"Why so glum, jiggles?"
I was in the lobby of the contractor hostel, passing by my cabin to have a snack and quickly charge up my reader so I could watch The Revengineers over supper without worrying about an outage. While I was on my way in the private paratroopers were on their way out, their gear spit and polished for a day of combat drop training, plummeting through the sticky orange clouds to get themselves all tarred up with that cow fart stink that would hang in the halls for days.
I tried to smile. "It's stupid."
"Don't be like that," said Angiers, an ex-seal with a star-shaped scar along his jaw from the Callisto campaign. "We're your pals. What's eating you?"
"I just wanted to go to the circus," I said.
They all laughed. I started to turn away to head up the stairs but Angiers caught me by the elbow. "That's adorable, chubs. And you know what? Today I'm your motherplugging happiness faerie."
I blinked. "You are?"
"Sure," said Angiers, patting down the pockets on his fatigues. He produced a pass, creased rudely at the half-line. "Take it. It's yours. I don't want to go to no rinky-dinky circus, man. I got better things to do."
"Seriously? What do you want for it?"
Angiers grinned, his scar distorting around his stretched mouth. "I don't know. Show us your tits."
"Aw, come on."
"Do it, jiggles. The circus ship is sailing."
"Come on, you guys."
They all started chanting "do it, do it!" over and over again so I sighed and pulled up my tunic to show them my bare, doughy chest. The platoon cheered and hooted. Pink-faced, I tucked my shirt back in and tried to take the pass from Angiers but he held it up out of reach and told me to jump. I jumped, but I still couldn't reach it. They howled at the sight, punching each other in the shoulders and gasping for breath.
"I'm so cruel," chuckled Angiers ruefully, handing me the pass.
"Thanks," I mumbled.
"And he thanks me for it," Angiers added, raising his brow. The others guffawed.
"See you later," I said, slipping past him to the stairwell.
Even though I felt embarrassed at having them all laugh at how gross my body is this feeling was quickly eclipsed by excitement. As I leaned against the wall at the top of the stairs to catch my breath before trudging to my cabin I closed my eyes and watched the blurry afterimages swim until I swear I could see Alaia's graceful trajectories crossing the scintillating darkness...
Dinner was meatloaf and corn. While I ate I watched the ninth season premiere of The Revengineers, which by all accounts is probably the best episode produced to date. They have a float themed with it every year in the Freedom Day Parade back home, with Dr. Galacticon rendered in his most feckless form ever as a giant floating pinata which, at the conclusion of the parade, the children present gleefully smash. I've done it.
The hours counting down to the performance were long and stubborn. I did my laundry and ate two sandwiches from a vending machine, then went back to my cabin to have a Brown's bar and a nap. I woke up groggily several times to glance at the clock and swear at time's reluctance to tick by faster.
Every time I moved I could hear the pass crinkle against my pocket. It made my heart pound.
Ultimately I was forced to spend some time browsing my pornography library in order to relax enough to get washed and dressed. I thought a lot of the girls I patterned into the library were very pretty once, but while fixed on Alaia I couldn't help but see them as clumsy, heavy and crass. I was sure none of them could fly.
"Where are you going, honey?" asked one of them as I zipped up my excursion jumpsuit.
"I'm going to the circus," I muttered, checking my braids in the mirror.
"I'm quite the performer myself, honey. Let me show you how flexible I can be."
"Another time, maybe."
"Save and close."
So great was my anticipation that I didn't even watch any Revengineers on the train. I just played with my hands and stared past my reflection in the windows to the copper and brown smears of torpid atmosphere rolling by outside. We rushed past a clear patch and for a few seconds I could make out the nearest shore of a great ethane lake, its surface corrugated by wind. In a blink the sight was swept away by another curtain of cold fog.
On the shuttle I scored a seat near the front so I was able to see the circus ship as soon as we bellied off into orbit, the stars rolling. It was a narrow, spindly thing bereft of decoration except at its middle where three great connected rings turned to simulate gravity, each alternate curved swath of hull plating painted gaily orange or jauntily blue.
Spotlights converged on a giant logo of a grinning clown face encircled by the words SANDERS BROS. CELESTIAL CIRCUS in English, Marsgo and Chinese.
As we got closer it became apparent that every seam of the turning rings was lined with little rows of lights that winked on and off in sequence, making the ship appear to glitter at its edges. Our shuttle turned to manoeuvre up to the docking nipple and holographs of roaring tigers and dancing clowns began to project into space all around us. I didn't know which way to look -- it was all pretty cool.
