Saturday, March 7, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 31)

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had confronted a vengeful George Lugner and been reunited with Charles. Now, Charles takes her and Masha to the place where Duncan is being held. What they find when they arrive is not what they expected.

"You have a lot of explaining to do," Pip said as she balanced precariously on the back of a bicycle seat. Charles was standing to give her more room and to apply more force to the pedals, which were difficult to turn beneath the weight of three people. Masha sat on the handlebars, one leg propped on either side of the clip-on flashlight that was their only source of illumination in the darkened corridors of the Dredmillon.

The arrangement was every bit as preposterous as it looked and only marginally faster than walking. Pip had advised Charles to ditch the bike, but he had refused. He'd been glued to it ever since he's found it in the debris catch. It seemed to serve as a security blanket, a token of familiarity amid the absolute weirdness of their surroundings.

Charles nodded. "I know," he panted. "The only question is where to begi-"

THWACK. The bicycle careened into a wall, sending its occupants sprawling.

****

"I waited nearly a week before I went looking for you," Charles explained. The blood flowed freely from his broken nose. He couldn't staunch it. He needed both hands to steer. "I filed a missing persons report. I waited by the phone. I tried to proceed along the proper channels."

"Of course you did," Pip said with fond exasperation.

"When it became clear that the proper channels were useless," he continued, "I found your mother's number in Duncan's cell phone. She gave me the address of your apartment. I didn't know for a fact that you'd gone there, but I had a hunch. I swung by the university on my way to your complex, just in case, but I didn't see your car. It wasn't at the Kerry branch office either. The employees were in an uproar, though. Apparently your ex-fiancé has gone missing and-"

"I don't care," Pip said, and she really didn't. Ron was probably sleeping off a hangover somewhere and had forgotten to set his alarm for work. It wouldn't be the first time. "What happened when you got to the apartment?"

"I found your car. It was parked outside the door to the basement storage units. I found your unit. I found the canister. I went through the Confluence."

Very brave, Pip thought. Then: scratch that--very stupid. "How'd you know I'd gone through?"

"A hunch," Charles said.

Pip concentrated on boring into the back of his head with her eyes. Evidently, he felt it.

"A dream," he admitted. "Last night. After I went back to sleep."

Pip sighed. "Charles..."

"I know," he said. "But you have to admit, they've been spot-on."

"Is prophetic dreaming a skill you've always had?"

"Not always. And they're not all prophetic."

"Good. I'd hate for you to turn up naked at work on the day of a test you'd forgotten to study for."

"As would I," Charles dead-panned, reaching around to give her hand an affectionate squeeze then frantically correcting the wobbling bike. "Anyway, the Confluence hurt. A lot. I think I must have blacked out from the pain."

"I did too. I woke up in some kind of examination room with George Lugner standing over me."

"I woke up in a pile of dirt and hair. The debris catch, it's called, though I didn't know until one of those aliens found me. He slithered off shouting for Lugner. 'Lugner'nib! Lugner'nib! Another human is in debris catch!' I loaded my gun-"

"Hold up," Pip interrupted, because she could imagine Saddam Hussein in a fetching two-piece bathing suit more easily than she could imagine Charles owning firearms. "Where did you get a gun, Charlie?"

"It's my grandad's old service revolver," Charles answered. "I nicked it from his bedroom. According to him, it can shoot the ash off a Russkie's cigarette from five-hundred yards." He grimaced at Masha. "No offense, Ms. Boglomov."

"I'd ask you to demonstrate if I were a smoker," Masha said, and smiled. It was the first joke Pip had ever heard her make. It was amazing what palliative effects hope could have, even if that hope came in the form of a be-suited Anglo on a ten-year-old Schwinn.

"What happened when Lugner reached the debris catch?" Pip asked.

"I shot him," Charles said simply.

"What, just like that?" Pip cried. She had seen the bandage on Lugner's face, had worked out that Charles was probably the one who had inflicted the wound. But she had imagined Charles acting in self-defense--attacking Lugner only after the latter made it clear that Charles would not be leaving the Dredmillon alive. "I never thought of you as a violent person," Pip said, which was the understatement of the century.

Charles shrugged. "He ruined the greatest story of my career." His voice was eerily flat. Before Pip could recoil in terror, he added: "He was also ultimately responsible for the disappearance of someone I'm very fond of. Until you and I found each other in the corridor, I thought he'd killed you."

"Not killed," Masha spat. "Just imprisoned."

"So he claimed," Charles said, "but I was disinclined to believe him."

Pip decided it was time to address the elephant in the room--or rather, the one in the spaceship. "You know where my brother is."

Charles nodded. "I saw him after I shot Lugner, when I was running from his guard." He pointed. "Just up there."

It was difficult to tell in the dark--more difficult still thanks to the oppressive uniformity in the Dredmillon's design--but Pip felt that she had been to this part of the ship before. When they passed the place where she'd vomited before meeting Liirma'nib, her suspicions were confirmed. This was the corridor where she'd first awoken. Had Duncan really been so near?

Charles brought the bike to a jarring stop in front of an oval door. It was larger and more ornate than the others on the ship, with what looked like complex script carved into its face. Pip climbed off the bike, approached the door, and thrust her hand into the familiar opening mechanism.

"Charlie, we need tentacles to get inside," she said.

"Not necessarily," Charles said. He pulled his revolver from the inside pocket of his jacket and leveled it at the door. He gestured Pip aside with a wave of the barrel. "Stand clear. I've only got one bullet left."

"What if it ricochets?" Masha asked, backing away fearfully. "What if it bounces back and hits one of us?"

Charles nodded. "It's a possibility. That's why I need you to stand clear."

"Charlie, it could hit you!" Pip protested.

"Yes, well. I've lived a long life."

"You really haven't."

