October 2008 Challenge - Ghosts!
"Don’t Feed the Clowns
“A clown is funny in the circus ring, but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?”
— Lon Chaney, Sr.
Stardate 53826.6 (29 October 2376)
Routine Patrol, near the Molari Badlands
“A circus?” asked Commander Inga Strauss, incredulous, “We’re going to escort a circus
to Klaamet IV?”
“That’s right,” replied Captain Joseph Akinola, grinning, “What’s the matter, Commander – didn’t you ever go to the circus when you were a kid?”
“Well . . . sure
I did,” she replied, folding her arms defensively. “I just never cared for them much. And I don’t see why a circus troupe requires an escort!
Akinola leaned back in his desk chair. “Apparently the ‘Celestial Circus’ has some friends among the Starfleet brass that pulled a few strings for them. This circus has performed on several starbases and a few of the larger ships of the line. In light of the recent events in our sector, I can understand the request, even if it seems like overkill.”
Strauss nodded, but she appeared distracted. Akinola noticed that her expression was more troubled than perturbed.
“XO, you okay?” he asked.
“Hmm? Oh, yes sir, sorry, I was just figuring how we would have to adjust our patrol grid when we finish with escort duty.”
The Captain sensed that there was more to it than that, but he didn’t press the issue. “Very well, have Ensign Bralus bring us to 228 mark 9 and keep us at warp 6. That will give us about four hours to intercept the Calliope.
It’s only a day and a half to the Klaamet system, so this won’t throw us off schedule too badly.”
* * *
At the end of her shift, Strauss made her way to her quarters, and then sat on the edge of her bunk for several minutes staring blankly at the bulkhead. With a sigh, she rose and walked to the sink and splashed cold water on her face. She frowned as she noticed the slight tremor in her hands.
* * *
Stardate 31368.5 (15 May 2354)
Munich, Germany – Earth
Eight year-old Inga Strauss watched the high-wire act with rapt attention as she sat by her father, Captain Dieter Strauss. Inga was excited to spend time with her Papa as he was home on leave, particularly since she had him all to herself this day. Her little brother was sick, so he and Mama stayed at home. She only felt slightly guilty about having Papa to herself.
Circus Krone was the largest in Europe, enjoying something of a revival after the decline of most circuses following the third world war. Though captive animals no longer provided entertainment, there were still stunning displays of acrobatics and, of course, the hilarious antics of the clowns.
Inga giggled as several clowns raced around one of the rings, tripping over one another to gain entry into an impossibly tiny car. Somehow, they all managed to squeeze in. Her smile faded, however, as one clown stood apart and looked into the crowd.
The clown was staring directly at Inga.
She tried not to look back, but he continued to gaze at her. Certainly, it looked friendly enough with its blazing orange hair, white face and brightly painted smile, but something about its eyes made her shiver slightly.
“Papa, I need to use the restroom,” she whispered to her Father.
Captain Strauss cocked an eyebrow at her, then smiled. “Alright, Ladybug. Do you want me to go with you?”
Inga rolled her eyes and sighed. “Papa! I’m almost nine years old. I can go to the restroom by myself!”
Dieter Strauss chuckled, “I’m sure you can. Just hurry back – the trapeze act is beginning shortly.”
Inga moved quickly down the aisle, stepping past other on-lookers and quickly made her way down the ramp, past the concession stands of popcorn, peanuts and other tantalizing treats (Maybe Papa would buy her some cotton candy!), until she came to the corridor that led to the restrooms.
The lighting was somewhat dim, but not enough to cause Inga to hesitate. She made her way down the hall, turning left toward the ladies’ facilities . . .
. . . and was very surprised to see the same clown that had stared at her from the floor of the circus. She was certain the corridor had been empty when she started this direction.
“Oh, hello,” said Inga, startled but not really afraid.
The clown smiled down at the young girl. “Well, hello young miss! Are you enjoying the show today?”
“Yes sir,” she replied, dutifully, though she
really needed to use the restroom. “It’s been a lot of fun!”
“Oh indeed, indeed!” said the clown, “Fun, fun, dum-dee-dum! A clown’s work is never done!” His grin broadened, revealing an exceptional number of bright, white teeth.
Inga giggled in spite of herself. “You’re funny!” she exclaimed, forgetting the pressure in her bladder. Why had she been nervous about this clown before? He seemed very nice! His voice had a very reassuring quality, as did his broad smile, and his eyes . . .
. . . his eyes . . .
The clown’s eyes began to glow – a soft, silver-white light that began to pulsate. He produced a red balloon, as if by magic.
“And here’s a pretty, red balloon for lovely little Inga – do you like balloons, little Ladybug?”
Inga frowned inwardly at the use of the pet name only her father used, but the frown did not extend to her mouth, which continued to stretch out in a broad grin.
