Admission chapter 1
Every day after school, I go to visit my parents in the zoo. They used to work there, but now they’re behind glass. There’s a sign that says “Please Don’t Knock on the Glass,” referring to the glass in front of my parents. Even so, I jam all my things into my backpack every day after geometry class and go to the main entrance where I get to skip The Line.
Skipping The Line is a big deal because it’s literally a couple days long. The people at the back can’t see the entrance to the Interstellar Zoo at all, but they’re waiting out there with their children and their parents and even their grandparents. Unshaven backpackers, honeymooners and little families, all taking one step forward together every few minutes, hundreds of times a day, thinking about the moment when they get to buy their tickets and take the final step inside. Most of them say it’s worth it.
I follow the winding corridor as it twists its way from the docks, lined with bathrooms, couches, coffee shops, gift stores, and even hotels. People watch me just to make sure the fat kid isn’t cutting, but once I reach the entrance to the zoo, I don’t go to the ticket booths. I go to a side door all the way to the left that is almost invisible. Nobody at the front of the line could care less what I’m doing. They’re so close to getting inside that they can feel the warmth of the bright lights on their faces. They can see the sign—a liquid-gold plaque fifty feet high and twice as long suspended over their heads, rippling with the shapes of tails and mouths and talons that take turns threatening to break through the metallic surface only to fall back and disappear to make room for the impression of another creature’s phantom limb. Here, The Line divides to feed dozens of waiting ticket booths and the air is filled with a chorus of soft bells, each tolling a happy guest’s exit, making room for one more.
Of course, The Line isn’t really a line—it’s actually a circle of guests kept glued to the floor by the centrifugal force of the ring’s spin around the axis of the station. From a shuttle on a docking approach with the zoo, the IZ is first visible as a streak amongst the stars, like a scratch in the universe. As you get closer, the scratch thickens and emerges from the dark as a long cylinder made up of hundreds of stacked disks. The disks are each circular halls of the zoo, spinning together in orbit around Earth, each generating its own unique gravitational field for the human and alien life inside. The IZ is the largest thing ever built. There were plans to build the zoo more cheaply on one of the nine colonized planets, but once an Equivian group flooded the net with horrifyingly graphic videos of Bone Roaches and Devil Rats, the fear of species contamination got so bad that the Order of Thinking Worlds wouldn’t touch an inhabited planet.
Still, as soon as the courts ruled a company could own an alien species and claim sole rights to its DNA, the investors started drooling. They had to make room. Scientists skipping through the galaxy were all reporting the same, incredible thing: life was everywhere. And it was all for sale. Now the IZ is the most diverse collection of biological material every assembled in the history of the universe, and labs throughout the zoo work around the clock uncovering the secrets of the specimens inside. They chart Expanding Frog growth rates, dissect Crystal Butterflies, and record the subterranean songs of Black Choral Moles. Scientists use the information they collect to invent new medicines and commercial products. They say that every sixty seconds a lab within the Zoo makes a breakthrough worth a small fortune, making the IZ the center of scientific progress in the known galaxy. The hundreds of companies that own zoo laboratories pay the real money to keep the “Temple of Life” going.
I swipe my pass with my name, Jonah Speke, etched above a picture of a soft face, topped by wavy brown hair and split by a long, slightly crooked, allergy-plagued nose that my parents always told me had “character.” The door clicks open, and once inside, I quickly make my way along a passageway that looks nothing like the IZ’s grand entrance. Multicolored pipes and wires line the walls and my feet bang along rough, metal grating until I reach the Staff Tube. A bright orange door slides open and I step inside the pod that will carry me inwards, along a spoke towards the Main Tube at the center of the ring. As the pod picks up speed, moving away from the artificial gravity created by the IZ’s relentless spin, I feel my body growing lighter. I reach for a hand grip to anchor myself as I drift off the floor. When the pod finally hisses to a stop, I’m completely weightless, and I know I’ve connected with the Main Tube—the central artery of the zoo that will transport me, along all the other visitors, lengthwise along the station, moving between the various ringed halls of the IZ. Here, at the zoo’s heart, everything’s weightless, and my pod slips effortlessly down its veins towards Mom and Dad.
