Sheriff Gilma liked a good show as much as the next guy.
For sure, you didn’t get many of ‘em in Conamara. Or probably on Europa at all, for that matter.
And it wasn’t like she didn’t like seeing ponies and Marsrats and Venusian Mantidonts and frankly any animal that wasn’t a weird Europan fish - ice fishing was the only real way to make a living on that snowball moon, and Gilma was one of the few people in town who didn’t get up every morning, pack up a sledge, auger and nets, and then snowmobile out into the white. In fact, about the only time she ever left her cabin was when Jesus or somebody else was drilling through the ice too close to town.
Yep, a dazzling display of otherworldly wonderment was exactly what she and the townsfolk could use to get them through the winter, especially when summer was years away and wouldn’t get much warmer anyways. Which was why, when the Mikkel Mobile Menagerie and One-Ring Circus slid into town with the monthly caravan, Gilma had gone out with the mayor to personally welcome the performers. And, in Gilma’s case, to catch a peek at the critters.
Only that was three weeks ago. Overnight a glowing tent city had popped up, sheltered behind the same hard-packed windwall that protected Conamara from the intense glacial gale from the north, and it seemed the performers only ever came into town to drink and get into trouble with the local desirable youths. It wasn’t the kind of show Gilma had hoped for. It was the kind that bred paperwork.
Finally, after rescuing a drunk, idiotic roustabout from freezing his face off outside Lecia’s Cantina one evening, Gilma’d had enough. She marched into the circus camp and burst into the biggest tent, which turned out to be home to a pair of elephants. With wide-eyed apologies to the disturbed beasts she quickly stepped out, asked a passerby for directions, and tapped gently on the taut entrance to the Ringmaster's tent.
“Come in,” came the irritated reply. The Sheriff quickly entered and zipped the door shut behind her, cutting off a flurry of flakes. “What is it?”
The Ringmaster, Majorie Mikkel, looked smaller out of her snowsuit. She was diminutive, almost, with bright eyes, a nose that was clearly familiar with frostbite, and a booming voice that outmatched her size. Gilma unclasped the hood of her own snowsuit so the circus director and proprietor would recognize her.
“Oh, Sheriff! I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else. Take a seat!”
Gilma obliged, plopping her heavy form into a folding chair near the thermal unit in the corner. It was nice for a tent, she thought, decorated with photos and a dresser and a real mattress and even one of those desks with a mirror on it performers were supposed to own. Mikkel was seated in front of it, assembling something Gilma recognized.
“That a K&M blaster?” She asked, eyebrow cocked.
“Oh, this? Yes, good eye! This one, though, is modified only to stun. A necessity when dealing with large creatures, you understand.”
Almost imperceptibly, the tent began to shake, as if it were shivering. Ice quake. Common enough, what with big, fat Jupiter in the sky, tugging on Europa’s innards. Neither Gilma nor Mikkel acknowledged it: if a quake got bad, there wouldn’t be much they could do anyways.
The tiny Ringmaster got up and trundled over to a table with an electric burner, coffee machine and microwave. “Coffee?”
Gilma watched Mikkel fill one mug to the brim, then reach for a second mug which she filled only halfway, making up the rest with cream and a heaping helping of sugar. Gilma winced, that stuff was pricey.
“I have an old friend who owns a number of plantations on Ganymede,” Mikkel said, apparently reading Gilma’s expression, “he sends me some necessities every few months, just as a token of brotherly love. If you ever make it out there, I will introduce you!”
Gilma returned the ringmaster’s shining smile. “I appreciate it, but I’m pretty much a homebody.”
“Ah, too bad. The Solar System is a wondrous place, I have seen much of it.”
“I bet.” The coffee was good. Gilma tried not to drink it too quickly.
“Not to worry, we are preparing a spectacle that will bring the stars down here to your charming little village.”
“Actually, Ms. Mikkel, that’s what I wanted to talk about.”
“My friends call me Majorie, and I always like to think the local law officials are my friends.”
