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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 29

At a certain point, Colleen no longer needed to do more than tread water; the current picked up and moved them fast enough that she felt safe conserving her strength for whatever came next.

The massive fishes continued to investigate her, but so far, none had tried to take a nibble. Some of that might have been her space suit. She couldn’t imagine the puncture-resistant reinforced polyfiber would be particularly tasty. Mostly, she worried about Michael’s hands.

He was still unconscious, and while she was able to keep his head above water, there was nothing she could do about his dangling arms.

It was impossible to gauge the size of the lake. Walls rose from the waters, she was certain, but for the most part, the curvature of the chamber occluded them.

For her first month on the Beagle, this sort of inverted horizon had really thrown her off balance. She kept walking into things, misjudging distances. Henry had teased her mercilessly. She had gotten used to it, though, gotten used to the ceiling being the horizon line that everything disappeared behind, and not the floor.

But being used to it didn’t help her see around corners. Now, as the current picked up, it became obvious the walls were getting closer. They were approaching the far side of the lake.

There was a noise, a rumbling, rushing sound that grew as she came closer to the walls. The current moved faster. The previously placid surface of the lake became choppy with little wavelets.

“Shit.” Another waterfall.

They’d survived the last one because of the low gravity, but who knew how far this one would go, or what the gravity would be at the bottom.

Not gravity, Henry would have said — had said, over dinner in the mess hall once, maybe six months before the accident — because he was a stickler for these things. It’s centrifugal force, and operates on completely different principles.

Bill had rolled his eyes, laughing silently. Winked at her.

That night, while Henry was on shift, Bill explained gravity.

“Aristotle knew the truth of it,” he said. “Everything in the universe has an essential nature, and it is the nature of things to seek their natural place. It’s the nature of a rock, for example, to want to be as close to the center of the earth as possible, while fire reaches for the moon.”

His lips were at her ear, his hands pushing her pants down over her hips. His cock hard against her. She leaned forward and reached to open herself for him.

“Bodies are attracted to bodies of like nature,” he said, slipping deep inside her. She pushed back against him. “Everything that is, is set in motion by bodies seeking their natural place. The place where they fit. And the motion of the heavens is a reflection of bodies in motion.”

What was it about him? She didn’t even like him. Even now, the thought of him…

Michael groaned, spat water. Started to thrash.

“Michael! Michael, stop! I’ve got you. You’re not drowning.”

He didn’t hear her, or in his panic he didn’t understand. He twisted in her arms, and Colleen went under. His elbow caught her in the solar plexus, and all her air went out of her in one great bubble. She gasped, involuntarily. Cold water hit her lungs.

She let go, pushed herself away from him. Coughed and retched as she surfaced.

Michael was still floundering.

Colleen had lost hold of the loop of rope holding them together. Not good. If got caught up on anything, in this current, they could drown. They were moving faster — even with everything else going on, she could tell — and that meant it wouldn’t be long before they’d be tumbling through treacherous waters again. The best thing she could do for Michael right now was gather the rope.

Eventually, Michael would stop thrashing. As soon as he stopped panicking, he’d realize their suits gave them a little bit of buoyancy. The only problem was that the air reserves in the back of the suit were bigger than those in the front, so they naturally tipped face-forward into the water.

The sound of rushing water was loud now. Colleen had almost gathered all of the rope up. Tugging on it pulled her closer to Michael.

Michael finally stopped waving his arms around like an idiot.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m not drowning.”

Colleen had just enough time to register the irony.

And then all there was, was water. No direction, no up or down. Hard and urgent as a lover’s lies, the current’s enthusiasm caught them up and flung them over the edge, to tumble, dizzy and battered, into an uncertain future.

~

Jaworsky leaned over the conference room table, peering into the holographic blueprints. Frowning. Across the table, face shimmering through the holographic image, Susan sat with a touchpad computer. She watched him with hopeful eyes. Tharp slouched sullenly in the chair at the head of the table, ice pack held to his face.

Jaworsky stuck his hand into the hologram, pointing.

