Kudzu, a Novel
In the years Susan had been on board, the central hub of the OPEV Beagle had been many things: utilitarian, annoying, spartan, cluttered, the morning commute. It was the necessary path from one part of the ship to any other part, and all wiring, ducts, power, and plumbing traversed this long, hollow tube. Over time, it also became a glorified storage closet, with boxes and crates filled with the detritus of various departments strapped to the wall anywhere it wasn’t in the way.
One thing it had never been was creepy, and it sure as hell had never been downright scary.
Not until the power failed, and all the lights went out.
Now, it was just her and Amelia, alone, dragging along a massive and unwieldy form that might be Jaworsky, or might be dead.
No, not entirely alone. There were sounds. The hull pinged and creaked. Things slithered across the outer hull. The horrifically profligate kudzu, she presumed. More frightening were the noises from within: the ticking of a thousand insectoid feet on metal. The sound was all around them, beneath the bulkheads and under their feet, like mice in the walls and rats in the hayloft, but somehow even more horrid.
The only light came from their helmet lamps — pallid, blue LEDs which were fine for illuminating whatever was immediately at hand, but did very little to cut the darkness. Even the ship’s emergency lighting had failed. The only one they’d seen clearly had been Jaworsky’s hand. The others must have been lying dormant, or at least quiet, until some signal that it was time to emerge.
Amelia turned her head, sweeping her lamp across the shadows.
“Fast little buggers,” she said.
“Did you see them? What are they?” Susan had her suspicions about the things, that they were bits of the ship that had gone rogue. But she needed to examine one more closely, and at this point her eyes hadn’t even adjusted to the dim light enough to see more than flickers in the dark. They moved too quickly to identify, skittering into the shadows, faster than her eyes could focus. There were plenty of places to hide.
“Dunno. They’re almost like cockroaches. Really big, juicy ones. It’s making me hungry.”
“Sometimes I forget you’re a raccoon,” Susan said.
“How’s Jaworsky?” Amelia asked.
Susan shined her light through the glass of Jaworsky’s helmet.
“Breathing,” she said. She squeezed Jaworsky’s empty left glove. It didn’t feel to her as if it was full of blood. Not that she really knew what that would feel like.
Susan’s fear was not that these cockroachy robot things would attack them. If her theory was correct, they had had plenty of time and opportunity to assault the organic life-forms — sixty-five years, at least, most of which the crew had been helpless in cryo. But they hadn’t.
No, her greatest fear now was that she had done a crap job of treating Jaworsky’s wound, and he’d bleed to death inside his suit. Her expertise was software — apps and operating systems — not hardware, and certainly not wetware. What the fuck did she know about dressing a severed limb?
“I hope the bandages hold,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to help him in a vacuum.”
“It’s not,” Amelia said. “A vacuum, that is. Or we wouldn’t be hearing anything.”
Susan felt her face flush. She was supposed to be the smart one on the crew. Or what was left of the crew.
Which was down to three. One of whom might be dying.
“Oh,” she said.
“Pressure’s increasing, too,” Amelia said. “That’s why the sounds are getting louder.”
“I’ll still feel better if we can get the fuck off this ship before those things take it apart completely.”
Susan walked slowly toward the docking bay, her boots clipping magnetically to the hull to give her purchase. She pulled Jaworsky behind her. Why’d he have to be so damned big? Even weightless, he was unwieldy. And Amelia was too small to be of much help.
They trudged along in silence for a while. Or rather, Susan trudged. Amelia floated alongside.
They came to the docking bay airlock. It was closed.
“I really think I’m going to kill him,” Susan said.
“For being scared?”
“You’re not seriously defending him, are you?”
“None of us is perfect,” Amelia said. “And there’s not enough of us to throw anyone away.”
“He almost killed Jaworsky. He got Ash killed.”
“No,” Amelia said. “Ash got himself killed. Tharp tried to stop him.”
“Do you really think we shouldn’t have tried to save Slim?”
Amelia turned away from her. When she turned back again, Susan couldn’t read her expression. Not that it was ever easy reading a raccoon’s expression.
“Tharp made the right call then,” Amelia said. “So did Ash. Let’s get this fucking door open.”
When Michael woke up, he was face-down on the glass of the French space station’s observatory. The glass was tacky under his cheek.
What had happened?
He had been looking down, out at the Earth. There had been lights. And he and Colleen had been…. The memory cut through the throbbing in his head, stirred between his legs. She’d been lying under him, moving against him. And then…
And then what?
He didn’t know. And Colleen was gone.
He peeled his face away from the glass. The spot where he’d been laying was red. His own blood, probably. His nose and lips hurt. His tongue felt swollen. He felt woozy.
“Colleen?” His mouth didn’t want to shape the sounds right.
He stood, wobbled, sat on his ass. His feet were tangled in something. The room spun around him, and he closed his eyes, trying to keep himself from throwing up.
He heard a voice, somewhere behind him. Colleen.
“Oh, hey, Slim,” her voice said. “Can I call you back? Michael’s awake.”
Michael was a mess. Blood all over his face. He’d split a lip and possibly broken his nose. But all his injuries had seemed superficial, so Colleen had left him laying face down. There was enough blood that she didn’t want it flowing in, toward his lungs.
So the blood had pooled under his head to congeal.
Better out than in, her uncle Freddie used to say. He’d been talking about burps and farts at the dinner table, of course, but it seemed to Colleen that the same logic applied.
Besides, there was something adorable about Michael lying there, bare-assed. If you ignored the blood, that is.
So she checked his pulse and breathing periodically, made sure there was nothing going noticeably amiss, and in between, managed to re-assemble the radio.
Reuniting with Ash and Slim had become significantly more difficult. Something large had collided with the kudzu ball, Slim had said, and a number of tunnels and passageways no longer went to where they once had, or had been destroyed completely. Ash was certain that it was the Beagle, suggesting that Amelia maybe wasn’t the great pilot everyone made her out to be.
Slim had snarled, and Ash apologized.
Colleen couldn’t help laughing.
“I just hope they’re all okay,” Ash said. “Anyway, just sit tight. It’ll take a little bit to figure where all the pieces ended up, but the kudzu is self-healing, and even if there isn’t a way to get to you right now, there will be soon enough.”
“Yeah,” Slim said. “She said as long you don’t leave where you are right now, she’ll be able to find you.”
There. This was the second time Slim had insinuated that there was someone else with them.
On the other side of the room, a dozen meters from where Colleen had the radio plugged into a kudzu lamp-leaf that curled through the open door to the observatory, Michael groaned. He struggled to his feet, then fell over.
She’d find out soon enough what — or who — Slim was talking about. But not yet.