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
J. W. Washington was making his rounds (whisk! whisk!, snap! snap!) of the zoo and he came to the Pagoda. There, in the shade, he remembered the little blonde he had briefly spoken with that morning, and he wished she'd come by again. She had the scrubbed, pure look of one of those models with snowy smile, mint blue eyes, and halo of caramel curls, that J.W. often noticed on his wife's knitting magazines. Hell with the smutty magazines, if you wanted to see beautiful women look at knitting magazine covers. Today, J.W. noticed a shiny new padlock on the Pagoda door. Now wasn't that odd? Just out of curiosity, J. W. set aside his whiskbroom and scooper, fingered his belt for his heavy ring of maintenance keys, and approached the Pagoda. It was just one of the zoo's utility sheds. Inside were some shovels, picks, mulchers, weeders, rolled hoses, and the like; J. W. could almost do a mental inventory. Plus there was an underground water reservoir, and an old heater that no longer worked, from a century ago. Funny thing too, he hadn't been in there since remodeling started months ago. The key (marked "P" in J.W.'s laborious script) did not work on the new lock.
A snarling face surrounded by wild hair floated around into J.W.'s vision. "What are you doing?" It was Gilbert.
J. W. switched his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other. "I work here, young man."
Gilbert's face grew redder. "I know that, old fool. I asked what you think you're doing at that door."
J. W. moved his pipe again, amazed. "I wanted to look into the Pagoda. That okay with you?"
Gilbert slammed a hand against the steel door. "I got a private contract to do work in there, and I changed the lock. I don't want anyone fucking things up in there, got it?"
J. W. lifted his pipe away and nodded. "Okay, if you say so, sonny." He considered arguing, but knew enough about Gilbert not to bother. Whisk, whisk, J.W.'s tools went, Snap, snap!
That evening, when darkness swallowed the zoo, when the night air was still except for the weird honks and groans of the animals, the Pagoda door creaked open. Gilbert stepped out, switching a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. He locked up and then walked to the Insect Hall while the something, the Pilot, sent urgent feelings from inside Gilbert's mind and soul. Gilbert walked inside the Insect Hall and stood quietly for some moments. The display casescontaining spiders, some dead and pinned, others wriggling and aliveglowed dully in the moonlight. Gilbert opened the display case as the Pilot urged him to. Gilbert didn't know or care whom the Pilot was about to destroy; there had been several killings in the past year, and Gilbert only knew that something big was on its way. After generations of first rewarding, then haunting and destroying the Burtongale first born men, the Pilot was about to fulfill its mission. Gilbert had not been told that; he just knew it, from a life of doing the Pilot's bidding, from years of having it inside of him.
The spiders stirred to life. They crawled around, agitated in a dim glow from no certain source. One by one they began dropping to the floor, avoiding Gilbert, then scurried off in search of the human being who had been snooping at the Pagoda, threatening the ship...
J. W. Washington had mixed feelings about working overtime this evening as he finished his sandwich and milk in the car and listened to a ball game. The money would help; but he'd miss the wife and kids.
J.W. put on his headset and turned on the Dandy Dan Dundee radio talk show. They were talking about football, his favorite sport, so he turned up the volume. He had been a football fan since his daddy had sat him on his knee at Home Stadium. J.W. got the golf cart ready to check all the ivied areas to make sure the sprinklers were fanning evenly. Later he'd empty all the trash cans in the main zoo office building with its cupola dome. He'd do the sprinklers first, because then he could listen to Dandy Dan Dundee talking about football. He'd save the trash in Admin 1 & 2 for last, because the buffer man came in at nine and they'd have coffee together and shoot the breeze for 15, 20 minutes.
J.W. Washington's ear speaker whispered a cheer of fifty thousand voices as the commentator revisited one of last fall's premier games. It was cool and pleasant in the zoo, with a little night moisture creeping in from the sea around San Tomas Peninsula. The park lights shed a yellowish glow. All street lights in San Tomas were sodium vapor by arrangement with the university observatory, to prevent fogging the night sky for the great telescopes peering into deep space.
