This Shoal of Space:
Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship
(World's First E-BookPublished On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)
a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker
by John Argo
Part I-Chapter 2
Part II-Chapter 66
In the morning, after dropping the kids off at school, ZoŽ decided to stop by her apartment and pick up her bathrobe and a few things, pack a proper suitcase and move in with Roger.
Something was not quite right, she saw as she drove down her street. The street was the same, but somehow looked different, as if she'd been away for a long time. Then she realized what it was. She wasn't quite the same person she'd been before this relationship with Roger Chatfield. So she might as well have been away for years. She imagined the apartment would probably seem small and tawdry after she'd started getting used to the big house. But it was still her true home. Mustn't forget that. Mustn't let go too much, not set myself up to get hurt, in case he...
Something else was wrong. What? Water dripped from green tree crowns. Here and there, old folks doddered along with their canes. There: White stuff along the telephone wires. She stared up at the wires. It looked like snow; no, shaving cream; no, maybe...
Pulling up at the curb of her mother's apartment building, she saw some of the stuff lying on the little grassy patch on the sidewalk. What was this stuff anyway? She touched it hesitantly. Plastic? It was dry and neutral. She picked a piece up and smelled it. Faint plastic smell. Foamed plastic! That was it. Foamed plastic. Maybe some kids had played a joke on someone. She looked up worried. The white stuff ran ominously to the roof beams of the apartments. She got her key out as she pushed through the gate...
...And slowed down. Her door, which was locked, had a rim of white stuff all around, sealing all the cracks and openings. Same with the windows.
She had trouble with the lock. Finally she pushed the door open and gasped. The inside of her precious home had been trashed. Books, papers, notebooks lay open. Tables, chairs, lamps were overturned. A lamp was broken. Trash cans had been emptied on the floor. Cabinets stood open.
White Stuff oozed out of the electrical outlets, out of faucets, even the cable TV outlet, and hardened into foamed plastic. White Stuff ran along the walls and ceilings wherever electrical wiring was buried; she could tell, because it ran perpendicular and crossed over outlets. And then: Under the sink, the modem which she had stashed after Max's wolf misadventure: It was totally encased in White Stuff. Afraid to touch it, she looked closely and saw that shiny new wire ran through the White Stuff. Ran... She stumbled along in her running shoes... ran into her bedroom, made a trail like something dug by a gopher, and swirled itself around the telephone there. The TV, the radio, the toaster in the kitchen, all the appliances looked as though someone had gutted them. She tried to work the telephone answering machine, but the wiring inside the buttons had been leached out.
The picture tube hung out of the TV and seemed to be following her like a big eye. White Stuff creaked like foamed plastic as the screen turned and faced her.
She backed away ready to scream.
A face appeared on the screen, black and white like an old movie, and snowy as though it were coming in over rabbit ears. It took her a moment longer to recognize who it was. "Hello, ZoŽ," Wiz said and her glasses slid down her nose. Her voice came fuzzy through the White Stuff as through a torn speaker. She pushed the glasses back up.
"No," ZoŽ said.
"Yes, ZoŽ. Where is the ship?"
"It can't be you," ZoŽ said.
"The ship, ZoŽ. Where?"
"There is no ship."
"There is one last line of defense," Wiz said.
ZoŽ felt her entire body shivering. "I have your glasses in my car. And I stood in the morgue and looked at your bones. You are dead."
Wiz's face changed. The picture faded.
Her first call was to St. Andrew's, but the receptionist said the students were all in class. The news was breaking on the radio as ZoŽ drove through town, and she was furious that she couldn't be on the city desk. She pitied Jules, fired just before the story of his lifetime. Why had her apartment been trashed? No matter, I am finally losing my marbles, seeing a dead person on a broken TV tube.
Confused faces peered from doors and windows as White Stuff dangled from their trees and telephone poles. ZoŽ heard distant sirens. She passed a group of people clustered around a spot on a corner sidewalk, possibly where someone had fallen into a coma. The county supervisor was expected to declare an emergency in San Tomas County at any minute, and had already called the governor. What the White Stuff was, nobody knew. End of the world? A ravaged environment gone mad?
ZoŽ ran up the stairs to Dr. Stanislaus' clinic and yanked on the door. Locked. She peered in through the glass panes. The dark corridors were choked with White Stuff. Newspapers were piling up. Had he left town? She shielded her eyes with both hands and pressed her nose to the glass. The inside was dark and empty. Not a stick of furniture, and a pair of twisted wires stuck out from a wall where a phone had been. Desolate.
ZoŽ stopped on Mulberry Street. She left the car running, went in to see Mother. Found Mother in the kitchen stirring coffee. "Hello, ZoŽ darling."
"Hi Mother." She noted her mother's transfigured look. There were flecks of White Stuff in Mother's cobwebby hair, and ZoŽ picked them out. "What has happened to you?" She suppressed a sob. "To all of us?"
"I have been having the most wonderful conversation with your father, ZoŽ. He keeps asking about you."
ZoŽ shook Mother's shoulders. "He's been dead for almost twenty years! Stop it!" Hot coffee spilled on Mother's arm.
