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
Wallace Burtongale frowned a lot lately. Of course he could not confide in anybodyonly Miss Polly had some inkling, he was surebut things were going so well for the Pilot, so badly for himself and Gilbert. The family seemed to have enjoyed its century of power and glory, of fine dinners and putting on airs, and now the future looked dismal. The ship was rebuilding itself, since it was acquiring the last chunks of memory core from the crash long ago, and it would have little further need of the Burtongale clan.
Two evenings in a row, two shipments of computers; this shipment was from Korea and consisted of a mixed bag of hand-held accounting terminals, several dozen standard PCs, a passel of laptops, a hundred complex scientific hand calculators, and a half ton of ten gauge insulated copper wire in fifty pound loops. Wallace made ten trips in all, and the Pilot was pleased.
The Pagoda now had a slightly more pronounced glow. The old machinery and the oil tank were dimly visible like coals in a furnace, only this fire was not warm, red, and flickering, but cold, white, and immobile. Wallace took his time unwrapping the new arrivals. As before, plastic peanuts and wrappings were snapped up by a wind out of nowhere. The walls and the ceiling were beginning to look fluffy white as though a pastry chef had decorated them with whipped cream. Already the Pilot was putting the copper wiring to work. Tracks of wire snaked through foamed plastic insulator.
Thump-a thump-a thump-a went the shadows and the white light strengthened.
At the corner of Canoga and Seventh, where the streets changed from "shoppy" to residential, a grandpa was taking his six year old daughter home from a music lesson.
The girl had been abused at home and luckily her mother's parents had been willing to raise her. The girl's mother had gone mentally around the bend and was peeling paper flowers in a nursing home (he loves me, loves me not, he loves me, loves me not…). The father, a rock musician and cocaine addict, was always away playing gigs. That was fine with the little girl because with Daddy not here he could not hurt her, though she always woke in a cold sweat screaming at night and Mommy just slept on. Now at Grandma and Grandpa's house she got enough to eat, she had nice clothes, and things were okay. Except, ho-hum, she had to go to school every day instead of watching cartoons with Mommy.
The music lessons were fun. She carried her violin proudly and held Grandpa's hand. They were just talking about doll houses. "...And I'll have a Mommy Doll and a Grandpa Doll and a Grandma Doll and maybe a Doggie Doll," she said.
"And no Daddy Doll?" Grandpa asked gently.
"No," she said curtly. They came to a red light and waited for the little glass man to change to white. The little girl was watching cars fly by (such a carousel of red and white lights!) when she noticed that Grandpa's grip had weakened.
"Grandpa!" she said. She was going to chideyou always hold my hand tight when we wait to cross streetsbut instead she let out a scream, for Grandpa had sagged to his knees. Wind ruffled his white hair over his reddish bald spot. His mottled face looked bluish and his tongue protruded slightly between peanut-brown teeth. His eyelids were drooping. "Grandpa!" she screamed, shaking him, but he fell down at her side with a thump, and she was sure he'd banged his head.
Being a girl who had to take care of herself, in the make-do way of little children, she stayed by her Grandpa. She never let go of his hand. She jumped up and down waving. Thus she flagged down a police car. Then came an ambulance and they took Grandpa away. He was still alive, they told her. Just sleeping. Oh, she said and felt relieved. Grandma would be glad to hear at least that. The policeman drove her home to Grandma.
Clouds were gathering in a far corner of the night sky, away from the moon.
Under the full moon, Guard Johnny Gep locked the gate of the utility lot and prepared to make his round with his time clock. Strange, Dr. Burtongale was driving back and forth again with all those boxes. Not that Johnny Gep was one to question his superiors. Seventy years old, this had been his formula for survival. Smile like hell, keep your mouth shut, do what they tell you, and collect your paycheck. Lotta younger men couldn't understand that.
