Lan was sleeping in her small room, at the top of the wooden house. She had just finished all her sixth year examinations the previous day, and would be moving up to the next grade after the holidays. Tomorrow she would be rising early, to continue her dance and acrobatics training at the special school. Mama had promised to get her a mobile telephone if she did well, which would make her the envy of her friends from home class. Her poster of Zhang ZiYi smiled down at her from her bedroom wall. Outside, the eternal traffic noise and sea smells of Tianjin city threaded through the night, as soft rain trickled down the windows, and the empty spaces inside the house shifted uneasily.
Their hutong was in a poor part of the city, far from the Hai He river, but it was clean, and the neighbours were friendly. Lan had heard Mama and her sister Lijuan discussing the threats from the developers, who wanted to buy their neighbourhood and tear it down to build a stadium or high-rise apartments, and was worried about how long they might stay in this home, which she loved.
Her father was working in Beijing for an Olympics building project, and was sending money home each month, but Lan missed him. Most nights she cried herself to sleep, but was happy when her dreams came, and her family could be together again. It had been a long day, but all the exams were over, and she could focus on her training. She was really looking forward to the end of the school term, and the prospect of her father’s return.
Slowly, the noises of the city seemed to fade away, and the darkness around the houses seemed to deepen, somehow even dimming the neon lights from the noodle shop below. The song bird in the small cage sharing Lan’s room stirred uneasily in its sleep, but it did not lift its head from beneath its tiny wing, even when its cage started swaying. No breeze came through the window, but the curtains swayed, and a small patch of greater darkness moved slowly across the floor, pausing slightly at Lan’s small red slippers, which faded from view, as if being erased from a whiteboard by the teacher. The darkness flowed up to the bed where the sleeping girl lay, quietly dreaming of her absent father, then grew to encompass the small shape, in complete silence. A moment later, the bed creaked, startling the songbird awake, but both shadow and girl had gone, as the night noises from the unsleeping city began to filter back into the now empty room. The rain continued to fall, large drops rolling down the windows, as if weeping for the mother and sister who would soon discover their terrible loss. But they would not be weeping for long, as a terrible rumbling was just beginning.
Far across the world, a few hours later, a young boy was also dreaming. High in the mountains, the ski lodge was warm, and Sione’s exertions from snowboarding for several hours that day had exhausted him, but left him smiling in his sleep. Again and again, his dreaming mind took him through the twists and turns required for air to Fakies, Alley-oops and Butters. He was tall for his age, which meant his feet stuck out of the end of the small children’s bed. Occasionally, a toe twitched, as he landed a particularly difficult Haakon or Wildcat.
The silence of the mountains was already intense, but somehow became even deeper, as a dark pool of shadow moved down the wall, then across the floor, passing over the ski-boots, which remained undisturbed, and then flowing up onto the bed. The quiet hiss of the wood-burning stove from the nearby room where his brother Thomas slept faded away briefly, then returned, as the blankets on the bed sighed, rumpled and empty, cooling now under the distant beauty of the brilliant stars, faintly visible through the double-insulated glass of the A-frame surrounded by snow-laden pines.
Back in distant China, a terrible earthquake struck close to Tianjin city, and thousands of buildings near the coast trembled, leapt, and fell, and many people died, crushed by rubble, wooden beams and falling masonry. As if in response, a vast avalanche of snow rushed down from the mountain, sweeping away a small cluster of cabins, under the unfeeling stars.
A few hours later, and unimaginably far from Earth, two sleeping forms lay on a soft white material, that covered the floor of a hexagonal chamber. Each of the six walls leaned out, widening to a common horizon about a meter from the ground, then refracted back inwards to meet the hexagon of the ceiling, from which a soft white light was emerging, without any sign of a specific light source. The girl, clutching a small grey toy rabbit in her arms, was wearing bright red pyjamas with long sleeves, and fine embroidery around the neck in golden thread. A pair of red slippers lay nearby. The boy wore a faded black t-shirt and long grey thermal pants, to save time for getting ready for the slopes the next morning. His bare toes still twitched in his sleep.
