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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 28

We've missed you!

Sir Reginald assessed the raccoon as he tapped his pipe against his boot, spilling soft, white ash on the ground. A tendril of kudzu grew toward the ashes, twisting across dirt, investigating. It lay across the pile and extended roots into it.

“I presume we’ve met, then,” Sir Reginald said.

“Very funny.” The raccoon tucked its glasses back into its pouch and clambered down the wall.

Kevyn glowered at Sir Reginald. “You seem to have everything figured out, don’t you?” She stepped out of a loop of kudzu that had begun to encircle her foot.

The raccoon limped across the clearing. A long stripe of missing fur ran from under its rib cage across its left haunch, almost to the base of its tail. It sat upright when it reached Sir Reginald and raised a paw to slap against his palm. As it stretched, the fur on its torso parted, revealing a vicious scar. It looked like the poor creature had been disemboweled, and then stitched back together inexpertly; the scar was a deep furrow that gouged through muscle and, very possibly, bone.

Kevyn gasped. Looking away quickly, she covered her mouth and blushed.

The raccoon glanced at her. Its lips pulled back in an opened-mouthed smile, tongue protruding goofily: the raccoon expression of amusement. “The stories I could tell,” it said, retrieving its spectacles. “Good times, good times.”

“Good times? It looks like you almost died!”

“The world writes her history on our flesh. Some of us are blessed with the interesting bits.” It wiped its glasses on a soft cloth and settled them on its snout.

It looked like it was about to launch into lecture when it caught sight of the abducted guard, who had been examining the kudzu-choked tunnel that led back to the prison.

“Niamh? Niamh Murphy?”

Murphy looked up at the raccoon. “How do…?”

The raccoon launched itself at her, covering the space between them before anyone could react. Murphy had just enough time to straighten up before it leapt at her. It struck her chest, and they both tumbled to the ground.

Sir Reginald was reaching for the scruff of its neck when he realized it wasn’t an attack. The raccoon was licking Murphy’s face, like she was a long lost kit, and Murphy’s terror dissolved into splutters.

“Ahem,” Sir Reginald said.

The raccoon glanced at him, and abruptly sat up on Murphy’s chest.

“Fuck me,” it said. “This is…” It realized where it was sitting, and leapt off her immediately. Pulled at her arm to help her get up. “This is so embarrassing. It’s just… It’s been so long, and we’ve missed you so much, and… And what are you doing in those awful clothes?”

Murphy sat up, wiping raccoon saliva from her face.

The raccoon took a step back, and a deep breath, and then bowed.

“Welcome home,” it said.

~

Susan was a rumpled, silvery robot, stomping mechanically toward the airlock. Jaworsky hurried after her as fast as he dared. They didn’t speak, and Amelia was keeping a respectful silence. Presumably Tharp’s mic was still on mute.

Susan’s breath came in short bursts through her nose; Jaworsky knew the sound of it, and he worried she’d hyperventilate. In the suit, in a vacuum, it could be a dangerous thing.

He wondered if she could hear his teeth grinding.

He half expected Tharp to be waiting for them on the other side of the air-lock, but he was blessedly absent. They changed out of their suits in silence. It wasn’t until they were getting in the elevator that Jarworsky spoke.

“‘Melia, we’re in. Where’s Tharp?”

“He’s here.”

“‘Kay. We’re on our way.”

“Fuck that,” Susan said. “I don’t want to be anywhere near you fucks. I’m going to bed.” She crossed her arms and kicked the wall, almost sending herself across the elevator in the low gravity.

Jaworsky clicked off his mic. He grabbed Susan’s shirt and pressed her against the wall, just long enough to turn off her mic.

“Listen,” he said, “I get that you’re sad. I get that you want to crawl in a hole and pretend the world don’t suck. We’re all sad, and I gotta tell you, I liked Slim a whole fuck’a lot better’n you liked Ash. We’re fighting against… Don’t fucking roll your eyes at me. We’re fighting the fucking clock here, and we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to survive.”

Susan shook her head. “I don’t care.”

“Jesus. I don’t care if you don’t care. We don’t have time for this shit. You can play the privileged brat all you want when we’re done. Hell, if you still want to die, I’ll shove you out the fucking airlock myself. But you don’t get to take Amelia with your selfish, self-centered ass.”

“I am not…”

The elevator door whispered open. Susan looked both ways down the hall, before she spoke again.

“I’m not—”

“Selfish. Or self-centered. Yeah, yeah. Heard it all before.”

“You’re not being—”

“Fair? Never said I was. C’mon.”

~

Amelia paced the control panel, up and down each of the planks that had been jury rigged to it, hopping down into the pilot’s chair and then back onto the board.

“Try them again,” Tharp said.

She wanted to claw his eyes out.

She tried the comms again. Nothing from either Earl or Susan, like they’d dropped off the ship.

“Nothing, sir,” she said.

“What about the elevator? What’s it doing? Where is it?”

“That data isn’t available.”

“Why the hell not? Why does nothing on this heap work?”

Because someone couldn’t remember his administrator password. Amelia held her tongue. Mostly.

“Is that a rhetorical question? Sir?”

Tharp’s lips tightened in anger.

The door beeped, announcing that it was opening. Jaworsky and Susan stood framed in the hallway’s florescence.

Tharp turned to face them.

“Where the hell have you been?” he asked.

Jaworsky’s fist crashed into Tharp’s face. Tharp stumbled backwards against the captain’s chair and tumbled to the ground. Blood poured from his mouth and nose. He spat out a tooth.

Jaworsky examined his hand.

“Probably hurts like a motherfucker to talk right now, so I’ll save you the effort. Slim is dead. So’s Ash. And they’re dead because of you. Because instead of trying to save your crew, you wanted to save yourself.”

He looked at the screens.

“How much time do we have before we’re too far away to get back?”

“Twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour.”

“That’s not enough time. If we stop our drift now, where does that put us?”

“Just stopping us from getting farther will use most of our fuel.” Amelia chewed on a foreclaw.

“Do it. Get us moving back into the kudzu, but as slowly as you can. We’ll need as much time as we can get.”

“Aye, aye, Captain, sir.”

“Don’t put this shit on me,” Jaworsky snapped. “I’m just the guy that knows how the ship works. Soon as we’re clear of this mess, someone with brains gets to take over.”

He poked Amelia’s shoulder. She blinked in confusion.

“What? Oh, no. I’d be a terrible captain.”

“We don’t fucking have time for this converstation right now,” Jaworsky said.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay. I’ll say no later.”

Susan cleared her throat. “What do you want me to do?”

“Can you get me the ship’s schematics?”

“Yeah. Give me five. I’ll put them up in the conference room, ‘kay?”

Jaworsky nodded, and Susan took off at a run.

The hull trembled as the engines kicked in.

Tharp got to his feet. He spat a mouthful of blood, clenched and unclenched his fists. For a second, Amelia thought he might actually try to fight Jaworsky, but then he sighed, and his shoulders relaxed. He looked almost relieved.

“What about me? What can I do?”

Jaworsky looked at his knuckles. “You wanna be useful? Go get some bandages. I cut my hand.”

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