He whistled merrily as he marched down Zoo Lane toward the central kiosk. That was key station number one. You had to climb up the grass to get to the pyramid and on rainy days you got your shoes wet. He ought to know. He'd been doing this for thirty years since he'd retired from the Army as an E-6 laundry platoon sergeant.
Key station number two, the east refreshments area.
Key station number three, the east restrooms.
Key station number four, back of the security office.
Key station number five, the Pagoda (brightly lit again, for the fifth night in a row; must write that up again!)...
He heard an animal snorting as he turned the dangling key in his clock, where the key number would be embossed on a paper disk, proving he was here at such and such a time. He thought he felt the ground shaking.
For thirty years he'd listened to the weird sounds of the zoo at night. He often told people, if you want something weird, if you want to shiver down to your bones, spend some time in a zoo at night. You'll hear noises you swear didn't come from this earth. Johnny Gep was used to the noises, and he knew most of them.
Now he frowned. The sound he'd heard was of one of the larger animals. But there were no larger animals within earshot.
There it was again. A short, deep chortle, like gravel being blown through a wooden pipe. Johnny Gep stopped near the Pagoda and set the heavy time clock down. He tilted his head down and listened.
There. Bork! Tadump, tadump, tadump!
Then he heard rapid crashing noises, like foot pads on ivy and brush. The echoes carried around the area, so it was hard to tell where the sound was coming from. The ground definitely was shaking.
His skin crawled. Shivers ran like sharp fingernails up and down his spine.
For a moment he recalled his younger years, when he'd worried about the impossible. Like one of the bigger animals breaking out, or a female in heat breaking; ready to charge at rocks and trees in a fury, not to mention at a lone unarmed man.
Something moved in his stomach, and he figured it was probably his chili dinner, hopping from his large intestine into the small.
He bit his lip and wondered what to do. Play it safe, was his motto.
On the one hand, quit the clock round and go back as quickly and quietly as possible. Say you heard something like a big animal snorting and crashing around loose in the brush. Become a laughing stock. Maybe get written up.
On the other hand, just go ahead and finish the clock round. There were only three keys left anyhow. One near the elephants and rhinos up the road, a second near the ostriches and emus on the south side, and the third at the maintenance depot on the way back to the utility lot. It would take just ten more minutes.
He made his decision. It was quiet out there, and he pushed away from the Pagoda. Walking briskly and looking often over his shoulder, he kept to the shadows by the side of the street. Far up ahead, between street lights, he could already see the huge rocks around the elephant enclosure. Nothing could get out of there.
He heard the snorting again, like steam being released from an engine.
He felt the ground shake under his feet at the same time that he heard the rapid crashing noisesGalump! Galump! galump!and his bladder let go.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, this was for real.
Slowly he felt his trouser legs get hot and damp as he urinated freely. All were survival mechanisms, the eggheads said on TV. Puke, shit, piss, dump anything you're trying to digest, and run as fast as you can.
He knew what was running around before he saw it. Or them. Somehow one of the black rhinos had gotten loose. They were one of God's most angry and combative creatures. They would charge at anything if it came close enough or in any way threatened them.
He considered: there was a phone back at the Pagoda. Should he break off his round and hurry there? Somehow, his reflexes took over for him. He didn't sweat it much, knowing he'd never been real clever in the thinking department anyway. By the time this thought registered, he'd already dumped his time clock and was trudging back as fast as his ancient legs would let him. Luckily he was small and lightthe years had evaporated all the beef and brawn off of him, he liked to say, finally leaving more brains than brawn.
Even at that, he was too noisy.
He heard the snort behind him, heard the rasp of hoof on asphalt, the thunder of hoof on grassy road shoulder, the scatter of gravel under a powerful running leg.
Galump! Galump! galump!
Charging at him, the size of a Chevrolet, was a nearly-two-ton rhino. That would be two automobiles, mounted with horns to slam into, run over, trample, gore, and savagely kill people. Its double nose horn was lowered ready to strike.
Johnny Gep looked about. There was no tree suitable to climb into, even if he had the strength.
But there was a rock...
