delinquent—that would have been cheating family, and while I won’t pretend that we’re above that kind of thing, I hadn’t earned it from her. Still, there was no need to make it too easy. Tilting my head, I asked, “What’s your price?”
That earned me another of her gap-toothed smiles, and she replied, “I claim twenty percent of your take.”
Eminently fair, especially given that this was her work area, and she’d been covering for my mistakes all evening. Still . . . “Twenty-five, and if anyone asks, I stayed here with you all the way through shutdown.”
“Done,” she said. “I’ll key you in when I lock the numbers.”
Meaning I didn’t even need to come back to the booth to officially end my shift. “Deal,” I said, sticking out my hand. She gripped it firmly, and we shook to seal our bargain.
She smiled again as I was pulling away, but there was something wistful about her expression, something that hadn’t been there when we were dealing with the seemingly endless rush of townies. “You don’t even remember my name, do you, cousin?”
“No. I’m sorry.” Telling her the truth made my stomach twinge a little, despite the fact that there was no point in lying to her now. We’d shaken on it. She wouldn’t break a formal bargain, not even if I was the only witness.
“It’s all right. I didn’t expect you to.” She turned back to the register. I stayed where I was for a moment before I realized that she had no intention of telling me. Cheeks burning, I slipped out of the back flap, leaving her to her work.
The night was cool and the air was sweet with the smell of cotton candy and hot popcorn. The hot dog cart and the samosa stand would be shut down by now; most people switched to what they thought of as dessert foods after about eleven, like that would somehow justify the extra calories. I stayed where I was, breathing in that sweet air and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the difference in illumination. The entry gate was placed far enough away that the attractions were like glowing phantoms, close enough to see but far enough away to seem unreachable without passing some invisible barrier. That, too, was a science, part of the great and secret art of The Perfect Carnival, which could be aspired to if never quite achieved.
Finally, when my eyes had switched themselves from the bright light of the tent to the colored lights of the midway, I began to move. I kept to the edge of our apportioned space, walking through shadows. Anyone who saw me would know me for a carnie; we share a certain carriage, a way of moving when the show is on. It’s half strut, half saunter, and all business, and no townie has ever mastered it. At the same time, I was far enough from the light to blur my edges, and our show was rich with girls who wore their dark hair to their shoulders and their skirts to their ankles. I might be seen. I wouldn’t be known.
Davo had wanted to keep me away from Billie. Why? It could be taken as a punishment—he knew that she was precious to me, and so he was assigning her to Bay, who didn’t know her like I did. It could be taken as a test run. If he was planning to offer me to Grandpapa as a caretaker for Grandmamma until she passed, and then as her executor and replacement at the Bone Yard . . .
I shook my head, chasing the thought away. Davo didn’t have the authority to take Billie away from me. Her genework had been purchased on Uncle Ren’s thumbprint and my own, making me her owner in the eyes of the law. Now that Uncle Ren was gone—
The shock hit so hard that I actually stopped, my bare toes digging into the spongy covering of our artificial stage. Uncle Ren was gone. Davo was Big Man in his place. He could claim the right to make decisions on behalf of Uncle Ren’s property, and while I was Billie’s owner as much as Uncle Ren was, within the carnival itself, a Big Man’s word was law. Davo could order me to let him trade away my half of her deed, and I’d have no choice but to obey.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I whispered, and broke into a run, hiking my skirt up around my knees to make it easier. Davo had wanted me away from Billie, and he’d wanted me away until close, which wasn’t until two o’clock. He’d given me a job that would keep me busy and distant and out of my comfort zone, and there was only one reason for him to have done that.
He was really going to do it. He was really planning to sell her.
I came back to my senses when I was halfway to Billie’s pen. I turned and kept running until I came to the low-slung cluster of tents that had been positioned around the edge of the stage, as if to show the people of Portland what good, obedient visitors we were. See? Even our private space doesn’t endanger your precious meadow.
My tent was in the third row back. This time, the seal was still in place, and there was no need to wait for a connection; the cloud was strong and stable in the space near Portland, undisrupted by natural forces. I called up the Bone Yard and waited, pacing back and forth in the limited space afforded me by the tent.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t. Oh, but he could, and he would, and that was the real problem; power isn’t dangerous unless it comes wedded to intent, and Davo had intent enough for twenty men.
