Kudzu, a Novel
It was early afternoon, and Calin was cleaning up after the last of the lunch crowd had wandered away. He looked up from washing dishes as Sir Reginald and his entourage walked into the dimly lit pub.
“Reggie,” he said, by way of greeting, wiping his hands on a towel before reaching for Sir Reginald’s favored whiskey. “Kevyn. Murphy. And, Ho! Albert, is that you hiding behind fair Kevyn’s legs? I didn’t think I’d be seeing much of you ’round here.”
“I didn’t think so either. Wasn’t my choice.”
“You know him?” Sir Reginald asked.
“You know me?” Murphy said. “What kind of sick…” She trailed off, pressed her thumbs against her mouth.
Calin sighed. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep track of when one of you I’m talking to?”
“Which one,” Kevyn corrected.
Calin shook his head.
“There’s a change of clothes for you in the back, Murph,” he said. “Bottom left desk drawer. And a note.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Come on.” Kevyn put an arm around Murphy’s shoulders. “It’s back this way. So are the bathrooms.”
Albert hovered by the door, foot tapping nervously. He looked ready to bolt.
Calin came around the bar and crouched to something closer to raccoon height.
“Albie, lad, it was a war. People take gambles, and there’s no guarantees. I don’t blame you for what happened. Whatever I said at the time, it wasn’t your fault.”
Albert opened his mouth; Sir Reginald interrupted.
“Okay,” Sir Reginald said, “now I’m confused. You were in the war?”
Calin narrowed his eyes. He rapped his knuckles against his shin. It sounded like hard plastic. “How’d you think I got this?”
Sir Reginald looked away, and muttered something under his breath that Calin couldn’t hear. That worried him.
And Calin rarely worried.
“C’mon, Albert,” he said. “You still a Hendricks man? A nice, dry martini’s just what you need.”
Calin dragged a BeastBench™ barstool out of a storage closet and pulled it up to the bar. Albert climbed onto it and manipulated the controls to raise the seat to bar level.
“You keep them locked away,” Albert said.
“I keep them,” Calin said. He poured Albert’s drink and set it in front of the grizzled raccoon. He tapped his own glass of whiskey against Albert’s martini. “To old friends.”
Albert wiped a tear from his eye. “To old friends.”
Calin set out appropriate drinks for Kevyn and Murphy — beer and white wine, respectively — then brought Sir Reginald his customary rye whiskey.
“What’s the problem, Reg,” he asked, keeping his voice low so Albert wouldn’t be able to hear over the jukebox.
Sir Reginald hesitated. “That leg of yours,” he said. “When I last saw you, what, three days ago? Four? Whenever it was, you had both your own legs.”
Calin raised his eyebrows. “Twelve years now I’ve had this. Twelve normal years. It’s not something I hid from you. You should know me well enough to know that.”
“I know, Calin. But I don’t remember it. Something’s gone weird. Or weirder. It worries me.”
“This is what you call information gathering?” Kevyn asked.
Sir Reginald raised his glass to the old flatscreen mounted on the wall. “To the six o’clock news, the font of all knowledge.” He was slurring his speech.
A commercial for… Kevyn wasn’t sure what. It was one of those weirdly nonsensical ads, the one with the hypochondriac penguin. The ad played out silently on the screen; Calin had turned down the sound.
“For a species that’s afraid of talking animals,” Albert grumbled, “you all sure do like to pretend you’re not afraid of us.”
Albert was well into his third martini, and his grumble carried more loudly than he’d wanted. Kevyn saw him tense, anticipating backlash.
There had been some second glances at Albert as the bar started to fill, but nobody had made an issue of his raccoonness. Didn’t mean he could rub it in their faces, right?But Calin’s Pub had always been a mixed bar, in every way, with a very regular clientele. Just because the war made it impractical for non-human people to patronize didn’t mean people forgot who they were, and subsequently the next generations of patrons — people like Kevyn — were those who shared that sentiment.
Still, it was enough to attract attention. One man gestured with his beer mug.
“Hey,” he said. Kevyn tried to call his name up from memory, and failed.
“Hey, raccoon. What the fuck’s your name?”
Albert turned his BeastBench to face the man, and rose up to his full height. His lips curled, not quite a snarl. Not yet. “Albert,” he said, through clenched teeth.
“Albert, you a man who speaks the fucking truth.” He raised his mug, and his voice. “To Albert, who speaks the fucking truth!”
The cheer reverberated through the pub, and Calin was so busy refilling glasses that he almost failed to turn up the sound when the commercials ended.
“Welcome back to UBC News, with Kathleen Nin and Roberto Manning. Now, as you probably know, after a daring burglary attempt on an abandoned Gastenbourg University building revealed a functional telescope, UBC News has been working with University officials to arrange for exclusive access. In just a few minutes, we will be bringing you the first live feed of images from space in fifteen years.”
