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
Martina never did call back.
ZoŽ hid in the back of the Mustang, while Roger drove slowly out of the driveway. She heard him pull up alongside the unmarked car.
The two detectives sounded edgy. "What's up, Dr. Chatfield?"
"I'm going to the store for a few minutes," Roger said. "ZoŽ is safe inside with the kids."
"Mister, you and them are one package. We're here to guard you all, while the town is falling apart. Don't waste our time."
"I know, and I'm truly sorry, but I don't have time to explain. You guys please keep an eye on that house, in case they come after ZoŽ or the kids."
Roger drove ZoŽ to a corner near the park, kissed her goodbye (maybe forever) and said he'd pick up a few groceries on the way home, to make it look good. If anything was open.
The Basilica of St. Mary Consoler floated, shaped like a bread loaf, above the black tree crowns. In the parking lot Perry shut the engine off, opened the window slightly and listened. No choir tonight, ZoŽ thought. Stained glass windows looked iron in the moonlight.
"Where's Moonboy?" ZoŽ whispered, more to the wind than to Perry.
"No idea," Perry said.
"I dunno. Look, the church door is open."
"Doesn't anybody guard this place at night?" Perry grasped ZoŽ's elbow, and she was glad. No choir. The only music was the low drag of desert-born wind around the gargoyles and through the sweeping eucalyptus trees. The moon looked down in shock and surprise.
"I'm gonna pee my pants," Perry said.
"Come on, let's get that scoop." She towed him along. "What's that?" Something lay on the threshold, deliberately placed there, she was sure: a toy telescope, a child's plaything. As she bent over and reached for the telescope, a bit of White Stuff somersaulted slowly by, brushed by moonlight.
The door swung open the rest of the way with a faint creak.
"Come on," ZoŽ said. She took a step into the darkness. She was not going to be afraid. There was too much at stake hereher future, and therefore Max's; and the lives of people who must be saved from these evil barf-bags.
"Okay," Perry said holding her back. "This is the point of no return. You're still game?"
Perry shrugged and went in first.
She clung close to him, holding handfuls of his jacket. The absence of Moonboy touched strings of fear inside her; but maybe he was just hiding in the churchthat seemed logical.
The interior of the basilica was quiet as a sunken ship. For a moment, with the small side door open, wind strayed across the pews. Perry pulled the door shut. ZoŽ was afraid to clear her throat. The organ pipes gleamed high up at one end, the tabernacle door at the other. The only light on inside was a small red sanctuary lamp, little more than a pinprick. The air smelled of incense, burnt beeswax, and floor polish. Something went creak and ZoŽ jumped against Perry's back. Just something wooden, settling in the night, she thought. A rational explanation for everything.
"Up there," Perry said softly, pointing to the clocktower. His voice rippled away like a pebble dropped in water.
ZoŽ and Perry tiptoed toward the back of the basilica. Thump, something went right by ZoŽ.
"Oh good God," ZoŽ wailed.
"Only a cat," Perry said. A gray mouser perched on a collection box. His eyes were like smoldering pennies. His gaze followed them.
Perry gripped ZoŽ's hand tightly, and she was glad. She could deal with something she could see, could grab in her hands, could upside with a shovel; but the unseen, lurking unnerved her. Except the Cold Thing. For that she was waiting with open fingernails.
A doll face smiled sweetly in the shadows. Fingers curled around ZoŽ's arm. The fingers were Perry's and the face was that of the Virgin, holding Jesus in one arm, the other hand raised blessing. Perry had nail heads of sweat on his forehead.
They went up a narrow winding stair case that seemed to thunder woodenly, even though they tiptoed. Any minute, ZoŽ thought, a hundred policemen will come and arrest us. And maybe it would be a relief.
Up, up into a growing draft of fresh air. Was it the sea or the wind she heard? A wash of full moonlight grew brighter with each step. They were in the bell tower, 60ish feet above ground. Two large bells, one the size of a chair, the other the size of a table, hung in the room. A carillon rack with smaller bells was embedded in the east wall. The room was otherwise unadorned. Plaster had fallen off and lay untouched. Circuit breakers and other unknowables of plumbing, heating, and electricity were sunk into the plain wood beams.
