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
"Why am I doing this?" ZoŽ said wiping sweat from her forehead as she raced from one task to another: Finishing the dishes, making the beds, packing her knapsack and Max's, feeding the parrot...
Elisa and Rudy Chatfield knocked at eight-thirty. "Sorry we're late," Elisa said. She had serious, confident brown eyes and a graceful way of standing with her hands folded behind her back. Long dark hair fell over her shoulders. Rudy, blond, sturdy, a two-fisted boy, radiated agreement.
"It's okay," ZoŽ said, "we're just barely but not quite ready. Can you have your Dad come up a minute?"
"Oh let me! I'm gonna I'm gonna I'm gonna!" Rudy shouted and ran off, fists and knees pumping the air. A minute later, Roger Chatfield stood in her kitchen looking tanned and gorgeous and twirling his aviator sunglasses. "That bird," he said, "needs to get to a vet or he'll die of infection." Winky had not touched his orange. He sat in the bottom of Mrs. Abrahamson's finch cage. "He's in shock," Roger said. "Fortunately, we can get him to the best vet in town." He captured the bird, who fluttered weakly, and lifted him to his chest careful to keep the beak pointing away. "We'll stop by and leave Mr."
"Winky," ZoŽ said.
"Mr. Winky in the care of our zoo vet."
ZoŽ closed the drapes, left a light on, and locked the door. Getting away! It was exciting to be with Roger Chatfield and she felt no apprehension as she'd felt with Vic or queasy avoidance as with Howard. Chatfield marched off with broad back and sturdy legs. His legs, she noted, were tanned and had the knots of a bicyclist. What am I getting into now, she wondered, picturing herself puffing along behind him on a 50-gear turismo special. Why did women reincarnate as someone different with each man they met? Maybe he liked to read. They could reach out from arm chair to arm chair and touch toes... stop it, ZoŽ, you're slipping into delirium!
They left Winky at the zoo. The van climbed uphill on State 594, past the burned out waste that had been Harleigh Hale's bookstore.
Two military fighter jets played tag high up. "Seeing a lot of those lately," Roger said, staring after their serrated white contrails in a powder-blue sky. Sunlight flashed on their canopies as they rolled and banked, like dolphins playing in the sea.
As Roger's van puttered away from San Tomas in Roger's VW bus, ZoŽ felt a wonderful lightness come over her. For the first time in weeks, the Cold Thing was not only quiescent, it was gone. Out of range? Like a cell phone or radio thing?
She sat back with her bare feet on the dash, sipped a cola, and listened to Roger's stories. He'd been everywhere, exploring ruins in Zanzibar, collecting monkey scat in India, cataloguing parrot feathers in the Amazon, examining lemur tracks on PapeŽte.
In the back of the van was a noisy swirl of kid activity. More precisely, bruising and boisterous boy thumping and squirming. Elisa was a cool-eyed young lady, sitting calmly by the window as colors, passing through the glass, rippled over her air-brushed features.
First the mountains were just hills with potato boulders on them, the way the antediluvian sea had left them eons ago; then there were mountain table lands of green forest where the bus crawled noisily under the shade of linked tree crowns; then the desert sprawled before them like a smoky mirage done in crayon, all shades from grape to orange.
ZoŽ sighed luxuriantly. Wind lifted her hair. She wore sunglasses borrowed from Roger.
Roger had grown up in Ohio. He'd gotten his Master of Science degree in Archeology from Georgetown University. He'd dug in buried Bronze Age cities of Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Iraq. Then he'd switched from Archeology to Zoology, earning his Ph.D. from the University of Washington. There he'd met Susan Burtongale, middle child and oldest daughter of Wallace and Margery Burtongale. His face betrayed some of the loss.
"She was a beautiful woman," ZoŽ said.
"How do you know?" He thought she was jesting.
"I saw her picture on your desk that day when Perry and I"
"I remember the day. I'm surprised you would notice such a fine detail."
"I'm surprised YOU remember the day, Roger," she teased.