“Right, sorry. Majorie. I wanted to have a chat about when you’re going to be putting on this show of yours. It’s been three weeks, and your people are starting to cause trouble.”
She might not have had much police work to do in Conamara most of the time, but nevertheless Gilma prided herself on her perceptiveness and ability to read people. The Ringmaster was starting to sweat, and she wasn’t even the one sitting next to the thermal unit.
“Oh? Trouble? Of what kind?”
“Drunken disorderlies, homewrecking, getting in fights. It’s making my life a real hell, I’ll be honest.”
“I’m deeply sorry, Sheriff. If you give me names of the offenders, I will see to it that they are duly disciplined.”
“Appreciate it, Mikkel. Majorie. But what I really want to do is find out when your show will be on. I think your folks need something to keep them busy.”
Mikkel swayed, tapping her finger on her mirror-desk (vainery? vanaly?), seemingly lost in thought. Finally, she looked at the gun by her hand.
“Sheriff, I have not been entirely honest with you.”
There’s a surprise, Gilma thought. She sipped her coffee.
“Mikkel’s Mobile Menagerie and Circus did not come to Conamara solely to delight and astonish.” Her eyes were hard, frozen. “I am hunting the Colorless Colossus of the Cold.”
Gilma stared. She set her coffee down. She laughed.
“I am serious, Sheriff!”
“Right, right, I believe you,” Gilma waved. “A big monster would interest an animal person like you - only, you’re not from here, are you? Europa, I mean?”
The Ringmaster eyed her quizzically. “I hail from New Memphis, on Ganymede.”
The sheriff nodded. “I thought so. Look, Mikkel, sounds like someone’s got your rocket. The Colossus isn’t real.”
“I’m afraid not. The only things aside from people on Europa are fish. Now, I’ll admit, some of those fish get pretty colossal, and I know a few people who could be called ‘colorless’. But a great, ten-foot-tall, fish-stealing, snow-white beast with fangs and claws and glowing eyes - it’s an icefisher’s tale. Admittedly, it’s a new one, I hadn’t even heard it ‘til a month ago, so you can’t really be blamed for falling for it.”
“But it’s not a myth, ma’am. I’ve seen it.”
Gilma stopped short of accusing the Ringmaster of trying to pull one over on her. She seemed to believe her claim. “So, you’re after the Colossus. Alright. But that still doesn’t explain why the show hasn’t gone on.”
Mikkel fidgeted, it was obvious there was something else she had yet to come clean about. Gilma waited.
“My Master of Beasts, Andre, and I have been following stories of the Colossus from town to town. Interviewing witnesses, examining tracks. We arrive somewhere, he spends a week or so out on the ice, looking for clues, and then returns and the show, indeed, goes on. But this time he hasn’t come back.”
Gilma’s expression hardened. “There’s a man missing? In my jurisdiction? And you didn’t tell me?”
The Ringmaster regarded her with alarm. “Oh, no! I didn’t mean to keep it from you! I was sure he would come back, I said to myself, ‘he has stayed out for a long while before.’ Except now so much time has passed, I fear…”
“That he’s dead. You should have told me.”
“Again, I am sorry. I fear my little group has caused nothing but endless trouble for you. As soon as the next caravan arrives, I promise, we will be gone.”
Gilma emptied mug and left it on the floor by her chair.
“I’m going to get a sledge together. We’re going looking for this Andre. You and me.”
Without waiting for an answer, she got up and closed her hood. Angry as she was, she still made sure to seal the door on her way out.
She swung by the general store to let her only deputy, Miguel, know where she was going and why. Since Miguel also happened to own the shop, she picked up filtered water, thermal unit batteries, emergency fish paste and a pair of flashlights at a discount. Then she went back to her cabin, put another layer on under her snowsuit, strapped goggles to her face, threw on her snowshoes, and went outside to hook a sledge up to her snowmobile. Almost as an afterthought, she threw her stunner in with the supplies and first aid kit. She’d never had need of a gun, but the stunner was sometimes handy for driving off some of Europa’s more amphibious and aggressive beasties.
Then she checked to make sure her snowmobile had a full charge, and, satisfied, drove to Mikkel’s tent.
