Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 32)

Warning: Strong Language, Mature Themes, Graphic Violence

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip had found her brother aboard the Dredmillon. Now, Lirma'nib offers to set Duncan free--but only if Pip participates in a sadistic "experiment." Note: I included the "Mature Themes" and "Graphic Violence" warnings to be safe. I don't think anything in here is too terribly explicit. It might, however, be a little disturbing.

"You know zizz perzon, yez?" Lirma'nib openly drank in Pip's astonishment: the widening of her eyes, the clenching of her fists, the soft "oh" that gusted from her gaping mouth. The alien was studying her reaction with as much care as a scientist bent over a Petri dish. Part of Pip rebelled against the scrutiny, but that part was so quiet as to be almost sub-vocal. Her mind was occupied with other things.

Like the man in front of her, whom she did in fact know. Very well. In the Biblical sense, even. He shuffled across the floor like a zombie in a white shift until he reached Duncan's chair. There he stopped, turned, and raised his head to look at Pip.

Pip gasped again. He did not look well.

"Ron," she said. "What are you doing here?"

There was a silent interval of nearly ten seconds, during which Ron struggled visibly to formulate a reply. That was odd. Pip's ex was many things, but he was never at a loss for words. She watched his slack mouth as it flapped and floundered, reaching out for syllables like a drunk fishing for his car keys. Finally, he croaked: "I should ask you...the same question...Pip."

Pip darted a glance at Lirma'nib. The alien waved a dismissive tentacle. "If he zeems a bit dazed, it'z becauze he'z juzt come out of zurgery," she said. "Your brother took dayz to recover. You muzt forgive your mate for hiz occazional inarticulazy."

"He's not my mate," Pip said, then cursed herself for her pettiness. Lirma'nib had just admitted to surgically altering two of the most prominent male figures in her life. Accurate reporting of her relationship status wasn't the chief priority. "What kind of surgery?" she demanded.

"A zimple cozmetic prozedure," replied Lirma'nib. Her tone was careless, but there was something malicious in the quivering of her appendages. "Ze Nib undergo it wiz zome regularity, often at birth. A device iz plazed inzide ze body to allow uz to change color at will. Rather vain, you might zay, but our people conzider it ze height of beauty to alter our hue wiz ze zeasons."

"Humans don't change color," Masha said from her huddled place on the floor.

Lirma'nib buzzed. "No indeed. It waz dizcovered early in our ztudy zat ze electrical impulzes releazed by the device do not affect human pigmentation." Lirma'nib raised a tentacle to display a small metal sphere segmented into a hundred different colors, resembling nothing so much as a round Rubix cube. Pip could feel the smirk in the air between them. "Inztead," the alien continued, "it dizrupts their heartbeat."

Pip's own heart plummeted into her toes. She felt Charles and Masha tense behind her. "Their heartbeat..." she repeated, numbly.

"Of courze, we dizcontinued zat line of experimentation immediately," Lirma'nib continued. Then, after an amused pause, she added: "For ze mozt part."

Ron chose that moment to cut in, having evidently come to his senses.. His blunt features were working themselves into something approaching an expression of rage. He pointed at Charles. "What the hell," he rasped, "is that public radio faggot doing here?"

Ire surged through Pip's veins, but she managed to ignore the slur. Charles only cleared his throat.

Ron was undeterred by their silence. "Speak up, you fucking coward," he said. "You stole my woman; the least you can do is hash it out with me."

"Ron," Pip said. "This really isn't the time..."

"'Stealing' is something you do to property," Charles said quietly. "You can't steal people."

Pip gave him a forlorn look over her shoulder. "Charlie, don't."

Ron laughed. "Oy, jolly good, guv'na!" he said. "Thank you ever so kindly for the lesson in semantics. I'm right chuffed, I am."

Charles furrowed his brow.

"'You can't steal people,'" Ron continued. This time, he affected an effeminate lisp. He turned to Pip. "I hope you're happy now, honey. Because you won't be later. A girl like you--smart, lively, strong-willed--you need someone with those same qualities. One day you're going to wake up drowning in Earl Grey and crocheted antimassacars, and you're going to realize that you have no respect for a guy who lets you manipulate and push him around. A man pushes back. I push back. This asshole might look good in a tie, but he'll never challenge you the way I--arrrrrgh!"

