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
An owl glided over the night zoo, using a brief respite between rain showers to hunt for a mouse. Lightning flashed dryly, illumining heavy wet tree crowns and slick roads.
Wallace Burtongale locked his office door behind him and walked across the dark, whispering floor under the lesser dome of Admin 1 & 2. He went out into the night, pinching his yellow slicker close. A wing fluttered behind him, and he jumped; just an owl!
He loaded boxes of computer equipment. The cardboard grew soggy as new rain started to fall, but no matter; these computers were needed only for their innards.
The cart crunched over gravel. Its single headlight threw a wavering football of light through flogging rain drops. Besides a glass or two of brandy, another spirit (the Pilot) filled him and he felt the Pilot's sense of purpose.
Wallace smelled the damp loam, enjoying it through his fear. Approaching the Pagoda, he noted that the White Stuff stretched like waterproof thread along the paths, droplets beading on its meerschaum-like surface. It was as though some power company of spirits was laying lines for a new city (or ship), and their logic was incomprehensible to humans. The narrower strands resembled the weavings of a spider. The thicker strands looked like melted candy or foam tossed by the tide in lumpy ropes. He heard the flutter of wing again. The closer he got to the Pagoda, the thicker the strands became. By tomorrow, employees would be reporting it. He considered closing the zoo on some pretext; then laughed silently into the streaming wind because soon he would be free, one way or the other. Nothing would stop the ship.
The hard foam was so thick around the Pagoda that Wallace had to leave the cart fifty feet away. He walked over queasy slopes of dried foam, carrying box after box to the door.
The padlock, rimed white, resisted at first, then yielded as a surge of warmth struck it from the growing power in the Pagoda.
The door swung silently open. Wallace shielded his eyes in the glare. Thumpa, Thumpa, went the earth deep down and echoes rose through the well of machinery. Dozens of computer screens tilted toward him like faces trapped in white cowls of foam.
GOOD...YOU HAVE DONE WELL...
Wallace opened the boxes he had newly brought. As he tossed aside the foamed plastic packing materials, the existing foam began to bubble like acid, absorbing the new stuff. On a wall conduit, an owl watched as, one by one, Wallace took out about thirty black boxes with high-powered computer chip arrays and leaned forward to deliver them into the foam.
"What will become of us now," Wallace whispered, but the Pilot did not answer.
From somewhere in the earth or the sea came a faint thumping sound of machinery. The machinery (or was it a pounding heart?) seemed glad to get the new food. The black boxes sinking into the foam contained untold gigabytes of processing capability. The black boxes disappeared in fits and gobbles as the foam made a mouth around each.
NOW, the Pilot said, followed by a pause that might have been an electronic megaburp, ALL SWITCHES ARE ON AND WE CAN POWER UP. THIS IS A GLORIOUS MOMENT FOR..MY..RACE...
"I want to be free," Wallace said.
The Pilot laughed.
"No!" Wallace said. Having done this last task, he was alone and terror gripped him. He was a little boy and he did not know where his mother was.
Wallace heard a scream, a flutter. The owl keeled over, fell with a plop, stiff before it hit, and the foam gobbled it. Suddenly, the room was filled with owls. Wallace screamed as they flew into his face with vicious beaks and round yellow eyes. He tried to get up, but they were big. They weighed his arms down. He felt pain, disembodied somehow (shock?) as they tore open the arteries in his neck...
White foam bubbled. The machinery in the earth thumped on, stronger and louder every minute. The foam made crunching noises as it sucked in Wallace's earthly remains chunk by chunk as a dog gobbles its food.
Wallace Burtongale walked down a long ramp into the sea. He heard singing, saw bright undefined light all around. He looked down and saw that he was Cold Blue. Faces floated all around. His fathers welcomed him. And all the Aunt Pollys who had kept things together over the many generations...
Hidden machinery thumped louder and more insistently, and his heart with it, as he walked down the long corridor to his destiny and the destiny of an entire world. To the ship in the sea. To the ghost of the ship.
On Thursday morning, ZoŽ went to Jules's office. "I want to be put back on obits."
Jules threw up his hands. "Aw ZoŽ, no way. Perry is still out taking care of Matilda. I don't have anybody else."
"Jules, my son and I are in danger. I may just leave town."
"Let's compromise. I'll honcho the police beat for now. You just do the leg work, especially the Daily Police Blotter. You stay away from this zoo story and anything related to it. After all this blows over, we'll take a fresh look at things, huh?"
Roger stopped by in his Porsche and took ZoŽ to lunch. They bought sandwiches at a seaside deli and ate with the top down on a sandy road overlooking curling breakers. He said: "I don't know what's going on. Wallace hasn't shown his face in two days. Miss Polly calls just about every hour, beside herself."
"There's bad news in this town, Roger. Let's run away."
"Together?" His eyes teased.
