Mindy Bowers downed her second Martian Sandstorm.
She’d just finished her set as “The Warbling Waif” at The Flophouse, one of the Martian Mining Company’s seedier bars. Across the table from her sat Mortimer Philpott Queensberry, whose slug-like lips were moving.
“People call me the Marquis,” he told Mindy. “Songbirds wish they could sing like you, my dear.”
Queensberry was on Mars hunting down useful scraps for his Garden of Orbital Delights, or G.O.D., a junk heap of a space station that he’d turned into a floating carnival. It orbited, reluctantly, above whatever remained of Earth. Martian colonists were so poor and desperate that Queensberry only needed a bit of smooth talk, or an occasional not-so-veiled threat, to get what he wanted.
“I work for the good of G.O.D.,” he told her.
“Wow,” she quipped. “Big job.”
“I’m classing up my little carnival,” said the Marquis. “Would you like to be the headliner at my new casino’s executive lounge?”
Mindy’s mind flashed back a decade. She was singing at a roadhouse outside of Raleigh to pay for opera lessons. Then that asshole at the Old Met in New New York called her a “Southern-fried disaster” after just one audition. The next day, a mining company recruiter promised steady work, and exotic adventures, on the edge of known space.
Queensberry’s offer sounded eerily similar. And yet...
“How long will it take to get back to your G.O.D.?” Mindy asked.
“Four or five years. You’ll be in stasis. Don’t worry!”
A few days later, as the cold crept over her in the stasis pod, the last things she saw were those slugs moving in slow motion beneath the Marquis’ untrimmed mustache again.
“Rest easy, my little songbird.”
There was no casino. No lounge. No singing gig.
Instead, Mindy Bowers was a new attraction in Queensberry’s “Cavalcade of Curiosities.”
As “Lorelei, Siren of the Midway,” she appeared on stage every night between “Fangs” and “The Jackhammer,” Martian miners who’d been also been lured onto the Marquis’ transport ship. All of them had undergone a series of “enhancements” during the journey. Fangs now boasted a mouthful of servo-controlled titanium teeth. The Jackhammer’s forearms were gone, replaced by two steel appendages topped with menacing chisel-heads.
It was Lorelei’s job, the Marquis said, to femininize this rich tableau.
Mindy woke from her four years in stasis to discover blue and gold feathers grafted onto her arms and upper torso. The Marquis’ engineers had bypassed her own voice box with a computerized one, which was connected wirelessly to a tablet the Marquis always carried with him. In other words, Queensberry controlled what came out of Mindy’s mouth in the same way he controlled what Fangs gnawed and what the Jackhammer crushed. All he had to do was push a few buttons.
Worse, the Marquis had no intention of letting Mindy sing. Instead, when Lorelei took the stage, he made her perform rare bird calls and songs.
Word quickly spread of the Marquis’ Martian Curiosities.
Lorelei wowed the crowds. Most had grown up on space stations or in hardscrabble mining colonies far from Earth. They’d never even seen a bird before, let alone heard one. Some rubes actually believed Queensberry’s contention that Lorelei herself might be the last emu in the galaxy.
“My beautiful Curiosities!” the Marquis said to his troupe after one performance. “They love you. And me.”
Mindy’s throat was on fire.
“Is this thing really powered by Strontium-90 batteries?” she asked Queensberry, who occasionally relinquished his control and let her speak normally.
“Yes, my nightingale. Certified by the Plutonian Radiation Safety Board.”
No one had heard from the Fusion Mining Company on Pluto for more than a decade.
“Listen, you fat fu…” she began. But the Marquis pushed a button, and her profanities transformed into the melody of the Cincinnati warbler.
The Marquis’ rule for fighting was simple—there were no rules. In the cage, no holds were barred and the use of all bodily enhancements was legal. And since the Marquis controlled everything with his tablet, every fight was rigged.
Unlike the construction of a pricey casino, Queensberry saw the fights as a more natural, more economical extension of G.O.D.’s core business, which was, as he put it, “bilking Space Corps grunts and ignorant miners out of their credits.” To cut costs, the Marquis repurposed his Curiosities. Fangs and the Jackhammer became Steel Jaw and Iron Fist. Their nightly clash, staged to ensure the betting public lost badly, always left the crowd wanting more.
