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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 59.

Two days later, a cold, damp winter wind of the sea stirred around San Tomas Peninsula. "They're gone," Rudy whispered in the leaded bay window pane. Max heard the purr of the departing Porsche. His Mom and this man were going off on a big Saturday night date and they were very happy. If Mom and Roger got married, then Rudy, Max, and Elisa would become brothers and sister. Max also knew what it probably meant. His mother would have more babies. In a way it was wonderful, because he'd never wanted to be an only child. Now it was becoming a reality, and scary. Elisa seemed pretty cool, but Rudy was such a brat; would he, Max, really want to live with these people forever?

"C'mon," Rudy bawled. "Let's go. We can catch Captain Colorado for a coupla hours."

Elisa glared after her brother. "You're going to have a brain hemorrhage with all those computer games!"

"I'll just go watch for a while," Max said, drawn to the computer game without really wanting to be, and not wanting to offend Elisa because he thought she was against the computer games. To his surprise, she followed him.

Rudy tore the nails out of the door, and left it banging wide open. What if they come back early for some reason, Max wondered. Mom would be displeased. His school work was getting sloppy and Sister would send nasty notes home, but he just couldn't seem to summon the concentration. He felt fatigued a lot, even depressed. His legs ached, and he got headaches.

"Wow," Rudy said. "Look." Captain Colorado emerged from a welter of computer graphics and music. He vaguely resembled a younger version of that crabby, weird old Mr. Wallace Burtongale who had been Roger's boss at the zoo. "Hi kids, welcome to another evening of fun, danger, and excitement!"

Max frowned. This was almost like when he and Jeremy had loaded in the bootleg game Jeremy had purchased from a street kid... Max began to sweat. There it was again, the feeling of being sucked in and unable to stop. He could see it too in the rapt eyes and glistening foreheads of Rudy and Elisa.

"This time, kids," Captain Colorado said, "let's go on a different kind of tour, deep, deep into the galaxy..." A portrait of space emerged on the screen. The light bulb above went out with a pop. Stars swirled in unbelievable glory. The three children gasped at the beauty. A galaxy swirled in the video monitor. Captain Colorado said: "Our ship is snagged on a reef, so to speak; snagged on a star, or more properly, on a distant world...a lost shoal, far away in space..." The kids gasped again. A giant opal appeared against the black velvet display of the solar system with its single nubbin of starlight. "Our mission, Space Cadets, is to liberate the ship and its cargo from this shoal of space so the journey can continue. So let us go in..."

The surface drew closer. Max saw a white cloud ring around a blue Pacific atoll; summer vegetation in the wrinkled and twisty spine of the Andes; and then the east-southeastward looking gorilla skull that was the continent of Africa. "...as our dear captain and his brave crew did so many eons ago. Let us try, somehow, to find our ship with its people and animals, save our cargo of a million souls, and either settle here, or move on!" The music flared in martial glory. Then the screen went blank.

"What was he talking about?" Rudy asked.

"I don't know," Max said, "are you sure this is a game we ought to be playing?"

"If you ask me," Elisa said, "we're getting into trouble."

The words unrolled in pica: Hey, are you guys in? —Jer.

Elisa sat down and pecked on the keyboard: Hi, Cadet. Yes, we're along for the ride. Are you Captain Colorado?

Answer: Are you kidding? I don't know who's doing this or how. I'm scared but I can't put it down. That you, Elisa?

Max frowned jealously.

Yes, this is Elisa. So where does the game take us next?

In answer, the screen flickered a couple of times. Then there was a clear color TV image of... "Fish," Rudy said curiously.

"Oh look at that one," Elisa said bending close as though peering into an aquarium.

Max looked closely and saw several bright yellow fish circling. "I've seen those before," he said. But where?

She gave him a questioning look. Her cheek was next to his, and he saw a flurry of shyness or embarrassment in her white eyes, a flush in her tan skin. "Where?" she said with a tremor and a challenge in her voice.

"At the Marine Aquarium in the zoo," Max said. "Those are some kind of fish that live off the coast here. But that's not a picture of the Marine Aquarium."

"Oh yeah? How do you know?" she sassed.

"Because there is a tangle of junk behind those fish, and the walls in the Marine Aquarium are bright blue and clean. That water's murky."

Elisa sharply wanked Max's ear (dumb girls!) so that he pulled quickly away. Surprisingly roped in, she said sharply: "Okay, Captain Colorado, Jeremy, or whoever you are, take it away! Like, make it happen!"

THANK YOU ... something whispered in their minds. HAVE YOU COME TO RESCUE US?

"Yes," Elisa said and Max wished she would shut up.

WE ARE HAPPY... IT HAS BEEN A LONG LONG TIME...

