Blaze Starkshoot thought he'd go crazy in the cell. Either the Mindoans didn't believe in furniture or they didn't believe in making their prisoners comfortable. Worse, the cell was odd-shaped, an ovoid instead of the usual rectangle or square. Blaze couldn't even pace in a straight line while he reviewed the mistakes that had landed him here.
He had, however, found something to play with - two roundish bars of soap, a square brush and a wooden bowl. These he kept in the air constantly, just to amuse himself. The bowl was badly balanced and the brush had a bad habit of coming down bristle-first, but the challenge was worth it. It kept him from going crazy wondering what they were going to do with him. He finally got all four up in the air with only his right hand and figured he'd about worn the trick out. As he watched the last bar of soap come out of its arc, the light glowing off its blue sheen, he thought of the Buster and wondered where she was.
Two solar days ago, Blaze was on the verge of making a dream come true. He managed to evade the Mindoan security shields, sliding past their spy satellites with his Bluffer Shields up. Since nothing fired on him or called for him to stop, he didn't. He landed in the Mindoan forest near dusk and kept his shields up until dark had fully fallen. The giant trees surrounding the Buster whispered to him throughout the night. The Mindoans hadn't named their planet "Storm" for nothing. Gusts of wind teased the short-limbed trees all through the dark hours, whining, shrieking, moaning teasings that kept him awake.
Blaze was sorely tempted to lift the Bluffers again, to dampen all sound coming in. But if he did that he'd be totally defenseless if they snuck up on him. So he tried not to think of all the legends he had heard about the forest planet - of the carnivorous tree demons and forest creatures. Finally he slept.
When the big orange sun burst over the forest's shoulders the next morning, Blaze was ready. He charged the saws and checked out the portafield he'd use to transport the cut lumber. He tackled the trees closest to his ship, not wanting far to run in case of trouble.
Fiddle trees only grew on Storm. They were a native tree which, though purchased by traders as seedlings and transplanted, couldn't grow in any other climate. Biologists thought it had something to do with the ionization factors in Storm's wind, but no one really knew.
What Blaze and other traders did know was the value of the wood. Pampered monarchs on dozens of worlds cherished the lightweight, blue-sheened material for their furniture. And like all rare things, it sold well. But Blaze didn't care a whit about that. Blaze was an entertainer, a juggler extraordinaire, and he wanted just enough wood to make a good set of sticks. Just one tree, one small tree, and he'd be happy.
Outside the Buster the orange sky of Storm peeked through tall tree tops only occasionally. Blaze found a small tree, a sapling really, a hundred meters away. The tree was already so tough the laser saw seemed to wince as it touched the dark bark, but it cut through. A small thrill coursed through Blaze as he gathered the fallen pieces. From this he could make a lifetime's worth of juggling sticks. His fortune was as good as sealed.
And he almost made it.
Blaze lifted from the forest floor, and he made orbit, and he was just about to put up the Bluffer Shields when the Cruiser nailed him from nowhere. A laser blast scorched his forward dish and a voice screeched through his commline, "Don't touch the shields!"
They towed him back down to the surface.
And this cell stank. The food, which came twice a day at dawn and dusk, tasted like sawdust. Ovoid little patties of - dare he guess? - meat. And ovoid little patties of - dare he guess? - jello? Some kind of gelatin with flecks of fruit. Or flecks of flies. He swatted one that had crawled from the gelatin, a nasty half-centimeter blue-black that was trying to suck his blood. Like the legends of those Old Earth leeches, blue-blacks injected an anesthetic and you had no idea they were attached until it was too late.
The cell block was built in tiers and he had the topmost cell. Below him a dizzying array of barren, yet filthy, cells stretched down to main floor level. He shouldn't complain. He even had a window. Ovoid shaped, like everything else, and crisscrossed with synthisteel bars. The problem with synthisteel, Blaze thought, was that everything looked old already, no matter what its real age. Synthisteel came in rust red only, and all things made from it forever looked ancient.
Blaze juggled his supper. Ovoid patty up, ovoid jello down - one hand only, of course. Then behind his back, then back out, between his legs - Ta Da! - now add the other meat patty (the one left from breakfast) and he was doing three with one hand. Now behind his back, down, through his legs, back up in front of him...
He wished he had an audience. Someone to appreciate his skills.
