1: A Hard Act to Follow

He was halfway around the Hippodrome Track, smiling and waving in the tungsten glow of ten thousand lamps gelled blue and yellow and red, leading the first of the octophants galumphing along in that barely-contained manner that octophants have, when a blast sounded from above. More than a length up there, where the red and yellow canopy of the Big Top billowed against the sky, a close formation of airships, none of them more than ten yods in circumference, dipped down and in through a flaming rent in the canvas. Even at that distance, Cranch could see that the ships bore the mark of the Anointed Eye.
The vessels performed a showy loop around the center pole, then gathered themselves into a gauntlet configuration high above the crowd. With their eye-in-the-cross logos blast-painted on the undersides against a bottle-green background, they reminded Cranch of nothing so much as a cornered hydra gathering itself to lash out at its trainer. That each ship was equipped with a sound system became evident when a mournful dirge, audible to everyone in the tent, even over the Big Calliope (which had not stopped playing), poured down upon circus folk and patrons alike from on high. This was joined by a voice like cold ink reciting, one after another in all thirty-six languages of the Garrilon Cluster, a message that Cranch did not like at all.
This gathering has been judged an infection the Eye, the ships said, again and again. When all the words had been spoken at last in every language, so that none in the audience could fail to understand what was about to happen, the lead ship  dipped what must have been its nose and simply dropped, straight down, parallel to the candy-cane spiral of the center pole. One after the other, its sister shops canted and followed suit. Sixty yods above the Hippodrome the ships pulled up with all the dramatic precision of an aerialist performing a death drop, broke out in a wheel-spoke pattern to cover every corner of the giant tent, and began strafing the crowd.
In the uproar that followed, Cranch swung the octophant’s lead rope starboard, giving the animal as much slack as possible. As the first of the Eyeships came around in its run over the front row of the audience, the octophant reared up and seized it in all eight of its noses, whirled it about it in a wide arc and sent it crashing into the sawdust of the center ring. The six Flying Watusi Brothers and their sister, working a quarter length above the point of impact, were neatly separated in midair and just as neatly landed again on each other’s shoulders.
The crowd began at once to quiet down.
The seven remaining ships whirled in a dizzying spiral pattern over the perimeter of the Big Top, firing at random on anything that moved, which was everything. Only a handful of the performers broke off to run for cover; the rest continued with the show as if nothing had happened. On the far side of the Hippodrome Track, three members of the Freak Show had pulled down another saucer only to perish when it landed full on top of them.
Cranch cast about for something that could be used as a weapon.
Ahead of him in the length-long parade was a painted wagon drawn by two enormous chimera. Cranch did not stop to think: shooting around the wagon on the ring side at a speed that someone of his size should not have been able to attain, he jerked the reins out of the driver’s hands, straddled the center shaft and wrenched free the yoke. With one great heave he ripped the brightly-painted shaft free from its chassis.
Even for the Greatest Show in the Multiverse this might have been an Amazing Feat of strength. For Cranch, who was just under eight blox tall, six blox wide, and weighed nearly five hundred keelos, it was a simple matter of necessity, not worth a second thought. His fists, which were the size of very large kegs, closed around the narrow end of the shaft. Swinging it like a gigantic hammer well over his head, Cranch caught a saucer by its rim as it passed above him.
Although he was jerked right off of his feet, landing on his back in the sawdust directly between the two puzzled chimera, the ship was brought down just inside the track. Fire and smoke burst out of its ruptured hull and the audience applauded as if this was all part of the show. Something robed in green climbed out of the wreckage. The two chimera at once pounced on it and ate it alive.
Now Cranch felt the Performer’s purple bloodrush taking command of his body. He surged to his feet, roaring “HEYYY RUUUUUBE!” — the traditional call to battle of all circus folk, dating back to a time and place so distant that no one on the whole of Oakley knew its origin. Hefting the wagon shaft to the level of his shoulders, he whirled around and around, three times to get up to speed. As if by circus magic, the shaft was transformed in Cranch’s hands into a gigantic shot-put. When he felt as if the thing would pull his shoulders out of his body, Cranch released it into the path of a green blur.
