"Two minutes til curtain, machines!"
There is some hubbub backstage: Bezier Maxiford has split her corset, and Bombershay Jones needs coolant. Mr. Magnificent's got grease stains on his tuxedo and the Riffler's head is not on straight. Miss Swish fans herself quietly in the corner, unconcerned, while Shim Sham Kablam uncouples himself from the wall socket with a crackling fart of ozone.
The beta unit consults a clipboard and then walks smack into the alpha unit who had been kneeling over Bombershay's coolant port. Both robots tumble to the floor, limbs clicking fecklessly, motors whirring.
Tas rolls her eyes. "Do I have to do everything myself?"
She tapes loose cables to dented carapace plates and polishes specks of crud out of everyone's eyes for a nice, unobstructed glow. She deploys the alpha to rapidly sew the blown seam for Bezier while the beta recombobulates the Riffler's off-kilter spine. Between rushing from one performer to the next she pushes her face to the split in the curtain, peeking out with one roving eye to assess the house.
She ducks as a beer bottle smashes against the bolted metal edge of the proscenium, the wet shards flipping slowly away in the lazy one-eighth gravity. A ragged, slur-worded chorus coalesces out of the impatient murmuring in the bleachers: "Start the show! Start the show! Start the show!"
They are a rough bunch. So far upwell, so far from the warm heart of civilization. But even for Peripherees this audience seems especially uncouth. Wild, even.
Tas shudders. She closes the gap and turns her back on the curtains, gaze briefly unfocused and distant, lost somewhere in the rafters as she jams her tools back into her belt and chews on her lower lip. Then she turns on heel decisively, scans the cast, and gives the alpha a small but significant nod.
"Positions, please," calls the alpha unit in a flat, lifeless voice. "Performers: positions."
Tas steps back into the wing, hands on her hips, a subvocal microphone stuck to the side of her oil-smudged neck. "Ready cue one," she mouths silently. Robots snap to attention. Tas takes a breath. "Go cue one."
The beta starts the music and the alpha triggers the lighting board.
Spotlights converge. The curtains draw apart and the audience releases a hoarse, ragged cheer.
It's Mr. Magnificent, alone.
He starts out slowly, one metal toe describing an arc along the floorboards with a barely audible hiss. He whips it back, turns in place, knocks one heel down with a crisp, percussive click. His blue glowing eyes sweep across the crowd as he turns again, tossing aside his hat.
The music steps up in tempo and glee, and Mr. Magnificent follows it quaver for quaver. Soon his feet are a blur reporting an accelerating tattoo of clicks and taps building teasingly toward a thrumming crescendo. It is simultaneously hypnotic and frightening, his metal body seemingly perpetually on the cusp of tumbling out of control, his flying feet rescuing him from the fall at the very last second with a whisper and a click and a whirl.
The audience is on the edge of their seats, all babble faded, drinks forgotten.
And then it happens: Mr. Magnificent's left shin splinters free and arcs away, trailing a spinning train of busted screws and bent washers. The performer staggers drunkenly downstage, arms akimbo.
Just as it seems he will careen into the orchestra pit Mr. Magnificent executes a flawless triple roll, lands on his hands, and picks up tapping just where he had left off, kicking his remaining intact leg in buoyant counterpoint.
The audience goes crazy for it.
Tas unclenches her lungs, a relieved whistle escaping her lips. That's the show's first gag out the door without a hitch -- tension broken, the bleachers on side. Every bit of it exactly as rehearsed. Like the rabble at the races, the crowd feels cheated on the cost of admission until they've seen a crash. That's the name of the game. They won't swallow the art without an appetizer of cheap antics first.
And it's the art that's up next: Miss Swish has joined Mr. Magnificent on stage, their terpsichorean coupling a spinning, tapping, tossing maelstrom of flirt, flaunt and restraint. It's a poem in movement, a rhythmic ballet.
It's one of her masterworks. "Ready cue twenty-two," whispers Tas.
The dancing duo makes way for the Riffler -- tiny, deft and irreverent. His mad routine meets up with the insistent, jazzy pounding of Shim Sham Kablam Mark Three's psychotic syncopations, his giant hydraulic legs chuffing and booming according to a lurid, swinging pulse folks felt in their deepest deeps.
Tas checks the audience again. Her practiced eye tells her in a blink they're well along for the ride. Still raucous but unbelligerent, still looking for trouble but only with each other, and only for the crime of being a distraction from the spectacle. They shush one another with knuckles, the worst subdued by the second worst while the best keep their eyes locked on the magic. It's a hard life for the workers of the Periphery, and they're thirsty for this.
