Hanging by a Thread
JARREL HAD JUST sat down when he heard a knock on his door. Most would have thought this unremarkable, even commonplace. Most were not Jarrel.
Of the nine thousand prisoners at Facility Twenty-four, less than two hundred had any form of shelter, let alone one with a door to knock on. For those privileged to have doors, it would have been far less likely for someone to knock on those doors in the light of day than to jimmy them open during the middle of the night.
Even more remarkable was that Jarrel had just sat down on a stone bench.
Exactly three dozen stone benches existed at the Facility, but in much the same way as the ownership of the shelters was determined, these were normally reserved for the most rancorous prisoners: brutes with necks like tree trunks who chewed glass for lack of tobacco; villainous swine with an abundance of body piercings, scars and tattoos, who would throw their own mothers over a fire if no blankets were handy.
Jarrel, however, was not rancorous or a brute, he resembled a swine only in the sense he was pink and round, and he was on the best of terms with his mother. Furthermore he hated tattoos, had just the one scar where the kitten bit him, and would have been quick to hide from anyone who tried to pierce his body. He was not even what one normally thinks of as large, unless specifically thinking about bellies.
What Jarrel was, though, was a magician, and, as is quite common with men, the prisoners at Facility Twenty-four maintained an enormous respect for anyone they thought might turn them into a frog with the wave of a hand.
This might explain how Jarrel had come to have not one but three stone benches in his spacious quarters.
Jarrel's door, though rare, behaved much like any other in that it took some time rattling to a stop.
"Open up," a voice called from outside.
Jarrel debated answering. Any other time it would have been a one-sided debate at best, but these were desperate times. He hadn't eaten in two days, very nearly two days longer than his previous record.
He knew exactly who it was. Young Marcus had been a student of his for the past five years. And the two of them had arrived on this wretched planet just two days earlier, so aside from the ancient magician Garic, who had been unlucky enough to be sent here with them, Marcus was the only other person Jarrel knew.
Besides, Marcus had asked to meet.
But it wasn't Marcus Jarrel feared. Or Garic.
"We know you're in there."
It was the "We."
Again the door banged, the sound barely audible beneath the growl of Jarrel's stomach. At last he succumbed to the inevitable. "Coming," he shouted, and pushed himself to his feet with a groan.
He'd have given anything to be headed not toward his door, but to a warm bath and a soft bed. Unfortunately, while Jarrel might have had a shot at a warm bath here, most likely the result of a long extension cord and a deftly tossed toaster, a soft bed was out of the question. As far as he knew, there was but one bed, soft or otherwise, in all of the Facility, that being the one belonging to Garic, the most renowned magician of Jarrel's home planet, Ambrosia.
Jarrel had watched Garic conjure up his plush canopy bed that first night, along with an assortment of pillows, fine linens, and perfumed soaps, just before the old master pronounced that no magic should be practiced here. Better to save up their powers until they could figure out a way home, Garic had said.
Of course, Garic had not put it exactly that way. He was one to choose his words carefully, and what he actually said was, "The man who eats both cakes for breakfast has naught for dinner."
Sometimes Garic could be a bit cryptic.
The shout alone might have torn the door from its hinges. Jarrel edged closer anyway.
"Who is it?" No harm being sure.
"I'm warning you, if you don't open this door . . . "
"Oh, Marcus. Is he with you?"
"Of course. Now, open up."
"You're not making sense."
With a click the lock turned, the door slid open, and in walked not Marcus but "Cutter," a man Jarrel knew only by reputation. Cutter's hand dropped to his side. Jarrel spotted the flash of something metallic disappearing into a pocket and formed a sudden image of how Cutter had come by his name, and his reputation.
"Um . . . come in?"
Cutter remained eerily silent. Marcus stepped up from behind him and ducked to clear the door frame. Jarrel couldn't stop himself from shrinking back. Something about the way Marcus carried himself always left Jarrel feeling like the student in their relationship.
"Jarrel," Marcus said, "meet Cutter. But don't take too long about it. Garic's waiting."
"Are you sure you want to bother Garic with this?"