“Can we take a closer look over here?”

“Sure.” Susan poked at her mobile and the image hovering over the table shifted, expanded.

“A little more… hell, just bring up that conduit there so we can see it good. Yeah.” He tapped his finger on it, or tried to; it was air and light, and the gesture lost its impact.

This is why I’d make a crappy captain, he thought. Put me in charge for fifteen minutes and I’m already embarrassing myself.

He sank into his chair. The cushions sighed under him. A far cry from the plastic benches and folding chairs the working class got.

“All right. So the deal is, all that stuff we spent a month doing to get the ship running after the accident? We have to undo that shit in… How long do we have, ‘Melia?”

Amelia’s voice crackled over the speaker. “I don’t know. It depends on how we spend our fuel. I can time it the way you said, but if I screw up, or if anything goes wrong, we might end up floating out here, just out of reach.”

“You said before we have enough fuel to get back.”

“I said we had just enough fuel to get back. That’s assuming we headed back using one long burn, with a short burn to slow us down for docking. I’ve been reading the specifications on the engines. Each time we fire one up, it uses thirty liters of fuel just to spin up. There are twenty-four engines, so starting them uses seven-hundred twenty liters. That’s fuel that isn’t providing propulsion.”

“I see. What if we use really short burns?”

“Well, that’s the other thing. Seems this model doesn’t reliably start if fuel goes below a certain threshold.”

“Those cheep, fucking bast… How much time do we have if we play it safe?”

“Six hours. Maybe eight, at the most.”

Jaworsky shook his head. “Not enough time. We need at least a day just for the ring to spin down once we get the motors halted. We’re going to have to do the approach in two burns.”

“Well, that’ll get us there, for sure. The deceleration is going to suck, though.”

“It’ll suck more if we get there with the rings still rotating. That’ll just tear us apart. So, yeah. What can you give us?”

“I dunno. Two and a half days? Maybe more, maybe less. The engines aren’t real efficient, or real precise, when they’re running this low. I’ll be flying by feel as much as by instruments.”

“Yeah. So here’s the other half of the problem. That fucker there, that conduit? Half of what we gotta do is in there. Problem is, there’s only one person on this ship can fit.”

“What do you mean?” Tharp asked. “Oh. Right.”

Confused, Susan glanced back forth between Tharp and Jaworsky.

“It’s a coon-hole,” Jaworsky said. “Just big enough to fit a raccoon with a tool belt. Whole ship’s filled with them.”

“What?” Susan zoomed in on the conduit some more. “That’s crazy! Who the fuck would design a ship—”

“There were some funding issues,” Tharp said. “It started with international politics and went south from there. Then the GMO corporations got involved. They wanted to prove their product was safe and stable, so they funded the project as long as it was built to ensure that their product was indispensible.”

“Their product?” Amelia’s voice held daggers.

“You. Slim. The other raccoons.” Tharp rubbed his forehead. “Cheap, subsidized labor. Low maintenance cost. Non-union, and not recognized as persons in any nation. Good for low-to-medium skilled, high-risk positions. That’s all straight from their whitepaper.”

“When were you going to tell us? When were any of you going to tell me?”

“Never. There were only three of us on board who ever saw that—Captain Vasquez, Jerisen, and me–and after we met you, we knew there was more to you than that. We knew you were people, and we swore we’d always treat you just like anyone else.”

“Enough,” Jaworsky said. “We don’t have time for drama, or theory, or grief counseling, or even good fucking manners. We have a spaceship to break. And Amelia, I’m going to need you to do Slim’s job.”

“Who’s going to pilot the ship?”

“Susan. She’s smart, she knows how to work things with buttons and dials, and she’s good at describing shit. You’ll be in the coon-hole, describing to me what you see, and doing what I tell you. At the same time, Susan’s going to be coming to you for instruction. Got it?”

“You want me to get you more bandages?” Tharp asked.

“No. I’m going to need you on the outside. There’s some critical stuff that has to happen out there at the same time we’re working in here.”

“Great. I can’t wait.”

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