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Flying Matilda

Gio Clairval is an Italian-born writer who has lived most of her life in Paris and is now haunting Scotland. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Weird Tales, Galaxy’s Edge, Postscripts, and elsewhere. Her pet, a giant pike who followed her from her childhood home on Lake Como to the Seine River, has now become the terror of the North Sea, although he fiercely dislikes salt water.

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her popular online writing classes, see kittywumpus.net.

Every time they saw the apparition, it meant more acrobats would die. Someone would spot him: white trunks, white tunic, floating in the vast billowy confines of the Big Top's canvas ceiling. The nearest acrobat would let out a keening, grief-stricken wail. A body would fall, unfastened from the balloon that had kept it airborne. Then another would plummet, and other, until all lay broken on the ground, balloons spinning free.
The billboards read: "Pale Glow, the Merciless Killer," and: "The Man of Mist Won't Stop Before All Acrobats Are Dead," and: "Pale Glow Hates the Circus!"
The Queen called on the remaining flying acrobats to organize a hunt and bring him down. But at first sight of their foe, most hunters lost their willingness to live. They crashed in the working and living areas; corpses filling stalls, galleries, and stage boxes; carbonized inside braziers; drowned in washing tubs; fractured by fly bars. The staff, from the sound engineers to the paint crews, screamed for ack-ack guns. Most artists embraced cults of vengeful angels. A minority went on strike, climbing the balconies and strewing the galleries with pamphlets and leaflets.
Sensationalist billboards warned: "The Pale Glow Menace: The Public Is Next." Spectators clamored for refunds of admission taxes. The economy of Big Top wavered on the brink of collapse.
A woman, a flying acrobat in her own right (a rarity, a freak), volunteered to lead the hunt. The balloon trick was the most dangerous stunt. No other woman had ever pulled it off; no other woman had ever been allowed to suspend herself by her hair beneath a red and white balloon showing the Queen's face on a yellow background, a face that frowned thoughtfully down at the crowd. Waves of excitement stirred the audience.
"Let the Hunt Begin," blinked the billboards. The public cheered.
Matilda stretched her arms out gracefully, kicked her high-heeled red boots to show she was flying. Framed by aerialists, she rose, and as she rose, her eyes found the haze of the man in white, floating near the spot where the tent pole met cloth. He was translucent; she could see the canvas' rough weave through him.
She bared her teeth. Let him try to claim her. She'd had the best training. Let him try! She rose higher, stern and determined as a flying weasel, white teeth sparkling in a fierce smile.
Down in the circus ring, the last flying acrobats--wearing armors covered with brown sheep's skins, and masks with horns--screamed in defiance. The audience clapped castanets to root them on. Click-clackity-clack.
A hunter strapped to an orange balloon shot upward, followed by a second, and a third. Soon the canvas dome teemed with bright spheres converging on the solitary shape. Matilda glimpsed the translucent figure spread-eagled as bullets hit, drawing sparks from the impenetrable tent surface and the equally impervious balloons. The bittersweet oily odor of burnt gunpowder filled the air.
Pale Glow seemed unaffected.
Hunters tore off masks and horns, despair painted on their faces. The castanets paused each time a body fell, spectators scrambling out of the way.
Matilda glanced at the Queen, who sat in the royal box. Despite the distance, she made out the Queen's smile. Even without looking, she would have known the Queen's posture, her gestures.
She severed the harness imprisoning her hair and freed herself from the balloon. Haloed with soft light, she sped toward her enemy. A million mouths cried in bewilderment. A million castanets stopped rattling, then ripped faster rolls.
Only the Queen's smile showed no surprise.
Shimmer, Pale Glow mouthed. This is not your war. (Her mind swarmed with his words.)
Matilda answered the same silent way: What did you call me?
That's your real name, said the voice in Matilda's head. I thought myself alone. Can't you see we are of the same kind?
Matilda, curious, hovered before him.
You are more than that, he said.
Her gaze followed the direction of his pointed finger, back to the royal box and the Lilliputian regal figure. The Queen thrust her chin forward, and Matilda felt compelled to mirror the gesture.
Snap out of it, Shimmer! I will destroy you while you destroy me. She created you to die in her stead, so that she may live. She and her establishment. But there are other places outside Big Top.
Have you been outside?
No. I can't tear a hole in the tent all by myself.
Then how do you know?
Analyzing billions of documents, I have computed the existence of a myriad worlds.
Matilda received images of places where circus tents were pitched in cities, and no city was built inside a circus. The reversal dizzied her.
Listen, he said. I've read about the Bottle City of Kandor; Wren's Palace in a Chinese Vase; the plane of Ulgrotha, protected by Feroz's ban--
Even so, she cut in, this is the best of possible worlds, and in it, you're a nuisance.
You were made to think this way, sister.
I was made to fight!
Before writing your program, she wrote mine. I'm a one-soldier army, an experiment grown out of control. Like this crazy world of hers.
Miles below, the royal box gleamed with gold. When the Queen squeezed her left eye shut to look through a spyglass, Matilda's left eye closed, too. Her thoughts crackled and jumbled, static in a radio broadcast. Through its haze, she saw herself for what she was: an extension of the Queen, a piloted weapon. Yearning shivered down her spine: sever those invisible ties and fly free! She was just a tool, though, and tools have no independent life. She would die along with her puppeteer.
A great calm descended on Matilda.
The anti-terrorist program named "SHIMMER" released a bolt of lightning.
The Queen slumped in her golden armchair.
How come my program's still running? Matilda whispered in sweet astonishment.
Do you need a balloon to fly, sister?
You know I don't.
Then you don't need a programmer either.
Together they pressed their palms to the cloth, which began to dissolve.
Matilda wondered if she would exist outside.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013
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