CASTING STONES • by Sara Jackson

From a dim corner I laughed as I watched Ashlyn coax Dr. Jesmit into Graves’: a clever rabbit drawn into a den of foxes. Dr. Jesmit had clawed her way from a third tier slum to a first tier office in the world’s biggest tech company and then thrown it all away on principle. It would be hard to pass judgment on a creature like that.

My stone sat heavy in my pocket.

“I want you to see what I’m offering you. What I’m asking of you,” Ashlyn said.

“I know,” Dr. Jesmit said, “I just didn’t realize — there’s so much.”

Ashlyn laughed making thin black creases in the shimmery gold around her eyes. “This is Mr. Graves’. Circus employees only.”

Mr. Graves’ was brimming with gambling, sex, and the cleanest eating in the world. We were allowed no drugs or junk food so we could be at our best for the crowds. The Circus was a religion, after all. It required sacrifice.

“This is Baker Vegersteff, the Master of Clowns,” Ashlyn said. Clowns crowded around Baker. “A scoundrel for sure, but a kinder soul you’ll not find. We discovered him in a traveling show in Romania. When he joined us, he’d been awake four days with a dying elephant.”

“Why did it die?” Dr. Jesmit asked.

“Why do any of us die?” Baker said. “She was mortal.”

“Of what did she die?” Dr. Jesmit said.

“Bureaucracy,” Baker said. “Our Animal Transports were out of India. They were ingenious in how they absorbed shock so the animals didn’t get motion sick, but only if the gears weren’t too dirty. If we took them apart for cleaning, we couldn’t get them back together. We had to send them back to India. Customs in India didn’t want them back, though, once they’d been in contact with animals. A piece of the hydraulic system on her door had come apart and cut her legs. She died of infection.”

“Do many animals die as a product of being in a circus?” Dr. Jesmit asked.

The room hushed, giving away our trick of listening without being quiet.

“Every single one of us,” Baker said.

“We use the same transports here,” Ashlyn said, the disapproval in her voice not daring to crease her makeup as her laughter did. “Nobody’s died, yet.”

Dr. Jesmit nodded. “I could reconstruct a transport.”

“Not legally,” Baker said. “Reverse engineering is considered corporate sabotage by the U.N.”

“I’m aware,” Dr. Jesmit said.

“That’s pretty dirty for a corporate scientist,” yelled a clown.

“I think you misunderstand the nature of corporations,” Dr. Jesmit said.

“She’s got my stone,” said Baker, a hearty laugh making his hoop belly shake wildly around his reedy frame.

Several of the clowns slapped each other on the backs, piled their stones into Ashlyn’s hand.

Ashlyn guided Dr. Jesmit around the room, her hand at the small of the Doctor’s back. I wondered if we were going to acquire Dr. Jesmit so Ashlyn could have her or if Ashlyn would have her so she could be acquired.

“This is Legion Comfrey, a tent tech,” Ashlyn said, coming to politic to me.

“What do you do for the Circus?” Dr. Jesmit asked.

“I sweat for it. I bleed and ache from muscles down to bone for it. What do you plan to do for our Circus, Dr. Jesmit?”

“Develop more efficient generators and maintain the more advanced equipment.” Dr. Jesmit studied me. “Perhaps I can find a way to ease your burden.”

“Ain’t you helpful,” I said.

“Isn’t that why I’m here, Mr. Comfrey, so my usefulness can be judged?”

“Your usefulness ain’t what we’re judging. I’ve read some of your papers. I especially liked your work on low cost prosthetics.” I shook my prosthetic foot for her. “It’s easy to lose parts when the tents go up.”

“Then what are you judging?” she said.

“The weight of your soul, Dr. Jesmit, the direction of your compass. We all keep our Circus rolling, from the Mistress of the Skies here,” I pointed to Ashlyn, “to Daisy Germel who scrapes the trash from the ground before we disappear. We have to make sure you can dance before we invite you to the party.”

“I understand,” Dr. Jesmit said.

“I doubt it,” I said. “I’ll hold my stone for now.”

“Your stone?” she asked.

“We cast stones,” Ashlyn said, “to vote on whether or not to allow you to join the Circus.”

I produced my stone. “They’re all identical. When all the stones are cast, they’re weighed. I know you’ve won the clowns’ stones, but us tent techs will need a little more convincing. Many of us have been kicked out of fine nations to be citizens of the Circus. Our mothers won’t claim us and the rest of the world only wants us on their stages but not on their streets. I’m not sure you can bear that kind of honor.”

“So you’ll do unto me as they’ve done unto you?” she said.

“Trust me girl, the irony ain’t lost on me,” I said.

Dr. Jesmit smiled. “So the lobbying continues.”

“Guess so,” I said, unaffected by Ashlyn’s glare.

Ashlyn paraded Dr. Jesmit to the juice bar so the food vendors could have their turn. I jostled the stone in my pocket. I hadn’t wanted to like her.

Truth told, though, casting my stone had nothing to do with who I liked. She would be a boon for the Circus. The Vid feeds remembered how New World Industries had tried to rake Dr. Jesmit over the coals when she gave away her plans for low cost prosthetics after they’d rejected them. Her prosthetics were better than the expensive ones. The Circus had to have a Mistress of Engineering, so it seemed right to get the one willing to piss off a global corporation now and again.

It wasn’t in me to spare kind words though. I slipped by Ashlyn and dropped my stone into her pocket, leaving politics to the performers.

Sara Jackson lives and loves and makes believe in Oklahoma where her advanced use of sarcasm is underappreciated.

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