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This Shoal of Space:

Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship

(World's First E-Book—Published On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)

a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker

by John Argo

Preface   Chapter 1   Intralog  Part I-Chapter 2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42   43   44   45   46   47   48   49   50   51   52   53   54   55   56   57   58   59   60   61   62   63   64   65   Part II-Chapter 66   67   68   69   70   71   72   73   74   75   Outlog



— i —

On a tropical evening, 100 million years ago, in what would one day be called West Africa, a young T. Rex crept close to a brackish pond to drink. She was but a dark shadow as she hid among the lush ferns and cycads that glowed faintly with the day's last sunlight.

Something in the pond had gotten her attention the last time she'd been here, and she hoped to kill once more before nightfall.

In the moments before sunset, the sun was a small bead of intense light amid the orange and vermilion brushstrokes that covered the western sky above the South Atlantic Ocean. Somewhere in the world, a volcano had vented, blasting thousands of tons of material into the atmosphere, causing these colorful sunsets, but that had been seasons ago, and the world was pretty quiet just now. The sky above was a dim powdery blue, with hardly a cloud in sight. On the horizon far to the east, a line of black stretched from north to south as though drawn in charcoal: the edge of night.

She breathed in deeply of the thick, humid air that smelled of leaves and mud and rotting wood. A breeze carried the first chill of evening temper.

Before stepping onto the grassy bank, the T. Rex froze behind lush ferns and sharpened her senses to detect any danger. This in no way interfered with the unblinking intensity with which she peered at the pond.

Except for the buzz and flutter of insects, the vast swamp was still. Chromium blue and red butterflies fluttered among the flowers. Dragonflies with shining green eyes hovered over the water. In the time when predators drank, even the birds ceased their fluttering and hid in the tree canopies dotted here and there above the otherwise flat swampland. The air around the pond smelled fetid from a herd of triceratops that had finished drinking and lumbered away.

The dinosaur decided it was time to act. Detecting no immediate danger, she stretched her neck with snake-like slowness. Her head glided out of the ferns. Her tough hide, patterned in big orange, black, and white polygons, blurred in rapidly failing light. The moments of drinking were her most vulnerable. She made a slow, bird-like step forward, soundless, without disturbing ferns. She would spend two or three minute at most, crouched at the pond. Her belly and neck would be close to the ground for protection. But first, she would wait another moment or two. If the slow-swimming thing stirred, she would explode upon it with the speed of a bullet and the deadliness of a meat grinder.

Streaking toward Earth, from a point beyond the Milky Way in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, was a ten mile long vessel shaped like an arrow and as black as space itself.

The ship was on a collision course with disaster, as yet undetected.

Only the absence of tiny star pricks where the ship passed might betray it as something not fashioned by nature; but there was nobody yet on Earth capable of such discernment, and there was nobody awake in the ship. The ship was a space ark containing an entire planet's living creatures suspended in deep sleep.

Nobody knew where their race had originated, and they called no planet home. They were eternal migrants, hopping from world to world, from galaxy to galaxy, appropriating worlds, destroying the natural ecology there, and, in a few centuries rendering those worlds uninhabitable by the sheer waste of their way of survival.

On shipboard, they were economical and led exactly measured lives. Everything on shipboard was about conservation. When they made planet fall, the other side of their nature demanded that they, and the life forms that traveled with them, consume everything that lived, and multiply until the very possibility of life was snuffed out. Everything was geared toward a single purpose: to build more space arks. With each planet fall, the number of these space arks multiplied several fold. Each time in greater numbers, they would move on, targeting several worlds where they had just destroyed one. They were few in number, but in effect like locusts.

The aliens were nocturnal, shadowy beings, and their eyes glowed a deep, ember-rouge as a form of social interaction; but when the aliens hunted, their eyes were black as buttons, sucking in light and emitted none of their own. Each had either three or five small, crooked horns atop its skull crest. All life on the ark was either three-limbed or five-limbed, binary symmetry not being in their genetic makeup. Their DNA was three-stranded, and they were an odd mix of three or five limbs. They had three or five of everything that came in twos or fours among most Earth species.

While the 1,000 crew members lay in suspended animation in glassy tubes near the center of the ship, the ship's core brain directed all operations on board, from the slightest, like the wink of a warning light, to the biggest, like turning the ship. The core brain was a room-sized spaghetti of heavy iron alloys looped around each other with more twists than a human brain, although such metaphors meant nothing in 100,000,000 B.C.E.

