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
Above the zoo, the full moon glided like a ship with tattered cloud sails. A ship on fire.
Perry Stein unloaded the buffer with extra care outside the lesser rotunda of Admin 1 & 2. Beside him Matilda sniggered.
"What's the matter, honey?" he asked.
She flicked a dust pad. "I always giggle when I feel creepy."
Perry stopped and took off his glasses. He carefully wiped each of the small lenses on his shirt tail. Then he replaced the glasses on his nose and stepped to the edge of the cone of light thrown from the lesser rotunda. "You're right," he said, "I can't think of a creepier place at night than a zoo." As if in answer, several low, full sounds echoed through the trees from someplace deep.
He stared up into the black tree crowns and swallowed hard. Yellow light glittered on his glasses. Some of the sounds, Perry could have sworn, were not of this earth.
High on a ridge separating the Jungle from the zoo, two shadowy figures dug silently. Their arms moved rapidly and their rags fluttered. Inches away, the alarm-rigged fence hummed electrically. The two men worked fast, ducking out of sight each time the guard jeep passed on the access road just inside the zoo. Moonboy gripped Christopher Marlow's arm. "Be careful, unnerstan'?" Moonboy's single eye stared with the same singularity as the moon above, sharing a lunatic light.
Christopher Marlow shook his blond hair and a smile opened a crack in his youthful beard stubble. "We'll all be eating pig tonight, bro."
Moonboy cackled and clapped Christopher Marlow's shoulders. "You watch the boar, is what I tell you. The she boar be sleeping around her young. She be surprisin' quiet, you hear? You don' hear her until she be runnin you down and THEN boy do you hear all manner of snorting and yelling!"
"I'll be careful," Marlow said. He lay on his back and held his breath. The corded sinew in his abs tightened, glistened. In a moment, in a heartbeat, he was inside the zoo without having touched the fence.
"Walk true!" Moonboy whispered after him.
"Oink oink," Marlow said. But Moonboy had disappeared. The ridge curved empty in the moonlight.
While Perry spread paste wax on the central floor, Matilda opened Dr. Burtongale's office and nearly dropped her duster.
"Come in," said a kindly voice.
Matilda clutched the duster to her full bosom. "You nearly scared me to death." She felt Perry's reassuring presence right behind her; he always hovered close by to protect her, especially here.
"I'm Dr. Burtongale," the old man said removing his glasses. "I hope I'm not in your way."
"Oh no," she said, "I'll be in and out before you know it. Say, you're working late, aren't you?"
"That makes two of us."
His dark shadow fell before the pagoda, and the 300 pound gorilla sniffed curiously. He easily sorted through the dozens of smells, everything from the feather of the emu to the horns of the wildebeest, the leaves of the oleander to the berries of the chinaberry tree, the penetrating urine of the flamingos to the pond scum of the Southern Malaysian Duck. What he had come to find was not near yet. But was coming. And would be soon. He raised cupped hands and tapped them lightly under his breasts in anticipation.
Two other hulking shapes joined him. They loomed with silent, efficient menace on the open street near the pagoda. At the sound of an approaching guard jeep they melted away into the forest, then reassembled as the jeep's exhaust faded. They continued to stand on all fours, waiting. One of them had found a baseball bat, which he rested on the ground in a grip relaxed but ready. What they wanted was coming. Their special sense told them so.
Chris Marlow paused often. He had thought this would be simpler, but then what in life was? Was this really any different from breaking into an office building and trying to outwit the prowling guards along miles of shiny waxed corridors? Buildings tended to be full of weird noises too, like things flapping suddenly that made you jump but turned out to be the wind in a fan blade.
Why should this be different? He slid down an embankment making leaves crash softly. He waited and listened. Tiny hooves pattered away. A feathered thing shifted, fluttering, in its sleep. A hunting owl hooted. He stole along the edge of the road, ready to duck for cover if anyone came. He hoped there were no foot guards, or if there were, that they had loud feet.
"Thank you," Matilda said, pulling the door shut.
"Thank you," echoed Dr. Burtongale, removing his glasses and then putting them back on as the door closed.
"I'm done, darling," Matilda sang. "Perry?" She stopped and frowned. Small things dropped, acorn by acorn, on the roof. The air in the rotunda rustled as though spirits were chasing one another in the darkness under the ceiling. Mural-bound dinosaurs flashed wicked teeth and stalked forward with raised claws.
"Perry?" she wailed, dropping her duster.
