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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


Chapter 37.

On busy Canoga Avenue, San Tomas's main street, a man fell down. A few people stepped around him. A couple of rowdy college kids jumped over him. Then people started to gather around. Some were a dinner and dancing crowd, some intellectuals from UC San Tomas, some into sports judging by the slim bodies on the young men and the firm calves on the young women. Sensible people who, seeing a drunk on the ground, avoided getting their shoes dirty. Some were compassionate, others just curious.

A distant siren wailed. The man on the ground was neatly dressed and did not appear to be drunk. An off-duty intern kneeling by him found no outward sign of stroke, heart attack, or convulsion. In fact, there was a strong pulse, but very slow.

The ambulance pulled in with a dying wail. The crowd parted. Doors slammed. Gurney wheels chattered loudly. Equipment came in a heavy box. "What do you think?" the senior EMT asked while his partner worked on the prostrate man.

"No idea," the intern said.

The junior EMT looked up. "It's like nothing I've ever seen before. This guy is either in a coma, or else just sound asleep. His pulse rate is thirty beats per minute but strong "

Inside the zoo, Perry Stein stepped outside to roll up the long cord now disconnected from the buffer. It was tedious work, and he sweated as he tugged, wound, tugged, wound, each time throwing another coil of cable around the heavy ball on the ground. Their night's work was mostly done. He'd buffed the main corridor in an hour and seventeen minutes flat. Each night he timed himself. The quicker he got done, the longer he and Matilda could sit in the truck and wait. And listen. And hope something happened. But nothing ever seemed to happen, and Perry was deciding this was just a good little side income. He heard the steady whine of Matilda's industrial vacuum cleaner as she finished up the offices. Perry loved her dearly, and he would not let her out of his earshot. With a series of yanking and looping motions, he got the cord wrapped up in a heavy ball at his feet. He squatted to lift the cord, keeping a straight back. He had a good grip and was about to lift when the sound of the vacuum cleaner inside changed.

He stopped, puzzled. The vacuum had a music all its own. It played low notes on the thick carpets, high notes on patches of tile. Each attachment had a pitch and tenor of its own; they were like instruments in an orchestra, and Perry knew them each, for he had worked side by side with his wife for years.

This was a sound he'd never heard before. He left the cord and went in the building. As he tore the office door open, he found the vacuum cleaner upended and whistling in empty air.

"My darling!" He threw himself over her. "Sweetheart, what happened?" Her head lolled as though her neck were broken. Wailing he jumped up and scrambled over the desk throwing aside papers and books. He skidded to the phone and dialed 911.

"Emergency," a man said.

"My wife," Perry gasped, "I don't know what's happened to her!"

On State 594, Harleigh Hale slowed his pickup truck and prepared to turn into his property. For a moment he paused and looked around for possible intruders; and saw nothing. Stars shone clearly overhead. Hale hummed to himself as he drove up to his book store. He turned off his headlights and gathered his newly acquired books. The curtain parted and there were those claws, that beak, that silly look of anticipation.

"Hi, Winky!" Hale said in a high voice, waggling a little finger. "Hi Winky! Daddy's home!" Effortfully—for he was a heavy man, 300 pounds before breakfast, and sixty years old—he grasped a bundle of books under one arm and slid out of the seat. He slammed the door and massaged his saddle-sore butt. The bird chattered. "Just a minute, Winky! Daddy will be right in!"

He stopped and admired the store. The sign read, "Harleigh Hale, Bookstore/B&W Arts." Wasn't much, maybe, some folks might think, but he and Charlie had built the place from the ground up years ago. He'd kept his silence all these years about Charlie's murder, but Gilbert hovered, waiting for him to make a mistake.

