The Ringmaster Time Forgot
Murmurs circle the dark from hushed mouths waiting for the show to begin. They’ve waited seven years for this show to arrive, and now that it’s here—as it’s always on time—they can’t wait any longer.
But they will wait, and Lyra Lane knows it—waiting makes the show that much better.
From behind the curtains, with her eyes closed, she can feel their energy. It’s their delicious energy that makes the magic. She waits for the perfect moment, the crest between excitement and agitation, before she takes a deep breath and steps out into the darkness. In this space, before the audience is aware she’s there, as she’s standing invisible before them but fully present, she remembers how long she’s been doing this. Far longer than any of their first memories, an age more than she’d admit to, hiding from Time and beneath Death’s nose.
The lights go on, a spiral of yellow and gold speckles her dark skin. She is the universe, stars and all. The pre-recorded introduction captured on old Earth technology jolts on and issues words from a friend, a mentor, lost to time but not from her memories, shake her from her reverie. The deepness of the voice always resonates in her bones. The tenor of feeling in the words. The secret stories behind the words and the love embedded in them. “Welcome to the Infinite Circus! It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to your story navigator tonight, Ringmaster Lyra Lane!”
Cheers erupt from the stands, and as their energy swells Lyra breathes it into her lungs and roars with a might few on this side of the galaxy have seen—
“Welcome Friends! Fiends! Folks of Atmos 5, the best station on Ceres, to the most spectacular show in the universe!”
As she takes her next breath, swelling with energy and magic, she looks out to the crowd and searches for them. No one she has ever met, but people she knows intimately. Those who look to the stars to find their stories. Those who are waiting to be swept up and lost in a tide of tales. People like her.
The crowd roars in response, and Lyra looks for the one who will one day take her place. The timeless one who is her mirror—they are also the universe, stars and all.
The Eye of the Universe
Before Flora knows about the world, before she understands loss, before she’s plucked up and out of reality to swim in magic with the finest acrobats in the universe, her eyes meet the Ringmaster’s. She squeezes her mom’s hand as a feeling—like the moment before a great adventure or the twinkling of a possibility—courses through her.
Her mom’s smile radiates back at her, illuminated by speckles of stars that are swirling around them. She leans down, her bangs falling into her eyes, and squeezes her hand back.
“This is just how I remember it when I was a kid. And Lyra looks exactly the same!” The excitement in her mom’s face, her voice, the warmth of her hand, is a moment. A snapshot. Flora tucks it away, filed between clips of sour school days, soundtracks of the rumble of the quarry and weary of the workers, and stills of her mother’s illness.
“Thank you for bringing me,” Flora says in her softest voice, for the audience is hushed.
Her mom puts her arm around her. “There’s no where I’d rather be and no one I’d rather be with. Being with you is the greatest magic.”
As Flora’s voice catches in her throat, she suddenly feels weightless. She gives her mom a panicked glance and grabs her hand.
Smiling, her mom only says, “It’s beginning.”
Flora, her mom, and all of the audience of Atmos 5 all begin to float, and their stadium seats seem to disappear into an endless sea of space. Flora clutches her mom’s hand for minutes before letting go, wondering what it’s like to actually fly.
And they do. The audience floats, circling the main stage like a school of human space fish, swirling around gently as the acrobats in the center twist and turn and spin. As they dance, a blue light radiates from their center.
Magic. Flora knows that’s the only way this could possibly exist.
The spectators float gently around the acrobats, the weightlessness a strange sensation even though they live on a space station. Flora watches a story unfold that tells a tale about a mysterious wanderer who meets Fate.
Flora lets the momentum of the crowd pull her like a calm and gentle tide, and seeing her mom’s joy, wonders what it would be like to live forever. She’s not sure how or why, but she thinks the Ringmaster could know.
When they leave the Infinite Circus, after the Eye of the Universe, after cotton candy, after holographic animals, after face painting, Flora’s mind flutters with wistful thoughts.
Over the years, Flora will forget many things unworthy of remembering and willfully ignore impolite memories that intrude on her feelings.
But not the Infinite Circus. She’ll always remember the smell of the Old Earth popcorn, the calm in her mom’s eyes, and the feeling of being transported into a tale infinitely more beautiful than reality—especially when that reality, eventually, no longer includes her mother.
The Mysterious Wayfarer
Before Lyra Lane takes a bow in front of the Atmos 5 audience, before she dazzles them with her parting smile, before she steps onto the gigantic robotic leviathan ship, she feels something amiss.
The hunger from the audience seemed greater, and she wonders if she’s accomplished what she set out to do—provide them a magical escape—when she can still feel their gnawing appetite at her back. Seven years ago they were vibrant. What could change so much in that small amount of time?
She is more exhausted than she can ever remember, and she thinks maybe Time has seen her and has mentioned her presence to Death. As she pats the metallic leviathan, fondly named Echo, in circus tradition, she tries to leave all of her worries outside the traveling space train.
