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
Woofer and Tweeter were hungry, thirsty, scared, and lonely. They barked and bounced against the door.
"Someone feed those fucking animals!" ZoŽ yelled into the darkness as depression numbed her beyond pain. She was alone in the house.She could not summon the energy to rise and help them. Nobody would talk to her anymore, and Max was still in the hospital, now comatose and unresponsive. She could not help herself, not to take a bath, not to brush her teeth, not to venture out to see Max at the hospital.
Fuck themlet the stupid dogs die. She went upstairs and crawled into bed. She lay for a long time curled in a fetal position unable to think of anything but White Stuff whirling around her. She longed to take Max in her arms so they could die together, be free of the cancer and the White Stuff, free of everything that was tearing the world apart, go down into the sea and die together, but she was too tired. What did it matter anyway? Soon the world would be a hell of raging fires as the ship invoked its last line of defense; or what the sphinx thought was its next line of action after sitting on the ocean floor for nearly a century building the largest nuclear bomb in history. ZoŽ didn't care. Her mind was on smaller tragedies, and they seemed more important to her. She was afraid to go see Max because perhaps he too had turned against her, even though he was dying, and if so, there was nothing left. Nothing.
Sometime during the night, the phone rang. Blindly she reached out, grappled it off its hook, across the sheets without moving anything more than her arm, and to her ear. "Miss Calla?" It was Vernon LeGrier and he sounded dismal.
"Yes," she said dully.
"I'm afraid I have really bad news for you. I was with Roger and I guess it's my fault. I got him to go with me to look for some... clues... I'm afraid he fell into that same coma as the others, right before my eyes. I'm at the hospital with him now. I'm waiting for the doctor and..." She let the phone slide away. It retracted on its spiral cord and fell on the floor. LeGrier's voice sounded like that of a person in one of those movies where people shrink to flea size: "Hello?... Hello?" Then the line cut off, replaced by a loud beeping. She shoved a pillow over the edge and it landed on the phone and she could barely hear its bleating noises anymore.
A crash woke her. She sat up. Where was Roger? Then she remembered that he was dead. Or in a coma and lost forever anyway.
Someone screameda familiar voiceMax?
She staggered out of bed, adjusting her nightgown strap with one hand and sipping from a glass of stale water with the other. Down the stairs and to that awful hallway.
She saw the rays of light pouring ragged and anemic, like a wound bled white, before she even rounded the corner, and she knew that dreadful door was open again.
"Max!" she screamed.
All three children lay lifeless on the floor. Rudy lay with mouth open, hand on chest. Dead? Elisa lay sprawled in her nightgown with White Stuff fluffing on her. Max lay on his side and his shriveled legs looked stick-like. "My baby!" she screamed and fell on her knees. Crawled toward him. And as she did so, darkness enveloped her. She choked, falling face down, sinking into... death? or the dreaded coma?
She pushed herself up on hands and elbows. Her own face lay dead between her hands. Her eyes were closed and her face was expressionlessnot a peacefulness, but a blankness. She rose up and looked down at her body. It's this coma, she thought. Oh God it got us all! She saw, past their sprawled forms, the shades of three children walking away through the forbidden room. No time to try and figure this outsome form of spirit walking or astral projection? She was dimly aware of the Cold Thing, watching her.
"Max! Elisa! Rudy!" she cried. But the children did not hear her. Or did not want to. Max was wrapped in a sheet sitting in a wheelchair. But wasn't he in the hospital? His face looked pale and exhausted, his body shriveled. He leaned like an old man (Mr. Vecci) slumped over one arm rail, face to one side, and ZoŽ thought he might fall out.
Elisa pushed the wheelchair into a sweltering light. Rudy clung to Elisa's nightgown. All three children looked mesmerized.
"I blocked that up!" she screamed. But the forbidden door stood wide open, bent and rusty nails lay all around, and a fan of light emanated. She felt a cold breeze and smelled a tang of the seafaintly briny, fishy.
"No!" she screamed and chased after Elisa. It was a long, long path. Impossibly long for this house. She kept runningnobody would take her Max away, nobody!
Elisa's hair fluffed lightly in the wind. ZoŽ's feet splashed in water and she looked down, surprised. The floor had turned to beach sand. Chilly water lined with threads of foam washed in. The tide was turning. Salt water stung a cut on her footthis was not just a dream! The kids were already far away. ZoŽ fell down. Cold water soaked her gown and iced her thighs. "Max," she cried from the bottom of her soul, "I don't want you to go!" Sobbing, she staggered to her feet and walked further into the sea. The kids had not looked back. "Take me with you!" she yelled, but the wind snatched her words away.
She was walking through the basilica, only the floor was sea water. Like a sinking ship, the basilica was tilted forward. Saints with quizzical faces held out things to her: A key, a lily, a book, a candle, a coin, a baby... Their faces glowed and their haloes seemed like space helmets. No human had ever been so buttercup yellow... ZoŽ slogged on toward the altar, just as the ground moved, and now she was underwater...
It was night. The world was underwater. There! The kids were visible. Max looked shriveled in his wrapping sheet. Rudy helped push the wheelchair. Elisa's eyes glittered for an instant; had she looked back?
They were... where? The zoo. They were in the zoo, moving toward... The pagoda. Where J.W. Washington had interrupted her Dark Feeling. Whisk whisk, snap snap, she remembered. Gone. Dead. The pagoda portal was open. Rudy and Elisa, dripping wet (weren't they cold?) pushed the wheelchair inside. "Wait! Please wait! I'll go with you! Don't go in there alone!"
But they did not look back. Elisa's back was the last thing she saw of them before the light swallowed them. As she fled toward the pagoda, ZoŽ saw the sun-decoration smiling. The mossy round concrete-relief happy-face of a smiling sun that had floated toward her mind before J.W.'s interruption. Now, it detached from the wall and floated to meet her. WELCOME, it thought to her. The little rays wiggled like octopus arms.