From the core brain, a nervous system of conduits and cables spread through the entire ship, through the hull, the bulkheads, the control rooms, to every nook and cranny. When the live crew were awake, they moved about their business along dim corridors with dots of soft bronzy lighting along the walls. While the crew were cryogenically suspended, the core brain created a virtual copy of the corridors in its conduits, and shadowy avatars of each crew member moved along these corridors, eyes reddening in greeting as their paths crossed, and dulling back down as they passed each other.

The core's mission was simple: sustain the mission; defend the ship and its cargo; repair any damage to the ship; heal any cargo that was unwell, for they were the link to the future. The success of their race depended on every living member thriving under maximal conditions. Sometimes the ship took along samples of intelligent life, even if it had differently stranded genetic material.

Besides the 1,000 crew, the ark carried another million of their intelligent kind in suspended sleep. The latter's' usefulness would only arise when the mother ship was in orbit, and hundreds of smaller landers took them down to the surface. There, they would subdue and wipe out any native life, replacing it with pet creatures from their own ecosystem. These included millions of insect types, housed in hives that got buzzy and swarmy around planet fall; sea dwellers in various solutions of water; flying animals; and higher-evolved equivalents of Earth's buffalo and gorillas and other land mammals.

The aliens would not be awakened until the mother ship was in orbit and the first landers had scouted the surface. Then the aliens would be eager to embark on their new conquest. Leaving the mother ship in orbit, they would descend upon the Earth in small ships. Bit by bit, they would send down their companion life forms to speed up the process of cleansing the host world of any traces of its native life forms. All the alien species would multiply while the arks were being built. Bit by bit, nuclear and chemical poisons would destroy the host world. Collector specialists would assemble crews and cargo, making sure all species were represented, and the ships would move on, leaving huge numbers of its own life forms to die. Sometimes the ship was a force for killing, at other times for healing, whatever was best for the ship's survival. Having done this for eons beyond memory, they were expert at it. They had slept for a million years, and now their next fruit was ready for the picking.

From a million miles out, Earth had glowed in the solar ecliptic like a tiny bluish ball from. Now, barely 2000 ship lengths away, the planet dwarfed the ark. Earth was a luminous, swathed in rings of cloud, but continents peered through broad, cloud-free swaths. The land was many-colored, promising a lively diversity of opportunities.

Unseen by the ship, a one kilometer chunk of rock approached. It was an asteroid, a tiny planet jostled out of its orbit by a gravitational jostle between Mars and Jupiter. It spun away on its new dynamic, making a long ellipsis toward the sun. Along the way, it was attracted by the twin masses of the Luna and Earth. The asteroid veered sharply inward along its ecliptic, coming around the Earth-Moon system at over 100 miles per second, and headed directly for the intergalactic ark.

In the seconds before disaster struck, the ship functioned as it had for the past million years. The long halls of the ship were dark; they were crammed with tubes and spheres and blocks, vents and machines of many purposes and descriptions. A dull light suffused the ship, kind of amber on the brighter end, like light shining through a beehive; and tending toward a darker brown on the darker end of its spectrum, like the fading of consciousness in the grip of a spider's web. It was starlight, filtered, and just enough for the purposes of maintenance. In long view, some corridors faded into the indecipherable beehive lighting; other corridors faded into equally unguessable darkness colored like chitin on a beetle.

The ark was piloted by an electronic avatar of the Pilot, occupying a virtual bridge that existed in a computer peripheral in the actual command room. The analog's head glowered in the near-darkness of the cockpit. Three small crooked antlers projected from its head.

The ark was on the night side of Earth when, too late, the analog Pilot discovered the unexpected temporary moon that came careening around the Earth to make less than one complete orbit before assuming a new ellipse that would months later end with entry into the sun.

The avatar did all that it could. It tried to guide the ship and turn on force shields and at the same time waken the Pilot. With only minutes to spare, the sand-colored mountain approached at shattering speed.

The ship had a final line of defense: a nuclear weapon that could streak toward the threat, annihilating it. It was a weapon that would incinerate the Earth's surface in the bargain. But it was too late now. The damage would happen. The ship was programmed to rebuild itself. When it did, it had two priorities—the health of the creatures on board, and the reestablishment of its defenses, beginning with the nuclear capability.