Cutter turned to Marcus as though Jarrel weren't there. "Do we really need this man?" His tone suggested he'd left off the word alive.
Marcus nodded. "Give us a minute, okay Cutter? Jarrel's the only one Garic will talk to, remember?"
Cutter grumbled something inaudible but, much to Jarrel's relief, backed out of the room and moved off a few steps down the walk. Jarrel took a moment to watch him go, secretly wishing he'd go farther.
"What are you doing?" Marcus asked in a low voice. "I told you yesterday Cutter wanted to talk to Garic, remember?"
"Obviously he's never talked to Garic before or he'd know better. What makes you think Garic would want to chat with the most sinister thug in the Facility, anyway?"
"Cutter is not a thug. You'd be surprised. He's actually quite intelligent."
"I think you mean cunning."
"Whatever. I just don't think we should dismiss him lightly simply because he's a criminal."
Jarrel thought a moment. "You know a better reason to dismiss him?"
"No, what I mean is, I think we should hear him out. He may know a way to escape. If anyone could come up with a way off this planet, it would be Cutter. He really is quite clever."
Jarrel frowned. "If Cutter knew a way to escape, wouldn't he have done so years ago?"
"Not necessarily," Marcus said. "I think his plan involves magic. He needs us as much as we need him." He forced Jarrel to meet his eye. "I suggest we form an alliance."
"Great. You want us to form an alliance with a madman. You know what Garic will have to say to that."
Truth was, Jarrel wasn't sure. Probably something along the lines of, The man who swims with sharks would be wise to practice the one-legged breaststroke. Garic wasn't exactly predictable.
"Are you two coming any time soon?" Cutter shouted toward them. This time it seemed he'd left off an entire phrase. Something about lopping off fingers.
Jarrel looked to the rough-looking thug on the sidewalk, then to the safety of his quarters, and nearly made up his mind. But then he spotted the empty cupboard across the room, and his stomach growled its vote.
"Very well," he said with a sigh. To his surprise, he felt himself tiptoe onto the walk. The way he cringed from the sun, it must have looked to the others as if he were afraid it might fall on him, but it was the first time he'd been outside since he arrived.
With cutthroats like Cutter lurking about, he hoped it wouldn't be his last.
MARCUS SILENTLY OBSERVED Jarrel from behind. Admittedly, not the best of vantage points.
Jarrel turned toward Garic's door, tapped twice, and spun around again to check on Cutter. Marcus frowned. How could someone so powerful be so clueless?
While Jarrel was barely squeezed into a robe of deep yellow, well suited to his personality, Marcus wore a glimmering robe of deep blue that accentuated his broad shoulders and trim waist. Though only a student of magic back on his home planet of Ambrosia, one skill that had earned him top marks was his Penetrating Glare. He had the uncanny ability to out-stare a dead cat, and he used that skill now on Garic's door, wondering why it was taking so long to open. After several seconds with no results to show for his efforts, he paused to exchange glances with the man behind him.
Cutter was a conundrum. With his seven-foot-tall frame and mysterious dark features, Marcus rarely met anyone who matched his own ability to intimidate and couldn't understand how Cutter had earned his reputation as the most feared prisoner at Facility Twenty-four. Aside from the fact he looked like a killer, Cutter was not bad-looking. He had short brown hair--much like Jarrel's, except that it covered the center of his scalp as well as the sides--and strong, dark features like Marcus's own, albeit harder and more cold. Considering he knew nothing of magic and was of only average height and weight, it was hard to imagine how he could have gained so much respect among this brood of murderers and thieves.
Had Marcus known the answer, he never would have let Cutter stand behind him.
Cutter took a step forward until he stood eye-to-eye with Jarrel. "Try again," he suggested, though to Jarrel it surely sounded more like a threat. Without turning, Jarrel knocked again, even louder than his own knees.
Soon activity could be heard within Garic's quarters: first footsteps followed by a hollow thump, then loud cursing, and finally something heavy being dragged across stone. For a while all was quiet except for what might have been heavy breathing. Then the noises started up anew. A voice cried out from inside.
"Hundreds of bushdeer may pass before the Andrekian werecat takes up chase!"