The short woman was again as they’d first met, bundled in enough layers to appear downright stocky. The dark fabric of her snowsuit was stitched with floral patterns, apparently by hand. She waddled around behind the tent, emerging on a colorful snowmobile of her own. “MMMC” was painted on the side in bright colors, above the K&M blaster hanging in a holster.
“Andre set off to the south,” came Mikkel’s muffled voice, and she pointed out of town. Gilma nodded and sped down the furrowed path, Mikkel following her into the white.
Gilma may have considered herself a competent detective, if the need ever arose, but she was not a tracker. Fine white grains snaked over the sheer ice, driven by the northern wind which sometimes meandered, sometimes blasted, but always blew. Snow banks were pushed along with it, migrating south like dry icebergs, filling the chasms in the ice left big icequakes. On top of all that, it was starting to lightly snow. The wind, the weather, the quakes, all of these things would have made it hard to find someone who’d gone missing a day ago, much less at least two weeks ago. Finding this Andre alive was a long shot. She didn’t even hold out much hope for a body.
They drove for hours and hours, late into the night. Nevertheless, it seemed they were barely covering ground, forced as they were to stop and shine a light into every crack, around every snowbank, and over every shadow that might conceal their lost man. Adding to her frustration was the fact that her numb fingers were stiffening with cold and her snowmobile’s charge was more than halfway drained. Once, she unclasped her hood to tell Mikkel to investigate a crevice, and the wind burned her face. Her bladder was angry, but after that she wasn’t about to open her snowsuit to relieve it.
“Ho!” Mikkel called suddenly, swerving to the right. Gilma brought her vehicle around to follow the Ringmaster.
They came to a stop a few yards later, the lights of their snowmobiles illuminating something half-buried in the thickening snowfall. Something bloody and shredded. Gilma’s heart sank.
Then it rose again. The bloody, shredded thing was a redbeak, a fish.
“He must have been here!” She exclaimed. “We’re on the right track!”
Mikkel slid from her snowmobile, stomping over to the dead, frozen creature and picking it up.
Gilma looked away from the frankly unpleasant scene. She didn’t know why the Ringmaster had to touch it like that. “Gotta say though, this lion-tamer of yours is a messy eater.”
Suddenly, there was a yell from behind.
Gilma spun, shining her flashlight on a strange sight - something was sprouting from a nearby snowbank. As the snow fell away and a head emerged, her jaw dropped.
“Andre!” Mikkel dropped the redbeak and rushed to pull her lost Beastmaster from the snow. The man looked ragged and frostbitten. His scraggly beard was flaked with ice, and frost caked his snowsuit. He was clutching something in a gloved hand. “Andre, I can’t believe you’re alive!”
Gilma shared that feeling. The “snowbank” was actually a quinzhee, a warm-ish shelter made of refrozen snow. “God, I have to say, this is unexpected. Are you alright?”
The tall man clasped his hood against the outside cold and nodded. “Hungry. Cold,” he said, then he held the thing in his hand out to Mikkel. Gilma leaned in for a closer look.
It was dung.
“Uh…” she had no idea what to make of the bizarre display. Mikkel, for her part, regarded the frozen poop excitedly.
“My god, my god! Droppings! Where did you find it?”
Andre shook his head. “Not sure. Miles away. Back by wherever my snowmobile ran out of power. But he’s close, closer than he’s ever been, that’s why I didn’t come back. Wait -” He looked over his employer at the ruined fish. “My bait!”
Gilma was truly confused. “Your bait? The redbeak?”
The beastmaster rushed past them both. “The last of my food. I was trying to lure him out with it, but I must have dozed off. Damn it!”
“But, my friend, he is still close. If he did not take his prize with him, that can only mean he was here when the Sheriff and I approached, and we frightened him!”
“Who was close?” Gilma asked, unheeded.
Andre appeared to steel himself. “You’re right. Check the area for prints.” With that, he took off into the dark.
“Wait - what in the- ?” As far as Gilma could tell, their missing man just rub off again. “Come back!”
