Claire’s phone rang, it was Paul’s wife. “Hi Yvonne.”
“Claire, are you at the fair yet?”
“Yes, we arrived about five minutes ago.”
“Good. We’re stuck in traffic. Some idiot decided to dig up the road today of all days. We’ll be about twenty minutes late by the look of things.”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to find something to do while we wait. See you later then.”
“OK. Bye Claire.”
Yvonne put her phone back in her purse. “She and Becky are already there, Paul.” He was driving, so she’d made the call.
“I hope she doesn’t have to wait too long,” he commented. “The traffic is awful today.”
“At least Becky will be able to eat more cotton candy before we arrive.”
“Can we have cotton candy too, daddy?” Chloe asked from the back seat.
“Of course. That’s the point of going to a fair, to eat cotton candy,” Paul answered.
“Yippee,” Ian chimed in. At seven years old he was definitely looking forward to cotton candy.
Claire wandered round the fair with Becky. The five-year-old had a huge piece of pink cotton candy, and was paying more attention to that than to the many stalls. Claire had dressed to blend in; she didn’t want to stand out from the crowd too much. She was already in a pre-pack with Paul and Yvonne and didn’t want to announce the fact. She was in her ‘young concubine mom’ outfit: a mid-thigh jean skirt and red top with a low, but not too low, scoop-neck. In a way, Becky was her best advertisement as an obviously well cared for, happy and well-behaved child. The cotton candy bribe definitely helped with that last bit. She hoped that the Confederacy wouldn’t arrive before Paul and Yvonne. They’d planned to arrive here at the same time, but that hadn’t worked out.
Suddenly Becky saw a small roundabout with My Little Ponies to ride on. Immediately she pointed, “Mommy, I want to go on that one.”
“OK Becky. That looks like a nice ride.”
As they walked towards the roundabout the light suddenly changed as if a cloud had passed in front of the sun. Looking up, Claire saw that there was a translucent dome overhead supported by a gray wall. Oh no! Why today of all days? She burst into tears; Paul and Yvonne weren’t here yet! She was inside a Confederacy extraction and they were outside. There was some announcement about dropping guns and colored lights, but she wasn’t listening. Frantically she pulled out her phone and hit Yvonne’s speed dial. Nothing. She tried Paul’s number, just in case. Again nothing.
“What’s wrong mommy? Why are you crying? Can we go on the My Little Pony Ride? Do you want some of my cotton candy? It’s really nice.” Becky was doing her best to help, but Claire was still in a panic; she could feel her heart thumping. What should she do: stay or go?
A new voice interrupted her frantic thoughts, “Can I help?” It was a blonde woman in a striped tank top and a very short jeans skirt. She was also wearing an official-looking blue armband and carrying what looked like a card reader.
“Who are you?” Claire asked.
“I’m one of the Confederacy team here. Can I see your CAP card please.”
The woman took Claire’s card and put it into her machine. “You’re in a registered pre-pack?”
“Yes, but the other two aren’t here yet. I tried phoning them, but everything’s blocked.”
“Are you expecting them?”
“Yes. They got caught in traffic. They said they’d be here in about ten or fifteen minutes.” Claire’s tears restarted.
“If they can make it by then, you should be OK. We won’t get this lot cleared to the moon in fifteen minutes, not by a long way.”
“No guarantees. We won’t wait for them, but if they arrive before we leave we can probably get your sponsor and the rest of his pre-pack into the pickup.”
“Really?” Claire felt hope and relief. At least there was a chance – if anyone knew a back way into an extraction then the Confederacy would. Now she had to hope that Paul and Yvonne would be here in time.
“Go and wait for them at the yellow light,” the woman told her.
“The yellow light?” Claire asked. There had been an announcement about lights, but she’d been in a panic then and not listening.
The woman pointed to a yellow light hanging in the air below the translucent roof. “There.”
Paul checked his watch as he pulled into the parking space. “Only nineteen minutes late. I hope Claire found something to pass the time.”
He helped Yvonne get the kids ready and the family set off towards the trees surrounding the car park. Emerging from the trees they got a shock.
“What’s that big gray tent daddy?” Chloe asked. “I don’t remember it from last time the fair was here.”
Ahead, Paul could see the smaller section of the fair, the part east of the Avenue. West of the Avenue, where the larger part of the fair should have been, was something very large and very gray. Paul had an uncomfortable feeling it was a Confederacy barrier field.
“I’ll phone Claire,” he told his wife. “We need to know if she’s inside or outside that thing.”
The phone rang for longer than he expected – Claire usually picked up quickly. Then a strange male voice replied, “Is this Dr. Williams?”
“Oh. Erm ... yes I am. Who are you?”
Whoever was on the other end ignored the question. “You are Dr. Paul Williams, CAP score 6.8 with a registered pre-pack comprising yourself as sponsor, Yvonne Williams and Claire Sharp as concubines plus three dependents?”
“Yes, that’s me. Who are you.”
Again the voice ignored his question. “Claire Sharp and her daughter Rebecca are within the exclusion field. Do you wish to join them?”
“I would love to, but I’m outside the barrier so I can’t,” Paul explained.