The gunmetal shaft stuck its target head-on, knocking the airship wildly off course and into the path of another. Both ships exploded spectacularly and dropped into the North Ring. Fortunately The Great Creatore had been watching the whole thing, and with six hard cracks of his whip managed to get his pack of performing lionodons out of harm’s way before the saucers impacted.
From Cranch’s point of view, the disadvantage to all of this was that the occupants of the three remaining ships had taken note of him. Two banked in a jade arc at the north end of the Big Top and came swooping down at him along the length of the tent. Cranch was standing alone. He moved in the only direction that made any sense: straight up, bounding at one leap onto the top of the stalled wagon and from there onto the angry octophant’s back. The airships could no more change their course than swim. As the hindmost saucer passed below him, Cranch dove off the octophant’s back straight into its center. Under the piledriver force of his weight the ship slammed down into the dirt as if struck by the Almighty. In a blur of tanbark and fire and noise and metal, Cranch felt himself pass straight through the ship’s plaxiglass dome and into the cockpit. His doubled fists crushed the skull of the pilot inside.
Wriggling backwards towards the light, slicing his legs and forearms open on the broken shards of the dome, Cranch came out of the wreckage feet first only to find the lead ship bearing down on him again on its return trip down the length of the tent. Triple-barreled guns extended from its hull, burping fire. All around him the tanbark exploded in a frenzy of smoke and turf. Cranch’s best red and yellow spotted clown suit erupted into flame. 
Cranch’s six tiny eyes, beads of black peppered across his oxlike face, squinched up tight and hard around the scowling gash that was his mouth. He did not feel the heat from his burning costume. As the airship bore down on him he ducked, twisted, and lashed out blindly overhead with his balled right hand.
He caught the saucer square in its aft section. There was a spectacularly loud “PANG!” and the ship tumbled end over end, narrowly missing a tent pole. Along the Great Ring’s edge the parade marchers saw it coming and broke in two directions to get out of its path. It slammed straight through them and into the ring bank, where it shattered to pieces, belching fire and smoke.
Now half the crowd surged roaring out of their seats, applauding wildly, cheering and stomping the floor of the stands. They were soon joined by much of the other half who were not at all certain of what they were seeing but did not wish to appear rude. Snacks and drinks tumbled purple, green and white down from the rows above directly onto the spectators in the lower levels. 
Cranch stood in the wreckage and beat out wisps of flame that were shriveling the remains of his costume away from his body. He had not forgotten that a final ship yet remained, floating almost peacefully forty yods or so above the Hippodrome Track. He raised his head and squinted up at the thing with all six eyes, and the ship, so it seemed, stared back down at him.
He heard nothing of the crowd. For Cranch, the Big Top had fallen completely silent and still. There was only twisted metal and the smoldering tanbark, the striped center pole rearing up to his left and the Eyeship, weightless against the candy-colored backdrop of the big tent, studying him, weighing options, a cool and calculating green intelligence poised to move.
The octophant lumbered over and nuzzled him gently with three of its trunks. Cranch ignored it. He stood motionless, looking up, and the airship hovered, looking down.
 At last its pilot seemed to come to a decision. The airship twisted, nosed up, and rising silently climbed in a twinkling into the high striped canvas cathedral of the Big Top. It twisted sideways in midair, and slipped through the still-smoldering tear in the canvas through which it had first entered.
Of the six ships that it left behind in various degrees of ruin, hissing and sputtering where they had fallen, only the one that the octophant had brought down could possibly have contained a survivor. Six of Cranch’s fellow clowns had surrounded this, forming a gaudy polka-dotted, stripped barrier. Flagrant Florinda had ridden up all in her flashing bangles upon the back of her stallion crab, which was guarding the cockpit’s hatch with open claws.
“Wait,” Cranch said as he came up to them. “I got an idear.”
He raised two fingers and a thumb, slick with rivulets of his own blood, to the Calliope player, who winked back from under his starry hat and abruptly changed tune from the brassy Gantry’s Triumphical Marching March to the more ominous and suspenseful Cannonball Doom Vamp. The six clowns — Bendabo, Scurley, Blankwither, Sooty, Gyppo and Baraboo — all leaped about like excited children and ran off across the Hippodrome, though not without taking the time to trip and fall all over each other along the way. Staying in Character was one of the first things anybody learned in Clown College.