She ignored it and ran toward the door. The sunlet flew at her and disappeared into her. She stumbled over the step and entered the blinding light.
The machinery in the pagoda thumped on and on and she heard the Cold Thing again, the same voice that had tried to lure her into her pool, into the sea, to her death, into Gilbert's arms: COME, THIS IS THE WAY...
Wiz stepped up to meet her. "Hello, ZoŽ." Wiz looked light blue and was bright. They were somewhere in the sea, deep down. It reminded ZoŽ of promotional movies she'd seen about tropical diving and fishing places that had exotic names and impossibly blue water. Colorful shiny fish moving in precise unison waved first one way, then another like a flag fluttering in wind. Reefs were dimly visible in the faint light.
ZoŽ saw an airplane on the sandy sea bed. Its windows were dark; no, one light glowed by one of the passenger seats. She could guess who was sitting there, bringing her chocolate or a toy from some sales convention.
Looking farther, she also saw a structure here underwater. As in a huge hangar, girders floated up to unguessable heights. Crossbeams extended out of eyesight. Long corridors, endless dotted ceiling lights, stretched in all directions until they curved out of sight. Lights everywhere shed small cotton balls of light. The airplane she'd seen in dreamsit was there, crusted in algae, and dimly glowing inside. The airplane actually sat on a swelling bulge, she now saw, and she was pretty sure that swelling bulge was the nuclear detonator that sat on some underwater vent capable of uncorking the hellish energies of the earth's molten outer core. Here and there on the ocean floor were tiny little volcanoes, like African ant hills, and syrupy licorice smoke poured from these vents.
Figures stood all aroundÖ Standing on girders... Walking in hallways... Floating in midair or was it midwater?
Wiz reached out her hand and ZoŽ felt its coolness. Wiz's face was bright was though there were a sky-blue light in her skull. "You weren't supposed to come."
"Max!" ZoŽ cried. "My little baby. He's in here somewhere."
"You have a lot to learn about the ship," Wiz said.
ZoŽ ran forward. "Where is my Max?" She saw him then. He was still in the wheelchair. Slumped and lifeless. A door of light had opened before him. "Max!" she cried, and the water did not distort her voice. It sounded as though she were in a dry hallway. Rudy and Elisa stood back. Four male shapes stepped out of the door. Churning fire threw blankets of light. The four men took the wheelchair. Max looked like a husk about to be thrown on a hay fire.
ZoŽ ran forward, screaming.
"No!" Wiz cried out behind her.
ZoŽ ran anyway. The men : Harleigh Hale, Charlie Best (battered skull repaired), and two... she did not have time to recognize them all before the door closed and men and wheelchair and Max were gone.
ZoŽ ran up and threw herself against the door. But there was no door. It was a solid wall. "Where did they take him?" she cried but Rudy and Elisa walked away.
"Come back here!" she screamed running after them. She reached for Elisa, but her hands could not make solid contact. Wiz had a concerned face: "In here, we do what the Captain says."
ZoŽ sniffled. "CapCaptain Colorado?"
Wiz nodded. She told ZoŽ: "You must conform or a Bad Thing will happen to you." ZoŽ shook Wiz's shoulder and it felt like a slab of bacon from the fridge.
"Wiz, you never used to talk like that."
Wiz said: "This is the ship."
"Where are we?" ZoŽ demanded.
"This is the ship, from far away in the universe. Don't anger Captain Colorado."
ZoŽ felt dizzy. "Why are we underwater? Why are fish swimming around in here?"
A twinge of amusement shifted Wiz's lips and cheeks for the first time into a sardonic parody of humor. "Fish? Water? You Warm Dulls are all imagining things."
"Warm Dulls? What are you talking about?"
"There are three kinds of captives on this ship. First, there are the animals that are locked up and we don't get to see them. Then there are the two types of captives from earth: Warm Dulls, like you, who don't learn much, and Cold Brights, like me, who serve the ship. Look around." ZoŽ did, and saw that some of the figures standing around were lit with a bright light, like blue-white computer screen glow, and others were rather dull looking like (she looked at her hands) herself. She turned to Wiz, panic gripping her heart: "Wiz, they aren't going to make Max a Cold Bright, are they?" She had this intuition: That Warm Dulls were the coma people, who had bodies to go back to, and the Cold Brights were the souls of the dead, trapped in this purgatory.
Wiz's expression was veiled. ZoŽ reached out frantically. "When will we know?" But hands grasped her from behind.
"You have other things to do," Wiz said. ZoŽ recoiled in revulsion as Cold Bright hands and bodies propelled her toward a door. It felt repulsively like being touched by floating refrigerated pickles, and she screamed.
Somehow, in this crazy half invisible structure, they were going up a ramp. A round oven door beckoned at the end of the ramp. Reddish-yellow fire flicked out. The tongues of sun-thrown flame melted in the water and floated upward. "No!" she screamed but they threw her in.
Elmer's Family Diner. Mary Lull, in shiny black shoes, white socks, and frilly pink dress, skipped among the legs of grownups and joined her parents at the eating booth. She crawled up into the booth next to Daddy, who sat opposite Mommy. Daddy, big and jolly, was always laughing. His eyes were warm and dark. Mommy was always a little sharp and jealous when ZoŽ showed preference for Daddy. Auntie Lisbet once told Mommy it was only because Daddy was away on sales trips so much, not to make a big deal about it, but Mommy's eyes looked hurt and resentful anyway.
"Did everything come out all right?" Daddy could be so gross, but always so funny and so loving. She stood up in the booth and hugged him, smelling his aftershave and his scalp through thinning black hair. "I love you," she whispered.
"Mary," Mommy said, "sit down, you'll make the seat dirty with your shoes." Daddy hugged her and said "Aw never mind, her little feet won't do any harm. You're Daddy's little girl, aren't you?"
"Yes," she said, resting her cheek against his neck. Her arms were scissored over his shoulders. "Daddy..."
"What, little princess?"
"Promise you will never leave me."