“You will be approached. Follow the instructions given.” Whoever was on the other end rang off abruptly.
Paul told Yvonne, “Whoever that was, said Claire was inside the big barrier.”
“So, she’s gone without us then?”
“Apparently not. He said that we could get inside.”
“That’s impossible. Everyone knows that,” Yvonne said.
“He said someone would show us a way in.”
At this point Ian interrupted his parents. “Why have we stopped? I want cotton candy.”
There was no point in standing there by the trees, so they started walking again, heading towards the part of the fair that was still open.
Yvonne had dressed much like Claire, in white shorts to mid-thigh and a blue blouse. They had even coordinated by phone this morning so they wouldn’t clash. She had long since given up trying to instill any fashion sense into Paul; typically he was in tan deck shoes, gray socks, beige pants and a short-sleeved white shirt. As a sign he was relaxing, he’d left his tie off and had undone his top button. Inevitably, his phone was in a holder clipped to his belt. He did most of his work on computers, so he didn’t have an array of pens in his breast pocket. Yvonne was thankful for small mercies.
Their first stop was for cotton candy; Ian wanted blue and Chloe chose green. With the kids happy, at least temporarily, they wandered slowly round looking at the booths. By now, seven years after the President’s announcement, everyone knew that it was pointless trying to break through a Confederacy barrier, so people ignored it. Part of the fair was still open, so they were making the best of it they could. Everyone studiously ignored the big gray elephant on the other side of the Avenue.
Ian and Chloe stopped by a shooting range, wondering if they’d like to try it. Instead of the usual yellow ducks, this one had Swarmtroopers as targets. Everything else was traditional: the barker out front, the tacky prizes and the (probably) misaligned pellet guns.
While the two children were deciding, a nondescript man in a white T-shirt and jeans approached Paul, “Dr. Williams?”
“I represent Madame Constance.” He handed Paul a card. “You should make a point of visiting her.”
Paul read the card,
Madame Constance F. Eden
D. Astr, ISAR, AFA
Your Future in the Stars
“You want me to see an astrologer?”
“She is very busy, Doctor, so she can only see selected people. I must ask you not to invite any other people to visit her. If things get too crowded then she will leave. You would not want that to happen.”
Paul thought it strange that the man was telling him not to bring more people. He would have expected a fairground astrologer to want as many paying punters as possible. “I’ll think about it,” he said politely. He hoped that this guy wouldn’t keep on pestering him; Paul had more on his mind than a fairground sideshow.
“Think carefully, Doctor. She has a blue tent.” The man walked on, not hanging around like a normal fairground barker. Another slight anomaly Paul thought.
“Can I see the card, dear?” Yvonne asked. Paul passed it over and she started laughing. “Have you seen her name? Constance F. Eden. That makes her CON-F-ED. I bet her parents didn’t mean it that way when they named her.”
Suddenly Paul remembered what the anonymous voice on the phone had said: “You will be approached. Follow the instructions given.” The card guy had approached him, and had known his name. Were these his instructions? He retrieved the card from Yvonne and studied it again, “Your Future in the Stars”. Maybe there was more to this than seemed at first. If this was the real thing then it was imperative that he do what the man said; even if it wasn’t, all he’d lose was some time and a few dollars. Worth the risk.
“Come on kids. We’re looking for Madame Constance’s blue tent. The one who spots it first gets a surprise.”
“What surprise daddy?” Chloe asked.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” he told the nine-year-old.
Yvonne saw the blue tent first, and she silently pointed it out to Paul. They kept quiet and slowly walked towards it until Ian saw it. “There it is!” he pointed excitedly. “What’s my surprise?”
“Later son,” Paul replied, walking faster now.
“There’s a big genie outside,” Chloe said.
There was. A large genie in gold-colored slippers with turned-up pointy toes, baggy red satin pants, a green sash round his waist and a small blue waistcoat showing off most of his chest. Being black and well over six feet tall he looked the part.
Currently he was talking to a couple of older teenage boys. From the look of things, the boys wanted in and the genie was keeping them out. As they got closer they heard him say, “ ... need to make an appointment first. Madame Constance is busy.” Another anomaly for Paul to consider; why was Madame Constance turning away paying customers?
The two teens left, grumbling, and the family approached the genie. “Dr. Williams and family?” he greeted them in a deep voice.
“How do you know my name?” Paul asked.
The genie smiled, “Madame Constance can see the future. She knows who her customers are before they arrive. The stars tell her.”
Complete bullshit, Paul thought. However, Confederacy technology could read the CAP card in his wallet and it had probably been a Confederacy person he’d been talking to earlier on the phone. If this really was the Confederacy, then such ‘magic’ was possible: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology... ‘
A curtain divided the interior of the tent in two. The near part contained half a dozen chairs and a female genie. She was white, with red hair and wearing a bright orange bra, but was otherwise similar to the man outside. The similarity extended to her height. Seeing a woman that tall, Paul realized that the two of them were probably Confederacy Marines in disguise. This was the real thing, not an elaborate trick. He felt a wave of relief that things seemed to be working out.