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
Wiz felt a quiet fury. Bishop Donald Mulcahy stood with his back to her, overlooking the basilica gardens as night fell. He started to light a fresh cigar but dropped the silver lighter, which thudded softly into the rug between his black shoes. Wiz's glasses slipped down along her nose. "For the last time, Bishop, I want to know if you'll get an exorcist."
"No!" He whirled and faced her. His steel rims glinted.
"I happen to know you've had an exorcist here for years. Why is it such a secret?"
The bishop rolled his gaze upward. "I don't care to debate theology with you this evening."
"Because you are just plain scared shitless?"
"I am scared. Yes. Scared to roll the Church back into the Middle Ages, back to a time when people were afraid to set foot out the door at night for fear there was a demon behind every rock."
Gotcha. "Isn't that how it is today, bishop?"
"Yes, yes, very clever of you, but don't you see, the demons today are human, just as they were in the Middle Ages."
Darn, turned it around. "Please!"
"Miss Chickowitz, I cannot offer my support."
"That does it." Feeling bloody anger beating in her ears, ignoring his mangling of her last name, Wiz pushed her glasses up for the third or fourth time. "People have died because of that thing in the zoo. I won't let this go on." Ignoring the last glimpse of him, darkly shaking his head, she stormed down the carpeted halls of the chancery and out the front door with a bang.
She found Jules Loomis still waiting in his car in the shadows of an ancient oak tree. He was just attempting to relight his pipe as Wiz threw herself into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut with a thump. "He said no."
Jules got the pipe going and the car filled with smoke. Wiz opened her window and made coughing noises and fanning motions. He said sorry and put the pipe face-down in the ashtray. He drove away slowly. "We figured that's what he'd say, didn't we?"
She shot back: "I was willing to give him a chance to listen."
"Are you sure you don't want to just tell the authorities what you think?"
"The authorities? That's the Burtongale family in this town. No thanks!" The growing night slid past, cool and deep with vegetal scents. Trees sighed in the wind, their dry leaves sweeping almost at ground level as though helping the roots look for water. Wiz waved briefly toward Jules after getting out. The dully gleaming sides of the Bronco, the shimmering opacity of the windshield, were a cipher. As she approached the service entrance of the zoo, she heard him start the engine and drive away.
A threat loomed; in response, a command crackled between the ancient stones with waves of blue light that roiled back and forth: Kill the angry one. Send our spirit into the night. Let it find what it needs to tear the soul from the angry one. High up in the cat house, a jaguar named Lilly stirred in her sleep. She padded out of her cave to listen. To try and sense what it was that had disturbed her. She slurped water from her pond. Stifling a cry of pain and rage, she felt as though something were tearing her apart into three pieces from inside.
Three shadowy jaguars pranced meaningfully toward the high walls. As their matrix rolled over, dying, the three copies of her sailed through the air in a fifty foot leap and landed on the street outside. Snarling. Tails twitching. Three black jaguars sliced through the darkness, searching. Their lean backs flowed with muscularity. Their loose, hungry bellies swayed with each leap, each jumping thump. Somewhere an owl hooted. The three cats ignored it, listening intently, smelling the air. Their eyes floated warily, drinking in the crazy light that was neither night nor day and charged them to manic pitch. Their tails flicked like whips. Their paws thudded imperceptibly, avoiding dry leaves and twigs that might crackle and give them away. Their feline faces turned from side to side, seeking...
No looking back now, Wiz thought. Dressed in dark clothing, she clung to the shadows under the trees. Heart pounding, she came to small utility door. Glancing right and left over her shoulder, she used a stolen (the Green Witches had connections) key and let herself into the loading area of the supply warehouse. Quickly, a blur, she faded among the trees.
