by David Burnham
part 1 of 3
Lambic Zetoon gazed about him as the dancing holosprites fluttered around the expectant audience, mirrored in the quicksilver ceiling of the exotic tent. He waved at the reflection above him and his young, bronzed face beamed back from under a shock of curly blond hair. He’d been saving up for this treat from the moment that the posters had first gone up, announcing the coming of the Carnival of Delights, and tonight was the night.
All those hours picking grapes had paid off. Months of gently piling the delicate fruits onto a levitruck, guiding them to the sorting station, taking his place by the air-stream conveyor, and offering each individual berry up to the grading beam. Only fruits of the highest quality and with the sweetest, juiciest flesh were used to make wine for the Royal Court of Leopani.
There were only two vintners on the planet that could grow such fine grapes, whose winemaking techniques were centuries old, and who had been awarded with the royal seal of approval. Kalifri, by whom Lambic was employed, was one of those two. It didn’t bother Lambic that the fastidious task of grading would only ever benefit the palates of the rich and privileged; a job was a job.
The fruit that was rejected by the grading beam was piled up in huge crates by the workers and, once a batch had been sorted, he would heave his crate onto his back and carry it across the marble-paved square to the secondary processing plant. Here the grapes would be used to produce wines for the rest of the population and were still of an excellent standard. His labours had rewarded him not only with job-security and free accommodation but also with an excellent physique and outstanding health.
The band struck up and the Ring Master, resplendent in his stripy top hat and tails, strolled onto the circular, elevated stage at the centre of the domed tent, which had taken several days’ hard work to erect and furnish.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the star-traveling Carnival of Delights,’ announced the Ring Master, smiling broadly, ‘and the opening night, here on the wonderful Planet Leopani. It is our great honour to present to you some of the finest acts in the sector, and throughout this evening’s show refreshments will be brought directly to your seats.’
He clapped his hands and a squadron of barflies circled the stage. A group of four large purple flies — one at each corner — carried a tray, with drinks and a credchip terminal, between them. Several hands shot up and an endless aerial ballet of beverages commenced.
‘Please make yourselves comfortable and prepare to be thrilled, amazed and enchanted as we begin the first part of the show...’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please put you hands together and welcome to the stage... The Flying Skatari Brothers.’
The house lights dipped, the holosprites skittered away into darkened corners and the music increased its pace — as did Lambic’s heart rate. Suddenly a green flash shot over his head from behind the concentrically tiered seating and landed centre-stage, just as another figure, also followed by a spotlight, leapt across the audience to join the first.
The Skatari Brothers were of an amphibious species with moist, shiny skin. They wore matching blue trunks, which contrasted with their virescent, mucous-secreting, oxygen-breathing skin. They stood about four feet tall and had enormously muscular legs, which propelled them high into the air in astonishing feats of daring acrobatics.
Even by their own standards, these two were athletes at the top of their class. They sprang up to the ceiling, somersaulting as they went, their perfectly symmetrical performance doubled in the quicksilver mirror, narrowly avoiding drinks trays as the barflies struggled to keep up with demand.
For their finale they jumped back behind the audience. They reappeared, to a thunderous drum roll, and at the zenith of their flight they tumbled in mid-air, met with the soles of their huge feet, hung for a second and kicked out, sending each other back in a perfect reverse of the same path. The audience cheered mightily.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the The Flying Skatari Brothers...’ said the Ring Master, to more applause, ‘and now, please welcome... The Magnificent Contorto.’
A lanky bipedal reptilian glided onto stage through a gap between the seating and towered above the audience. He wore a multicoloured leotard and, in the expectant hush, Lambic could hear the click of his scaly eyelids as Contorto blinked.
Out of the blue, Contorto folded to the floor like a living concertina. He was mega-jointed, each with universal movement. He rose up again and proceeded to twist himself into the shapes of characters from the Leopani alphabet, then slowly rotated around 360 degrees on the clattering claws of his left foot, whilst bending, collapsing and wrapping the multiple segments of his colourful body to create famous Leopani landmarks and buildings. He gracefully offered these extraordinary similitudes like a twirling ballerina, such that everyone had the opportunity to see the full three-dimensional effect of his endearing performance.
Finally, he returned to his initial vertical position and doubled over to bow. As the crowd’s applause built, he stood up straight, glanced left and right, wriggled his arms and held them out horizontally. His hands flew out on the rapidly elongating, elasticised limbs. At their furthest reach he grabbed a drinks tray in each hand and the audience burst into laughter to see the attendant barflies frantically failing to make progress, before releasing them and allowing his arms to recoil. With a final, spiraling bow the Magnificent Contorto took his leave.
