Jack Jetstark travels the universe to seek out the descendants of superpowered freaks created long ago by VesCorp scientists. The vibrations encoded in a particular song transform the members of Jack's crew into a firebreather and an angel, a wildman and telepathic conjoined triplets, so they hide the truth of who they really are with the theatrics of a carnival.
The song plays every night through the receptor Jack carries with them, but when one night it has a different ending and their temporary powers become permanent, Jack believes the change is a signal from the woman who sent him on this quest in the first place. He and his freaks must navigate a universe at war to protect the love of his life.
But does the ruler of VesCorp really need protecting?
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The crowd grew restless in the renovated cargo bay of my carnival ship, muttering amongst themselves and drifting toward the exit. But they wouldn't leave; they never left, not before the show started. The draw was too strong, their thirst for the bizarre and grotesque too unquenchable. They would stand in that dim alcove of the Rubeno Mardo's cargo bay for hours if I let them, just for the briefest glimpse of the exotic performers promised by the advertisements posted throughout town.
Across the tapestry of the universe and all its vast and varied cultures, there ran a single, unifying thread: no one could resist the allure of the words "not for the faint of heart" written in a scandalous, jagged font and followed by four exclamation points. Good marketing knew no bounds.
From my post in the shadows, I looked out over the audience with satisfaction. Used to be I couldn't see the floor between the people, the way they crowded in. Now it seemed I saw more of it every show, but I couldn't complain about the turnout on this night, nor about the revenue they brought in.
There was something to be said for docking on the less affluent moons and planets. Sure, the rich people floating around on their space stations and on the hoity toity worlds that governed their solar systems had coin enough to melt down into disposable flatware, but they spent it on electronic gadgets that numbed their brains, not on the kind of quality entertainment we offered.
On the farming and mining colonies, where the only forms of entertainment were swatting mosquitoes and throwing rocks at neighbors, the arrival of a carnival ship made for a major event. They saved up all year for a night's diversion from their hard lives.
And I was all too glad to provide it for them.
"We made a killing tonight," my pilot Lily whispered in my ear, her bright smile evident in her voice. "Might even be able to afford the fuel to get us to the next gig."
"We'll be fine," I said, not really listening as a person in the crowd drew my attention. "I think we found another one."
I pointed to the girl, dressed in her best flannel shirt and black slacks, with most of the hay brushed out of her coppery hair. She was a teenager, but the electric fascination in her eyes as she waited for the show to begin wasn't the excitement of a mere child. Something about our world spoke to her. Maybe the opportunity to travel the galaxies, maybe the camaraderie of a carnival family, or maybe just the chance for something more than the lot life had given her.
Whatever the case, she'd be part of the crew before we departed the next day. I was sure of it.
"She could just be excited for the show," Lily argued, crossing her arms. "It doesn't mean she's one of us."
I nudged her with my elbow, grinning. "Why do you doubt me?"
"Because you refuse to." She pointed a long, manicured nail at the crowd. "They're waiting," she said, disappearing into the darkness as she went back to her mark.
"Can't rush the music," I said, yet even as the words left my mouth, the old receiver crackled to life beside me, singing the first notes of my intro.
Adrenaline surged to my heart at the sound of the slowly rising tones of the eerie, wordless song, and I hurried to my post on the catwalk. Her voice sounded more like a warbling violin than it did a singing woman, which only added to the ethereal ambiance. A murmur went through the crowd as I emerged from the shadows high above the stage. I felt alive, fire burning through my veins.
"Ladies and gentlemen and nonbinary gentlefolk," I boomed, the music growing high and tense, "consider this your last warning. You are about to bear witness to creatures and abominations from the farthest reaches of the known universe, horrors the human eye was never meant to see. I cannot be held responsible for the effects these sights have on your psyche. Some people never recover from the shock, so I encourage those with sensitive dispositions or weak hearts to leave now."
No one left; no one ever left.
"Then be prepared to gaze upon the unnatural freaks of the stars!" I triggered the curtain drop at the musical cue, and the audience gasped at the mere sight of their silhouetted forms. "Notice there is no glass, no barrier between them and you. Jack Jetstark's Intergalactic Freakshow uses no such safety measures, but it wouldn't matter anyway, as they've broken through everything we've tried. Keep your fingers to yourself folks; they most certainly do bite."
The audience inched back with a collective squeal of excitement from the children, eyes wide and hands clenched in anticipation.
"Our first specimen, or should I say specimens, were born on a distant planet in the Ilex system. Or maybe they were hatched, or created ... no one quite knows for sure."
The first spotlight clicked on, illuminating the three-headed form that elicited shrieks of terror from the crowd.
"Behold! The fused bodies of the Fago triplets! Three brothers found in a distant monastery, two joined at the skull, two joined at the liver, all three sharing a single mind."