The sand-colored asteroid's craters and ice sheets silently grew larger by the second. Though brightly lit by direct sunlight as well as moonlight, it cast a shadow before itself that darkened the space ark to almost pitch black inside as massive death approached. Ship's alarms sounded throughout long murky corridors and coldly steaming bays and pens.

The collision was soundless.

The asteroid never even slowed down. It broke the long arrow-shape of the ark into a hundred pieces that fit along the asteroid's front surface, melding with craters and plains and bumps. It plowed the pieces ahead of itself into space. Nothing on board remained alive.

Only a few pieces survived the collision, all from the massive computer core. With its surface on fire, and its spaghetti melting together, the core broke up into pieces that streaked down and crashed to earth in what would one day be called Africa.

The avatar did not know the ship was gone. It only knew that it was blinded. Frantically, it sent impulses out to wake the Pilot, to save the ship, to reconstruct the damage. Its frantic messages and protocols streamed out looking for paths and conduits that no longer existed. As long as it could pick up power from the planet's magnetosphere, it would continue to perform its mission as it had been programmed to do. It would be a long 100,000,000 years until the next milestone in that mission.

On Earth, the female T. Rex froze again, still staring out from between kelly-green leaves. Directly ahead lay the pond where she'd gone to drink the past few sundowns. Under the murky surface, between floating lily pads and lacy white flowers, she saw the exposed belly of a young diplodocus, a long-necked, herbivorous pond lizard.

He reveled in twilit water warm from being in the sun all day.

She savored his faintly oily life-smell. Parting her jaws and two-inch teeth, she tensed every muscle in her body to strike and kill.

There was a breaking of the surface, a pleasurable snort as the pond lizard breathed.

In the final moment of dusk, fireflies winked. Nocturnal creatures began their barks and bellows.

The pond lizard, smelling his stalker, panicked and dove down in a deep gurgling arc.

Finally she exploded after him, a ferocious grin in front, a mad whirl of white and black and orange polygons behind. The water seethed with pounding fury as she followed him. Her limbs were hammers beating water into foam.

She did not notice that a long silent line appeared in the star-spattered sky. A stutter of smoke puffed at the tip of the line, glowing redder and hotter as it entered thicker atmosphere. There was a flash. Flash and smoke had disappeared, lost in the constellations, unheard, unseen.

Her teeth caught his tough tail. Tasting his blood, his oil, his death fear, she tossed her jaws and shredded his tail and his rear legs. She turned him kicking and struggling pond lizard onto his back, but kept his head under water. The water seethed white with foam, vermilion with blood.

Slowly, the pond quieted as he drowned.

She dragged him ashore, up into the leaves where she could hide with her kill. There, she raked claws through his underbelly, churning up viscera and half-digested vegetable matter. Smelling all this, she groaned hungrily and buried her battery of teeth into him.

At that moment, something struck the earth nearby.

Surrounded by fire, the T. Rex screamed and bolted from her prey. She ran zigzag with her back on fire, but to no avail. The entire forest all around was on fire.

Rolling in water, screaming, she managed to quench her burning flesh.

Then she lay in shock, leaking from her spinal column. She did not know about shock or spinal fluids, of course; she only knew by instinct that she was dying. She lay on her side, trembling. After a pause, her rib cage would expand in a single, labored heave, pulling in air. After another pause, her chest would collapse again, forcing the air out in a shuddering blast. Pause after pause, her body went through his involuntary, autonomic cycle, trying to push oxygen through her system. But her spine lay open, and blood covered the charred skin on her back. Spinal fluid glistened on her blackened vertebrae. The night was closing in, and she closed her eyes. She did not yet smell her enemies, but she jerked her tiny forelimbs helplessly, anticipating their arrival. Her hind limbs and her tail felt numb and cold.

Her panic subsided, and she felt a new presence in her head. It was not an enemy, but something good, like mating. She lay still and let it probe inside her. After a while, she could sense a tingling in the wounds on her back. In what part of the ship are you? something asked, and she could neither understand nor answer the question, but its urgency made her feel submissive and cooperative.

You are hurt. I will repair you.

She felt lines of force surround her, pulsing and healing. She felt warmth returning to her hind quarters.

What part of the ship is this?

After a long silence, the voice said:

Something has happened to the ship. I must repair it.

