Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 25)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had thrown herself into the Confluence and wound up aboard a research vessel floating near the planetoid Haumea. Now, with the help of a business magnate and a bio-luminescent alien, she struggles to figure out just how screwed she actually is. Things are made more confusing when an old friend returns from the dead.

Pip slept again.

When she awoke, the bald man was still there.

"George Lugner," she said. "The owner of the Martell Argus?"

He nodded. "And the Bank of Martell. A bunch of restaurants and bars. Hell, the Martell Police Department, if we're laying out our cards here. But I'm not much involved with my holdings these days." He smiled. "I've left their management to my brother Larry. He takes care of business down there; I take care of business up here."

"And where is 'here?'"

"I told you. The Dredmillon. Chief research vessel of the Nib fleet."

"You say that like it's supposed to mean something to me."

"Not yet, maybe. But it will."

A dark look accompanied his words. Pip shivered.


"What exactly are you researching?" she asked with feigned nonchalance.

"I'm not researching anything. My role here is purely administrative. The Nib, on the other hand..." He paused, then smiled. "Well. Perhaps it would be easier just to show you. Can you stand?"

Pip could, though the first few minutes were dicey. The room with its alcoves swirled around her like a ride at a disreputable state fair. As she toddled away from the metal examination table, she lost her footing, fell on her face, and vomited on the floor.

"Atta girl," Lugner said, hoisting her to her feet. "Your stomach will settle. Eventually. Probably."

He supported her as they made their way through an automatic steel door and out into a hallway. The walls were different here--black spackle instead of metal and outwardly bowing. They seemed built to accommodate creatures much wider and rounder than Pip.

The smell out here was worse. Pip vomited again, transforming the floor into a chunky, bilious Jackson Pollack.

"No worries," Lugner assured her. "The whole place is stain-resistant. Otherwise the Nib would gunk it up in real short order."

"Ar'they alienss?" Pip slurred.

Lugner snorted. "Of course they're aliens. What else would they be?"

"I dunno." Pip thought for a moment. It was no easy task. Each neural discharge struggled through her consciousness like a bug through Jello. "Are you gonna hurt me?"

"No," Lugner said, a hair too quickly.

"Are th'aliens gonna hurt me?"

"That very much depends on your personal definition of the word 'hurt.'" He pointed ahead. "There's one now. You can ask her yourself."

Following his index finger, Pip's eyes fell upon a figure at the end of the corridor. It was tall, ovoid, and ringed by tiers of fluted tentacles. Its head--or, at least, its northernmost region--was shaped like an overturned hourglass. In place of eyes, it had a row of bioluminescent patches. In place of a mouth, it had a soft tapered tube. It wore no clothing and no facial expression. Not one that Pip could decipher, anyway.

"Liirma'nib!" Lugner cried, his face split by a broad grin. He halted before the being, tugging Pip to a stop beside him. "This cycle's prescribed rest period has done wonders for your consistency. You look looser and more watery than ever."

The being's luminescent eyes changed from a poised purple to a blushing pink. When she spoke, it sounded like bees buzzing through a drive-thru speaker. "Flattery, alwayzz flaterry wiz you. Izz every member of your zspeciezz zizz way?"

"Not every member, no." Lugner gave Pip a push forward. "This one seems mostly interested in vomiting and poking her nose where it doesn't belong."

The light in Liirma'nib's eyespots sharpened as she looked at Pip. "I heard about zizz one. Came zroo ze Confluenzz, yezz? Ztill alive, all in one pieczz?"

"As far as I can tell. Of course, we'll only know for sure through long-term observation."

The Nib's eyes sharpened still further. "Of courzz." She offered one of her medial tentacles to Pip. "Come now, little zsneak-child. You muzzt be changed."

Pip's reeling mind tossed up images of horrific transformation. Doctor Moreau and his upright pigs--P.T. Barnum and his stitched grotesques--the Little Mermaid's dad as a shriveled shrimp-thing in Ursula's garden. She began to tremble.