The VW bus clattered, like a toy, up and down hills and under tree crowns. ZoŽ looked at her reflection in windows and mirrors and gazed at a strange woman who looked as though she'd been airbrushed. Dark sunglasses, so you could not see the eyes; but one eyebrow had a quizzical or skeptic arch. A pretty face, even when plain and without makeup, changeable with mood and light, capable of making second string in three different facial beauty ads.
The stranger's face looked calm and composed, (until she saw herself and almost burst out laughing; she knew she had never actually been that studious and self-possessed).
Roger heard her snicker and half glanced toward her. "Huh?"
"I just saw my reflection. I look like some sort of nomad."
"You look nice."
In midafternoon they reached the state park.
The kids whooped with relief after the six-hour trip. ZoŽ liked being the mother figure for a carload of kids, given there was an acceptable father figure to go along with it. She took a last look at the stranger in the reflections; was it like this, she wondered, to have a husband and a family and do regular things? For the moment it felt good.
Roger parked his sunglasses atop his head and drove a few hundred feet, bouncing, very slowly, until he found a good camping space. Their space was almost completely sheltered behind bushes and tree trunks. With the bus parked crosswise at the entrance, they had an area twenty by twenty feet to themselves. In one corner was a barbecue pit and chimney of cemented blocks.
"The bushes are like walls," Elisa said deliciously, rubbing her hands and making eyes at this privacy.
"Yeah, and the outhouse is on the other end so we can smell the pines," Rudy blared. His blond hair stuck up like porcupine quills. ZoŽ noticed his shirttail always hung out no matter what he was doing. Max, only a year older, was a neater, quieter boy, but they seemed to get along.
"What can we do to help?" ZoŽ asked.
Roger said: "I'm used to the equipment and I work pretty fast by myself. Give me a half hour."
ZoŽ took the kids to the Overland Museum, which was a huge single-room log building overlooking miles of tree crowns. A woman ranger, with a gun and campaign hat, used a stuffed specimen in a corner by a potbellied stove to explain how bears hibernate. She pointed out that it was not yet winter, and to watch out for any bears that might approach campsites looking for food.
Over the faraway hills were charcoal colored clouds.
When ZoŽ and the kids returned, Roger had popped out the VW camper top. He'd opened the rear and made a shelf for food and drink, covered by a tarp on four aluminum poles. He'd set up two tents in the clearing, one near the bus and the other about fifteen feet away. The one near the bus, he said, was for ZoŽ and Max ("to be closer to the latrines"). The other tent was for himself, Elisa, and Rudy.
"I'm starved," Rudy shouted.
They grilled up some hot dogs, hamburgers, and baking potatoes. Working together at the barbecue, Roger and ZoŽ had Another One of Those (Wonderful)(Scary)(Melting Together) Looks.
The wind grew brisk, and rocks had to be placed on napkins.
They all ate hungrily.
"I fobot how womerfum hamburbums ban tafte outdorf," ZoŽ said.
"UUmmmm," Roger agreed, nodding toward the dark clouds approaching. Pine boughs swished back and forth. The air got cool and damp. It got real foggy and scary so the kids huddled in blankets in ZoŽ's tent and giggled.
"What if a bear comes?" ZoŽ asked him.
"We zip up the tents and hope for the best."
"Oh Daddy!" Elisa cried flying into his arms.
Max and Rudy each took a crutch and made fencing motions.
"Not to worry," Roger told Elisa. "These bears only look for people with out of state license plates. It's a matter of professional courtesy from the bears." He released Elisa. "Ready for the Last Roundup?"
"What's that?" Max asked.
"I escort the whole crew to the potties and after that it's lights out."
They had two oil lanterns between the five of them. Roger carried one, ZoŽ the other. The two lanterns glowed in the fog. The kids giggled, clutching their towels and toilet kits tight.
Elisa was very precise about her pretty teeth, and now she seemed extra introspective. "ZoŽ..."
"Hmm?" ZoŽ brushed, and had a mouthful of mint foam.
"...You like my Daddy, don't you?"