Rudy brayed: "Yeah, baby! Captain Colorado to the rescue!"

LET US REACH OUT AND PERCEIVE YOU...

Something really did reach out, wrapping cold octopus tentacles and eel bodies around them, and they actually smelled the sea, felt its terrible weight at 1,000 feet far from sunlightÖ

Elisa screamed and held her ears. Rudy flew back, banging into Max. And Max blacked out, feeling as though cold water had been poured over him.

This was to be a special evening out, and ZoŽ found Roger to be the most wonderful, romantic man she'd ever met. She was sure the kids were okay with Elisa in charge. First, Roger took her to the OmniMart Mall in the northern part of town. There, they strolled among plashing fountains and twittering birds. They looked at china ware, at silver dinner services, at furniture and lamps. The music was jazzy and stylish. Rich old band tunes poured out of furniture-radios like cream into coffee. He took her to Martelevich, which advertised on TV. that they were the store with the score. She peered through the sinuously winding and unwinding threads of light amid pearl and crystal in the display window. "Just think of the money..."

He whispered while nipping her earlobe: "Don't worry. Martina Strather volunteered some funds Miss Polly had set aside; so anything we buy goes on a Burtongale credit card. As a kind of apology, I guess, or who knows."

"So Miss Polly doesn't hate me?"

He shrugged. "I don't think it was ever a matter of hate. The only emotion, if there was any, was to protect her family. With you off the paper, now it's a matter of her grandchildren's happiness. She does care deeply about Rudy and Elisa."

"Doesn't she think I'd be bad for them?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so. Maybe she sees something special in you. I know I do."

In a back room, while Roger went for a stroll, ZoŽ watched an older lady with half-lenses getting ready for a wedding, maybe her daughter's. Two thin girls in shapeless dresses fussed over her. The outfit they put together for her included an understated black mid-calf dress, white silk blouse engorged with lace and pearl, a black velvet bow tie, black toreador jacket, and weird looking black hat (a hockey puck, designed to ride raffishly over her forehead, falling out of balance, and therefore emphasizing the graceful penned line of her jaw and chin in counterbalance). Then, some initial measurements for a wedding dress... She twirled in the mirrors, glowing. Her lips sparkled. Her cheeks had a pink flush. Joy and light carouseled in her eyes, and she did remember how Mother had looked on the swing, being pushed by Max, but the memory did not alarm her. There was, well, just something magical going on. White Stuff kicked up, minute flakes settling just as quickly; everyone was used to it and ignored it by now.

Roger had gone down-mall and picked out a fresh suit for himself. While it was being tailored, he picked up colas and a tub of popcorn. They sat together and watched shoppers. She was happy to sit quietly beside him. Their bodies pressed together in unobtrusive places, adding always that oneness, that awareness of the precious other. If I should lose you now...

Something was still out there in the barrier reefs of her mind, a spark of the eternal and uncaring, under a mosquito swarm of stars; and what value human life in that grand and icy scale? ...But she pushed all such thoughts aside and slipped her arm through his. He wore a new dark-blue suit, powder blue shirt, and silk tie (stitches green and white, spare, upon a background royal blue); and stiff new walnut-colored wingtips which, he confessed, bit at the sides of his feet. As they stepped out of Martelevich, people turned to look. A makeover lady had been sent in from Farber's up the mall; in a half hour ZoŽ looked utterly glamorous. She stared at herself in the mirror, turned this way and that, touched her cheeks, hung a glossy lip in disbelief. Roger looked pleased. Colantoni's for dinner: In the dim reddish glow, waiters in linen uniforms moved slowly. The busboys wore all white; the waiters wore white Eisenhower jackets with black trousers and shoes; the captains wore all black; the maitre d' wore black tails. All buttons were brass, polished to a golden hue.

Outside, beyond the plate windows, dusk fell like an ominous music. The sky was a gorgeous swirl of confetti. Night fell, and on the sea channel the distant lights of San Tomas Peninsula glittered. Ships, their masts crusted with lights, swept silently past.

A band kicked in: Jazz piano (soft, rippling); snare drums; thumping bass; doodling clarinet. ZoŽ floated through it all like a lazy trout pushed by a drowsy summer afternoon stream. They joked and held hands over crab and shrimp salad in lemon dill in a bed of lettuce and parsley on a silver plate. They ate fresh lobster boiled on the spot to crumbly white consistency and dipped in mushroom garlic butter. Speckled potatoes, a noodle and egg twirl with caviar, and fresh fruit cup complemented the lobster. Desert was ice cream, chocomint cookie, and champagne.