In his office, Wallace Burtongale put his glasses down and rubbed his eyes. The grandfather clock chimed eleven drawn out 'dong's, and then ended with one deep, melodious Big Ben note, which lingered in shadowy corridors. It was midnight. Wallace sat back in his plush, high-backed leather chair and placed his hands on the arm rests. He closed his eyes and listened. The clock ticked, and its well-made machinery turned in its lubricated bed. The silence in the room was so profound that Wallace could hear the gear wheels inside the clock, magnified by the priceless hard West African Ash from which its cabinet had been made a hundred years earlier. He heard the tiny collisions of gear teeth, with no more force than a fly's wings beating together, and then the oily smack as the gear teeth separated again to make another full circle and touch again.
His breathing became long and shallow, as though he were asleep. But this was not sleep. He turned his unseeing face up as if to hear above the microscopic racket inside the clock cabinet. His mouth became pursed and harsh. There were terrible shadows inside his eye sockets. His fingers gripped the arm rests. His breathing became part of the machinery of the room.
The three gorillas began silently to move.
Their shadows and the shadowy bodies throwing the shadows danced indistinguishably under the chill bluish light near the pagoda. They made only two sounds, both so faint as to be almost indistinguishable from the general sounds of the zoo at night. One was the click of a rolling pebble here or there as a calloused palm or a carefully bent finger displaced it. The other sound was an occasional soft cherrywood boing as the baseball bat bounced lightly against the road surface.
Chris Marlow listened to the subtle sounds of the zoo and felt his spine shiver as though dead fingers had strummed a harp. Each time he passed a habitat, and its unseen occupants snorted or shlushed or snarled in their sleep, his heart nearly gave out. He was bathed in sweat. This was a little different maybe, he reflected after all. In an office building, no matter how unsuperstitious you were, every creak, every bang, every rattle immediately became a movement of evil spirits. But then you got whatever you were after, and once you hit the pavement outside among cars and people and flashing neon lights, you could laugh about it. Here, the noises were really made by things that could tear you apart and eat you in seconds. All that separated you from them was a shallow moat and a flimsy steel railing.
Some of the unseen animals were small. Others were not.
His heart nearly stopped when he stepped so close by a hippo that he felt its hot breath on his cheek. He had startled it in its sleep and it bounded up. Its breath shot a stink like rotten vegetables and hot runny shit. As Chris Marlow stood frozen, its heavy footpads danced about and made the ground shake. Chris was still trembling after the hippo had stopped running about.
Not much farther now. The boar compound was several enclosures further up on the right. Chris Marlow reached into his raggedy jacket and pulled out, foot by foot, the rope.
"Hi Baby," Perry grinned.
She closed her eyes and let out a breath. "Perry my sugar, you don't know how scared I've been wondering if anything happened to you."
"Now, now..." He took her in his arms, relishing the bigness, the softness of her, her faintly sour female sweat smell and the waxy smell of lipstick on her smooth young face.
"I was just straightening all the kinks in the buffer cord, three hundred feet of it, using the whole parking lot outside.
She pressed her cheek against his. "Always tell me when you're going outside, okay?"
"Don't be scared. Guards are all over the place."
Chris Marlow wasn't sure if he saw them first or if they saw him first: three huge guys, one of them with a nightstick or a bat or something.
Chris ducked into the bushes. His heart was beating so hard it seemed to lunge against his ribs, like an animal trying to escape a cage. He held his hands to his sore chest and looked out over the bush.
There were he could not see properly in the weird light. How many? Three? Two?
Why were they not moving? Had they seen something? Were they waiting for other guards? They looked funny, like guys dressed in gorilla suits. What was this, a joke? Maybe a fraternity prank. Sure, an initiation.
Silence. Their heads and necks loomed darkly against the moonlight, and Chris began to get the feeling that they were not part of a prank. There was no giggling or shoving. Whoever these guys were, they were about serious business.
One of them was looking directly at Chris.
Hey, it was one thing when these guys were across the moat and behind bars. It was another thing when they were right there in the street with you.
No, it couldn't be. There must be guards around. Or maybe these were the guards and he wasn't seeing their uniforms right in the light. Sure, they were wearing football ponchos like those huge linebackers sitting on the bench on a rainy afternoon. That was it.
He cleared his throat. "Okay, I give up." Man give me a warm fucking jail cell. And some thick bars. I love it. "I'm in here. I don't have no weapons." He threw the rope out.
The shape had not moved. Eyes glittered intently.