Queensberry made Mindy the ring girl, or “fight progress manager” as he called it. Her skimpy outfit, which showed the poor quality of her feather implants, was bad enough. But the Marquis also installed new software in her voice box. He could now make her scream: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before every match. She almost preferred imitating a Baltimore oriole in the Cavalcade, where, at the very least, she wasn’t caged.
Then, one night, she noticed that Queensberry’s vendors were selling small packets of birdseed to a drunken crowd already prone to throwing things at the cage. As she picked sunflower seeds from her hair later that evening, she said to Fangs and the Jackhammer: “Gentlemen, this shit circus needs new management.”
With one minute left in the third round, Fangs’ teeth were poised over the spot where flesh met metal on one of the Jackhammer’s arms. The menacing business end of the Jackhanmmer’s other arm was pressed against Fangs’ cheek. Bags of fake blood were hidden under the skin of both.
The fighters paused. The crowd roared.
The Marquis sat ringside, fingers hovering just above the tablet. Mindy, in a far corner of the cage, pretended to look away in horror.
Normally, at this point, Queensberry would pretend to press buttons, and the fight would enter the end game. The combatants would scream, roll around, and then one of the two—depending on the whims of the punters—would play dead. The crowd would be so wound up, it hardly noticed how clean the ring was at the end of the match. The Marquis was too cheap to spring for fake blood.
On cue, the Marquis tapped his tablet. Fangs and the Jackhammer shouted and writhed. The hidden sacks full of liquid burst, and both were soon covered in red.
Unused to such a sight, the Marquis thought he’d accidentally caused his prized Curiosities to destroy each other. He made for the cage door, carrying the tablet with him. Once inside, he set down the device and ran toward the prone bodies of his fighters.
The next thing he knew, the Marquis was pinned beneath one of the Jackhammer’s giant arms. Fangs had also miraculously recovered, his teeth now inches from Queensberry’s neck.
Mindy Bowers stood above all three, holding the tablet.
She cycled through bird calls until she found the one labeled “white bellbird,” widely considered the loudest avian mating call in the entire galaxy. She dialed her voice box’s volume up to its highest level. She kneeled and put her lips next to the Marquis’ ear. Those two wet slugs under his mustache started to quiver.
Then she pushed the button.
Fangs and the Jackhammer, who knew Mindy’s plan, were lucky enough to have earplugs. But the Marquis’ eardrums, along with all the grey matter in his skull, ruptured. Blood—real blood—oozed from his eyes, ears, and nose. Mindy could also smell foul things leaking from Queensberry’s other orifices.
The Marquis’ eyes started to glass over.
She whispered to him, in her real voice, “Don’t cage the songbird.”
Then another mating call split the Marquis’ skull in half.
Mindy didn’t smash the tablet. She wanted to, but she didn’t.
Instead, she methodically deleted the control programs. Fangs ended up with new dental implants, and the Jackhammer underwent a double arm transplant. Mindy had the voice box removed. “Got those feathers plucked too,” she joked.
When they felt fully human again, they dismantled the cage, and with it, the last vestiges of the Marquis’ G.O.D.
“Gentlemen,” Mindy said, “time for some new melodies.”
She realized that the bird calls and songs in the late Marquis’ database might actually be valuable. She contacted ornithologists, teachers, and avian enthusiasts in every corner of the galaxy. They agreed that Mindy had something special.
Over time, grant money flowed in and she turned Queensberry’s floating freak show into an avian research institute that she christened “The Bowery.”
Visitors to the station enjoyed walking among the hydroponic trees and vines while an ever-changing chorus of birds serenaded them from nearby teaching modules. Some visitors swore they heard another sound, too—a faint one coming from a closed section of the station, which, according to legend, had once housed a fighting cage. It sounded for all the world like a woman practicing opera scales. And the voice, they said, hit each note perfectly.
Clark Boyd lives and works in Haarlem, the one with the extra "a," in the Netherlands. In another life, he spent two decades reporting, writing, editing, and producing international news stories for the BBC and US public radio. He's currently at work on a book about windmills, cheese, or maybe both.