Scorpion shards, p.1

Scorpion Shards, page 1

 part  #1 of  Star Shards Chronicles Series


Scorpion Shards
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Scorpion Shards


  * * *
















  11. BIG BANG










  For Anne McD., a star-shard of the highest order, and for Mike and Christine, who now shine like a double sun


  * * *

  SCORPION SHARDS BEGAN AS A SMALL IDEA, BUT RAPIDLY EVOLVED INTO a trilogy, this being the first of three books. Along the way there were a great many people whose support and expertise made this book possible.

  First, I’d like to thank the regional and scientific experts I met online through Prodigy, who lent an air of authenticity to the story. In Alabama, Matt Dakin, David Camp, Louis Davis, and R. D. McCollum. In the Midwest, Vicki Erwin and Tammy Hallberg. In Boise, Marilyn Friedrichsmeyer and Bradford Hill. In the Northwest, Rick Reynolds, Kim Guymon, Carol Hunter, and Jerry Morelan. And the astronomy and scientific experts John Winegar, Laura L. Metlak, Frank Sheldon, Charles Mielke, Stephen Kelly, and Paul Erikson.

  Thanks also to Kathy Wareham, Diane Adams, and Scott Sorrentino, whose comments on early drafts helped to shape the story.

  My deepest gratitude and admiration to Kathleen Doherty, who believed this book into existence in its initial Tor Books publication; and to my sons, Brendan and Jarrod, who, when they were young, made me a whole boxful of Creepy-Crawler scorpions, to paste on copies of the book; and thanks to their mother, Elaine, who was of great support and encouragement while this book was being written.

  The new and improved incarnation of the Star Shards Chronicles could not have been possible without the support of my agent, Andrea Brown, as well as David Gale and Justin Chanda at Simon & Schuster, who are great luminous souls themselves, and saw fit to breathe new life into these books. They have always been among my favorite books. I’m thrilled that Simon & Schuster are getting them to a new audience!

  My only disclaimer is that the star Mentarsus-H does not really exist. But if it did, then this might be what happens . . .

  Part I

  American Dregs


  * * *


  A monstrous crash echoing through the glass-domed restaurant—and then a second sound so horrid and final it could have meant the very end of the world. The way thunder must sound to a man struck by lightning. The ear-piercing rattle of breaking glass, combined with the deep wooden crunch that followed, pinned the high and low ends of human hearing, and what remained between were dying dissonant chords like that of a shattered—


  The restaurant’s maitre d’ could not yet believe his eyes. He stood dumbfounded, trying to figure out what on earth had happened.

  The final tinkling of ruined crystal fell from the ornate glass roof of the Garden Court Restaurant—the pride and joy of the Palace Hotel—the most beautiful restaurant in all of San Francisco. Until today. Today shards of the crystal ceiling were stabbing the plush Victorian furniture to death.

  And it was a piano—or what was left of it, lying like a shipwreck in the center aisle.

  Is God dropping pianos on us today? thought the maitre d’. I should have called in sick.

  The restaurant was closed, thank goodness—Sunday brunch did not begin until eight—but workers and early-rising guests had already gathered to gawk.

  Of course it must have been the piano from the new Cityview lounge, up on the top floor, but how could it have come crashing down seventeen floors, through the glass roof?

  “Should I notify security?” asked one of the waiters, but somehow the maitre d’ was sure security had already figured out there was a problem.

  IN LIKE A FLASH and out in the blink of an eye.

  The boy called Dillon Cole was in the street in an instant and vanished into the foggy morning. The streets were not crowded, but there were enough people for Dillon to lose himself among unknown faces. He wove through them, brushing past their shoulders, leaving a wake of chaos behind him. The souls he bumped into lost their concentration and sense of direction—a woman stopped short, forgetting where she was going; a man lost his train of thought in the middle of a conversation; a girl, just for a moment, forgot who she was, and why she was even here . . . but then Dillon passed, and their thoughts returned to normal. They would never know that their confusion was caused by Dillon’s mere touch. But Dillon knew. He wondered if believing such a thing was enough to send him to the nuthouse. If that wasn’t enough to have him locked away, certainly the other things would do the job.

  Things like that business with the piano. For all the commotion it had caused, it had been an easy enough stunt. It was a simple thing to get into the deserted top-floor lounge on a Sunday morning. Since the grand piano was on wheels, it hadn’t been that hard to ease it across the floor, out onto the patio. As he moved the piano, his fury had grown along with the burning, screaming need to finish this act of destruction—a need that ate at his gut like an uncontrollable hunger.

  A wrecking-hunger.

  Adrenaline coursed through his veins, giving him incredible strength as he heaved the piano onto the ledge—but all he could feel was that wrecking-hunger, forcing him on like a hot iron drilling down to his very soul. He hoisted the heavy beast of a piano onto the ledge, where it balanced for a moment, floating between possible futures, and then it disappeared, taking the railing with it.

  One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.

