Published on February 18th, 2013 | by dpage0060
by Sean Burke
Chapter 1: Lilith
I try not to grimace in pain as the razor sharp tightrope cuts into my heels, warm scarlet blood spilling onto the floor thirty feet below and into the mouths of ravenous beasts. The crowd roars and cheers in delight as I inch closer to the center of the wire. Their bloodlust is apparently insatiable; this is the only entertainment available throughout the entire world, the main event. Three shows a day of constant abuse is the only way to placate the masses and their deep seeded cynicism.
Finally I reach the waypoint, the very center of the wire. The metal is horrifically stained a permanent ruby red from constant performances. I expertly and gracefully transfer from foot to hands, precariously perched with one mere slip able to bequeath my demise. Slowly, I move one hand outstretched to my side, being careful to keep my tenuous balance.
Blood now pours profusely out of my hand on the wire, and the crowd has gone silent in awe of the stunt. Crookshaw, the ring leader plays up the ante, “What is she doing?” he sneers in fake aghast through his megaphone, “This wasn’t the original stunt! Can anyone save her?!” At my cue I pretend to lose balance and roll upside down hanging desperately by four fingers. “Having second thoughts Lilith?” Shouts the ringleader as the crowd gasps in horror. I fulfill my thespian role by losing grip dramatically and plummeting to the floor in ragdoll fashion. Making sure to land in the trapdoor invisible from anywhere but the middle of the high wire. I hear the crowd shout in terror as I fall and then cheer in delight as my demise is simulated by a sacrificial slave being fed to the beasts of the circus.
25 years of this… 25 years. Surely this isn’t my life, I can get out; I have to get out.
Crookshaw entered the room so quietly I nearly didn’t hear, “Great show tonight. I’ve never seen so many eyes locked on one place in a single moment.”
“Thank you. You didn’t do too bad yourself.” Crookshaw could always play the crowd, that’s for sure.
“I’m sure you’ll be perfect to take over when I’m gone” He replies out of a prolonged but not unusual silence.
“That is a long way off and you know it Crookshaw.” I reply lightheartedly.
Suddenly the world is all black and stars as Crookshaw whips his hand across the back of my skull. I instantly regret my mistake. “Don’t forget how this works,” He says with poison dripping from his lips, “I am your master. And you are my servant. You will address me as such.”
“Understood” I manage to squeak out.
He grabs my hair voraciously, but his speech is smooth. “Understood what?”
“Understood, master” I utter through the sobs that are already coming. I have to get out. Have to.
Yet no matter how much I deeply despise Crookshaw, I am indebted to him. He took me in as an infant left to die. And I have to recognize this most basic human compassion even if the time since has not been completely ideal. If it weren’t for Crookshaw I’d be dead or worse by now.
I wipe the tears away unaware of how long I’ve been sitting in my compartment. I need a drink I think as I rub my temples as if to massage the day away. So I grab my leather coat and head down the hall to the bar restricted to performers. The entire place was quiet now that shows had ended for the day. Jeremiah, the bartender, can see the tiredness in my eyes immediately and cheerfully greets me, “Lilith, How are you this fine evening?”
“No evening is fine here and you know it Jeremiah. But I just need some liquid happiness. I want two shots of the usual please.”
“One the rocks?” he asks.
“No. Not tonight. I want to feel the burn.” I reply gloomily.
“What’s your trouble?” he asked as he begins quickly fixing my purple drinks.
“Just this place I guess. Jeremiah?”
“Yes Lil’?” he replies as he sets two glasses on the metal bar.
“What’s it like outside of here?”
“The bar? Just as depressing I guess.” He laughs.
“You know what I mean,” I scold him softly, “what is it like outside of the circus? You used to live on the outside. What is it like?” I press.
He sighs and then leans against the bar with his hands. “Honestly, not much better than here. There is a city a few miles from here called Eden. Well, New Eden I guess after the scorching.
“I wasn’t alive during the scorching but I’ve heard stories from grizzled old men in-between shows. The world was baked in radioactive solar flares. But humanity survived in bunkers apparently. The people who emerged met with hostile world full of strange mutations of formerly beautiful creatures.
“When I used to live in New Eden, I was a bartender. Shocking I know.” He jokes soberly. “But times are definitely hard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they still were. My apartment got broken into more than a few times, I got cornered in a back alley a more times than I care to remember, I even killed one or two of the guys who did the cornering.” His gaze goes dark as he looks at the ground, I can only imagine what it must be like to kill outside the circus. “The people stink, food is scarce, and alcohol is expensive. But I might trade it for this place still.”