They walked across the wooden floor to the north wall and peered out of the window.
"Jesus," ZoŽ said.
"I can't believe it," Perry said.
ZoŽ remembered the cheap telescope, a child's toy bought at a supermarket, that she'd been clutching. It had spaceships and Saturn's on its sides. Magnification was 8X. She looked through it and saw blurry figures moving in the graveyard.
"I believe," Perry whispered, "it's what they call in the trade a Black Mass."
ZoŽ stared hard. She made out figures moving in a circle, holding hands. They looked like...soldiers?
"Survivalists," Perry said. "They believe the end of the world is at hand." He imitated Moonboy: "Armageddon for Babylon, and maybe they right, who knows? Jah and Satan their final fight. And these boys not Jah's."
ZoŽ saw dark clothing with flower wreaths, and now that Perry had mentioned it, she caught the glimmer of rifles and highly polished combat boots. People who owned the dark side of America could well afford their own army, especially a bunch of brainwashed fools in camouflage, ready to die for phony ideas and delusions.
Tiers of flickering candles draped the tombstones like a moss of light. She made out reddish light flickering in black shells or pots. Something... a dog or cat ...lay inertly ...now a figure moved in from the circle. A flashing... what? ...a knife. A brief, strangled cry rose up out of the willow trees. ZoŽ handed the scope to Perry. "They just butchered a dog or cat." She picked up the camera and began shooting, hoping the people below would not see her. The camera picked up infrared emanations, which were invisible to the human eye. No flash was required. Perry took over and filmed nervously. Even the whirring of the camera was scary; she wondered if the right gust of wind could carry it the two hundred feet to Satanist ears. She tried to make out individual faces, but in the dim light could not recognize anyone. The infrared camera would capture details the police could decipher later. She watched in horrid fascination as the ceremony wound through its paces, much of it broadly decipherable as a mockery of the Mass. The acoustics of the sunken cemetery were such that sound clung within its walls as though afraid to sail up into the free air. As ZoŽ's eyes became used to the gloom, she was able to make out scattered bits of detail. "Perry," she whispered, "they are about..."(she counted)"twenty, some armed." The Satanists stood in a circle before a tall figure wearing a dark cloak. The tall figure had his arms outspread. He wore some sort of... Her head reeled. She had seen this in a dream somewhere... Some sort of a dark furry mask... A jackal head? Did its eyes glow red, or was that her imagination? Her mouth was dry, and she shook like a leaf... The men were bent over, raising something... A wooden something... A large cross, bottom up... A smell of smoke reached her... Pitch... Were they going to burn a cross?
ZoŽ stared through the toy scope, then lowered it. "Perry," she started to say, through chattering teeth, "I'm losing my cool. Maybe we'd better..."
"ZoŽ, we've got to call the police. This is out of our league."
"Okay," she whispered, too scared to disagree.
They tiptoed back down the steps. Oh God, ZoŽ thought, they'll hear us rumbling on the steps. They'll come and slice us up.
Once again they were in the silent basilica. The sanctuary lamp burned like a red eye. The air was thick and stale. A cloud had shifted and the moon bore down like an operating room light. The stained glass flowed with life. Saints looked down with alarmed eyes. Fingers were raised in blessing, or warning. Leaded lips seemed to be parting, ready to speak. They all had faces shaped like lemons, like the moon, almost like aliens. Was it possible? St. Peter offered a key and seemed to be mumbling...
ZoŽ froze, afraid to step outside. "What if they see us? Won't they have lookouts?"
"We'd be dead by now if they had. But let's not tarry."
"Maybe it's a trap." ZoŽ peered outside and took a shuddering breath of fresh air. Suddenly, it was a huge task just to get back to their car.