Without preamble, Ron fell to the floor, panting and clutching his chest. His eyes went wide. His skin went ashy. His entire body was contorted with agony. For several moments, Pip was at a loss. She had no idea what was happening, or why. Then she noticed Lirma'nib fiddling with the metal sphere.

As soon as Lirma'nib saw Pip looking, she pulled her tentacle away from the device and chortled. "You were right," she said. "Now izn't the time for zuch argumentz. It'z time to proceed wiz ze experiment."

"Experiment?" whimpered Masha.

Pip bit her lip. She didn't like where this was going.

The Nib folded her tentacles in front of her. "We have no trainz aboard ze Dredmillon," she said. "Indeed, ze Nib have not uzed trainz for many centuries. But we zshall try to recreate ze zcenario az bezt we can." She made a grand sweeping gesture toward Duncan. "Your brother." She gestured at Ron. "Your...former mate." She refolded her appendages. "One of zem will die. Will you chooze, or zshall I?"

Pip blinked dumbly. "What?"

"Ze outcome will be ze zame both wayz. One dead man. You can take rezponzibility for choozing ze victim, or..." Lirma'nib's eyespots flickered merrily. "...not."

Masha began to whimper, the prelude to a sob. "It is a punishment," she hissed. "I knew it would be."

The Nib made no response to the accusation. She merely fixed Pip with an expectant gaze. Pip stared back, unable or unwilling to comprehend what she was being told. After a lengthy pause, Lirma'nib heaved what sounded like the Nib equivalent to a sigh.

"One would zink ze choize zimple," she said. "One iz your brother, whom you prezumably love. We Nib understand zizz--we alzo form attachmentz to our brood matez." She rolled the color sphere idly in her tentacle. "Ze ozzer iz a man who haz miztreated you. He haz hurt you, inzulted you, forzed your body into contact wiz hiz."

An icy jolt shot up Pip's spine. How did the Nib know...?

Evidently realizing she'd found a sore spot, Lirma'nib dug in. "How many timez did he prezzure you? Cajole you? Inzizt zat you prove your love in ze way mozt consonant wiz hiz base dezires? How many timez did you lie ztill and wait for it to end? Hiz handz on your body. Hiz mouth on your throat. Hiz zscent zeeping into your zskin, telling ze world zat you are hiz--hiz--and nozzing more."

The Nib lowered her voice to an evocative hum. "Do you zink he enjoyed seeing you helplezz? Do you zink it made him feel better about himzelf? He had no family, no degree, no zspecial zskills, but he had you to play wiz. He had taken a woman--zsmarter zan him, zstronger zan him, more dynamic, more alive--and he had zubjugated her. Iz zat what kept him afloat?" She lowered her voice still further. "Iz zat what he though about, when he zspilled himzelf into you?"

Pip grit her teeth and looked away. If shame were an open flame, she would be a pile of ashes on the floor.

"He haz wronged you," Lirma'nib purred. "Tell me to kill him." She waited for a response. None came. "Or," she said, "we can leave it to chanze."

She raised a tentacle to reveal a second sphere. Slowly, she began to caress both spheres simultaneously. Ron shrieked again, and this time Duncan joined him, toppling from his chair and doubling over in pain. The noises the pair made were almost inhuman.

"Stop it!" Pip shouted. She pressed herself more firmly against the partition, helpless to do anything but watch as the victims writhed and wailed. "Stop it now! You'll kill them both!"

"Oddz are one will die before ze ozzer," Lirma'nib said. "Ze lazt one living winz. I will releaze him to you. Whoever he may be."

Tears ran freely down Pip's cheeks. She pounded on the glass and joined her voice to the chorus of screams. "DUNCAN!" she cried. "DUNCAN! Hold on!"

Duncan had landed on his hands and knees. He now slumped onto his side, curling into the fetal position as spasms wracked his body. His face had gone from ashy pale to livid purple. Surely he couldn't hold out much longer.

"Do something!" Pip screamed at Charles, only to find that he was already taking matters into his own hands. Wordlessly, he raised his pistol and shot his last bullet at the partition.

The glass splintered but didn't break. Bulletproof. Of course.