“Have you ever thought of getting out of here? Ya know, retiring I guess. I mean you used to be a fencer, but you stayed even after you were too old…”I stop myself from my impending rudeness.
“What? Too old to be useful? Eh,” he laughs “maybe you’re right. But I enjoy providing some kind of relief here, if even so brief. And even then, it isn’t that bad. You have food, clean water, a bed, and good company. What more could you ask?” Even though he says this I can see the circus has taken its toll on Jeremiah.
“To be tortured day in and day out, how did you deal with it?”
“I just tried to place myself somewhere else. After a while the torture became daily therapy. My body was scared, but my mind was stronger each time. And now I’m out, I can walk away anytime.”
“So why don’t you?” I sneer.
“Take your drink Lilith, it’ll raise your spirits.”
The drink helps with its warm magic but I am still at the mercy of the circus, expendable. And even if I could survive until my golden years my best bet is to still be here. As a bartender, or a whore. Sure the immediate threat of death is gone but I’m no less a slave, no more free.
I have to get out.
Chapter 2: Incident
My dreams that night are filled with horrors of being trapped. I was a bird in a cage that kept getting smaller until I was crushed. Then I transformed into a turtle. Able to roam as I please but unable to go anywhere quickly and constantly trapped in a shell; I was repeatedly caught by snakes that were ridiculously faster than me. They filled me with poison until I burst. Needless to say I do not feel rested when I wake. Or at least I think I woke.
I open my eyes but there is still blackness. After shifting a little bit I realize I AM trapped. Maybe I’m still dreaming, I bite my hand to test this and sure enough pain blooms in my thumb, enough to make me whimper. I panic. Frantically, I try to find an escape, to wake to the horrible dreams that are still fresh in your mind is far worse than any physical torture that I’m subjected to day in and day out.
Just when I don’t think I can take it and that all hope of seeing the outside world is lost I hear him. Crookshaw is speaking over what sounds like a megaphone to an extremely quiet crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real treat today!” He says a bit to animatedly. His voice is unusually high and with a sound of madness that is irregular even for him. At this I’m more frightened than I was when I first woke. But I don’t move. Maybe I can hide in my box. Keep away from the man who continues his eerie monologue. “Yes. We do. It seems that some members of our staff do not feel that I am accommodating, or merciful. They feel, in fact that this wondrous circus is ‘hazardous to your health’ as some might say.” Crookshaw continues.
The scars on Jeremiah’s body flash through my mind, and the scars on my feet and hands are not forgotten either. The circus is dangerous, everyone knows this. So why is Crookshaw bringing it up now?
“Some may even want to, get out?” as soon as he says this I know it’s me he’s referring to. And I know what the box is as well. We use it to confine slaves and prisoners in before executions.
This is an execution.
Dread seeps through me and I struggle against the container again. As my eyes adjust I can see nail marks, bloodstains, and etchings of condemned men, women and children. I know it’s over. It has to be. I almost miss it when he announces Jeremiah.
Why is he here? What could he have done? For the matter, what did I do?
Apparently I’m announced next because my cage door opens and primal instincts fling me into the open air. “…is the price of slander and distrust in your circus, your livelihood, and my life’s work!” Crookshaw finishes his speech and I can see even though this is a ceremony of judgment he has a smile as wide as his face can possibly allow. His face looks freakish tonight with yellow teeth showing past thin lips, and brown eyes focused on something in the air only he can see.
The people in the crowd are all familiar faces. People I’ve worked with for years sitting in the stands silently, and obediently. Either out of fear or actual loyalty is not apparent. Some smile, some avert their eyes as mine flick past them. But eventually I’m staring at Jeremiah. He is holding one of the swords we use in dueling performances. The blade is stained and rusty but perceptibly sharp. One lays at my feet a well. Jeremiah looks dazed and confused, a thousand years older than how he looked last night.
Robotically I pick up my sword. “That’s the spirit!” exclaims Crookshaw in encouragement, “this wouldn’t be a proper dual without two competitors!” He looks at the crowd, the smile still cracking his face unnaturally, “the stakes! The traitors,” so that’s my crime, “will fight to the death! The loser will be… well, dead. But, the victor will receive a week of reprieve to rejuvenate their body and recommit to the circus in the same way they were before!”
