Kudzu, a Novel
When Amelia went off hunting the Jaworsky-hand knockoffs, she had turned off her helmet lamp. Then she launched herself into the dark. Susan heard the scampering of little fingers like thousands of centipedes, heard a crash and scuffle, and concentrated on her assigned job in an attempt not to think about it.
Susan had taken apart and reassembled countless computers and tablets in her time, mucking about in hardware so miniaturized that it required a jeweler’s glass to see the slots in the tiny screws. But she’d always had gravity as an invisible helper: the screws came out of the equipment and went into a bin on her desk, and they stayed there until she needed them.
Here, everything acted as if it had a mind of its own, the tensile strength of the materials interacting with the inertial mass of other materials in calculable ways, if you know what values to plug into the equations. Without those values, Susan found them completely unpredictable.
Susan had had a short-lived affair with a mechanic, when she was still in grad school. Helene, whose calloused, dirty fingers had taken her places she didn’t know existed. Susan still couldn’t remember what she’d said, one drunken evening, that caused Helene to walk out of the bar. She’d left a dozen voice-mails before getting a curt text back.
I can’t be with someone who can’t see that people can be smart in different ways. Don’t write back.
Of course she wrote back: Stupid cunt. And she’d gone back to boys who were all too happy to worship her, body and mind.
Jaworsky or Amelia, or even Slim, could have taken apart the panel with their eyes closed. They’d know instinctually what the materials would do. They wouldn’t need the math; they’d be able to calculate it by sight and feel.
Half the screws had floated off into the darkness. One of the wires had pulled loose when the panel twisted, and she couldn’t figure out where it was supposed to connect.
“I think I fucked up,” she said.
Amelia’s voice came through her earbuds. “You’re only human.”
When Amelia drifted back to the loading bay airlock, her eyes glittered metallic green in the darkness, reflecting the light of Susan’s helmet lamp before any of the rest of her was visible.
“Got two of them,” she said. She held them out to Susan.
“I don’t want them,” Susan said, instinctively backing away. The damn things creeped her out, with their segmented fingers and waving eyestalks.
“Fine, I’ll hold them. You rewire the airlock.”
Susan snatched one of the hands away from Amelia. She held it up in front of her helmet. Its fingers wiggled as it tried to twist free, and its eyestalks waved, as if it was surveying everything. Plotting. She turned the Jaworsky-hand away from her, but the eyes curled around to face her.
“How do I get it to stop staring at me?” she asked.
“Eat its eyes,” Amelia said.
Susan didn’t realize she’d made a noise until she heard Amelia laugh.
“You don’t actually want to do that,” Amelia said. “Fiber optics are as high in glass as they are in fiber.”
“Give me that,” she said, snatching the other hand away from the raccoon.
Amelia immediately turned her attention to the control panel. She pulled some tools from her belt and placed them against the wall. They stayed there.
“They’re magnetized?” Susan said.
“Uh, yeah. Of course.”
“Oh. You could have told me. I almost lost your screwdriver.”
Amelia pulled her head out of the hole behind the access panel and peered at Susan. “It’s been a legal standard for spacecraft maintenance for at least fifty years,” she said. “Or a hundred fifteen now, I guess.”
“Yeah, well, I work on computers, and we don’t trust magnets.”
“Whatever,” Amelia said, and stuck her head back into the access panel.
Susan resisted the urge to pull her tail.
Colleen watched the old woman watch Michael as he scrambled to get his pants up from around his ankles. She wiped her hand on Michael’s shirt and handed it to him.
She was, Colleen decided, more weathered than old. A rough life aging her faster than time. Her skin and hair said she was in her late forties or early fifties. Her eyes proclaimed her infinitely older.
Which also meant that the woman’s parents had probably been in kindergarten when the Beagle had departed Earth’s orbit for Triton.
The woman’s clothes were a patchwork quilt of fabrics, tattered and threadbare, but clean. She’d obviously stopped brushing her hair years ago; it was matted and bedraggled, too straight and thin to make proper dreadlocks like Michael’s, so it ended up looking more like a nest made by a schizophrenic bird.
“I’m Colleen,” she said.
“Yes, I know,” the woman said. She crossed her arms and leaned against wall, watching Michael with hungry eyes.
“You’re very rude,” Colleen said.
“Am I?” The woman laughed. “You hear that, Astrid? I’m rude. Proud of me now?”
Colleen looked around. She didn’t see anyone else.
“Is that your name? Astrid?”
“My name? Gods, no. I may have learned how to be rude, but I’ll never be that manipulative and narcissistic. No, no, I’ve given up on names. No need for them up here. You’ll see, when you’ve been here long enough. No need for them at all.”
It was hard to tell if the woman was just being deliberately evasive, or if she was insane. As they walked through the winding passageways to the kudzu, she and Colleen maintained a conversation that could hardly be called a dialogue. More like two verbal streams that occasionally intersected.
Michael followed the two women, and worked on getting his radio wired back into his space suit’s battery pack. As much as possible, he’d been using power drawn from the kudzu lamp-leaves, to conserve the battery. But this woman made him uncomfortable, the way she had stared at him, and he wanted to touch base with Slim — and even Ash — to find out more.
The radio popped and hissed as it came online.
“Hey, Slim, you there?”
They climbed a set of stairs that wound like RNA into a large chamber. The woman led them along the wall for a short distance, and then into another twisting corridor.
“Michael?” Slim sounded out of breath. “You still there?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here.”
“Sorry, I was playing with the kitties.”
“Playing… I hope that’s not a euphemism.”
“What? Ew. They’re animals, for fuck’s sake.”
Michael’s face burned. He tried to think of a way to make what he’d said less offensive. There really wasn’t.
“So, we’re following the lady you sent to find us.”
“Yeah? So what do you think? She’s a piece of work, isn’t she? You fucked her yet?”
“Have I what?” Michael nearly tripped over his own feet.
The woman glanced back at him. “You okay back there?”
“I’m fine. Got Slim on the radio.”
“Oh yeah? I love that little guy. He’s just adorable.” The woman stepped in so she could speak into the radio microphone. “Don’t you worry, Slim,” she said. “You’ll be seeing your friends in no time.
She stood way too close, her breast pressing against Michael’s arm, her thigh against his. Her breath against Michael’s neck. She smelled like sex.
Of course, Michael probably also smelled like sex, but why? No, he didn’t want to ask. He wasn’t going to ask.
“Are we going stand here gossiping,” Colleen asked, “or can we keep moving?” She looked perturbed, Michael thought.
What did I do this time?
No, too easy to fall into old habits, old patterns. Taking the blame for other people’s behavior. He pushed passed the woman.
“This way?” he asked.
The woman nodded. “Yup. Straight ahead til you hit the ossuary.”
“Oh man,” Slim said into Michael’s ear, “that’s just not right.”