Cutter looked up curiously but said nothing. Marcus nudged Jarrel, causing him to jump. "What was that about?"
Jarrel turned, his hand on his heart. "You have to understand how Garic thinks. That was simply his way of saying, 'Wait.'"
After many more scraping sounds and scattered curses, Marcus finally heard the sound of a latch being drawn back. The door swung open, and an ancient man, bald as an egg, but with a yellowing mustache and beard, leaned against it, panting. He fought to speak between gasps.
"A quest . . . can be said to begin . . . with your very first . . . step."
Cutter looked to Jarrel. "He means, 'Come in,' right?"
Jarrel nodded, causing Marcus to regard the convict with new respect.
The three men filed past Garic but were forced to halt a few paces inside, their way blocked by at least two dozen stone benches stacked in several piles from floor to ceiling--so many benches, in fact, it was hard to imagine how Garic ever found his way to the door.
"Whoa," said Jarrel. "Aside from those in my quarters, you must have every other bench in the Facility in here."
"Don't forget the one in my quarters," said Marcus.
Cutter's mouth turned up slightly on one side in what might have been a grin. "Or the four in mine."
Jarrel gulped so loudly, one of the piles of benches wavered and nearly fell. Marcus released a low whistle. He'd counted only three benches in Jarrel's quarters, and had to wonder again about the power of the prisoner before him.
"Garic," Jarrel said, "this is Cutter, the, uh . . . man, I told you about."
The master magician nodded slightly but remained silent. He turned and floated between the stacked benches, his iridescent robe hiding his steps. Obviously he expected the others to follow, which they managed to do, but only by closely following his example.
On the far side of the room stood a clearing where three benches had been arranged for sitting. Garic lowered himself onto the most comfortable looking one. Marcus sat on another. Jarrel avoided the remaining empty bench and rushed forward, grabbing a space half his size next to Marcus.
"What are you doing?" Marcus asked.
"I thought Cutter might want that bench for himself," Jarrel said, pointing.
The convict remained standing, surveying his surroundings quietly. No one spoke for a long interval, until Jarrel gave into the silence.
"Well, Mister Cutter, what is it you wanted to say?"
Cutter's eyes darted toward him, causing Jarrel's head to actually withdraw a couple of inches into his robe. "Don't call me Mister Cutter. My name is Cutter. Period."
"Cutter Period," Jarrel repeated nervously. "Whatever you say, Mister Cut--I mean, Cutter." He exhaled slowly. "Period."
After a brief scowl, Cutter turned his attention to Garic, who was just then drifting off. "I understand you are the most powerful magician in all of Ambrosia."
Garic stirred. He raised his head and offered a barely perceptible nod.
Cutter bowed stiffly without taking his eyes off the old master. "In that case, I am deeply honored to make your acquaintance. You are truly a man to respect."
"And don't you forget it," Jarrel whispered to the floor.
Cutter responded with a glare that nearly knocked Jarrel from his bench, impressing even Marcus. "I said he need not fear me. You may be wise to."
Having nowhere to retreat, Jarrel kept his eyes low and held his tongue while Cutter mentally licked his ears. After what seemed an eternity, Cutter turned back to Garic.
"It is my understanding you three encountered some difficulties on your home planet of Ambrosia. But then that goes without saying, when you consider where we are now."
"What one man views as difficulty another may welcome as challenge," Garic replied disinterestedly.
"Yes, of course." Cutter studied Garic more closely. "I must say, I have been quite interested in much of what Marcus has told me, especially with regard to this magician, Belgore. The boy says Belgore established a thread between worlds and has been using it to usurp energy from a planet outside his rightful jurisdiction--a planet which I understand is unknown to you."
He paused to search the elderly magician's face for a reaction. Eventually he shrugged and pointed at Jarrel. "I'm also interested in the spell this man cast, the one that surrounds this planet, preventing anything from escaping, not even a message of a magical nature."
Jarrel quit pouting long enough to raise his chin proudly. Garic's chin, on the other hand, began to droop.
"I never told you Jarrel cast that spell," Marcus said.
