Kudzu, a Novel
Susan was glad there were no video feeds. She was still angry, and embarrassed — and a host of other things that she didn’t want to think about — after Amelia’s dressing down, and she sure as hell didn’t need anyone looking at her. Not when she couldn’t control what her face might do.
It was frustrating. Maddening. Susan knew herself well enough to understand why. She was a multitasking genius, able to juggle complex tasks without dropping a stitch, to mix a metaphor. Unfortunately, her mental acuity didn’t extend to the emotional realm, and situations that called for simultaneous contradictory emotions left her feeling like she was flailing stupidly in a failed attempt to be a real human.
The problem, of course, was that Amelia was right. Right now, the past didn’t matter. They’d all made mistakes, they’d all been stupid, and selfish, and a dozen other things besides. All that mattered now was the task at hand, and each of them had to get over themselves enough to work with the others. There was no space for error, and that meant there was no space for personal feelings or enmities.
They had a plan. If they could pull it off, they might survive. That’s what mattered, and each of them had their role, even if hers was mind-numbingly boring.
And yet, it felt like something was missing.
On the speaker on the control panel, Tharp’s voice. Nothing coherent, just the sound of a man straining to lift above his weight.
“Lift with your knees,” Jaworsky said, “not your back.”
A red light blinked on the console, and a message warning that Spoke 2:2 had been uncoupled flashed on the monitor.
Susan hesitated, wondering if anyone wanted to hear her voice, after… but she was supposed to put everything aside, so they should… Fuck it. She could second-guess herself all day. “Good job, everyone,” she said. “The system says you successfully detached the spoke.”
Jaworsky grunted something neanderthal and incoherent, and Susan cringed.
But, “Thanks,” Tharp said, and Susan let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.
“Let’s do four next,” Jaworsky said. “That’s the one on the opposite side, Tharp. After that, come back in so we can refill your tanks.”
“Yeah, alright. On my way.”
“I got a question,” Susan said. “When we detach all the rings from the hub, how’re we gonna fly this thing?”
“You know the airlock behind the docking bay?”
“It only takes up half the space. The other half is the cockpit from the original launch. None of the luxuries of yer fancy bridge, but it’s got everything we need.”
“Huh,” Susan said. “I never heard of it.”
“That’s ’cause they mothballed it once the ship was finished. Same reason it’s so hard to detach the rings — you don’t want some lone lunatic to be able to fuck up the ship and kill everyone.”
“When you say ‘mothballed’…”
“Locked up and disabled— Fuck.”
Jaworsky took a deep breath, let it out.
“Susan,” he said, “meet me at the airlock. Amelia, you too. Tharp, you keep on to the next spoke. Give a shout when you’re near. Fuck. No, there’s not enough time.”
“There’s a file on the server,” Amelia said. “Emergency Control System Procedures or something like that. I wasn’t able to get into it, but maybe you can.”
“Yeah, good,” Susan said. “I’m on it.”
Finally. Something useful to do. Susan jacked her mobile into the pilot’s console and took control, slaved her more powerful personal server to it, and started a multithreaded crack on the file system.
She grinned. This was a numbers game. No messy politics, or hurt feelings, or moral gray spaces. Just numbers, fingers on a keyboard, and a dance of lights. No ambiguity.
This she could do.
Michael and Colleen helped each other out of their space suits — or what was left of them.
It only took a pinhole to compromise the integrity of the suits. They had been built to withstand a certain amount of abuse, and to be able to provide at least some limited regional isolation in case of punctures. As long as the helmet remained intact, the unfortunate spacefarer who suffered such damage had a reasonable chance of getting to the safe side of an airlock before total decompression.
Of course, they had lost both their helmets and their gloves, and in Colleen’s case, her boots as well, so the fact that their suits were compromised enough to fill entirely with water was really beside the point.
Colleen kicked the sopping heap that had been her space suit. It spilled across the moss-covered kudzu, glittering silver in the green luminescence of the lamp leaves, and three cats rushed to investigate. They circled it suspiciously. One batted at a sleeve with one paw, then hissed and arched its back as the sleeve flopped over.
Colleen laughed, and when Michael turned his attention away from the cats’ antics to look at her, he found himself staring as she pulled her t-shirt up over her head.
“What?” she said. “Our clothes are wet. I don’t want to survive a waterfall just to catch my death.” She unbuttoned her pants, stopped to press her fingers between her breasts. The area was red, and just starting to bruise. “This is going to be ugly.”