My grandfather’s voice made me jump. I spun back toward the screen, jabbing a finger at it, and said, in a tone that was more accusing than I had intended, “He’s really trying to sell her. He thinks I’m going to let him sell her!”
“Ah.” Grandpapa didn’t have to ask who “he” was, and with that piece in place, the rest of my sentence made perfect sense. “You should calm yourself, my little crow. This much excitement isn’t good for you.”
“Someone could hear you.” This time, there was a stinging rebuke in his words, and I caught myself before I could say anything more. He looked at me coldly, assessingly, and not for the first time, I remembered that this was the man who had held us together through these last eighty years, who had sat on the council of Big Men and decided what technology we would embrace and what we would deny as we made our way, unbowed and undiluted, into the ever-changing future. “I do not think you want to be heard right now, granddaughter.”
“I . . . I’m sorry, Grandpapa.” I bowed my head, trying to show contrition through my posture.
His voice was soft as he said, “What would you have me do? You are with the carnival. You chose to stay with the carnival, knowing the way that business is done, knowing the bounds of blood and loyalty and tradition. Davo does what he feels is right for the family. He sees an opportunity to bring home a fortune.”
“Billie is family too,” I said, raising my head. “She’s my family. Would you sit back and let him sell Bay?”
“Bay is family by blood, not by adoption,” said Grandpapa.
“I don’t care. Half the cousins aren’t related to any of us by blood. They’re from other families, other shows that we absorbed. Does that make them worth less? Some of our Big Men aren’t blood relations!” Or they hadn’t been, when they came to us. Marriage and children had solved the lack of ties, binding them to us in the slow and subtle way that we had always practiced. Slow and subtle won more races than most people realized.
Grandpapa sighed. “No,” he said. “And I can’t even remind you that she isn’t human, because she has voting rights in the eyes of many of the city-states we travel through, even if she’s never chosen to exercise them. Her citizenship belongs to a country of two.”
And I was her other half. “Do you agree with what he’s doing?”
He looked away. My heart sank. When he looked back, his eyes were hooded, and he spoke with a painful honesty: “I do, and I do not, and I am gladder than you can know that the choice isn’t in my hands. I can’t stop him, and that means that I am not the one who holds the final responsibility for breaking your heart. Do I think the fortune your cousin is scrabbling for will save my wife, or that he seeks it out of love for her, and not out of the desire to have revenge on you for old slights? No. I have long since come to terms with the fact that we live in a time where everything we build works better than we need it to, and that includes the diseases we design for our own destruction. But I have loved her longer than you’ve been alive, my crow girl, and I can’t give her up without a fight.”
I bit my lip, looking at him, and whispered a final question: “What do you want me to do?”
He smiled faintly. “You were never going to be happy with us forever,” he said. “You refused to come to the Bone Yard before you had earned it, and you’re not a Big Man. You never had the drive for that, or the heartlessness to do what is required to be a Big Man in this world and survive. But you’re not the type who can learn to take orders just because they come from someone who stands above you in a pecking order you didn’t agree to obey. You were always going to need to find your own road through the days between here and Heaven.”
I looked at him, my shoulders slowly relaxing as my body tried to go limp and my mind refused to let it. He looked back at me, that faint smile still clinging to his lips.
“You have a question,” he said. “What is it?”
“The brown-haired cousin who works the gate,” I blurted. “What’s her name?”
“Nicole,” he said. “Is that really all you have to ask me?”
Will you hate me for running away? Will you blame me for Grandmamma’s death, even if you say you know that selling Billie wouldn’t help? Would my parents forgive me for this? Am I betraying you? Am I betraying myself? There were too many questions; they swarmed like townies all trying to grab the same ball at a ring-toss game, and they were just as meaningless. Lips pressed into a tight line, I shook my head and held my silence.
This time, his smile was as wide as the sunrise, and twice as welcome. “You look very much like your mother,” he said. “I love you, my crow girl.” With that, he cut the connection and left me staring at an empty screen. He didn’t say goodbye. He didn’t need to.
After only a few seconds, I turned away. There was work to do, and I didn’t have much time.
Packing my things took less time than I felt it should have, given how long I’d been traveling with the carnival, given how much of my life I had spent devoted to its well-being and growth. A few vacuum bags of clothing shoved into a duffel; another of toiletries and jewelry, including the few small pieces I had left from my mother’s dowry, which had been remarkable, once upon a long damn time ago. Half of it was in coinage that had no value anymore, except in the eyes of a daughter.
