As the circus ship landed at the dock of the recently established lumber planet, Leonardo was in the middle of his transformation from man to legend. He was well known, of course, or else the Titan Corporation would not have invited his circus to perform for their lumberjacks. But this was before the spectacle on Venus, before he became a bedtime story told to children so they’d dream of wondrous things. I will not be going into that story here. No, I bet you’ve heard that story a hundred times already. I bet you think of Leonardo as a dreamweaver, a demigod turning stardust to gold with his five beautiful children. No, I will not be focusing on Leonardo today. This story is not about my father. It’s about the sixth child. It’s about me.
From orbit, the planet Hathor looked like a patchwork quilt. Lush, deep green squares of just-terraformed pine forest stood stark against patches of razed land and wide, low buildings. I focused on the forest as our pilot lowered the Big Top down onto the landing dock. All of us were on the bridge, the six of us and our father. I met Avan’s gaze across the room from my seat in the window, and shot him a cybernetic message. Remember the days when you had to pilot the ship? He didn’t respond, just barked out a laugh and rolled his eyes. It always delighted me when he did that. Avan was the first of us to get an ocular implant and he was the master of rolling the natural one and the electronic one at the same time. Whenever Catriona tried to do that, her implant glitched and looked awful.
In the bright fluorescent lights of the bridge, I looked at Avan closely for the first time in a while. His skin had taken on a sallow tone, and wrinkles began to crawl over his face and left hand. Of course I knew that he was fifteen years older than I was, but it still shocked me to see the grey hairs peppering his beard. In my mind, Avan was always twenty-four, cracking jokes as he leaned back in the pilot’s seat. Today, I supposed, he spent more time balancing the circus’s accounts. I scanned my eyes over the perimeter of the room, examining each sibling individually. Each was different to my mental image, and with the amount of implants we all had, they were all starting to blend together. Leonardo, the last natural human left in our family, was in his quarters. He needed more sleep than any of us did.
A rough, bumpy landing stirred me out of my thoughts. The autopilot system played a prerecorded apology for any inconvenience, as if it didn’t just shepherd us from one end of the Titan region to the other. In the pod next to me, Bell yawned and wiped the sleep from his eyes.
“What time is it planetside?” He asked as he made sure that his prosthetic limbs were still working properly.
“Three fifty two ma.m., TGST,” The computer’s voice chirped.
“Stars,” Daphne breathed, “Let’s hope these lumberjacks get up early.”
Like children in the schoolyard, we all lined up outside the airlock doors. Age order, I noted, staring at the back of Elio’s scarred, bald head. A loud wooshing sound filled the air and the doors opened. All six of us immediately felt a brick wall of humidity. New terraforms were always the worst in terms of weather. Silently, I commanded my cybernetics to not go wonky on me. It didn’t help that our father designed all of the implants in his ice-cold climate controlled lab, then dragged us all to perform on tropical planets. Most of the time, it didn’t matter if something glitched out at a show. The audience was usually so stunned by what we were able to do that they didn’t notice when things didn’t go as planned. But this show was different.
There could be no margin of error. Perfection was the only option.
Just before Avan stepped outside of the Big Top, a door clicked open behind us. Wearing his signature crisp recreation of a red eighteenth-century military jacket, Dad strode to the front of the line and made sure he was the first to step foot on Hathor. He was the face of the circus, not Avan. It was his job to lead. Of course, none of that mattered when he slept for fifteen hours and left us to manage every task behind the spectacle. But when people were watching, Dad never let his mask slip.
A thin, white-coated person took our temperatures one by one as we stepped off the ship. About two or three months previously, a particularly bad outbreak of Venusian Flu ravaged the lumberjacks of Hathor. Titan lost a third of their expected lumber output for the quarter. They could not have that again, not when their buyers were clamoring for more wood to floor the new housing developments in the Fife Region. So, in somewhat of a farce, all of us cyborgs stood under the scope of a thermometer, as if we didn’t have nanotech implants ensuring our immune system was perfectly functional at all times. Afterwards, the lumberjack, named Francis, herded us through a forested path to a concrete building. The dormitory for all human life on Hathor.