Harleigh unlocked the door, slipped inside, and quickly re-locked it. The parrot fluttered up and landed on his shoulder. "Did Winky have enough to eat? Is Winky thirsty?" He shuffled over to check the bird's dishes. The two white porcelain bowls were nearly empty. There were white droppings on the side of the table. "Daddy came home just in time. Daddy was at the Cross County Book Fair, Winky. Daddy got some nice new books." The floor creaked and rocked under Harleigh as he walked among the display tables. He sneezed his way through a dust cloud and opened the refrigerator. His bed, his TV, and his toilet were in the back room, separated by a wooden door and a short corridor that smelled dank. He took out a jar of seed and rumbled back across the room, past the Nazi flag, past the skull by the cookie tin. "Here, Winky. Daddy's got some seeds..."

The parrot sat on the sill and burped.

"Oh, Winky's tum is glum, huh?"

Winky turned his head and took in an eyeful. He blinked several times and his forehead had a puzzled shine. Harleigh chuckled. That old parrot was the best friend a man could ever have. Tonight he was just so tired. No surprise, given the long drive during the day's heat, bringing those books from a desert roundup of witches. "Here, Winky." The parrot fluttered onto Harleigh's shoulder. He slipped Winky a cracker. "Might even be time to hit the road again for a while, eh old bird?" They'd done it after Charlie's death eight years ago. Frank and his cronies could not have known that a small piece of their precious museum haul had wound up in the store. Even though Frank and Attila had been murdered, Gilbert was still around. In any event the stolen object was too hot to fence.

Without changing his clothes or washing, Harleigh lay down on his wide bed. Its sturdy wood frame barely creaked under his huge weight. In the darkness he held one hand to his forehead and tried to think his thoughts away in order to sleep. The parrot rustled nearby, gnawing under his feathers.

Strange. There was something in his mind. His skin crawled. It was a cross between a Someone and a Something, and it made him sit up. Panicked, he got a drink of water. It, whatever it was, was there in his mind like a speck of dust on your glasses or a bleb on your nose. He banged his hand upside his head as if he had water in his ear. Nope. Still there. A grin? evil? He was about to sit on the bed when a Dark Feeling came over him, a picture that was a grinning cross between a sun and an octopus.

The last thing Harleigh perceived was a dry scraping on his window sill. There was an old pear tree out there. The tree had survived here in the mountain desert all these years, shriveled and leaning against the house. A gnarled limb, like a skeletal hand, rasped back and forth on the window sill. That image, and a thought, and a worry floated together in Harleigh's mind as he keeled over backwards and sprawled on the bed. The thought was that finally his family history of obesity and stroke had caught up with him. So this was how one died? A blur of images flashed before him like a photo album blowing in the wind (his life; his daddy; his mommy; ice cream; a bicycle; a girl...) all to the accompanying scratching on the window which was surely Death's metronome. His worry was that Winky would be all alone and did he have enough food and water?

Harleigh opened his eyes. The scratching had stopped. He was in a dark place (underground?) (hell?) full of eyes, faces. Gargoyles. One stuck its tongue out. If this is death, he thought, at least I'm still me. Water was all around. Harleigh looked down at himself, amazed. His skin looked cold, bright blue. Fish swam around his head in graceful swirls, dancing scarves. "Why Harleigh! What a pleasant surprise."

Harleigh gaped. The person walking toward him with extended hand was none other than Charlie Best. His dead friend. "Charlie, are we in purgatory or something? Or is this Hell?"

Charlie's grip was cold, reminding Harleigh of pickles in the fridge. Charley's skin was bright blue. "Naw, old buddy. It's a ship, near's I can figger. Come on, some folks you gotta meet."

Harleigh followed fearfully. Catwalks hung suspended in midair, or was it midwater? Distant figures walked on them, veiled and blue. "Charlie, how is it we can breathe here? And how do we get out of here?"

"I don't know that we ever get out of here. I've been here a long, long time, Harleigh."

Harleigh recoiled in shock as two figures stepped from a mist. Frank... Attila... "Charlie, you guys are all dead!"

They looked at each other and laughed.

"...Then if you're dead... what am I?"


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