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In space, there are no cliffs from which to hang.

Kudzu, A Novel

Chapter 15

Jaworsky repeated himself, more slowly, more deliberately, in case they hadn’t understood.

“How much time do we have?”

“Um. Fifteen minutes? Twenty?” Amelia’s voice was tentative. “It’s non-linear.”

“‘Kay,” Jaworsky said. “Did any of you geniuses bother to get some specimens of this thing?”

Ash spoke up. “I got some cuttings from Colleen before they went in. She asked me take them to her lab.”

“All right. Good. Go see what happens when you zap them with a strong electrical current. Report back as soon as you know anything. I’m going to get working on tying the reactor output to the outer hull, but we’ll need to know as soon as possible if that’s not going to work.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ash said.

“I’ll work on boosting the radio signals so we can get ahold of Michael and Colleen,” Susan said.

“Yeah, good. And Slim, too, right?” Jaworsky said. “Amelia, I need you on deck to fly the ship if this works. If it doesn’t, well, we’re not going to have time for a plan B. In that case, everybody get your ass to the docking bay and abandon ship. Tharp, I need you to get down there and start prepping the suits.”

“Just wait a min…” Tharp trailed off, catching a glimpse of Amelia’s face. “Okay, I’m on my way.”

~

Michael wasn’t stopping to sight-see. He propelled himself as fast as he dared down the tunnel, Slim trailing behind him. In gravity, the raccoons could outrun and out-maneuver a human with ease; weightless and not needing to make any sudden changes in direction, Michael’s human-long arms gave him the upper hand over Slim’s shorter limbs.

“Slow down,” Slim panted. “You don’t know what’s ahead. There could be anything out there. Bears, mountain lions. Even politicians.”

Michael ignored him. Just called Colleen’s name over and over.

And almost didn’t notice as the tunnel walls dropped away from him.

He kicked out with one foot, catching a vine with his toes. His momentum swung him against the chamber wall. He held on tight to keep from bouncing off and away from the wall.

When he recovered, he saw Colleen’s suited form lying against the wall halfway around the cavernous space. He called her name, but she didn’t respond.

Oh God.

Then she moved. She sat up and pulled her arm out of the depths of the kudzu wall. She was holding a specimen bag. Michael heaved a sigh.

Colleen sealed the specimen bag in her pack and looked around. She waved at Michael, pointed to her ear and shrugged.

“Colleen’s safe,” Michael said. “Her radio went out, is all.”

“So you almost got us both killed for nothing?”

A blast of static nearly deafened Michael. Susan’s voice rode the noise. “Away team, can you hear me? Emergency. I repeat, emergency. Return to the ship immediately.”

“What the hell? Susan, what kind of emergency?”

“Away team, can you hear me?” she asked again. “God I hope you can hear me now. Emergency. I repeat, emergency. Return to the ship immediately.”

Oblivious, Colleen pulled a fresh specimen bag from her pack.

“Shit,” Michael said. “Slim, get back to the ship. You don’t move as fast as we do here. I’ll get Colleen and join you.”

He shouted her name again, and then launched himself across the cavern toward her.

~

“I’ve got the signal boosted as high as I can, but I have no idea if we’re getting through,” Susan said. “We’re receiving nothing.”

“Okay. Amelia, how are we doing for time?”

“If we have to abandon ship, we need to leave our posts in maybe five minutes, to be safe. Sort of. That’s estimating five more minutes to get–”

“Yes!” Ash’s voice cut through. “Okay. Electricity damages it. It actually recoils from a strong enough charge. But it has to be serious power. When I used the output of a standard wall outlet, it sort of just ignored it.”

“Sort of?” Amelia asked.

“It grew a sort of rubbery insulating layer, real quick. So I doubled the charge, and that fried it.”

“Good to know. I’ve got the power spliced to the hull. I just need to get down to the reactor to get it all connected up. Susan, keep broadcasting. Give them more information so they know what we’re up against. Amelia, just stay ready.”

“Yeah, I’m on it.”

“What should I do?” Ash asked.

“You and Tharp suit up and get ready to pull people back into the ship. Bring a med kit. And oxygen.”

It took Jaworsky eight minutes to get the right connectors spliced onto the cable.

“Running out of time, Jaworsky,” Amelia said. “I hope you’re almost done.”

“Almost. Any sign of our away team?”

“Not yet,” Tharp said.

“Fuck. Okay, I’ve got everything hooked up. Just have to flip the breaker. In theory the outer hull is insulated from the inner hull and the rest of the ship, and the rings are even further isolated, but it hasn’t been tested with the amount of power I’m about to sink into it, not since the accident. As much as possible, I recommend that you stay away from metal surfaces. Got it?”

One by one, the remaining crew attested to their safety. Tharp and Ash floated in the middle of the docking bay, tethered to the interior wall but far from anything solid. Susan had crawled into her bunk. All but Amelia.

“The control panel is metal,” Amelia said. “I hope you wired this thing up right.”

“You and me both, kid. All right, here goes.”

Jaworsky pulled the breaker closed. There was a flash, and Jaworsky grunted, like someone had punched him in the gut. Then he was silent.

The ship thrummed with power.

“Someone’s coming through!” Tharp said.

“It’s Slim,” Ash added. “I’m on my way. I’ve almost got him!”

Greenery flashed, blackened, and separated from the ship. The Beagle lurched and twisted.

Amelia struggled to stabilize the ship.

The kudzu ripped away.

Ash reached, caught nothing.

Atmosphere spilled out into space through the docking bay door, and spraying through the hole cut in the kudzu, ejecting the hapless raccoon like a champagne cork.

The kudzu grew quickly, sealing the hole in a matter of seconds. Stemming the jet of gas, and trapping Colleen and Michael within.

“No,” Ash said, his voice soft, as the ship drifted away from the grasping plant, and Slim’s body tumbled in the widening gap. “Oh, no.”

End of Book II

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