Despite her attempt, a small shadow climbs aboard with her, full of its own worry and wonder.
It isn’t until hours later when she’s taking a stroll in the dome of Echo and marveling at how much space there is and how, even after centuries, it still takes her breath away, she encounters the girl, a small thing full of worry and wonder.
“You’re a long way from home now,” Lyra says to the girl who seems older in memories and younger in spirit. “Won’t Atmos 5 miss you?” Lyra knows the answer already, but sometimes when you know something inside of you, it still helps to hear it spoken aloud.
“I don’t think so. I don’t have any family there anymore.” The girl looks up at the stars, and Lyra wonders if the girl feels like the universe could swallow her at any moment too.
“Won’t you miss Atmos 5? It’s your home.” Lyra crouches and sits beside the girl who seems more at home on Echo than Lyra has ever felt.
“Yes.” It’s all she says.
“Did you see the show?” Lyra asks.
The girl shakes her head. “No… not this time. I saw it when you were here last, though, with my mom. It was wonderful.”
Lyra smiles. “Thank you. I suppose you were too busy figuring out how to sneak on our caravan to see the show?”
The girl grins. “I saw the beginning. When you welcomed everyone. It’s my favorite part.”
This surprises Lyra. “Really? Not The Eye of the Universe where you’re floating in the air like stardust?” She gestures widely with her arms as though she is announcing in the stadium. “Or Geraldine’s Magical Animal Menagerie?” She conjures her top hat and tips it with a wink. “Or Captain Ocean’s Voyage?” She leans forward to look at the girl squarely. “Why?”
“Those are all good shows, but the beginning is the best part. It’s the furthest from the end of the show.” The girl paused. “Like when you love a story and you read it and you have all that adventure ahead of you? Even when you’re at a good part in the story, you know it’ll be over one day. But the beginning? That’s the moment you know you’re okay. That’s the moment when you have all of the possibilities ahead of you.” The girl sighed. “That’s when you don’t have to go back to real life.”
They sit in silence for a little while, universe-gazing, and Lyra can’t help but wonder about the girl. They are the same. Both of them a blazing fire burning over deep layers of grief.
“What’s your name?” Lyra asks and takes her hat off.
“Well, Flora, I hope you’re ready for a new beginning. As much as I’d like to tell you that I can turn this beast around and take you back, that ship has sailed.”
They sit in silence for a while longer, before Flora speaks.
“Will I be okay?” This isn’t the fire speaking, it’s the grief, and Lyra reaches for her own.
“Yeah. You’re good.” Lyra gently puts her top hat on Flora’s head.
Lyra doesn’t tell Flora about being timeless and wandering the stars and creating more voids by chasing memories she couldn’t possibly fill. In that moment, she’s just grateful for the quiet company, and finally, the absence of hunger and worry.
The Ghost of Ceres
Nothing has changed on Atmos 5 since Flora left seven years ago. Not the way the air purifier smells gently of flowers Flora has never actually seen. Not the way its inhabitants seem gaunt emotionally. Not the way the stars seem to yell from the distance—“We’re out here! There’s more! Don’t lose hope!”
The Infinite Circus arrives a few days before the show, at Flora’s request, but she feels like a stranger in a place where no one remembers a small, sad girl who disappeared seven years ago.
Flora visits all of the places that remind her of her mother and even though she imagined she’d feel haunted by the memories, wandering here and there with little to no interaction with anyone makes her feel like the specter. The Ghost of Ceres.
She passes through the bustling diner where she learned about pancakes, the shopping square where she coveted things she couldn’t afford, and the edges of the building where her mother taught before she was too sick. She couldn’t bring herself to go in. She just hovered and watched and felt.
When Flora arrives back at the caravan, she feels a void. Sad? She had wondered—worried—whether she’d suddenly be transported back to fifteen, and if she’d feel as unmoored and empty as the day she left. But she feels largely unchanged, and for some reason, that bothers her, and continues to bother her until she waits for the show to begin.
Flora steps into the darkness.
“Welcome to the Infinite Circus! It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to your story navigator tonight, Ringmaster Flora Future!” Lyra’s recorded voice permeates the audience and Flora’s heart.
“Will you be okay?” Lyra asks, knowing that loss is never easy. “It’s my time.”
“Yeah, I’m good.” Flora knows that loss is difficult, but life could be infinite in stories—in memories.
“This is really just the beginning,” Lyra says, her eyes filled with starlight. “You’re going to be a great Ringmaster.”
“Welcome Friends! Fiends! Folks of Atmos 5, the best station on Ceres, to the most spectacular show in the universe!” Flora steps into the dazzling light. She will help the audience escape, weave stories from her memories, and transport them to worlds they could never dream of. Together, they’ll create a new beginning.