It didn't become less wonderful until I was working myself along the rows to find my assigned seat. Any anxiety I had about being able to jam my ass into it was forgotten when I realized who I was supposed to sit next to: Admiral Phong.
That's right: the Admiral Phong.
Okay, no doubt you've heard all about the admiral. How could you not? He was the public face for the Royal Navy during the Callisto campaign and he appeared on like every chat show for a while there. His picture was everywhere. He has a nice smile and the kind of coarse, rumbling, paced voice the public expects to hear from its military princes: considered words and a sober tone, like grandpa on about something serious.
What you probably don't know is that every soldier in the fleet is totally scared of him, even the really tough ones who saw unspeakable horrors on Callisto. They even say stuff like, "Send me back into the Joviat before you send me to Phong."
Suddenly Angiers' gift to me didn't seem so generous. He probably didn't want to risk annoying the admiral and getting busted down to janitor, so he handed that opportunity off to me.
The admiral's aides were arrayed to the right of him -- some in suits, some in uniforms, all of them stiff and cold. My seat was the empty one at his left elbow where he was currently resting a box of popcorn while he took off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves to get comfortable. I hovered at the side of the seat uncertainly, waiting for him to finish his arrangements. Finally he shot a glance up at me, his slit-like eyes crowded down by his beetled brow. "Eh?" he grunted.
"Sir, take your time, sir," I said.
"Are you being smart with me, sailor?" he wanted to know.
"Sir no sir," I told him.
"Your uniform seems to be out of order."
"Sir, I'm a civilian, sir."
"That's no excuse."
"Sir no sir, it is not, sir. Shall I requisition new attire now, sir?"
He frowned, his jowls bunching up around his chin. "No, sailor, we'll let it go this time. This is the circus, after all, and some measure of relaxation is indeed appropriate."
"Sir, thank you sir."
He picked up his popcorn and I sidled over to ease myself between the arm-rests which creaked in complaint. The admiral said, "It looks like you're packing some extra meat there, sailor."
"Sir, It's a glandular problem, sir."
"That's too bad."
"Sir, thank you, sir."
Up above in the performance area roustabouts were kicking off the girders to sail across the air trailing rigging for the trapeze set ups, gaining speed for their momentum as they drew nearer the audience and felt the centripetal tug. Guy wires caught them at the last moment, causing them to swoop aside over our heads.
The admiral shifted in his seat and glanced at my hair critically. "Are you Opran, sailor?"
"Yessir, my parents are, sir."
"I'm Mega-Christian, myself, but I don't have any grudge with the Oprans. Either way I like to see a sailor who knows what he owes -- not letting himself get caught up in all this secular mumbo-jumbo. Religion keeps a man humble."
"Sir, that's very true, sir."
He nodded, shifting in his seat to lean toward me as he scratched one of his fat, white, lambchomp sideburns. "I tell you, sailor, when we find ourselves toe to toe with an extra-solar civilization we'd sure as Hell be embarrassed to have to tell them we're not saved, wouldn't we?"
"Sir, no doubt about it, sir."
"Of course, we don't know what point of history they might be at when we make contact. If they're not saved yet we'd have the good fortune of educating them about the Mega-Christ. We'd be the first ones with the good news that their own saviour is on his way. We'd be an example."
"Sir, that would be a proud moment for humankind, sir."
"Damn straight, sailor. A proud moment for Mars. I hope I live to see it, Christ willing."
"Sir, I'm sure you will, sir. Praise Oprah."
"Yeah, well, whatever floats your boat."
The lights dimmed. The crowd hushed their conversations and then collectively rustled as everyone pulled a round-framed seeing glass from the pocket on the back of the seat ahead of them. Through it the spectacle would be magnified and, if desired, annotated.
Music sounded. From the core of the central ring raveled a parade, each component of which dropping into view in freefall and then pulling various stunts as they dropped down almost into our laps, struck trampolines interspersed between the rows, and rebounded away toward the core again. There was a brass band, a brigade of dancing bears, a brace of clowns, a fleet of poodles, a sextet of jugglers -- all weaving their way around the circumference of the packed torus by rappelling back and forth between its faces.
I found myself smiling. It made me feel like a kid.
I got shivers across my shoulders when my roving glass finally found Alaia, flying between other acrobats in matching outfits trailing streamers from their ankles. And then I couldn't look away.
Her motion hypnotized me. My blood ran hotter and, for a moment, I could forget all about how cramped and anxious I was pegged next to modern history's most dangerous and capricious military chief.
