Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 24)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, her brother had met an untimely and horrific end. Now, still reeling with shock, Pip casts herself into the Confluence and finds herself transported across the galaxy.

The police arrived twenty minutes later. Neither Pip not Charles knew which of the neighbors had called them. One officer--a rookie, judging by his fresh face and compassionate attitude--turned away from Duncan's remains and immediately vomited. The other--a middle-aged woman with a severe set to her mouth--asked Charles a few perfunctory questions and scribbled the answers in her notebook.

Pip was far outside herself. There were countless miles between her senses and her understanding. She didn't feel, didn't see, didn't hear the officers as they went through their procedures. She remained still and upright only because Charles held her there, gripping her shoulder like a rope tossed from a ship to a drowning castaway.

An ambulance showed up. The EMT's stared at the pile of bones and intestines and scratched their heads. They weren't even sure how to get it all in a body bag. After a few minutes, a neighbor arrived on the scene with a shovel. The female officer took the opportunity to suggest Pip wait inside.


Pip went into the apartment with Charles. She looked around at Duncan's things. His shoes. His cell phone. His computer tower with its upholstering of ironic stickers. She remembered the hours he'd spent fiddling with it when they were in high school. Back then, he'd made his living recording albums for local bands. Red Letter. Snowmonkey. Lethal Injection.

"They really suck," he'd said at the time. "But kids buy their albums. Too much disposable income around here."

He'd been bright. Sardonic. Always ready with the right quip to turn personal tragedy into high comedy. Like Pip, he was well acquainted with life's vicissitudes. Unlike Pip, he was able to bear them without getting angsty. If anyone had the correct attitude toward life, it was Duncan.

Until last night.

The truth struck Pip like a two-by-four to the back of the head.

"That wasn't him," she said.

Charles' hand, which had been rubbing soothing circles across her back, halted in its progress. "What?" he said.

"That wasn't Duncan. It was a fake."

Charles frowned. Then a maddening, sympathetic look came into his eyes. "Oh, Pip," he said, drawing her close. "Oh, sweetheart. I'm so sorry."

"Listen to me," Pip said, her words muffled against his chest. "That wasn't Duncan. It was just a copy. Duncan's not dead."

"It was him, Pip. I'm sorry, but it was."

"No, it wasn't." Reaching into the pocket of Charles' jacket, she withdrew his keys. "I need to borrow your car."

"What?" Charles' face creased in consternation as Pip pulled away. "Wait. Where are you going?"

Pip gave no answer. She turned and headed toward the door.

"Pip," Charles called.

"Don't follow me!" Pip ordered, and she hoped she'd infused the words with enough venom. She didn't want him with her, didn't want him to sway her from her course. She knew what she had to do. Charles' presence would only complicate matters.

****

She drove to the old apartment in silence. Five minutes in, her phone rang. She switched it off without checking to see who was trying to contact her. Charles, she assumed, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore.

****

Th storage unit was no more than a closet at the rear of the basement. The floor was dirt and the ceiling was low. Pip had to hunch to ensure her hair would clear it.

She unlocked the unit and stepped over the threshold--and directly into a spider web. The filaments strung themselves across her mouth, her nose, her eyes. She spat and wiped her face with her sleeve. Took a few more steps. There it was.

The Confluence.

Kneeling in the dirt next to the canister, she pried it open with Charles' car key. Watery blue light swallowed her, reflecting off walls and ceiling, transforming the storage unit into a B-movie special effect, a piece of colored film jiggled in front of a lens. Pip stared into the eye of the vortex.

"Body's no good. Body's not here. Body's in the vacuum."

Duncan's words sussurated through her cortex. With a deep, gasping in-breath, Pip thrust her hand into the light.

The pain was apocalyptic. It came all at once rather than in a manageable crescendo. Flesh vaporized. Connective tissue pulled to ribbons. Blood boiled away. Bones wrenched apart at the joints. It was warm and then cold and then warm, but always it burned like a naked flame. Pip's mind screamed at her to pull away.

She plunged further, letting the whirlpool take her up to the elbow. It was tugging at her now, drawing her inch by inch into its core. When it reached her shoulder, she knew that escape was no longer a possibility. The head of her humerus popped out of its socket, drawing a shriek from her lips. Her body began to contort, vertebrae curling and compressing, clavicles bowing downward, scapulae folding around the sides of her rib cage. Her ribs rounded and shrank against her organs, while her torso stretched to feed itself into the machine. Her head was bent backward nearly 130 degrees; somehow this failed to kill her. The vortex closed around her ears. She continued to scream, but she could no longer hear it. The light was silent as it pulled her apart atom by atom, scattering quarks like dandelion fluff into the cosmic winds.

Her mind came undone. Neurons were uncoupled and denuded of their impulses. Everything that Pip was, had been, ever would be--diffused into the totality, subsumed by the same system that built the stars and would one day reclaim them.

It was bright. It was dark. It was nothing at all.

****

An age passed: time without measure, without name. Eventually, Pip began to think again. Her first thought was: Smells.

She was lying on her back. There was something cold and hard beneath her. Light on the other side of her closed eyelids. Fluorescent. Unpleasant. Like being at the dentist's office.

And the smell. Urea. Phlegm. A thousand unwashed armpits. There was foul and then there was this. Pip felt sick to her stomach.

A chuckle. Male. Somewhere to her right.

"I see that nose wrinkling," said a voice. "I apologize. It does take some time to get used to the Dredmillon's signature stench."

With a Herculean effort, Pip turned her head. With an additional effort that would have set Hercules panting, she eased open her eyes. She was in a small, gray, windowless room. The walls were studded with alcoves. A man sat in one of them, staring at her. His bald head glittered and his green eyes crinkled with gentle good humor. He wore a suit and was eating from a can of peanuts.

"It's just that they've been breathing the same air here since the mid-1980's," he continued. "They scrub it, or at least they claim that they do. Carbon-fixing algae, all that. But it's like trying to breathe under a piss-soaked duvet in ninety-degree weather. God-awful." He popped a peanut into his mouth and chewed. Crunch. Crunch. "How are you feeling?"

"Lousy," Pip croaked, before she had time to ask herself who this man was and what he wanted with her.

The man chuckled again. "I imagine so! I've never seen an intact organism come through the Confluence before. Usually it's disconnected bits--some hair here, a hangnail there. Nothing attached. Nothing conscious." He ate another peanut. "It must have been terribly painful."

"Terribly." Pip's head throbbed. She closed her eyes, grimaced, opened them again. "Where am I?"

"Careful listening would have yielded the answer already. You're on the Dredmillon." He made a sweeping gesture with his right arm. "Chief research vessel of the Nib fleet. Currently stationed near the planetoid Haumea."

Pip was too tired to parse the information, let alone feel shocked. "What am I doing here?"

"You tell me. You're the one who fed yourself into the Confluence. I assume you had some compelling reason."

"I can't remember," Pip said, and she really couldn't. Having one's mind dispersed and then reconstituted tended to have that effect. "I was in the basement...and then...spiderwebs." She brushed her lips with her hand. Traces of filament stuck to her finger tips. She squinted at the man. "Who are you?"

"My name is George Lugner," the man replied. "And you're in a lot of trouble. But let's not worry about that just now." Grinning amiably, he thrust the can toward Pip's face and asked: "Peanut?"