From the cemetery below, stray crosswinds brought a snatch of voice, a murmur of song, or was it the wind in the leaves?
"My God," ZoŽ whispered, "are they getting closer?"
Perry frowned. "What's that?" He pointed to a dully glowing object in the corner, on top of the organ. They walked over on the whispering floor and let their eyes adjust to the deeper darkness.
ZoŽ felt the final residue of her self-control slipping away. She had a glimpse of the object and started to wail. It was a jar, and in it, a dark shadow among dark shadows, was the head of Moonboy. She recognized his dark skin and only eye, which stared at her, wide open, startled, and unseeing. She hoped.
"Huh?" Perry said, and bent over to stare at the jar more closely.
At that moment, an ax descended on Perry's head with a sickening crack of bone. Blood spattered all over her.
ZoŽ tried to reach out to help him, but dark figures popped out of the shadows all around and she fell backwards with a strangled cry. She lay stunned on the hard floor while they set upon her, hard men with cork-blackened faces, commando caps, and pointing guns. She caught a last glimpse of Perry's stark, dead face, eyes wide open. Blood ran from his mouth, and more blood was spattered over his forehead which lay on the keyboard pressing down. Making organ music: A deep, shuddering chord drifting between minors and augmenteds... dimly, ZoŽ heard the thunder in the organ pipes and remembered the night Vic Lara had almost left her in the bottom of the Jungle...
No time to let her mind wander now...
...This, she figured, was the hour of her death, and she was too dazed from shock and being roughly handled to reflect much. So this was how it went, she thought, this fast, when you died. The men held hands over her mouth, grasped her arms, pinned her, all in one efficient body of motion. She struggled, kicked, and a fist landed in her gut, knocking the wind out of her. Dazed, she felt herself being lifted. Carried down into the cemetery like a piece of driftwood.
The smell of pitch, the stink of smoke, were markedly noticeable now. She felt her hair dragging on the ground. Her frame of vision passed something burning: a dog's head on fire, like a Hallow E'en pumpkin with a candle inside, burning in the hollow of its tongueless mouth. Its eye sockets were hollow and glowing.
The jackal face grinned down at her below its three little crooked antlers. AT LAST, it said into her mind without seeming to actually speak words, WE ARE TOGETHER, BLESSED ONE...
"No!" she screamed through the rough fingers mauling her face.
WE WILL BE UNITED FOREVER.
She started to scream, but a hard oily rag was tied around her head, painfully tearing into the corners of her mouth and pushing her tongue back in her mouth so she gagged. Roughly she was tied to the cross, head up. Oh God, she thought, they are going to burn me alive.
The jackal-mask (Gilbert? she wondered) stepped close and embraced her. His breath was foul upon her. His eyes had a deep red glowwas it a reflection of fire, or a fire within? COME INTO THE SHIP...
Why are you doing this? she wondered. She heard other voices:
"Hey man, enough is enough."
"Just burn the bitch and let's get outta here."
"You're crazy, man." "Gilbert, what are you going?"
"You can't be serious?"
I AM DEAD SERIOUS.
"Hey look," someone said, "company."
"It's Them," said another.
On the horizon, two pairs of headlights crept in and winked out. She stared with longing at some hope, any hope, of salvation. A long black car had pulled up and seven persons got out. All but two wore black hats, dark suits, black or gray scarves against the raveling wind. ZoŽ waited for them to draw near, so she could figure them out.
"Cops?" someone asked. ZoŽ detected fear and uncertainty among Gilbert's followers.
LET THEM COME CLOSER, the jackal-head thought to her, sneering.
One of the Satanist soldiers threw down his gun. "I'm outta here." His footsteps crashed away. Another followed. Gilbert's remaining followers closed ranks.