To our left as we walked in, the lumberjacks huddled around a thin space heater with a video of a fire playing on its screen. As Francis’ keys jangled in the door, all twenty of them in the sitting area whipped their heads towards us. The faces of the workers ran the gamut of emotions from friendly interest to disgust, almost horror. Francis flashed them all a warning look. Most of them looked away. A Siphonian in the back corner, though, spit onto the ground as soon as my siblings walked through the door. They didn’t break eye contact with Avan the entire time. Bell, always the impulsive one, started storming forward, but Avan and Elio both restrained him.
Maybe we should have you walk in first, with your hair and single face mod, pretty girl, Catriona messaged.
Involuntarily, I touched the metal implant protruding from my ear. I pictured the leering eyes of the lumberjacks raking their way across my body and sat in my gratitude of being able to hide behind my brothers. The cold metal inside of my body, though, sat like lead as I swallowed hard. Just because most of my mods were internal doesn’t mean I wasn’t a cyborg. Even today, I can still feel the titanium vein running down my esophagus, the zirconium in my teeth and palette. I looked over at mostly-metal Catriona and shuddered knowing how much a night with her would go for on some planets. Once Francis showed us to our rooms, I shoved those thoughts away.
One of the most important parts of the Great Circus’s rider was that each performer got our own room. It’s true in any big family that things go smoother if everyone has their own space. That rule applies tenfold when that family trains and performs together. I slipped into my room, a tiny dormer barely bigger than my closet on the ship, and set my duffel bag on the table. The air in here was cool, and my window looked out onto a seemingly endless forest of pine trees. I wondered how long you could walk into it before you hit another razed patch.
I hung up my costume, packed away my extra clothes, and set out my makeup in front of the mirror. Carefully, I thumbed the only thing left in the bag. Before taking it out, I poked my head out the door to make sure no one would barge in on me. Of course they wouldn’t. Father was still hungover and the rest of the family would sleep and charge what they needed to before rehearsal began in the evening. I twisted the lock shut, then pulled out my prized possession.
The little green glass bird shone in the electric light. I turned it around and around in my hands, watching the way the inside of the owl looked different at each angle. Smooth, cool glass met my fingers and I smiled. This was for me, all mine. I stole it myself from Mother’s vanity before she disappeared and Father turned her room into another laboratory. As far as I knew, the owl wasn’t important to her, just another piece of clutter on the countertop. Everything important had been shoved into the suitcase she took when she ran away, of course. But the owl still reminded me of her. At the same time, the ache in my chest for her now-vanished kindness only deepened whenever I looked at it. Daring to risk Father’s ire if he entered and saw it, I placed the bird on top of the dresser and settled into bed.
My dreams, as always, were a twisted retelling of the circus. A wall of faceless audience members surrounded me and my family as we stood in the center of the ring. On an impossibly tall pedestal in the center, my father stood, clad in his vibrant uniform, narrating everything that was going on. To my left, Bell contorted his body into shapes inconceivable for any human. To my right, Catriona shifted her mechanical face into celebrities, cycling through the most beautiful people in this region of the galaxy. Above me, Elio and Daphne swung and jumped through the trapeze routine, arms and legs programmed to never miss the bar. Although I couldn’t see their faces, the roar of the crowd grew louder and louder. I clawed at my ears, searching for a way to block the sound.
Then, suddenly, the ground beneath me started to lift. As I rose into the air, the crowd roar grew to a wall of noise. The big top collapsed as I rocketed into the sky, soon stories above the rest of the circus. I stared over the dizzying precipice, knowing what I had to do. What they expected of me. The titanium liner down my throat weighed me down as I attempted to calm my breathing. Frantic, I tried to figure out a way to get down. A loud crack from behind me jolted me back into the moment. I spun around on my toes and came face to face with my father.
