Saturday, February 21, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 29)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had escaped her artificial habitat and caught a glimpse of her brother among the alien horde. Now, she and Masha search for Duncan and for a way home. Things get complicated when the ship goes on lockdown.

Suddenly, the corridor erupted with sound. Shrill semitones pummeled each other, raising such a dissonant clangor that Pip squatted down and covered her ears.

The crowd stilled. Excitement drained from Nib faces like helium from a punctured balloon. Grumbling, they began to shuffle off in different directions.

"Where are you going?" Pip asked them, shouting over the din.

"Work work work," one of them said.

"Work work work," another echoed, gesturing toward a round speaker in the ceiling. "Thizz zound meanzz break over. Now all Nib izz working."

Seconds later, the noise died off and silence fell over a newly abandoned corridor. Pip uncovered her ears and shook her head to stop it ringing.

"You okay?" she asked Masha.

"Yes," Masha said, in open defiance of the tear tracks on her face.

They wrung a few drops of water from the shift, restoring what adrenaline had boiled away. Then Masha asked: "Now what?"

That was the question of the hour. Their stated mission was to find the Confluence, but Pip had half forgotten it already. Her mind was full of curly hair and hope. She glanced off in the direction where she'd seen Duncan. It was nothing but doors, most of them round, some of them ovoid, all of them slick and lacking knobs.

"This way," she said, pointing. Masha nodded, and they picked their way down the corridor, bare feet slipping on the slimy trails left by the departed Nib.

Pip stopped and examined the first door they came to. In the center of it was a conical indent. Pip thrust her hand into it. It was too deep and too tightly tapering for her to reach the back of it. If this were the Nib equivalent of a doorknob, one needed tentacles to use it. She sighed.

They continued on. Pip tried every door, but it was always the same story: she simply lacked the necessary appendages. Their sole stroke of luck came three hours in, when a Nib came hurtling out of a doorway on his way to parts unknown.

"In in in!" Pip cried, darting forward to grab the door before it swung shut again.

"Wow, humanzz!" the Nib cried. He dove in front of Pip, blocking her path and thrusting a tentacle into her face. "High-five!"

Pip groaned and ran away, dragging Masha along with her.

"Z'lah?" she heard the Nib sniff. "That'zz not nize, friend. Not nize at all."

****

They walked for six more hours. At Masha's insistence, they made only right turns--she wanted to be able to retrace their steps, though Pip couldn't imagine why they'd want to go back the way they came. The only way out was forward, as far as she was concerned. That said, at least the practice made it possible to choose a route. The Dredmillon was composed of hundreds of identical corridors, and there wasn't much basis for selecting one over another.

When at last they grew too weary to continue, they sat. Slumped against a spackled wall, they split a potato and two pieces of jerky and took another pull off the damp shift.

"This will be dry by tomorrow morning," Masha said. "Eddie bought us only an extra day."

"It's the best he could do," Pip said. She shrugged. "Get some sleep, Masha. Maybe our luck will be better tomorrow."

"It can't get much worse," Masha remarked, lying down.

Pip had to agree with that.

****

The floors of the Dredmillon made deplorable beds. Neither Pip nor Masha slept more than twenty minutes in a stretch. When they rose, it was out of sheer boredom. They didn't feel rested, but they also didn't feel like lying in uncomfortable silence any longer than they had to.

The corridor was full of Nib, who jiggled with glee when they saw the humans were awake. The aliens pinched, prodded, and bombarded their guests with questions about life on Earth. Pip lowered her head and shouldered through the crowd as best she could. She was beginning to understand how A-list Hollywood starlets felt.

The doors weren't any less impossible than they'd been the day before. When the Nib saw Pip wedging her hand into the indents, they giggled like dog owners watching their Schnauzer try to nose open a refrigerator. One of them went so far as to give Pip a playful slap on the wrist.

"No no," it bellowed. "Izz not for human. Funny human! You are not go where Nib izz go."

The alarm sounded and the Nib filed off to work. Pip and Masha were left to try the doors in peace. It didn't do them much good.

****

That night, there was another potato and a half-strip of jerky for dinner. Pip's stomach grumbled. She was already feeling dehydrated.

"This is why no one makes it out here," Masha said, as she and Pip lay back against the bone-dry shift.

"I suppose so," Pip said. "But we have to keep trying."

For Duncan's sake, she might have added, had she thought that reasoning would carry any weight with her companion. Masha had already given up on life. Pip doubted the search for a near-stranger's brother would reinvigorate her. The only thing that could save Masha was the Confluence, which might as well have been buried in the tenth dimension for all the luck they'd had reaching it.

****

The next day, Pip decided to lay her cards out. It wasn't likely to hurt them, at this point.

"Have you seen another human?" she asked the first Nib they came across. "Bigger than me." She held her palm aloft to show Duncan's height. "My color." She pointed at her face. "My hair." She grabbed a fistful of her black curls.

The Nib thought for a moment. At least, Pip assumed it was thinking. It could have been sobbing uncontrollably, for all she knew. "Z'lah," it said. "No. I do not zink zo."

"I saw!" another Nib cried. Evidently, it had been eavesdropping. "Color like! Hair like! I saw!"

Pip was taken aback. She hadn't expected anything approaching an actual answer. "Really?"

"Yezz!" said the Nib. "I can showing you."

"Can't showing," the first Nib interrupted. It looked at the second Nib with something like disapproval in its eye spots. "Not allowed showing."

"I want showing," the second Nib insisted. "I want helping humanzz."

They began to argue heatedly in a language Pip didn't recognize. It was two-thirds buzzing and one-third popping labials. The first Nib slapped the second with a tentacle. The second returned the gesture with two tentacles. Things seemed set to escalate, and Pip was wondering whether she should wait for the resolution or get out of dodge.

In the end, she never had to decide. The power went out instead.

****

Several minutes passed. The Nib mumbled to each other, their faces visible in the faint glow of their eye spots. Pip had never noticed the ship's ambient hum until now, when it was missing. The quiet was eerie.

A familiar voice soon shattered it. "Attention, Dredmillon captives and crew," George Lugner crooned through the overhead speakers. There was a hint of irritation beneath his crafted calm. "The captain has cut auxiliary power. I repeat: the captain has cut auxiliary power. All vital systems are still on line. The ship is operating at sixty-percent functionality. Full power will be restored as soon as certain setbacks are dealt with. Thank you for your patience and cooperation."

A second voice took over, this one speaking in the spitting buzz of the Nib. Translating, Pip imagined.

"Incidentally," George added, "if you should happen to see a human not dressed according to regulation--wearing, say, a suit and a tie and carrying a projectile weapon of Earth construction--please capture and contain him at once."

He paused while the translator did his work.

"Or kill him," George finished. "You can kill him too. If you want to. I mean, no one's going to get their panties in a wad about it."

The translator floundered over the idiom. George didn't wait for him to puzzle it out. Instead, he cut the transmission and left the Dredmillon to its collective murmuring.