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We’re waiting for Stormageddon, which comes with the innocuous and PR-friendly name of ‘Sandy.’ Like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Harmless. It’s okay. We’ve stocked up on vodka. In the meantime we present the next installment of Kudzu for your reading pleasure.

Kudzu, A Novel

Chapter 22

 

It was Michael’s idea to tie a length of the kudzu vine to their harnesses, keeping them connected as they followed the path of the water condensing within the kudzu walls and spilling down the deep, wide well that burrowed away from the vast, windy chamber.

It was Colleen’s idea to follow the water.

“There’s water for a reason,” she said. “If we follow it, we’ll find out what that is.”

“Plants need water,” Michael said.

“Plants can get moisture from the air. I had an air plant when I was a kid. My dad got it for me. We never watered it. The steam from the shower was enough.”

“Yeah, but…” Michael didn’t bother finishing. Anyone clever enough to genetically engineer solar panels into a plant could easily make it absorb moisture from the air. If there was open water, there was a reason for it.

Like the rings of the Beagle, this giant mass of kudzu was spinning, which meant as they followed the tunnel, gravity would increase. Fortunately, the plant itself provided plenty of hand and footholds. But the falling water presented a potential danger, making those handholds slick. A slip and fall, especially considering the rotation, could be a brutal way to die.

“Have you ever gone climbing?” he asked.

“I had to climb a rope to pass my medical.”

“Yeah, alright. Before we go anywhere, I’m gonna teach you some knots.”

~

It wasn’t going to work.

Ash knew it already. Slim was too far away. Even coming to rest against a thin tendril of the damned plant, it was too late.

“Maybe I can kick off this thing toward you,” Slim said.

“Let’s see what we got before we try anything rash,” Susan said.

She’d reached the end of her tether; Ash was still sailing out, away from the ship. Away from safety. The tether unspooling behind him, connecting him to Susan, and to the ship, looked increasingly like a thread. Insubstantial.

It wasn’t long enough. He knew that. It still hit him like a punch to the gut when the tether tightened and jerked him to a halt.

He was still a good thirty meters from Slim.

“Ow!” Slim twisted around, scrabbling at his leg. “Damned thing bit me!”

It looked like the plant had twisted around Slim’s ankle.

“What do you mean, bit?” Susan’s voice was worried.

“I mean it fucking bit me on the fucking leg!”

“Plants don’t bite,” Susan explained.

“You tell that to the fucking weed. It bit me right through my suit.”

That didn’t sound good.

“Ash?” Jaworsky spoke softly, with none of his usual bravado. “He’s my best friend.”

Slim twisted and fought with a coil of vine. Ash could see the thing growing, exuding another creeper in Slim’s direction.

Ash’s hands shook.

He unhooked the tether from his harness.

“Ash?”

Ash wasn’t sure Susan could see what he was doing, but she could certainly feel the sudden slack on the tether.

“What are you doing? This is not part of the plan.”

Both Ash and Susan had a can of air they could use to propel them for short distances, in an emergency. Ash unclipped his from his belt.

“This is not part of the plan,” Susan snapped. “Put your tether on right now.”

“I’m coming to get you, Slim,” Ash said. “Don’t struggle, you don’t want to rip your suit.” He used short blasts of air to maneuver closer to the flailing raccoon.

“I don’t wanna get eaten, either.”

“Nobody’s gonna eat you,” Jaworsky said. “Too goddamn stringy. Now hold still and let the kid help you.”

“He’s almost there,” Amelia said. “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but that vine is getting bigger. Like, a lot bigger.”

Ash had thought it was maybe an optical illusion. Hoped it was. But Amelia was right. The vine entrapping the raccoon’s leg was swelling, like a bubble in a hose, or one of those egg-eating snakes.

He sped up. Saving air for the return trip wouldn’t help if there was no return trip. If the vine kept growing like it was, it might have enough mass to support a leap back toward the ship.

And then Susan could save them both.

And that wouldn’t suck, either.

Ash came to rest on the swollen vine next to Slim. He clasped Slim’s paw, then handed him the can of air.

“All right, let’s see what’s going on with your leg, there.”

It wasn’t pretty.

The vine had wrapped completely around Slim’s calf. Something that looked like coiling tendrils had actually penetrated the suit. Slim was right; it had bit him.

“See?” Slim said. “I told you.”

“We’ve got a problem,” Ash said. He described the situation.

“Tourniquet,” Jaworsky said. “Wrap it around his thigh and make sure it’s as tight as you can make it.”

“Guys?” Amelia said.

“Yeah,” Ash said. “I’ll use my harness. And I think my flashlight would work for a stick.”

“Guys?” Amelia said again. “The kudzu…”

The kudzu had continued to grow, and now it sent thin vines out, coiling around Slim’s waist, and catching Ash as he bent double to pull his harness down over his feet.

Then the screaming started. There was puff of air as Slim’s suit tore, and then he was gone, swallowed up into the podlike belly of the vine.

Ash fought as best he could, but he wasn’t very good at it, and the coils wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his sides, pulling him in. His legs disappeared into the thrashing foliage.

When he had sunk up to his waist, he stopped struggling. He sagged, took a deep shuddering breath.

“So, this is it, huh?”

“No,” Tharp said. “Jaworsky, think of something.”

“God, you’re useless,” Ash said, as the plant pulled him in up to his ribs. “The good news is, it doesn’t hurt. I was afraid it would hurt.”

“I’m glad,” Amelia said.

“Y’know, I wondered what Slim was feeling, when we all thought he was a dead man–dead raccoon–talking. Feels like you’re all waiting for me to say something. Famous last words.”

He was up to his armpits in the thing.

He swallowed audibly. “All right. Here you go: Susan, I love you. And I’m sorry.”

And then he was gone.

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