Cranch ripped the hatch open and groped inside. The green-robed thing cowering in its pilot’s chair lashed its tentacles at Cranch and actually bit his hand. “Ow!” Cranch said, and punched it into silence.
Now the Boss Illuminator picked up the cue: there was the sound of circuits breaking. Darkness fell inside the Big Top; a yellow spot picked the Performer’s Entrance out of the gloaming. A Black Hole rimmed in blue gunmetal emerged between the tentflaps, paused for effect, then pushed on through to reveal an enormous cannon barrel, painted blue and red and bearing yellow stars on its sides. One by one the stars came out, and the black hole inched towards the Center Ring. Each measuring a block and a quarter from tip to tip, seventy-five stars had emerged from the pitch-black when a gargantuan base emerged, mounted atop spiron wheels as large as a small building. It was being pushed by the six clowns, sloughing as comically in the tanbark as they could manage, aided by several dozen giant Rousties.
The Great Cannon had always been saved for the finale. This night, with an authority that he had never possessed before but which, for now, no one thought of questioning, Cranch had called the Finale in several hours early.
There was a hush from the five thousand gawking patrons as Cranch pulled the Eyeship’s pilot roughly out through the hatch. Its robes were in tatters, but the baleful golden eye in its iron cross mounting still glared and glinted brightly as circus sequins in the spotlight. 
“Maybe you have heard of Circus Justice,” Cranch said in a voice like an ill-maintained dredger. “And maybe not. I guess it don’t matter none.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of all ages!” came the Ringmaster’s  call through the painted speakers arranged around all three rings. He had reappeared quite suddenly from whatever hiding place he had scuttled off to, and was brushing thick puffs of dust from his spangled legs as he pitched into the mic. “You are about to see the most satisfying act known in the Galaxy! The act of — RETRIBUTION!”
Alone with just the cannon’s nose in a blazing circle of light, Cranch held the Servant of the Anointed Eye out at arm’s length. “I wantcha to take a message back t’ your folks,” he said softly. So still was the Big Top that no one, even in the farthest corner of the bleachers, had any trouble hearing him. 
We are makin’ people happy” Cranch said through gritted teeth. “An’ happiness is not a sin!”
The creature was bald and pale and only somewhat humanoid. “Servant of the Fiend,” it said. “You can’t possibly hit our Fathership with this thing.”
“Then you’d better start prayin’,” Cranch said. He pushed the yowling pilot roughly down into the cannon’s gullet and ran down to crank the wheel on its side. The barrel angled upward. When he had sighted against the purplish swath of night sky showing through the Big Top’s torn canvas, far in the distance, Cranch banged his fist on the side. Fifty yods away at the firing end, Gyppo, the Thin Clown, heard the signal and lit up the fuse.
 The cannon burped. There was a burst of orange smoke. Shrieking like a wild animal arcing up, ever up, the Servant of the Anointed Eye was propelled, gyrating through mist and steam — a perfect shot through the hole and out into the night.
A cloud of exhaustion settled its weight on Cranch’s body. He turned away.  It was while ambling sluggishly towards the Performer’s Entrance that it dawned on him that he had not done anything remotely funny since the airships had made their unwanted and uninvited entry into the performance. This pained him. Cranch carried top billing among his peers and every one of the five thousand spectators had paid good money to come and be entertained.
He turned mechanically back. The restless chimera were growling and groaning, unattended by anyone. Cranch took them by their halters, one in each beefy hand. Leading them back to their wagon and their master, he stepped on his own big feet, took a wild pratfall and allowed the beasts to walk straight on over his back, trampling his whole body into the sawdust. When he picked himself up, apparently unharmed although by this time every bone and joint and muscle pained him, it was with a puzzled expression that came naturally to his face. As gags went it was nothing much, but it had the desired effect: the audience laughed and laughed.

The show ended late and when it was done there was all the extra cleaning up to do. Oakley’s one ruby moon was high in the sky and light was seeping up from the horizon by the time Cranch was free to plod off to his own homely trailer.