"I don't know," she teased back. "I'll have to check my social calendar." (Which was empty, but he wouldn't know).
He bit into his sandwich. "Still coming to dinner today?"
She crunched on a pickle. "Our hot date at the zoo?"
He winked. "I like that little, what did Perry call it, chili pepper about you."
"Jalapeno." She kicked off her shoes.
"I bet behind that vanilla goddess, and all that get-away-from-me, you're just a kitten."
She stood up on the seat, looking out through the sunroof. A beautiful view of the sea. "Right," she admitted. "A lost one." She held her dress against her legs with one hand so he would not be embarrassed by (what was it today?) her pink bubble-gum briefies. She liked this man; he appeared to go for elbow room when pinched. No Howard Poodle, he; nor Pinscher Lara. Inspired, she asked: "Do you like dogs?"
"I have two dogs."
"Not a chance. We've got an English sheep dog and a Labrador retr."
"Whoopee!" she cried, and he looked puzzled. "What would you like for dinner?"
"Let me surprise you," he said.
She wrapped her arms around herself. She tucked her chin in so her eyes wouldn't seem googly to him. Her shoulders developed goose bumps, and she shivered all over. Yesssss!
That evening, ZoŽ and Max drove to Chatfield's house. "How quickly it gets dark out now," she said as she pulled into the driveway. "Are you okay, Max?" Max sat beside her, still in his school uniform. His hair was neatly combed, and looked oiled down with tap water. He seemed full of anticipation, and ZoŽ wondered if it was more for Rudy's or Elisa's company. "Do you think they're home, Mom?" he breathed, looking ready to feel disappointed.
How odd; she felt a numb excitement, almost fear, as she regarded the dark house. It was shuttered and looked closed in upon itself. Pines and junipers clustered like smudges. ZoŽ felt like an intruder walking to the door.
Then: Someplace deep inside the house, colors moved. She saw big steel letters spin, recognized the computer-animated logo of the Evening News. A porch light flicked on, like an orange dropped in water. A screen door shook. A dog barked huskily and his echo fell like axe strokes on neighboring shutters.
"You look like a pair of orphans," Roger Chatfield said.
ZoŽ burst into a smile. "I feel like one!"
Bumping the screen door open with his shoulder, Roger lifted in their bags. Max sidled past Roger. ZoŽ and Roger stole a quick kiss, a dry brush of upper lips.
Rudy, in oversized bathrobe and clumpy cowboy boots, and Elisa (wearing makeup! ZoŽ gasped) in neatly ironed jeans and shirt, crowded around Max.
"Just in time for dinner," Roger said. He wore shorts, sandals, and terrycloth shirt.
The first dog was Woofer, an English sheep dog who seemed to navigate by sonar because of the hair totally covering his eyes. He looked like an explosion in a mop factory as he attacked ZoŽ in turning motions. "Get Woofer outside," Roger ordered, and Elisa came for the dog. Woofer's tongue hung out of the shag as she dragged him away skidding.
Roger made no effort to help, but stood staring at ZoŽ. "That's Tweeter in there," Roger said, and ZoŽ dimly perceived another dog face through several layers of glass doors and windows. "She's a black lab. She's staying outside because she missed her flea dip this morning. Now we'll have to get them both dipped again." Roger flopflopped back to the stove, armed with a spatula.
"Can I help?" she asked. Getting a blank look from him, and looking around, she set the table. Everything seemed to be in the wrong place (heavy plates up high, little plates down low) but she kept a zipped lip. Roger was a good cook. She pushed up close behind him, touching her hand to his side. She inhaled deeply: Oniony burgers, garlicky tomatoes, parsleyed mashed potato leftovers browning, candied carrot logs. He freed one arm and cranked it gently around her neck, pulling her face to his ribs. She pushed away. "Later. The kids..." Inwardly she longed for Later.
He held the pan over the stove en riposte, spatula curled over the back of his head, and said: "Let zem eat boigahs."
At the dinner table, everyone was smiles and jokes. Steamy rolls were passed, butter was daubed on, forks and knives swished. Rudy and Elisa had placed Max between them and were passing everything to him. "Seen that stuff floating around outside?" Rudy asked with a full mouth.
"Looks like snow," Elisa said.
"Looks like plastic foam snow," Max said, "fake Christmas stuff."
"Yeah, what's that all about?" Rudy brayed.
There was, as ZoŽ learned, Almost Later before there was Later. Almost Later was in the den watching a Peanuts special. Rudy and Elisa sat on the floor, Max between them. They had a thick nest made of folded blankets, and a large comforter to keep them warm. Woofer and Tweeter had food and water and yelped innocently in their sleep behind the house. ZoŽ and Roger sat at opposite ends of a long hard leather couch. Small flames licked in the fireplace but the den was cavernous and chilly.