“This way, Sheriff!” Mikkel called, grabbing her gun and hurrying after Andre. “The Colossus is within our grasp!”
Of course. “No, you idiots! Come back! You’ll get lost!”
But they were already gone. Swearing, and conscious that she still needed to piss, Gilma grabbed a flashlight and set off after them.
If the surface of Europa was tough to a driver, it was brutal on foot. The falling snow was swelling into a blizzard, and a blizzard was the absolute last thing living people wanted to deal with out in the white, cuz it would turn them into dead people. Plus, the deep rumble in her chest felt an awful lot like the beginnings of a big ice quake.
She trudged after the rapidly vanishing footprints of the others, cursing all the way. The beam of her light was crowded with heavy snowflakes.
“Mikkel!” She shouted hoarsely, “Andre, damn you!”
There was something else, something she hadn’t noticed before: some of the footprints were big. And not human. And in sets of four.
She finally caught sight of a silhouette: Mikkel, she assumed, and Andre, oddly huddled together. The rumbling that signalled an ice quake grew louder and more immediate, and now that she thought about it, it didn’t really sound much like an ice quake, it sounded more like the animals at the circus -
She saw the thing clearly. It rose to its hind legs, huge, white, and vicious looking.
Gilma’s bladder no longer concerned her.
Fleeing in the deepening snow was next to impossible, but Gilma managed, and berated herself. The Colossus was real, of course it was, you idiot, you don’t know everything, and you should have seen the signs, the chewed fish, the tracks, the roaring - idiot, idiot, idiot. Crunching, thumping footfalls behind her cleared her mind of any further reprimands.
Somehow, she made it back to the snowmobiles. Breathing raggedly, she threw herself at the sledge and fished around inside for the stunner, finally grasping it and priming it to fire. Nothing surrounded her but emptiness, the great erasure of the world that came with a snowstorm. The white.
There was a claw.
It dug into the thick cushion of her snowsuit and lifted her into the air. She screamed and pulled the trigger, firing wild sonic pulses that whined even above the wind and the growls of the monster. Then she was flying through the air and plowing head first into solidified snow of Andre’s quinzhee. Bright spots blinked in her vision. Blind, dazed, she fired the stunner wildly.
And apparently got close enough. The hot breath of the monster retreated.
Gilma blinked, her sight clearing. She couldn’t see the Colossus, but she could hear it grumbling in the direction of the snowmobiles, cutting off her escape. Her little stunner had frightened it, maybe, but she didn’t think it would be scared for long. She needed somewhere to hide, like -
She was lying beside a quinzhee.
Painfully, she crawled on her hands and knees around the small shelter, pushing herself through the entrance feet first. It was tight, and harder that way, but she didn’t want to turn her back on the stalking Colossus and give it a chance to take her by surprise again. Kicking at Andre’s bags made a little more room inside the cramped space, allowing her to squirm in further. Finally, she was lying on her stomach inside, stunner trained on the opening.
For a while, the only sound was the whistling of the blizzard over the narrow mouth of the quinzhee. The insulation of her snowsuit was falling out where it was torn, she stuffed it back in. Unclasping her hood, she gingerly felt the spot where her head had met the ice. Her gloved fingers came away red and sticky. Well, there was a first aid kit in the sledge. She thought they’d need it for Andre, funny how that turned out-
There was a growl outside. She saw the steam of the monster’s breath, and hoped it couldn't smell blood. She didn’t even know if it could smell. A claw the size of her head reached into the hole and pawed around. She fired. The claw jerked back with an ear-splitting roar and Gilma prayed to no one in particular.
As if in answer, the quinzhee groaned under a sudden impact. The monster was trying to crush its way in. Spiderweb fractures streaked across the low ceiling. She hoped, when it reached her, she could hit it with a good, solid stun and make a dash for the snow mobiles. Even as she pictured it, she couldn’t see herself being that adroit.
Another impact. The shelter started to collapse. This was it. She rolled onto her back, weapon ready, chest heaving.
A third impact. A razor claw hooked through the ceiling.