"Me? Leave you?"
"I don't want you to go."
Mommy looked concerned. "What is she babbling about?"
"Doris, don't be so hard. She's just a little girl." Daddy cooed at her. "Daddy will never leave you, sweetheart."
Mommy seethed. "You're away for weeks at a time. I clean her and dress her and everything, and you come home for a weekend and spoil her rotten."
Mary burst out in tears. "You're not just here for the weekend, are you? You're going to stay now, aren't you?"
His lips went tut tut. "Well, darling, you know I have to go out and work hard. Tell you what. Next year I'll be manager. Then I can work from home; I'll never have to go away again."
"That would be wonderful," Mommy said showing a flood of relief and joy. "Yes!" Mary cried happily. "But can't you just stay with us from right now on?" He tapped a deck of cards on the table. His hands were thick and pink. "Just one or two more trips, Mary darling. I'll tell you what. Before I go, we'll plant a nice garden together and whenever you think of us together, you go out and water it, okay?"
"That would be really neat," Mary said.
Suddenly she was alone in the dark house. Mother was sobbing somewhere, awful sounds like wood being ripped, one cut at a time, with a saw. Auntie Lisbet floated close: "Mary, I'm afraid something terrible has happened. Your daddy won't be coming home today. You see, his plane fell in the ocean and he is now an angel in heaven."
"...But he will be watching out for you all the time, every day of your life..."
"...And one day, when you go to heaven, you will be together again with him..."
"Honey," Daddy said back in the diner, "you have such a sad little face." He reached over, picked up a tear from her cheek, and put it on the tip of his tongue. "Mmm," he said, "could use a little bit more salt."
"Wayne, stop it," Mother said.
The waitress put platters of hamburgers (still sizzling) down on the white and blue checked cloth; fries, a big basket full, and a bottle of ketchup; and a green and white bill with pencil scrawls, that right away began soaking up grease. A fly circled around and landed by the edge of a ketchup blob that was still red in the middle but had dried up and hardened to a dark brownish color around the edges, and around that was a larger wet-stain just faintly red. She studied this little cameo as if she were a scientist and it were a complex interaction between life and death, between the moon and the tides, at the very core of the universe. "Honey," Daddy interrupted her, "I love you more than anyone has ever loved anyone."
"Oh good, Daddy." She turned away from the ketchup; she wiped her face and clung to him.
"Mary, let Daddy eat."
"Do you really, Daddy?"
"Yes, I do. Sweetheart, not a minute goes by, in some sales meeting in Chicago or Denver or someplace, when I'm sitting in a room full of strangers, that I don't think of having you and Mommy next to me like we are all right now."
"Will you take me with you when you go, Daddy?"
He laughed. "Sweetheart, you will go when your plane comes. My plane leaves tonight, but I promise I'll wait for you."
"Oh, Daddy." She glowed inside.
He said: "We will be together forever."
"And Max too?" she asked.
"Who?" Mommy said.
"Max," Daddy said, "her son. Just wait and see, Doris. Max will be a fine boy."
"I guess you're right," Mother said stirring her coffee with a worn look. "One more child to look after. One more child."
Wayne grasped Doris's wrist. "Darling, I love you so much. I'm sorry I didn't quite make it. The damn plane got something caught in its fuel intake and dropped like a lead balloon."
"I understand, Wayne. We understand, don't we, Mary?"
They all linked hands. "Yes," Mary said. "We understand."
"Good," Daddy said, standing up. He lifted Mary out of his way and put her on the seat. "I gotta go now." He did a little jig, pulling his baggy trousers up. He searched in his pockets until his eyebrows rose brightly and then he put a five dollar bill on the table. He kissed Doris.
"Daddy," Mary cried out. Daddy hugged her against his big warm chest. "Darling, this is how it will be, forever and ever, once you get off your plane. Until then, I don't want you to cry and I don't want you to miss me and I don't want you to give Mommy a hard time, because soon we'll be together again."
ZoŽ cried and cried and cried until there were no more tears. Daddy held her the whole time. Then he dabbed her cheeks with a napkin. She began to feel a warm glow inside. Daddy unbuttoned her shirt one button. He reached inside with two fingers that barely fit. For a second, there was a twinge, almost but not quite a pain, as though he had tweezed something off the edge of her heart. Then she felt wonderful. "There!" Daddy said. Dazed at how good she felt, she looked down and saw a little white pebble the size of a pin head between Daddy's fingers. "There," he said, "you had quite a stone on your heart." Then he was gone (Cold Bright). The waitress towered beside the table, apron and notepad against checks. "Is everything all right?"
Mary beamed up at her. "Ooohhh yes."
Like a cork shot from the champagne bottle, like a leaf swirling in a river, like a bubble released underwater, ZoŽ floated upward through the magnificent interior of the ship. She felt light and airy and wonderful. She floated to a long dark corridor. Wiz reached out her hand. "Hello, ZoŽ." Wiz was a Cold Bright, and ZoŽ knew there was no way back for her. "I will take you to the heart of the ship," Wiz said.
They walked down a long corridor that twisted occasionally. It was like walking in a museum. On the left and right, spaced ten or more feet apart, were dioramas: Mabel Stork and Moonboy looked up from a moonlight dinner of canned sardines and dry bread near the basilica. Harleigh Hale and Charlie Best paused in the act of dusting books. Harleigh stood on a small ladder. Charlie polished some boxes. Harleigh waved. "Promise me one thing," he hollered. "Take good care of Winky for me, okay?"
Drums pounded and whistles shrilled as witch doctors with white paint on dark skin danced around, while the famous man with the white cassock and smile raised his index and fore fingers in apostolic blessing. (Wiz nudged ZoŽ, whispering: "Lomť.").
Another diorama appeared: On a truck, in a bleak snowy forest in the mountains, lay a black slab of stone hazily representing an African devil god of some sort. ZoŽ gasped: Frank sat right next to her, alive, driving; the body of Charlie Best might still be warm on the state highway behind them.