They keep my parents in the Dormant Carnivorous Serpent Hall. It’s a popular hall, because of the “carnivorous” and the “serpent” parts, but people usually leave disappointed. They read the title and rush off thinking huge, slithering, razor-fanged snakes sound cool, and they’re right about everything but the slithering part. There are plenty of huge snakes with sharp teeth, but they almost never slither. DCS’s sleep almost their entire lives. Almost. Some of them spend less than a thousandth of their adult lives awake. I watch people pass by the first few exhibits, marveling at the sizes, shapes and colors of the serpents. They point at the Moon Constrictor sleeping just beneath a fine layer of sand. Their eyes widen when they see the ghostly form of the Carbon Serpent resting in mid-air. They take a step backwards at the sight of the towering Pyramid-Coil Fire Snake puffing clouds of smoke from its eight nostrils as it dreams. But, eventually, they begin to understand the “dormant” part and start shouting at the snakes. They knock on the glass, even though there are signs everywhere saying “Please Don’t Knock on the Glass.” They open their digital maps and see that only right next door is the regular Carnivorous Serpents Hall, where snakes just as impressive are wide awake slithering properly, and they push each other towards the EXIT sign.
For this reason, and because my parents’ exhibit is one of the last exhibits in the hall, by the time I reach them, I’m almost always alone.
My mother and father are—were—collectors for the zoo. BioPharm paid them to travel to the most exotic star systems searching for new forms of animal life. Until the “accident,” I used to think they had the best job in the galaxy.
You can read most of what happened to my parents on the plaque just under their feet. I have read the Giant Cocooning Snake’s sign thousands of times. I know it by heart, and sometimes I catch myself reciting it under my breath at school. After anybody else reads the sign, they almost always look up at my parents and say, “Gross.”
When I sit down on the bench across the hall facing their exhibit, I feel heavy. This is partly because I’m fat, and partly because the DCS Hall spins at a higher rate than most of the zoo’s rings to reproduce the gravitational field of a larger planet. I use the sleeve of my sweatshirt to rub greasy fingerprints off of the glass, take my lunch out of my backpack and eat it while watching my parents.
They lie next to each other, propped up at an odd angle against the wall of the snake’s nest, which is about five feet tall, but has been cut cross-section so that visitors can see inside. One more cocoon stands beside Dad’s. Wrapped so think in slime that he’s nothing but a shadow, lies the hazy outline of Dennis Emerik, one of my parents’ unlucky assistants. All three of them were surprised by the snake before the rest of their crew could capture the specimen and transport it back to the IZ.
I can just make out Dad’s face through his semi-transparent sack, which is like my face, only older, thinner and fixed in a silent scream. Looking at him, it’s hard not to imagine that he’s yelling at me. Around his neck hangs the obsidian Exeptionist ellipse, its tiny light still shining in the black.
“Hi, Dad,” I say, touching the rune hanging at my own throat that they gave me before they left. It’s black, like Dad’s, but it’s not an ellipse. I’m not sure what it is.
He doesn’t say anything. He never does. The BioPharm people told me he’s sleeping, and I still wonder if he dreams.
At school last year, Shaun Taft’s father got into a shuttle accident. It was pretty serious, and his father ended up being in a coma for a few days. While he was in the coma, Shaun came up to me after practice and told me he was sorry about my dad. He didn’t cry exactly, but he had tears in his eyes. He told me he had never said anything to me before because he didn’t know what it felt like, but now he did, and it was awful. I told Shaun thanks, but I didn’t really mean it, and I think he could tell, which I felt bad about. But he had no idea what it felt like. His father got into a shuttle accident. It made sense. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the galaxy got into shuttle accidents every day. It sucks—it really does—but it happens.
Getting cocooned by a Giant Cocooning Snake doesn’t happen. My father was the first human being ever to be cocooned by a GCS. That makes the chances of it happening one in however many people have ever lived, and I don’t know what that number is, but I know it’s big. I know it makes the chances of it happening smaller than the chances of winning any lottery ever played. It makes the chances of it happening practically zero. Impossible.
The chances of my mother becoming the second person ever to be cocooned a few seconds later weren’t good either. It’s so completely stupid that sometimes I can’t stand it. I get so angry I can’t do my homework and I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep and my parents can’t wake up.
When I finish my lunch, I zip up my bag and I check once more to make sure the snake hasn’t moved. It hasn’t. I finger the piece of triangular stone hanging at my neck—an arrowhead from a lost civilization on Earth, carved with symbols I can’t read —the last present my Mom gave me before she left. “If you ever get lost, remember it and think of us,” she’d said. I hold the stone as tight as I have for the last thirty-one months, looking out the glass at my frozen parents. I remember. I’m lost.
chapter 1 continues...