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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 27

Phosphorescent kudzu leaves flashed by as Michael fell. Like falling elevators, he thought. Like cars rushing past each other on a foggy night. Water fell with him, the drops coalescing into streams, and breaking apart into spray.

When he’d signed on to the Triton mission, he’d had to read twenty-three pages of disclaimers and warnings, all the possible ways he could be killed or maimed spelled out in gruesome detail in fine print. He’d had to read each and every bulleted point, and then initial it.

He was pretty sure falling to his death in a pit made entirely of kudzu was not on that list.

Either he was drifting, his course shifting as he fell, bringing him closer to the wall of the tunnel, or the tunnel curved — ever so slightly — toward him. The difference was academic. Michael tried to emulate videos he’d seen of skydivers in freefall, controlling how fast they were falling and what direction they were going with their limbs. He spread his arms and legs, hoping to get himself away from the wall.

Too close.

His right hand caught on a vine, sending him spinning. The tethering vine wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his sides.

He realized he was screaming.

Then he hit—.

~

Water filled the air around Colleen.

Where did it go?

Same place she and Michael were going: down. Which meant there had to be some sort of pool at the bottom, didn’t it?

The vine connecting her to Michael was taut; Colleen used it to maneuver her body, getting her feet below her. She pointed her toes, just in time to cut through the water.

The water tore at her skin, her clothes. Rushed up her nose. She rose to the roiling, swirling surface, spluttering. Water crashed down on her head, but already a current pulled her, out from under the cataract and downstream.

It would be pulling Michael, too, assuming he was still attached to the other end of the rope vine. The water rushed through a wide tunnel, a twisting rapids full of unexpected turns and precipitous drops, cascading over thick intersecting vines and roots, and once — Colleen was pretty sure — the rusting hull of an old spaceship.

Colleen tugged herself along the rope, hand over hand, trying to get closer to Michael.

He had to be alive. He had to.

But when she reached him, she couldn’t tell. He was all tangled up in the rope, and unresponsive. His head lolled in the water. She struggled to keep his mouth and nose above the surface. The crashing, swirling current forced them both under as she fought to hold on.

Finally, the rapids spilled them out into a wide, placid lake. Colleen wasn’t sure how deep the water was, but the ceiling was low, almost close enough for her to reach. Bunches of purple berries hung down to the surface, or brushed the top of her head as they drifted by. The light-leaves looked like ghostly lanterns, reflected in soft ripples on the surface.

Michael was breathing.

But not conscious. She tread water, holding Michael’s inert body against hers, and tried to untangle him from the vine. All she managed to do was dunk herself a few times. Eventually, she settled on just pulling up the slack in the vine so it wouldn’t get caught on anything.

As she gathered the vine to her, she felt a sudden tug, almost pulling it from her grasp. She froze, but it didn’t repeat, not until she started gathering again. This time, the vine yanked out of her hand, and she had visions of her and Michael getting dragged under the surface. But again, nothing happened once she held still.

Something splashed, somewhere behind her.

She spun in the water to look, but whatever it was had vanished, leaving only ripples.

Fruit falling from the vine?

Something brushed the back of her legs.

Colleen bit back a scream.

In the dim light, the water was black under the reflecting surface. Colleen took a deep, shuddering breath and ducked her head under. She looked around, but as clear and clean as the water was, it was too dark to see far. She lifted her head for a breath of air, and looked again.

Something flickered through the water, a flash of silver and gold at the edge of her vision. Something big.

Colleen fought panic. She couldn’t control her trembling, or the shallow, rapid breaths, but she managed to make her legs do what she wanted, to keep them from thrashing like a wounded thing.

Holding Michael’s limp body to her, she kicked slow and steady, calmly following the current, wherever it might lead.

~

Niamh Murphy’s lips pressed tight as she watched the kudzu fill the tunnel that lead back to the prison.

“Well, fuck,” she said. “We really can’t go back now.”

“There’s got to be some other way out,” Kevyn said.

The foliage was dense, impenetrable; Kevyn surveyed the perimeter, trying to find any gap in the tightly woven vines, spreading the leaves apart every few feet, and checking all the way down to the ground.

“‘Course, the opening could be anywhere,” she grumbled. “Sir Reginald, you’re taller than I am, maybe you could– What the hell are you doing?”

Sir Reginald glanced up, briefly, then resumed his labors, packing, tapping, and repacking his pipe.

“Having a smoke,” he grumbled.

“Do you really think this is the time for—”

“It has been…” Grump’s brow wrinkled. “Roughly two hundred years since last I tasted tobacco, and I have pulled off no less than three daring and mysterious escapes since then. I should very much like a moment to savor my victories, such as they are.”

“Is it really too late to go back?” Kevyn asked.

Murphy glanced at the weed-choked pit. “Yup.”

Sir Reginald struck a match against his boot-heel and pulled on his pipe, drawing the flame down into the dense-packed weed until it glowed. He filled his cheeks and puffed out a series of misshapen smoke rings.

Kevyn completed her circuit.

“I can’t find a damned thing,” she said.

“Not surprising,” Sir Reginald said. He drew on his pipe one last time, exhaling a large cloud of cherry-sweet smoke. It hung suspended before him, then rose and swirled, following the smoke rings as it thinned and dissipated.

He pointed with his pipe, following the path of the smoke, toward a spot about five meters up the side of the kudzu chamber wall. There was a hint of an indentation, a hint of darkness behind the verdant green.

“That’ll be our way out,” he said.

The leaves where Sir Reginald pointed rustled and parted. Something emerged, snout-first, from the darkness. It looked around, blinking bandit eyes. One clever paw reached into a pouch and produced a pair of spectacles. It bent the frames into shape and set them on its nose.

“Ah, Sir Reginald,” the raccoon said. “You’re back.”

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