More dioramas flashed by. They walked rapidly into the past. Touareg, Blue People, rode by on camels along the caravan route from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, through the edge of the Sahel, to Timbuktoo on the plains of Mali, across vast expanses of desert dotted with oases, into jungles upon jungles with waterfalls taller than Niagara, and on to the Sudanese Nile. A Portuguese ship sailed by in search of a better spice route to India. Africa languished in her long sleep. Roman soldiers marched by, escorting a caravan of wild animals for the arenas. Egyptian priests paraded slowly into the temple of this god in stone, bringing incense and sacrifices.
Faster and faster the dioramas flew by, blurry and unintelligible. Each was the captured essence of a truth or a moment in time where a piece of the ship's brain had been.
"How could a ship have a brain?" ZoŽ asked.
"You might call it a computer," Wiz said.
ZoŽ felt blithe; couldn't remember why she'd come to this sunken ship.
"We are lying comatose somewhere, that's how I figure it," Wiz said. "We Cold Brights are the smartest here, and we're very proud of it."
"Do you see any fish, Wizzie?"
Wiz laughed. "Fish? No. Why?"
"Just wondering. Never mind." Poor thing; didn't seem to know she was dead. They came to a door and the dioramas stopped fleeting past. The last diorama was of dinosaurs fighting. They had to walk through it some thirty feet to a door marked in strange red letters (a stencil from another galaxy?). Inside the diorama was a rank smell. "Don't be afraid," Wiz said. "Nothing here can hurt us. It's the ship's way of telling you its story. I have been here many times."
It was night in a primitive jungle with huge ferns and tall trees with tiny crowns. Something plashed in a pond on her right; snorted; and she jumped. Ahead, in the brilliant starlight and moonlight, an armored tank moved in camouflage; no not a tank but a lizard splashed with orange, black, and white polygons, with a mask-face and terrible teeth.
"Were dinosaurs brought by the ship?" ZoŽ asked.
Wiz shook her head. "This ship carries totally alien life. A whole spectrum from crawlers and swimmers through runners and fliers. They all have either three of everything (eyes, ears, arms, and so on) or five. Just as we have two of everything and the animals have four."
"Spiders have eight."
Wiz shrugged. "Yes, but the point is it's 99% an even number. Always. With this kind, it's always an odd number."
Before ZoŽ had time to reflect how unearthly such a thing must be, the door slid open and they entered.
"This is the command room," Wiz said. "This is where they run the ship." She ushered ZoŽ (fish swimming around unnoticed by any but ZoŽ) into a crowded kidney shaped cabin. The walls bulged with shapes she took to be control equipment.
WELCOME, thought a face in the wall. It was an old, tortured, but quite human looking face with a mouth, a nose, and otherwise your basic two of everything.
"Captain Colorado," ZoŽ guessed.
The face laughed uncomfortably. It appeared to be pressed into too small an area, and had limited wiggling and twitching room. "Bright young lady. Too bad you're not wanted here."
"Why am I not wanted?"
Captain Colorado rolled his eyes up as though she were dumb. "You're blest, silly girl."
"Who are you really?"
He gave her a hurt look. His eyes glittered near tears. "I'm Wallace Burtongale the First, Lady. Couldn't you guess?"
She shook her head. "Not at first. But now I see the resemblance."
"We're all finished, aren't we?"
Before ZoŽ could answer, another spot nearby blurred, and Miss Polly's face appeared. "Hush now, old grandpa ancestor. We will soon be free."
"You must be one of my descendants," the 19th Century Burtongale said to Miss Polly. "Yes, I recognize your mind. We have touched before, although you would not have understood."
"It's okay," Miss Polly told ZoŽ, "don't you worry about a thing, my dear. Say hello to Martina and Jules and Roger and of course to my darlings Janine and Margery and Patricia. These Cold Brights keep saying they're getting out of here, but frankly I think we're in for a hell of a long ride."
"That's right," Wallace said. "We are going back to the stars. This is not a place for us to disgorge our cargo."
STOP THAT, another voice thought.
As ZoŽ watched, the wriggling sun detached itself from a far wall where it had been hidden. It was the same sun she'd seen in the wall at the Pagoda, but it was not smiling now as it flew close to Wallace, stopped in mid air, and hissed at him.
Miss Polly's frightened face winked out of existence. ZoŽ wondered if the Burtongales were to be trapped in that nightmare wall forever.
But Wallace laughed. "You can't hurt me, sun. We've been cooped up in here for over a hundred years, and you don't scare me anymore." As if to reinforce Wallace, five other Wallace faces opened up in the wall. ZoŽ recognized the Wallace she'd personally met. And even Gilbert was there! They all barked and yelled in a melee at the sun. "Sons!" Wallace the First yelled. "Go away. I'll handle this." The other faces disappeared, leaving the wall blank except for the Wallace I cameo.
A voice ZoŽ had not yet heard, but which she somehow recognized, burbled up: "You must not say things that are negative." A hoary looking old eel-head slithered its long mottled neck out from underneath the machinery, and ZoŽ could not tell if it was of the ship or of the sea, but she felt a chill of fright because it was the Cold Thing that had nearly lured her to her death in the pool and later in the waves. At last, it was no longer in her head. The eel seemed near hysteria. Shocked, she stared at the Cold Thing. "We cannot seem to repair the ship, no matter how we try. You must not make jokes, Wallace."
A third voice spoke up, and ZoŽ recognized it for the distortion that it was: "Waak, you oughta give it a rest, Wallace, you gotta big mouth, ya hear?" It was an underwater Winky, complete with colorful feathers and beak. But this was not the real Winky; this guy had two intact wings.