Even as she drank, she felt that same presence in her head. She saw something... it was as if she looked behind over her shoulder, only it was not behind, it was inside her, in the back of her head: A dark shape, like something that moved in the night. It had three crooked antlers on its head, and its eyes glowed like embers. It was not like mating. It was not like devouring. It was more like danger. Too late, she raised her head with a resounding snort to blow water from her nostrils so she could smell the air, trying to figure out where this new threat came from.

You are not one of us.

She whirled, trying to defend her newly healed back. But there was nobody there. She whirled again. And again. Snarling. But the presence was always behind her, and it said more things whose tone of hate was clear to her:

I must destroy you.

Scene in a fire-blackened Cretaceous Period swamp: A Tyrannosaurus Rex roars in fear and defiance as she whirls this way and that, slamming her tail on the wet earth, showing her teeth through the lightly drifting smoke.

Clumps of blackened grass still smolder here and there, but the dampness in the swamp has moderated the effects of a part of the computer core crashing down just a few yards away.

A rounded thing, black as onyx, shaped like a boulder, protrudes slightly from the mud. Faintly at first, and then more quickly, lines of force play over its metallic surfaces. Waves of cold bluish light crackle back and forth, building in amplitude, until several lines of light crackle through the air. Zigzag fashion, the blue lines dart from the boulder to the pond, reaching an apex of heat, turning from blue to red, then to yellow, and just for an instant, to white. During the instant when the ropes of light are white, the T. Rex explodes in gobs of gore and sticks of bone. In the next instant, the light has disappeared from the air; only smoldering tissue remain of the dinosaur; and, yards away, a few last waves of blue light lick the rounded thing's surfaces before dimming out. For a few hours, millions of fine dry flakes fall, and coat the ground like some accidental white plastic, before blowing away in the wind.

— ii —

LOM…, TOGO (ENS) Fall 1984—Making a surprising detour in his pilgrimage through West Africa, Pope John Paul II visited the capital of this small former French colony. The pontiff made a one-day stopover in the nation's capital, a city of 150,000, many of whom believe in Africa's Animist, or nature spirit, religion. Surprising his entourage, the pope insisted on visiting an island in the middle of Lake Togo. Amid rattles, drums, and shrill pipes, local spirit doctors welcomed him onto this forested island where the pope visited for two hours with animists in ghostly face and body paint. They are said to guard shrines containing evil spirits and devils held captive by magic since the creation of the world. The demons are imprisoned in statues, rocks, and other fetish objects. The witch doctors showed the Pope empty shrines that had been looted of their fetishes during the past century by European and American adventurers. The stolen totems, they said, were now in Europe or America. Those spirits, they told the Pope, had already begun their evil work in the world.

— iii —

San Tomas, California: Relentlessly, the mocking spirit tormented Dr. Jonathan Smith, D.D. by whispering cruel and dirty things in his head. You have one foot in hell already, it said laughing, you can't beat me and you can't get me out of your head and I'm going to take you to the pit of demons with me!

In the cheap rented room, torn plastic curtains had been drawn. Sunlight angling through made a dance of dust motes striking a tangle of clothes half in, half out of a suitcase. The cover flap of the suitcase lay open like a screaming mouth. Tangled pants suggested disembodied men trying to run away. Rumpled shirt sleeves suggested ghosts waving for help.

In a corner stood the wooden statuette carved centuries ago in Africa. The statue's scarred face suggested maniacal amusement at Smith's pain. The statue's insides had been hollowed out centuries ago by its Togolese creators; and the core had been filled with a strange heavy-black substance like iron, which Smith was convinced was a bit of alchemy directly from Satan's retorts. The statue, retrieved by missionaries in Africa, now brought him to San Tomas.

Courage, the aged fundamentalist thought, twining his arthritic fingers together over his ragged shirt and heaving chest.

The telephone rang.

The old man reached out, drew back his hand, then picked up.

"Smith, this is Mulcahy... ...Hello? ...Hello?"

"Thank God, it's you finally."

"Smith, what's wrong?"

"It's tormenting me terribly." Inside his head, a red-eyed demon chuckled.

"Is there some way I can help you?" Mulcahy sounded tired and dubious.

"You don't seem to believe me, but I have a piece of Satan sitting here in the room with me. It's the evidence we need, Mulcahy. We can prove the existence of Satan, therefore of God." ('...Up to your ass in dirty sex,' the devil interjected in Smith's head.)

