Kudzu, a Novel
Eric Tharp supposed there wasn’t much point mentioning that none of this was in his job description. Tromping around the exterior of a spaceship was about as far from analyzing core samples as you could get.
One of the four spokes that connected the second ring to the hull rose up in front of him, as massive and imposing as the Washington Monument. And the task before him seemed impossible.
It all made sense when Jaworsky explained it. The Beagle had been constructed on Earth, and then launched into space. It hadn’t looked anything like it currently did now, not even counting the damage from the explosion. In space, aerodynamics don’t matter. But getting it into space was a different story.
The Beagle had started out with all its rings connected to each other, collected toward the rear of the ship. Several layers of thin material covered the rings, extending on an angle to about midway up the hull. This protected the rings during takeoff, keeping them from breaking off or being otherwise damaged. Once in orbit, the protective covering unfurled into the vast solar collectors, and the rings were moved to their proper positions.
In preparation for ramming the kudzu, they needed to reverse this process. Standing at the base of the second ring, Tharp was struck by the immensity of the project.
“This is hopeless,” he said. “It’s like trying to move the Sphinx with a pair of tweezers.”
“Piece of cake,” Jaworsky said. “All you need is to put the tweezers on the end of a big enough lever.”
“We don’t have a big lever.”
“Yeah? So we’ll use a pulley.”
Tharp could imagine Jaworsky on the other side of the radio–a shrug and a wise-ass grin preceding the words. It wasn’t helpful.
“Look, Tharp,” Jaworsky continued, “we don’t actually need to move the rings. All we need to do is loosen them. When we hit the plant, the rings’ll slide down the hull like they’re supposed to. If we don’t get them loose, they’ll do that anyway, but they’ll peel the hull apart in the process. It’s really not that big a job. It just looks big.”
It was really a twelve person job: someone in each coon-hole dealt with detaching all the systems that constituted the interface between the main ship and the ring. Four more people on each spoke–two to detach the spoke internally, and two to detach the spoke externally. The clamps were paired, interlocking, so there had to be one person on each side of the hull to detach any clamp pair.
Jaworsky had spoken in small words, like he was talking to a child. Tharp had bit back a knee-jerk response and listened; after all, two doctorates or not, he really didn’t know this stuff.
In a perfect world, Jaworsky explained, the four raccoons would get their work done first, and then monitor the systems, and then the eight humans would synchronize their actions. The ring would detach from the hull, and then robot drones would move the ring to its new location.
In the real world, they would be doing the job in half-spoke intervals. Which made the last spoke particularly dangerous.
“I’m ready,” Amelia said.
“‘Kay,” Jaworsky said. “I will be in about… now. What about you, Tharp?”
Tharp edged around the curve of the spoke. He saw an indentation in the spoke, big enough for two of Jaworsky to fit, or three of himself. It was painted red.
“You said starboard, right?” he asked.
“Which side is that?”
“Very funny. You’ll see a lever. You’re going to pull it until you feel a click, and then twist counterclockwise.”
“Widdershins,” Amelia said.
“Fuck are you talking about, ‘Melia? No, don’t answer. I don’t want to know. Tharp, got that? Lift until it clicks, then twist it. You’ll feel it snap into a locked open position. At that point, we go to the other side.”
“Yeah, all right.”
At Jaworsky’s word, he started to pull. Damn, this thing was heavy. Well, not heavy, but might as well be. He grunted with the effort of it.
“Hold on,” Jaworsky said. “You got yourself tethered to the hull? You want to do that, in case you lose your grip. You don’t wanna go throwing yourself out into space, do you?”
“Oh, right. Thanks.” Tharp said. “Give me a minute.”
Stupid. Jaworsky fumed at himself. Of course Tharp wouldn’t know basic spacewalking safety procedures. As long as he was pretending to be in charge, he needed to remember not just people’s strengths, but also their weaknesses. Any forgotten detail could mean someone’s life.
“You had to go and tell him.” Susan’s voice interrupted Jaworsky’s thoughts, and Jaworsky didn’t need to see Tharp to feel him wince.
“Susan—” Shut the fuck up, he was going to say, but Amelia cut him off.
“Susan, you and me, private channel.”
“Hey, I was just—”
Just as well. Much as Jaworsky hated to admit it, he and Susan were assholes cut from the same cloth, and he was just as likely to set off a shitstorm as calm a situation, butting heads with her.
Susan and Amelia came back online with an “I’m sorry,” and Tharp’s “No offense taken” was ungrudging, if not entirely convincing.
“We all ready to get back to work?” Jaworsky asked. “Good. Then, on my count…”
Colleen stared at the thing as it watched the water, perfectly motionless but for the tip of its tail, which twitched from side to side.
“Kuh,” she said, because that’s all that would come out.
Michael sat up beside her, shrugged.
“Well, why the hell not?” he said. “We’re inside a giant plant. In space. With waterfalls, and giant goldfish, and bees.”
“Bees? What bees?”
Michael showed her his hand; three red welts marked his palm, and another decorated the underside of his index finger. One of them still sported a stinger.
“Yeah, bees. That’s why I fell. I think I used a beehive as a handhold. So, yeah, why not this, too? Makes about as much sense as everything else.”
“Hey, don’t look at me. I’m allergic to the things. They must be part of your subconscious. I certainly didn’t dream them up.”
“Do they have subconsciouses in the afterlife?”
Colleen lifted herself up on her elbows. Water poured down her suit and seeped into the moss. The rip was about two centimeters long, right over her sternum.
“I don’t remember going through a long tunnel,” Michael said. “Or, well, okay: there was a long tunnel. But no bright light or dead parents or any of that stuff. Besides, aren’t all our earthly pains and worries supposed to ease?”
“I don’t think you can call this ‘earthly.'”
Michael wiped his face, wincing. His hand came away bloody. He wiped it on the moss. The cat came to investigate.
No, it was a different cat. The other was entirely black; this one had a spot of white on its chest. It licked at the smeared blood.
“I’m pretty sure if we were in Heaven, there wouldn’t be any blood. And my fingers wouldn’t be all pruned. And there wouldn’t be any damned cats.”
“Who said anything about Heaven?” Colleen said.
“Well, I’m going to Heaven, so we can’t be dead. It’s more likely we’re all still in cryo, and this is some sort of shared dream.”
“That’s not possible. None of the studies have shown any correlation of dream-states between people in stasis. Even if they were physically touching.” Colleen winced as she twisted to reach the sealing seam of her suit. “Fuck. I think I broke a rib. Can you help me with this thing?”
Michael rolled over onto his hands and knees, and pushed himself to his feet. He extended a hand.
“Yeah, sure. None of the subjects were under for as long as we were. Or are.”
“I remember some of my cryo-dreams,” Colleen said. “None of them were like this.”
In her dreams, Henry was dying. Always dying, but never quite dead. “I forgive you,” he said. He always said, caught in a hideous loop, over and over, his lips forming words that his eyes didn’t mean.