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
The following morning, Roger took the kids to school. ZoŽ had bruised ribs, scratches, burn marks, a black eye, and a sprained wrist. She also had a big wound in her soul. She packed Mother's belongings in the trunk of the Mustang and drove her to Mulberry Street. The house itself looked like an old lady who had just been through a lot. Its doors and windows hung open and fresh air and sunlight flooded it from all directions.
Still the White Stuff blew up, blizzards of it. Old people complained of respiratory problems; doctors warned of health hazards to the lungs and eyes. The earth itself seemed queasy, always a tremor away from the next temblor. The city still wailed with sirens. Here and there, a smoke pillar rose from yet another fire.
ZoŽ drove by her place, but didn't have the heart to go in. She hoped the home owner's insurance would cover the massive damage (White Stuff bulging from every nook). She frowned. Put her foot on the brake pedal. Noticed the van parked near her house.
She left her car running, got out, and strode to the van. Someone had painted over the windows, so she could not see inside. She tried the doors. Locked. Walking past on the way to her car, she yanked on the rear door handleand, to her surprise, it opened.
She almost lost her balance as momentum carried her with the door. Inside was a maze of electronic gear. A pretty young Air Force blonde in fatigues and radio headset was busy twiddling knobs. A sergeant with gray hair and lots of wavy chevrons made an angry face. Touching the large gun on his belt, he snarled and pulled the door shut, slamming it in her face.
Roger waited in his driveway. "ZoŽ, one more death." She removed her sunglasses, checked her shiner in the visor mirror, and squinted at him. "Miss Polly," Roger said.
"I don't care right now."
"Martina wants us there before the estate goes into probate."
ZoŽ relented. Roger shifted the car through its gears on the winding road to the mansion. The ocean looked innocent below, little waves like lace doilies for afternoon tea. "I hate this town," she said.
"If the kids get something out of the estate, we can leave San Tomas."
"We?" she asked.
He looked startled. "Should I make that maybe?"
The words, you big handsome moose, the words!
"ZoŽ, I know it's early, but I was wondering if you would consider becoming engaged to marry me."
She slid her sunglasses down and stared at him over the lenses, darkly.
Roger looked as though he wanted to stop the car and run away.
"Of course," she said feigning a shrug.
It took his face some seconds to change from stark rejection to joy. "You would?" He stopped in the middle of the street and they threw their arms around each other.
Cars honked, flowing around them.
Martina Strather stood before a small crowd, all close family, in the sitting room of the Burtongale mansion overlooking San Tomas Peninsula from high atop a hill.
Besides Roger and ZoŽ, various Burtongale siblings and spouses were in the room, maybe twenty people. ZoŽ recognized Jules, Patricia, Mart Willow, and one or two others. Martina said: "I found her this morning. She had gone into Wallace's baby room and evidently just... went to sleep. With Gilbert and Wallace gone, she just didn't feel she had anything left to live for."
There was a brief statement by Walt Kargis, attorney and longtime confidant of Miss Polly. He was in his 80's, a slim man, white-haired, with pained eyes. He had a smooth voice like warm water running through long pipes. "A great loss to all of us. I have asked you here, not for the reading of the will, which will come later, and you are all remembered in it, but" He paused and wiped a tear away. "Miss Polly and I had a chat just last week, almost in premonition I would now say." Kargis put on his reading glasses and unfolded a piece of paper. "She wanted me to expedite certain matters. For one thing, if you don't already know, Mart Willow is terminated at the newspaper effective this hour." He looked up. ZoŽ and Jules exchanged looks of amazement. It was quiet in the room. Mart Willow was turning from red to purple. "Further, Jules Loomis is appointed Executive Editor of the Herald, replacing Miss Polly in that position." Jules rolled his gaze upward. Patricia covered her mouth with her hands and gasped. The attorney sat down.