His wild-eyed smile cracked his face open. “It’s time, Fiona. My greatest trick. My greatest achievement. You are truly the improvement of the other models. Show them what you can do. Show them my masterwork.”
I could feel it, then, the burning travelling up my esophagus. It started in the pit of my stomach, then shot its way up to my mouth. This wasn’t how I practiced it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I was supposed to be able to control it, to lead the fire up through my body. Not be a sitting duck as it ravaged whatever organs it could touch. It took all my energy not to double over in pain, to clench my jaw shut and see through the tears welling up in my eyes. My father’s laughter rang out as my muscles gave in and the fire, white-hot, erupted out of my mouth. The Dragon Girl, he shouted. The dream continued as I burned to death on the podium, listening to the deafening cheer of the audience.
Sweat soaked my clothes and sheets as I woke up back in the dorm room. I forced my pulse to calm down as I stared at the white cinderblock walls. When I could move steadily again, I glanced over at the clock on the end table. Four PM. I almost never slept for such a long time. It didn’t matter, though, because I would never be able to go back to bed after that nightmare. It was time, it seemed, for a walk in the woods.
Except I didn’t actually go to the woods. Not that I was ever near it, but I tended to stay away from nature back then. Something about it just felt unsettling, desperately foreign to me. Today when I’m planetside, I enjoy some wild beauty, but back then, I wouldn’t be caught dead alone in the woods. So I walked away from the woods, back into the lit-up plaza of the lumberjacks’ buildings. Off in a field in the distance, I could see the droids lifting up the big top tent. The candy-striped behemoth seemed to inflate, towering above the nearby trees. I turned away from that, too, towards the building next to the dorms: the lumberjacks’ bar. Technically, it was a cafeteria, but from what I could see, there was no food and a giant shelf full of alcohol.
Luckily, at this point in the day, most of the workers were still out in the woods. Inside was the same whitewashed cinderblock room, except this time with a mahogany bar near the left wall. Only one person sat at the bar. It was a thin, pale human, with short red hair and a sunken face. He sported a uniform- the first one I’d seen since arrival. Much like the architecture, it was a bland, beige jumpsuit with the TitanCorp logo emblazoned on the right breast pocket. Briefly, I debated turning around and going somewhere I could be alone. Then, I remembered how much I needed a stiff drink, so instead, I took a seat next to him.
For a minute, he just stared at me, taking it all in. His eyes drifted over the metal bar coming out of my left ear, the long black braid I inherited from my mother, the cybernetic sparkle in my eyes. Unlike the men before, he didn’t look disgusted. Just mildly interested. Up close, I could see the deep bags under his eyes and how his hair hung limp to his shoulders.
“What do I have to do to get a drink around here?” My voice came out husky and dry from weeks of disuse.
The man’s eyes flicked back to mine. “Just go over there and grab one yourself.”
I froze at the sound of his accent. He wasn’t human. Sensing my shock, he chuckled and lifted up his hair to reveal the silvery scales on the side of his neck. He was a Jada. A telepath and an empath.
Which means he could feel my misery.
“My name is Rory. It’s nice to meet you, Fiona. Usually, I have trouble reading modded people, but your emotions are strong. I hope you enjoy your time on Hathor and find the answers you seek.” Like all Jada, his voice was smooth and soothing. I didn’t let that bring my guard down.
“Oh yeah? Have you found answers here yet, Rory?” I snatched a can of beer from the collection and started drinking.
His eyes darkened. “No. I haven’t found anything.”
At that point, Rory looked genuinely upset. We sat in silence for a while, nursing our drinks. Alcohol felt like nothing to me compared to what I was used to. Every few moments, I’d spare a glance in his direction and find him despondent, staring into space. Emotions like that always made me uncomfortable. So I spoke up.
“Why are you here, then? If it’s doing nothing for you? I thought Jada are supposed to be, like, super spiritual or whatever. One with the universe.”
