Stevie glanced over his shoulder, tiptoeing barefoot through the deepest corridors of the Barnum. The ship was huge, as ponderous and lumbering as a garbage barge, but Stevie had lived here all his life. He knew the corridors like the back of his handâ€”even the ones where he wasn’t allowed.
The soft glow of emergency lighting turned his skin blue as Stevie reached for the keypad on a maintenance duct, tapping in the code he’d bought off of a janitor with two chocolate bars and a cigarette. The circus moved everywhere and anywhere around the galaxy, so currency was fairly meaningless to its workersâ€”money was pretty, Stevie had to admit, but on the Barnum, transactions were conducted through barter with trade goods. He grinned with relief when the hatch opened under his touch, sneaking in and closing it behind him. The chocolate had been worth it.
The duct was cramped, but Stevie was small, and he’d looked at enough blueprints to know which turns to take. When he finally reached the hatch he wanted on the opposite side, Stevie was grinning so hard his face hurt. He barely managed to calm himself enough to turn the handle and crank the hatch open from the inside.
His heart jumped into his throat when Stevie snuck out of the hatch, his teenage eyes darting around the cargo bay to make sure no guards were around. The glow in this room was different from the one in the hallways. The soft blue light was there, but its presence was eclipsed by the white glow that came from the opposite corner of the bay. Eyes widening, Stevie approached the force shield, his heart in his throat. When he got close enough, the angle would allow him to see through what now appeared as a frosted white pane, finally catching a glimpse of the creature inside.
Stevie had seen the gentle giant before; the enormous, alien-looking creature was extinct on its natural Earth habitat, but it was the star attraction of the circus he had performed with all his life, so Stevie had naturally seen it during the shows. No one but the handlers was allowed near, however, so all that Stevie had ever seen had been what he could catch while peeping through the wings. If he worked off his indentured status, he might someday be allowed to train for a better role in the circus, maybe even become a handler himselfâ€”but there were years of service between Stevie and freedom, and he had to know. He had to see.
All at once, the fog cleared, and Stevie could see through the force shield as if it was only air. He gasped, eyes widening, and tilted his open-mouthed face up, up, up. It was even larger than he’d imagined, this powerful mass of grey, the creature whose majesty had captivated audiences across the galaxy. Stevie reached out involuntarily but was stopped by the spark of the force shield, wincing as he took his hand back. His heart quailed when the creature moved in response, its huge head lowering to investigate the spark. It would be angry, surely it would be angry, it would trumpet the call that he had heard so many times, but this time the guards would come, and that would mean another five years… Stevie wanted to turn and run, but he was rooted to the spot, frozen before the great beast.
Silently, the grey head leaned down until one black, round eye was level with the boy’s face. Stevie held himself very still and tried not to breathe. The huge trunk rose and Stevie nearly fainted at the sightâ€”but it didn’t attack him. It didn’t break through the wall. Instead, the soft snout pressed up against the force shield, staying there despite the sparks.
Stevie was stunned. He looked deep into the black eye and suddenly, the fear was gone. Stevie reached out and pressed his hand against the shield, ignoring the shock of the energy sparks. Despite the inch of clear space between them, he almost felt the soft wet touch of the elephant’s nose.