Flashes of insight, of understanding, began to come over ZoŽ. She felt the ship trying to help her comprehend its world. The ship was trying to put itself together. What ship? she thoughtwhy, of course the ship that had been damaged by an impact with a stray asteroid one hundred million years ago. Pieces of the core brain had ended up various places, trying to reach each other in vain, and had extended feelers to nearby objects, especially living things. The sphinx dumped into the sea, containing the largest core segment, had combined the aspects of an underwater eel, a sunken ship, and a downed airplane. The chunk in the water under the Pagoda had adopted the sunlet, which happened to be an ornament on the outer wall of the 19th Century structure in the zoo. There must have been a chunk in Winky's cage, hidden there by Charlie Best, and for which Attila and Frank had killed Charlie at Gilbert's biddingyes! So much of the picture was coming together now for her, for the ship, for the entire world which had almost evolved in an entirely different direction.
"Teresa Wiz Kcickiwicz," Wallace I said, "come close. You too, ZoŽ Calla-Calla."
The sunlet and the eel hovered watchfully. The parrot cocked his head.
Wallace I said: "Tell me if my guess is correct. The ship is unrepairable."
Stop it stop it stop it... the eel, the sunlet, and the parrot shrilled mentally.
ZoŽ said: "I think you're right, Wallace. What do you think, Wiz?"
Wiz shook her head slowly.
The apparitions looked at ZoŽ expectantly. Wallace waited brightly for her to support his theory. The sunlet smiled warmly, hoping ZoŽ would refute Wallace. "If you want my opinion," ZoŽ said, feeling like Alice in Wonderland, "there is no ship."
BABBLE-BABBLE-BABBLE-BABBLE said all the faces in the wall, appearing simultaneously and trying to knock each other aside.
SILENCE, said the eel, and it was clear he was in charge here. Not a sound as he extended his bloated blue-gray body mottled with splotchy growths. It was, ZoŽ thought, like watching a fire hose unwind underwater.
A flight of golden guppies or something flashed past. All the guppies turned at once like a sail being tacked and darted away through the walls. Nobody but ZoŽ seemed to notice.
The eel spoke: "I cannot seem to get the ship repaired. I cannot seem to feel any of the cargo in their storage bays. Is there a chance the ship was destroyed on impact with the atmosphere? If so, the crew would be very sad. On the other hand then perhaps that explains why we have been unable to reach the crew all this long time. They could all be dead as well."
"Who and what exactly are you?" ZoŽ asked.
Wiz nudged her sharply, but the eel answered: "We are the brain of the ship, ZoŽ Calla-Calla. We are the program that feeds the animals, guides the ship, disciplines the cargo, kills intruders, yes, kills some of the animals if need be to show the others, but we can heal them as well."
"You can?" she asked, not quite remembering why this was important.
"Yes. Do you hurt?" the eel asked.
"No," she said.
"Her son does," Wiz interjected.
"Oh?" the eel asked. "We have not killed him, have we?"
"I don't know," Wiz said. "Not up to the time he entered the ship, at least you hadn't."
"Then you must go quickly and find him," the eel said. "Go, ZoŽ Calla-Calla, you are not wanted here. You are blest and must return to your pen."
"My pen?" ZoŽ laughed and raised both hands to her mouth. She pictured a cow mooing in its barn, and laughed.
"Hurry," Wiz said taking her arm. "You must obey."
"Meanwhile," the eel said, "we will make a last desperate attempt to contact the crew who are our masters. They created us and only they can decide whether there is a ship or not."
"There is no ship," ZoŽ said. "You must understand that. You must stop all this. You must return all these people to their bodies and leave us alone."
There was no answer. The sea quaked lightly. Bubbles rose. Fishes darted for cover. ZoŽ looked back briefly before the door slammed shut. The eel, the sunlet, the parrot, and several Wallaces were watching her leave.
As she left the control room, ZoŽ heard another voice. It was the Cold Thing, which was another metaphor or avatar for the Pilot. It said to someone she could not see: "There is the other thing we can do. The last communication we had from the outer ship was that a space object was about to strike us. Maybe it has not struck yet. Maybe we can set off the final line of defenses. I will make that decision now."
Two dinosaurs tangled in their diorama. ZoŽ and Wiz ran. The dioramas flashed by quicker and quicker, then slowed as Wiz and ZoŽ returned to their starting point in mid-ship. "Here is where I leave you," Wiz said.
ZoŽ said, knowing it was hopeless: "Wizzie, don't go."
"We all have to go," Wiz said. "Don't worry. This will be over soon. Then we will go back to our bodies and I'll buy you lunch at Vogelmann's like I promised." Seeing her look, Wiz made a brave grin and said: "Don't worry, I saw what is in your mind, but I don't believe it."
It is I who will go, ZoŽ thought. You will stay here, dead and Cold Bright. I will eat a Vogelmann's, while bones and glasses lie in the morgue. ZoŽ pictured again the mossy gap between Wiz's skull's front teeth on the stainless steel tray that slid from the morgue wall. ZoŽ watched helplessly as Wiz receded and grew smaller, still with that gap-toothed smile, and disappeared into a micron. Or into nothing? Is death the reverse of creation? Is it the Big DudgnaB giB ehT?
As ZoŽ looked about, Cold Brights popped out of existence like bulbs going out. Warm Dulls milled about babbling, holding each other. They reminded ZoŽ of pictures she'd seen of Medieval mental patients.
She turned and who was it but Father Lawrence. "Oh Lordy am I glad to see you," she said, leaned into his embrace. But the skin under his clothing felt hard and cold like refrigerated meat, and she screamed. He was Cold Bright. He said: "Hurry! We must save the world!"
"What do you mean, Father?"
"This avatar of the Pilotif it feels the ship is threatened, it has the power to create a nuclear explosion that would put the Earth into a deep winter for a thousand years and kill all life on itÖOne of the ways the aliens designed to efficiently kill all life so they could take over on far-away worlds. We've got to reason with the Pilot. Destroying the Burtongales and half of San Tomas is nothing compared to what it can do now that so much of it is back together."
She ran alongside him as he walked in long strides, surprising for an old man. Then again, he was Cold Bright. "How are you feeling, Father?" she asked carefully.