Alone was how he lived and alone was, largely, how he liked it. He discarded the remains of his costume, spent some time at the washstand, dabbing at his wounds with a wet rag, covering his body with rather more bandages than was usual. 
He had only just settled down into the tractor-sized comfy chair that had been built specially for him out of Naugaskin, and was resting there, eyes closed to the wrestling match on the neoglobe, drinking slowly from a half-gallon mug of Enochian Sphinx Schnapps, when the he heard the globe sputter. Knacker, looking a little moist even for Knacker, appeared in the glass and asked to see Cranch in the Red Wagon right away. 
Even then, Cranch could not imagine what the boss wanted. He was not the sort of person who thought about the ramifications or consequences of his actions, beyond the day-to-day knockabout: the hook, the set-up, the deliver, the blow-off, and the immediate audience reaction. The thought that a problem still remained had not entered his head.
He rose with some difficulty, found a clean clown suit in his steamer trunk, pulled it on over his undershirt and spotted boxers and headed out into the blue night.
The show’s official name was Knacker & Knacker Greatest Ever Combined Shows, but there had only ever been one Knacker. He was of the Gintaran race, somewhat humanoid and fond of human dress (especially favoring garish suits and porkpie hats), but with a glandular peculiarity common to all Gintarans that made him unpleasant to deal with even when he was in a very good mood. Tonight he was worried. 
“Only seven dead,” he said without looking up as Cranch stomped absentmindedly in. “Not counting the Freaks. They were their own Next of Kin anyhow. Close the door.”
Those were the three words that Cranch hated the most: Close the door. For the first time he began to feel uneasy, although he could not imagine over what. It was cool out but freezing within; the caravan was kept refrigerated. With some regret, Cranch pulled the block-thick insulated door shut on its heavy hinges.
“I want to thank you for tonight,” Knacker said. “We would have routed them sooner or later, but you — you did it fast an’ saved a lotta lives. So, thank you very much. Now pack up your gear and get out.”
Cranch looked at him stupidly with all six of his black-currant eyes. He had heard the words and knew what they meant but could not believe that they were meant to mean what they meant.
At last Knacker stopped scribbling in his big book and looked up at him. “Buddy, you are the best damn clown that I have,” Knacker said. “An’ after tonight it is obvious that you have other uses, too. I hate to lose you.”
Cranch stared. He did not know that he was lost.
“Those creeps from the Anointed Eye will be back,” Knacker continued. He chewed up his cigar, swallowed it, and lifted another from the box at his side. “Only this time they won’t be interested in the Circus. We are small patooties t’ them now. They have got themselves a bigger fish t’ fry, see, an’ that fish is you.”
Cranch said, “Fish?”
“They won’t even bother me if you are not here,” Knacker said. “That is why you gotta go.”
“But, Mister Knacker,” Cranch said. “This place is my whole life.”
“You got no family here. Near as I can tell you do not even have a woman.”
This cut deep. There was one woman that Cranch adored from afar, but he thought of himself as being too big and too dumb and too ugly to be worthy of her elegance and grace. Cranch silently, sadly had to admit that Knacker was right.  
“A life is somethin’ you can have anywhere,” Knacker said. “Best you have yours where it will not be endangering m— anyone else.” He reached into the lowest drawer of his desk and drew out a small green cash box. “Now, I have had a few of the boys look over the ships you brought down. They were able to cannibalize some parts and get one of them goin’ real sweet. So you got wheels. An’ this —” he lifted a cloth pouch out of the box and tossed it across the desk — “this will give you seed money almost anywhere you end up.”
It was very small in Cranch’s hands. With some difficulty he slipped one finger under the drawstring and peered inside. There were bright stones in the bottom.
“But, Mister Knacker,” Cranch said again, softly. “I don’t know nothing ‘bout anything ‘cept being a Clown.”
Knacker shook his head. “Who doesn’t need a clown?” he asked, in exactly the same tone he might have used if he had said NOBODY needs a clown. “Listen to me. You have got no choice. I have got no choice. You will find circus work somewhere. Trust me. After today, Cranch the Clown is meat on their plate.”

© 2015 Duck Soup Productions.