Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 30

 

So, there is an afterlife

When all was said and done, Amelia managed to get them a generous three-and-a-half days to break the ship. They were still moving away from the kudzu ball, but slow enough that a concentrated burn of their remaining fuel would push them back in. She explained it all to him–something about engines damaged in the escape producing asymmetric thrust making maneuvering difficult, gravitational fields, blah, blah, blah. Jaworsky didn’t understand the details, and didn’t give a fuck. All he cared about was having enough time to get the work done. And Amelia had given him that.

And she was a good worker, down in the bowels of the ship. She brought the same attention to detail to her work as she did to her piloting. Slim could learn a few things from her.

Fuck.

It always came back to that. All the other survivors had lost the most important people to them in the explosion. Well, not the Ash-hole and Susan. They were good at not having friends. But Michael, Colleen, and Tharp had all lost lovers, spouses. And Amelia had lost her human partner–fuck, who had it been? Matt? No, Jenny.

Jesus, he’d never even offered his sympathies.

All of the maintenance and engineering crew had been human-raccoon pairs. They’d gone through training together for a year before the mission to make sure they worked well together.

Losing Slim was like losing your best drinking buddy and your dog at the same time. And fuck if that wasn’t racist as fuck. Or speciesist. Or whatever the fuck they called it.

Jaworsky wiped something out of his eye. His hand came away wet.

Fucking air quality had gone to shit since the accident.

“Hey boss.” Amelia’s voice chittered in his ear. “I’ve got the panel open over here. Just give me the word.”

“Yeah.” Jaworsky’s voice cracked. “Yeah, okay. I’m in on this side, too. On the count of three…”

~

Captain’s Log. Day 3 after arrival in Earth orbit.

This is the first chance I’ve had to update since our first ill-fated attempt to dock with the anomaly, which Susan has started calling the Killer Weed.

Ash Hendriksson and Slim, the raccoon, are dead. Colleen Byrne and Michael Cobbs were within the Killer Weed, within the anomaly, when we were forced to break away from it. They are also most likely dead. It’s been a day and a half, and they only had maybe three hours of oxygen.

It is my fault they are dead. The record needs to show that. I need to say it now, before I chicken out. I don’t know what other choices I could have made, but my decisions led to their deaths.

Earl Jaworsky has seized control of the ship, with the full support of the others. I don’t blame them. To tell the truth, it’s a relief. Let someone else take responsibility for our deaths.

The plan now is to dismantle the ship and then ram the anomaly. It’s the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard, but the only other option is to sit in space until we rot, or fall out of orbit.

~

Colleen’s mind collected and collated the stages of death automatically, rendering it in a concise outline form.

Stage 1: I’m going to die: The first time you know you’re going to die is that interminably long half-second that you hang, suspended in time, over the crest of the falls, realizing just how far you’re about to fall, and seeing for the first time exactly what sort of road you have ahead of you.

Stage 2: We made it!: In this stage, you have plunged deep into a roiling pool, had your face rubbed against slimy kudzu roots, and popped up to the surface, gasping for air. Objectively, this stage far exceeds Stage 1 in duration. Subjectively, the inverse is true.

Stage 3: I’m going to die, again: You are swept into a rapids of whitewater rushing over and through a lattice of thick, water-smoothed kudzu trunks. You have gotten caught up on vegetation on several occasions, each of which leaves you bruised and bleeding, and with more water in your sinuses. It is in this stage that Michael breaks his nose against a protruding branch, and splits his lip, and that you sprain your wrist, and possibly break a rib or two.

Stage 4: Ow: The river spills you into another wide, placid lake. Properly speaking, this stage should be called We made it, again! But you hurt too much, and are too exhausted from the efforts of the prior stage, to take any great pleasure in the fact. If you were religious, perhaps you would call this stage, Oh God, can’t we just get this over with already? Because, ow.

Stage 5: So, there is an afterlife: In this stage, you have gotten your breath back, enough to notice that this lake is substantially different from the previous one. The ceiling is a cavernous dome, and you can see in the distance what passes for a shoreline; there is a gradual lightening of the water as it grows more shallow, and then, at the edge of that, moss-covered kudzu trunks form a gentle bank rising out of the water.

It is an easy enough swim that, or would be if your suits hadn’t become terribly heavy; the tough fabric must have torn in the rapids, and taken in water. But even as exhausted as you and Michael are, even with the waterlogged suits, the water is calm, and you manage to make it to shore, to crawl out of the water to collapse onto the soft, clean moss.

You reach out to take Michael’s hand, and are just about to name this stage something triumphant and transcendental and even existential, when something soft and dark brushes up against your ear. The breath catches in your throat with a squeak, and you jerk away as you turn your head.

The thing stares at you with slitted eyes and butts its whiskered nose against your forehead. Then, black question-mark tail held high, it turns and struts to the lake’s edge, where it sits with one paw raised, staring into the water. And waits.

 

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