“As you know, Bob, the only high-resolution images we have had from space for the past fifteen years have been those released by the government. In the chaotic months after the Kudzupocalypse, the government assumed possession of all known surviving observatories. Exactly how the Gastenbourg observatory escaped notice is still under investigation, but University lawyers have rejected claims that the McAdams-Caine Emergency Protocols extend beyond the emergency.”
“Only makes sense, Kathy. So what should we expect to see?”
“Well, Bob, right now scientists have confirmed government reports that the mystery spacecraft has disappeared.”
“Now how does something that big just up and disappear, Kathy?”
“It’s not magic, at least according to the scientists. Dr. Michelle Smith will be with us later tonight to talk about the spacecraft, and where it is. Right now she’s working with our film crew to get the live feed going, which seems to have run into some snags.”
“While we wait for the feed, let’s give our viewers a sneak preview of what to expect.”
“Well, it’s very exciting. After five years of radio silence from the Greenmoon, the kudzu ball orbiting the Earth, our reporters have confirmed the presence of at least two new residents. We’ll be trying to get a good look at them, while they are still visible.”
“And we have our feed, Kathy. Let’s see what’s going on.”
The bar quieted as the image of the Greenmoon filled the screen. In the center of the image was the old ORBISTAT station, still visible on the fringe of the kudzu. ORBISTAT was notable for its excessively large observation sphere — an unnecessary luxury, apparently, for all but the French.
As they watched, the screen shifted, jagged movements, triangulating on the sphere, and when the image settled, it was larger, but out of focus.
“I could do a better job of driving that thing,” Kevyn said.
“Indubitably,” said Sir Reginald.
Something could be seen in the middle. Possibly people. The focus improved. A little.
From the speakers: “Let’s see if we can get a closer look, Bob.”
The screen went black, and then ORBISTAT’s glass sphere filled the screen.
Definitely people. There were two of them. And…
“Now that’s not something you see on network T.V. every day, Kathy.”
The bar broke out into a cheer.
When the broadcast resumed, there were bars of brown cardboard, ragged and hastily cut, being held over parts of the image. There was no mistaking what was going on. A naked woman with short/shorn hair was lying face down, pressed against the glass. She wore the scars of some serious burns on the left side of her body. A man with dreadlocks moved on top of her. One piece of cardboard blocked the view of the woman’s breasts. The other covered the thatch of her pubic hair, and the long rod that thrust between her splayed legs.
There were boos from the bar.
“Fuck censorship!” someone shouted.
The woman was saying something. It was unclear whether the man was replying; his face was buried in the curve of her neck, obscured from view.
“Welcome back to UBC news, and thanks to Jill Uberth, whose quick thinking got us back on the air. Well, Bob, so much for the idea that this broadcast would answer all our questions. It seems like it’s only creating new ones.”
“Like, ‘What do you think she’s saying, Kathy?'”
There was a hitch in Kathy Nin’s voice, as if she was distracted, and hadn’t immediately heard the question. She recovered well.
“Probably something that’s never been said to you, Bob. But we don’t have to guess. Jimea Gonzalez is here to help us out. Jimea close captions our regular broadcasts, and she’ll be giving us a transcript of what’s being said.”
Michael, look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?
There are still people down there. Lights. Civilization. We really did it. We made it home.
“Our research team just sent a note that the Beagle, the spacecraft seen near the Greenmoon this week, disappeared sixty-five years ago. Looks like they made it back alive.”
“That… That’s heartbreaking, Bob. To come so far, for so long, only to end up on a satellite that’s going crash to the Earth in less than a year. Wait. She’s saying something else.”
Michael. Michael, don’t cum inside me.
Kathy Nin’s voice laughed nervously from the television’s speakers, before turning to alarm.
The image on the screen shook violently and disappeared, replaced by a twisting roil of kudzu. In the instant before they were thrust out of view, the bodies of the two Beagle survivors were visible being tossed around the room.
The image began zooming out.
“Someone tell us what happened. Someone fucking get Gastenbourg on the line—”
“We’ve got Dr. Michelle Smith of Gastenbourg University on the phone. Can you hear us, Dr. Smith? Can you tell us what happened?”
“Yes, yes I’m here.” The scientist’s voice sounded ragged. “It appears that something has struck the kudzu satellite, the Greenmoon. Something with significant mass.”
“Can you tell us what it was, Doctor?”
“Of course not,” the voice snapped. “You’ve seen everything we saw.” A little calmer: “We can’t say anything for sure at this time, but my first guess would be the ship, the OPEV Beagle. Which is bad news for everybody trapped up there.”
“Why is that, doctor?”
The exhalation coming across the phone line made it clear what Dr. Smith thought of anyone who needed to ask that question.
“The Greenmoon is crashing into the Earth. Anything that pushes it, even slightly, further into Earth’s gravity well accelerates the timeframe dramatically.”
“I don’t think we’ll know for a week or two, but… well, it could be six months, or as little as one. Either way, it’s not long enough to mobilize a rescue. All these people are as good as dead.”
End of Book V