Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 26)

Warning: Strong Language

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had been stripped, re-clothed, and dumped into an enclosed park aboard the Dredmillon, chief research vessel of the Nib fleet. Now, having run into Eddie Schulz--a man who's supposed to be dead--she pumps him for information about their strange new home.

The dissociative fog fled his eyes in an instant. He looked at Pip like she had just vomited a litter of puppies. Pip felt Hamza tense beside her.

There was a long, still interlude.

"Sorry," Eddie said at last. His voice was creaky with disuse. "Do I know you?"

Then, without warning, he burst out laughing. The sound was bitter, and horrible, and it sent Hamza leaping backward. "I'll see you later," he murmured, giving Pip's shoulder a quick pat. He turned and hurried away. Eddie's laughter chased him across the park.

Pip stood her ground, though she was more than a little disturbed. The cynical lines and rueful contortions of Eddie's face were wrong, were a perversion, did not belong to the Eddie she knew. Her Eddie--she had to think of him as hers, if only to differentiate--had been an innocent. He'd been naive, single-minded, hopelessly dedicated to an organization that would throw him aside at the first sign of trouble. He couldn't help it--not if what Pip had managed to piece together in the last few days was accurate. He'd been created that way.

This Eddie was a different animal entirely. Pip could tell just by looking. He knew things. He'd suffered. He was angry and suspicious and too terribly experienced to believe in anything, let alone a vacuum cleaner company. If he'd ever possessed the other Eddie's wide-eyed faith in authority, it had been crushed out of him decades ago.

She wished he'd stop laughing.

"Sorry!...Sorry!," he said between guffaws. "It's just...no one here...knows my name. I don't...don't tell anyone...so how could you..." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "How could you know?"

"I met you before," Pip said.

Eddie's eyebrows shot up. "Did you? What a small world." He laughed even harder. If he didn't get ahold of himself soon, he was going to rupture something.

Despite her unease, Pip pressed on. "Not you, exactly. Your...double, I guess. The one who works at Kerry. He was helping me."

"My double?" The phrase seemed to bring Eddie back to himself. His laughter tapered off. "My double?" he repeated. He looked thoughtful. "Yes. I figured he was out there somewhere. That's the cornerstone of their ruse, after all."

"He's dead now," Pip blurted out. She immediately regretted it. She didn't know the protocol for informing someone that their other self had died, but it seemed like she should cushion the news somehow. "He was a good person," she added. "In his own way."

"Was he, now?" Eddie gave her a disagreeable smirk. "Well-liked? Successful in his field?"

Pip hesitated. "In...in a manner of speaking."

"Well then. Sounds like the double had more going for him than the original."

Pip winced. She thought about what Charles had told her: that Eddie Schulz had had no friends or family, no one who cared enough to fully investigate his disappearance. On the one hand, she could understand why. He wasn't a very pleasant person. On the other hand...

"Wipe that pitying look off your face," Eddie ordered. "I'm way past the point where sympathy can save me." He changed the subject: "So you knew the Fake Me through Kerry. That presents two possibilities. One: you're a disillusioned former employee who saw something she shouldn't and was conveniently misplaced."

Pip shook her head.

"Or two," he continued. "You're like me. An investigator snooping through Kerry's dirty laundry, trying to make sense of the connection between a vacuum company, the media, and local law enforcement."

Pip nodded.

Eddie smirked again. "And did you make sense of it?"

"Sort of," she said. "Larry Guyde runs Kerry. His brother in law owns an investment firm that runs the Martell Argus and the Martell P.D. They're conspiring to cover up Kerry's true mission, which is swapping human beings with shoddily-made doubles." She furrowed her brow. "But I don't know what the ultimate goal is. Or where the space aliens come in."

"Ah," said Eddie. He stood, brushed himself off. "On that point, I believe can enlighten you." He offered her his arm. "Walk with me?"

****

They strolled in slow circuits around the park, feeling the not-quite-genuine crunch of the grass beneath their feet, hopping lightly over the not-quite-possible stream every ten minutes or so. The people they passed stared openly. Only Pip noticed.

"I was a journalist," Eddie told her. "A freelancer. Most of my stories were published in The Panopticon, an underground web outfit. They were only partly reputable. Half their pieces were serious journalism, and the other half were garbage--phony war stories, interviews with teenage twins who would bathe each other on camera for cash, stuff like that. It was good money, though. Kept me in cigarettes. I couldn't afford to be choosy.

"I'd been working on a story about network marketing schemes. You know, those companies that thrive as much on recruiting as on selling coupons or half-priced nutritional supplements. Kerry's a big one. As I'm sure you know."

Pip thought about Ron's desperate attempts to recruit her and nodded.