Time dragged on. Sunrise, sunset, juggle the meat patty and watch the guards - bipeds with tufts of hair a meter high cresting their helmets. Listen at night to other prisoners talking in a dozen alien languages. No one from Paradise, his home. Sleep.
He dreamed of Paradise, of water and ocean islands and fruit trees. But the fruit tree wood was no good for making juggling sticks. He dreamed of food - a bird dinner his mother once fixed in honor of some old tradition on Old Earth. Old Earth. Just a legend, if you asked Blaze. He never dreamed of Earth, though some of the old ones on Paradise did. If it was real, he would have dreamed of it.
A banging on the cell door woke him.
"The King awaits you," a burly guard informed him.
Blaze quickly juggled two meat patties and a fruit salad, adding, quickly, one bread stick, two bread sticks, three... Damn! They all fell crumbling to the floor.
The door opened.
The burly guard held up shackles, his meter-high hair waving in the breeze from the door. Blaze held his hands high. The thought of being shackled panicked him. "I won't be trouble," Blaze said.
The guard looked unsure, but finally he shrugged and motioned Blaze past him.
The Grand Ball Room was... ovoid in shape (of course) and Blaze stared out on a crowd of 200 or more residents of Storm. The throne was set near the room's center with everything cutting a wide swath around that. There was an orchestra of 100 pieces and dancing girls and a strange little dazed boy right down front.
They took Blaze to the foot of the throne. The King was cutting his meat with a golden knife, watching with a sorrowful look the boy who just gazed out at the crowds without blinking. The boy's dazed look plucked at Blaze's memories. As a young child, his parents had thought him autistic, but he just had a fascination for moving objects. He found that when he juggled he could concentrate well enough. If he didn't juggle, he, too, stared out into space, unfocussed, only vaguely aware of the world around him.
A scribe started to read the charges against Blaze. The King, however, waved the scribe away. "We all know the penalty for cutting a Fiddle tree," he said. He stared at Blaze.
Nervous and unable to concentrate, Blaze, as he always did, started to juggle. He snatched up two large pieces of pale fruit from a golden bowl, and he quickly added two banana shapes from another bowl, and then he threw in a wand of wood he'd snatched from near the boy.
The boy watched in wonder. His eyes seemed to focus, and his mouth turned upward in a grin. The King noticed this and silenced the scribe, who still protested, "But the penalty is death!"
Blaze knew he should stop and face his sentencer, but he was hot, hitting his rhythms just right, and he kept adding a piece from here and a piece from there, all to the now-giggling delight of the small boy.
The boy stood and clapped his hands.
Blaze grinned without looking down at him. "You can do this, too, you know!"
"Oh no. I couldn't," the boy said.
And the King gasped. "He spoke!" the King said. "Did you hear? He spoke, for the first time since his mother died!"
The crowd roared, drowning out the scribe, who kept reminding the King that the penalty was death, and Blaze kept right on juggling everything he could find, wondering if this time he could break the record of 15 objects at once. But he never found out because the small boy tugged at his sleeve, breaking his concentration, and Blaze stopped.
Everything clattered to the floor. Blaze stared at the King. The King said, "You are charged with trying to steal the wood from a Fiddle tree. Is this charge true?"
Blaze bowed his head. "Yes, Lord. But I had a reason."
The King looked at his son, now all giggles and smiles. "Tell it," he said.
"Fiddle Sticks," Blaze said.
"What?" The King looked shocked.
"I had heard of your strange plight, of your son who couldn't break his stare, and I thought to make special Fiddle Sticks to juggle for his entertainment." It wasn't nearly the truth, but Blaze was, after all, first and foremost an entertainer!
"I see," said the King. And truly he may have; there was a mischievous glint in his eye.
"And if I excuse the penalty of death, will you teach my boy this marvelous thing you do?"
"Of course," Blaze said.
The King turned to the court. They roared and chanted and cheered. "The sentence of death is voided," the King said. "Your new sentence will be service for one year in my court. Agreed?"
Blaze bowed, hoping as he did so that the food in the court would be better than in the cell. He noticed as he bowed that several of the dancing girls looked ripe. He grinned up at the child.
"Ready to juggle?" he asked.
"Sure!" the boy answered.
Blaze stood back up. "We'll start your first lesson just as soon as your father orders the craftsmen to make my Fiddle Sticks..."
Freelancer Gene KoKayKo of Pueblo, Colo., is currently juggling several novels and hundreds of short stories, hoping that most will find their way into print.