Rory turned his head back to me, locking eyes. When, after a few moments, I still waited for him to respond, he spoke again. “So your father didn’t tell you, then?”
“Tell me what?”
A humorless grin spread across his face. “Hathor is effectively a prison planet. We’re all working off our debts to Titan.”
I sat with that idea, stunned. Of course, I knew about the Titan Corporation’s business practices. Father held them over our heads the minute any one of us complained. A life in the circus wasn’t perfect, he reasoned, but it was certainly better than wage slavery under Titan Corp. Still, the way Avan and he had described Hathor was as some sort of pastoral idyll. I supposed he wouldn’t talk trash about the crowds buying peanuts and tickets. I visibly froze. Rory went easy on me after that.
“It’s not your fault. They don’t tell anyone about the bad parts, just how noble and beautiful it is to work as a lumberjack. As if we just hike around and cut down trees at random. When the reality is the opposite. Did you know that lumberjacks are the most likely to die at work? It’s true. I read it a few years ago in a science magazine. Before I started here, obviously.”
I almost smiled at that. We could relate to each other more than I suspected. Even though I’m sure he could read my thoughts, I went out on a limb, anyway, to see if we were as similar as I thought they were.
“Do you think about leaving, ever? Just stealing a pod and getting as far away as you can on a fuel tank?” I didn’t even look at him until I finished the sentence.
He was silent for a moment, looking down into the deep amber of his glass. “Of course I do. I dream about it all the time.”
With that, I trusted him completely. He knew the simmering terror of confinement as intimately as I did. We were twins in sorrow. The rest of the conversation we had in our minds, if you could even call it a conversation. It wasn’t an exchange of words or ideas, it was greater than that. Somehow, Rory and I became of one mind. Thoughts, feelings, and concepts bubbled up organically, and no words were necessary to assess them. He entered my inner monologue.
By the end of half an hour, we’d hatched a plan. In my mind, there were just urges pulling me towards what I had to do and images of a potential future. My pulse raced like a hummingbird as I stepped out of the bar, feeling Rory’s eyes boring into the back of my neck. Quickly, I checked the watch embedded under the skin of my wrist. Time enough to do what I needed to do.
Objectively, I knew that sneaking around the dorm on my tiptoes would raise suspicion from my siblings, who would be awake and readying themselves for rehearsal at this point. Still, I tried to be as light on my feet as possible as I made my way up the stairs and back into my room. As I placed object after object into the duffel bag, I sat in my disbelief. I wouldn’t quite grasp what I was doing until later on in the night, far away from Hathor. In the packing stage, it all still felt like an elaborate prank fueled by the hysteria rising in my chest. Before long, all that was left was my costume and the owl.
The metallic, glittering costume was obviously not coming with me. The skin over my ribs grew goosebumps at the sheer thought of the tight, rough fabric. I wondered what Father would do with it after I was gone. Thinking of it now, I bet he just had Avan dispose of it somehow. Most likely, Avan threw it in a dumpster on Hathor or burned it. The irony of the latter option isn’t lost on me. But I like to think that Avan kept my costume. That he keeps it hidden somewhere in the back of his closet and runs his hand over the gold glitter to remember me.
But I have very little time for such thoughts.
As always, the last item to join me was the owl. I ran my fingers over its smooth planes again and tucked it gently into my pocket. Finished, I stared at myself in the mirror and tried to even out my breath. Then, I walked out of my room for the very last time.
The universe tends to laugh at my plans. This time was no exception. The moment I stepped foot out my door, I was greeted by Daphne. She was the most visually distinctive of my brothers and sisters due to her rose gold prosthetics. Everyone else got plain black. Daphne was clearly on her way back from the bathroom, a yawn running through her frame. The visor that had replaced her eyes gave me a quick scan, then she smiled. A moment later, she saw the bag in my hands and confusion spread across her face.
“What’s going on, Fiona?” Her voice came out clear, like the ring of a bell.
