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Kudzu, A Novel

Chapter 26

The vines were slippery, damp with condensation. Each handhold sprayed a mist of miniscule droplets into the air. The moisture glistened on their suits, their skin, soaked into Michael’s dreadlocks.

When they started down the deep shaft, they had gone head-first, pulling themselves along in the near-weightlessness of the center of the kudzu ball. But as they progressed, forward became more like down, and down meant turning themselves around to keep from inadvertently pitching into the pit.

“Spot me for a minute,” Colleen said.

Michael curled an arm around a thick vine and held firm to the coil of vegetation that connected him to Colleen.

Colleen tugged off her gloves and clipped them to her belt.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Michael asked.

“Space suits aren’t designed for rock climbing. Or kudzu climbing. I want to be able to feel where I’m sticking my fingers. And my toes.” She bent to unbuckle her boots, putting some of her weight on the tethering vine.

Michael was going to object, but it wasn’t a bad idea. The boots were made to protect the wearer from a vacuum, and from extremes of heat and cold. They were also made to magnetically adhere to metal surfaces, for easier negotiation of landscapes that consisted of metal structures with no gravity. As gravity increased in this humid environment, it was more and more evident the boots were an encumbrance, and potentially dangerous: bulky and slippery.

Once Colleen had both her boots clipped to her belt, she climbed back up to where Michael waited. She lifted one foot and wiggled her toes in front of his face.

“Freedom,” she said, grinning. She gathered up the slack in the tethering vine and braced herself. “Your turn.”

~

A few hours later, they were sitting on a natural ledge, a massive structural vine that punched through one viney wall and out the other, bridging the widening shaft. In their descent, they had passed a number of other, smaller tunnels that intersected this one, and water trickled or gushed from each of them, adding to the cascade. By now, the rush of water had surpassed a burbling stream and become a bonafide, if gentle, waterfall, under the strength of about a quarter-earth gravity.

They had collected bunches of kudzu berries as they climbed, storing them in their helmets. Now they sat on the thick trunk of kudzu and ate. Colleen kicked her feet in the water, luxuriating in the feel of it running between her toes.

“You know,” she said, “it never occurred to me when I signed up for this mission just how much I’d miss water. Just plain, clean water coursing over my body. Whoever marketed ‘antiseptic misting showers’ as ‘better than water’ should burn in hell. I don’t think I’ve been really clean for years now.”

“Decades,” Michael said.

Colleen shook her head. “Cryo doesn’t count. There’s no bathing in cryo, or dirt. Just weird-ass dreams.” She shuddered, then ran her fingers under the cascade. She looked down at her suit, now stained green and berry-purple. “I want to strip all this off and just stand under this, let it course over my skin. Or maybe dance.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

Colleen rolled her eyes. “Not here. When we get to the bottom.”

“You don’t know what else might be in here. You’d risk exposing yourself to that?”

Colleen plucked a berry from her helmet, reached out and pressed it against Michael’s lips, until he accepted the half-crushed fruit.

Colleen licked the purple juice off her fingers.

“Yes,” she said.

~

Michael had no idea how long they’d been climbing. The intermittent luminescent leaves were populous enough–and regular enough — to keep the entire chamber lit with its softly pulsating glow. On a spaceship, any sense of day and night was purely artificial, but time was kept, and there were regular enough cues that, once you got used to it, the body adapted. Here, cut off from all contact with the ship, none of that worked. It could have been hours, or it could have been days.

Whatever it was, he was starting to tire, and with gravity having increased as they descended to nearly half an Earth-standard gravity, the climbing was correspondingly more difficult. The water wasn’t helping, either. What had started as a trickle was now closer to a torrent, and with the winding of the tunnel and the vines that comprised its walls, it was more and more difficult to avoid climbing into the spray.

He reached the end of the length of their improvised rope and found a good, solid vine to wrap an arm around. Colleen started her climb.

She climbed down to where Michael had positioned himself. Not the best place, it turned out, as there were no close-by hand or footholds on either side. He’d have to shift over, and then she could squeeze by. Or maybe he could climb down a little further…

And then… and then she was no longer above him. She’d leapt. Across… it had to be a good two meters!

Colleen caught a vine with the crook of her elbow, but her feet slipped. They scrabbled in the air for a few endless seconds, and then she found purchase. She glanced over at Michael, and grinned.

Michael stared, gape-jawed.

“Are you insane?” he shouted, when he could finally get the words to come. “What were you thinking, pulling a stunt like that? What if you’d fallen?”

“You’d save me,” she said. She shrugged, and continued her descent.

“What if the rope broke? What if I lost my grip? Gah!”

Colleen paused and looked up at Michael. “Then we’d find out what’s at the bottom quicker.”

She turned her concentration back to climbing. When she reached the end of the rope and had gotten herself settled, she whistled; her signal that she was ready.

Michael picked his way down. Since Colleen had leapt to a different cluster of vines, they were now on different tracks; he couldn’t simply follow her path without making the same insane leap she had. Michael fumed. What if, further down, the vines split further apart instead of closer together? What would they do then? Climb back up?

Colleen had been suicidal since the accident. Everyone knew it. It was just a matter of time before she’d attempt it, which was why Michael took pains to keep an eye on her. To keep her safe, when she decided it was time to end it all.

Who knew when she crossed that line, she’d take to it with such joy? With such reckless abandon? She was taking crazy risks, and not paying attention to details, and—

And Michael’s hand closed on something. It was fuzzy, and textured, and not kudzu-like at all. And it moved.

Michael shrieked and pulled his hand away from… he wasn’t sure what, but it had moved, and now…

…And now his other hand was slipping, and he was tipping backward, away from the wall, feet slipping from their purchase. And then, he was falling. He saw Colleen — just the briefest glimpse, but he could read the horror in her face. And then he was past her, falling, until the rope snapped taut, and for a second, just a second, he wasn’t falling.

But there were sounds. Colleen cried out, in pain, and then in terror. There was the snap of breaking foliage.

Then he was falling again.

Above him, he saw Colleen.

And she was falling, too.

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