Pip took a few steps back. Then, will a primal shriek, she hurled herself at the cracked glass. The partition held firm and knocked her back onto her ass. She scrambled to her feet and tried again. And again. The glass creaked but refused to give way.

Ron's screams were becoming weaker. Duncan had fallen almost completely silent. In desperation, Pip scratched at the partition with her fingers. She succeeded only in driving tiny shards under her nails. The pain was distant. Unimportant. Nothing was important except getting to the other side of this damn barrier.

"Stop it stop it stop it!" she hollered. She watched as Ron wet himself, the puddle of urine creeping outward to encircle both him and Duncan. Meanwhile, Duncan's eyes had rolled back into his head. He was thrashing soundlessly while foam gathered in the corners of his mouth.

In desperation, Pip surged toward Lirma'nib, teeth bared and fists swinging. Her blows connected but failed to do any damage to the alien's gelatinous body. It was like punching a Jello mold. Lirma'nib buzzed but remained otherwise undisturbed.

Charlie had taken Pip's place and was battering at the cracked glass with his shoulder. He threw himself at the partition once. Twice. Three times. Suddenly, with a high-pitched groan, a sink-sized segment separated and collapsed backward. Abandoning her assault on Lirma'nib, Pip darted back to the partition and began wedging herself through the hole. She was halfway through when she realized that Ron and Duncan had gone still.

Her breath stuttered. Her mind went gray. Her body felt heavy and weightless at the same time. She stared in horror at the contorted figures. Were they...?

"No..." she moaned. The word transcended simple denial and became a failed incantation against an unjust universe. "No," she repeated. "No, no, no."

Lirma'nib stopped caressing the spheres. "Hmm," she said. "Dizappointing. I didn't think zey'd both-"

"GWAH!" Duncan took an explosive breath. His body arched off the floor as he gulped down air.

"Duncan!" Pip almost sobbed with relief. She crawled the rest of the way through the hole in the partition and scrambled toward her brother. He was cloudy-eyed and grimacing. But he was alive. She took his hand. "Duncan, can you hear me? Say something."

"What..." croaked Duncan, "smells like...piss?" He raised his head and gazed at the yellow puddle in which he was lying. "Oh...great." He looked over at Ron. "Is he...?"

"Dead," said Lirma'nib.

Pip's heart raced. For a moment, she thought Lirma'nib might renege on her offer and kill them all where they stood. She was certainly capable of doing so. Pip knew that now.

"Well," said Lirma'nib, "it zeems everyzing worked out in your favor, Pip."

Had it? Pip looked at Ron's lifeless form. His face was still locked in an expression of unendurable agony. She'd hated him--God knew she'd hated him. But that didn't make his death feel like a victory. She wasn't sure what it felt like.

"It'z not your fault," remarked Lirma'nib. The kindness in her voice was almost laughably incongruous. "You didn't forze him to come here. It waz Larry Guyde who gave him to uz. Apparently, hiz zsalez figurez are way down zizz month."

Pip continued to stare at Ron. He hadn't always been horrible. There was a time, early in their relationship, when he'd gone out of his way to make her feel special. He'd hugged her, left admiring notes in her daily planner, called her just to say goodnight. He'd treated her as fairly as he knew how and concealed his mean streak to the furthest extent of his abilities. Even after the honeymoon period when things began to sour, he'd done his best. It was a shame that his best had been so terribly, terribly inadequate.

"Come now," said Lirma'nib. "I zaid I'd let you take him out of here, and I zshall. You will all return to the enclozed habitat for further zstudy. It iz zafe there. No one will hurt you."

Pip glanced at the door on her side of the partition--the one Ron had come through.

"Locked," Lirma'nib informed her. "Don't bother. Come back to zizz zide. I will ezcort you home."

Home, Pip thought. Was this to be their home now? The thought was almost to horrifying to contemplate. Nevertheless, she crawled back through the hole in the partition. Duncan followed her.

As they stood before Lirma'nib, the alien looked satisfied. "Now, no more ezcaping," she said, "yez?"

Pip nodded without thinking. She'd never felt more broken in her entire life.

Lirma'nib ushered them toward the door, gathering up Charles and Masha as she went. The door opened with a swish, and they strode out into the corridor.

That's where they ran into Eddie.