Without warning, two of the walls of the chamber fell slowly away, allowing a soft dappled green light to flood into the room, and the two children awoke. Both sat up, eyes widening in shock, as the unfamiliar surroundings came into focus. Snatching up her slippers, Lan retreated to one corner of the hexagon, drew up her knees, and began to cry. Sione tried to stand, but found his legs shaky, and stumbled down onto one knee, his arms at his sides for balance. An unusual spicy smell was beginning to enter the small room, which was making them both hungry, as if many years had passed since their last meal. Lan had turned her face away towards the wall, and was still sobbing, but the shivering quickly passed. Sione was finally able to stand, and turned towards the doorway, where the brightness of the light was causing him to squint.
Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot? Where the hell am I? I feel terrible--my stomach is really queasy. Who’s the Chinese girl? She’s kind of cute... but what is this place? It’s like inside an RV, but without windows. Frak! What’s that… some sort of door?
Shielding his eyes with one hand, Sione slowly walked down the ramp that had been one of the walls. Waiting for him at the bottom of the ramp was a woman, but unlike any he had seen before. She was very large--both tall and wide, and her skin was a curious shade of blue, pale like a cornflower. She wore a long white robe, which seemed to consist of many woven strands of pearl-like beads, but with bevelled edges. Her hair was long and white, cascading down her back, and framing a lined face of simple beauty, with laughter lines and kind eyes, over generous lips. She stood, smiling, and held out a tray on which sat two small bowls, each steaming slightly.
His eyes drawn to the food, Sione took a moment to realize that the green light and spicy smells seemed to be coming from a grove of strange trees that surrounded them, with foliage overhead filtering the strong light--although he was unable to fix the direction of the sun, since the radiance seemed to come from multiple directions.
The woman smiled again, and offered Sione the tray. When he drew back suddenly, she lowered the tray to the ground a few meters in front of him, then stepped back, keeping her hands quietly at her sides. Her feet were bare, and Sione noticed for the first time that the surface below his feet was soft, spongy and pale yellow beyond the white walls of the room. Turning suddenly, he realized that the girl was now near the door, her face nervously peeping around the corner, staring at him and the unusual woman. Taking his courage into his hands, Sione turned back to the woman, and spoke.
“Ummmm. Hello, my name is Sione. Can you tell me what happened please? Where am I? And who are you?“, he said.
Those poor children--like all of us, Collected by the strange enforcer of the Circus. I hope they will be intelligent enough not to be terrified. Prella and Jinq were too selfish--they knew that this would happen, and left the rest of us carry the burden. Oh Goddess, please give me the strength and compassion to help these little ones.
The woman opened her mouth, and a strange language emerged, almost musical and flowing, with clicks and buzzes. Even more disturbing, however, was the sudden realization that there was a tiny prickling in the back of his brain, and he knew, somehow, what she was saying.
“Greetings. My name is Centaureus Asteraceae, but you can call me Centa. I know you are both confused and frightened by what has happened, but you must know that you are safe here, and that I am your friend.”
His mind refused to comprehend the implications of her words, and he was starting to get deeply frightened, despite her reassurance. Deciding suddenly to be practical, Sione quickly reached down for the tray, snatched it up with a furious hunger, and retreated quickly back into the strange hexagonal room. Ignoring Centa for now, Sione decided to focus on his companion, who looked even more frightened than he was, and who was still crying. As he arrived, her face showed an internal struggle to master herself, and she took a deep breath.
I miss my mother and father--oh, where are you Mama? This strange boy seems equally lost. Why can’t I stop crying? My ancestors would be ashamed to see my behaviour right now. I must get myself under control. Until I can find my way home.
She said “My name is Shusun Lan, daughter of Shusun Tong. I do not know where I am, or how I get here. I would be very grateful if you could tell me how to return to my home.”
