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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 —

Five years later in a New York City skyscraper, Jules knocked on a door way up on a high floor, in a quietly carpeted hallway that smelled enigmatically of money, power, and subtle, cat-like thinking.

"Come in, come in," said the publisher, who had arranged the meeting.

"Thanks," Jules said and entered. He put his briefcase on the floor. Then he peeled off his raincoat and placed it, along with the umbrella, on a chair. He sat in the other chair.

The publisher, a tiny man named Origaki, wore a black mod suit with baggy pants, tight jacket, white shirt, and black bolo. His thick glasses glittered. "Coffee?"

Jules loosened his collar. "No thanks. My wife and I stopped at Times Square and had coffee." He had put on weight. His hair had turned white. And he had given up the pipe at Patricia's urging.

Origaki said: "I believe I'll have a cup. I hope you aren't unhappy with the rain here in Manhattan." As he poured fragrant coffee, he turned his face toward the skyline. Sky scrapers loomed in roiling mist. "So," Origaki said. He pointed to a brown package on the corner of his vast desk. "We meet the author of San Tomas Visited."

"That's me," Jules said, leaning forward and tapping his fingertips together. He tried not to betray his anxiety.

Origaki sat back, totally in charge, and his glasses glinted. "Tell me, what makes you write such an illuminating account of those events five years ago? Is it the money?"

Jules shook his head. "Not at all. When I announced last year that I would be retiring this past summer, the family got together and decided to liquidate our interest in the San Tomas Herald. We are all very comfortable, I assure you."

"Good," Origaki said. "Got tired of the business?"

"Sure," Jules said. "After thirty years, I had gone as far as I would ever go. Executive Editor of a decent size morning paper. And the truth is, after those events five years ago, nothing anywhere near as interesting ever happened again."

Origaki laughed. "I can appreciate that. You have tried, what, every other publisher in New York?"

"Word gets around.".

Origaki nodded, a shade more somber. "I don't mind being last, Mr. Loomis. I make no secret that we go for glitz and flash. Our sales are monumental. The secret of our success is that we are timely, Mr. Loomis. Therefore I will unfortunately also have to decline your book."

Jules sat back, feeling defeated and yet for some strange reason relieved.

Origaki said: "If you had come to me five years ago..."

"...I was very busy then," Jules said. "I only wrote the book this year. That is, ZoŽ and I had started it, but events took over and somehow we never did finish it together."

Origaki smiled sadly. "There were a spate of books, some of them good, others quite ridiculous. After a year or two, the excitement died down. After all, there was no proof of anything. Divers found no girders in the sea. No trace of a ship.

"The broken remains of the old sphinx were there, true, but its guts were made of very ordinary crumbly stone with veins of carbon and iron. You can dig it out of the ground in West Virginia by the truckload.

"Then there is the scientific monograph published by Drs. Stanislaus, Black, and White, stating that in their opinion the mental effects witnessed in San Tomas were a memorable but hardly extraterrestrial manifestation of mass hysteria."

Jules said: "Maybe they said that because the Government is hushing everything up."

Origaki smiled enigmatically, and shrugged his little shoulders. "You yourself say, in your own book, that Chief of Police Victor Lara has steadfastly refused to offer an opinion other than four-letter expletives telling the reporter to leave his office or said reporter will exit via the nearest window.

"Then there is the Vatican. They refuse comment. Bishop Mulcahy has been replaced and transferred to be Archbishop of Dallas; he claims it was all a lot of malarkey. He says there was no genuine Satanism involved in the phenomenon, only the misguided deeds of twisted souls and a lot of Left Coast craziness. He says the Church has seen effects like this often before: mass hysteria again.

"The various government agencies involved are of course not allowed to comment, though we know the Air Force closed its secret dossier four years ago."

Jules interjected: "What about the evidence of nuclear radiation?" Since ZoŽ and the others had only been spirit walking, so to speak, they could not have been affected by the leaking drums in the airplane. There had been no drums of such waste listed in the plane in which Wayne Calla had died, and yet U-Pho had found dozens of such drums in the plane.

Origaki shrugged without a break in his smile. "Who knows? They fell off a Navy barge, perhaps, rolled into the plane, what does it matter?" He sat down with his coffee. "Finally, there are the reporter and the assistant zoo curator, both of whom were extensively quoted in various publications and have had nothing new to say. They insist they were in a ship, et cetera. We have heard all this before and I'm afraid it's nothing new. There isn't even a trace of this remarkable white shaving cream or whatever to be found anywhere in San Tomas; people have tried."

Jules stopped himself from leaving just then. "You can take a potting spade," he said, "go anywhere in San Tomas, and in five minutes have yourself handfuls of White Stuff in twirling spaghetti shapes, like coiled wire. It's all over in the soil!"