But that’s what family is, isn’t it? It’s traditions and trinkets that only matter when we hold them up against the mirrors of our lives, lending them meaning, lending them weight, until they become heavy enough to endure without us. We create the past in the things that we choose to remember about it. We turn everything into stories, and those stories matter because we say that they do. It’s all a wheel, and ours are the hands that turn it.
I was heading toward the door when the flap was thrust open without my permission or invitation. Davo stood there at the threshold, his eyes dark with anger.
“You were supposed to be at the gate,” he said coldly.
“Nicole released me,” I replied, straightening, slinging the bag I carried over one shoulder. “She knew the work better than I did. I felt she had the right to let me go.”
“Then you should have come to me. I could have given you more work.”
“We’re not between shows right now, Davo. You’re not the one who is responsible for making sure that I have work to do.” It felt strange to talk back to him like this—like it didn’t matter, like it was just something that I was allowed to do. My decision really had been made. If I had still been unsure while I was packing, Davo had chased that uncertainty away. I was leaving.
And I was taking what was mine.
“I’m still the Big Man here, cousin,” he said softly.
“Yes,” I said. “You are. May you live long and gladly in your teacup kingdom.” I took a step toward the door, intending to push past him and out into the night.
His palm struck my chest in the space between my breasts, hitting hard enough that it knocked the wind out of me and shoved me a solid half step backward. I gasped for air, casting a wide-eyed, startled look in his direction. He was regarding me calmly, an almost analytical look on his face.
“I asked for your hand and you refused me,” he said, shoving me again. “I asked for your loyalty, and you refused to let me have it. You have never been willing to let me have anything that I asked from you. Time and again, you have raised yourself up against me, purely out of spite. Why would I let you leave this tent now, when you so clearly have not yet learned respect?”
“You can’t hit me,” I gasped, as stunned by the act as by its consequences. “You’re not allowed to hit me.”
“The laws of physics say I can,” said Davo, and swung at me again, this time with his hand balled into a fist. That would hurt, I knew; hurt like nothing else I had ever experienced at the hand of a cousin. I ducked away, and his wild blow clipped my shoulder, still hard enough to hurt a little, but nothing like the pain that he had intended for me to feel.
“Stop it!” I danced back, out of his reach, trying to force my thudding heart to calm itself. “This isn’t how we behave!”
“No, we live like migrants until we earn a place under a fixed roof where old men and old women will make up our minds for us! We let the future march on and we refuse to take our places in it, because we’re too interested in traditions that should have died a century ago!” Davo stood where he was. He didn’t swing at me again. That didn’t make him any less terrifying. “I would have taken you away from all this, Ansley, if you’d only agreed to be my wife. We could have been equals, instead of my needing to be your better.”
“I knew that was what you wanted: that’s why I said no. I was never going to leave the carnival for you,” I said. “I was only ever going to leave it for myself.”
“I’m selling your pony,” he said. Those words were utterly calm, with no emotion attached to them. This was something he could be sure of. “Maybe you’ll be able to get everyone else to tell me that I had no right, but it won’t matter. The sale will already be finished, and you’ll never get her back. Maybe then you’ll stop cavorting around like you’re better than everybody else. You’ll stop holding on to the past.”
“No,” I snarled, and ducked toward the mouth of the tent.
Davo worked the airway lines, where speed was of the essence, and I worked with Billie, who never moved faster than she had to. He was faster than I was, and his hand caught my ponytail as I ran past, pulling me up short. The pain in my scalp was immediate, and familiar. My hair had been pulled before.
“Yes,” he replied, utterly calm. He let go of my hair. I pulled away, turning so that I could see him, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach, leaving me shaky legged and unsure of my next move.
Davo looked at me without blinking, his grip on the small ceramic pistol he’d produced from inside his jacket unwavering.
“You . . . you wouldn’t shoot me,” I said. “Not over this. Not over who owns a pack animal.”
“That’s true,” he said. “But I might shoot you over going behind my back to Grandfather. Over complaining endlessly when I just wanted to do right by this show. Over trapping me here when you refused to let me be your ticket to a better life. You’ve given me lots of reasons to shoot you, over the years.”