Sione was astounded to hear the words and tonal changes of Chinese Mandarin with Tianjin dialect (he wasn’t sure how he even knew which language it was), yet he knew exactly the meaning behind the sounds, and even detected the note of desperation underneath the words--but again he had no idea how he knew this.
I think I’m in deep crap. There’s some serious stuff going down here, and I don’t have a clue. God, I’m hungry. This girl is looking as confused and frightened as I am. Maybe she needs a friend -- I know I do.
“Ummmm. Ah, hello Shus.. sorry, what was your name again? I’m Sione, and I just woke up here too, and I have no idea where here is. Oh, and I’m really hungry, and I guess you are too, and since there are two bowls of this....“, he said, extending one of the bowls to her trembling hands.
Lan was slender, with pale skin and thin limbs. Her black hair covered part of her eyes, like some anime doll, yet she moved with the assurance of a trained dancer or acrobat.
The young girl seemed to relax a little, lowering her knees to the ground, and reached for the bowl. There didn’t seem to be any chopsticks, or even a spoon. The food in the bowls looked liked bright green rice, only much larger, and smelled spicy. As she held the bowl, she saw that there was a kind of outer covering, or shell, which peeled away to form a type of curved scoop, which she could use to eat the food. Her hunger and the tasty smell combined to override her nervousness, and as she ate, she reflected on what her next words should be.
This boy seems kind. Why did he come here? How did he get into my house, and where did he take me? No, he couldn’t be the one who took me, he doesn’t look that strong. He speaks Putonghua quite well.
Looking up a Sione, she said: “You’re a Laowai, foreigner. Why did you come to China? Oh, you can call me Lan, which means orchid. My father always called me his little flower. Do you know where we are? And how did you learn to speak Mandarin?”
Pausing from his own breakfast, Sione replied: “I just woke up here myself. I don’t speak Mandarin, I speak English. I think you understand me in the same way that I understand you, but I have no clue how that works, or why. There’s a woman outside who might be able to tell us more.”
He stood, and offered her his hand to help her up, which she refused, smoothly rising from her seated position.
Hmmmm.... be like that then!
Both children moved slowly out into the green surroundings, looking carefully around them. Centa remained at the base of the ramp, smiling and nodding at them. Her body language shifted slightly, presenting a non-threatening appearance. Her hands remained open, and were held loosely and relaxed at her sides. She sighed, but did not speak, waiting for the two children to make the first move.
They seem to be recovering from the shock of their arrival. By now their nannies must be fully integrated, so they should be able to understand me.
This time, Lan was the first to speak. She introduced herself, and respectfully asked the woman if she could tell them where they were, and whether she could call her mother, as she would be worried.
“Dear child”, said Centa, “I am sorry but you are far from home, and won’t be returning there any time soon. I and my friends are not the ones responsible for bringing you here -- in that, we are as much victims as you are. I myself was Collected from my mother’s home while sleeping many years ago, and was carried here against my will. In fact, I woke up in exactly the same place you have--we all do.”
Sione interrupted: “But where is this place? I was in the mountains, with snow, but this looks like some sort of forest....”
Centa said: “You are now touring the galaxies with the Circus of the Stars. We are a travelling circus, which moves by itself to different planets and other habitats.....”
“But that’s not possible,” said Sione. “That would need giant space ships, or UFOs or something. And how come I know you’re not speaking English, but I can understand every word you’re saying?”
“Perhaps both of you will walk with me for a little while, so I can show you around. We’re in one of the arbor groves at present, where we grow some of the plants we need. The life pod you arrived in always turns up here, but we’re not sure why. It’s actually a tetrakaidecahedra, or at least, that’s its shape. As to how it works--it’s one of the mysteries around here. None of us know. However, we can tell you about the language thing--as part of your journey here, some very tiny machines were added to your brain, called nannies, and one of their functions is to translate the languages you hear into something you can understand.”