The show went on. Apparently the admiral was as bored by clowns as I am because the next thing I knew he was elbowing me for attention. "You ever see a graded-G circus before, sailor?"
"Sir no sir."
"You're a busy man, sir."
"That's the truth, sailor. I've got one of the hardest jobs in the System. Hell, we all do."
He popped a piece of popcorn into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. "It's a civilized world that we live in because people like you and I -- well, I more than you -- are willing to do the jobs we do. We get our hands dirty, doing what needs to be done. We sin so our people can live on in grace. Do you follow me, sailor?"
"Sir, I think so sir."
"It's about the glory of Mars, son. It doesn't come out of some mamby-pamby Aresian notion of high art or a bunch of idiots sitting around a big table yapping at each other -- that's culture, and culture rides on the coat-tails of authority. Do you know where Martian authority derives, sailor? Do you know what gives us the right and the responsibility to keep things looked after?"
"Power, son. We have the science, we have the resources, and most important of all we have the will to make the hard decisions, to do the jobs nobody wants to think about. We murder the murderers. Isn't that right? Isn't that what happened on Callisto?"
"Sir," I said, "of course, sir."
He smiled then, and actually put his beefy hand on my soft shoulder. "You're a very clear minded individual, sailor."
"Sir, thank you, sir."
He waved to one of his aides, a finicky gentleman in a very expensive suit, and called out, "Get me some cold beer -- and one for my friend here." The finicky gentleman looked cooly down his nose at me and then turned abruptly to the woman next to him and barked, "The admiral and his guest need cold beer. See to it!" The woman, in turn, pointed at young yeoman in starched whites who leapt to his feet and sidled out of the aisle.
When our beers came we were applauding the conclusion of a complex juggling routine involving ignited plasma torches, medicine balls and knives.
"That was damned impressive," noted Admiral Phong. "Outstanding discipline -- damned impressive indeed."
I nodded, sipping my beer. "Sir, I should say so, sir. I bet they like practice all the time, too. I mean, especially considering that it's live."
"What do you mean?" he frowned, his brow knitted.
"No visual effects," I said nervously. "Um, they have to be authentic and they have to get it right the first time. There's no second chance when it's right in front of you, right sir?"
The admiral settled into his seat again. "Quite right, sailor."
"Do you ever watch The Revengineers, sir? Because there's this episode which totally speaks to my point."
"Eh?" he mumbled, distracted as the acrobats swarmed into view and without preamble began crossing the open space in great bounds, catching and throwing each other at each artful intersection.
My breath caught in my throat as I spotted her again. I put down my drink and raised the seeing glass by its ornate handle, my hand faintly shaking. In the magnified view she seemed to be soaring only inches from my nose, her face shifting in colour as she passed through the domains of different lights. She was smiling, always smiling, and her eyes sparkled and flashed.
"Well lookee here," said the admiral slowly, drawing his glass up level to his face. "If she's not an angel I don't know what is. Wouldn't you say, sailor? Isn't that a sublime slice of femininity right there?"
"Sir yes sir," I muttered.
The admiral sat back in his seat, the glass dropping. "It all goes to show you how tested we all are, son. The last thing I need in this world is to be playing games with some kid, but I see the way she moves and it does something to me."
"Sir yes sir," I said again.
He commanded his aides to fetch more beer and then to me said: "It's irrational."
"But it's persuasive, isn't it? Look at me: I can't look away."
"I'm going to have to trust you on that, sir."
"It's like somebody's keying us up by remote control, isn't it, sailor?"
I blinked, and managed to pry my eyes from the glass to look at him in the shadows. "Sir?"
"The Devil," he said heavily. "People think the Devil makes us do bad things, but that's not it. Like I told you, I have dirty hands but the Devil doesn't have anything to do with it. No, son, the Devil's more insidious than that."
I gulped. "What does the Devil do, sir?"
"The Devil keeps us focused on the trappings of the body, on the animal, instead of oriented to the sublime, through Christ. The Devil wants you to get all wound up by the way some pretty chick slithers because it's the easiest way to keep you apart from God -- because you want it."
I nodded slowly, whispering, "I always want things. It never stops."
The admiral narrowed his eyes as he put his hand on my arm and squeezed it. "Look at how fat you are, son. Honestly, who are you feeding? It's not Jesus asking for all that food."
"No sir," I mumbled, hanging my head. "I'm just a bad person."