Even as the beast bore down on him, he walked as fast as he could, away from the road and up a slight embankment that surrounded a group of boulders. As he slithered up the embankment, the rhino's charge carried it past on the street not fifteen feet away.
Galump! Galump! galump!
He heard its tough pads slither in a long crunch of tortured gravel as it sensed his location and braked. He let out a wail of terror as he went over the shoulder, up onto a small rock, then a bigger one, and finally on top of the big one which luckily had a flat top.
The rhino crossed the road and charged up the bank in a welter of leaves.
Galump! Galump! galump!
Dust still drifted in the air as the animal stood looking at him.
It rocked its head from side to side. This was intensely personal. Its gaze was like two tiny red lasers, boring into him.
Then it charged away.
Whew, he thought. Gone.
No, he heard the pattering of hooves, the snapping of twigs, felt the thunder in the ground, and there it came again.
Galump! Galump! galump!
It ran toward the boulder, stopped almost within snout's reach of him, and huffed in frustration. He saw the deathly intention in its eyes. He felt the stink of its hot breath on his knuckles as he clung to the rock. How far could rhinos jump? he wondered, for the first time in his many years at the zoo. He'd once seen a female elephant in Musth. Musth was the elephant's version of being in heat. The elephant had slammed around, trampled, and killed its mahout. It then tried to trample its way through a steel fence, but broke a leg, got stuck trumpeting in fear, rage, and struggling to run againand had to be put down. The rage in this rhino was on that level.
Johnny screamed in mortal terror. The rhino repeated its tactic, running away, then charging back, and stopping in frustration.
Galump! Galump! galump!
Sooner or later, he sensed, it would solve its problem. This rhino was not going to give up, he knew it. Something had gotten into it. Some possession. Some demonic force. Johnny couldn't figure it out.
He flattened himself fearfully. He watched as the rhino passed time and again in its charge. Then it would stand looking at him, scheming, slavering for the kill.
It owned the night. He was helpless. What made it more macabre was the sensuous way it rocked its bulk from side to side with each powerful springing step.
It tried a couple of times to jump onto the boulder, but ended up sliding down. Then it would stand looking at him, so close he could count the folds in its eyelids. He shrank back while looking into tiny hate-filled eyes.
Then there were twonothree rhinos charging around in a circle. The boulder trembled, almost causing him to slide and tumble off. If that happened, they'd all run up, stick him with those huge horns, shake them, tear him to pieces…
What in the hell? Had the alarm not gone off? Had the whole rhino family gotten out? But how? How could these enormous beasts have gotten over a ten foot moat eight feet deep and then yet over a four foot stone wall? Impossible, yet here they were milling around like soccer players, waiting to kick his ball into the next town.
He prayed. Oh Lord, let someone hear. Let Dr. Burtongale maybe have his cart out tonight like he sometimes did...
Oh no, now what?
The three rhinos waddled up to the boulder and began to push with the sides of their heads. Their heads alone were each four feet long. Each head weighed as much as a motorcycle.
Johnny Gep lay flat on his belly and hung on with his fingernails. Again and again the boulder shuddered as their combined mass thrust against it.
Slowly, slowly (his life flashed before his eyes) the boulder moved. With a groaning sound like distant thunder, then a tumbling sound like an avalanche, the boulder went over. As it went over, he first slid, then fell, into darkness. For a moment, the darkness smelled sweetly of damp grass. Then the blackness closed over him with the weight of a twenty ton boulder. He heard his bones snapping while his nose inhaled a last whiff of moss, then blood, then nothing.
Johnny Gepp walked down a long corridor toward some sort of flaming gate. Dark shadows moved there. Figures walked toward the flames, and the dark shadows thrust them in. Dreamily, Johnny Gep noticed a bright blue baby crawling alone in the corridor. It had left its blanket behind. "What are you doing here?" he said and picked the baby up. It cooed at him, smiling.
"Come along, little fellow," he said holding it close.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.