Boosting the Signal

Boosting the Signal: Angel on the Ropes, by Jill Shultz

Jill Shultz is a fellow member of the Outer Alliance mailing list I’m on, which is a mailing list for authors in support of QUILTBAG speculative fiction. Jill’s book is science fiction, all about how a trapeze artist leads a perilous double life. Will her secret–and her choices–save her planet, or ruin it?

Jill’s submission for Boosting the Signal today is an excerpt straight out of the book, which conveniently addresses the theme of character goals!


Angel on the Ropes

Angel on the Ropes

My stomach quivered as the train settled onto the station, the last stop before the circus. I cued my music and closed my eyes, mentally running through my routine again.

What if I’m not good enough?

I glanced at Elsbith, who’d chosen to be my mother against all common sense. She held my hand without talking and for once I was grateful that Seekers kept silence in their pockets, next to the tissues. A legacy of our Earth Quaker ancestry.

I took a deep breath.

I will be great.

But even if I amazed them, would they let a leopard into the troupe?

That question plagued me as we entered the tent, as I took off my makeup—a test of trust—and as I peeked through the curtains. It didn’t stop until I took my mark.

I flipped up onto the trapeze bar, then rolled backwards into a full split. Still upside down, I hooked the rope with the back of my knee, struck a gazelle-like pose, and rotated around the rope, letting the round melody flow through me. The air was warmer up here, and silkier—from the spotlight? I wanted to scoop up two delicious armfuls and never let them go.

For several moves I worked from one rope to the other, swinging from horizontal to vertical and back, feet never touching the bar. Gradually, the music tightened and I brought both feet to the trapeze, facing front. Now more instruments rushed in. My pulse kicked.

My first big move.

I tipped down into an arabesque so deep my forehead swung toward the bar. At the last second I somersaulted forward and caught the bar between my legs, then kicked out and pinwheeled around the trapeze, chest high, legs as long and straight as a ballerina’s as I spun. Around and around, not a wobble left or right. My heart surged each time my head swung down. Five more times, feet still in perfect pointe. A howl swelled in my throat. After a dozen pinwheels, I stopped. The audience clapped, the sound reverberating in my chest like a second heartbeat, speeding my own. I moved sideways on the bar, but not far enough, and had to scootch to position myself correctly. Sloppy, I thought, wincing. The next trick was cleaner, the three after that as good as I could make them, with minimal hand traffic. I slipped into a layback, turning my face to the crowd as I touched my foot to my head, flashing them a smile.

I could’ve stayed like that all day. How could it be over this soon? I jumped backwards off the trapeze and landed neatly. Chest heaving, I stepped out of the spotlight toward the front of the stage, squinting as I sought out Squirrelman Jim. Was that a nod? Sweet Light, please let it be.

There were three kids in leotards seated behind him. What were they doing there?

The training vid disappeared. Not the kids. Real. Real kids, not holos. My breath backed up in my throat. Even at this distance, they’d see I was a leopard, my white eyebrow bright as a signal flag. I felt like the dowels had been blown out of my joints, leaving one bone perched precariously on the other.

Squirrelman waved impatiently at me.

I was supposed to trust him. Completely. If I joined Cristallo, I’d have to put my life in other people’s hands.

The flying part of my audition might be over, but the leopard still had to pass.

I couldn’t move. My shoulders and neck clenched, pulsing an ache into the sockets of my jaw. Sweat chilled on my body. Part of me wanted to disappear and part wanted to fight and part wanted my mother to walk in and fix everything, the way she always did, with that magic I hoped I’d develop if I ever became a good enough Seeker.

Under the heat of three stares I started up the aisle, heart slapping. The smaller girl’s face was pinched and red. The tall girl’s face was perfect, exactly what I would have picked for myself. My right calf tensed so hard it almost charley-horsed. I’d never felt so ugly in my life.

“Freak.” The short girl’s nostril riffled.

The tall girl rolled her eyes. “Just once, Destiny—”

“Beena, let be,” said the boy.

I took a deep breath. There is Light in her, I thought. Reach it and anything is possible. I swallowed hard.

“What are you doing here?” Destiny asked me.

“Dreaming. Same like you?”

“Nothing like me.”

“That’s right,” Beena said, leaning back into a pose that was both jazzy and regal. “She’s good.”

The boy jumped to his feet and held out his hand. “Better than good. That was kushti.” His eyes sparkled. “I’m Jango.”

I shook his hand, hoping he couldn’t feel mine tremble. Jango held my hand a little longer than was polite—trying to prove he wasn’t afraid to touch a leopard?

“Got to go,” I said, tilting my head toward the coach.

When I was standing in front of him, Squirrelman said, “Well done, Amandine. And welcome to Cristallo.”

“What?” yelled Destiny. “This is some kind of joke, right? Because you’d never risk Cristallo for a—a—” She glowered at the floor. “We’re adding a freak show? That’s so lubberly. And isn’t it dangerous? What if the Plaguellants found out it was for real?”

You have nothing to fear,” he replied.

The breath trapped in my mouth turned hot and nasty. I didn’t want to cause them any trouble. I just wanted to fly.

“Destiny,” Squirrelman whispered, making her look up. “This is what circus is all about. To do more than others can even dream, you must care more—and risk more—than they dare.

“And that’s why I want you to help us create a haven.”

Haven? I frowned. I already had one, and it wasn’t what you’d think.

But nothing would stop me from flying.


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