"Yes, of course," Origaki said. "Dr. LeGrier, who incidentally favors the view that there were really aliens and a ship, has stated that much of the wire could be traced back to the World War II government contracting firm of Herrera Y Hijos, which made millions of feet of wire during the war. So that proves nothing."

"I know all that," Jules said. "That is why I concentrated on the human angle. On ZoŽ's mother, who never fully regained her sanity, and died shortly after from a brain aneurysm. Did you read that? And Evvie Stork. Vic and Martina Lara, who got married, took in Perry and Matilda Stein's kids, also adopted Evvie but she kept running away. Did you read that, huh? How Evvie ran away got into drugs and after numerous rehabs finally hung herself in a police station with a sock she pulled off a guy in the drunk tank? That Evvie and Doris Calla lie buried next to Miss Polly in the Burtongale mortuary? Did you read that? Do your readers care?"

Origaki squinted regretfully. "It's old hat, Mr. Loomis. As you know, Mr. Martin Willow covered all the family stuff in his rather"(Mr. Origaki's tongue visibly slithered across his lower lip at the thought)"searing intimate family memoir."

Jules slapped himself on the knees and rose. Mart Willow, now consulting editor at some obscure business weekly in some dreary suburb of Chicago, had managed to strike home one more kick before retiring under his rock with his bottle. "You seem to have covered everything."

Origaki smiled and lit a cigarette. A ball of smoke rolled away. "I'm sorry, but I hope you understand."

Jules took his package. "I understand. I was a reporter and an editor for many years. I probably wouldn't print this either."

Origaki rang a buzzer and strode to the door. "I want to thank you for bringing this to my attention." He offered a hand.

Jules shook it. "Well, thank you too. For your time. At least you gave it some thought. You are well informed, and very thorough. I like that."

"A very positive man," Origaki said. "I like that as well. Have a nice life, Jules."

Patricia was waiting for Jules in the marbled, slushy lobby that smelled of coats and shoes. Voices echoed all around, like in the Burtongale Building back in San Tomas.

Jules homed in on Patricia's concerned, loving face. Her eyes read his disappointment and were ready to offer solace. Her mouth had a bittersweet smile, ready to pour forth words that would warm him like a hot drink. She slid her arm through his. She pressed her still firm, still curvy body against him. "Oh honey, did he say no?"

Jules nodded. "I'm going to do us all a favor," he said. In passing, he dumped the manuscript into a trashcan.

"Darling!" she protested.

They walked out into the rain, and he opened his umbrella for her. "It's over," he said.

— ii —

In Vermont, the rental car knifed through slushy snow. Patricia's cheeks glowed as stark, leafless trees flowed by. She had the letter of invitation on her lap. The return address, written in ZoŽ's neat, if crabbed penmanship, read "Roger and ZoŽ Chatfield, 94 Hollow Log Lane, Kaukasin, Vt." ZoŽ had, additionally, stuffed into the envelope a pencil-drawn map on children's loose-leaf. The littlest one, Julia, wanted to make sure her uncle and aunt found them, especially if it was snowy.

Jules puckered his lips and made a kissing sound. Patricia slid her arm through his. Winter had struck Vermont that very afternoon. Burlington had been packed with skiers as they drove through. The sky looked puffy and gray; the temperature bobbed up slightly, and the air smelled of more coming snow. Radio station WKAU stated that more of The White Stuff was about to come down.

"The White Stuff," Jules chuckled. "Remember that?"

She shivered. "I try not to."

Jules laughed. "Imagine. I was upset nobody would publish my book. Just think how close earth came to being colonized by aliens a hundred million years ago."

"And again, just five years ago," Patricia interjected.

He was still thinking of the spaceship, millions of years ago. "There would have been no you, no me, if the odd-eyes, three-antlers, five-legs had won the race of evolution here on Earth."

She patted his leg. "Well they lost, so there."

"By a hair," he said. "By a hair. Imagine. They made it all the way across who knows how many light years of space, from the Lesser Magellanic Cloud or even farther, all the way into our atmosphere, and then something went wrong. Maybe they were coming in a few hundred klicks too fast. Or at the wrong angle. Or they met up with a chunk of space rock...BOOM, finished! And the earth turned out to be the planet it is today, even with Mart Willow and Gilbert and their ilk slithering across it."

She sat up straight and put her arm over his shoulder. "Forget that creepy Mart. Look, there's Elisa." It was four p.m. and already the last wan sunlight was being leached away. The sky leaned swollenly against a big stone house on a hill. Smoke dribbled from the chimney. Lights were on inside, golden and homey. Sleds, skis, and a toboggan leaned against the house. A child stood alone in the middle of the lawn, holding a snowball.

"That can't be Elisa," Jules said. "She's too young."

Patricia squealed. "That's her. That's Julia."