Martina Strather stepped forth again, clasping her hands over her long flat belly. "Miss Polly seemed depressed the last few days, and we tried to cheer her up, but I think she knew her time was coming. First" (she pointed to a stack of faded leather-bound journals on a side table) "Mr. Loomis is asked to examine the secret diaries of her ancestor, Wallace Burtongale, who traveled in Africa during the mid 1800's." (Jules nodded his acceptance) "Second and last, Miss Calla, she asks you to handle this." Martina handed a box to ZoŽ. Inside was the African statuette Jonathan Smith had died for. "Miss Polly requests this be returned to the Rev. Smith's Museum of Satan back east when you are done with it."
Jules had stuffed his pipe, lit it, and was now puffing contentedly. He nudged ZoŽ. "And I'm making you police reporter. We're going to call it the Perry Stein Chair."
"I guess I'm glad," she told Roger, clutching her box and hurrying along with him to the car. "It'll never be the same without Perry though."
Roger drove along the twisting roads, down toward the sea. She lifted the statue (it was light) and looked underneath. It was hollow. "Look, Roger, there are little wisps of that White Stuff in there." She frowned. "It's almost as though the White Stuff were coming right out of the wood." She looked again. "There was something else in here."
Roger downshifted. "I've got a contact as UC San Tomas who would just love to look at that thing."
She clutched the statuette tightly. "Let's get the story!"
Roger and ZoŽ drove to the UC San Tomas campus. She carried the statuette in its box. Dr. Vernon LeGrier was a middle-aged black man. His head and beard were peppered, giving him a mellow and distinguished appearance. LeGrier had an easy smile that poked out like the sun after a storm, given his usual scowl and the armor of his personality that had withstood stupidity and prejudice through a long and distinguished career. On a whiteboard nearby were hastily written diagrams and chemical formulas where he must have scrawled the results of his research. He examined the wooden object. Peering through a magnifying glass, he reached for a dental pick.
"What do you think?" ZoŽ could not help asking in the lab which was silent except for a drip in the sink and the clicking of a defective fluorescent light. No bubbling test tubes, no blinking comedy computers, no weird assistants.
LeGrier shook their hands. "What we have here is a real curiosity."
"Oh?" Roger and ZoŽ both said and leaned forward for an nth look, but she at least could not see anything more than before.
"Yes. First, the statue appears to have been hollowed out a long time ago, how long I won't know until we do some more tests. There are minute traces of some sort of plaster inside, which leads me to believe that the statuette was filled in.
"Second, there are traces...you can see them under the light here" (he held it under a fluoro, and ZoŽ leaned real close) "...of some other material. Looks like old, badly forged, crumbly iron. But among them are traces of a quite complex ferrous molecule that could only have been made under technologically advanced conditions." He pointed with a shaky dental tip, and there appeared to be dark crumbs in the knife marks made by whoever had hollowed this thing out.
"There is one other thing," LeGrier said.
ZoŽ and Roger waited.
"It's something that may having a bearing on this but I'd appreciate your keeping quiet for now. When we've had a chance to study it more, the word will come out soon anyway. It'sthose earthquakes. They're not earthquakes. They'rewell, we don't know what they are. It's justthey have the same seismic signature as tiny little nuclear explosions. It's nonsense, of course, but the resemblance is uncanny, similar to the way nuclear nations do regular testing to make sure their technology is working." He tapped the pick on his other palm. "It reminds meÖhmm, I know this will sound crazyÖof someone trying over and over again to start an engineÖmaybe kick-starting a motorcycle."
ZoŽ, Roger, and Jules had lunch at the zoo deli. The zoo was almost deserted. The pyramid of White Stuff in the middle, cordoned off with yellow police tape, loomed menacingly on the nearby horizon.
Jules said: "ZoŽ, I want you to start a daily column on this situation. Go as many pages as you need. Quote anyone, call anyone, do anything to fill the column with the kind of crisis information you'll need. Everything you do is by-line. Oh, and by the way, your salary is doubled."
"Thanks," she said, still dazed by the turnaround in her fortunes.
He winked. "You get my old office until I can hire a new Managing Editor. I'm going to throw Mart Willow's crap out the windowincluding a lot of empty liquor bottleshave his office fumigated, and then move in there myself."
ZoŽ beamed and wrapped her arms around Roger's.
Roger said: "Things are nutso at the zoo. A lot of the employees are calling in sick but I know some are just scared. Especially with that heart attack rumor going around."