“You’ll still hear the words of the foreign language--I’m speaking my native tongue, Sithian, right now--and may even learn some of the words, but the little machines take care of tuning out the sounds, and conveying the meaning directly into your mind. We know about them, because some of us had medical checks on one of the worlds we visited, where they found them. They do lots of other things too, especially keeping us healthy, and defending against foreign diseases or hostile nannies, so we never tried to get rid of them.”
Good thing too. I’ve seen what some of the nastier nannies do to unprotected people--taking them over, turning them into mindless agents of the Powers, or worse. Thank the Goddess the Circus has its own nannies--assuming of course we’re not already under their mind control. Now, now little Sithran, put away those paranoiac thoughts until they may be useful. You have a job to do--just follow your heart, and try to help these children.
“Now we’re outside of the grove, you can see we are surrounded by tetras--the hexagonal structures--tents, I guess you’d call them. Actually, you’re only seeing the top half, since the other half is below ground. Over there are the sleeping rooms, where there are already two rooms reserved for you, since Prella and Jinq just left us. We’re now heading to the supplies tent for some new clothes for you, then the dining tent, where you can get a proper breakfast, and we’ll start the introductions. Later today your training starts, if you’re ready--we find it’s best to have something to do, because dwelling on your situation won’t help in the long run.”
Hmmm.... the girl looks like she has had some training. Perhaps she could join the acrobats. The boy doesn’t look like much, but he is tall, and must be good at something.
As she talked during breakfast, the two youngsters learned more about the strange situation into which they had arrived. It wasn’t easy to hear that there was very little chance they would ever find their way back home, and that all sixty-four people in the circus shared the same fate. Prella and Jinq had left the circus at their last stopover (Lan and Sione’s home planet of Earth.) It was a blue/green world (similar to the one they originally came from), and they had finally decided to leave the circus, after so many years. They knew that it would mean two more innocents being Collected, but couldn’t face continuing on, especially as they were getting old, and no longer able to perform as they once did. Some impersonal but inexorable mechanism always made sure that the circus had sixty-four performers -- no more, and no less.
Once, some brave soldiers had tried to join on a transition, remaining with the others in the main tent as the circus began to fold space around itself, however they simply faded away, apparently staying in their original world, and were never seen again.
Records left by previous members of the circus showed that over the centuries, different groups, including governments, scientists and the military from various planets, had tried to penetrate the secrets of the circus--including kidnapping its members (they were always rescued back by the circus’ dark guardian), and trying to steal its technology (which always disappeared from any secure area they tried to keep it in), and after a while, they learned to leave it alone. Attempts to bribe the players of the circus were fruitless, since they always freely traded copies of any knowledge they had, in exchange for local discoveries, art, culture, music and science texts.
Each of the players had entered the same way--unwillingly, but eventually, all realized that they had no choice, but to join in the work of the circus, which was to produce great shows, and entertain whoever turned up at their performances. Each new “intern” would be trained by other members, and tested to see which type of circus work or performance they had aptitude for. Usually, the people chosen had talents or abilities that they themselves didn’t suspect, and only after training would it become clear what would be their speciality.
Of course, not every player performed at every landfall. Some took time off, and visited the local surroundings, or engaged in trading missions with the locals, and of course Lan and Sione would be invited to join these too, to gain experience. But each knew, that if they made certain preparations, then stayed outside the circus for more than the allotted eight days, then they were stuck on that planet, and another child would be taken, against their will, to replace them -- and most didn’t want that on their conscience, so they always returned.
“So today, if you are ready, I will take you around to introduce you to some of your fellow performers, and show you where you will be living. We just arrived on a new site, and are sending out flyers and communicating with the authorities, to try to be ready for our first performance tomorrow night,” said Centa.
Lan and Sione looked at each other, and each tried to read the expressions they saw. As if in mirrors, they saw sadness, loss, fear and shock -- but also hope, and the possibility that maybe they might someday become friends. The morning (although they had no idea what time it was on this planet) had started with one shock after another, and they both had a feeling that more surprises were to come.