Elisa rinsed her brush at the coldwater tap. "I think you and Max are very nice. Daddy was friends with a lady. She wasn't very nice to me and Rudy, and she broke Daddy's heart for a while there. You won't hurt him, will you?"
ZoŽ spat out. Sucked in a handful of cold water. Gargled. "Elisa, I like your Daddy a lot but we only just met and..."
But Elisa had run out into the night.
There was a lantern in the fog.
"Hurray, it's you." She gave him a squeeze. "It's nice to know you're out there with your lantern."
He squeezed back. "Like your lantern too."
They clinked the lanterns together like champagne glasses.
Elisa's face hovered concernedly on the other side of Roger, her big dark eyes sweeping over ZoŽ still brimming with that question.
Rudy and Max came out of the men's room. Rudy was flipping his soap dish repeatedly in the air and catching it. Max trod carefully through the smelly puddles outside the john so as not to slip a crutch tip.
"Captain Colorado!" Rudy yelled and ran in circles around the group.
"Mom," Max said when they were alone in their tent, "are you going to go out with this guy?"
Time for honesty. "Maybe." She waited for an answer while the pine boughs dripped in the fog. The tent was zipped up from the inside and the heater made it toasty. ZoŽ and Max occupied sleeping bags head to toe with a space in between for their folded up clothes.
"He seems okay," Max said.
"I think he might be," ZoŽ said.
"We can get free tickets to the zoo while it lasts," Max said.
ZoŽ was dreaming, in her mummy bag, about a library.
A nice big stuffy library with rows and rows and rows of books. Outside it was snowing. Yes. A cozy picture with a mellow little porch light far off in snow among trees. Something frightening outside, but Roger was there to protect her... She heard a faint noise, like tin banging on stone. The endless vistas of books disappeared with a frightened poof. Max snored thickly. Ever since she'd become a mother, she had been wired to his sleeping, tuned in to his every snore and whimper while asleep, and she could tell he was okay.
There, that noise again. A tinkling sound.
She sat up and groped for the flashlight. What if it was a bear? She made an opening just big enough to peer outside. A faint glow came out of the fog on the far side of the bus. She must get Roger...
...but by the time she was out of the tent, wrapped in a blanket and listening, she heard him whistling softly. She smelled burning coal.
She walked to his tent and peered in. Two heads, two snores, two kids fast asleep. No Roger.
She walked around the van. "Roger?"
He sat with his back to the van, tending a small firea handful of coals between three stones. He looked outdoorish and quite comfortable. He grinned. "Hey, I thought you were fast asleep." How handsome he looked with the firelight playing on his chiseled features and white teeth.
"You woke me."
He rose, threw away the twig he'd been bending, and approached her. She clutched her blanket tightly around herself. "Good," he said, took her in his arms, and kissed her. She drank in the feel and the taste of his mouth like a thirsty person takes in fresh water. She could not get enough. She let the blanket fall away as she reached up to pass her arms over his shoulders and pull herself closer to him while their mouths worked thirstily together. She moaned lightly and hoped with part of her mind that the kids would not hear and with the other part of her mind that this would never end. Just her, and him, and the little fire, and the world full of fog.
"Tea," he said as they sat together and watched the little pot, waiting for the water to boil over the stones. "Darjeeling, with that like orange zing to it."
"Just the right thing at a moment like this," she agreed. They sat close together under her blanket. She kissed his neck. "This is a very nice moment."
He squeezed her close to him. "Very nice. Maybe once in a lifetime. I mean we can go camping again, but who would guarantee we'd have another fog like this?"
She unbuttoned two of his shirt buttons and rubbed her fingertips on his chest. "We could try a bunch of times. Law of averages says we might get a nice big rainstorm."
"Naw, we'd have to stay in our tent. No fun."
"No fun," she agreed pulling his chest hairs.
"It might be cozy," said with a tone that suggested if he could he would stand up and overturn the tubs of heaven to shower her with any kind of weather she desired.
"I like the fog," she murmured. "Thanks, Roger."
"Water's about ready," he said. He threw in a metal ball.