Next up was the Great Rombosti, heralded by deep, booming drumbeats. His bare chest glistened with oils, muscles rippling and bulging with a life of their own. A confident smile spread across his face and two glamorous assistants joined him on stage.
They passed him a heavy metal bar, of the material from which the sturdy bridges of Leopani were constructed. He grasped both ends, lifted it over and behind his head, wriggled it onto the back of his neck and, with an expression of tremendous concentration, bent it with the force of a hydraulic press-bending machine.
The crowd approved. He repeated the same thing in front of his body, but with no fulcrum, using just the power of his upper arms. After that his assistants selected a pair of melon-sized rocks from a pile that entered on a levitruck and passed them around the audience.
Once everyone was satisfied that they were genuine examples of a particularly dense form of stone from a local quarry, Rombosti took one in each hand and closed his fingers over them. With a theatrical roar he slowly turned, lifting them above his head. Puffing and panting, crushing the rocks, he allowed the dust to trickle from his palms, before taking a triumphant bow.
Finally, an odd-looking contraption was brought forward. Four chairs suspended on chains from the four corners of a wooden cross. Rombosti and his assistants chose four members of the audience, one of whom was Lambic. Rombosti motioned for them to choose one of the four chairs to sit on, while he positioned himself at the centre. With another drum roll he lifted the entire thing above his head. Lambic’s feet dangled above the stage and he laughed out loud with surprise.
The band struck up and with surprisingly nimble footwork Rombosti began to revolve, steadily turning the cross and its passengers. Faster and faster he went, as the music gathered pace, until each chair was in line with the heavy beams of the cross and the screaming participants were spinning around, centrifugally horizontal to the floor.
Steadily, Rombosti slowed their progress, came to a halt, and lowered them down. Once they’d shakily climbed out from their seats he encouraged them to take a bow with him. Lambic felt elated as he staggered back to his seat, still dizzy from the amazing experience.
There followed a succession of incredible acts.
A small, squat, pink little alien hauled itself to the top of a pole, seven or eight times its own height, carefully positioned itself above a cruel-looking spike at the summit and let go. Gasps issued from the crowd as it impaled itself and slid to the base of the pole. What happened next was one of the strangest things. The creature pushed with large paddle-like feet, whilst gripping the pole above its head, and slowly eased itself forward. The pole seemed to slide through its body with the minimum of resistance, eventually appearing through its back as the fluidly flowing pink tissue closed back over with the faintest of squelches.
Then a peacock-like bird took the stage, fanned out her magnificent tail and let it shimmer for a while. It was composed of millions of tiny feathers, each of which had its own individual motor control. Lambic was directly facing her display and gradually realized that he was beginning to be able to see the crowd through her tail, as if it was fading from sight. He continued to watch until there was no sign of it remaining, just a direct view of the Leopani audience, or so he thought.
The bird stepped to one side and it was as though a photographic image of the crowd had been lifted away from a perfect match. Astonished intakes of breath gave way to applause as the Chameleon Bird repeated the effect, such that successive segments of the crowd could witness the magic.
She concluded the first part of the show by gracefully rotating, creating exquisite patterns on the canvas of her tail in myriad colours, like a living firework display, rippling and swirling in time to the gentle caress of the band.
During the break Lambic stretched his legs and surveyed the scene. The audience was composed of all walks of Leopani life, from workers like himself, to dignitaries, professionals and quite a few youngsters.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the change in accompanying lighting conditions, he thought he could make out a group from the Royal Court in a private viewing box, high above the last tier of public seating, but he couldn’t be sure. He watched the holosprites dance with the barflies for a while and then they were called back to their seats.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you enjoyed the first part of this evening’s cornucopia of delights. And now we shall commence the second half of our entertainment. Please prepare to be charmed by the unique talents of Omorfia: The Dream Girl.’
A young woman stepped onto the stage. She looked like a Leopanian, but he had never seen such beauty, such grace and poise. She seemed to be enveloped in an aura of enchantment. Lambic felt like he’d seen her before and his pulse quickened as he struggled to recollect, but to no avail.
Layers of red chiffon seemed to float around her, flowing across her body with delirious vitality. He was transfixed, instantly oblivious to everyone else in the carnival tent, as she filled his gaze with wonder. She carried with her a set of four glittering hoops, which she placed at her bare feet. Music wove its way into his consciousness, not from the house band, but something new, an alluring electronica, subtly suffused with euphoric beats.
Stretching her elegant arms above her, Omorfia sent the first hoop spinning up her body with the subtlest flick of her foot, swiftly followed by the others. In tempo with the music. the hoops appeared to take on a life of their own, as if moving by their own volition.