She grasped the iron crucifix in the sash of her skirt, willing any stray evil spirits to confront her. Thus far, the night did not answer. Determinedly she reached under her belt and squeezed the contents of the small bag she carried: A gold coin, a silver coin, a smooth round pebble, a match, a vial of water, several chicken bones and feathers, a matchbox filled with the ashes of a small sandalwood cross burned on an east-facing hillside during a full moon.
She felt her feet carry her on silent night wings, like the messenger Mercury for whom the silver coin in her pouch was meant. From a small container she scooped a witches' paste which she rubbed on the tip of her tongue, leaving echo tastes of licorice and mint.
One after another, the zoo paths she took crackled as her toes barely touched the ground. She felt the White Magic and Divine Power sweep her along toward a great combat. She felt full of Jesus and the other gods. She felt drunk with righteousness.
Wiz felt danger and spread her arms. Let it find her. She grasped the crucifix in one hand and the small pouch of fetish items in the other. This was her plan: To summon the demon, then banish him from this place forever!
Wiz stopped. Had there been a thump, a crackle, like cats landing after a jump? She heard only the wind. But that was her signal to begin the combat. She began her ritual, drawing with chalk on the street. The chalk broke, and she barked her hand on biting gravel. On her knees, she sucked the scrape wound, tasting blood. So much the better! Wind whipped at her scarf. Her uncombed gray-brown hair blew around her head. She brushed it out of her eyes as she resumed drawing with a salvaged piece of chalk: The moon at the left hand of the Crucified, the sun in His face, a star on His right hand. That would be the star of Bethlehem. It would also be a minor solar emblem for Amon.
She began to pray: "Our Father Who art in Heaven, Hollow is Thy Name..." As she prayed she continued her drawings. The wind threw up a faint dust that hovered like a cloud filled with saffron light. Leaves, sticks, twigs were stirring, as if trying to arrange and rearrange themselves on the chalk markings. She huffed breathlessly, bending over the Sun.
She noticed that four demons were at hand. Three huge black cats leapt into the clearing, six forelegs extended all at once in a magnificent troika. And a ...man, swathed in a wind-roiled cloak... Knowing that the combat was about to be joined, Wiz laughed as they circled around. This was good already. She felt the power inside her. She was ten, twenty feet tall, holding her arms out like one crucified. The three jaguars and the man seemed separate but equal parts of a greater whole, a stage play of doom closing noiselessly in on her. Their silence was so eerie she was sure they were an illusion. She hunched down again to finish her Pentagram which would be a Star of David with a circle on the inside. As she did so, she performed the Rally. "Michael the Archangel, and all the hosts of Heaven, we summon you to protect us from Satan and all the evil spirits who roam the world, seeking the ruin of souls."
The black cats circled warily, two to one side, one to the other. Surely this man must be Satan or some very important devil. Then surely her spells were working! Elated, Wiz ignored the demons, knowing the devil liked to play with illusions. "Lord Satan, Dark Hand of Night, you are summoned to send forth your demons and evil spirits that are afflicting this place so that they may be defeated and cast out."
The cats leapt close like dancers.
Her heart thrashed so that it made her ribs shudder. She dropped the chalk and clutched her chest. But then wasn't this exactly what the King of Demons wanted? Staggering slightly, she bent over to pick up the chalk. The ritual must not be interrupted. She fell to her hands and knees, weakened by waves of darkness and nausea that filled her brain, alternating with more colorful waves of mauve, dull brass, wine red...
She tried to utter a cry, but it was stifled by several great weights hitting her all at once. Pain filled her, and she struggled to turn over onto her back, to sit up. She tried to wave an arm to fend them off. The arm was gripped painfully, torn back and forth in bone-jarring slashing motions. She smelled a rankness of spit and licked cat hair.
There was salvation at hand. There was a light that fell out of space. There was an explosion and the Book of Revelations opened before her. She cried soundlessly, reaching with a hand that wasn't there. She heard a tearing sound, and only dimly realized it was the sound of her own flesh.