"You didn't need to. I have knowledge of a great many things, as you will soon find. But as to the spell, it is common knowledge that three magicians of Ambrosia--Kodos, Brandus, and Jarrel--were responsible for the spells of confinement set up at each of the thirty-five facilities. I merely assumed this to be the same Jarrel of legend. By your reaction, I'd say you've just confirmed it."
"Now, that was a spell," Jarrel boasted.
Cutter met his eye. "Yes. So powerful even you cannot escape it." His gaze strengthened, like two lasers boring through a slab of warm plastic. "By the way, there are a great many inmates here who would just love to show you how impressed they are with your work."
This time it was Jarrel's chin that drooped, only the rest of his head stayed still, leaving a big hole where his lips had been.
"It sounds as if you have been a great many places, Cutter," Marcus said quickly. "Are you some sort of traveler?"
"I have been a great many places, yes, but more importantly I have a knack for uncovering information far beyond my actual experiences."
From somewhere nearby, Marcus heard the faintest of whimpers. "What are you trying to say?"
"Take this magician, Belgore. It so happens his name is not unfamiliar to me."
"You've been to Ambrosia?"
"No, but I have been to a planet where the name is known by all, a world that is home to an entertainer known as Belgore the Magnificent, well known for his seemingly impossible feats of magic. I believe this to be more than coincidence. I'm convinced it is the planet on the other end of your thread from Ambrosia, the one Belgore chose as the source for his powers."
Marcus felt a glimmer of hope. "That does sound like Belgore. The man thinks he's far too special to be an egomaniac. But where is this planet?"
Cutter smiled. "For now you should be more interested in the planet we're on, for there lies the secret to our escape."
"We can't escape from here," Jarrel said. "Nothing can pass through the spell Kodos, Brandus and I constructed. It's foolproof."
"Are you calling me a fool?"
Jarrel inspected the floor during the resulting silence, looking as if he might explode. The belt around his waist strained in a way that did little to dispel the image. Finally Garic spoke.
"No need to escape," the old master said, his voice barely stronger than a whisper, "from a trap that is not there." He rested his eyes then, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.
"What?" Marcus felt a need to say.
"Exactly," said Cutter.
"Exactly what?" said Marcus. "The old man is talking gibberish."
Garic regarded him disinterestedly. "The little ant works diligently even as the foot descends upon him."
Marcus scowled. "Do you know what he's trying to say, Jarrel?"
"Just that you're too insignificant to be aware of the big picture around you."
"I meant that stuff about the trap not being there."
"Oh," Jarrel said. "Not a clue."
Cutter grinned. "It seems Garic has come to understand how we can escape the spell." His eyes locked on the elderly magician. "He lacks only the details of how we can expect to survive when we do."
Marcus looked to Garic as well. "What's he talking about? Do you know how he plans to escape, Garic?"
The old master remained silent for just the appropriate interval, allowing anticipation to heighten the impact of his words. "The easiest puzzles to solve are those where all pieces lie before you."
Marcus looked to Jarrel for a translation.
"He says you have all the information you need."
"I don't understand. You said nothing can penetrate the spell. What more is there to know?"
The old master sighed and gave it one last shot, annunciating each syllable in a manner Marcus found more than a bit patronizing.
"How easy to escape the trap that has yet to be set."
Again Marcus looked to Jarrel for an explanation. Jarrel shrugged.
"Imbeciles," said Cutter. "He's trying to tell you we have to escape the spell before it was cast. You magicians do have the power to alter time, don't you?"
CLOYD SIGHED. THE problem with stepping out for a breath of fresh air while rocketing through space on a luxury cruise liner was that the air outside the cabin was the same air a thousand other people had breathed inside a moment earlier. Still, it was better than the alternative: no air at all.
To make matters worse, Cloyd wasn't alone on deck. The couple seated across from him stole his remaining breath away and made it impossible to concentrate on the stars.
At least, one of them did.
"Stop it, Trent!"
She was amazing. About Cloyd's age, dressed in a sleek gown that probably held a single trigger thread that could be pulled to transform it into a pool of fabric by her feet. A very small, nearly transparent pool, Cloyd observed. He shook away the thought.