She made impossible moves, passing her arms through a hoop twirling about her neck, spinning them on the tips of her elbows, transferring hoops in opposing spins from the tips of her fingers on one side of her outstretched arms to the other. She sent them dancing up and down her torso with flawless muscle control, before lifting her left leg straight up by the side her head and sending one of the hoops to spin skillfully around her toes. Move after move escalated in mesmerizing complexity, sensuality and fascination, until she spun them from her body, high into the air and into the hands of a waiting trapeze artist.
The audience burst into wildly enthusiastic applause, curtailed as four more, larger hoops were bowled at Omorfia from the wings. She sent them spinning again and as they built up speed, each one emitted a gorgeous musical note in the form of a soft drone. She wriggled and swayed, coaxing the hoops across her body, one onto each arm, one around her neck and one along her left leg and down to the ankle, as she lifted it up behind her.
Careful alterations in the speed of rotation sent sparkling patterns dancing around the tent, as the multicellular holographic finish of the new hoops reflected the spotlights. With further precise adjustments in spin, the collective drone tones of the four hoops merged into a perfect chord, sending a shiver of pleasure through Lambic.
This surge of endorphins was the key to unlocking the secrets of the hoops. Their individual paths became blurred and then coalesced, filling his entire visual field, drawing him in.
Everyone watching Omorfia’s performance was magically transported into a beguiling dream-state, on the wings of a melodious trance. No single experience was alike, but all were taken to places that answered the deepest of questions, allayed the deepest of fears and filled the spirit with a sense of well-being.
Lambic found himself standing, holding hands with someone, watching a golden sunset across an iridescent turquoise sea, bathed in a sensation of utter bliss. He turned to his partner and in the twinkling reflection of the alien seascape she smiled back.
It was Omorfia! As fantasy gave way to reality, and the image faded away, a chaotic mixture of overwhelming emotions buffeted Lambic, but steadily, like a diver returning to the surface, his mind settled. He felt that he had connected with her on a higher plane, that they were soul mates in that conjured realm of the hoops.
Omorfia allowed the slowing hoops to curl around her midriff, scanning the audience with an innocent air, catching his eye for a fleeting instant. As the stunned audience slowly regained their equilibrium someone started to clap and within seconds she had a standing ovation.
With a broad smile she set the hoops spinning on their edges around her, as she bowed and turned with balletic grace. Once more their eyes met, locking for an instant, her expression bore a hint of surprise, verging on recognition. Lambic blushed, grinned, and was rewarded with a flickering smile, before Omorfia caught each of the falling hoops, bowled them through the exit and was after them in a trice.
The subsequent array of acrobats, singers, magicians and alien novelty acts were no less impressive and continued to enthrall the crowd, but Lambic could barely concentrate.
The Ring Master invited all of the acts back on stage to take a final bow, as clouds of petals were hurled above their heads in a traditional show of Leopanian appreciation. Lambic wanted to catch her attention again, but felt too self-conscious. As the performers of the Carnival of Delights Show bounced, hopped, slithered and danced their way through the exit, Omorfia suddenly looked back over her shoulder, directly at Lambic, and smiled; his heart leapt higher than the Flying Skatari Brothers.
Lambic shuffled out into the chaos of stalls, food outlets, hawkers, jugglers, fire-breathers and amusements, disoriented by his emergence. Leaving the warm odours of perfume, mingled with wood, canvas and wine, he looked around for some indication as to where the performers themselves might be, but there were no clues amongst the jostling eagerness of the locals. He considered hanging around for a while, until it cleared, but it looked as though things were set in for the night, as the wily carnival crew gleefully serviced the entertainment-starved Leopanians. Lambic had to be up early in the morning.
On his way towards the main exit from the carnival grounds, Lambic spotted another, smaller tent and went in on an impulse. It only demanded a relatively cheap entrance fee, so he allowed himself one more indulgence.
A strange, almost sinister world awaited him. As he wound his way around he came across successive booths divided by thick black curtains, dim lighting bathing the occupants. It was some form of freak show. He’d heard of them, but never seen pictures, only rumours, and here he saw the truth for himself.
Some of the unfortunates resembled aliens who had performed earlier in the evening, while others were too weird for even the wildest imagination. All were patently alive, apparently not distressed, staring into space with vacant smiles on what generally passed for faces.
Leopani had her own share of malformations, genetic curiosities and self-mutilators, but all were cared for by the good grace of the Royal Court and the vulgarity of putting them on display would be unthinkable in Leopani society. In many cases it was difficult to tell abnormal from alien, but there was a disquieting air about the macabre sideshow and the guilty voyeurism of its visitors that could never sit comfortably with Lambic.
He left quickly and set off for home, his head filled with Omorfia’s performance and a desire to formally make her acquaintance, interspersed with recollections of the sideshow, both of which disturbed his sleep, though for very different reasons.
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Copyright © 2007 by David Burnham