Any words died in my throat. I couldn’t think of an excuse to explain the bag away on the spot. Instead, I chose to change the subject. If I couldn’t tell her my plans, I could at least be a little bit honest with her. I could give her a crumb of the genuine love I felt for the sister I hoped to never see again.
“Here, I got something for you.” I reached out and folded the little owl into her hands.
Daphne glanced up at me, then back down at the owl. “It’s so beautiful! But… where could you have possibly gotten this? And why are you giving it to me now?”
I hitched the bag further up on my shoulder and hoped she could see the desperation in my eyes. After a few more seconds, it clicked. Daphne’s entire body stiffened. She shifted her weight between her two feet, conflicted over whether to run to Father’s room or stay where she was. Her tongue moved against her teeth as she tried to figure out what to say. As for me, guilt weighed down my body. I really put her in an impossible situation.
“Please,” I intoned, “If I do this, then you’ll know that you can too, someday.”
Her lips formed a tight line as she surveyed me up and down. Then, after an eternity, she nodded. My muscles relaxed as I threw my arms around her, the metal of her limbs cool to my touch. I pressed the owl into her palm again before rushing out of the building.
I did not look back.
Deep in the woods was a clearing. Not a patch of deforestation, with stumps coming out of the ground like zombie fingers, but an actual clearing. Further ahead was a large hangar with plenty of small spacecraft designed for short-term travel. There were a few earth scientists on Hathor, Rory explained, who wanted to study the effects of controlled deforestation on a newly terraformed atmosphere. They needed these ships in order to complete their research. Practically, they never left Hathor’s orbit.
Theoretically, they could make it to Buri, a large nearby planet that saw plenty of traffic and kept very lax records.
I shivered in the cool of the forest sunset and waited. With each moment, I lost a little more hope. Maybe Rory was just joking. Or, worse, maybe he was hired by Father to see who would even consider leaving the Great Circus. Nausea took over my body as I thought of that being true. I would never see the light of day again. He would take away my eyes, this time, or my heart. Just as I was about to sprint back to the tent, though, I saw a redheaded figure come out from between the trees with a carabiner full of keys in his hand.
You’re early. This bodes well for our journey, he messaged.
I let out a wild laugh. I can’t believe this is happening.
He walked to the hangar and opened one of the large doors. I looked around the clearing to make sure no one was watching us. Come, he messaged.
I slipped into the dark hangar to find, as I expected, a line of small spacecraft. Lining the walls of the hangar were counters covered in tools and equipment. Rory grabbed a canister of fuel off of the wall and inserted it into the spacecraft. A silver pair of scissors glinted in the fading light and, once again, I knew what I had to do.
Wait. I just have one last thing to do first.
Summoning all the strength in my body, I grasped the implant on the side of my head and pulled. Intense pain blossomed in my ear canal, but I pushed through. Once I was able to jam it out far enough to expose the wires, I took the scissors in my shaking hand and cut them off. For a moment, my vision blacked out and blood rushed to my head. Then, slowly, the hangar came back into focus. When I came to, I was leaning on the counter, grasping it with white knuckles. Blessed silence returned to my body.
It was done. The first cybernetic addition, the one that “cured” me of the way I was born and taught my father to play God with our bodies, lay discarded in the dirt at my feet. I looked up towards Rory and smiled. Now I could start to be myself again.
The ones inside will go next, I said, nothing short of gleeful.
Rory just kept my gaze then, eyes sparkling. Without speaking or even telepathy, he opened the door to the shuttlecraft and slid into the pilot’s seat. For a few moments, I stood and let the joy wash over me. Then, I got in next to him.
Are you ready for this? I asked.
I’ve been dreaming about this moment forever, I think . He responded, almost instantly.
Me too. Now let’s go before they get the chance to shoot us down.
With that, he revved up the engine and we lifted off, into the infinite ocean of the sky. As far as I know, neither of us have ever been seen again. And I hope we never will be.