Saturday, February 7, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 27)

Warning: Strong Language

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had pumped Eddie Schulz--the original one--for information about their strange shared home. Now, she befriends the other inmates and struggles not to fall into despair. An escape attempt is pending...

The park inmates--just under a dozen, Pip saw, now that they were gathered together--ambled toward the noise. There was indeed a steel door. It sat in one of the towering white walls like a security gate at a suburban Home Depot. As it rose, it revealed a metal cart flanked by two Nib. The one on the right was larger, firmer, and orange in hue. The one on the left was a mound of gelatinous ecru.

"Hello!" the orange one chirped. "Pleaze to be eating now."

"Pleaze to be eating now," the other echoed in a voice that sounded like an obese man squirming around in a vinyl chair.

They prisoners held out their hands to receive their rations: two uncooked potatoes, a fistful of cabbage, and a strip of jerky. The Nib divvied up the vittles with casual precision, seemingly unconcerned that the steel door was still wide open behind them.

Pip looked at Eddie. "Aren't they worried that someone will make a break for it?" she murmured.

"People have made a break for it," Eddie murmured back. "Nearly everyone here has run through those doors at one point or another. The Nib don't stop them."

"What? Why not?"

"Because where the hell are they gonna go? They're still on a ship in the middle of nowhere. The typical escapee runs up and down corridors for a day or two before collapsing from exhaustion, at which point the Nib pick them up and dump them right back in the park. It doesn't even qualify as a minor inconvenience."

"What if the escapee found a weapon?"

"There aren't any weapons aboard the Dredmillon. It's a research vessel."

"What if they went through the Confluence?"

"The Conflu-?" Eddie furrowed his brow. "What the hell's a Confluence?"

That's right, Pip thought. He doesn't know. That was the other Eddie.

There was a commotion behind her. She turned at the sound of raised voices and saw the woman Hamza had introduced as Masha. A burly redhead was waving a potato in Masha's face and entreating her desperately.

"One potato, Masha," the redhead said. "Just one potato. Hell, half of one potato would be more than you've eaten so far this week. Are you on some kind of starvation diet?"

Masha smiled at the ground. She had a pretty smile. Unfortunately, it was framed by a set of very sunken cheeks. Pip stared at her, and the gears cranked, and suddenly she realized why the name Masha was so familiar.

"Boglomov!" Pip gasped.

Masha looked up, startled. "What?"

"Masha Boglomov!" Pip repeated. "I know you! I've been in your house! I saw your body!"

A hush dropped over the crowd. All eyes swiveled toward Pip. The redhead frowned, dropped her potato and took a step away from Masha, as if to distance herself from whatever craziness was about to unfold. Masha herself grabbed a handful of her blonde hair and twisted it nervously.

"You saw my body?" she asked, and Pip could read the urge to bolt in her eyes.

"Yeah!" said Pip. "Well...no. No, not yours, exactly. It was your double's."

Nudging Masha, the redhead gave a low whistle and tapped her temple with her index finger. "Psycho..." she sang in an undertone.

Pip was taken aback. She'd assumed her fellow prisoners knew about their duplicate selves. "I'm not a psycho," she exclaimed. Then, turning to Eddie: "You didn't tell them?"

Eddie shrugged. "What would be the point. It's not like that knowledge is any help to them in here."

A defeatist as well, Pip thought, sighing internally. Terrific.

She turned back to the crowd. "The Nib needed a way to abduct specimens without rousing suspicion," she explained. "So every time they took someone, they replaced that person with an artificially created doppelgänger."

The redhead, who seemed to hold some authority within the group, gaped in disbelief. "A doppelgänger?" she said. "What--like a clone?"

Pip nodded. "Kind of a shitty one. From what I can tell, they fall apart in pretty short order. Eddie's went to pieces." She jerked a thumb at Eddie. "So did yours." She pointed at Masha. "And..." She looked around for her deceased neighbor. It took a moment, as she'd only met the woman once. "Yours," she said, gesturing at a woman with tattered extensions. "All of your doubles are dead. No one back on Earth knows why. Actually, almost no one on Earth knows about it at all, because the police are engaged in a massive cover-up, and..." She took a deep breath. "It's a long story."