It seems laughable! Die, or don’t die but continue being tortured in a mere reprieve of 7 days. What kind of choice is that?
Apparently it’s none at all to Jeremiah. He puts his sword down and says one word. The most important word I’ve ever heard him say before. It’s weak and hoarse but full of power. “No.”
Then the whip falls. Hard and fast on his cheek, then his back, then his back again, and again. Jeremiah is beaten for four minutes. Security usually used to contain the crowd ties the sword tied to his hand and he is forced to stand.
Before, he looked old, now he looks dead. “Now!” resumes Crookshaw, “Without further questioning I’d like to see some blood!” He is screaming now, the look on his face is not a smile but the fiercest frown I have ever seen. Red covers his face as if he is trying to make us both to explode by glaring.
I lift my sword into the readied position and begin to circle. Jeremiah looks at me sadly and shakes his head. But he too begins to circle. He raises his sword above his head with both hands and picks up a pace. Before I am about to begin my run at him he mouths the second most important word I’ve heard him say, run. He then turns to dash at Crookshaw.
Chaos is the only way to describe what happens next. Crookshaw stumbles backward, receiving a cut on the face across his cheek. The handlers that have had us surrounded abandon their positions to subdue Jeremiah.
They abandon me though. I see the Exit at my back and decide it is only the best option to follow the advice of a dying man. To run. I sprint through the tent flap to the courtyard where customers are still waiting for the next show. They see me and cheer; some say I’m supposed to be dead. And maybe I am. But for now I have breath and I run.
Bursting through waiting crowds of people outside the main tent I sprint for the gates of the compound, high walls made of thick cement with large steel doors.
These doors start to close and I have to slide underneath them to escape. And I can’t believe it, but I did. I check myself for holes. For any injury I find only a scratch on my calf from sliding. Everything else is fine. I jog further away into the crowds outside the compound before I hear it…
Machine guns jump to life, mowing down the crowds that were trapped inside.
Chapter 3: Red Carpet
My mind is racing, I can’t go back but I don’t know where to go now. One thing’s certain and it fills me with the smallest joy. I’m actually out.
But this is only a small relief in light of recent events. I may be out of the circus but that doesn’t mean Crookshaw can’t follow me. It’s only a matter of time until he finds out I’m not in the pile of fresh corpses within the compound. And then it will be minutes before he dispatches a search party.
People have escaped before, and all of them have been brought back and made a spectacle. The normal fair is two hours of torture in front of a crowd and then a slow execution. Just like today, the cast is made to watch but for deserters the civilian crowd is also allowed to watch.
I’ve seen hot iron dripped onto naked bodies, and down throats. I’ve seen people dismembered slowly and quickly. I’ve seen friends drowned and I’ve seen criminals eaten alive. But today’s execution, or attempt at one, hit home hard. Jeremiah knew what was going to happen. We spoke against Crookshaw and someone heard. He made up his mind faster than I knew what was happening. For some reason he wanted me to escape, or at least have a chance to.
And he’s probably dead. No, he is definitely dead. I can’t afford to think about him right now. I need to find my way through New Eden and find a place to stay. Crookshaws circus is only three or four miles away from the city of Eden. It is just easy enough to get to, and far enough away so that the screams of victims aren’t heard.
A sprawling and self-sufficient city has sprung up around the walls of Eden, and at sunset, set to a backdrop of an eerie and dangerous forest with lights just sparking into life within the windows of buildings on the eastern edge, it could be beautiful. But my mind is racing too fast to appreciate it.
My eyes are darting all around, searching for the attack that is sure to be imminent on the impromptu caravan of travelers from the circus. People only spoke about the machine guns for a little while. They assumed it was a show and some even talked of going back before it was over. All I can think of is how clueless these people are.
But suddenly I’m the clueless one as we enter New Eden. The streets are confusing, the people smell funny, and a plethora of neon signs are craving my attention so much I get an intense migraine and have to look at the ground to keep my vision from crossing.
I decide to find a bar, because I definitely need a drink, both to forget today’s events and to steady myself. My hands are visibly shaking and as I pass some mirrored glass on of a shop window and see my face is unnaturally pale.
Fortunately it doesn’t take very long to find a bar here, however they all seem to cater to different tastes. There are strip clubs, gay bars, bars that specialize in near poisonous drinks, bars that have small doors only the diminutive can enter, and even bars only for people who like to be irradiated while drinking.