The triplets swayed to the beat, their skin stretching between their shared abdomen and their bifurcated skulls moving as one. They stared at the crowd with dead eyes, mouths gaping in slow synchronization as they moved forward in a shambling lockstep, lost in a deep trance.
"The greatest scientific minds are unable to tell if they are three individuals or a single, nightmarish organism. They feel the other's pain, hear the other's thoughts." I paused, letting the notion run wild in the minds of the audience, the room silent save for the quiet singing. "Is anyone among you brave enough to come forward and help them demonstrate their abilities?"
No one volunteered, no one dared move or even breathe lest they be noticed and called upon to volunteer. And then a girl stepped forward as the crowd shrank away, glad to let her be the sacrificial lamb. And wouldn't you know, it was the girl I'd pointed out before the show. I hoped Lily was paying attention.
"Whisper something to Theon," I instructed. "He's the one on your left, their right, attached to his brother at the torso. Don't make any sudden movements."
The girl approached with shaking hands and wide eyes that darted between the triplets' dark-skinned, ashen faces, only giving the occasional glance to the points where their bodies connected. She recoiled as Theon reached an arm toward her, but still put her lips to his ears and said something inaudible to the rest of us.
Theon cocked his head to the side and Parthen's face, in the middle, contorted into a silent, pained scream. Finally, the thought passed to Pneuman, who shared a lobed skull with Parthen, and he cried out, "Hello, world!" much to the delight of the crowd, the girl in particular.
The triplets began writhing without warning, though anyone listening to the rising tension in the song might notice it was scripted, their limbs flailing and jaws snapping as they grabbed for the girl.
"Get back!" I shouted as I fumbled for the control panel. I flicked off the triplets' spotlight, and they receded into the shadows just in time to prevent the frightened crowd from fleeing.
It was a delicate balancing act, scaring them just enough to get their adrenaline pumping, but not so much that they demanded their money back.
I let them settle down and calm their heart rates while the song shifted to what I liked to call its tribal stage, filled with low, short notes and the drumbeats of palm against palm. That part always got to me, hearing the musician's hands that had once touched mine, and I noticed an unintended warmth come into my voice as I went on with my patter.
"We've all heard tales of Earth, of how its people destroyed themselves in nuclear warfare, leaving the planet a lifeless, radioactive lump of rock. For the most part, those stories are true, but the Earth isn't devoid of all life."
The next light turned on, introducing a hunched, hairy form resembling a gorilla but just human enough to be disturbing. Glowing blue eyes glared out from beneath a brutish brow.
"A colony of humans survived the war. At least, they used to be human. In the ensuing centuries, living in the fallout of bad decisions and eating toxic, mutated beasts, the survivors changed into ... well, into something awful. I personally captured this one in the wasteland once known as Japan. I call him Merulo. He doesn't speak, and eats only what he can catch." I grinned as I delivered the line that never failed to horrify. "Did I mention that he loves children?"
Merulo sprang forth amid a wave of shrieks and nervous laughter, walking on his knuckles and bare feet, his hulking chest expanding and contracting with his deep, rasping breaths. His dark brown hair hung in matted cords along his body, his upper lip curled to display sharp, crooked fangs.
He prowled the stage, grunting at the men in the audience to assert dominance. One man in particular attracted his attention and he stood on his hind legs, stretching to his full, imposing height of seven feet, and let out a roar that shook the walls and sent the crowd retreating to a safe distance.
I cut the lights, making them strain their ears to locate the mutated man-beast before he attacked. They had to know it was all an act, but part of their brains could never be convinced. That excitement brought in the revenue.
The music slid into a softer, almost seductive passage, with notes that curled upwards and whispered promises of eternal devotion. My cue to turn on the center light.
Lily stood with her back to the audience, her short blonde hair just brushing her tawny wing feathers.
"Folks," I said, my face growing warmer as the song echoed in my heart, my finale fast approaching, "we leave you with a creature from the softer side of the universe, to soothe your minds before you go out into that darkest of nights."
Lily ruffled her feathers and unfurled her long wings to a round of soft, awed applause.
"An angel, ripped from the mythologies of old, a being of unknown origin who fell from the stars. Or was she cast out of the heavens? She'll never tell."
She wrapped her wings around herself and spun to face the audience. One wing covered her body, the other hid the lower half of her face, leaving only her long legs and piercing gold eyes exposed. She took cautious, deliberate steps forward, teasing glimpses of her body as she swapped wing positions but never showed anything she didn't want them to see.
"A more beautiful abomination you'll never find, but you will do well to remember that she is not one of us. She is a monster, no matter the outward appearance."
People — men mostly — crowded unafraid at the edge of the stage. Lily knelt before them, inching forward as the music swelled, drawing in a willing participant with her seductive eyes.
