Monday, March 30, 2015

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery (part 34)

Warning: Strong Language, Mature Themes, Graphic Violence

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, Pip and company had fought their way to the Confluence with the aid of a severed tentacle. Now, they face a final stand-off against George Lugner and his detachment of pistol-wielding aliens. Not everyone will come out alive...

"Well, George," said Eddie. "It looks like you've got yourself an army."

There was mockery in his voice, but it sounded forced. Standing at the business end of more than a dozen pistols was unnerving. The only encouraging factor was the Nib, who looked equally unnerved. One of them was even sniffling as his body went ashy gray. He had the gun cupped in his tentacle like an apple--a rotten one he was desperate to dispose of.

George Lugner must have seen the bemused look on Pip's face, because he hastened to reassure her: "They can use them. Their ancestors conquered all of Sagittarius with weapons like these." He gave the gray Nib a look that was at once solicitous and threatening. "Didn't they, Kirar'nib?"

"Mm-hmm," said Kirar'nib miserably.

"Nine hundred yearz ago," murmured the green Nib standing beside him. Realizing Lugner had overheard her, she stiffened and immediately backtracked. "Piztolz have been refurbished, zir! Good working order, juzt like you azk."


"Yes." Lugner nodded. "Didn't I tell you they might come in handy someday?"

"Yez, zir."

With a satisfied smirk, Lugner addressed the captives. "Let me tell you what's about to happen. You're going to return to your enclosure--the one our Nib friends spent so many years and so many units building for you. You're going to live nice, quiet lives. You won't work. You won't pay bills. You won't worry about a damn thing. It'll be like one long vacation."

"It's not a vacation if you can never leave," Sheila cut in.

Lugner raised an eyebrow. "Ah." He looked at Kirar'nib and gestured at Sheila. "That one, if you please."

Kirar'nib whimpered. His tentacle shook.

"Kirar'nib."

The poor alien darted a panicked glance at his green comrade. She nodded reluctantly.

"Sheila," hissed Eddie. "Duck."

An instant later, the air itself seemed to shriek with fury. Kirar'nib's tentacle tightened around the pistol and sent a steel bolt hurtling across the room. Before Sheila could process what was happening, the bolt had penetrated her skull and thrust itself into the center of her brain. She swayed, a look of shock on her face, then collapsed.

Masha screamed and gripped Pip's arm. A few of the other captives gasped, or swore, or burst into tears. Charles clapped a hand over his mouth as he began to retch. For all that, no one was as upset as Kirar'nib himself.

"I zorry!" he cried, his pistol slipping from his grasp and clattering to the ground. "I zorry, zorry! I don't want killing humanz! No like!" He shook anguished appendages at George Lugner. "No like!"

"Shut up," Lugner ordered, in a tone that brooked no argument. Then his expression softened, and he gave the captives a gentle smile. "I'm willing to make concessions," he said. "Just because you're test subjects doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourselves. From now on, every second Tuesday will be taco night. And-" He steamrolled over Eddie's scoff. "We'll let you have sex. Our chemists are cooking up a batch of human prophylactics as we speak."

Pip hadn't realized they'd been barred from sex in the first place. There were a number of things she hadn't realized, if Eddie's next words were any indication.

"That would be less of an empty gesture if you hadn't rendered some of us incapable," he said.

Pip gaped. Incapable? Her mind refused to parse the implications.

"Oh," Lugner said. "Right. Population control. Not our finest hour, but then, we didn't have the resources necessary to oversee birth and neo-natal care." His face brightened. "We've since updated our facilities. Now we'd be only too happy to have you breed."

Breed, Pip thought. Like we're animals.

"No," Pip said, without realizing what she was saying 'no' to. Then she realized: all of it. "Sorry, no. Go ahead and shoot me. All the tacos and rubbers in the world couldn't make that damn park bearable."

The other prisoners shifted nervously around her. She knew they felt as she did. She could sense it. Still they remained silent, too shaken by Sheila's death to give voice to their discontent.

"Pip," Charles whispered behind her. "No."

Duncan took a step forward. "Shoot me too," he said. "I've got a fucking electrode in my heart. My life sucks."