The guy with her was older, maybe twenty one, and nearly seven feet tall, with shoulders so broad in comparison to his waist as to give the impression someone had stood one of the Great Pyramids up on point. He had to be the girl's boyfriend, and not just because he was everything Cloyd wasn't. The way he poked her and grabbed at her dress and generally interrupted Cloyd's line of sight would not have been tolerated otherwise.
"I said, stop!" the girl cried as she pushed her boyfriend away with a smile and far less conviction than any girl had ever used on Cloyd.
Saddened by the display, Cloyd forced himself to look away and concentrated instead on the elderly couple seated to his right. They had said nothing to him or to each other since he sat down. Given the alternatives, they hardly seemed worth noticing.
Not everyone held the same opinion.
Rory glared at the elderly couple seated across from her. Could they be more annoying? Sure, they weren't saying anything, but the looks they gave . . .
She didn't care. She could tell the woman hadn't liked her from the moment the two sat down. Probably the way she was dressed. Skimpy clothing was seldom appreciated by the elderly, no matter how well suited to the form it was barely concealing.
And who was he kidding? At nineteen, Rory was used to scornful looks from older women, especially when they were with their husbands, but she found it pathetic that the same old men who might normally smile and wink at her could look so disapproving when their wives were present.
Rory's thoughts scattered when her boyfriend's hands broke past her defenses, forcing her to slap him away with more intent. "Stop!"
And stop Trent did, for the better part of one instant. He, too, looked to the elderly couple but never saw them. As with all of Trent's thoughts, his were centered on Rory, Rory's dress, and how to best separate one from the other. He launched a sneak attack from one side, and this time, when Rory slapped him away, she felt the tingle of cool air against her breast.
Realizing she'd hooked a finger in the plunging neckline of her dress, she yanked the fabric back into place. Cheeks burning, she glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. From the scowl the old woman across the aisle was offering, someone had. But then Rory spotted the smile on the old man's face and realized the scowl wasn't meant for her.
Only then did she notice the fuddy-looking guy seated across from her. She watched him a moment, trying to determine if he was fighting to conceal a smile. He was a year or two younger than she was, or maybe her age--it was hard to tell with fudds--and he wore a red flannel shirt and, though she tried not to dwell on the area long, green polyester gym trunks.
Even more unbelievable, he wore eyeglasses with thick, black frames. Rory had never seen eyeglasses before, except on vid, and was fascinated anyone in this day and age would still be seen wearing them. But that's just the kind of thing that made a fudd a fudd, she supposed. Some guys just didn't have a clue.
His expression had not changed. Well, when it came to men, the best defense was usually a brazen offense. "What are you smiling about?"
Cloyd said nothing at first. Then he bolted upright in his chair and shoved on the bridge of his glasses, sliding them back up his nose. "Who, me?"
"I don't see anyone else smiling."
A man groaned, and it vaguely occurred to Rory the elderly woman across the aisle had just kicked her husband.
Cloyd wiped his palms on his pant legs. "I--uh--I was just thinking about all the sights we're going to see tomorrow."
Trent grunted. "Sure you were. Hey, nice glasses, fudd."
"Trent," Rory scolded. Maybe the boy was a fudd, but she hated to see anyone made fun of. She regarded him a long moment, unaware of the pity in her own expression. "I'm sorry. I didn't even introduce myself. I'm Rory, and this is my boyfriend, Trent."
"Oh," Cloyd said. It was actually one of his better exchanges with a woman.
Rory traded glances with Trent, who rolled his eyes. "And your name would be--?" she prompted.
"Oh. Cloyd. Cloyd Clawson."
Trent snickered and nearly came up with a snide remark before Rory followed the elderly woman's lead and kicked him. Instead he screamed and took to rubbing his shin.
"This your first cruise, Floyd?" Rory asked.
"Sorry. Well, is it?"
Cloyd blushed. "No, of course not."
"Yeah, right," Trent said, and ducked needlessly out of Rory's reach.
In an effort to be friendly, Rory leaned closer to Cloyd. "So, what other cruises have you been on?"