Noticing the look of terror on her subject's face, Liirma'nib hastened to clarify. "Your clotheszz, human. We will change your clotheszz."

"Oh," said Pip.

Lugner chuckled and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "This is where we say goodbye, my dear," he told her. "I've got an operation to run."

Pip looked at him. She was both relieved and dismayed. She had no love for George Lugner, not after everything Charles had told her. Still, he was the devil she knew. Liirma'nib was...something else entirely. "Don't," she said, berating herself for her weakness. But Lugner was already gone. He tossed a wave over his shoulder as Pip watched his back recede down the corridor.

Liirma'nib wrapped her tentacle around Pip's wrist.

"Come," she said. "I will make you more comfortable."

****

The Nib's way of making Pip more comfortable involved stripping her naked and tossing her clothes in the incinerator. She then produced a white linen shift from a metal closet filled with hundreds of identical garments.

"Put zizz on," she ordered.

Pip did. It was seamless and smooth against her skin. It was also sheer. Without so much as a bra or underpants to shield her, she felt miserably exposed. "Is this really all I get?"

Liirma'nib waxed indignant. "What more izz it you are wanting?" she demanded. "We Nib wear no clotheszz at all, and never do we complain."

Pip apologized but folded her arms over the outline of her breasts as the Nib led her into an adjacent room.

Pip swayed on the threshold. The breath left her lungs. Her experience with alien spacecraft was admittedly limited, and she was willing to make cognitive allowances for all sorts of strange things. This, however, was far beyond what she could easily accept.

It was a park. An unexceptional suburban park. Five square acres of rolling hills and manicured grass. At one end was a swing set. At another was an outdoor grill fenced in by picnic tables. Through the center of the property ran a prating blue stream less than a meter wide. And about all of this--the swing set, the picnic area, the stream--human beings strolled. They wore white shifts identical to Pip's and conversed in desultory tones. Their sour faces were out of keeping with the cheerful family environment the Nib had obviously strove to cultivate.

"More comfortable, yezz?" said Liirma'nib, peering sideways at Pip.

Pip didn't know how to answer. Comfort was sometimes a matter of context.

"I will leave you now," said Liirma'nib. "We will zerve a meal in four clickz. Maybe your organz will be ztrong enough then for you to partake."

She left and closed the door behind her, leaving Pip to gape in silence.

****

"Hey," said a young man with dark hair and thick eyebrows. "You're new, aren't you?"

Pip nodded. Her powers of speech had been obliterated by shock.

The young man shot her a commiserating look. "Sucks," he said. Then: "My names Hamza. Come on. I'll introduce you to some people." He turned, took a step forward, turned back to see that Pip hadn't moved. He huffed impatiently. "Come on."

Pip followed. Hamza took her first to a cluster of people near the grill. He introduced them one by one. Joshua. Carmen. Arman. Sophie. Pip could scarcely hear the names, much less retain them. They tossed out a volley of weak hellos and resumed whatever it was they were doing. Staring at the grill, as far as Pip could tell.

Next, Hamza took her to see two men and one woman who were wading in the stream. The men were called Henry and DeMarcus. The woman was called Masha. The latter name sparked a faint pang of recognition in one corner of Pip's mind, but she was too disoriented to analyze it.

Lastly, Hamza brought her to the swing set, where a solitary man sat in the dirt. He'd been here a long time, Hamza said. Maybe longer than anyone. Every so often, he flew into a rage and tried to destroy the park. The rest of the time, he was quiet. Kept to himself. Stared at the dirt and the grass and the phony blue sky like they were a riddle constructed solely to torment him. He never confided in anyone. Hamza didn't even know his name.

Pip did. She'd seen him before. Spoken with him. Whispered and schemed with him over the phone on a Martell city bus, after she'd split with her boyfriend and the world had become an infinitely exciting, infinitely more sinister place.

She knelt next to him in the dirt. Waited for him to meet her gaze.

"Eddie," she said.