Eddie chimed in almost immediately. "Ditto here. I haven't got an electrode, but I'm missing other bits that go a long way toward making life worth living."

There was a long, silent interlude, during which all present waited to see if anyone else would volunteer for death. No one did. Pip, Duncan, and Eddie stood alone, side by side before the makeshift firing squad.

"Pip," Charles whispered again. "Please."

Lugner stared. He hit the captives with the full weight of his gaze, as if that alone might force them to relent. It almost worked. Pip could feel her innards grow cold, a forward echo of her impending demise. She was so preoccupied with the sensation that she failed to see Charles move to her side.

Lugner heaved a ponderous sigh. "Perhaps it's for the best," he said to Pip. "You aren't supposed to be here. Your brother was brought aboard in failed attempt at sending you a message. And Eddie..." He shook his head. "If this were a colony of lab rats, Eddie would be the grandsire--first to arrive, poked and prodded and electrocuted until he became too tired and too empty to yield us useful data. Sacrifice would be a kindness."

He gestured to Kirar'nib. Pip wasn't sure why he was forcing all the execution duties on the same individual. Perhaps, she thought, Lugner was trying to toughen him up. In any case, Kirar'nib blanched--actually blanched, the gray leeching from his skin and leaving it white as the underbelly of a fish--and backed away.

"No," he moaned. "No. No do again. Cannot more killing. Ziar murk k'orghu, nib zara trizz'lad."

Seeing he would get no more out of Kirar'nib, Lugner grit his teeth. "We'll speak later," he growled. He waved a hand at the green Nib. "Arzza'nib. Take care of it."

Arzza'nib raised her pistol and stared down the barrel. Time halted on the edge of a chronological precipice. Charles grabbed Pip's wrist, but she didn't feel it. She felt nothing but her own mortality.

Arzza'nib's pigmentation shifted from green, to blue, to muddy magenta. In one swift movement, she threw down her gun and rounded on George Lugner.

"No," she said.

Lugner had been mostly unfazed by Kirar'nib's reluctance. Arzza'nib's, however, threw him off balance. "No?" he sputtered. "What do you mean, no?"

"'No' iz mean 'no,' Lugner'nib. No, I iz not shooting. No, I iz not following your orderz. I iz not liking your sztrategy, zir. It iz not Nib sztrategy."

Lugner flushed purple. "You can't conscientiously object. You're the captain of my guard."

"You cannot order Nib! You iz human! We iz leaving zuch brutality behind zenturies ago. Lirma'nib iz truzting you, zir, but we iz not. You iz back-looking. You iz olden-time-thinking. Zizz partnership iz finished."

She raised and lowered a single tentacle. As one, the other Nib dropped their weapons.

For a moment, Lugner seemed to resign himself. The look on his face was thoughtful, rather than angry, and the way his arms hung inert at his sides seemed to promise peace. In spite of herself, Pip began to relax.

That was when Lugner moved.

Diving to the ground, he snatched up Arzza'nib's gun and fired. It happened faster than blinking and left his targets no time to react. Pip noted, dimly, that the barrel seemed to be pointed in her direction. Then she was on the ground.

Charles landed beside her, a crimson ribbon trailing from the new-made hole in his gut. Seconds later, Pip felt the ache of her wrist where he had grabbed her, remembered the sensation of being jerked aside, realized what must have happened. She threw herself atop Charles and screamed.

"Charlie! Charlie, you idiot! What did you do?"

Somewhere on the periphery of her cognizance, a scuffle broke out. Arzza'nib pounced on Lugner, who shot her in the side. The bolt didn't slow her down one iota. She wrapped a tentacle around his wrist and wrenched it around a full turn. The head of his ulna burst through the skin with a splintery crack. The gun skittered away to parts unknown.

"God damn it!" Lugner shouted. "Let go! I'm trying to help you, you stupid sons of bi-"

Kirar'nib darted forward and took hold of Lugner's hair, tugging his head back and striking him in the Adam's apple. Lugner's cries became a series of choked gasps. The sound acted like a signal to the rest of the Nib cohort. They rushed to enclose the victim, beating years of resentment into his vulnerable flesh.

