Saturday, February 14, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 28)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had been languishing in the artificial environment provided by her alien captors. Now, she and Masha escape, and Pip catches a brief glimpse of the one person she's been hoping to find.

Pip took the unusual step of announcing her escape before she made it.

"I'm going to escape," she told Eddie while gnawing on a raw potato. She'd temporarily broken her fast, in the interest of building strength for the coming ordeal.

Eddie rolled his eyes. "I could tell you not to bother, but you wouldn't listen. Everyone tries it some time."

"Even you?"

"Especially me." Eddie shook his head. "Four times. And look at me. I'm still here."

Pip spent a few moments considering this. She bit off a mouthful of potato. Chewed thoroughly. Swallowed. "So you don't have any advice," she said.

"Christ's sake," Eddie murmured under his breath. Then he said: "You'll need water. It's the dehydration that gets most people. I've never been able to figure out what the Nib drink--if they drink at all--but whatever it is, it's not easily accessible."

Pip nodded. "Okay, I'll save some." She looked around and was struck by a complication. "Uh...what do I put it in?"

Eddie smiled--a bit unkindly, Pip thought. "There's the question of the hour. Where do you think you should put it?"

"Well..." Pip bit her lip. "I could probably store about a gallon in the grill."

"Are you planning on carrying a grill full of water around while you explore the ship? I hope your arms are stronger than they look."

"I could make a bowl by hollowing out a piece of the swing set frame."

"With what tools?"

Pip's brow furrowed in concentration. "Well, I..." Eddie's smirk widened, and her temper flared. "Fine. What the hell do you suggest I do?"

"The only thing you can do is soak one of our nightgowns in the river and wring it out a little at a time." Eddie shrugged, then reached for the hem of his shift. "You can have mine, if you want. They'll bring me another.

Pip screeched and threw her arms over her face. "Stop, stop, stop!" she cried. "I'm not leaving for a few hours. Keep it for now."

Eddie shrugged again and lowered his shift.

****

"Masha," Pip whispered, gently shaking the woman's shoulder. "Murashiki Masha. Open your eyes."

Masha shuddered awake. Her malnourished eyes were dull and unfocused. Pip wasn't sure if they were looking at her or through her.

"Mm?" Masha groaned.

"We're leaving soon," Pip said. "The two of us. We're going to escape."

Masha buried her face in the grass. When she spoke, the sound was so muffled as to be unintelligible. "Don't want to escape," she said. "Tried before. Cold out there. Hard. No place to sleep."

"We're not just escaping this park," Pip clarified. "We're escaping the ship. We're going home."

Masha came more awake at that. A flicker of something kindled in her half-dead eyes. She turned her head to face Pip. "How?" she asked.

"I know a way," Pip said, and left it at that. She patted Masha's arm. "Just be ready."

****

By the time the evening meal arrived, Pip had gathered the necessary supplies. They didn't amount to much: six potatoes, a handful of jerky, and a sopping wet nightgown. Most importantly, Masha, who looked like she wanted to bolt--whether with Pip or away from Pip, neither of them could say.

The steel door went up. The Nib came in. Two of them. The same two who had been delivering the food as far back as Pip or any of the other prisoners could remember.

"Pleaze to be eating now," the orange Nib said.

"Pleaze to be eating now," the ecru Nib echoed.

Masha glanced at Pip. Pip nodded. Side by side, they strode toward their alien captors. The Nib looked at them with curiosity rather than alarm.

"Hello, human," said the orange one.

"Hello, human," said the ecru one.

"Hello," said Masha, before Pip grabbed her hand and started running.

****

It was indeed cold. And hard. And a lot of other things besides.

The maze of corridors in which the escapees found themselves was black and spackled, outbowed to accommodate even the most gelatinous passenger and almost completely dark. Only the bioluminescence of passing Nib lit the way. Fortunately, there was plenty of that.

Pip realized she'd vastly underestimated the number of Nib aboard the Dredmillon. Perhaps the part of the ship where she'd first awoken had required top security clearance, or perhaps most of the crew had been asleep at the time. Whatever the reason, she'd only met one alien before being dumped in the park. Here, there were hundreds. And they were all delighted to see the escapees.

"Humanzz!" cried a whip-thin Nib with violet coloring.

"Alwayzz am I zinking you are taller," observed a fat yellow Nib.

"Are you all same color?" asked a grayish Nib with a high-pitched voice.

In Pip's eyes, she and Masha weren't even close to the same color. Then again, they were closer than any two Nib. The aliens seemed to come in every shade imaginable. They varied in consistency, too--from solid to watery. Pip wondered if a given Nib's coloring and constitution were genetic or if they had something to do with diet.

"High-five!" a green Nib squealed, interrupting Pip's thoughts. It held up a fluted appendage and pulsated expectantly. Pip and Masha stared at it.

"High-five!" it repeated, and held the appendage up higher.

"High-five!" it said a third time.

It allowed its body to spread and puddle until it blocked the entire corridor. Pip realized that she and Masha weren't going anywhere until they complied with the request. Slowly, she reached up and slapped the proferred appendage with her palm. After some hesitation, Masha did the same.

"Yezzzz!" the Nib crowed. "Alwayzz I wanted to do zat!"

Pip regretted her decision when dozens of nearby Nib surged forward, holding out their own appendages and demanding high-fives. The crush was overwhelming. Masha clung to Pip and whimpered as Pip tried to dole out enough high-fives to satisfy the crowd.

That was when she saw it. A shock of hair. It was curly and black and instantly recognizable. Pip froze, her heart fluttering as she watched the hair bob and weave through the sea of luminescent flesh. It was moving away from her.

"Duncan?" she said, but her voice was too quiet to carry above the shrill demands for high-fives.

"Duncan!" she shouted. "Duncan, come back! Where are you going?"

Frantic, she tried to elbow her way through the crowd. It was a hopeless strategy--the Nib were maddeningly elastic, and their bulk pushed back against her like the walls of an inflatable bounce house.

"Duncan!" she screamed. "Wait! Wait!"

But it was too late. Her brother had disappeared.