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This Shoal of Space:

Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship

(World's First E-Book—Published On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)

a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker

by John Argo


Preface   Chapter 1   Intralog  Part I-Chapter 2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42   43   44   45   46   47   48   49   50   51   52   53   54   55   56   57   58   59   60   61   62   63   64   65   Part II-Chapter 66   67   68   69   70   71   72   73   74   75   Outlog


Heartbreaker

Chapter 39.

When she returned to the office on Thursday morning, Jules told ZoŽ that Perry was at the hospital because something terrible had happened to Matilda but nobody was sure what.

"Oh no," ZoŽ said.

"Yeah," Jules said fighting his pipe with shaky hands. "You're the crime reporter until Perry returns. You ready?"

She nodded distantly. Something was quietly wreaking hell in her town and part of it lived in rental space # 1 at the back of her brain. Part of her felt like standing on the roof and shouting: Something has taken up residence in my brain and you're all next!

"ZoŽ, snap out of it. I know you're shocked. We all are. But the show goes on." He handed her a sheet of paper. "There's a list. Stop at the DA's office for a copy of the Mazzini indictment. The police chief's office for a statement if you can get it. And for heaven's sake if you bump into Lara, DON'T ask him how the zoo investigation is going, okay?"

ZoŽ and Jules visited the hospital around six to see how Matilda was coming along. ZoŽ loathed hospitals because of Max's cancer. You hold a limp hand, you cradle a feverish head, you comfort a crying boy. But mostly you sit and wait while he sleeps, drugged to the limit. How many times, when the hush is on the night and the only sound is the mousy squeak of a nurse's shoes, do you lean forward on trembling hands, lay your ear by his mouth, and listen to find out if he is still breathing?

As ZoŽ and Jules trod along the corridors of Burtongale Memorial Hospital, a chloroformed silence inlaid the chocolate-colored floors. It was supper hour, and a beefy bready aroma steamed off of aluminum carts parked at angles in the halls. Outside in the liberty of the healthy world, the sun lay low over tree crowns, and its last rays weakly printed vanilla lozenges into odd corners.

ZoŽ saw them in the waiting room: Three boys and two girls, all under ten, and Perry. The three boys wore white shirts and bow ties and sat squeezed together. The two girls wore flouncy dresses and shiny black shoes and clung together on a creaky chair. Perry sat in a stuffed chair. His face was in his hands, and his elbows on his knees. He looked up with an expression of grief and fatigue.

"What happened?" ZoŽ whispered.

The children were silent. They stuck together and twisted stiffly from long sitting. They stared with haunted, pleading eyes. Perry blew his nose in a paper towel. "I was just outside for a minute. She was inside Chatfield's office. Next thing I know, the vacuum cleaner's upended and she's...like this."

"Any prognosis?" Jules whispered.

Perry shook his head. "Technically she's in a coma. Physically they've been unable to find anything wrong with her. All her vital signs are down, but steady. It's just as if she fell asleep."

Late in the day, ZoŽ picked Max up. He seemed quiet. Or was it sullen?

"Are you okay?"

No answer, and it went like that most of the way home.

As she pulled up in the parking lot of the apartment complex, he held out an envelope in fingers grimy from basketball, inky from writing.

"What's this?" The seal of St. Andrew's School was on it.

"It's a note," Max muttered. He rubbed his nose and sniffed.

"Use a handkerchief," she said. He reached for the tissue box while she read: "Dear Miss Calla: I have felt the need to write you a note. Max is sleepy and inattentive in class. He is argumentative and does not seem to get along well with his peers. Please call me so we can set up a meeting with Max's teacher. Thank you. Sister St. Cyr."

"Max," she said lowering the letter into her lap, "is something bothering you?"

"No!"

There is, she thought, but what? Hormones? Puberty? "Okay, sweetheart, let's just go inside and have a bite to eat."

"I'm not hungry."

"Okay, well maybe take a hot bath."

Inside, ZoŽ prepared dinner (hamburgers, mashed potatoes, carrots) and a desert she knew Max really liked (coconut custard in graham cracker cups).

"Are you running your bath water?" she shouted over the clatter of some dishes she was washing.

No answer.

"Supper's ready," she said wiping her hands on a dish cloth.

No answer.

She knocked on the door. It slid open a few inches.

He turned to her with a face contorted with fury. "Are you spying on me?" he snarled. His teeth were bared, upper lip curled back dripping with spittle. His dark eyes flashed with feral light, as though touched by the aurora in some echoing arctic wood rather than the cold bluish computer screen. His hair stood out in hackles.

ZoŽ staggered back.

"Get out!" the wolf snarled.

ZoŽ turned and ran. The Cold Thing-eel cackled under the rocks as ZoŽ splashed through. She dropped the dish cloth. She upset the wooden tray and custard cups went flying. She tripped in the hot custard, burning her knee as she went down. She scrambled to her feet. Flinging the door open, she ran outside. Pounded down the stairs. Past the pool. Out to the parking lot. And there she leaned over her car. She held her hands to her mouth. And drew in great sobs of air. Hot tears coursed over her knuckles and splashed on the hood. Her eyes burned. And her soul hurt.