"Anyway," Eddie continued, "I got myself a job at Kerry--not hard, since they'll take literally anyone. After a week, I knew it was shady. After two weeks, I knew it was more than just that. Larry Guyde was always making these phone calls. I managed to record his side of some of them, and they were a trip. All these references to vast distances: a hundred thousand miles, ten million miles, a quarter of a billion miles. Explanations of what Larry called 'Earth terms': 'subpoena,' 'accessory,' 'statute of limitations.'

"'We need to cover our asses,' he kept saying. 'We need to prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario.' I wasn't sure what the worst case scenario was, but I reckoned it wasn't getting rained out at the company picnic. It sounded like he was talking about killing people. Or at least making them disappear.

"He talked about his brother too. It took me a while to figure out that he was referring to George Lugner. When I realized it, I practically shat. 'George will do his level best,' Larry would say, 'to keep it all out of the papers.' It was the most incriminating thing I'd ever caught on tape.

"It's funny. I thought I was being so stealthy. The day I heard Larry mention the lot on Moor Road--the night I followed him there with my headlights off--those minutes I spent hiding behind the silo while a ship came down and Larry went aboard to talk business--I thought I was invisible. 'I've got him fooled,' I told myself. 'All these corporate windbags are the same. Surround yourself with Yes Men for long enough, eventually you see only what you want to see.'

"I was so excited. 'Forget The Panopticon,' I thought. 'This story's going national. International. A few more months' undercover work, and I'll have enough evidence to cause a worldwide paradigm shift.' And in a perfect universe, I might have. But we don't live in a perfect universe.

"I figured that out when someone hit me from behind. One of Larry's underlings, probably. With a brick or something. It's amazing he didn't kill me, he whacked me so god damn hard. I went down like a sack of corn. By the time I woke up, I was already several million miles from Earth.

"This was three years ago. Lugner wasn't here back then--not full-time, anyway. When I woke up, the first face I saw was gelatinous and covered in eye spots. I hadn't seen anything like it since my drug binge during Gulf I. They seemed excited to have me here. They gave me a tour, showed me the sites. I saw the bridge. I saw the mess hall. I saw a room full of hoses that I think was the bathroom. They didn't explain it real well. Their English was shit back then. It's better now.

"Finally they showed me a laboratory, which was a nightmare. All kinds of quasi-human body parts in glass jars. 'Practice,' they called them.

'We much more gooder now,' they told me. 'We has now materials from vacuum.' They showed me bins of what looked like skin and hair. 'We make much more gooder copy now,' they said. 'We make copy from you. Every people think it you. No people miss you.' Oddly enough, that tidbit seemed intended to comfort me. I guess they figured I might be worried about my loved ones. They wanted me to know that no one would be bereaved by my disappearance.

"'Thanks all the same,' I said, 'but I think I'd rather go home.'

That really confused them. 'Home?' they kept repeating. 'Home?' I've since figured out that the Nib have no real concept of home, in the sense of a location where you live for the duration of your life. They're from distal Sagittarius originally, but they move around a lot. They have some vague notion of 'home' as the place where you're surrounded by comforting things. Which is probably why they expected me to be excited when they brought me to this shit hole."

Eddie gestured to the park. Pip followed the sweep of his arm with her eyes.

"It's not a bad park," she said, and it really wasn't. It was rather pretty, all things considered.

Eddie huffed. "Yeah, not bad. Provided you don't mind milling around the same few acres for years on end, pissing in a creek and wearing a flimsy-ass nightgown. I myself hoped to get a little more out of life."

"Point taken," said Pip. She didn't relish the thought of staying in one place for that long either. Hers was a restless mind, one that rebelled against the barest whiff of stagnation. She thought. "So the Nib are, what? Studying us?"

"As far as I can tell."

"What for?"

"That I don't know. To be honest, I know almost nothing. And I've been here longer than anyone."

"So there's no point in asking you questions, then."

Eddie threw up his arms and sighed. "You can try. I just can't guarantee an answer that's worth more than a hot squirt of shit."

Hoping against hope, Pip asked: "Have you seen anyone come through here who looks like me?"

Eddie frowned. "What, black?"

Pip shook her head and groaned. "No. A lot like me. Tall. Slender. Dark curly hair. Around twenty years old."

"Oh," said Eddie. Then: "No."

Pip's heart sank through the floor. "I see." She paused to suck back her tears. "One more question?"

"Go for it."

"How do we get out of here?"

Eddie chuckled darkly. "We don't." A noise drifted across the park. A clangor, as of a steel door rising. "Oh boy," Eddie said, sounding anything but enthused. "It's lunch time."