Next up: the passionate and hypnotic pelvic gyrations of the troupe's two erotic models, Bezier and Bombershay. The crowd quiets, letting wolf-whistles cut through. Bezier's curves have been coated in oil, their suggestive sweeps projecting undulating reflections on the floorboards. Bombershay taps around those wriggling caustics, his ruby gaze sweeping her up and down. He grabs her. She yields to him, but stops his next move with a powerful downthrust of the right leg; slowly, tantalizingly, she leads. The audience is entranced.
But then Bombershay's jury-rigged coolant system springs a leak at bar ninety-nine. The crowd titters benignly but now Tas is terrified. This isn't a pre-programmed gag -- it's a genuine break. She toggles her throat mic. "Improv algo delta five, go go go!"
Delta five: slapstick. The performers obey seamlessly. Bezier thrusts her bosom out with comedic exaggeration, then drops to her knees beneath the geyser of coolant and revels in its spray suggestively. The audience explodes into a riot of hooting laughter and applause.
Mr. Magnificent and the Riffler catch Bombershay Jones as he overheats and crumples, sweeping him up while they perform a frenetic, dizzying two-men-and-a-broomstick jig. They pose the smoking body as if in a gentle swoon, then cartwheel into the wing as Tas has the music nudged louder to cover the sounds of their clumsy, tumbling stop. Stray pieces of Bombershay bounce serenely backstage. Tas ducks to dodge a length of thigh plating. "Wrap it, wrap it -- jump to cue eighty-eight!"
A moment later the curtains zing closed and the rabble is chanting for an encore. Tas takes quick inventory then sends the Riffler and Shim Sham Kablam out to tie it up all up with some easy laughs while Miss Swish and Bezier Maxiford sashay up and down the aisles to solicit tips.
The music winds down. Tas hears the house empty, guffaws echoing away until the last lock has irised shut.
That's the show.
Alpha and beta tear down and gather up the gear, the tools, and any dissociated elements of damaged performers. Everything and everyone is broken down and packed up. Lights and speakers and projectors are extra-folded into dense but compact travel cubes. The stage flats are flipped and they become shipping skids, the attraction plates reversed to hover.
As Tas walks the space for her final sweep she quietly and efficiently purloins a bifurcation bead from the power distribution console, a circuit breaker from the house fog machine, and the optic sensor from a fire containment node. She finds a half-finished bottle of beer balanced on the edge of the orchestra pit, so she takes that, too.
It tastes awful on first brace, but fine upon reflection. Life can be like that.
Before long the troupe is in transit again, packed into steerage on a waste scow, hopping between the most dismal stations of the system's cluttered but provincial periphery. It's not exactly Broadway but it keeps the batteries charged.
Work is work.
The next hop is a fortnight. Tas spends it hunkered over in a Class 4 Cargo Capsule, crowded in by the stowed elements of the show. The beta unit, folded unkindly, serves as her chair. The alpha, beneath a blanket, supports her while she sleeps. Their unthinking glowing eyes are her night lights, and her day lights, too. The capsule has no ports. She only knows their progress by the ticking of the ancient mechanical clock bolted to the hatch. She marks the days in chalk.
The ventilators hiss. She shifts her rump upon the beta's thigh, her dirty forehead crinkled in contemplation of a diagram. The symbols representing each sequence of moves wink on and off as she pushes the routine through its paces. She shakes her head and frowns. The simulation has failed. Bombershay Jones' redesigned coolant system just isn't cutting the mustard -- it won't hold up to the moves she needs to perfect his routine. To nail it. To make it truly sing.
She looks over at the robot, its confused and triple bypassed works exposed beside her. She's asking a lot of an old piece of hardware, and she knows it. Bombershay used to dance for Pop.
Pop would've wanted it perfect.
Tas bends to the task again, scrapping the refit drawings and planning from scratch. She makes a list of the parts she'll need to acquire. That's how it is now. They used to bring replacement parts in on a hovering platter, but now she has to scrounge. She has to borrow.
She remembers it like it used to be. Back when she was a kid. Thirty years ago or more. That was when Pop was still alive and the troupe a going concern -- more than that: a hit. That was back when upstanding citizens would pay a solid hour to see artfully programmed routines, instead of relegating once ballyhooed entertainers to begging for pennies from row after row of peanut gallery audiences so far upwell the star hardly shines.
Tas would wonder why she bothers, if she ever allowed herself to think that way. But she doesn't. The show must go on. She can hear that whispered in her head in Pop's pipe-smoke baritone: "The show must go on, baby doll. It ever do."
