The conference room could seat twenty comfortably, and was far too large for the five of them, but it was the one with the working projector. Dr. Tharp sat at the head of the table; Ash had taken the position at his right hand. Next to Susan, until Susan moved to the other side of the table, with Michael and Colleen. Amelia’s bandit face flickered from a small screen set in the center of the table. The speaker on Amelia’s screen crackled.
“Okay, guys, if you’re ready I’m going to start sending some images. Does a ten second delay slide show work for you?”
“Yes, that should be fine. Thank you, Amelia.” Tharp turned his chair so that he could see the screen.
The first image was of the orb, with its dangling creepers, from a distance.
“The fuck?” Ash said, under his breath. Half-standing.
The second image was a close-up of one of the vines, thick and twisted, dark green foliage interspersed with metallic black leaves and purple flowers.
“What is it?” Susan asked. Elbow on the conference table, chin between thumb and forefinger, she scrutinized the thing through narrowed eyes.
Michael leaned forward in his chair, his dreadlocks slipping from his shoulders to dangle in front of him. “Looks like kudzu to me.”
“And with a geology degree from a third rate college, you’re certainly the expert here.”
Michael’s tone didn’t reflect the loathing on his face. “We can’t all be trust fund babies, Ash, or you wouldn’t have anyone to look down on. Some of us actually had to work. Me, I had a summer job cutting the stuff back. I know kudzu when I see it.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Susan said. “It’s a freaking vacuum. Not even kudzu can survive in a vacuum.”
“Sense?” Michael’s voice turned bitter. “Gary’s dead, but Ashley fucking Hendricksson is alive and well. I stopped believing in a universe that makes sense a month ago. Or sixty-five years ago.” He shook his head. “Not even time makes sense any more. What’s a little space kudzu compared to that?”
Colleen put her un-bandaged hand on Michael’s shoulder. Amelia had watched her shrink into her chair as the images flashed on the screen, and then even more as the voices raised, as if she could disappear into the cushions. But she and Michael shared something the others didn’t. Both of them had lost husbands in the blast.
Ash leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the conference table. “Jesus, save me from self-designated weed experts. Why are we messing with this thing at all? I mean, we’re here, right? We made it back to Earth. Let’s get rescued and go home, already.”
Tharp frowned at Ash. “Yeah, about that… Amelia, can you skip ahead to…”
The orb vanished from the screen, replaced with a planet. The Earth, from the shape of the continents. Half the sphere was in shadows. The half that was lit was less blue than it had been when they had left. Less blue than it should have been. The continents were a lush green, and the oceans a green-tinged blue. On the dark half of the globe, only a handful of lights could be seen.
“As you can see,” Tharp said, “there’s a slight problem.”
Michael and Susan were out of their chairs, mouths open. Susan with her hand up covering her mouth. Ash almost tripped over his own feet. Colleen didn’t move, other than to grip the arms of her chair with white-knuckled fingers.
“What the fuck?” Ash said.
Michael sat heavily. “Jesus.”
“Now let’s not panic,” Tharp said. “There’s still some people down there. In what condition, we don’t know. We still don’t have any communications capabilities, and we haven’t been able to find any ships in orbit. Whatever happened was long ago enough that there’s nobody left up in space.”
“There’s got to be someone,” Ash said, his voice hollow. “There has to be.”
Colleen pushed her chair away from the table and stood. Without a word, she limped out of the room. Michael, Dr. Tharp, and Susan watched her, but none of them tried to stop her.
“There has to,” Ash whispered.
Amelia’s voice crackled from the speakers. “Okay, guys? So, that’s the bad news. The good news is, we’re pretty much in position to dock with the big green blob. I’ve got us over the pole and we’ve matched its rotation. Thirty-seven minutes to impact, so to speak.”
“We’re landing on it?” Ash was incredulous.
“It’s the best chance we have at this point,” Tharp said. “I’m hoping there’s some stuff we can salvage, like a radio transmitter. If we’re real lucky, there might even be some fuel.”
“And kudzu is edible,” Michael added. “At least, Earth Standard Kudzu is.”
Amelia chittered her excitement. “See? See? I told you there’d be food.”
Susan was less enthusiastic. “If it doesn’t eat us first.”
“Well, I guess we’ll find out. We’ll be docking soon. Susan, I want you and Ash to take one of the maintenance guys and check it out.”
“Yeah, right,” Ash said.
Susan cocked her head at Tharp. “Seriously? No. I don’t have time for that shit. I’ve got to crack the ship’s central computer system.”
Ash scoffed. “What do you think you can do that I haven’t already done?”
Tharp sighed dramatically. Crossed his arms. “Oh, come on, guys.”
“I’m not digging around in some weed,” Ash said, heading toward the door. “I’ve got better things to do.” He pushed past Colleen, who glared at him with red-puffy eyes from the doorway. When he was gone, she turned back to the others.
“I’ll do it,” she said.
“No,” Tharp said. “Absolutely not. You’re injured.”
“I’m in, too,” Michael said.
“Good,” Susan said, as she, too, walked toward the exit. “Then we’re done here.”
Michael caught Colleen’s eyes. The two of them followed Ash and Susan out of the conference room.
Tharp stared after them, then sat, pressed his forehead to the table, and covered his head with his hands.
“I hate to say it, boss,” Amelia said, “but I think you’ve got a discipline problem.”