"ZoŽ, little dear," he said. He still wore the black suit and stola in which he had died near the Basilica that night; and carried his breviary. "I know I will not be going back. Poor Wiz, she can't accept it. Can't blame her, you know, so young and full of life. But I'm old and I've been waiting for God to take me for a long time. I can't wait to be reunited with Our Savior."
"Then there is a God?" she marveled.
"Oh yes. He is in here." Father Lawrence pointed to his heart.
"And Satan?" she asked.
He smiled. Pointed to his temple. "That's all up here." He motioned with his breviary. "Come, we have a lot to do."
She followed him along a wide corridor. Dull Warms waited on either side. It seemed people here were largely frozen in place unless interaction was needed. "You will be very happy," Father Lawrence said striding ahead.
In a great hall under hushed lights (a travel terminal? lots of people hurrying; lots of voices bubbling under the high roof) four men and a boy stepped out of the crowd. "Max!" she cried suddenly remembering.
He grinned and stretched his arms out.
"My Max!" She ran toward him.
"Mom!" his child voice piped, just this side of adolescent crackle. He was Dull Warm, and they embraced. Now she recognized the other two men, who had come with Harleigh Hale and Charlie (head intact) Best: Frank MacLemore, and Harold G. "Attila" Wilkins. All four men were Cold Bright. Frank still had that tough flavor, but he was Cold Bright and subdued. "Hello, ZoŽ. I guess maybe you're surprised."
"No, Frank, not anymore."
He gestured. "This is my boy, huh?"
"He's a fine boy. We hugged each other..."
"...Yeah, we did," Max agreed.
"...And I told him I was a damn fool to miss out on him. But one day we'll all be together." He took a deep breath and sighed. "Can't tell you how many times I've said to Mr. Best here how sorry I am about what happened."
Charlie Best brightly waved a cold hand. "Aw hang it up, Frank. You're a good poker partner now that we're all together."
"Yeah," Frank said. "We'll wait till dawn comes and blows the cigar smoke away." His eyes met ZoŽ's and she knew; Frank knew that he wasn't going anywhere but away once the party was over. "It gets boring after a while," he told her softly. "Take care."
"Dad," Max breathed anxiously.
Frank took his hand. "You hear me now, boy. You be good and do your homework and stay out of trouble, unlike your old dad here. I love you very much and do you know what?"
Max sadly shook his head.
Frank raised his hand and in its palm appeared a shiny chrome bicycle, six inches high, but modeled in perfect detail. "See this here bike? When you come back to see me, this here bike's gonna be waiting for you, life-sized. Hear?"
Max's eyes lit up.
"You got lots to do, boy, so you run along with your Momma. Say thanks to these fine gentlemen here for fixing your legs."
Max waved over his shoulder: "Thanks."
Charlie Best, Harleigh Hale, and Attila smiled and waved. Frank blew a kiss, something ZoŽ had only see him do when he was drunk.
The ground shook again. "Hurry," Father Lawrence said.
Max ran on ahead. ZoŽ yelled: "He wasn't kidding. You can really run. Oh Max we're going to have so much fun!"
"Yeah," he yelled, "I'm going get a bike. I'm going to play basketball and football and volleyball. I'm going to race Rudy and win. I'm going to do handstands and somersaults. I'm going to bounce around on the bed until... whooppeee!"
The ground quaked.
"Hurry," Father Lawrence said. He wasn't a bit out of breath. His legs were long and his stride tired ZoŽ.
"Can't we slow down?" she asked.
"No time. More things to do."
The room might have been a cocktail lounge in a fancy hotel. Maybe even in the corner of a ballroom. But nobody stood behind the amber bar; nobody to pull down a tinkling glass, slap in some ice, and pour a crackling ounce of Grand Marnier. And the furniture was all draped with heavy robes the color of fresh red lipstick. Romantic music throbbed like thick cream. The lights were dim and reddish, a sweet pinkish red like watermelon or depression glass, not a violent red like Crank's. ZoŽ burst in, not knowing...
...That Roger was dancing with someone. At first, ZoŽ saw only Roger's broad back, clad in a tuxedo. Then ZoŽ saw the Other Woman.
It took ZoŽ a moment to recognizer the Other Woman: Susan.
ZoŽ remembered the photos of Roger's smiling dead wife, her wonderful eyes, her costumes for magic shows, amid memories of Tango music and dancingÖ
Other Susan was dressed up as a magician, in a kind of feminized tuxedo with bulges in the starched shirt front, where breasts must be; a delicate waist; and a fullness in the trouser legs where a woman's hips and thighs would be. She wore a black top hat. Her blonde hair gently waved and ruffled in underwater currents.
ZoŽ stopped. Her heart pounded in her throat.
Other Susan had her arms around Roger's back (her hands were blue) and she and Roger had their eyes closed. The music swelled around them, and they clung to each other in a promise of foreverness.
Other Susan looked over Roger's shoulder. ZoŽ recognized a Cold Bright.
Roger clung to her, but Other Susan pulled away.
ZoŽ stood frozen.
Other Susan tap-danced over, waving her black wand. She threw the wand up (drum roll) and it exploded in falling kerchiefs (applause). She removed her top hat. (another drum roll) She waggled her fingers, and white birds flew out. (applause) The birds flew away melting into the ceiling. Other Susan threw the hat away melting into the wall.
Other Susan took ZoŽ in her arms and propelled her into a dance. Other Susan was surprisingly strong. ZoŽ stumbled, but Other Susan held her upright. Her grip was firm but gentle. Around and around they twirled. ZoŽ grew dreamy and put her cheek on Other Susan's shoulder, not minding the cold. Other Susan pressed her abdomen against ZoŽ's. Their venues mounds collided, and ZoŽ felt a gob of drool on her lower lip, as if she were heavily drugged or about to have an underwater orgasm.
The dance slowed.