"You mustn't be so excited, ZoŽ. Always excited. It wears one out." She didn't seem to notice the steaming coffee.
ZoŽ dabbed furiously. "Sorry, Mother, PLEASE. There is something going on all over town. Don't fall apart on me, I just can't stand another weight on top of all the rest!"
"Here, here," Mother said and pulled her close. Mother stroked ZoŽ's hair as ZoŽ fell to her knees and rested her head against Mother's frail body. Mother's fingers ruffled ZoŽ's thick curls. "I know you don't understand but I'll tell Daddy hello for"
"STOP IT!!" ZoŽ balled her fists against her temples and screamed and popped up like a cork. She ran to the phone and dialed Roger's number at work. While the phone rang, she felt a quake, heard a low rumbling noise, felt the house swaying. She watched as Mother gripped the table with both hands trying to steady it. Crash crash crash went precious crystal bowls and china vases and ceramic figurines hitting the floor and breaking. "Roger," she shouted when he answered, "do you have any idea what's going on?"
The phone line was fuzzy. She heard him shouting: "Hello! We just had an earthquake. I don't know what's going on, and all the animals are shaken up. There's White Stuff all over the place. You can't get near the Pagoda."
"Roger, I'm going to pick the kids up. I'm at my mother's and something is wrong with her."
"Bring her along," he yelled. "Meet you at school."
Mother smiled broadly. A piece of plaster sat on one shoulder, big enough to be noticed by a sane person. She had her head cocked and was nodding, face bright, as though someone important were speaking with her.
The streets were jammed with ambulances, fire engines, and police cars coming and going. Every telephone company truck, every power company, cable television, water company vehicle was parked along the curb somewhere. Manholes lay open, their heavy steel covers dragged aside while crews in orange jerseys and white hard hats tried to puzzle out and fix the damage. White Stuff gummed everything up.
Sister Sincere stood like a traffic cop on the front sidewalk. Children were lined up by classes. The littlest ones huddled in rows of two, holding hands and looking scared. Teachers formed a skirmish line.
Rudy, Elisa, and Max were already breaking from their classes because Roger had managed to get there before ZoŽ.
Max pecked a kiss on her forehead. "Hi Mom."
"Hi, sweetie. Glad to see you. Looks like we're all safe."
"Hi Dad, hi ZoŽ," Rudy blared. "The earthquake threw all the books off their shelves."
"Nobody is hurt that we know of," Elisa said. "So far."
The power was out. Roger's house was dark and cold. He brought in loads of firewood from the yard. The dogs barked and jumped. "Poor guys," ZoŽ said. "The quake must have spooked them." She picked cottony wisps of White Stuff from their fur. "What IS this stuff?"
Mother's eyes were bright. "It's insulation, dear. They're blowing the ceiling. It's going to be real warm during the winter and nice and cool during the summers, you'll see."
ZoŽ sat down and put an arm around her mother's shoulder. "Mommy," she said (first time in yea-lo how many decades she'd called Mother that), "Mommy, look at me. They blew the ceiling twenty years ago. Remember? Daddy was home from work to make sure they did everything right."
Mother clutched ZoŽ with a hand like a cold claw. "We will see your father really soon."
The power was still out when darkness fell. That was when the kids stopped having fun. Things started getting creepy. It was the first touch of desperation.
Fire crackled defiantly in the huge hearth. ZoŽ cooked some soup on the fire. There was some stale bread to warm up. Nobody was very hungry. Roger had found batteries and the radio now dominated their attentions:
"...new reports of a tidal wave traveling up the coast. Out at sea, the eighty-foot boat "Fishy Tails" with thirteen people on board sent out a brief and choppy distress signal earlier today, then fell silent. Search planes went out from Blue Harbor, but Coast Guard officials say the boat has not been located. Local marina officials say the ship was skippered by a seasoned fisherman. Unofficial sources have told KSTC Radio News that they believe the boat has disappeared at sea in connection with the mysterious White Stuff that has been raining in San Tomas. KSTC's Angela Moorehead has more:"
"Chuck, I've been speaking with University of California at San Tomas meteorologist Vernon LeGrier. He says that the flaky or fluffy white material we've been seeing most closely resembles volcanic ash in that it gets into everything, but he says there is really no close comparison. The White Stuff, as everyone is calling it, resembles the stuff of which insects build their cocoons, but seems more likely to be a derivative of common silica, which comprises most forms of soil, sand, and rocks. In fact, most the earth's mantle is composed of silica. It may actually be coming up out of the earth itself like some kind of 'toothpaste.' Several witnesses claim to have seen it extruding from sewer pipes, underground electrical conduits, and the like."
"Thanks, Angela. The Mayor and the County Supervisor persuaded the Governor this afternoon to declare San Tomas a disaster area. State and Federal assistance is expected to be released, as are National Guard troops to help police patrol the streets. Between the earthquake, which was a moderate 5.5 on the Richter scale, and this White Stuff blowing around, and people still keeling over on the streets, nobody knows what is going on, but everyone is convinced that something big is happening. The Governor today appealed for calm and promised to keep order, prevent looting, and get things back to normal..."
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.