"You're going to get a lot of rumors at a time like this," Jules said. "I've been reading those old diaries. ZoŽ, I'm now really sorry I told you to squelch your story earlier."
"Thanks." She made a mental note to return that book to Father Lawrence, then remembered he was gone.
"That old guy Wallace II went to Africa, brought back a bunch of stuff, and went nuts. His diaries, which I don't think anyone has seen in a hundred years are full of references to pain in his soul, pain in his head, things talking in his head. Whatever the demon is or was, it promised the Burtongales great fortune, but the price was steep. Their sanity. Wallace II finally couldn't stand it. He dumped his African statues out at sea."
"Including the sphinx that talked in his mind," ZoŽ said.
"Right. He dumped it before they reached port. But it was too late," Jules said. "Whatever pact he had made with the devil, it stuck."
Roger said: "Then we have the earthquakes, as though something is trying to get out of the ground, or start their engine. And the White Stufftotally unexplained."
"There was," ZoŽ said, "something else bugging me. I think I remember something. The thing in the back of the truck, that got Charlie and Frank and Attila killed. It was a statue stolen from a museum in Chicago. Gilbert called it a core. That's a computer term, isn't it?"
Jules said: "You got me."
Roger nodded. "Core. That's an old term for main memory. It was made of iron rings looped in a lattice. Vern said there had been iron in the statuette. The sphinx might have had some iron in it. So then..."
"There could be a third iron kind of outer space thing floating around somewhere in San Tomas," ZoŽ said.
"Yeah, like maybe right there," Jules said pointing at the pyramid of White Stuff, which was by now over a hundred feet tall and twice as wide at the base.
ZoŽ shuddered. "A spaceship approaches earth long ago. Why do spaceships come to earth? In the movies, it's usually to colonize, take us over. The spaceship blows up. Its brain somehow survives, though in pieces that try to find each other. What better tool than a wealthy explorer who will stop at nothing?"
"Maybe there were more pieces," Jules said, "but so far we know of only three. One is the sphinx that got dumped at sea. Two is the rain god, the hollow wooden statue of which we have, but the core of which is lost somewhere here in San Tomas. The third is the Ivory Coast statue that Frank and Attila and Gilbert stole. Something is under all that White Stuff at the Pagoda, one of the statues, and I'm willing to bet it's another piece of the core."
"That is the area where Wallace died." ZoŽ felt some relief. "I'm not crazythere is a very real presence in the pit of my mind, somewhere, but I'm not the only person. Thisthis force, this ship, sends suggestions that seem very real. Like Wiz talking to me from a dead TV tube. Or the dreams Max and I have been having, of something in the sea. Or me seeing my dad. They are all metaphors, somehow, created by a ship that's trying to repair itself. The problem iswill the ship destroy San Tomas, maybe half of California, before it realizes there's no hope? Will any of us get it out of our minds before we really go out of our minds?" The men stared at her dumbly. She ventured: "Maybe the only way to win this one is for someone to go down into the sea, into the ship, and tell them the truth."
Jules had a dark look. He shook his head. "I dunno, ZoŽ. They, whoever they are, the aliens, may not want to know the truth. They may destroy us alland what do they have to lose?"
Roger and ZoŽ met at the Zoo entrance. They went to his office, locked the door, and made love on the floor, under the filtered green light that poured through the high windows. With the world in chaos, having sex seemed the most calming and appropriate thing to doevolution at work, she was sure.
ZoŽ drove to the paper. She took her cardboard box with its still-dirty coffee mug, pictures of herself and Max, a plastic flower, photo of Mother and Dad, and her mouse pad (Lavender & Sunflowers in ProvenÁe) to her new office, which smelled of Jules Loomis' pipe smoke. Coughing, she opened all four windows and turned on a large floor fan.
Curls bobbing in the oscillating fan breeze, she got on the desktop computer and browsed the Internet for references to aliens. Seven hundred million hits, all either movies, Hallow E'en stores, or UFO cult websites. That seemed promising, at least, but did she have two centuries to browse them all? She searched on Ivory Coast, and got several ads for tourist hotels, little else.