“I don’t know if ugly is the right word,” Michael said.
“Tomorrow I’ll be purple, from head to foot.” She peeled her pants off, then turned slowly. “Do you see any other bruises?”
Michael found himself suddenly very warm. “Your ribs, under your left breast,” he said. “Your hip, and thigh. There’s a really nasty one on your right shoulder. And, uh, your…”
Still facing away from him, Colleen stepped out of her panties.
“Ass.” She turned to face him, and she was beautiful, in her damaged, crazy way. “Sometimes surviving certain death leaves you cold. Empty. Like Death made a mistake. Like you’d died, but they forgot to turn out the lights. Other times, there’s nothing like cheating Death to make you live again.”
Colleen looked down at herself. There was a bruise on her inner thigh, just above her knee. She touched it. “Kiss it,” she said. “Make it better. Make everything better.”
“I don’t think…” it would be a good idea. But she lay back in the soft green moss and spread her legs, and then, Michael reflected, as he kissed his way up her thighs, he wasn’t thinking much at all.
Colleen twined her fingers into his dreads and pulled him against her, mouth hard against her cunt, so close that every breath tasted of her. His hands cupped her ass, lifting her toward him, opening her, and she came, silently, faster than any woman he’d ever been with (though not, he mused, faster than several men).
When the tremors that shook her belly subsided, she released her grip, and Michael pulled his clothes off as fast as he could.
Colleen reached for his cock — which needed no coaxing, really — as he lowered himself over her, but when he tried to kiss her, she turned her head and pushed him away. One hand against his chest, her foot against his hip, rolling him off her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She looked at him with an unreadable expression, then rolled over onto her stomach and spread her legs.
“Shut up,” she suggested, “and fuck me, already.”
The new bridge was a problem. Or old bridge. Whatever. It was a problem. Amelia’s tail curled as she considered it.
It wasn’t just how cramped everything was. Space for six, suited, and the equipment. Six humans, that was. None of it was built to raccoon scale, so not only didn’t she have a seat that fit her securely, but she had no way get around the control panel without risking floating off — and then getting thrown around the room, and probably killed, on impact.
They had finished detaching the rings — or at least, the first three. That should be enough to survive a crash landing, as long as they didn’t strike a satellite or something, hidden under the foliage.
And with time to spare, in theory. They had a three hour window before they had to get the ship moving back toward the kudzu. The problem was, with their limited fuel, they had to get the ship’s trajectory perfect from the outset, or they were screwed. Every second of burn counted, because there were no second chances. If she lost her grip, if she slipped, the ship wouldn’t hit dead-on the kudzu ball’s axis.
And if they aimed wrong — if she aimed wrong — they’d hit the fast-spinning side, and after a quick mangling, what was left of the OPEV Beagle would be thrown off into space.
Jaworsky touched the tip of her snout.
“Why the long face?” he asked.
Ordinarily she’d have snapped at his finger, but the realization of what she had to say was crushing.
“I can’t do this.”
“I mean, I need to be able to reach this keypad and that joystick at pretty much the same time. On the bridge, I just ran fast. We’ve got no gravity here. If I do what I was doing there, I’ll just fly off and bounce off the ceiling.”
“Maybe Susan could do it?” Tharp suggested. “She’s smart and quick.”
“I can give it a try,” Susan said.
“No. This is too precise, and too critical. We screw up and we die.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Susan snapped.
“No. Just… It’s not that I don’t think you can learn this, but I had hundreds of hours on a simulator before I ever touched the controls, and even then, if I didn’t have the experience of getting us through the asteroid belt, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
“Ah, hell,” Jaworsky said.
Amelia felt his big hand grip the scruff of her neck as he swung himself into the pilot’s chair. He shifted his hold, grasping her around the torso behind her shoulders, and held her over the controls.
“Right. So what’s first?”
“This isn’t going to work.”
“I wish I had a camera,” Susan said.
“You give the orders,” Jaworsky said. “Left, right, top, back, middle. Something like that.”
“You’re not going to react fast enough,” Amelia said.
“We got three hours to practice,” Jaworsky said.
“And how are you going to keep me from flying out of your hands on impact?”
Jaworsky chuckled. “Think about it,” he said.
“Oh,” Susan said.
Of course. She didn’t need to be at the controls when they hit the kudzu; all the fuel would be spent hours before. There would be ten minutes of intense piloting, followed by twelve hours of waiting. And praying.
“Okay,” Amelia said, “let’s get started.”
End of Book IV