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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 36

 

“Michael?”

Colleen was in the right place. She was sure of it. But Michael was gone, and his gear with him. All that was left was Colleen’s pack and water skins.

“Michael!” She called his name more loudly. Then she screamed it.

The kudzu sucked up the sound.

She hadn’t noticed just how different the acoustics of kudzu tunnels were from the Beagle’s hard metal and plastic corridors. Not until she needed her voice to carry.

She screamed louder.

There was no response.

She dropped the fish and ran.

~

Colleen’s pack was propped up against the wall. Michael had left some junk on top of it: a jumble of wires. He’d written something on side of the pack, big, messy letters smeared in purple berry-juice.

CALL ME SOME TIME

The wires… Colleen examined them more closely. It was, as far as she could tell, about three quarters of a communications set. It was ugly, haphazard work: one earphone rather than two, a microphone spliced to a bit of wire running to a small box. Two more wires ran from the box to the wall. They were jammed into a stem. It should work, she thought, though wiring was really not her strong suit. Now Susan, she’d have the radio working and preparing tea and crumpets at the same time. Still, Michael had taken something she’d noticed and done something with it, and she missed him with a sudden desperation.

The stem glowed softly, the same glow as the stems that fed the lamp-leaves. There were three holes: positive, negative, and ground, Colleen thought.

The thought that had gone into designing this plant had been prodigious. Unimaginable complexity, far in advance of anything they could have accomplished when the Beagle left Earth. It would have taken a genius, because a committee would never have been imaginative enough to come up with something like this. Colleen had been on enough committees to know.

She repressed a sudden stab of envy, and fit the ad hoc radio to her ear.

Static.

“Hello? Michael?”

More static.

“Michael? Are you there?”

“Yeah.” His voice was gruff in her ear.

Colleen let loose the breath she’d been holding. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said.

There was a long pause, like he was considering his response. Colleen bit her lip and waited.

“I went on ahead,” he said. “Took a left at the last fork we

doubled back to, and then left markers from there.”

“Okay. I’m on my way. I’ll see you soon, and—”

—and I caught some fish for lunch, she was going to say, but…

“Do whatever you want,” he said.

Colleen yanked the wires out of the wall, and if there was anything else he was going to say, she didn’t hear it. She didn’t want — was not going to let — him hear her cry.

Half the fish were still flopping and gasping feebly when she retrieved her shirt. She dumped those into one of her waterskins. The others, she knew, wouldn’t keep.

She didn’t have anything to cut and clean the fish. She tried rubbing one of them on the wall, but that just made a mess, and attracted cats. Eventually she just bit into it, tearing through the tough, clammy skin with teeth. Her mouth filled with broken scales and foul juices. Something stringy slithered across her tongue: the fish’s intestines, or worse. Could there be anything worse?

She spit it out, retching.

The cats feasted.

~

The problem was that Michael knew he was being irrational and unfair. Colleen was not Adam, and she’d hit him in fear and panic, not anger, or malice, or to show just how complete her control of him really was.

That was a long time ago, and Adam was long dead. Michael had buried that memory, had buried it all where he’d never have to see it again.

But when Colleen’s fist slammed into his face, all the heart-stopping, paralyzing fear had come back like it had never left, like it had been coiled within him, waiting for a trigger to set it free. And with it, the shame…

Intellectually, he knew it wasn’t really her fault, that she hadn’t meant it. But he could never forgive her.

At least, not now.

He waited for her in the kudzu tunnel that lead into an old space station, or space ship — he wasn’t sure which. The kudzu had torn through the metal skin to create a hatchway down into the vehicle, and even extended viney tendrils that looked suspiciously ladder-like down to the floor.

Michael had poked his head through, but though it looked safe enough, he didn’t want to go on alone.

So he waited, and wondered if Colleen would follow after his stupid, angry outburst.

~

For all his well-justified anger, Michael had left a clear and unambiguous path. As Colleen followed, she gathered up the bits of his gear that he’d left to mark the road.

The kudzu tunnels leveled out as she moved further into it. Now the floors were a flat carpet of leaves. When she lifted them to see what lay beneath, she found a thick thatch of small vines, so tightly bound together as to make a solid surface. The resulting surface would have been a little rough to skate on, but a bicycle, or really anything with reasonably sized wheels, would have no problems.

The tunnel itself had become more regular in general — the walls and ceiling formed a roughly rectangular shape, though the edges were a bit rounded, and the lamp-leaves were evenly spaced.

Increasingly, there were iris doors on either side of the corridor, and Colleen couldn’t resist exploring. She touched the surface of one, and it slid open for her.

As she stepped through the doorway, the lamp-lights within brightened. It was a room, large by space-station standards. Roughly square — again, with rounded edges — with a raised platform against one of the walls. The platform was bed-shaped, and when she pressed on it with her hands, it gave softly and firmly like a mattress.

She sat on it, and bounced. And laughed.

She lay back on the bed, and sank into it, just slightly. Leaves curled against her body.

She wished Michael was there.

Sitting up abruptly, she left the room behind, and followed Michael’s bread-crumb trail, wherever it might lead.

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