  The impact came as a deafening scream of dying crystal as the great glass roof seventeen floors below was shattered . . . and the wrecking-hunger was instantly quelled. That pressure deep inside was released by some invisible escape valve. Dillon took a deep breath of relief and didn’t spare the time to look at his handiwork. He got out.

  Wearing a bellhop uniform he had taken from a storage closet, Dillon took the elevator to the lobby and left without anyone giving him a second glance—and why should anyone suspect him? He was fifteen, but could pass for seventeen; he was an attractive, clean-cut, redheaded kid who simply looked like one of the kids the bell captain was training. So no one noticed him as he slipped out into the street, where he quickly took off his bellhop jacket and vanished into the morning.

  Now, the hotel was far behind him and, in front of him, the stairwell of a BART station descended into darkness. Fog swirled around it as if it were the mouth of a black cave, but to Dillon it was a wonderfully welcome sight.

  Once he was down the stairs and heard the approaching train that would carry him away, he knew he was home free. He dropped the bellhop jacket in the trash as he hurried to catch the train. He was not caught. He was never caught.

  The train stopped, Dillon found a seat, and it rolled on. Only now, as the hotel fell farther and farther behind, did he relax enough for the worries to fill his head.

  Please, he begged. Let no one be hurt. Please let no one be hurt. The restaurant was closed—but what if a waite
r had been setting tables? What if a housekeeper had been vacuuming the rug? Dillon was always careful—he was always good at predicting exactly how his little disasters would unfold, and so far there had been no major injuries . . . but he was starting to slip—the wrecking-hunger was making him careless. When the hunger to destroy came, it was all-consuming and didn’t allow him second thoughts. But now in the aftermath of his horrible deed, when his spirit seemed to hang like that piano on the edge of its drop, he could clearly see the ramifications of these awful, awful acts.

  People could have died! And I won’t know until I see the news. The weight that now burdened his soul was truly unbearable . . . yet it was more bearable than the hunger, which always came back, making him forget everything else. He would fall slave to it again, and the only way to escape was to destroy something. Anything. Everything. The bigger the better. The louder the better. And when it was done the pressure would be gone. The hunger would be fed, and the relief would be rich and sweet like a fat piece of chocolate melting in his mouth.

  But the wrecking-hunger had been getting worse lately. It didn’t come once a week anymore. Now it came almost every day, pushing him, pressing him, demanding to be fed. Even now as he sat on the train, he felt the hunger again. How could it be? So soon! Wasn’t the piano enough? It was the biggest, it was the loudest, it was the worst he’d done yet. What more did he have to do to be free of this terrible hunger?

  The woman sitting next to him on the train eyed him with a look of motherly concern—a look Dillon hadn’t seen for the entire year he had been out on his own. She glanced at his shaking hands.

  “Are you all right?” asked the woman.

  “Sure, fine.”

  And then she touched his hand to stop it from shaking.

  “No!” said Dillon, but it was too late. She had touched him.

  Her face became pale and she shrank away.

  “Ex . . . excuse me,” she said in a daze, and she wandered off to find a seat far away from Dillon. Then she sat down to begin the task of unscrambling her mind.

  “WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID of, Deanna?”

  “Everything. Everything, that’s all.”

  Deanna Chang’s pale hands gripped the arms of her chair as if the chair were the only thing keeping her from being flung into space. The room around her was painted a hideous yellow, peeling everywhere like flesh, to reveal deep red underneath. The place smelled musty and old. Faces on fading portraits seemed to lean closer to listen. The walls themselves seemed to be listening. And breathing.

  “I can’t help you, Deanna, if you won’t be specific.”

  The man who sat across the old desk shifted uncomfortably in his chair. I make him nervous, thought Deanna. Why do I even make psychiatrists nervous?

  “You can’t help me, okay?” said Deanna. “That’s the point.” He tapped his pencil on the desk. The eraser fell off the end and rolled onto the stained floor.

  I hate this place, thought Deanna. I hate this room, I hate this man, and I hate my parents for making me come here to hear the same questions the other shrinks have asked, then give the same answers, and have nothing change. Nothing. Ever.

  A woman’s voice wailed outside, and Deanna jumped. She couldn’t tell whether the sound was a shriek, or a laugh.

  “I’m afraid,” said Deanna. “I’m afraid of dying.”

  “Good. That’s a start.”

  Deanna began to rub her pale, slender arms. Behind her and beneath her, the springs within the padding of the chair poked and threatened her through the fabric of the worn upholstery. “At first I was just afraid of walking outside alone. I thought it would end up being a good thing, because it made my parents move us to a better neighborhood—but it didn’t stop when we moved. I started to imagine all the terrible things that could happen to me.” She leaned forward. “That was two years ago. Now I see myself dying every day. I see my body smashed if our house were to collapse. I see a man with a knife hiding in the closet, or the basement, or the attic in the middle of the night. I see a car with no driver leaping the curb to pull me beneath its wheels . . .”

  “You think people are out to get you?”

  “Not just people. Things. Everything.”

  The shrink scribbled with his eraserless pencil. Somewhere deep within the building a heater came on, moaning a faint, sorrowful moan.