The high, hard whine of a stunner sounded again, followed by an indignant bellow from the Colossus. Gilma looked with surprise at the weapon in her hand. She hadn’t fired it. Again, the unmistakable noise of a stunner resounded through the crisp air outside. The monster shrieked, but the whining continued, and finally, with a crunch, she saw a giant white mass collapse before the opening of the quinzhee.
Slowly, careful not to bump her head, she crawled out. Her heart still pounded.
Mikkel appeared atop the damaged shelter, K&M rifle in hand. “The Colorless Colossus of the Cold,” she said, a smile on her voice. Andre was beside her.
“Good shot,” he said, and strode over to the unconscious beast. The snow was already beginning to bank against the broad hulk of the thing, which rose and fell slowly with its breath. “Are you hurt, bud?”
“I’m okay,” Gilma said, “might need stitches though.” She realized Andre was talking to the monster. “Are you gonna kill it?” Her mind was still muddled.
“No! His name is Yutu,” Andre said, brushing the thing’s white fur with his fingers.
“It has a name?”
Mikkel came to stand at her side. “Yes, um... He is one of ours. He escaped, unfortunately, during an accident on the caravan... I hope deeply that he didn’t hurt anyone seriously in the months since.”
“He hurt somebody.”
“I’m sorry he attacked you, Sheriff, I swear it. Polar bears are mighty predators, but I fear Europa isn’t as brimming with seals as Yutu might typically have liked. He’s been subsisting on the catches of terrified icefishers. Which is good, in a way, as it left us a trail of witnesses to follow.” The ringmaster looked apologetic. “Allow me to thank you for finally finding him. Now, we can carry on with the show!”
It was a polar bear. Of course, look at it. Gilma must be the least perceptive woman on Europa. “The show?”
“Yes, and with Yutu back, what a show it will be! Andre, help us load him onto the sledge. It’s a good thing Europa is a world with easy gravity, eh? On his home planet, he weighs almost 1500 pounds!”
“Wait, why didn’t you tell me there was a 1500 pound polar bear on the loose?”
“Well, you see…”
Andre looked up from his unconcious charge. “We didn’t want you to try to kill him.”
“Andre is right, I’m afraid. These animals, they’re expensive. Additionally, I thought that if we told you, you might think it our fault he was ‘on the loose’, and maybe not take too kindly to us, being a lawman. I really can’t apologize enough.”
“There was a bear. Polar bear. Running amuck.”
“Well, yes, but, well, accidents happen and all that. Ahem. Perhaps we can make it up to you? The show must go on, as we say. And it will be a good one, I guarantee it.”
The show did go on, and it was everything Mikkel promised. The old Ringmaster was fiery and energetic, a real showman, and Andre handled the creatures deftly. Gilma even enjoyed it, though she stepped away when Yutu came out. Nothing personal against the animal, he’d been lost and hungry, but…
She allowed Mikkel and her people to perform, despite having kept the town in the dark about the possible hungry bear nearby, on the condition that they permit all of the residents to see the show for free. When the next caravan came, they were to leave with it, and never return. She was letting them off easy, but she couldn't really come down on them, not when every fishing hand in Conamara had been looking forward to the show for weeks. Plus, Mikkel swore it wouldn't happen again, swore it profusely. The kids, too, were gleeful as they watched the menagerie unfold, and that made everything worthwhile.
For now, though, Gilma was taking it easy. The last thing she wanted was any excitement. A nice, long, boring winter would do just fine.
She was in her cabin, resting her bandaged head on a pillow, when there was a knock at the door. She yelled for whoever it was to let themselves in. Miguel rushed inside and unclasped his hood.
“Sheriff!” He said, “we need you at the circus.”
“Bear?!” Gilma shot up, so fast she felt dizzy. “Polar bear?”
The man sounded surprised. “Uh, no. Just, uh, a couple of roustabouts got drunk, and there was a fight.”
“Oh,” Gilma sat on her bed. "Oh, thank God. A fight. That’s excellent news.”
Miguel was puzzled as she happily pulled on her snowsuit.