"One of those gadgets," she commented.
"Tea infuser," he said.
"I thought you were just going to toss in a tea bag like I would have."
"Naw. Gotta do some things right. I learned to drink tea from the Jordanians, and they learned it from the Brits. Let that stuff steep 'til it's good and dark. Then you got yourself a cup of tea."
"I'm going to go right out," she said, "and buy several infusers. And throw my tea bags away."
They listened to the tea water bubble and looked into the fog hoping maybe what? to glimpse a star? He patted her knee, put his arm around her. "You know what I have in my desk drawer?"
She shook her head. "An elephant gun?"
He gripped her hair and shook gently. "Do you know that when you laugh sometimes you sort of tinkle like a chime?"
She said, "I didn't know you were so what is it, romantic. When I first met you, you seemed stuffy."
"That's my official Burtongale persona." He rose, stuck a hand in where she'd undone the shirt buttons, and offered a Napoleonic pose. He said in a thick Wienerwald accent: "Zere is nozzink, nozzink, nozzink atoll happening in our zoo."
"Roger?" she started at the sound of an engine.
He sat back down and poured tea into his cup. "Ummm?" He sipped, grimacing, then offered it to her.
"Thanks, I'll wait 'til it's cooler." She listened intently.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
She shivered, pulling the blanket close. She heard the engine clearly now. A pair of headlights swelled up in the fog. A boxy looking vehicle drew neara van. She cried out.
High beams exploded, showering them with light. A van bumper glimmered sullenly.
"Hey!" Roger shouted, waving. "Get that light off of us!"
ZoŽ felt paralyzed. The van. The one with the zoo sticker? She couldn't tell.
"Hey!" Roger repeated.
The high beams flicked off. A pair of yellowish low beams glared at them a moment longer. There was a crunch of gears, and the van slowly backed off. Somewhere, it turned and was driven off.
"Hey, you're shivering," Roger said.
"I'm jumpy. I'm sorry," she said.
"Relax," he said, cupping her face in his hands.
Her teeth chattered. "I'm okay now. What was it you keep in your desk?"
"Ever since Susan's death," he said, "I've kept my resume in the middle top drawer. I keep it updated and ready to send out, complete with references, lists of things I've published, excerpts, and so on. It's in ten copies so far, stamped, addressed to my favorite ten universities, and ready to send. All I have to do is walk to the mailbox and my life changes."
"I bet they'll all want to hire you in a second."
"Well, it's pretty competitive, but I have strong credentials."
"To run another zoo?"
He shook his head. "Never again. This has been nice, but I've thought of going back to digging." He handed her the cup. "Then I keep thinking of the kids, and I think I'll just take a teaching position somewhere."
"That could be fun." She sipped her tea. "Ow-wow-wowwie, that's hot and bitter."
"You should see your face. Sorry, I wasn't thinking. I can go get you some sugar."
She imagined her tongue would steam for ten more minutes. "I'll pass. I probably couldn't sleep after a few teaspoons of that."
"You'd be surprised. You could drink ten cups of coffee and this air would put you under like a narcotic. You look scared. Do I do this to you?"
She shook her head. "Don't mind me. " She did not want to spoil the moment with explanations. "But you sure do help me relax."
"Let's relax over our tea," he said.
She slipped close. "Would you do something for me?"
She murmured: "Please hold me."
He held her tightly. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against his chest. She slipped her arms around him and held on. It was the first time in wow-how-long that she just felt utterly safe and at ease and happy in a man's arms without wanting to push away.
He kissed what he could reach of her face, brushing curls from her forehead.
Resting an elbow on his lap, she reached up with the other hand and pulled his head close to kiss him.
He set the tea aside. "Have I passed some sort of screening?"
She toppled him over backwards and sat on his chest. "Roger, you are a fine specimen of a man. I want your best kiss, and then I've got to get in and go to sleep or I'll die all day tomorrow. And you'd better get your rest too." She gripped his lapels in her fists while he looked up at her. She bent close, letting her breath warm his face. "I warn you though, Roger Chatfield." She brushed his lips with hers. "I have been a woman denied too long."
