Kudzu, a Novel
The lights flickered. Went off. Came back.
Susan launched herself through the air, following Amelia to the storage lockers. Amelia and Jaworsky both needed to suit up before they opened the door, before they could safely get away from whatever was going on inside the failing command console. Jaworsky was clearly in too much distress to think straight.
Jaworsky was backing away from the console, a look of terror on his face. Or was it pain? His artificial hand was clenched in a fist, and the muscles in his forearm strained so hard his veins bulged.
Susan had studied the hand’s schematics, back when she first came on board, intending to hack into it, for a joke. But then she worried that if she accidentally overwrote some critical piece of firmware, Jaworsky’d be seriously fucked until they got back to Earth. And with hand’s systems as integrated as it was with his nervous system, there was no telling just how fucked that might mean.
Scrabbling sounds came from inside the command console.
Jaworsky reached back toward the door.
Jesus, he was going to make a run for it.
He was losing it. The way Susan had started to lose it when Ash and Slim died. She could have just drifted off into space at that moment, for all she had cared, and it was Jaworsky who centered her.
“Jaworsky,” Susan said. He didn’t seem to hear her, not through the twin barriers of her helmet and his panic.
The locker door was stuck. Susan kicked at it until it opened. They had no idea if the hull had been compromised. No idea if there was any air on the other side of that door. If Jaworsky opened it before he and Amelia suited up…
“Hey!” Susan shouted, loud enough that it penetrated the glass of her helmet. Deafening through the earphones that she and Tharp wore. “Hey, shit-for-brains!”
That got his attention.
Amelia was at her locker, slipping into her suit. Jaworsky just needed helmet and gloves. Susan flung the helmet at his head.
He caught it one-handed.
“Thanks,” he said. Focus and awareness coming back into his eyes. He let the helmet hover next to him as he got his earphones in place. “Testing,” he said. His voice was shaky. Strained. Like he was clenching his jaw.
“Loud and clear.”
Jaworsky set the helmet on his head, awkwardly with only one hand.
It occurred to Susan that she had no idea how long ago he’d lost his hand, or how. That she’d never cared. And as much as Jaworsky loved to talk about himself, this was one story he’d never told.
“I’m going to need help with the gloves,” he said.
Susan glanced at Amelia. She’d gotten into her suit and gotten her helmet on, and was engaged in an intricate dance of adjusting the suit around her tail before putting on her gloves. When Susan had first come on board the Beagle, she’d found the raccoons’ space suit antics both comical and adorable. Now it was seconds lost.
Tharp, as usual, was fucking useless. He was checking and re-checking the seals on his suit.
“Gloves on now, chica,” she told Amelia. “Adjust your pantyhose later.”
She pushed off against the wall toward Jaworsky, his gloves tucked under her arm.
She was halfway there when he started screaming.
It screamed through his brain, and the world slanted sideways. Everything looked vaguely yellow, and he couldn’t move his limbs. It was like every muscle was straining against all the others.
He’d seen a man electrocuted once. A slip of a screwdriver. A faulty breaker. A human figure frozen, clenched. The smell of ozone and burning hair.
He couldn’t remember what he’d done wrong.
His mouth tasted like a battery.
He wanted to tell the others he was sorry, sorry they had to see this.
Jaworsky’s scream ripped through Amelia’s soul.
She had been concentrating on her gloves, and hadn’t seen what had happened. When she looked up, Jaworsky was hurtling across the room, legs straight and rigid, the rest of him hunched over, curled half-fetal around his belly. His arms were flexed at his sides, muscles bulging with the strain, like some horrific body-builder pose.
Susan was already moving toward where he had been. No way to adjust course until she came to a wall. Tharp, on the other hand, was perfectly positioned to catch him.
Tharp stepped out of the way, and Jaworsky slammed into the wall. Bounced off, slower than he’d hit.
Inelastic collision, Amelia thought.