  “And you imagine these awful things might happen to you?”

  “No!” said Deanna. “I see these things happening to me. They happen, I feel them—I see them—It’s REAL!” Deanna reached up and brushed cool sweat from her forehead. “And then I blink, and it—”

  “And it all goes away?”

  “Sometimes. Other times the vision doesn’t go away until I scream.”

  The shrink in the cheap suit loosened his tie and put his finger beneath his collar. He coughed a bit.

  “Stuffy,” he said.

  “I’m not safe going out,” said Deanna. “I’m not safe staying in. I’m not safe here—because what if the stupid light fixture above my head right now is slowly coming unscrewed and waiting for the perfect moment to fall and crack my skull?”

  The shrink looked up at the fixture, which did, indeed, seem loose. He leaned back, unfastened his collar button and took a deep breath, as if the air were thinning. He was becoming frightened, Deanna noted—just like everyone else did when they were near her. She could feel his fear as strongly as her own.

  “I think I might drown,” Deanna said. “Or suffocate. I always feel like I’m suffocating. Have you ever felt like that?”

  “On occasion.” His voice sounded empty and distant. He seemed to shrivel slightly in his chair.

  Deanna smiled. Feeling his fear somehow made her fear begin to diminish. “I give you the creeps, don’t I?”

  “Your mother is very concerned about you.”

  “My mother can take a flying leap, if she thinks you can help me.”

  “That’s not a healthy attitude.”

  “You know what? I think you’re gonna screw me up worse than I was before. Can you guarantee that you won’t? And are you sure this stuff is all inside my head? Are you certain? Are you?” Deanna waited for an answer.

  If he said he was sure, she would believe him. If he swore up and down that he could take away the darkness that shrouded her life, she would believe—because she wanted to believe that it was a simple matter of her being crazy. But he didn’t answer her. He couldn’t even look at her. Instead, he glanced down at his watch and breathed a sigh of relief.

  “Is my time up?”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  “FORGIVE ME, FATHER, FOR I have sinned.”

  “Tell me what your sins are, my son.” The priest on the other side of the confessional sighed as he spoke. He must have recognized Dillon’s shaky voice from the many times Dillon had come to confess.

  “I’ve done terrible things,” said Dillon, cramped within the claustrophobic booth.

  “Such as?”

  “Yesterday I broke a gear in the cable house—that’s why the cable cars weren’t running. This morning I shattered the glass roof of the Garden Court Restaurant.”

  “Dear Lord.” The priest’s voice was an icy whisper. “I can’t give you absolution for this, Dillon.”

  Dillon stiffened, suddenly feeling as if the booth had grown smaller, tighter, pressing against him. “Please,” he begged, “no one was hurt—the news said so—please!”

  “Dillon, you have to turn yourself in.”

  “You don’t understand, Father. I can’t. I can’t because it wouldn’t stop me. I would find a way to escape and wreck something else—something even bigger. It’s not like I want to do this stuff—I have to. I don’t have a choice!”

  “Listen to me,” said the priest. “You’re . . . not well. You’re a very sick boy and you have to get help.”

  “Don’t you think my parents tried that?” fumed Dillon. “That kind of help doesn’t work on me. It only makes me worse!”
br />   “I . . . I’m sorry, I can’t absolve you.”

  Dillon was speechless in his terror. To go without forgiveness for the things he was forced to do—that was the worst nightmare of all. He gripped the small cross around his neck, holding it tightly, feeling the silver press into his palm.

  “But I’m not guilty!” Dillon insisted. “I have no choice—I’m poisoned! I’m cursed!”

  “Then your penance is taking this confession to the police.”

  “It’s not their job to absolve me!” screamed Dillon. “It’s your job. You’re supposed to take away my sins, and you can’t judge me! You can’t!”

  No answer from the priest.

  “Fine. If you won’t absolve me, I’ll find a priest who will.”

  Dillon flung the cherrywood door out so hard, it splintered when it hit the wall. A woman gasped, but Dillon was past her, and out the door as quickly as his anger could carry him. The wrecking-hunger was already building again, and he didn’t know how much longer he could resist it. He had half a mind to throw bricks through the stained glass window of the church, but it wasn’t God he had a gripe with. Or was it? He didn’t know.

  He had told the priest his name a week before in a moment of weakness, and now it could very well be his ruin. Would this priest betray the secrecy of the confessional and point a finger at Dillon?

  Dillon didn’t want to find out. He would have to leave tonight and find a new place to wreak his havoc. He had worked his way up from Arizona without getting caught, and there were still lots of places to go. There was a freedom in feeling completely abandoned by life, Dillon tried to convince himself. It was easy to keep moving when every city was just as lonely. When every face in every crowd was just as uncaring.

  But there had to be one more feeding—just one more before he left. It would need to be something grand and devastating—something that would put the wrecking-hunger to sleep for a while.

  Are you proud of me, Mom and Dad? he thought bitterly. Are you proud of your little boy now? He thanked God that they were dead, and hoped they were far enough away from this world not to know the things he had done.

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