Other Susan had ZoŽ bent over backwards. The two women's Venus mounds became one throbbing, passionate unity of pale skin and curling russet hairs, pounding with blood and sex and love. Maybe they were cosmic conjoined twins, only now meetingÖbut twins did not begetÖsoul matesÖmore than thatÖotherÖ
Other Susan leaned forward as if to kiss her. ZoŽ's mouth was open, dreamy. ZoŽ felt warm inside and watched Other Susan's mouth draw near. ZoŽ waited dreamily. An orgasm, like a bubble filled with intolerable pleasure, and attached to an underwater plant, waited to rise up and burst with utter relief.
Other Susan's bright blue mouth opened and ZoŽ thought she was going to kiss her. Other Susan's lips distended and for a moment as her cheeks grew round, ZoŽ thought Other Susan was going to throw up. Instead, an alabaster size triple-A egg popped from Other Susan's mouth. (applause) Other Susan reached up with one hand and grasped the egg. (drum roll) She jammed the egg between ZoŽ's legs, pushing it way up into her. For a minute she did something there, then pulled away (applause). ZoŽ gasped, bending over double. She felt numb and had this ache in her gut where the egg had been thrust.
Other Susan twirled away on tap-dancing feet, around Roger, who tried to catch her, then away toward the wall. Her last act was this: She stopped in mid-twirl and motioned for Roger to go over to ZoŽ. (flourishesta-daaa!applause) Roger clapped politely. Other Susan curtseyed, then vanished through the wall.
The music caught a new beat. Roger cried out: "ZoŽ! My God, I thought you were losing your mind." He clattered across the hard shiny dance floor.
ZoŽ looked down at herself. She had somehow become dressed in a white wedding gown that reached to the tips of her white calfskin pumps. She also wore elbow length white gloves, she saw as she smoothed the gown over her flat belly and appealing figure. Her boobs gleamed up at her like two vanilla ice-cream scoops, caramel nipples barely peeking, and she giggled.
"Hey," he said, impressed, "come on, let's cha-cha." He took her in his arms.
The cold went away. At opportune moments during the cha-cha, she clung to him for warmth. Not, after all, a Cold Bright; whew! "Dance me around, Roger Dodger!" The old sauce was back. Peals of laughter rained from her mouth. They did the Monster Mash, making faces at one another and dangling their arms.
Then, the music changed; a spicy, dark tango heavily laden with sexual innuendo: RRUmmm, RRumm, they went, back and forth. RRUmmm, RRumm They marched along. RRUmmm, RRumm... He stopped, and she twirled in his arms, landing with her face looking up into his. RRUmmm, RRumm...
Then they marched the other way. They stopped, slammed together, stared faces-together at the far wall. RRUmm, RRUmm...
"Were you going to leave me?" she asked.
"Yes," he said.
"Everything is going to be better now," she said.
"Yes," he said. "I was a fool. Will you still marry me?"
"Yes." They kissed, and ZoŽ felt woozy from the tips of her toes to the far diameters of her outermost curls.
"Hurry!" Father Lawrence said from the doorway. Rudy and Elisa peered around the door. "Hey Mom," Max yelled, "quit mugging with old Roger and get your ass in gear. This place is gonna blow!"
"That's mostly in movies," Father Lawrence said without much sternness in his voice. ZoŽ and Roger linked hands and ran after Father Lawrence. She noticed that now, her wedding gown was gone and she wore a sweater, jeans, and loafers. Max joined his hand with ZoŽ's and ran quite well, as though he'd been doing it for months.
BEFORE YOU GO... thought the eel.
The 'ground' sank beneath them, almost toppling Father Lawrence, who had to do a quick jig to stay upright. As if on an elevator, they sank through layer after layer of girders and lights and staring faces.
...Sank down to the true ocean floor. This was a mulmy plain broken here and there by a protruding rock. Here and there, a black vent steamed. Deep sea bottom scavengers patrolled like slow planes. A ray suddenly flapped, sending up dust. Then the ground (ship ground, not sea ground) they were standing on began to move magic-carpet fashion. It slid silently over rocks and over dropped objects (a bottle, a can, a boot, a fishing pole, a seat, a toilet ring, a child's shoe, a sunken rowboat, a bone...)...
Oh, now look at that, ZoŽ thought. A sunken wooden boat. Crusted with algae and growth. A haven for schools of silver fish like pen knives. This thing, whatever it was, must love living things; must suck them out of the sea, off the land, bring them close to itself.
NO, a voice thought, NOT QUITE.
Ahead, as the magic carpet slowed, were lights. Real lights, poking down through the iceberg remnants of White Stuff. A submersible, U-Pho, shaped like a hot dog pinned in a hamburger bun, strung with lights, hung at an angle. The Navy was getting close.
Sitting on the ocean bottom not far from the plane was an object so encrusted that it was hard to make out, but ZoŽ vaguely recognized a cat face and she suspected it was the sphinx Wallace I had dumped here over 100 years ago. U-Pho's light cone was directed on the sphinx's crusty form.
"Go on, quickly," Father Lawrence urged. "We will wait for you." He put his arms over Max, Rudy, and Elisa's shoulders.
ZoŽ and Roger stepped off (just a change in textures, a vague shading from dark green to muddy green) and were inside...what?
DEEP SPACE, the eel said somewhere.
ZoŽ and Roger were in the command room again where she'd been with Wiz. Roger looked around and shook his head with awe. The walls were straight and there were no Wallaces or Pollys in them. Just a lot of white walls and boxes and square and round shapes like in a futuristic kitchen. No, not a kitchenthe controls of a starship. The ceiling was glass. Or whatever passed for glass millions of years ago someplace far away in the galaxy. Bright crystal stars studded a black background. No twinkling here. No atmosphere outside. No ocean either.
ZoŽ realized: This was the universe, seen from the avatar Pilot's perspective. The avatar thought there was still a ship; hence this entire almost supernatural effort that had created chaos in San Tomas.