“Everyone will just assume you went with your pony. Even Grandfather. And I won’t have to look at you anymore. You won’t defy me. Life will be perfect, once you’re gone.”
Fighting him wasn’t getting me anywhere. It was just making him more and more sure of himself. Time to stop. I pulled myself up straighter, composing my expression. “Then do it. Prove to me that you can be a Big Man for once in your life. Make a real decision. Kill your kin.”
“I can,” he snarled.
“So do it,” I said.
I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised when he pulled the trigger: him or me. The bullet flew past my head, the wind from its passage ruffling my hair for an instant before it was gone. I stared at Davo, too stunned to scream. He stared back. Then he adjusted his aim fractionally, shifting to ensure that the next shot wouldn’t miss. I didn’t wait for him to fire. I turned and ran.
This time I made it out of the tent without a hand catching in my hair or a bullet taking me in the back. Davo fired again, the bullet punching a hole in the wall of the tent. Almost without thinking, I grabbed the pull tag that would identify me as the tent’s owner and yanked, dancing out of the way. “Run!” I shouted.
I will never know if Davo even tried to escape.
The tent collapsed in on itself, walls folding and sealing back into the small, tight cube that it became in its storable state. Davo screamed once, the sound quickly cut off by the rustle of fabric and the snapping of bones. I stayed where I was, breathing heavily, and only belatedly became aware of a hot, wet feeling spreading across my upper arm. I turned to look, and was somehow unsurprised to see that Davo’s second bullet had ripped a trench along the outside of my bicep.
There was a medical kit at the ticket booth. Hoisting my bag over my shoulder, I turned and walked toward the lights of the midway.
The music from the rides and the noise of the crowds had covered the sound of gunshots. Nicole helped me patch my arm, and she didn’t ask why she was doing it, or what had happened; she just looked sad and sprayed the quickseal skin substitute into place, keeping infection out of the wound. “I can’t stop the bleeding,” she said. “You need medical care.”
“I know,” I said. “Just do what you can.”
Nicole nodded, and kept to her work. When she was finally done, I stood and hugged her. She hugged me back, seeming startled but not displeased.
“Be well, cousin,” she said.
“I’ll do my best,” I replied.
Bay was waiting at the edge of Billie’s pen when I came walking through the shadows. She perked up and ran toward me, calling, “Davo, are you—” Then she stopped, dismay and distrust washing over her face. “Ansley?”
“I’m here for Billie,” I said, and walked past her. As I had expected, she didn’t stop me. Bay was weak. She was pretty, and she was clever, but she was weak. She didn’t really understand what it was to love something enough to die for it. Maybe they’d forgotten to include that piece of her when they were designing her genotype.
“You can’t,” she said behind me. “Davo said to watch her.”
“You can watch her,” I agreed. “You can watch her walk away.”
Even with the howdah removed, there were ropes draped over Billie’s back, because without them, we’d never get everything put into place when it was time to go. I grabbed the nearest line, careful not to put too much weight on my injured arm, and began pulling myself up her side. She snorted once and kept eating, untroubled by my presence.
“Come down from there right now!” shouted Bay. “I’ll tell!”
“You can tell if you want, but I’m not coming down,” I called back.
When I reached the top of the rope, I pulled it up after me. Then I slid down the length of Billie’s neck, scooting along until I reached her ears. I’d need to come up with a better steering system. Or maybe I wouldn’t come up with a steering system at all. Maybe this would be the way of things from now on; where she walked, I would follow.
“Opre, Billie,” I said, pulling gently on the edge of her ear. “Akima. Time to go.”
The Indricothere raised her head, snorting. There was a pause while she considered my request. I could hear Bay shouting something up at me, but I shut it out, listening to the sound of Billie breathing.
Then, slowly, the Indricothere began to move.
I leaned back on her neck, comfortable and confident that I wasn’t going to fall, and closed my eyes. With every step she took, the midway fell away behind us, the music turning ghostly and unreal. It was a living fossil, and its time would last as long as everyone who worked it cared enough to keep the past alive. I wished them well.
I never wished them anything but well.
Let the future tend to itself. I nestled deep in the fur of Billie’s neck, and rode my own piece of the past onward, into the night that had no certain ending.
“Midway Relics and Dying Breeds” copyright © 2014 by Seanan McGuire
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Theo Prins