“I’m going to cut off your fucking balls and shove them down your fucking throat,” Susan growled.
Amelia mentally plotted Jaworsky’s new trajectory and launched herself on an intercept course. Her mass against his wouldn’t do much to stop him, but she could slow him down a little, and maybe, just maybe, help him.
“He’s being electrocuted,” Tharp said. “If you touch him, you’ll just fry yourself.”
“Idiot,” Susan snapped. “You’re wearing an insulated suit.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?” Tharp said. “I only had a split second to make a decision.”
Jaworsky’s rigid body loomed close. Closer. The impact was jarring. Amelia tasted blood, felt herself bouncing off his mass. She managed to get one hand out and curled into the loose fabric of Jaworsky’s suit. Her momentum swung her around, and she grabbed onto Jaworsky’s back.
She hadn’t slowed him much.
Her tongue felt swollen.
She clambered over Jaworsky’s back and onto his shoulder.
Jaworsky’s lips were pulled back into a rictus grin. His eyes were open, but they were rolled up into his head; just the whites showed. She couldn’t see if he was breathing.
Amelia deactivated the four magnetic locks that sealed the helmet and pulled it off his head.
Blood droplets splattered against the glass of her own helmet.
But where was it coming from? Not from his head. There was no blood on his face or head, none on his neck. The blood was in the air, floating with them as they tumbled across the chamber.
Jaworsky’s body trembled, no longer simply frozen.
Susan got to the wall. She caught a hand-hold and turned herself around so she could take in the situation.
“There’s blood,” Amelia said. “I can’t figure out where it’s coming from.”
“His hand,” Susan said. “It’s… what’s it doing?”
Amelia followed the curve of Jaworsky’s arm, climbing its length as if it was a tree branch. Yes, the blood was coming from Jaworsky’s wrist, where the metal met flesh. As she watched, the fingers flexed, and the hand twisted on the wrist.
There was a spurt of blood.
Jaworsky started to shake.
The hand bent forward, pulling away from Jaworsky’s flesh until the fingers could grip the inside of his wrist. It tugged hard, and tore away entirely from Jaworsky’s stump.
There was more blood. A lot more. It smeared Amelia’s helmet and spattered her suit.
The mechanical hand clambered up Jaworsky’s arm, a five-legged spider, trailing a bloody tail of neural interfaces. The tail came free of Jaworsky’s stump and whipped menacingly. Amelia backed away.
The door opened with a hiss of escaping air. Tharp disappeared through it. Air rushed through the opening. Everything floating in the room followed: Jaworsky’s blood, his helmet. Amelia clung to Jaworsky, but Jaworsky’s trajectory shifted until they, too, were drifting toward the door.
Amelia wondered whether she’d be able to catch hold of the door frame and still keep hold of Jaworsky. She doubted it.
Susan threw herself at the door, hammering on the “close” button, pausing only catch the helmet before it was sucked out of the room.
The door closed.
Jaworsky’s body relaxed, and his chest heaved. He fought for breath, loud, sucking gasps as he inhaled the thin atmosphere in massive gulps. His face was turning blue.
“Fucking Tharp,” Susan said, suddenly there, catching Jaworsky’s body before it struck the door. She jammed the helmet over his head. “Find something to make a tourniquet. I’ll take care of things here.”
Amelia flung herself across the room, back to the lockers, faster than she should have. She hit the wall hard, shoulder first. She’d have a bruise. She didn’t care.
There were all sorts of things in the lockers — things that had belonged to the original crew that had piloted the Beagle off Earth. An old, ripped t-shirt. A toothbrush. A first aid kit. She grabbed everything she could carry and flung herself back toward Jaworsky.
“How’s he doing?” she asked.
“He’s breathing,” Susan said. “I’ve got most of the bleeding staunched, but my hands keep slipping.”
“On my way.”
Speaking of hands…
Amelia looked around the command room for Jaworsky’s rebellious appendage. She didn’t see it anywhere.