"No," Jules said meaning yes as he pulled the car up beside a pile of freezing slush. Just then, the house door burst open. Two dogs exploded onto the lawn. People stepped out of the house, and Jules counted them off one by one. He and Patricia hadn't seen the Chatfields in four years, so this was a shock. Max, 15, ran out on long slim legs. Rudy, 14 and chunky, almost chubby, puffed out the door after Max. The two boys tossed a football between them. Then a tall, attractive woman stepped out, with long dark hair, white knit sweater, and dark corduroys.

"ZoŽ?" Patricia asked.

"Put your glasses on," Jules said. "That's Elisa. Holy cow, she's eighteen and going to the University of Vermont."

Elisa hovered behind her little sister, who would be just five now, and placed her hands protectively on Julia's shoulders. Julia looked a lot like Susan and Roger, Jules thought, beautiful dark skin and big dark eyes. Elisa made the girl drop her snowball, and in the brief tussle that followed, the girl's hood fell back exposing thick curls. But she was also ZoŽ's daughter. No wonder the aliens had said she was 'blest;' they would not harm captive animals that were with young, for it was the ship's mission to encourage the breeding of life as the ship streaked among the stars. And ZoŽ had been very much with young when she spirit walked to the ship; with Julia, to be specific. And Other Susan had added her egg, just to be sure she was as blest as could be. Julia was, therefore, the only surviving offspring of the cargo that had come to Earth from far away. Julia had been minutely examined, by the best doctors and scientists, and found to be a healthy, normal little girlÖentirely, or at least 99.99%, from Earth.

Elisa took little Julia by the hand. Jules and Patricia got out. "Brr," Patricia said, holding her scarf around her neck. Elisa spoke in a mature voice: "This is our little sister Julia, named after you, Uncle Jules. Say hello, Julia. Say hello."

Jules squatted and Julia (who had probably been primed for this all day) ran over. She hugged him. She kissed him on each cheek and spoke as carefully rehearsed (with a few stumbles): "Hello, Uncle Jules. Hello, Aunt Patricia. It is so very nice to see, to see you. Won't you please come in, into our house?"

Elisa kissed Jules and Patricia. They followed Julia up to the house. "Daddy said he'll be a little late. He has some papers to grade, and a few students to meet."

"How is your dad?" Jules asked.

"Fine," Elisa said. "He's a full professor now." As they approached the house, the door swung open. There stood ZoŽ, looking more beautiful than Jules had ever seen her look before. She looked a little more mature, but her face was still model-quality beauty. Her lips still had that saucy fun squiggle. Her eyes were bright and sky-blue, full of sun and laughter. Her figure, though on the short side, was just ripe and shapely as ever, without being either too much or too little. On ZoŽ's arm was the latest addition: Roger Jr., held lovingly, and just a year old.

Max and Rudy crowded in behind Jules and Patricia as the knot of family forced its way through the door. "Smells wonderful," Jules said, sniffing. The interior was all heavy wood and dark brick and smelled of bread, coffee, and pasta. He looked at the computer, the stacked books, the kid pictures. He noted the one-winged parrot, grumpy in his disturbed sleep. He saw the scattered pencils and erasers, the unmistakable withered plant on a corner desk, and said: "Looks like you're finally The Author."

ZoŽ made a wry face. "Well, it's not the crime beat, but I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime. I'm education and arts stringer for the Kaukasin Voice (isn't that a SCREAM?) and I've been steadily publishing articles in child care magazines."

Patricia took Roger Jr. on her arm, and cooed. The infant smiled, waved his arms, and laughed loudly. "That's another Rudy," Jules said.

They all laughed happily, crowding inside.

"Let's keep in the warmth," ZoŽ said. "Julia, sweetie, will you do the honors?"

Julia—(ruffle!)—stepped to the door. How she resembles her parents, thought Jules, with—(drum roll!)—ZoŽ's curly hair and Roger's ruddy skin and Susan's beautiful eyes, not ZoŽ's light sunny blue, but the same dark night-sky blue as Elisa's—(flourish!).

Nice touch, Jules thought, remembering the story of the egg in the space ship, and Julia's birth eight months later—(ta-daaaa!)—the baby of Roger and Susan and ZoŽ.

...A little touch of Susan's magic (a last wish, a gesture of love), and the Pilot's final goodbye—(applause!).

As Julia stood on tiptoes to grasp the door handle, she took one last look outside before her bedtime. With big serious dark eyes she peered at the landscape for a long minute.

High up, in the black sky that was splattered with stars, an object streaked silently across the wheel of the Milky Way.

Snow fell among fragrant pine trees. The sky was dark blue like stained glass, and full of stars. The stars were like an ocean, and the snow was like a beach, or a distant shoal of eternal and infinite space.

Out there it was very cold. Inside it was warm and cozy.

Julia closed the door.


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