Eddie snorted. "The Nib, everybody. They can orchestrate the abduction and captivity of specimens from clear across the universe, but they can't get cloning right."

"It wouldn't be the usual method of cloning," Hamza interrupted. "They're not injecting our gametes into a host oocyte and allowing it to develop. They're synthesizing fully-grown adult humans out of scattered bits of skin and nail. It's difficult stuff." The crowd turned to stare at him. He cringed beneath the weight of their eyes. "Sorry. I'm genetic engineer."

"All this is beside the point," said Eddie. "It's all very well to know our enemy, to understand their operation, to analyze their weak points. But I don't know how to put any of that knowledge to practical use. Do you?" He gazed about at his fellow inmates. "How about it? Anyone?"

A few heads shook. A few more drooped. No one seemed able to cobble together a suitable response. Not even Pip.

Eddie smirked. "Thought so. Now sit down and eat your damn potatoes."

****

Pip had planned to spend the rest of her first day exploring the park. She was dismayed when it took less than twenty minutes. There really wasn't much to see.

She got to know her fellow inmates. Joshua was a mechanic. Carmen was a fourth grade teacher. Henry was an unemployed ice-fishing enthusiast who could fit six hard boiled eggs in his mouth at once. The redhead, whose name was Sheila, had been a criminal defense attorney, which explained her outspoken demeanor and ability to command a room. She and Hamza did what little coordinating there was to do in an enclosed environment where nothing ever happened. Right now, they were mostly trying to coordinate Masha's meals.

Masha refused to eat, they told Pip when the subject of their concern wasn't around. She had a history of depression, had been hospitalized when she was sixteen, back in Russia. They wished they had access to medication. It was agony watching her kill herself.

The first chance she got, Pip sought Masha out. The woman was slumped against the park's lone tree, staring straight ahead with eyes like an abandoned graveyard. Pip sat down next to her. For several minutes, neither of them spoke.

"My family thinks I'm dead," Masha said at last.

"Yeah," said Pip.

"They saw my body. They buried me. Little by little, they're going to forget about me and move on with their lives."

Pip didn't know what to say. She took hold of Masha's hand and squeezed it tightly. "It'll be ok." It was one of the bigger lies she'd told.

Masha squeezed her hand back.

****

The day after she arrived, Pip played on the swings for three straight hours. She hadn't swung since middle school, and her stomach couldn't cope the way it once had. She ate lunch immediately afterward and was sick all over the grill. It was the day's only notable event.

****

Two days after she arrived, Pip listened to Masha tell stories about Russia. Once, during Masha's final year of high school, some men had beaten the hell out of her on the stairs of her apartment building. She'd never found out why, and the police had done precisely nothing about it. That was one of the reasons she and her brother had moved to the States. They'd figured the cops would be less corrupt.

Pip thought about the Martell police force, nestled snuggly in George Lugner's pocket, and grimaced.

****

Three days after she arrived, Pip watched Henry stuff two and a half potatoes into his mouth. Midway through the maneuver, he turned purple and began choking. Everyone watched in mute horror as he scratched at his throat. Finally, DeMarcus rushed forward and punched him in the back, sending the potatoes rocketing out of his mouth and into Eddie's hair.

****

Four days after she arrived, Pip sat in the stream with Masha until their toes pruned.

****

Five days after she arrived, Pip accepted the fact that she had exhausted all available forms of entertainment and decided to spend her day staring at the phony sky. It was relaxing. She could see why Eddie liked it.

She refused all meals. It wasn't that she had no appetite--it was that eating seemed like such a colossal waste of her dwindling energy. When she gave away her third ration in a row, Sheila and Hamza exchanged looks. They began worrying over her after that, the way they worried over Masha.

It was irksome. But Pip was too drained to say anything.

****

Six days after she arrived, Pip realized that, unless she did something drastic, she would die here.

****

One week after she arrived aboard the Dredmillon, chief research vessel of the Nib fleet, Pip escaped.