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I have spots of green on my stomach. Is it possible that the kudzu within is finally breaking through this fleshy sack? More likely it is paint that failed to find its proper home on the woodwork. (Does this mean that the bathroom remodeling is finally finished, and I can spend more time writing? Why yes, yes it does.)

Kudzu, A Novel

Chapter 14

“I can’t decide if this is utterly creepy, or weirdly comforting.” Michael inspected one of the luminescent leaves. Each of the three leaflets that comprised it was as big as a plate, and gave off enough light to read by; the veins glowed brightest of all. They were warm to the touch.

Slim moved slowly across the surface, giving wide berth to anything that looked remotely like a hole something could hide in. “I keep thinking that my species memory should kick in any time now, or instincts, or something. But I vote for creepy. This ain’t natural. Give me steel and plastic over this any day of the week.”

Michael chuckled. “You’ve got to learn to relax. Experience the world for what it is.”

“I don’t need a lesson on experiencing the world,” Slim said. “I sprained my damn tail keeping you from getting cut in half. Do you see me whining? I’m just saying, maybe the world can give us a fucking break. We’ve had enough weird, bad shit already. Can we go back to normal?”

Colleen was characteristically silent. She just moved on, her explorations taking her further ahead of the others.

“Oh, damn!” Michael pulled back abruptly as one of the glowing leaflets snapped off its stem with a bright, electric spark. The spark was short-lived, though; the plant healed over quickly enough that very little of the luminescent sap spilled. The leaflet floated in front of him, still glowing, and he reached out a tentative hand.

Nothing bad happened when he touched it, even when he poked the fresh film that covered the broken stem. He tucked it under his air hose, wearing it like a corsage.

“You look like you’re ready to go spelunking,” Slim said.

“Yeah, works pretty good. I wonder how long it lasts.” Michael looked around. “Where’d Colleen go?”

As far as they could see before the tunnel twisted away, there was no sign of her. Michael bit back panic.

“Colleen? Can you hear us? Colleen?”

But all he heard in response was Slim’s rapid breathing, and his own heart beating in his ears.

~

Even with her radio off, Colleen could still hear Michael and Slim talking; their voices were muffled by their helmets, but still carried through whatever atmosphere filled this this strange place. She kept moving, even as they stopped to investigate things. Kept moving until they were out of sight, and out of earshot.

The tunnel twisted in a slow loop and then widened dramatically. The chamber was huge, big enough to fit the Beagle’s shuttle, if they hadn’t lost it in the accident, with a half-dozen other tunnels radiating from it. Colleen imagined that it looked somewhat like a knot viewed from the outside. From the inside, it was more like a cathedral.

It was also warmer, and more humid. A moist breeze cut across the open space, passing between the two largest tunnels, but also eddying around the chamber. Colleen’s helmet fogged as the moisture condensed. She wiped it away as best she could with the non-porous fabric of her glove.

It was almost too late when she realized that the currents had caught her up, and that she was drifting toward one of the big tunnels, the chamber’s exhaust pipe. She reached for the closest of the vines, but her fingers caught only leaves, which, after a second’s resistance, broke away from the plant. It was enough, though, to change her trajectory.

She came back within reach of the wall about fifty meters from where she’d started. The vines here were more loosely entwined, and the first few handfuls came away in her hands, but she managed to grab a strong, thick vine that stopped her momentum with a good two meters to spare. No problem.

The leaves she’d broken off in her scrabbling were swept into the tunnel. Colleen wrapped her arms around the vines and took a deep shuddering breath. No, she wasn’t ready to let go. Not yet. Maybe, if how her body reacted in the face of nearly being swept away was any indication, not for a long time. Something to think about, when she was back on the ship.

Oh. This is interesting. With the leaves under her stripped away in her mad scramble, she could see beyond the first, the innermost, layer of the plant, and into the next. Moisture condensed on the leaves below her, gathering and dripping slowly in thin rivulets toward the tunnel.

Very interesting, indeed.

~

Earl Jaworsky whistled, off-key and aimless, as he muscled the massive cable into place. The thing ran three quarters of the length of the ship, all the way from the second ring to the reactor. Once he got the reactor side end measured out, he worked his way back up the ship, securing it to the hull at one meter intervals. Jaworsky knew better than to let anything with this kind of amperage flap around. If he’d had the time–and the materials–he’d have run it through a heavy, insulated duct. But he didn’t. The best he could do is come back later and paint DO NOT CROSS lines around it, and hope the others weren’t as stubbornly idiotic as they seemed.

He’d gotten the cable tied down as far as the third ring when Amelia’s voice crackled from the speakers.

“Folks, I think we may have a problem. From what I can see, the plant has started to grow around the ship. It’s already wrapped around the docking bay.”

Ash’s voice: “Oh, shit. I knew–” Ash stopped talking.

“Can we break free?” Tharp asked.

“I can’t reach Slim,” Amelia said. “Or Michael or Colleen. It’s like there’s some sort of interference. There was a lot of noise in the signal as soon as they got inside the thing, and now all I get is static.”

“But can we break free?”

“We can’t leave them behind!”

“We’ll go back and rescue them,” Tharp said. “I promise. But if we get trapped by this thing, that’s it for us. Get us free of it.”

“Shit shit shit.” Amelia muttered as she worked.

Jaworsky felt the engines fire, heard the vibration rumble through the hull. Metal protested. The Beagle lurched and strained. The engines cut out.

“No,” said Amelia. “Not without tearing the docking bay off the ship. And then we all die.”

“So that’s it? We’re stuck on this thing?” Tharp sounded close to despair.

“Castaways in space,” Ash said. “Brilliant. I get to waste away stuck on a giant space weed. With you people.”

Fuck. Jaworsky ignored the inevitable bickering that exploded between Ash and Tharp and Susan. He closed his eyes and pictured the ship with its rotating forward ring, and the massive plant, also rotating, but with a much slower rate of rotation.

“All right, shut up.” he said. “Everyone just shut the fuck up. It’s physics lesson time. When I was a kid we had these things called bicycles–they were before your time, but you might have heard of them: handle bar, seat, two big, spoked wheels. We used to ride them all over. And if there was some kid you didn’t like, you waited till the little bastard was riding by and you’d jam a stick between the spokes of one of the wheels. The results were, well, pretty much immediate.”

“What are you saying?” Tharp asked.

I’m saying you’re a moron. Jaworsky let that go unsaid. Instead: “How fast is that thing growing? How long before it reaches the first ring? ‘Cause that’s how long we have to live.”

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