Cloyd couldn't find his breath to answer.
"She asked what other cruises you've been on," Trent repeated helpfully.
"I've . . . er . . . been to the Bahamas," Cloyd nearly gasped.
"The Bahamas? I think she was talking about a real cruise there, sport." Pleased with himself, Trent wasted energy snickering when he should have dodged Rory's foot. "Ow!"
"The Bahamas sounds nice," Rory said. "What was that like?"
"I don't really remember," Cloyd said, blushing a deeper hue. "Truth is, I was just a baby when my parents took me."
"Ow!" Trent shouted again. "I didn't say a thing."
Rory pulled back her foot. "An ounce of prevention." While Trent inspected his shins for bruises, Rory returned her attention to Cloyd. "I guess you've never been on a space cruise then?"
Cloyd stared at the ground and shook his head.
Rory smiled warmly. "Well, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I haven't either. I guess we have something in common."
Cloyd's chin sprang up. "Really?"
"Yep. Trent here has been on a whole bunch of them, but this is my first. I'm so excited. I've never seen another planet before."
"What are you talking about?" said Trent. "You can see any of the planets whenever you want."
Rory sighed. "It's not the same on vid, Trent. We've had this discussion before."
"Sure it's not the same. When you see them on vid it can be from the comfort of your own home, where the weather's always perfect and you can drink a cold beer while you watch. Ow!"
"I didn't touch you," Rory protested.
"An ounce of prevention," he told her, grinning.
"Very funny." She tried to look angry, but it was hard in the presence of that smile. Still, it never hurt to take a moment to keep her man in line. She formed her lush, purple lips into her prettiest pout. "You just don't understand the first thing about romance."
Trent laughed. "What's romantic about a cruise? There's nothing out here I haven't seen before, and nothing I couldn't see better from my living room sofa."
"Men," Rory huffed.
"I think cruises are romantic," Cloyd muttered.
"What?" both Rory and Trent snapped.
Cloyd cleared his throat. "I . . . er . . . I said, I think cruises are romantic."
"What would you--?" Trent stopped in mid-sentence, picked up his vid unit, and held it like a shield in front of his shins. "What would you know about romance, fudd?"
Rory punched him in the arm, causing him to drop the vid, then kicked him in the shin on general principle. She winked at Cloyd and regarded Trent past long, purple lashes. "It's nice to know there are still a few romantic men left in the world."
Trent stared back, speechless, massaging his shin with one hand and his arm with the other. His gaze wandered to Cloyd, but Rory cleared her throat and shot him a look that suggested he might want to use caution, and despite his usual slowness in picking up on her moods, Trent considered his reply carefully, then reconsidered, then gave up altogether. "I'm going upstairs," he announced.
Rory said nothing.
"For the free buffet."
Still Rory held her ground.
Much chagrined, Trent stood and mumbled something about meeting up with her later. He was gone only a moment before the elderly couple, previously unaware of the free buffet, gathered their things and rushed after him, leaving Rory and Cloyd alone on the deck. They sat quietly for a time, the stars beaming down from above, their brilliance intensified in the isolation of space. Cloyd failed to notice. He fidgeted in his seat and mostly debated if the ship's oxygen system was failing.
"Don't mind Trent," Rory eventually said. "He's harmless. A bit insecure, perhaps, but harmless."
"I don't think he likes me," Cloyd said, his voice little more than a gasp.
"He doesn't like any man I talk to," Rory stated flatly.
"Can't say I blame him."
"I said . . . uh . . . I canceled Albania."
"What?" Rory repeated.
Cloyd pushed on the bridge of his eyeglasses again, but they slid back down before his hand even reached his side. "Albania," he said. "I, er, could have gone on a cruise there, but I chose this one instead."
"Oh." What an odd boy, Rory thought. He looked so excruciatingly uncomfortable. She tried offering a reassuring smile, but Cloyd just squirmed more. "Well, Cloyd, I've never been to Albania, but I think you made the right decision. I'm glad you chose this cruise instead."
Cloyd's eyes nearly took over his face. No one was gladder than he.