ZoŽ spotted a few conservatively dressed civilians among them; churchgoers, one would have thought; wormy men wearing gloves and hats; owlish women in tight coats, blue-rinse permanents, glittering pearly glasses; a tall bald man in gray suit, who might have passed the collection basket on Sundays; several hard-faced women in long drab coats, furry hats, and thick glasses ("why make such a big deal out of it?") and several mousy looking men with sloping shoulders and servile heads ("we don't want any trouble") and these worst of humans, from the bottom of morality's barrel, were all nervously shuffling away now. To their dark glossy cars, to their country estates, safe behind their lawyers and corporate covenants and decretals...
The Gilbert jackal's red eyes glowed crazily as it watched the three men approach. But the mental telepathy voice radiating from it was not Gilbert's but the voice and will of the creature inhabiting Gilbert's hollow and empty soul.
I WANT TO KNOW WHO THREATENS THE SHIP...
As the seven men approached, ZoŽ made out four with Roman collars now, each a tiny wink of white against the otherwise black clothing.
ZoŽ recognized poor old Father Lawrence from St. Cosmas. Bishop Mulcahy must have found better things to do. Somebody had corraled the rabbi and the imam from the Abraham School. Then there were an Episcopalian priest and a Lutheran minister, both with sacerdotal collars, from St. Ronan's School. The sixth was a woman holding a a Bible. The seventh seemed to be (ZoŽ guessed) a voodoo man from the Jungle, holding a green-mossy dog's skull under one arm, and naked, except for a loin cloth, to show off a body covered in clay streaks, spirals, and cometary markings.
They looked like seven windblown shadows in the dim light. They reminded her of gunslinger movies by their steady pace and seven-abreast marching order. Several held up a communion wafers with one hand and cupped the free hand underneath the other. These seven peopleshe couldn't decide if they were gloriously brave or ludicrously nutswere crossing this bleak wilderness to confront the blackest evil in the universe.
ZoŽ got it, despite her outpourings of bladder and fear. Her thought process fluttered with delirium. First there had been the Seven Samurai. Then the Seven Gunslingers in that Mexican town. And now the Seven Sages. These were spiritual samurai, godly gunslingers, holy torpedos.
A crazy image popped into her mind. Spaghetti westerns. On they walked, gunslingers of the spirit world. Wind blew their coats up. Their stoles fluttered in the wind. Father Lawrence stumbled once, slightly, but got right back in step. Communion wafers shone like pebbles in a jagged line. The imam, the woman, and the rabbi waved holy books. The animist priest chanted while cradling his dog skull and staring intently out of a face covered in interstellar graffiti.
"Let those stupid motherfuckers come in here," Gilbert said in a voice that sounded as if strained through cloth, "we'll give them a show."
As the clergy walked across the stark playing field between Jungle and basilica, White Stuff blew between their feet.
THIS WILL BE ENTERTAINING said the Gilbert jackal, caressing ZoŽ's breasts.
The ground shook. Earthquake, ZoŽ thought dully as her body was rattled, tied to the hard wooden cross. Several more of Gilbert's followers deserted, dropping their weapons and running with thudding combat boots.
Father Lawrence was down. The other seven kept walking, like toy soldiers in The Nutcracker Suite, holding the hosts and books and skull instead of wooden guns. Tombstones in the cemetery rocked. The ground rolled in waves and White Stuff blew up. All seven holy persons were down now. Father Lawrence had gotten on his knees but had fallen feebly. Oh God, where are You when we need You? ZoŽ blathered. She bit Gilbert's arm, and he let go her breasthe cursed, blood spurted, and she spat his dirty blood out while making yecccchhhh sounds.
The clergy were back on their feet, marching, except Father Lawrence, who lay paralyzed with his hand before him, and his Communion wafer glittering in star light.
The Gilbert Thing's eyes glared. She felt its hot breath on her, reeking of garbage: WATCH ME... It snatched up a burning pitch pot and ran toward the clergy.
The ground shook and the clergy went down again. So did Gilbert in his antler maskÖcould that be real? The new temblor rattled ZoŽ's body against the wooden cross, jarring her further. She tasted her own blood in her mouth, where she had bitten herself.
Then: She heard a faint keening, like a cat meowing.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.