Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 30)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had searched high and low for her brother with little success, hindered by her lack of tentacles and the overly-curious Nib. Now, with the ship on lockdown and Charles on the loose, she confronts a vengeful George Lugner.

"Charlie," Pip said, a half-second before the Nib burst into a frenzy of hushed buzzing. They'd forgotten all about Pip and Masha. Likewise, Pip had forgotten all about them.

"Charlie!" she shouted. "Charlie, we're here!"

She groped in the dark for Masha's hand, catching several tentacles before she finally found it. Then, with a tug that caused Masha to cry out, Pip began dragging her through the crowd. They shoved and jostled amid the sea of viscous bodies. The Nib didn't seem to notice. Perhaps, in light of more interesting developments, they simply didn't care.

Pip broke free of the crowd and started running.

"Charlie!" she called. "Where are you? Shout if you can hear me!"

He didn't, presumably because he couldn't. Pip strained her ears for the pop of gunfire or the swish of bicycle tires but heard only the murmuring of the Nib, growing more distant now.

"Pip," Masha said. "What are we doing? Who's Charlie?"

"My friend," Pip said, then amended it: "My boyfriend. He's here somewhere. That's why we're on lockdow--OOF." She collided with the wall in front of her, unable to see it in the oppressive darkness. Rubbing her newly injured shoulder, she turned ninety degrees to the right and took off running again.

"But...but how do you know..." panted Masha, "that it's him?"

Pip snorted. "Who else would storm an alien spaceship in a suit and tie?" She took a deep breath and hollered again: "Charlie! Hey, Charlie! We're over here! Follow my voice!"

She heard something up ahead. Her heart leapt as the sound became more distinct: footsteps. Humanoid footsteps. She raced toward them as fast as her dehydrated legs could carry her. Turning a corner, she spotted an orb of greenish light---a flashlight, or at least some alien equivalent, held at human-arm level. It was all she could do not to squeal with glee.

"Charlie!" she cried. "How did you get here? How did you fi-" The air was driven from her lungs as she crashed into a warm body. A pair of arms encircled her, clutching her tightly. A sob rose in her throat. "Charlie. Charlie! I'm so glad to see you."

A meaty hand patted her shoulder. "He'd be glad to see you, too," said a voice that wasn't Charles'. "Alas, I'm not him."

Pip's body went cold. Her breath caught in her chest. She looked up.

Before her--standing so close that his features were little more than an impressionistic smudge in the pale green light--stood George Lugner. His face was haggard and bandaged on one side. It twisted into a smile like a midnight massacre as Pip started in horror.

"Hello, Pip," he said, his arms tightening around her. "I hope you're enjoying this little constitutional of yours."

To Pip's left, Masha screamed. Pip looked over to see two Nib seizing her friend, one catching hold of each arm. The Nib wore red scarves wound around their heads. It was the first time Pip had seen the aliens wear any sort of clothing.

"It was clever of you, providing for reinforcements," Lugner said, "though certainly not foolproof. We found you immediately after you'd come through the Confluence, when you were still unconscious. We might have done the same with Charles Shreve. It was pure chance that he came to before we checked the debris catch."

Pip struggled, then yelped as Lugner grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled. "We're doing important work aboard the Dredmillon," he continued. "We're making progress. I won't tolerate interlopers biking around my ship, their reactionary guns blazing, undermining the parameters of our most important study. Understand?" He pulled harder at her hair, forcing her head back. "When we catch him, he'll be sacrificed."

"Let go of me," Pip spat.

Lugner scoffed. He gestured to one of his Nib companions. "Gehlu'Nib, get on the PA. Let Shreve know we have his girlfriend, and we're going to hold her until-"

Pip acted without thinking. She kneed Lugner in the crotch.

"JESUS CHR-!" Lugner gasped, dropping to the floor like a sack of millet.

Pip leapt away from him and glanced back and forth between the two Nib. The Nib, meanwhile, glanced at each other, buzzing anxiously. They'd been caught off-guard. Already, Pip could see their hold on Masha loosening.

"RAHR!" Pip bellowed as she charged at the Nib, arms raised.

The Nib made an unmistakeably frightened piping sound, released Masha, and slithered off into the darkness.

"Let's go!" Pip said. She seized Masha by the hand and started to run. A second later, she tumbled forward onto her face.

Lugner had grabbed her ankle.

"Human beings are so savage," he grunted as Pip struggled to get away. "You forget that, living among the Nib for so long."

"Get off me!" Pip shouted, kicking at Lugner's head with her free foot. It didn't seem to faze him.

"They're not violent by nature," he continued. He tightened his grip and wrenched Pip's foot to the side. Pip shrieked in pain. "It's been ages since I've had cause to hurt anyone." He wrenched her foot the other way. Pip grit her teeth as tears sprang to her eyes. "But I've got cause now."

BANG.

The gunshot rang up and down the corridor, reverberating off the spackled walls. It was followed a split second later by a sharp metallic PING. The impact of a bullet against the floor. Close. Very close.

Lugner gasped and dropped Pip's foot, curling in on himself instinctively as another report sounded.

Pip scrambled to her feet. She grabbed Masha's sleeve and began limping in the direction of the gunfire. Masha squeaked and planted her feet.

"Why are we going this way?" she cried, then ducked and screamed as the shooter fired a third time.

Pip ignored her and shambled onward. "Charlie!" she yelled. "It's me! It's Pip! Stop shooting!"

The fourth shot went off before Charles could process her words. Pip felt the rush of the bullet as it roared past her right ear. Then there was silence.

"Pip?" Charles' voice sounded small and scared in the dark.

Pip heard rather than saw him as he ran to her and gathered her up in a crushing embrace.

"Pip!" he said, all but sobbing with relief. "Jesus Christ. I could have shot you, baby." Even here, on a spaceship orbiting the planetoid Haumea and filled with buzzing multi-colored aliens, the term of endearment made Pip blush to her hairline. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you," she said. Then she called over her shoulder: "Masha, you're safe. It's just Charlie." She turned back to Charles as Masha crept toward them. "What are you doing here? How'd you find the Confluence? Where'd you get the gun?"

Charles shushed her with a kiss. "Later," he said. "First, we have to get your brother."