"Longer than yours," he amended. When Pip failed to move away, he lowered the gun and took her hand. "Penelope," he said, gently. "Through most of this ordeal, you've been brave enough for both of us. I think it comes naturally to you. It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm terrified right now, and it would really boost my confidence if you could have a little faith."

Pip glared. Then she sighed. "Be careful." She slipped her hand out of his and retreated. Masha moved away as well.

Charles raised the revolver again. The chamber rotated with a click as he thumbed the hammer back. He took a deep breath. Pip, meanwhile, was holding hers.

"Here goes," he said, and placed his finger on the trigger.

SHHH-! The door slid open. Charles dropped the gun as he leapt back in surprise.

"Wha-!?" sputtered Pip. Masha actually shrieked.

There, in the doorway, stood Liirma'nib. Her eyespots were flashing. Her tentacles were waving in a gesture of welcome.

"Come in, come in," she said. "Don't zztand on the doorztep like a group of larvae zselling mizz'iks." Her tone was warm by human standards, but it was clear she wasn't making a request. When the humans failed to do as instructed, she barreled out into the corridor and wrapped a tentacle around each of their wrists. "Come in," she repeated, and yanked them through the door.

****

It was a small room lit by a scattering of glowing orbs and separated lengthwise by a glass partition. Behind the partition stood two chairs. On one of the chairs sat Pip's brother.

"Duncan!" Pip exclaimed, bursting into tears.

Duncan raised his head and looked at her. His eyes were hollow and sunken with sleep deprivation. His skin looked dull and tired. Nevertheless, he gave her a winsome smile. "Pip," he said.

She ran to the partition and pressed her hand against it. "Duncan, are you okay? What have they been doing to you?"

Duncan gave a mock grimace. "I'm a virile young specimen, and they're curious aliens with almost a dozen tentacles each," he said. "Take a wild guess. And then take me out of this chair, because it really hurts to sit right now."

It was a joke, Pip knew. The fact that he had maintained his sense of humor should have been encouraging. Yet it seemed so forced. She could almost smell the beads of sweat on his brow, feel the trembling of his lower lip. Though he seemed in good spirits, Pip perceived that something was very, very wrong.

"I apologizze for ze lack of zzeating," Liirma'nib said, sliding the door shut behind her. "Zizz iz our quarantine fazility. We don't typically have a crowd on zizz zide of the glass."

"Are you going to kill us?" Masha whispered. She had pressed herself against the wall and was trembling violently.

Liirma'nib cocked her head to one side. "Kill you?" she repeated. "Why zshould I kill you? Becauze you ezcaped your habitat? Becauze you ran amok on our zship? Becauze you zshot George Lugner, my co-worker and friend?" She gave a trilling buzz that might have been laughter. "I admit, you have cauzed me much worry. But zizz iz a rezearch vezzel. We would learn nozzing by killing you. Anyway, ze Nib do not like killing."

The words were comforting. The sharp snap in Liirma'nib's movements was not. There was something unnervingly rehearsed about her mannerisms.

"To kill az punizshment iz a human practize," she continued. "George Lugner exzplained zizz to me. He exzplained many thingzz. His input hazz been invaluable to our operation." She narrowed her eyespots at Charles. "I am zad to zee him injured."

"I don't take much pleasure in it either," Charles retorted. "But George Lugner has a lot to answer for. Do you know who he is back on Earth?"

Liirma'nib buzzed with laughter again. "Bitz and piecez, only bitz and piecez. I know he izz a powerful man. I know he haz much money. I know he enjoyz agriculture. It waz on hiz farm zat I firzt met him. A coinzidenze, zince we were zeeking only a clear field in which to land. A coinzidenze--but a fortuitouzz one."

The farm on Moor Road, Pip realized with a jolt.

"I waz ztudying humanzz at ze time," Liirma'nib said. "Or attempting to. I knew zo little. Now, becauze of George Lugner, I know much. He helped uz put ze Confluenzz to practical uze. Before zat, it waz merely a curiozity.

"Now I am an expert on your zpecies." She blinked expectantly. "Do you know ze mozt important zing I've learned?"

"We don't really care," Pip said. "If you're going to kill us, then kill us. Otherwise, give me my brother and let us go."

Buzzing once more, Liirma'nib ignored Pip's words. "Zere waz an experiment done," she said, "at an Earth univerzity. Rezearcherzz gave zubjectz zizz zcenario: imagine a train moving toward a fork in ze trackzz. One one zide of the fork, a truck carrying ten people izz stuck. On ze ozzer zide, a zingle deaf man izz ztanding. You control ze zwitch. To which zide to you move the train?" She peered at the humans, her attention rapt, her tentacles folded in front of her. When she received no answer, she repeated: "Which zide?"

"The side with one man," said Masha weakly.

Liirma'nib looked satisfied. "Anozzer zcenario," she said. "Zere iz a truck carrying ten people ztuck on ze trackzz. You and a large man are ztanding on a bridge above. You can puzsh the man onto ze trackzz and ztop the train, thereby zaving ze people in ze truck. Do you puzsh?"

Again, no one answered. They exchanged disquieted glances instead.

Liirma'nib did not press them. "You do not," she announced. "Even zhough ze outcome izz ze zame: one dead man. Zizz iz becauze ze zecond zcenario requirezz you to phyzically puzsh ze man to hiz death. It feelzz more perzonal." She chuckled. "Humanzz are very interezting."

Pip was both annoyed and inexplicably frightened. "Are you going somewhere with this?"

Liirma'nib's eyespots twinkled. "Indeed. Perhapzz I better zpeak more plainly." Turning toward the glass partition, she threw back her head and hollered. "Subject R-7! Please enter!"

A small side door opened behind the partition, and a man shuffled into view.

Pip gasped.