Loss... confusion.... pain... hunger.... determination, slowly building... replaced by a sudden panic!
As Sione watched, he saw Lan’s face change, gradually taking on the look of a frightened child. She rose, turned suddenly on one foot, and started to walk quickly away, out of the meal tent, towards daylight. Sione decided he had no choice--he rose, impulsively picking up something from the table which looked like bread--and followed after her rapidly disappearing red form. Although she had a head start, he had longer legs, and was able to keep her in sight, as she started to run, red slippers flapping. Sione was grateful for his bare feet that the surface underneath--yellow and springy, but not quite grass--was soft enough to get good traction, and starting to breathe heavily, he slowly narrowed the distance between them.
I have to get away! There must be a way out of here. Perhaps we are close to the city, although it doesn’t smell right. I must run, so they can’t catch me!
Lan seemed to be running without any clear plan, or perhaps she was looking for a way out, dodging around the unusual hexagonal structures they called tents, large hex crates, cages with hexagonal bars, and other paraphernalia. After a minute or two, they came to what seemed to be an exit, with a well-worn earth road leading away, between two of the surrounding walls of the circus, which looked like giant silver honeycombs.
I wonder what those walls are made of? They seem awfully thin...
Emerging together at last into an open space outside the walls of the Circus, the two children stopped suddenly, astounded by what they saw. It was unlike any landscape either of them had seen before, even in movies. An undulating set of small hills rolled away from them, covered in bright yellows, pinks and purples. Hovering over the hills were small flat balloons, with drooping tails--but they must have been huge, because they seemed to be far away. The hills seemed to go on, disappearing into the distance--but the more they stared, they could see them rolling somehow upwards--and from the sides of the horizon came gigantic arcs from either side, disappearing off into the sky, and somehow heading almost directly upwards. Some kilometers away--although it might have been more, because it was difficult to judge distances--there was a city with gleaming spires, and a furious business of air traffic overhead, flashing and glinting in the light from the sun overhead. Beyond this, they could see rivers, vast mountain ranges and huge lakes or oceans. Sione whistled.
I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto.
Far up the strange ribbon that headed into the sky they could see a horizontal line of darkness, which seemed to cut the ribbon--but not quite, for in the darkness there gleamed distant lights, and far above that, almost beyond sight, the ribbon seemed to continue again quite suddenly, until it disappeared from view. Wordlessly, they stared, realizing with certainty that they were no longer on their own Earth--and possibly, not on a planet at all, since it didn’t seem to obey the usual rules—when a ship on Earth disappears over the horizon, it seems to go down – but here, things just kept going up into impossible distances, as far as the eye could see.
It’s beautiful. And more than a little frightening.
They slowly became aware of Centa standing quietly behind them. “We’re not on a planet,” she said. “This is called a world-ring--like a giant ribbon, spun into space around a star, with all the land and oceans on the inside of the ribbon. If you were to look behind us, you would see the rest of the ribbon, descending from above to join at the far horizon. Although it might be amazing to you, it’s not the strangest place we have visited.... as you will soon learn.”
Sione stood, listening, the unchewed bread held forgotten in his hand. “Please.... how can we get home?”
Centa quietly answered: “I’m sorry, Sione. I have no idea how to do that. Most of us want to return home, but we never found a way. After all these years, I am happy now, in the Circus. It’s really the only life I’ve ever known. I decided to make it part of my job to help the new arrivals, such as yourselves. Please let me help you.”
This time, Lan spoke. “If what you say is true... then, miss Centa, can you show us where we can get some new clothes, and where we can sleep. And please help us to find our way back. Promise me!”
“Child, I will do everything in my power to help you, and if it is at all possible, then I wish you can find your home again. Until that day, however, the best option for you is to learn everything you can, about the Circus, the places we visit, and the people you will be living with. Tomorrow, someone will take you to the Records Tent, where you can meet the Oracle. But first, let’s visit Supplies, and then we’ll take you to your new home.”