The Cold Thing was amused.

I'll show you, she thought. She ran around the side of the house. Slipped on gravel. Fell. Skinned her calf. Gravel hung in her scraped skin but she ignored the burning hurt. She could not see distinctly in the darkness. She slammed the flats of her hands along the wall, seeking, seeking...

...and found the breaker boxes, one for each of eight apartments. Blindly, she marched her fingers up along the breakers until she found the right one. She pushed the master switch for her apartment to the right.

She heard a snarl. Max? Then a yell.

Somehow the breaker slammed open again.

The yell turned from frustration to a howl of satisfaction. It was not Max's voice. Could not be. And yet maybe it was. She used both hands to snap the breaker shut again and held it. Somewhere she heard a sound like lots of machinery powering down. The darkness deepened, but somehow with less bite. Carefully she eased her pressure. The breaker stayed shut.

A car pulled into the drive, and by its headlight she caught a glimpse. The breaker looked black and swollen. It smelled faintly like burning rubber.

Sniffling, wiping her tears, she shuffled back to the apartment. She gently brushed away bits of gravel sticking to the wound on her calf. "Ouch, dammit."

The apartment was dark. Ominous. A face appeared in the doorway. ZoŽ stopped. Hands grasped the door frame. Hair stood on end. His eyes were frightened. His lips quivered. "Mommy!" he wailed. "Mommy!"

She ran to him. He collapsed crying against her, head on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said sobbing.

She rubbed his head, rocked him, held him close. "It's okay, sweetheart, it's okay now."

She felt the Cold Thing watching slyly, and loathed it. She held her son close.

"I don't know what happened, Mom." Max began to control his sobbing and once again became the ten year old instead of the frightened little child. They went inside where it was dark.

"Is it okay now?" ZoŽ asked while Max picked up his crutches that lay near the door.

"Yes." He seemed sure of that, at least. "We were playing the Space 3000 game on line," he said.

"We?"

"Me and Jeremy," he said in a confessional voice. "And the others." He hung his head.

"What others?"

"I don't know. Other kids, I guess."

"You'd better tell me all about this." She led him into the living room and they sat down.

"Well, Jeremy's mom bought him this modem about a month ago. He logged into a bulletin board that had games on it. They were free games that you could download. So we took a couple. And this one was really neat." There was an afterglow of excitement in his eyes. "We had a lot of fun..."

"...And then," ZoŽ said, "things got out of hand."

He rubbed his temples as though there were something painful in his head. "I don't know. Space 3000 is where a giant ship is traveling through the galaxy for thousands of years and there are thousands of creatures frozen inside. The rules are complicated but basically every once in a while someone accidentally wakes up from being frozen. Then the monitor rats hunt him down to keep the place clean. But if he makes it to the city in the ship, he's safe."

"City in the ship?" ZoŽ echoed.

"Yeah, well, I guess this is a huge ship. I never thought about it much, but I guess it's probably..."(...he stopped and thought...)"...about five miles wide and ten, twenty miles long."

ZoŽ grasped his shirt front gently in both hands and shook. "Max, there is no spaceship. It's all a delusion. Now tell me, is it gone? The game?"

He held his head and looked at her. He frowned. "Yes."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Absolutely sure?"

"Yes. Let go my neck."

She went into his room with a flashlight and disconnected the computer. She took the modem, wrapped it in its cord, and stowed it under the kitchen sink between the scouring pads and the cleaning fluids. She threw a pile of dishrags and rubber gloves over it and slammed the doors. She went outside and pushed the breaker open. She went inside, hugged Max, and tapped his forehead with her index finger tip. "No gremlins up there?"

He grinned. "No."

"Good." She patted his cheek lightly. "Come on." She took him to his room. There, she plugged in the computer and turned it on. The blue-gray screen lit up. READY, it said.

She unplugged the Web connection. She erased everything on the hard disk drive. "Anything on floppies?" she asked. He reached into a drawer and produced a handful of floppy disks. She reformatted them one by one, turning them back into blanks without a shred of data on them. She reloaded his word processing and BASIC programming software for him. "Got any homework to do?" she asked.

"Sure do."

"Okay, get to it. And then a bath. And then bed."

He hugged her. "Thanks."

The old Max, she thought, closing the door gently. She made herself a strawberry milkshake and stood in the moonlight watching ripples cross the pool below.

Somewhere, a printer chirred. ZoŽ, frowning, took her milkshake inside and went into Max's room. He was fast asleep, mouth open and hair mussy on the pillow. The computer screen glowed softly, and there was a word displayed on it: WARNED2.

She went to the printer and looked. Sure enough, it had spat out the same word: WARNED2. The Cold Thing stirred fitfully inside her. Her milkshake lost its flavor and she set it aside. How much clearer could the warning be? Okay, she thought, I'll back off completely. Put me on obits. I give up.

The threat now was against her son. And that overrode any desire to crack this hideous story. I give up, she thought at the Cold Thing, I quit. I won't risk my son. Checkmate.

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Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.