Mulcahy said after a moment's consideration: "I could walk over and meet you by the Zoo entrance."

"Please! I need a witness."

"It's all nonsense, you know. There has to be a scientific explanation. There is, if we look for it."

"You fool," Smith said, feeling contempt mixed with anxiety to confront Satan. "We're so close. Why do you keep crapping out on me?"

An hour later, as lights winked on in office buildings silhouetted against the darkening sky, Smith shuffled toward the main entrance of the San Tomas Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Under his arm, wrapped in a dirty pillowcase, was the statuette, weighing heavily. The zoo was closed, and the last one or two of its office staff were just leaving. They avoided the old man. He barely noticed them.

A sudden cawing sound; a large bird thing threw itself between branches. Smith looked up into towering eucalyptus trees. "I know you're here," he whispered.

Someone—or something—chuckled in the darkness. A merciless sound. I'm going to kill you! I'm going to tear out your heart! Ha ha ha...

"For God's sake, Mulcahy, where are you? Hurry!"

Something stirred under the trees, something wrapped up in a darkness more total than the blackness of night. Smith's mouth opened, and once again his heart beat wildly. He stepped back, short of breath. He held his hands to his aching chest as though he must somehow relieve the pressure. He felt powerless to run. Where in God's name was Mulcahy?

Oh God, the stars.

The thing he had pursued and that in turn now pursued him, stepped between Smith and the sky. Loomed over Smith. The statuette fell clattering to the sidewalk. The demon pulled back its cowl to reveal its face. It looked ... the thing was... what? Ancient, inscrutable, Egyptian... part man, part jackal?... But instead of jackal ears, it had three small crooked horns. Three eyes burned like pools of hot red wax. Its carrion teeth were exposed in a predatory grin.

...Is THIS the face of Satan?

In his final moments, as the hideous demon loomed over him, he had a vision of the end of the world. He didn't understand the pieces of the puzzle, but he understood the vision as a whole for it fit with everything he'd studied in Revelations. There was something under the sea—a huge ship of some kind, long and black, its corridors pearled with strings of lights. Nearby lay a broken airplane with one light on inside, and that light was the engine of a nuclear furnace that would bring the end of the world. The demon face closed on him, and he took his last breath.

— iv —

San Tomas, California: Gilbert Burtongale, a tall scraggly man of 40 with long dirty hair and beard stubble, sole heir to the town's oldest and greatest fortune, stood in the darkness outside the zoo his family had founded in the 1800's. Gilbert wondered why the red-eyed presence in his head had made him come here. Some old fool shuffled up the walk holding something in a bag. The old man cried out in the windy darkness, and Gilbert only heard part of what he said: "...Mulcahy...are you...hurry!" Gilbert looked about uneasily. The old man cried: "...know you're there..." Gilbert fingered his switchblade knife, ready to open it. But things took care of themselves, as the Thing in his head had promised, not with words, just with feelings.

There! What flew through the air? A large bird. No. Something...furry. A bear? Yes, a flying bear.

The old man looked up in horrified, frozen silence as the animal flew over the zoo wall and directly into his face. The old man fell down, and the bear blanketed him. The animal snarled once, briefly, tearing the old man's heart out in one digging motion, one rip of its claws.

Gilbert stared in fascination. But the Thing made him turn his head. Far away on a moonlit path, a figure in black strode along smoking a cigar. The cloud of silvery smoke hovered over Mulcahy's head like a crooked thought. Gilbert brought the knife out, with a snarl of his own. He'd been long wanting to— But No. The Thing did not want... It was most important to...

The bear vanished.

Evaporated—as Gilbert watched.

The old man lay sprawled and broken in a lake of blood. His heart lay yards away where it had landed during the frenzy. Gilbert picked up the statuette, whose battered face smiled wickedly, a blurry and mysterious visage in wood. Its metal core seemed to throb with poisonous love.

Gilbert climbed into the driver's seat of his van. He stashed the statuette under his seat, slipped the door shut, and drove away on quiet cylinders before Mulcahy could probably notice. Gilbert drove up to the zoo entrance a quarter mile away and honked the car horn. As he waited for the night guard to open up, he cherishingly regarded at the old, tattered photograph taped to the roof: A beautiful young woman, smiling with sunny innocence, her hands clasped by her chin in sensuous indolence. I will possess you, ZoŽ, he thought, and we will die together, yet live forever. Soon, my love. Soon.


Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.