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Unfortunately, my brain has yet to have clued me in on the true nature of the title for Book IV. It’s sure to relent one of these days, at which point I’ll update this. For now, alas, we must proceed without. Suffice to say that Book IV begins here, and now, despite its unwillingness to divulge its true name.

Kudzu, a Novel

Book IV: As Yet To Be Titled

Chapter 24

“Something is crawling in my hair.” Kevyn’s voice shook as they felt their way through the low, earthen tunnel. The floor was slightly damp, and the feathery fingers of roots protruding from the walls brushed their faces as they passed.

“Quit complaining,” Murphy said. “At least you’re getting out of jail. I’m totally screwed if I go back to work. I can’t even pick up my last paycheck.”

Kevyn pulled up short; Murphy collided with her.

“Oh, fuck,” Kevyn said. “We’re fugitives. I can’t go home. Who’s going to water my plants?”

“Your plants? I’ve lost my job, conspired with felons, assisted a jail break, contributed to arming a psychopath, and now I’m on the run with a crazy man and a whiner. I don’t give a fuck what happens to your plants. Who’s going to feed my cats?

Sir Reginald said, “The Outer Planetary Exploratory Vehicles were first proposed as part of—”

What?”

“If we’re going to be dealing with a threat from outer space, it’s important to have a little background, don’t you think?”

“We’re in a tunnel, breaking out of jail — which I wouldn’t have been in if not for you, thank you very much. Do you really think this is the right time for a history lesson?”

“Would you rather spend the time obsessing about theoretical spiders in your hair?” He cleared his throat. “Right. Then, where were we? Ah, yes. The beginning. The Outer Planetary Exploratory Vehicles were first proposed as part of an international and inter-corporate program to assess the resources available throughout the Solar System, and to allocate rights. Predictably, bickering over who would theoretically receive what scuttled the project before they even had a clue what they were theorizing about. At that point each nation or corporation capable of mounting an expedition did so on its own, all under the auspices of the original project.”

“Please tell me why I should care,” Murphy said.

Sir Reginald ignored the guard. “In all, there were nine expeditions that reached the production stage. Nine ships, all built to the same specifications, before the lawsuits over intellectual property rights for the technology incorporated into the ships stopped the project. Seven of those ships launched. One was disassembled immediately upon completion. The ninth was warehoused and forgotten.”

“If this was a story,” Kevyn said, “the editor would cut all this crap.”

“It’s important background.”

“It’s exposition, it’s boring, and it happened a million years ago. What does any of this have to do with us?”

“Sixty-five years is hardly a million. It’s not even half that. Where was I? Ah, the Beagle, yes. The OPEV Beagle was the first of two U.S. expeditions to the outer planets. The Beagle disappeared halfway through its mission, stranding a handful of the crew on the surface of Triton, Neptune’s largest moon. They discovered the shuttle buried in the ice covering Triton’s surface. There were no survivors, and those at the base died of starvation years before another ship was able to get there.”

“Great,” Murphy said. “First you kidnap me, and now you’re telling stories of trapped people dying of starvation — while we’re in a creepy, pitch-black tunnel that makes a century-old prison smell like a fresh breeze?”

“Seriously,” Kevyn said. “What is that smell? Raw sewage?”

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘dirt,’ with perhaps a bit of mildew. That’s the problem with kids today: they live their lives indoors and never spend any time with their hands in the soil. The mildew is likely not terribly good for your lungs, but it’s not like we’re going to set up housekeeping here. I hope.”

“You hope?”

“Yes, well, I appear to have become rather vague, haven’t I? Best not to dwell on that, and just push on. We’re certain to come up somewhere interesting. Though I would suggest we pick up the pace. These sorts of tunnels are liable to collapse at any time.”

“I hate you,” Kevyn said.

“Indeed,” Sir Reginald said. “I have always suspected as much. The Triton castaways—”

“Oh, God.”

“Ahem. The Triton castaways left some records behind. There had been some sort of incident that caused substantial damage to the ship. They were unable to raise the Beagle on radio, and feared all personnel on the ship had been killed. After about a month, the Beagle broke orbit using only maneuvering rockets, and disappeared into the darkness of space. They were never seen again.”

“Until this week,” Kevyn said.

“Wait,” Murphy said. “Are you talking about the mystery ship that was on the news the other day?”

“Yes, Ms. Murphy, that self-same spaceship is the subject of our current verbal perambulations.”

“I thought it was from Mars. That’s what they said on T.V.”

“Did you know that at one time, journalism was a noble art? Ah, it doesn’t matter. The world goes its own ways, indifferent to those who would see it follow a different, perhaps better, path. Yes, the ship we spied through the looking glass was the OPEV Beagle, missing these many years and presumed lost in the infinite emptiness of space. Returned home, only to find home vastly changed, filled with news anchors who can hardly remember the previous night, much less a tragic tale from over half a century ago.”

Kevyn stopped again. “Okay, I see how you’re tying all this together, but what are we supposed to do about any of this? I mean, really?”

“Keep moving,” Murphy said.

“Ow,” said Kevyn. “You can’t do that. We’re not in prison anymore.”

“Every time you stop, that’s more time I’m stuck down here listening to two crazy people in the dark. So just keep moving. Please.”

“Yeah, okay. Sorry.” Kevyn shuffled off down the tunnel. “But seriously, what does any of this have to do with us?”

“I’m not certain,” Sir Reginald said. “I… I simply have a bad feeling about all this. I can feel it in the hollow of my chest, under my ribs. The last time I felt like this was when Astrid showed me her grand experiment. I ignored it then. Ran away from it, really. And look how that turned out.”

“Oof!” Kevyn said. “I’ve run out of tunnel.”

“Try going up,” Murphy said.

“Good idea—”

The light was blinding.

They climbed out into kudzu, blinking in the soft, green glow filtering through the leaves. Murphy waved away a cloud of gnats. Small white butterflies flitted between the clusters of kudzu flowers sprinkling the cavernous space.

“Hmm,” Sir Reginald said, looking at Kevyn. He brushed the top of her head with an open hand, and when he pulled it away, a huge black and yellow spider danced in his palm, clearly agitated. “It seems you did have a spider in your hair.”

He set it on one of the kudzu leaves, and it scuttled away.

“Did I mention I hate you?” Kevyn asked.

Murphy looked at the trap door they had come through. Now that it had been opened, kudzu vines had already started growing down into the darkness of the tunnel, back toward the prison.

“Now what?” she asked.

Sir Reginald looked at the vines twisting all around them and scratched his chin.

“Honestly? I don’t know.”

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