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Kudzu, a Novel

Book VI: The Beagle Has Landed

Chapter 40

“Left two and up one,” Amelia said.

Jaworsky knew better than to waste time answering. Not that every second was critical, but enough of them were. He just moved her over the surface of the command console as precisely, as quickly and smoothly, as he could. The way they’d practiced.

They had drilled for hours, until he was able to respond instinctively to Amelia’s commands, even with his eyes closed. Not that he was doing that now.

The control panel was a mass of knobs and dials, buttons and switches and trackpads, keyboards and joysticks. And all sorts of monitors — numbers, graphs, fuel and engine thrust readings. It made his head spin just to think about it, so he didn’t. It’s not that Jaworsky didn’t like complicated machinery. He just didn’t like it when every action had real-time consequences.

Amelia was fascinating to watch. Lacking a human’s reach, she made up for it with dexterity and sheer cleverness. Her left front paw typed numbers into a keyboard while her rear right paw worked a joystick that was more than a body-length away. It was an intricately choreographed dance, even beautiful, in its way. Jaworsky’s part was simple: he just listened for her command — left, right, up, back — and responded accordingly.

“Wait,” Amelia said. Which wasn’t part of the script. This was where the forward thrusters were supposed to go off, slowing their speed. “That’s not…”

Jaworsky put her back in position, bit back his questions. Amelia pushed at the buttons. Nothing happened.

“No,” she said. “This can’t be happening.” She hammered at the console, and, after precious long seconds oozed past, the engines kicked into life. The vibration thrummed through the ship.

“Right and right, now!” Amelia screamed. She ratcheted up the thrust to full. The ship rumbled.

“Just in time,” Tharp said.

“No,” Amelia said. “Too late. Everyone hold on.”

Two of the four engines sputtered and died, and the ship began to twist in its course. Amelia killed the other two. The torque was more dangerous on impact than the velocity.

“Impact in—”

Something thudded against the hull, throwing Jaworsky hard against the restraints.

Amelia slipped from his human fingers with a squeak of fear; Jaworsky concentrated on his hold with his prosthetic hand — firm, but not crushing, cupping her chest, fingers gripping her shoulder and thumb under her left foreleg. She curled around his hand and held on. He pulled her close and got his other hand on her, just as the ship smashed into the central bulk of the kudzu.

The control room shook. Metal screamed. A human sound rose to join it: Tharp, his voice shrill with terror. Susan contributed a non-stop barrage of profanity muttered under her breath, punctuated with sharp exhalations as each new impact slammed her against her restraints. The confines of her spacesuit, and the proximity of the speaker, accentuated the sound.

Jaworsky concentrated on keeping Amelia alive, and tried not to think about what would happen to them if the tearing metal reached as far into the ship as this control room. He and Amelia had figured out early on in their practice that the spacesuits restricted their movement too much. Now… now he just focused on keeping Amelia from becoming a red smear on the wall.

~

The Beagle had landed; the ship lay still, half imbedded in the massive ball of kudzu.

Amelia stared at the now-useless console. She felt like crying.

The lights flickered, then stabilized.

Inside the control room there was silence. Even Tharp had shut up. Outside the control room, overheated metal pinged as it cooled, and precious air hissed as it escaped into the void. There was also another sound — the woody, slithery scrape as vines grew over the surface of the ship, holding it fast, making it a permanent feature of the greenscape.

“You okay?” Jaworsky asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “No. I almost killed us all.” Her ribs hurt. Bruised, certainly, but she didn’t think anything was broken. And almost certainly everyone else had similar bruises, seat-belt shaped rather than hand-shaped, but similar nonetheless.

“No you didn’t,” Jaworsky said. “Nothing in this ship has worked right since the accident. You can’t blame yourself for that.”

“You two should get your suits on,” Susan said. “We don’t know what it’ll be like when we open that door, or how long we’ll have air in here.” She unclipped her restraints and pushed off toward the storage lockers.

Amelia flexed her shoulders and rolled her neck. “You can put me down, now.”

Jaworsky kept his grip on her. “The fuck?” he said.

“Very funny.”

“Yeah, I’m laughing my fucking ass off. When we first hit, I was worried I’d let you go, or worse, that I’d crush you. So I got a good grip and locked it. Now it won’t unlock.”

Jaworsky pulled at his fingers with his other hand, the strain showing on his face. He was able bend back one of them, but as soon as he let go to bend another, the first snapped back to position.

“I’m going to need a little help here,” he said.

He turned his hand over so that Amelia was facing the ceiling. Not that “ceiling” had much meaning in zero gravity, but Amelia found herself staring at a blank, gray bulkhead, upside down in relation to everyone else. Tharp and Susan crowded her on one side, each straining against one finger. Jaworsky fought against his own thumb.

Amelia twisted and wriggled free.

The hand snapped back to position as soon as everyone let go.

Jaworsky’s lips were a thin line, pressed together tightly. His nostrils flared with each breath. Amelia wasn’t sure if it was anger, or fear. Probably a little of both.

“Fucking fuck,” he said. “Nothing on this ship fucking works. Including me.”

His mechanical hand twitched, then clenched into a fist. Jaworsky rapped it hard against edge of the console, twice, and it relaxed.

Jaworsky let out his breath, the relief evident on his face.

Until something inside the console rapped back. Twice.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Jaworsky said. Now he definitely sounded scared.

Amelia chittered her agreement, even though she was sure he was overreacting. The ship was damaged. It was going to make noises. This was a coincidence, nothing more.

Then the sound came again — two sharp raps on the inside of the console, and the lights flickered. And Amelia launched herself as fast as she dared across the room to the storage locker that held her suit.

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