The next morning, ZoŽ and Max both slept late.
A burst of sunlight exploded in her face.
Rudy blared: "Hey, get up, Dad says it's almost lunch time."
"Tell him I said his middle name is Hitler," ZoŽ said. "Now close that flap before I bite your arm off."
Zip went the flap. Darkness returned.
"Mom," Max groaned.
"Hi ho," she said rubbing her eyes.
"I think they put something in those pine needles. I feel like I was drugged."
She turned over and positioned herself to crawl out of the sleeping bag and out of the tent. "It's called oxygen. You learned all about it in school. Eighth element on the periodic table."
Max yawned and rubbed his eyes. "I slept too long."
ZoŽ unzipped the opening. "Rudy!" she called.
Rudy stood like a hesitant squirrel out of reach.
"I was just kidding," she said. "I won't bite your arm off. Come here."
"What's for lunch."
"Deer meat," he said.
ZoŽ frowned. Was it possible? Had that incredible man gone hunting already and bagged something? In a state park? Oh lord, there probably DID have to be something wrong with him. "Isn't that poaching?" she asked.
"No," Rudy said, "we buy a season ticket."
"You mean permit."
"What if I don't like deer meat?" She feared to offend.
Rudy shrugged. "Well, there's always frozen hamburger patties."
Boots came crashing close. "ZoŽ? Are you two finally awake in there? It's ten thirty." Roger wore his chef hat and chef apron. He held a pot holder in one hand and a frozen patty in the other. "How do you want your burgers? With bacon or..."
"Ha ha ha!" Rudy yelled and ran off.
"What's gotten into him?" Roger asked.
She rolled her face on her arms, then looked up. "He had me going that you went out and poached a deer and we were having it for lunch."
Roger looked puzzled. "But I did. We are."
She stared at him.
She threw her pillow at him and he ran off and she chased him. "You're full of it, Roger Chatfield! Full of it!"
It felt good to holler a little. She stamped about and unkinked her back. Seeing Rudy peer from behind bushes, she called: "Okay, Rudy, you can come out. Good joke."
He stepped out, and ZoŽ tucked his shirt tail in for him. Elisa, who was doing place settings at the table, said: "Rudy go wash your hands. You too, Max. Go on."
ZoŽ turned and saw that Max had emerged and was standing with one crutch, scratching his head and yawning. "Go on," she told her son, "wash up. Eating will clear your head."
Sunshine dappled the grove of trees. A blaring boom box marred the perfection, but was driven away after a minute or two. Butterflies chased along the wind-driven flowers. Leaves rustled and whispered all around. Birds warbled. The air grew warm and dry, smelling of grass.
The kids went for a hike.
"I was afraid about hiking..." ZoŽ said.
Roger put his hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry. Rudy will run off and be inconsiderate, but Elisa will match Max's pace and they won't go far. I drilled her."
"Thanks. Just watch out. He'll get mad if he thinks you're doing him favors."
"Kinda like his Mom, huh?" After a glance over his shoulder, he took her in his arms. "Another stolen moment alone."
She stood on tiptoes, wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, and French-kissed him. As she did so she squirmed and pressed her breasts against his chest.
He breathed thickly and said in surprise: "No bra." He reached down and touched. His fingers felt sensuous and her nipples felt raw and aroused.
"Surprise." She'd known that sometime that day, his fingers would brush against her. That she would let him.
He said: "I want to kiss those very slowly, very carefully, and very very sensuously."
She touched his nose. "I can hardly wait. But not on this trip, Roger."
They sat down on a high rock with the blue expanse of a lake spread before them and the kids were crashing around somewhere below in the woods, but they held hands and looked into each other's eyes. "Ever since Susan died," he said, "I've wanted to pull out of that Burtongale crowd. Oh, but the job, and then the kids... You know my biggest fear is that Miss Polly would sue me for custody of the kids and somehow win. I know it sounds crazy but those people have a lot of power all the way to the state house and the courts, and you never know. I couldn't give them up."