"The other freaks, those you feared and recoiled from, will do you no harm." I began my descent to the stage for the finale. "You, sir!" I addressed the man with his face mere inches from Lily's. "Beware, for she is the only danger on this stage. That is no angel; that is the man-eating harpy!"
Before he had the chance to react, Lily flung her wings out, baring the razor-sharp beak where her nose and mouth should have been. She let out a screech and flapped her wings, launching herself up to hover above the stage where Merulo and the triplets stood in a dim lighting.
I stepped in front of them and breathed a plume of fire toward the high ceiling, the song reaching its rapid, sonorous climax. It hit its crescendo and broke into an abrupt silence, the lights and my fire going out at the same time and plummeting the crowd into a darkness broken only by the light pouring through the door that led outside.
A cool, peaceful exhaustion washed over me, and I left them with a final declaration in a calm drawl: "The freaks I've brought to you tonight are just a small sampling of the horrors I've encountered in my travels. You think the universe is a blank slate where you can write your own stories. We don't realize other races exist, but I've shown you they do. Their stories are written in the stars. And some day, they'll come back for what's theirs."
* * *
I leaned against the steel wall of the control room that doubled as our living room, decompressing from the show with my crew, who doubled as my performers. A lot of the Rubeno Mardo took on double duty; designed as a small transport ship intended for a crew of one or two people for short hauls, she lacked much in the way of amenities, and we'd redone most of her insides to make sleeping cabins and recreation rooms. A good portion of it was makeshift, with people sleeping in the renovated armory and engine room, and a small kitchenette made of salvaged appliances wedged in the corner.
Not a lot of money in the traveling carnival business anymore. Enough to make a living, but not like it used to be, back when fleets of enormous ships traveled the skies, bringing roller coasters and virtual reality machines to the residents of the universe. Sometimes it felt like we were the only ones out there, with our meager rides and food stalls offering unhealthy fried things on sticks; nothing special that couldn't be found at any summer funfair on any planet, moon, or decently-sized asteroid.
But people wanted to see the unusual, to be scared out of their wits by the alien creatures from the far-off places they could only dream of visiting. Therein lay the appeal of the sideshow, without which our profit margins would wither to nothing and the Rubeno and I would be stuck delivering cargo again. She was built for that kind of work. Me, not so much.
I much preferred life as a space carny. If nothing else, it was a more enjoyable way to make a buck, and far less lonely. In a world that shunned and ridiculed, our little piece of space was a welcoming reprieve. It was a home, it was a family.
Merulo warmed up dinner in an old food heater, setting chipped plates on the table while he attempted the impossible task of wrangling his unruly mop of black hair. The triplets eased their pained minds by chatting among themselves and watching game shows on a screen made mostly of static. And Lily sat in front of a lighted mirror, removing the heavy mascara that made her eyes pop while undoubtedly planning our route to the next planet in her brain that never slowed down.
She noticed me watching and arched a thin eyebrow. "What?"
"It's just nice," I said. "All of this. It isn't like the world out there. It's real."
A small voice spoke from behind me. "It's fake."
I turned to see the girl, the one with the bits of hay in her red braid, standing in the doorway. Shock and disillusionment cast shadows over her freckled face, the horrors of the show paling in comparison to this glimpse backstage.
"How did you get in here?" I demanded, not expecting any trouble but sure that I had locked up the carnival entrance as well as the stairwell leading to our living quarters.
"Is any of it real?"
I looked back at my crew, this time through her eyes; disturbing sights to say the least. A wildman in a robe and eyeglasses, a jovial grin on his chubby face. Conjoined triplets separated and sitting on opposite sides of the room, the sickly pallor having been wiped from their dark skin. An angel in jeans and a crocheted shawl, her beak transformed into a nose and her bare shoulders showing no sign of ever bearing wings.
Even I'd changed since the show, from the fiery barker who spouted words with ease to a broody slacker in a vest who'd couldn't turn a phrase to save his life.
Not hard to understand her surprise. The only thing worse than seeing terrible, man-eating monsters was seeing them without their disguises, seeing that; deep down, they were only human, same as anyone else. I liked to keep that particular fact a secret, as people tended to pay much more to see anatomical anomalies than they did to see ordinary people, but I didn't see a way out of this. She looked too smart to fall for anything I could pull out of thin air.
"Is it all fake?" she asked, stepping into the room.
I put my arm out to stop her. "I asked you first; how did you get in here?" I tried not to sound too upset, but the thought of someone trespassing on my ship, my secure ship where my people expected to be safe, infuriated me. If a mere girl could get on board without triggering the alarms, why not a crew of galactic pirates?
The girl retreated, her gaze flicking from one person to the next before landing on me. "I'm sorry. It's just ... it's what I do." She fiddled with her hands and tugged down the sleeves of her red and black jacket.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jack Jetstark's Intergalactic FreakShow"
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Lee Rossman.
Excerpted by permission of World Weaver Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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