“How did you know my name?” she asked in a far-away voice. The sounds of the crowd and the circus seemed miles distant. The scant light in the corridor began to dim - seemingly absorbed by the clown looming over her.
The clown chuckled, a laugh which morphed into the sound of broken glass sliding over rocks. The glow in his eyes intensified and his grin, already impossibly huge, grew even wider, revealing rows of long, sharp, serrated teeth.
“WE KNOW MANY THINGS, INGA, ESPECIALLY WHEN WE ARE HUNGRY, OUR KNOWLEDGE EXPANDS AND WE EXPAND AND, YES, WE ARE HUNGRY, INDEED, LITTLE LADYBUG, VERY, VERY HUNGRY!”
Inga’s eyes followed the rising balloon as it bumped against the curved ceiling of the corridor. The balloon popped, drenching her with a sudden deluge of blood.
“NOW, LITTLE INGA, WE MUST SATISFY OUR HUNGER AND ADD YOUR BLOOD TO OUR ESSENCE . . .WE MUST FEED, YOU SEE, FOR WE ARE HUNGRY. CLOWNS ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY!”
Inga stood transfixed, wanting to run, to scream, to get away from the clown-thing, but she was frozen in place – covered in blood, a painful smile still affixed to her face. A tear streamed down one cheek, cutting a channel through the red gore.
The clown’s head began to grow larger and its jaws seemed to separate, revealing additional rows of jagged teeth. Something deep within the dark maw seemed to writhe and wriggle. The fly-blown smell of rotten meat and ancient corruption wafted over her. He-It began to move toward Inga . . .
“Inga? Inga, are you still in there?” The voice of Dieter Strauss suddenly caused Inga to break out of her trance. She stood, trembling and still for a moment, unable to speak or remember what she was doing in the corridor. She finally lost control of her bladder.
The clown-thing was gone, as was the blood and the awful smell. Captain Strauss rounded the corner and stopped abruptly when he saw his daughter.
“Inga, what took you so long? I was beginning to think you got lost!” The chiding note in the elder Strauss’ voice suddenly caught as he saw Inga’s face and the dark, spreading wetness at the front of her pants.
“Ladybug?” he asked, suddenly concerned for his little girl.
Inga’s lips trembled, though out of embarrassment and not fear, for she had no recollection of the clown.
“Papa – I’m sorry! . . . I didn’t make it to the restroom in time.” Tears spilled over her cheeks and she began to cry.
Dieter Strauss gently scooped up his daughter and moved out of the corridor, preparing to take Inga home. “Shhh, it’s alright, Ladybug. I think you’re just tired. We’ll go on home so you can get cleaned up and we can see about dinner.”
Inga clung tightly to her father, feeling an unexpected sense of relief and security. Already she felt better, despite her shame over her 'accident.' All that mattered to her now was that she felt safe and loved in her father's strong arms.
Neither noticed the red balloon that floated languidly in the dim hallway behind them.
* * *
Stardate 53828.9 (31 October 2376)
Standard Orbit – Klaamet IV
“You sure were quiet tonight,” observed Lt. Commander T’Ser as she accompanied Inga Strauss and Nigel Bane to the ward room from the transporter room. They had just returned from a performance by the Celestial Circus in the city of Montosa, the capitol of Klaamet IV. The director of the circus had invited the entire crew of the Bluefin
as a gesture of appreciation.
Of course, not all the crew could attend but better than half did, including a reluctant Inga Strauss.
“Hmmm? Oh, sorry – I’ve just never cared much for circuses,” replied Strauss, absently.
“Blimey! I never heard of anyone who didn’t like a circus!” exclaimed Nigel, grinning.
Inga frowned slightly, “I went when I was a child, I just . . . you know, don’t find them particularly entertaining.”
“While I prefer other forms of entertainment, I do find a certain charm in the circus,” said T’Ser.
The trio came to the wardroom. Inga stopped in the corridor and yawned.
“If it’s all the same to you guys, I’m going to turn in – I’m tired,” she said.
Nigel and T’Ser nodded their understanding and wished Inga goodnight. She moved toward the turbo-lift and entered the small compartment.
“Deck four,” she said, leaning against the cool wall of the lift car. She rubbed her neck, trying to alleviate the tension that had built up in her neck – she had been inexplicably on edge during the entire performance and, truth be known, she had been very close to a panic attack when the clowns came out.
she thought with an involuntary shiver, why do they always give me the creeps?
She exited the turbo lift and rounded the corridor until she came to her quarters. As the door slid shut behind her, she said, “Lights.”
As the darkness in the room was pushed back by the lights, Inga froze in place, her breath caught in her throat. Eyes wide and mind numb, she stared at the object that had not been in her cabin when she left.
Tethered to a yellow string, a bright red balloon floated silently in the middle of the room.
* * *
END (with apologies to Stephen King)