ZoŽ said: "I know what you mean. I nearly lost Max and I would die if anything ever happened to him."
"I'm glad he's okay now," Roger said. "He's a wonderful boy."
"Your kids are really neat too," ZoŽ said. "Rudy looks like he can be a handful." She remembered how he'd let her tuck his shirt in. "But he can be managed."
Roger nodded. "ZoŽ, this is all a dream. I'm going to wake up and it's going to have been nothing more than a nap at my desk. Wallace Burtongale will come in like a big blowfrog and announce that he's tired and going home early like he does every day lately."
"Ha, ha. So that's what you think of your boss. Well Mart Willow must be Wallace's good buddy."
"They are," Roger said. "Mart is married to Miss Polly's daughter Janine, who is a surprisingly decent sort."
"I heard Wallace's wife died a long time ago."
He nodded. "There are some weird stories about her, but that's before my time. You cannot get an honest answer about the Burtongales."
"Have you had much to do with Gilbert?"
There was a flash of annoyance in his eyes. "That stupid..." but he was unable to finish his sentence.
Rudy, Max, and Elisa stood in a line watching them, eyes trained like guns on a brigantine.
Roger continued to hold ZoŽ's hands in his. "Come on over, kids," he called. "They might as well know," he whispered.
ZoŽ's heart beat thickly. She tried to kid, but her voice was a stammer: "What, that we are holding hands?"
They yelled "Yay!" and climbed on the rock and piled on Roger and ZoŽ. Elisa hugged ZoŽ and kissed her on the cheek. A lingering toothpasty glance reminded ZoŽ: (Don't hurt him, okay?) and ZoŽ held the girl tightly.
In the late afternoon, the air cloudy and gray, they drove along the coast singing songs the kids all knew from videos, and the parents by osmosis. The sun lingered thinly. The sky was a mother of pearl color. Sea gulls squeaked like rusty winches. The wind smelled of rain and fish.
At one point she said: "There's something in the air down in San Tomas. Something..."
Rain drops formed on the windshield. His gaze was distant. "You know we lost that jaguar the other week. And you read about Adolph, right?"
"Yes, the gorilla."
"We lost a white rhino called Buster the other night. We found him keeled over dead as a stone the other morning in his enclosure. No obvious cause of death. Probably massive heart failure, same as the others."
"What's going on at the zoo?"
"Nozzink, nozzink. Seriously, if there's a story, I'll give it to you."
"That's okay but Miss Polly will quash it."
As the van tooled downhill, past the charred bookstore, night fell, and lights floated like lost ships in the rain. Drains overflowed with water, and waves moved across gutters.
Roger and the kids dropped ZoŽ and Max off at the apartment complex. ZoŽ hugged Rudy and Elisa. ZoŽ stretched out to kiss Roger. He whispered: "I'll call you."
"I'll be waiting," she whispered back.
The Cold Thing was back. She could feel it. But it was asleep. Or busy. Bumping heads gently, playfully with Elisa, she lowered herself from the bus. Max was already unlocking the apartment door. She waved without turning back and heard the bus chatter away into the night.
"Did you have a good time?" ZoŽ asked rubbing Max's hair.
"Yeah. Moooom, please! Stop that."
She wandered into the kitchen and started putting away odds and ends. "I think," she said, "we'll make the bottom of the hall closet our camping closet. What do you think?"
He shook out his socks.
"Not on the rug!" she yelled.
He balled them up and tossed them toward the bathroom. On a good day, with the door open and the door under the sink ajar, he could land small objects in the laundry basket from his room. "Are we going to be doing a lot of camping?"
She sensed his drift. "Well, we could also put our emergency stuff in there. You know, civil defense."
"Mom, I saw a movie where these people are wandering around in rags after the world is destroyed. We could get ready for that. But do we have guns, or do we just rob them from stores after the end of the world?"
"Take a bath and get ready for school tomorrow!"
"Are we going to go camping again?" he shouted from the bathroom.
"YES!" she hollered back. Yes, I'd really love to.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.