She hovered in the air, safe now, and watched three black jaguars mulling over several dark bundles of rags. She was safe now, and could rest at last.
One by one, the cats winked out of existence. But the man put on rubber gloves. Why rubber gloves?
But Wiz was past curiosity, and turned away...
...rolling like a cork swollen in water...
She was walking... down a long corridor... into ?a ship. Her hands, as she looked at them, turned bright blue. Ahead of her, one or two other bright blue persons walked toward...
"Hello," said a blue man with a nice smile. "My name is Freddy with a y. What's yours?"
...Several dark shapes loomed near a doorway shimmering with something like heat or fire. One by one, they pushed the numbly walking humans into the flames...
W E A R E S A F E N O W the pilot signaled to Gilbert.
Wallace Burtongale hurried out of the shadows carrying a machete and some bags.
Gilbert lit a cigarette and knelt by the body. Squinting, smoke in his eyes, he began by hacking up her arms. "The Pilot was in my head."
Wallace touched his son. "This has to end."
Gilbert hacked at her legs. The cigarette wobbled. "There are enough pieces now. It will happen soon."
"We've paid our price. It's been over a century. We need to be free of these…things."
Gilbert flashed him a radiant look. "The ship will fly again. Then we'll be free."
"They'll kill us all," Wallace said. "What about this nosy little reporter?"
Gilbert looked up. He flicked his cigarette. "She's special," he said. "I get her last, as my prize." He licked his lips. "I will take my time with her."
Wallace expressionlessly held open a bag, and Gilbert threw in a foot.
A strangled cry awakened Roger Chatfield in his bedroom a block from the zoo, and he wasn't sure if it was his own or someone else's cry.
It almost sounded like a big cat. Or a womanhoarse; a smoker?
He lay for some seconds in darkness, holding the sheet close to his chin, and groggily teetered between sleep and wakefulness.
He listened for another cry, but none came.
On the sleep side, he grasped questioningly after the fleeting after-image of... something... cats. The dream picture glared at him, then wrinkled into distortions like the folds in a curtain, then fell apart like dust in a sunbeam.
But it was four a.m.
He swung out of bed, rubbed his head, and then staggered off in t-shirt and boxer shorts to check on Rudy and Elisa.
The hardwood floor of 501 Lilac, one of the Burtongale family houses, was cold and unkind to his feet. He curled his toes up and walked on the balls of his feet. Never, he had vowed, would a man who had dug in the scorpion-infested sands of the Negev, who had used a shovel to fight off bandits swooping in on camels in the night, who had stepped into the throne-chamber of a dead king, never would such a man purchase slippers at the mall.
Elisa, 13, slept peacefully. Her hands and feet looked big and unfeminine, like the paws of a puppy that was still to grow. But her skin, even in the banana glow of the streetlight outside, looked smooth like honey. Her long mahogany hair lay like an open fan on the pillow. Her relaxed face presented ambiguous suggestions, from round infant cheeks to bony adolescent jaw to mature, hollowing eyes.
Rudy, 9, was also asleep. Perhaps the cry in the night had been his, for Rudy had always been a restless sleeper, and increasingly so in recent months. Whereas Elisa could almost climb out of bed in the morning and fold the sheets over and the bed was still made, Rudy managed to rumple up his sheets. Sometimes in his sleep, he even managed to pull the fitted sheet from under the mattress corners. He now lay on the bare mattress. He gripped his pillow against his chest with his fists. His head was upturned and his mouth was slightly open as though he were pushing himself up from a dream of drowning.
Gently, Chatfield covered his son with a blanket. He propped the boy into a more comfortable position with his head on the pillow. As he did so, the vacuous faintly alarmed cast of Rudy's cheeks changed to one of sleepy satisfaction. Nuzzling, he smacked his lips and settled into a deeper sleep.
Outside, a bird chittered in a bush.
Chatfield touched Rudy's blond crew cut and then stole softly out of the room.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.