"Help!" Pip yelled, though she knew there could be no help at this juncture. Not the kind Charles needed. He coughed, and red froth bubbled from the corners of his mouth. His eyes were wide and glassy.

"Damn it, Charlie," Pip said, her voice breaking. "I didn't want you to protect me. I didn't want anyone to protect me."

Charles snorted, then grimaced. His face was stretched too tight over the framework of his skull. "Has it ever occurred to you," he asked, "that it's not always about what you want?"

"Shut up." She began weeping in earnest then: great shuddering sobs that wracked her body like tiny earthquakes. "Please shut up. I hate you so much."

"Pip..."

Charles' hand scrabbled toward hers. She seized it and pressed it to her face, letting her tears roll over his knuckles. She shifted his palm to her mouth and kissed it almost frantically. "I hate you," she whimpered. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."

"Pip, it'll be okay."

"No." She pressed her body against his, fisting her hands in his shirt, clinging to him like the child she'd once been, like the child she still was. She was young. Now, more than ever, they felt it. Nothing Charles said in the comparative wisdom of his middle age could reach her at a moment like this..

He held her instead.

One of the Nib miscalculated. In his rage, he spun Lugner around to face him. Only Lugner's upper half completed the journey. His lower half remained stationary, pinned in place by a dozen grasping tentacles. His spine gave an ominous pop as it shattered. He went slack--dead or paralyzed, Pip couldn't tell.

"The Confluence!" Eddie shouted from what felt like miles away. "Hurry! Make a pyramid!"

"A pyramid?" Duncan said. Pip could almost hear his raised eyebrow. "This isn't really the time for an impromptu cheer practice."

"It's the only way to reach the damn thing."

"That's fine for the first people through. What's the bottom of the pyramid supposed to do? Cross their fingers and pray?"

"We'll make a chain."

"I don't think it works that wa--whup!" Duncan cried out as Arzza'nib lifted him off his feet. "Jesus Christ! What are you doing?"

Arzza'nib shot toward the Confluence, slithering over the heap of filth in the debris catch, hoisting the fragile human over her head. "Be brave, human," she said. "And tuck in your limbs."

Before Duncan could make further inquiries, Arzza'nib hurled him at the vortex. His shriek was lost almost immediately amid the stretching and warping of his body. A second later, he was gone.

The other Nib rushed to add their captain. One by one, the humans were tossed homeward, leaving nothing but truncated shouts behind. By the time the aliens reached for Charles, he was breathing rapidly and his muscles had begun to seize. Pip yelped as they dragged him away from her.

"Be careful," she said, "he's hurt. We have to be gentle until we can get him a doctor."

The pale pink Nib who held Charles eyed him doubtfully: his shallow breath, his waxy skin, the glistening circle of exposed entrails in his lower abdomen. "Little human," he said, "I don't think zizz one will-"

"Arg'murk zzuru!" Arzza'nib snapped, and the pink Nib shut his mouth. With grim determination, he slithered to the Confluence and tossed Charles inside. Blood ran from his wound to stain the debris as he disappeared into the vortex. A large portion of Pip's hope disappeared with him. It was easy to lie to herself when she could feel the warmth of his hand in hers. Now that he was out of sight...

"Lazt one," said Arzza'nib as she tore Pip off her feet. "Goodbye, human. You forgive Nib, yez? We iz only wanting ztudy you. Iz Lugner'nib making uz to hurt."

Pip had no answer for that. Her emotions were in tumult. It would be some time, she suspected, before she'd know whether she could forgive the Nib or not. Instead of addressing Arzza'nib's assertion, she said: "Find Lirma'nib. She's hurt. She might be dying."

Pip wasn't sure why she said it. Arzza'nib wasn't either. She stared at Pip, clearly taken aback. Then she nodded. "We iz finding her. We iz helping her. Promize."

They would, too. Pip had no doubt of that. In the end, the Nib had proven themselves to be better than Lugner, better than Pip, better than the majority of the human race. Despite all, Pip was glad to have met them. If Earth had to suffer the interference of an alien species, at least they were in reasonably benevolent hands.

Pip felt herself leaving Arzza'nib's embrace. The floor shrank. The Confluence grew. There was a sickening twisting sensation. Then darkness.