"Jesus Christ, man, don't look at me that way." His lips beat against each other as he began to blubber. His pants got warm and wet as he peed all over himself. "Please..." he wailed and held his hands over his ears. "Please..." He stood like a small boy waiting for his irrational mommy to come and beat him like she did so often when she was drunk. Why, mommy? why? what did I do? I promise I promise I'll never do it again oh please...but mommy never backed off from a good beating. She would always stop yelling and have a look of concentration, lower teeth gripping upper lip. The strap would fall again and again and again on his naked skin, and his wails and the whipping leather would be the only sounds in his terror. "Oh please," he blubbered. He stood naked and had shit himself. Shame, shame, shame. The warm stinky oozed down his baby thighs and patter pattered on his bruised toes.
They moved now, hulking forms, lacking humor. Their mouths were open, revealing sharp white teeth, tusked incisors. Run? They were coming from three sides.
He was frozen with terror. No, mommy, no no no!
Poopy on the floor. Bad, bad!
They were all business, walking on their fours. Hairy fingers curled on the street. Knuckle, foot, knuckle, a determined rhythm. Boing, boing rang the bat softly, bouncing on the street.
You stinking little fucking son of a rat bitch. I'll kill your grimy ass if your father doesn't kill you first.
No, no, he cried. I promise. Promise. Promise.
But she never stopped when it came to this moment. The bat went up. The fists went up. He held his ears and screamed, hot tears trickling down his cheeks. He remembered nobody ever came to help him, but he screamed anyway.
"Did you hear that?"
Matilda and Perry stopped and looked at each other. His impulse was to run out and see who or what had made that sound.
In his office, Wallace Burtongale's eyes flew open. Therethe sign that it was over. He rose and with a shaky hand used a handkerchief to wipe sweat from his forehead.
He opened a desk drawer and removed a small computer. He closed the drawer and let himself out of the office.
"I must have been crazy to bring you here," Perry said.
An office door opened, and they started. Dr. Burtongale walked out and locked the door. He carried a briefcase or something. "Good night," he said pleasantly without looking at them. His face wore a distant, eager look.
"Good night," Perry and Matilda echoed.
"Did you see the look on his face?" Matilda whispered.
Perry stepped to the door and looked out. The zoo was oddly silent, as though all its denizens were either dead asleep or else deadly alert and listening for danger.
"Close the door," Matilda's voice shivered behind him.
Wallace Burtongale walked through the security lot. He nodded to a young night watchman, who nodded back. "Just heard a scream," the night watchman said.
Wallace smiled at him. "You must be new here."
The man muttered: "Two years. But you don't never get used to the sounds they make out there."
Wallace found the particular green and tan golf cart that was his favorite. Placing the computer on the seat beside him, he drove off. He stopped at the old pagoda-shaped utility house. The light played ripples on his face as though he were under water. His expression was eager. His eyes were big. His teeth showed in a hungry humorless grin. He unlocked the door to the Pagoda. His grin faded before he could enter.
WE ARE REPAIRING THE SHIP, the Pilot said. YOU WILL SEE, WALLACE, WHAT A GREAT THING.....
"You can take me," Wallace said. "Let my son go."
YOUR SON IS PART OF THE PRICE.
"No! It has to end here. Take my mind, what's left of it. Like you've taken generations of us. Let Gilbert go."
GIVE ME WHAT YOU HAVE BROUGHT, the Pilot said greedily.
"Yes." He knew he would not be where he was in life were it not for the Pilot. He thought of his father, dying insane between padded walls in the Burtongale mansion. He thought of his son's wasted life. He thought of his own coming depression and insanity, the fate of each Burtongale heir.
Wallace set down the computer. His footsteps crackled on the hundred year old tile floor. He flicked on a light, but the bulb popped and darkness once again shrouded the claustrophobic interior. No matter. A shaft of moonlight leaned inside, lending a metallic light. Oil tank, generator, gas turbine, wall meters, gadgets bulked all around as he put the computer down in the middle of the moonbeam. He unzipped its cover and popped up the display window. The internal disk drive hummed like a tiny toy, and a bluish light glowed from the window. The system display came on:
Wallace closed and padlocked the door. Then he drove down the road. The first thing he saw was the baseball bat. It was slimy with clotted blood and stray hairs. Wallace removed the hose from the back of the cart and found a faucet by the side of the road. First he washed down the bat. He threw the bat into the back of the cart. Then he began to wash down the gore.
"Hello, Father," said Gilbert behind him.
Someone DID come to help Christopher Marlowe.
He was walking along a corridor toward the sea, and nothing made sense, but then had anything ever?
"You look sad," said a bright blue woman offering her hand.
"Are you an angel?" he asked, taking her hand which was chilly but firm.
"No," she said in a mixture of sadness and relief. "My name is Jane Callahan. My suffering is over, and I take it yours is too."
"Are we going to the Good Place?" Christopher asked.
She shook her head and smiled quizzically.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.