Docking. Disembark. Unload, unpack, unfold. Plug in. Quietly pocket what's needed to keep on keeping on. Weld and patch. Rig and hope. Curtain goes up after sixth shift supper.
And when it's all sung and done again she's left with a new manifest of breaks, a new wish-list for parts, a freshly raw feeling from being ripped off by her tightwad hosts as they count surprise expenses against the troupe's already painfully meagre fee. She shakes her head, lips pursed. They'll have to throw in another show at yet another rude outpost just to pay off the debt they've incurred here.
Tas glowers as she draws a disconnector from her belt and helps herself to a length of cabling from the sound system. She drops into a first row seat to tuck the bounty into her boot.
She wipes a lock of sweaty hair off her forehead and sits back with a sigh. With reverence she draws out a battered old pipe, knocks it, stuffs it, then lights it with a pop of flash dust from her pocket. Through a haze of fragrant smoke she watches the beta unit finish packing. The beta's patched up knee seems to be holding up okay.
Tas puffs. A shadow falls over her. She looks up and then, recognizing that it is a human being that has approached her, looks down somewhat and peeks instead from behind a veil of hair.
The woman standing over her cocks her head, her expensive hair-do bobbing in the microgravity. "There's not any connection to the Flying Corbitals Family Circus, is there?"
Tas nods again. "Yop."
"Are you serious?"
Tas says nothing.
"Oh my stars! This is amazingly awesome!" croons the stranger, pressing her hands together like an excited seal. Tas wonders if she's being mocked. The woman gushes ahead: "Wow and zow! An authentic member of the Corbital family, out here in the middle of nowhere -- I wouldn't have believed it!" She shakes her head and grins, then checks herself and offers out a dainty hand. "I'm amazingly sorry. I'm so rude? I am this cruise's Mistress Glittervale, naturally: the Director of Entertainment and Fun for Capsheaf Luxury Cruise Lines, Intrastellar Limited Liability Incorporated Intelligence."
Tas looks at the little pale hand with a furrowed brow, then hesitates as she offers up her own smudged paw. The stranger steels herself and shakes it anyway, thereafter holding her sullied hand safely away from her very fancy mock-Callicratian outfit complete with glowing labels and musical seams. "You're aware of our issues, naturally?"
Tas shakes her head. "Nop."
"You're not?" echoes Mistress Glittervale, etched eyebrows raised inhumanly high on a baby-smooth forehead. "Well, that's amazingly strange. But, at the end of the day, the mainest factoid is that our cruise has been diverted due to issues."
Mistress Glittervale nods enthusiastically, her face a study in cartoonish tragedy. "Oh yes, amazingly serious issues. It's actually fully completely unheard of for a six-star spaceliner to even so much as touch the docking clamps of a...uh, facility of this nature, naturally. There's the Capsheaf reputation to defend, for one thing, and our customer service index for another."
Tas blinks, then glances at her watch.
"The extra main factoid is," continues Mistress Glittervale with a voice that, somehow, has jumped even higher in pitch, "all these issues are going to leave me short more than thirty hours of entertainment and fun programming. It's thrown everything amazingly off, to be honest. I was positively freaking right out until I saw your show just now. And then, you know -- blammo -- I knew I'd been saved."
Tas takes the pipe out of her mouth. "Blammo?"
"By you, dear! I just knew you could be persuaded to fill in, so our passengers don't end up in the lurch. As an entertainment director yourself, I was amazingly sure you wouldn't stand to see an audience let down. The show must always go totally on, right? That's positively natural. People in our sorts of positions don't abide a freak out when there's something we can fully do to assist against it."
Tas sniffs, then wipes her nose on the back of her coverall sleeve. Slowly she looks this woman up and down, a sneer growing around the hilt of her pipe as she bites down on it. She's used to trusting her gut, and her gut tells her that people like this are effete and difficult, and that they use shark smiles and word tricks to get their way. Her gut tells her rescuing this downwell scenester will be more trouble than it's worth.
But Mistress Glittervale is studying Tasfoliana, too.
"Nop," agrees Tas slowly, rubbing her chin. "But my artists need maintenance, and besideswhich there's a contract in place with the Peripherees. Our mandate's not finished, see, and I can't reckon why I'd trouble to tap a barrister programme to re-parse it." She spreads her arms helplessly. "Apologies, high born, but there it is. A big ball of fuss."
Mistress Glittervale straightens to her full height. "I'm fully authorized to offer you five thousand hours per performance, Miz Corbital."
Tas looks up sharply. She licks her lips. "Where do I sign?"