"Well," said the admiral, sizing me up with a pained expression, "you're probably right about that. But you can change. You can make choices. Like I said before, making the hard choices is what makes Mars great. And don't give me any of that Ares faeces, either -- I'm talking turkey here. I'm talking about Mars. I'm talking about God's people. But..." The admiral trailed off, his eye caught by the glass again. "But here I am talking the good word yet I can't stop looking at her, can I?" He sighed and drained the end of his beer. "The flesh is weak. It always will be. That's why it's all a wash without the Good Book to guide us. We can't steer ourselves alone."
"Sir, no," I agreed faintly, eyes riveted by Alaia's dance.
"In the beginning was the Word. And now here we are, the pinnacle of civilization in the System, with the power to speak the language of the Word directly -- we need no prayers, we can help ourselves. We're the caretakers of that power until Christ's return. These worlds are our wards."
"Sir, I'm glad there are men like you at the, like, helm, sir."
The acrobats retired, handing the reigns to the glittering riders of specially trained low-gravity horses who galloped along floating platforms, leaping over the gaps with a flourish of braided tails and flapping banners attached at the saddle.
"I wish I could see Heaven," said the admiral wistfully. "But I've lived too much to hold out that hope. I bought the way in for others by enforcing the King's peace."
"You do your duty, sir."
"I do it for the Mega-Christ and the greater glory of Mars."
"Sir, yes sir."
"I like the cut of your jib, sailor. What's your name?"
I said, "Timothy [REDACTED], sir. I'm in enveloping."
"You boys do good work down there."
"Thank you, sir."
He accepted two beers from his aides, passed one down to me. "It's an honour, what you do. I hope you realize that. You handle the Word. The Word is the power, and the power lifts our glory. It's the future of the System you deal in, son."
"It is, sir, that's true."
"You're locking in the peace for all worlds."
"I'm happy to be a part of the team, sir."
"Because, you know sailor, if we ever have to let one of these puppies go the Jovians aren't going to know what him them. They'll be boiled away into space before they even know we're mad."
"That's hitting them where it hurts, sir."
"Damn straight, damn straight," he nodded, drinking deep and then wiping his mouth on his forearm with an earthy gasp of relish. "May God guide us to deploy our authority wisely."
He piped down for a while so we could watch dogs flipping through freefall followed by a fellow who threw swords at his wife without slicing her. The elephants cavorted around and sang an infrasong, pushed into human hearing through little speakers in our glasses. We drank our beers and watched, and then moved on to a fourth round.
The admiral was swaying in his seat.
"Do you ever get lonely, sailor?"
I coughed on my beer, eyes watering. "Um, sir?"
"I'm not flirting with you, son," said the admiral, pursing his lips as he watched the action in the rings. "I'm just asking a question, man to man. No offense but I don't think you're very popular with the ladies."
"No sir," I agreed. "The ladies tell me about how much they like other guys. I'm a good confidant, I guess."
The admiral didn't care. His point was about himself. "It's absurd," he said quietly. "I'm one of the most important men in the System, and I'm never alone -- but I have no friends."
"I chum around with some soldiers," I said. "And I watch The Revengineers a lot."
"It's good to keep busy."
"It goes to show you how people can't rule themselves. Even me, I'm plagued by urges that have nothing to do with nothing. If I had less discipline I'd make decisions based on how I felt rather than what Christ teaches. And that's why Mother Ares and all this malarky about putting democracy on a pedestal is a backwards way to go. When it's history itself you're wrangling the only answer is Father Mars, strong and sure. It might be unpopular but what's popular isn't necessarily right, is it?"
"You make an excellent point, Admiral."
"The people don't know any better, do they?"
"No sir, they don't. How could they?"
"They rely on us to make those kinds of decisions on their behalf."
"It's good to appreciate one's limitations."
"You're a wise man, Timothy."
"Thank you, sir."
As I raised my glass again I saw that we had missed the grand finale of Alaia and her troupe who were retiring into the core of the slowly turning three-ringed theatre. The performance was wrapping up and I'd missed most of it as Admiral Phong talked my ear off in his meandering, self-serving way.
I felt badly for the old man. He carried a lot. He ached inside. You could tell.
To be honest, I pretty much had no clue what he was trying to tell me that night but it was close enough to the way my own father used to lecture me about religion that my first instinct was to tune it all out as poppycock.
It wouldn't be until later that I recognized his point. It wouldn't be until my craven human appetites had caused monumental devastation that I began to suspect he was on to something.
I'm so stupid.