Then, weird: the Pope had visited an island in the middle of Lake Togo, near the capital of Lomť, back around 1984. That was from the Vatican news service, and had to be reliable. It was just a short piece. The Pope had gone on a barge to visit with animist holy men, who live on a sacred island. There, they keep evil spirits imprisoned in ritual chains, meaning all sorts of formulas, holy barriers, gateways between worldsÖ
There was a related article dated years later, from a major international press service:
ÖWitch doctors at Lomť, who claim to have imprisoned devils and other evil spirits on a sacred island, complained to civil authorities that a defector from among them had made off with an artifact older than time itself. They said the voudun priests must have been overcome by the powerful dreams this terrifying black stone was known to wrap around innocent victims' brains. They said the stone is notorious for driving people insane with dreams of murder and star travel. Togo national police said only they believe the object had a wealthy Western buyer, who flew the witchdoctor and his prize north toward Mauretania. According to Interpol, the witchdoctor was found disemboweled and dead of claw marks on a South Atlantic beach. The international police bureau stated their local investigators found marks suggesting a wealthy American investor or collector identified by local fishermen as Senhor G paid to have the object flown by bush plane to a small town in the desert, and from there by a series of hops, via Cap Verde, to the United States. From Cap Verde, a former Portuguese possession, which has a major international air flight hub, the trail goes to North America and is lostÖ
ZoŽ stared at the article grimly, but it was what it was. The trail diedÖand she bet Senhor G was Gilbert Burtongale, and the trail reŽmerged in San Tomas someplaceÖ
Jules called ZoŽ into his new office, formerly Mart Willow's (not yet fumigated, but soon). He had been reading old books and now he rubbed his eyes. Tomes were spread before him; leather and canvas bound books that, as blanks alone, would be worth hundreds of dollars apiece today. She approached them with awe, touching with her fingertips. Crisp (stick and nib?) ink text filled the pages in straight, wire-mesh penmanship.
"He was hiding stuff on us," Jules said. "He was actually doing deals with Gilbert, who he figured would be the new owner. Gilbert wanted any news about the dark side of his family suppressed. What wealthy family wouldn't want the same? Miss Polly went along with it, often against her best instincts. She would have made a better editor and reporter than the rest of us put together, except she had the family curse hanging around her neck, as well as her obligation to all of them to keep the system going. But we're cleaning house, now that I've got the say-so."
"Good for you," ZoŽ told him. "Mind if I borrow a couple of those giant books?"
"Be my guest."
Lugging a pile of mildewy tomes, she struggled to her old desk in the obit section. She didn't want the dust and mildew in her new office. A group of reporters followed her.
"Nice to see you again," Spike said.
"It's good to be back. Ooff." She dropped the books on her desk and dust rose. She looked around. "I didn't expect to see this place again." They crowded into the obit area. Spike reached under his desk and pulled out a big candy box. "We all got together and bought some chocolates to say thanks-be-to-you. We are all sooo glad to be rid of that man."
They all clapped.
"Those are very large books," Spike said when they were alone. As Spike packed up for the day, and the afternoon faded into a golden silence, she read:
...no longer trusting to the sound sense of my faculties, indeed filled with fear as to what might otherwise befall our institutions, our family, and our town, I resolved to undo both the progress and the mistakes that had been the outgrowth of my third African journey. Thus, with a heavy heart, I ordered the Chinese workers on board to uncrate our magnificent sphinx, brought to California via the Indian Ocean at great expense. We sank it deep in the Pacific near San Tomas. The voice in the back of my mind, however, continues to torment me. I fear it is too late. How long will I (and God forbid, my descendants?) have to suffer the schemes of this thing...?
As she read, her heart pounded. Yes, her mind cried with a life of its own, that's what I've been feeling at the back of my head. It was more powerful than ever, so powerful that it hurt.
Feeling the Cold Thing she burst into tears and slammed the book shut. Even with Gilbert dead, nothing had changed. Somehow, she must get the Cold Thing out of her life, even if she had to pry it out of her brain with a Swiss Army Knife.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.