Roger excused himself briefly and returned wearing his old but very presentable brown loafers. Giddy with champagne, they made their way upstairs to the dance floor. Lines of light pulsed in the blond hardwood floor. ZoŽ rested her forehead on Roger's shoulder and they swayed to a slow rock tune.

They threw each other around to the merry waves of swing.

Tango came a while later. They marched back and forth, snapped each other around, entwined and detwined their legs, looked up and down, looked this way and that, and marched back and forth holding each other. They broke up laughing because neither really knew how to tango. The speakers in the walls played bandoneon, which had a less sad sound than the larger accordion, but a somewhat rough edge serrated like its origin in Buenos Aires slums and jails. Rrrrrummm, rrrrrummmm, went the music as they danced giddily, first one way, then the other... Rrrrummmmm, rrrrrummmm; in one direction they put their cheeks together and stared into space... Rrrrrummmm, rrrruummmmm, in the other direction; she threw herself on her back in his arms while he stared into her eyes...

When they tired of music and dancing, Roger and ZoŽ went for a long walk down a deserted beach. The lights of San Tomas glittered innocently across the bay.

On the way back she told him: "This has been the happiest evening of my life."

His eyes told her he was scared but happy.

Arriving home, they tripped laughing and then shishing through the doorway. As ZoŽ kicked off her shoes, she noticed: "Hey, look at all this White Stuff." There were big flakes like goose feathers drifting around the room.

"Ah," he said dismissingly, "I'll vacuum in the morning."

ZoŽ stole down the hall and checked the boys. Rudy had a piece of White Stuff stuck in his hair. She brushed it aside with the wry observation that if there were White Stuff or Purple Stuff or Any Kind of Stuff near, Rudy would wind up with some in his quills. She kissed his forehead and noticed he seemed hot.

Then she checked on Max. He snored as though he'd been chopping wood all day, and lay sprawled. She pushed his legs together—two cinnamon sticks, one slightly thicker than the other, one knee full-sized, the other always struggling to keep up in growth—and pulled the cover over him. Kissing him, she noticed his hair was damp and he was hot. She felt his forehead and frowned. Were these kids brewing something? He smelled sort of wet and salty.

Elisa always slept cool. Hardly moved. Her mahogany hair lay as if someone had arranged it. Her big puppy hands lay by her cheeks, fingers lightly curled. Yes, she too snored with open mouth and felt warm. What was going on here?

By the time ZoŽ got to bed, Roger was snoring loudly.

"Party animal," she said and kissed his left nipple. Then she turned over and went to sleep.

In the morning, the kids seemed okay and ZoŽ took them to school.

On the way home she stopped to see Jules and Patricia. Jules looked deathly pale, still stretched on the sofa. "He's been under a lot of pressure," Patricia said. "He's been drinking more."

"He drinks a lot, huh?"

After a pause, she said: "I'm afraid we both do. Drink more than we should. But he's been slugging it down."

"Is that one of the reasons you've decided to move?"

"He told you that?" She sounded as though another layer of Burtongale pretense had been painfully torn off of her like a bandage from a sore.

"Yes. And I don't blame you."

"Thank you," Patricia breathed. ZoŽ felt there was a pathetic quality about her like someone asking permission to be human.

ZoŽ relished her brief role as wife and mother of three. Max got his own room after Roger and ZoŽ cleaned out a mess of dusty bric-a-brac in a room where Wallace Burtongale II had romped as a toddler in the 1870's.

She was having more dreams than she'd ever had before. Was it Roger's cooking? All this juicy sex they were having? The dreams were not pleasant, but they left no nightmare ketones, no strangled cries that Roger could comment on, but then he was a heavy sleeper. Always, in the dreams, she seemed to be walking along a corridor. Sometimes it was a narrow corridor and there were incredible beasts behind the closed doors. Sometimes she even glimpsed them: ants big as cows; giant mollusks floating in brine with only their antennae and the tips of their shells showing; many-legged horses fluttering by underwater on Pegasus wings; they would notice her, sometimes, but they never made a move toward her. Other times, it was not a corridor but a walkway in a great open space like a scaffold around the fiftieth floor of some huge building. Usually it either looked like the surrounding air was thick with gray fog, or else it looked as though they were underwater, for huge fish swam by.

(Wiz's face seemed to stare at her through a lot of water).

Sometimes it seemed there was an airplane lying nearby, at times with all the lights in the cabin lit, at other times dark as a tomb.

Once, it was none of the above, but like floating on your back in the pool at night with all the lights off, and with thousands of fireflies overhead. Only these fireflies did not wink out; they were stars, and that was the cosmic sea, the dim ember of her sleep-mind was sure. She awoke from this one with a slight cry. She lay listening to the soft rain, and Roger's snores, and wondered why she had the lingering feeling that something terrible was about to happen.

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