J.W. drove his golf cart along Major Way, slowly checking the sprinklers. Here and there he got out to make an adjustment. Now he found a spot that was more difficult, in an island of ivy in the middle of Major Way. He found a sprinkler that had gone awry, shooting water over the pebbly drive instead of the ivy. He found no way to reach the sprinkler from the roadway without getting soaked. Gingerly, he stepped into the thick ivy, first one foot, then the other, waving his arms to keep his balance. To avoid being drenched, he crawled on his hands and knees toward the errant sprinkler. His fingers felt about under the ivy. Delicately, he marched his fingertips back and forth trying to assess a situation he could not see. He grunted heavily, trying to get comfortable lying on his side, for he was a heavy man, and no longer young. He felt a trickling sensation on his neck and brushed something away with his free hand. Glancing at his hand, he saw that the wetness was sweat, and he wiped his chin with the back of his hand. Then he concentrated again, closing his eyes, following his fingertips as they explored. First, there was the buried copper line; then a brass fitting where it came out of the ground; then a PVC plastic line. His fingertips walked to a PVC elbow that carried the water up into the sprinkler; and there was the problem... he could feel it with his fingers. The two screws, holding fast the strut that supported the brass sprinkler head upright, had come loose.
But he had the wrong screwdriver. Darn! He rose, avoiding the spray of water, and tip-toed out of the ivy to the road. Brushing his overalls off, he rummaged in the tool chest until he found just the right cross-tip screwdriver for Phillips head screws. Then he tiptoed back under the sprinkler, and, sitting on his knees, reached down with both hands into the ivy to try and blindly get the tip of the screwdriver into the head of the screw.
He felt an itching sensation on his back.
He freed one hand to swat over his shoulder without really looking.
The itch went away.
He put the hand back into the ivy. Sweat dribbled from his face, twirling, glittering down into the ivy. With his fingertips, he guided the screwdriver to the screw. As he did so, he felt something brush against his right cheek. At the same time, an odd tingling sensation coursed throughout his body, coming from his handsan electric jolt, a stinging sensation. His first thought was that he had somehow encountered a short between the water pipe and some hidden electrical line, of which there were plenty in the zoo's antiquated construction. The tingling raced up his arms into his shoulders. Sweat exploded from his forehead. The feeling in his hands changed to a deep stinging pain in his hands. At the same time, a furry wriggling body brushed against his right cheek. In his peripheral vision, he saw a many black waving legs rounding the curve from his shoulder to his face. Tarantula! In a moment of frozen shock, he looked directly into its glittering black face, into its button eyes, saw its parted clamps ready to tear his skin. With a scream of pain and terror, he rose to his feet and brought his hands up to brush it away. He found that his hands and his sleeves were coated with spiders of all sizes and descriptions. They were biting, stinging, sawing through his skin. He uttered a choking cry as a hairy body tried to push between his lips. Already, the world had a darker, narrower focus as he staggered through the ivy. His shirt and pants tingled here and there as multiple legs ran quickly over his skin. He tried to beat them down with his hands, his elbows. He fell to the ground, rolling. Felt the squishiness. Lay on his back. His breath came in short, painful honks. His heart beat loudly, intently, as though ready to tear a hole in his chest. He saw, dimly, a man standing in the roadway. "Help me!" he cried out. The man was far away, but J. W. saw it was Gilbert Burtongale. Grinning.
A blanket of tarantulas covered J.W.'s face, and he closed his eyes; thought about football; thought about taking his sons to the ballgames next fall. Sure. They would go to a game. Why was he lying here feeling so woozy? At the ballpark? Hot dogs?
He was walking.
Huh? Walking down a long hallway of some kind. He looked at his hands and they were bright blue. Nearby, also walking, was a girl of 13 or so in a long skirt. Her long hair and skin were bright blue. She carried a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. "Hello. My name is Teresa. Did you die today too?"
J.W. looked at his hands again. "What did you say?"
"Don't you know? We died today."
J.W. hesitated. In the corridor ahead waves were breaking on a beach.
"Don't be afraid," she said. "We feel fine now."
Man and girl, they held hands and walked through the waves. Down into the sea. Fish swam around them. And through them. "You see?" she said. "Nothing to be afraid of. This little guy died today too." She opened the blanket, revealing a blue baby. The baby opened its eyes and smiled at J.W. "His name is Theodore. He fell out a window, but he's all better now." Ahead, too far to make out clearly, a gateway seemed ablaze with rippling sheets of fire. Just then some cold blue person walked reluctantly into the fire, pushed along by dark moving shapes.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.