"Gggggg," she said shivering, wrapping her arms around herself. He brought her a blanket, which warmed her. The Peanuts special was sweet and silly and warm. Roger radiated warmth. She snuggled, in her blanket-body, as close as she could to his much larger, muscular blanket-body, and he put one powerful arm around her. It was like being inside a kid-fort.
By the end of the Almost Later, Elisa kissed everyone goodnight and drifted off to sleep. Rudy gradually keeled over and Roger carried him off to bed. ZoŽ used the remote to turn off the TV. Max crawled over and put his head in her lap.
"You might as well stay over," Roger said bringing pillows.
"Better go brush your teeth," she told Max, too tired to make a pretense of protesting his offer.
Max gathered his crutches and rose. Did Max get it? She was sure he must. Clever boy. Once or twice early on with Howard Berger, Max had gotten a certain murderous look, and small, rock-hard, white-knuckled fists to match. This was totally different.
"I'll show you where the bathroom is," Roger told Max, and started to rise. But Max pushed Roger back onto the couch. Max laid his head on Roger's chest and embraced him silently. Roger hugged Max, rubbing his hair. So that's why he was so anxious outside, ZoŽ thought guiltily, remembering Mother's words: The boy needs...
After all three kids were in bedMax in Rudy's room with Rudy, Elisa alone in hersZoŽ and Roger sat on the couch. Now it was Later. "This is v e r y y cozy, Roger." She shivered deliciously as rain prattled on windows.
He rose. "Want to watch a movie?"
"Sure." Oh god, she thought, here come the Swedish three-way flicks. Here come the love aids. Here come the hot wet moist sucking... if he's like that, I'm outta here!
The VCR whirred softly. Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. "Oh God," she said melting, "my favorite movie of all time."
He unfolded more blankets. "I hoped you'd like it."
"Too bad we don't have any popcorn."
Something in the kitchen made chortling noises. Then: Ding ding ding. A salty buttery smell spread. He brought a tray and a large bowl. "It's low salt, hope you don't mind"("Roger!") "The cans are just root beer."("Oh Roger!")"Hope you don't mind. I cannot imagine a movie without popcorn and root beer"("Oh Roger it's wonderful!"). He put some blanket around her. He wrapped the rest around himself.
"Mmmmm..." she said. She welcomed his strong, hard body next to her. It got warm (again) and she stopped shivering. Toot toot, beep beep went the Manhattan traffic of 1959. She rested her cheek on his terrycloth shoulder. It got warmer. By the time a confused Cary Grant was standing in the United Nations holding a knife and being framed for the murder of the diplomat at his feet, ZoŽ and Roger were spooning. She wrapped one arm around him and watched, just eyeballs looking over his neck. It was then ten of ten.
There was a distant thump. She jumped, tightening her grip on him. "What was that?"
"Relax. This house has many thumps, and I know them all. That's the oak branch hitting the north eaves. That means the wind is over thirty miles per hour. I'd better go check all the windows."
"Stay," she said. He did.
Eva Marie Saint was just seducing Cary Grant on the train. The Pullman compartment looked cozy and private. Roger and ZoŽ twined tongues, exploring. His hand caressed her shoulder, the long firm curve of her waist, the sharp edge of her hip, the fullness of her buttock and thigh. She gave herself to him. His tongue flicked gently in her mouth, and hers flicked back hungrily. Her hands explored the smoothness of his back, the cordedness of his muscles, the flatness of his belly. It got suffocatingly hot under the blanket and they threw it off. She threw her chin back and moaned. Her hands locked in his hair. He opened her blouse, used his teeth to slide her bra aside, kiss her breasts. She moaned. Her thick nipples puckered hard. She felt his tongue sliding in the soft valley of her belly button. She reached down with both hands, grabbed his belt, and undid it. The 1959 train chattered toward the mountains. Their breath rushed in and out in tandem. She threw her arms back and wailed softly, listening to the patter of the rain and the slapping of his hard body against her soft body, as she wrapped her legs around him. She was too s short, and a little heavy, to link her ankles over his back, so it was like riding a stallionupside down (kind of funny, if it wasn't so breath-taking and dizzying). The man was indeed a stallion. The 1959 train chattered into a long dark tunnel. They came together, crying out and reaching for each other with lips and fingers and nipples while his chuffing rhythm broke in climax. He collapsed onto her, and she stroked his neck while blowing softly into his ear. After Later came After.
It grew silent in the house. Overhead, rain pong ponged on the roof. They lay together for a long time. They moved into a more comfortable position. She stroked his hair gently while he lay with his cheek on her belly.
"You sound like a fish," she murmured.
"Love your belly," he said kissing it.
She hugged him and pressed a kiss on the rim of his ear.
He crawled up. "I may be in I love with you."
She touched a fingertip to his nose, and whispered: "Zoo mensch."
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.