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Chuck Logan

Absolute Zero

Prologue

The beep-beep-beep was a reassuring sound that brought him back like the sing-along bouncing ball; if he were safe at home the sound might be the soft cricket in the clothes dryer downstairs signaling that the load was through. If only life had not speeded up. .

But it had, and now they’d put the pain on mute, along with everything else-the up, the down, the light-and they’d set him adrift in the dark with nothing but the beep. So he tried to scan along but the rhythm kept slipping away. Which figured, because he’d been thrown out of high school band-alto sax-on account of he couldn’t keep the beat.

Then he coughed and sparks lit up a corner of his mind, enough to get him oriented and he knew that he was waking up, and he understood that the dogged beep was the pulse of his heart hooked to a machine.

Which meant he was still here.

He was alive and laid out flat on his back with his eyes shut tight and he didn’t have the strength to open them, so he’d just lay back for now, all alone in the dark, waiting for the lights to come up.

Surfacing, he flashed on chemical nondreams and artificial sleep. His lips were gummed together, and when he parted them a parched numbness puffed his mouth and his throat and it felt like he’d been French-kissed by the creature in Sigourney Weaver’s Alien. Then a sharp electric pincer prodded his right wrist four times-jit-jit-jit-jit-and made his fingers jump.

Now he was being moved because he felt the stale hospital air slide over his face, and he heard splashes of sound like underwater voices that became clearer until distinct words spilled down and trickled on his face.

“Train of four,” the first female voice said.

“Doesn’t that hurt now that he’s coming around?” a second female voice asked.

“This guy, with his neck; I want to make sure he’s back before we medicate for pain.”

Then they splashed away and there was more motion and then they came back.

“He’s breathing well, sats are good, rhythm is good.”

“Okay, let’s rouse him, get him to raise his head, squeeze a finger, swallow. And wait for the eyelids; the littlest muscles are always the last to come back. Who’s got the Narc keys?”

“Got them right here. I’ve got everything today.”

“Sign out twenty-five milligrams of Demerol and give it IV.”

The voices faded, the shapes acquired edges, then fluttered away, and tile-lined the walls and was dotted with stainless steel, and it all shimmered in and out of focus. Latex fingers carried a slender plastic syringe with green markings across his vision. A fluorescent light hovered overhead, and from its center materialized the face of a blue-gowned young woman with white-blond hair. She had serious gray eyes and copper freckles on her cheeks and she smiled.

He enjoyed the colors of her face and her hair. He found them vital, feline. He thought: a happy lynx.

“Hello there,” said the happy lynx. “Can you squeeze my finger?”

He squeezed the cool finger in his hand.

“Good,” she said. “Now can you raise your head?”

A stiff sensation laced tight up his middle and warned him not to move, but he made the effort and got his head up a little. Which was a mistake. Oh, wow.

“Take it easy.” The nurse patted his forearm with long, cool fingers. “You’ve got a few stitches in your belly.”

Pain jogged his memory and he tried to talk but no spit came. All he managed to get out was a single cotton word: “ ’peration.”

“That’s right. You’ve had an emergency operation that went just fine and now you’re in the recovery room,” she said.

“High,” he said slowly, finding some spit.

“Hello, yourself.”

“No. Stone. .” He took a breath, wheezed, “Grog. .”

“Yep, we gave you something. We’re about to give you some more of the good stuff.”

“Hi,” he said.

“Right. Stoned, huh?” she said.

“No. Hel. . lo. You’re. . pret. . pretty.” His eyes probed around on the front of her blue tunic and focused on the laminated picture ID alligator-clipped to her pocket, and he read the printed title: Amy Skoda CRNA. “You’re pret. . ty, Amy,” he said.

“Thank you, and you’re lucky to be alive.”

He blinked at the blue shapes circling around him. “Where?”

“It’s all right now. You’re in a hospital.”

He nodded and the beep speeded up and he caught a panic flash of jagged black sky coming down, and frigid gray water rising up in ranks of whitecaps. He swallowed and muttered, “Storm.”

Amy nodded. “Mister, you’ve had quite an adventure.”

“Others?”

But she disappeared and the question hung unanswered. He waited and waited as it all slowed and went dim. Then the blue shapes above him startled and retreated. He heard shouts.

“Heads up, gang! We got another one!”

“C’mon, they need help.”

The blue commotion surged away.

Then someone.

A hand appeared and held up a syringe. This syringe was thicker, a dull gray plastic, not skinny like the other. It moved up and out of sight.

“There you go,” a voice said-a different voice. “It should be better now.”

Jesus God. No. Ow. Not better. They’d jacked him back into the storm. Black waves flooded from his arm, into his chest, drowning him on the inside. His lungs. .

“Oh, fuck, oh, no,” said the voice, backing away.

Hey, come back. .

. .

He felt his thoughts seep away like the last bubbles of oxygen escaping his brain. And the commotion in the hall faded off and all he heard was the bleat of the heart monitor until it slipped off key: Beep beep. . boop.

Boop.

Boooop.

Boop.

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