After some searching I find a bar that only boasts the most powerful drinks in New Eden, and their specialty drink the Mind Bender. I make a note to stay away from that one. I want to forget, but I also want my sanity.
As I walk into the bar, I feel the attention in the room shift to me. Eyes look me up and down and even though I’ve performed in front of crowds before it’s never been like this. These eyes are piercing and violating. But just as I’m getting uncomfortable and about to step out of the bar the eyes leave me and go back to their previous position. I glance around to make sure most eyes are averted and then I stride in mock confidence to the bar counter. I take my seat next to a man who is dirty, dusty, and passed out on the bar-top next to me, and next to another man who is on his way to being passed out. But he stumbles off as I sit next to him. I see him shove some money into a whores’ hand and they make their way upstairs.
I didn’t notice it before but this place smells horrible. Like creature pens that have been left to rot for a few days during the summer. But I want my drink more than my nose wants me to leave. A very thick set man comes to the counter from a back room and stares at me questioningly.
“Well?” he says just as I understand that he’s the bartender.
“Oh, uhm. Just a gin and tonic I guess.” I say albeit timidly. The man reeks of alcohol, and I can only guess at why he was in the store room. But he grunts and walks down to the far side of the counter to fix my drink. What comes back isn’t really a gin and tonic though… It’s more like gin and more gin. Once again I am forced to regret Jeremiahs passing. I take a swig of the overly alcoholic drink and force myself to think past him.
I need a place to stay, and money to pay for it. I need to do this soon, or else Crookshaw will find me. If Crookshaw finds me… Well let’s think about money right now. Luckily I still have a thousand seven hundred and fifty seven credits in my account. After the drink it goes to a nice round thousand seven hundred and fifty. I might have enough to stay here tonight but then what? Just keep moving around in Eden? No, Crookshaw would be waiting at every turn I bet. I need to get out then. Funny, that’s becoming a theme in my life recently.
Just as the drink starts to do its magic and I start to laugh at my recent plight, more shows up. Two very big guys, with very big muscles, and very advanced guns approach the bar. One sits in the recently empty seat and one leans on the bar behind him.
“Hey there sweetheart. You new in town?” The one sitting down says in what I imagine must be his way of smooth-talking me.
“What if I was?” I say with an air of indifference as I sneak a peek at the guns on their waists. They’re packing hard that’s for sure, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before.
“We would just show you around! Give you a good old fashion New Eden welcome.” The one sitting down responds casually. The other one smiles and puts his hand on his gun, also very casually.
“Well I AM from around here. My place is closer to the wall.” I lie in an attempt to shake them. “But me and this guy,” I point to my new friend Mr. Comatose, “are staying here. I don’t think he could walk three steps in his state.”
The talker frowns and moves to look at this new variable. “Him? Oh we can carry him to your place if you want. Where’d you live again?” he says after a short pause.
“No, really. We’ll just stay here. But I appreciate the offer.” I reply, now exasperated by the entire conversation.
“I insist, let me get him.” The talker says. Both the men get up from the bar saunter over to my good old unconscious friend. What happens next surprises everyone though.
“No that’s ok mi amigo.” My now previously unconscious friend says as he sits up straight with pistol in hand. A pistol rested in the middle of the smooth talkers face. “I just needed a nap. But now that I’m nice and rested I think we’ll be going.” He looks at me and smiles sweetly, “right honey?”
“Wait. What’s your name again stranger?” The smooth talker continues while opening his arms. My ally opens his mouth to reply but is cut off abruptly, “No no no. wait a minute buddy, not you.” He turns and points to me. “You. What’s his name? On the count of 3 you are both going to say his name. Or my friend is going to blow his brains out, and then yours. Understand?” In a flurry of movement the silent man has my new buddy in a headlock with a very expensive looking gun pointed at his head.
I nod my head as he starts “One,” my hand finds my overly alcoholic drink, “two,” my partner glances at the drink, guesses my intentions and reaches for a knife in his belt that until now has gone unnoticed. “Three.”
It happened almost faster than I can remember it. I threw my Gin into the talkers face, it acted like pepper spray and sends him recoiling. My friend’s knife finds the throat of his assailant; I break my glass on the bar top and leap onto the talker to shut him up for good. Blood is now pouring across the floor from the freshly dead bodies.
“Welcome to New Eden!” says the stranger enthusiastically, but out of breath. “Come on, I’ll get you a new drink at another bar. Then you can tell me how you escaped Crookshaws freak show.”