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Last night I went to Lucas Mangum’s Awesome Reading Fest VIII, held at Between Books. It’s an open mic sort of event, for writers. We had people ranging from established authors like Gregory Frost reading from the novel he just finished, to people who are as yet unpublished. I read the first section from Ink, ending right before the naughty bits start. I’d just gotten copies of the book (Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press) from the publisher, and sold out.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programme.

Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 20

“Words, people.” Amelia’s claws flexed in agitation. “I need words. What’s happening out there?”

“We lost Slim,” Tharp said.

“No,” Ash said.

“He was coming through just as we separated, and he got sucked out into space.”

“No,” Ash repeated. “We can save him.”

“We can’t, son. We can’t risk it. We have to save the people we can actually help.”

Amelia could picture Tharp patting Ash on the shoulder. If she were in Ash’s place, she’d be taking a bite out of Tharp’s face right about then. She imagined Ash shrugging. Turning away. At least it wasn’t a person.

Bastard.

“We need to find Jaworsky,” Tharp said. “We need him to keep this heap running, and so we can rescue Michael and Colleen.”

“Yeah, you do that,” Ash said. “I have to try to save Slim.”

Amelia blinked. She felt her mouth open, but nothing came out.

“It’s not up for debate. If Jaworsky’s hurt, I’m going to need your help moving him to safety. For better or worse, I’m the captain of this damned wreck, and that was a direct order.” After a tense moment, Tharp cursed. “God damn it, I’ll do it by myself, then. Susan’s right, you are useless.” He continued muttering insults until Amelia shut off his channel.

“Thank you.” Ash’s voice trembled. “Susan? He’s drifted out of sight. I can’t do this alone.”

“I’m already halfway there, and I promise I won’t even slow down to kick Tharp in the nads. We can do that later. Together.”

“Save a piece of him for me,” Amelia said. “I’ve got Slim coming into view on camera three. And… and he’s waving.”

“Hey, ‘Melia.” Slim’s voice crackled. “I think I can see my house from here.”

“Oh, God,” she said. “You heard all that?”

“Yeah. Good to know who’s got your back, right? Ash, I take back everything bad I’ve ever said about you. Not that I’d ever say anything bad about anyone, y’know?”

“Um. Thanks?”

“So, what’s that I heard about Earl?”

“We don’t know. He got the power going and went silent. Could be his radio died. You know how things are on this boat.”

“No, that’s not right,” Slim said. “That man can never shut up when there’s a chance to kick his buddy when he’s down. Even if his radio shorted out, he’d find a way.”

“Even if my radio shorted out, it’d still be taller than you.” Jaworsky’s voice was shaky, halting.

“Fuck you,” Slim said, relief in his voice. “Where’ve you been? You’re missing all the fun.”

“I was just taking a little nap. Beauty rest, you know.”

“I’m getting suited up,” Susan said.

“Hey,” Jaworsky said, “here comes our fearless leader. I’m okay, all right? Just a little singe mark on my finger. Who knew a nuclear reactor packed such a kick? Every hair on my head is standing on end.”

Slim laughed. “Like a fucking porcupine. Prick.”

Amelia watched as his body spun slowly, gradually drifting further away from the ship. Slim had to know as well as she did that every minute that passed meant less of a chance he’d survive.

You’d never guess it from his voice. What the hell was taking Ash so long?

Amelia felt her claws digging into the wooden slats bolted onto the instrument panel, bit back a scream. She switched off her radio and leapt off her chair. The captain’s chair was bigger, more plush, more comfortable, and a lot more satisfying to shred.

~

Colleen felt gloved hands gripping her shoulders, spinning her around. Michael.

“Colleen! Your helmet!”

It was floating, off to the side. He lunged for it. Like it would have made a difference at this point. He caught it, gripped the wall when he came to it, spun and kicked back off in her direction. She batted the damned thing out of his hands.

“It’s air,” she said. “See? I’m breathing. It’s air. It’s fucking air.”

“But you don’t know what’s in it!” Michael was shouting to be heard through the helmet. “It could be toxic!”

Colleen tapped the oxygen gauge on his wrist. He had a little over a half hour’s worth of air. “It doesn’t matter. We’re cut off here. They won’t be back before the tanks run out. They won’t. They can’t.”

“But…”

“We might need it later.”

They floated together in the tunnel. Shredded leaves and bits of vine swirled around them; in this dead-end tunnel, there were no air currents worth noting. Emotions played across Michael’s face. There were questions he wanted to ask, questions he didn’t want answered.

Questions Colleen couldn’t answer if she tried. It seemed to fluctuate wildly, and she never knew where she’d be, emotionally, a minute into the future. She only knew where she was right now. Sometimes.

If he asked her about… she couldn’t bring herself to think the word. If he asked her anything about herself right then, she would drown in it.

“The light,” she said. “The light bulb leaves. Look. They’re still glowing, even though they’re in pieces.”

That was it. That was how she felt.

Michael unclipped his helmet and lifted it off his head. He took in a long, shuddering breath.

“Yeah. It’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t looking at the plant.

“I thought I’d lost you, too,” he said. “I don’t think I could stand that.”

So much unspoken lay between them. Colleen hadn’t noticed before; she’d been so submerged in her own loss—wallowed in it, really—that she’d just been going through the motions of life. She’d been doing her duty, helping the survivors get home safely. But that was her body. The rest of her had been elsewhere, waiting for duty to end so she could do what she needed to without guilt.

“Listen, Colleen—”

Colleen pressed fingers against his lips and shook her head. Barely a tremor, but she could see he understood.

“We came here to explore,” she said. “So let’s explore.”

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