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I’m not sure how I managed to make it through the whole day yesterday without remembering to post this week’s chapter. fdsa (That was me, slapping my own hand.) I’ll do better, I promise. We leave Kevyn stranded in the dark observatory and return to the survivors on the Outer Planet Exploratory Vehicle Beagle.

Kudzu, A Novel

Chapter 11

The docking bay door opened slowly onto a field of green. The leaves, pressed against the metal door, bushed out into the widening gap.

“Fuck me,” Slim said, wide-eyed behind the plexiglass of his helmet.

Amelia’s laugh barked across the intercom. “In your dreams, kit.”

Jaworsky’s rough chuckle projected from whatever blasted part of the ship he’d gotten himself to.

“It’s just…” Slim trailed off, frowning at the cutting torch he’d brought for the task. “I think I’m going to need a bigger flamethrower.” He shrugged into the harness that strapped the twin tanks to the back of his suit, and tossed the nozzle from paw to paw a couple times before testing it. The torch sparked blue and white hot for a brief moment. In the evacuated docking bay, it made no sound, but Slim could feel the hiss of the flame through the nozzle, and through the fabric of the suit, as real as any sound. He clipped a cable to his belt, and to the wall, and then pushed off toward the massive plant.

“Be careful,” Colleen said.

Slim capped the superheated tip of the torch’s nozzle before he clipped it to his belt. He gave Colleen a thumb’s up. He clipped his long tether cable to his belt, and tossed the other end to Michael.

“Will you spot me?”

Michael unclipped himself from the wall and pushed himself off in a long flight across the docking bay, coming to rest on the far wall. “I got you,” he said, attaching both his and Slim’s tether to the wall. He wrapped Slim’s tether around his hand. “Any trouble and I’m yanking you out of harm’s way.”

“Thanks,” Slim said. He hand-walked across the wall, until he was situated in front of the thick green and silver foliage. He raised the cutting torch.

It may not have been a big torch, but it was made to cut through reinforced metal alloys. The plant flamed briefly as it carbonized and crumbled. Gray smoke floated around the raccoon. Bits of charcoal engulfed him like a cloud of gnats.

“How deep does this shit go?” he asked. “Anyone know what the fuck I’m looking for?”

Tharp’s voice crackled across the intercom. “Well, obviously we’re hoping that it’s not all this dense. It’s a gamble, of course, but it’s not like we have much choice. As you may have discerned, we’re in dire need of any number of resources, from basic sustenance, like food and water, for example, to mechanical parts. You see, without any means of communicating with the world, we’re unable to request…”

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Ms. Kernighan, your outbursts in the meeting were… understandable. This situation is somewhat of a shock to us all. But there’s been plenty of time to calm down and get ahold of ourselves. We need to work together, and your tone–”

My tone? As opposed to your I’ll-speak-slowly-so-even-the-coon-can-understand tone?”

“My what? Amelia will tell you, I have no problem with raccoons. I authorized Amelia to pilot this thing, against some people’s protests, if you remember.

“Oh, well then, Mister-Not-As-Bad-As-Ash, maybe it’s your I’ll-speak-slowly-so-the-hired-help-understands tone. Sorry, Doctor Tharp. Anyway, it’s fucking bullshit.”

“You tell him, sister,” Jaworsky said.

“I’m not your fucking sister.”

“Damn good thing, too, ’cause those dreams we were having when we were in cryo, they’d be all sorts of–”

“Shut up,” Colleen suggested. “Please.” Though her voice was soft, it stopped Jaworsky short.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Thanks. We’re doing two things,” Colleen said, “surviving, and trying to get rescued.”

“Even if this stuff isn’t edible,” Amelia said, “we can process it into something that is, and extract water and oxygen out of it, at the same time.”

“And if you ever get back to cutting this shit open,” Susan said, “we’ll look for a way through it to some of the old communications satellites, so we can call for help.”

“Got it,” Slim said. And turned the cutting torch back on.

#

Tharp hit the mute button on the intercom.

“I’m not like that,” he said.

Amelia tapped at the keyboard in her console. It was made for human hands, not raccoon paws. It wasn’t illegal for a raccoon to be a pilot; why bother passing a law against something so patently absurd? Raccoons didn’t have the capacity for the sort of higher level abstract thought needed to pilot a space ship. Everyone knew that.

“I’m not like that,” Tharp said again. “I know how valuable your contribution is. If it wasn’t for you, we’d never have made it this far. You’re amazing. You’re exceptional.”

“So I’m an exception, huh?” Amelia didn’t let her teeth show.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know–”

“I think you should stop talking now.” Amelia finally turned her head to look him in the eye. He took a deep breath, looked away.

“The process of enculturation affects us all on many levels, and sometimes–”

“Susan is right, and you’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do, but this is not the time.” Amelia tapped on the keyboard some more, double-checking some readings. “Weird,” she said. “We evacuated the docking bay before opening the air lock. Other than the carbon from burning the plant, it should be a vacuum in there.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

“Un-mute us.”

Tharp took his finger off the mute button on the intercom.

“Hey, folks,” Amelia said, “we’ve got rising atmospheric pressure in the docking bay. There’s some sort of gas filtering in at a very low level. Not sure what it is, or whether it’s dangerous or not. Do you have any way of testing?”

“How much gas?” Michael asked.

“Negligible, but rising.”

“Let me check. Slim, I’m going to have to let go of your tether for a minute, so don’t do anything…dramatic.”

To be or not to be,” Slim intoned, with a sweep of his arm. “Whether ’tis nobler to suffer the fucking slings of outrageous errors…”

“Very funny.”

“Yeah, I laughed through the whole movie. Best comedy ever.”

“Movie?” Ash said, incredulous. “It’s a damn play, and it’s a tragedy. Don’t you know anything?

“Bunch of humans die of their own stupidity. That’s comedic gold. Could have used a chase scene, though. And a monkey.”

Michael fumbled with the clips on his tool belt, fingers clumsy in the thick gloves of his suit. Eventually, he managed to detach the device. He thumbed the power button. The small screen glowed amber.

“It’s too low a density to read. All right, give me a minute to figure out how to adjust the settings.”

Slim rolled his eyes and started up the cutting torch. The plant blackened and burned away, and then, without warning, burst outward.

Slim screamed as a jet of gas flung him across the docking bay. Stationed at the far wall, Michael dropped his scanner and scrabbled at the tether that held him in place, unable to evade the raccoon hurtling toward him, or the torch that swung in flaming arcs around Slim’s body.

His fingers found the catch, fumbled, slipped off, and Michael knew he would not get away in time.

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