"This is the central command core of the ship, you are right," someone said, a face in the reflections within reflections in glass walls. It shifted constantly. She recognized a five-antlered jackal face like that in her dreams. It was something thin, or maybe half in another dimension. As it moved, it became invisible each time it turned its head. Then the face would turn again, and it looked like that demon again. Was she finally face to face with the creature that had reached out into her mind and stayed there, guided by her dying father's last thoughts so many years ago?
"Are you the Pilot?"
She sniffled, realizing that Daddy had thought of her as the plane hydroplaned across the surface, slowed down, and sank intact, drowning the passengers and crew. Daddy had loved her. The hole in her heart filled up with his love, and so much pain went away.
"Who are you?" ZoŽ asked the enigmatic figure that would not or could not fully reveal itself.
I am nobody. I am a shadow. I am a holographic image living inside the ship's brain.
"But the ship's brain is in pieces."
I am a piece of logic embedded in the core brain, and my time to be invoked has finally come.
"You are a thing like the eel or the sunlet?"
"You are the jackal devil?"
No. You mean the analog Pilotnow gone.
The Cold Thinggone? "How do you mean?"
The Pilot consulted me before making a decision. The logic is irreversible, made eons ago by our masters. The Pilot no longer IS, and I am in charge now.
"Then what are you?"
I Am Who Am. I am the logic of my makers. I am who they were. I am the final Am. There is no Am after me.
The ground trembled. "Don't destroy our world," ZoŽ asked, "please." Somehow, she didn't think it would. It would have a darker purpose.
There is not a lot of time, it said. I am your glimpse of the race who created this ship. We sent ships like this in all directions of the universe. Our goal was to colonize any world we could, destroying the life forms there, and putting in their place our own. Your world was such a world when we approached. Now, we cannot get away and I do not know why.
ZoŽ said: "Your ship blew up. Everything was destroyed, every living thing on board including your creator and your cargo."
That is a valid logical domain, the holo said.
"A few pieces of your computer scattered all over Africa. Some of them finally were brought together and have enough electromagnetic power to simulate a ship. But there is no ship."
All observed facts support your lemma, the holo said. It is clear we cannot accomplish our mission here. I am the final piece of logic, and now I must invoke myself.
"Why the people in comas? Why the killings in the zoo?" Roger asked.
The ship was trying to check its cargo. It reached the nearest sentient biomes.
"Why the string of heart attacks?" ZoŽ asked (remembering how the Dark Feeling had made her own poor heart beat itself virtually senseless during the attacks).
We needed samples. We were constantly sampling the creatures on the ship.
"But we're not on the ship," ZoŽ said. She was ignored.
"Why all the people dropping into comas?" Roger repeated.
The eel-metaphor has been sampling. Trying to establish which of the cargo were still alive and reachable.
"You restored my son's legs and cured him of cancer. Can you leave us a cure for cancer?" ZoŽ demanded. If they had cured Max, then surely...?
Hurry, the holo said, ignoring her; she wasn't even sure it had understood her request. You and the other living ones will be released to your sleeping bodies. It is time to terminate the ship.
"Please don't destroy our world," ZoŽ asked. Roger stood by, horrified.
We do not destroy without a purpose, said the Final Program. We will leave you, until another of our ships finds your world.
"And the Cold Brights?" ZoŽ asked with relief and curiosity and concern.
The holo shrugged, if a being vaguely reminiscent of an ant's front end could shrug. ...Their souls will go to another Authority...
The ground shook, and Roger and ZoŽ held onto each other.
ZoŽ's vision of the interior of the space ship was forever gone. She knew this, and many other things, instinctively and instantly.
Father Lawrence receded. The kids ran across the ocean bottom, without stirring up slime, and clung to Roger and ZoŽ. They five looked up and watched Cold Brights wink out one by one: Jonathan Smith. Father Lawrence (waving or blessing or both). Harleigh Hale, Charley Best, Frank MacLemore, Attila.
Moonboy, Mabel, Christopher Marlowe. Perry, Matilda. Wiz...
"Oh, look," Rudy blared.
In a glowing cave-like area, like the infirmary at the zoo, were animal Cold Brights: Adolph the Gorilla, sitting in a corner holding his head depressed, so sad; Lilly the Jaguar, curled into a ball and ZoŽ imagined Lilly's nose looked dry; Andy the Bear; Buster the Rhino, a gray shadow against the wall; where the spiders and other things were, ZoŽ could only wonder. One by one, they winked out.
The Dull Warms gathered on the ocean bottom as the ship's lights winked out one by one. An old man with brown teeth the color of peanuts was upset, asking everyone where his little granddaughter was.
"Look," Max shouted. Chains descended toward the crusted sphinx. Dowels of light from the submersible were guiding steel clamps into place. Someone, the Coast Guard, ZoŽ supposed, U-Pho, was about to raise that old sphinx...
But as she thought this, it went poof.
It quietly imploded.
It winked out of existence, disappearing from U-Pho's grappling hooks, falling down in a shower of stardust that briefly twinkled and then darkened out of existence.
ZoŽ awoke with a start. Her limbs felt numb and stiff. "Where am I?"
Jules Loomis hovered over her. "You're back. My God. I thought we'd lost all of you. Roger is babbling in the other room. You're in the hospital safe and sound, all of you."
She reached up. "Max?"
Jules's expression was unreadable, and she began to panic. Had it all been a dream? Jules shook his head, touched with a great wonder. He said: "I just saw him and Rudy and Elisa. They were laughing and trying to see who could walk the fastest without running. And I think Max was winning, only they all fell down in a pile and were laughing so loud the guard came and yelled at them. Max's legs seems completely fixed, ZoŽ."
She lay back. "Thank God." It was all worth it.
Vern LeGrier interrupted in a booming voice: "I am SO glad you guys are all back in one piece. The White Stuff is disappearing, blowing away all over town. People are waking up unharmed from their comas. This whole episode appears to be over."
ZoŽ sat up with an effort. "Good. I guess I'll go see Chatfield next door and ask if he wants to Tango."
Jules looked baffled.
"An in-joke," she said.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.