Kudzu, a Novel
Eric Tharp had been daydreaming when he heard the voices. Or maybe really dreaming. The chamber in which he floated was so vast, so lush, it really was like something out of dream. Where the outside of the kudzu had been sprinkled with shiny black-and-silver leaves that simultaneously sparkled and sucked light, the inside was dotted with the opposite — softly luminescent leaves that filled the chamber with a pulsing, green glow. Over the hours, the lights had become hypnotic. Combine that with the fact that he’d started rationing his oxygen, and things were getting kind of trippy.
Which probably wasn’t a good sign.
But it was better than thinking about what an utter failure he’d been. He’d killed them all. First Ash and Slim, then Michael and Colleen, who had surely asphyxiated by now. And then he’d run in abject terror from whatever the fuck thing Jaworsky’s hand had become, dooming everyone else in the process.
Including himself. Without the ship, he was as good as dead.
Maybe it would be best to just take his helmet off now. Get it over with.
Because his hallucinations were haunting him.
“That’s just not right,” Slim’s ghost was saying. “That’s some creepy shit, there.”
Michael’s ghost replied, “I keep feeling like I should know what the word means, like I’ve heard it before, or read it somewhere.”
“Probably better that way,” Slim’s ghost said.
“Colleen doesn’t know what it means, either.”
Another voice broke into Tharp’s hallucination, cutting off Slim’s ghost, a voice he’d never heard before.
“Well, don’t go spoiling the surprise for them, dearie.”
Ossuary? Tharp had been to the ossuary outside of Prague, back when he was a student, traveling for the summer. A church built of human bones. He’d had nightmares about that place for years, finding himself in it, and all the skulls had his friends and family’s faces superimposed on them. He’d never been able to watch zombie movie without imagining a real person, full of hopes and dreams and love and heartbreak, behind each decomposing face.
“Slim? Michael? Am I dreaming this?”
“Tharp?” Michael said. “Goddamn, it’s good to hear your voice.”
Tharp heard a woman’s voice in the distance. Away from the microphone. Colleen’s voice.
“Hah, that’s a first.”
“For the record, Captain, I’m glad to to hear from you, too.” Slim’s voice came high and fast in raccoony excitement.
“I don’t understand,” Tharp said. “How is this possible? There’s no way your oxygen would hold out this long.”
“Are you kidding me?” the unfamiliar voice said. “What do you think the point of growing kudzu in space was? It’s a plant. It produces oxygen. That’s what plants do.”
Tharp’s brain stuttered, trying to grasp what was happening. He felt like he should respond, but what do you say to that?
“What about the others?” Slim asked. “Amelia? Jaworsky? Talk to me.”
Tharp bit his lip. He tasted blood. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have. This was a conversation he couldn’t have. This time, there was no hesitation. He pulled his helmet off in a quick movement. If luck was with him, he was in a vacuum, and would die a quick death without ever having to face the consequences of his cowardice.
Luck wasn’t with him, and he gasped, lightheaded in the heady, rich air.
“So here’s the plan,” Amelia said, half her body still inside the wall. “These little guys are mechanical, yeah, but they’re not really put together in any rational sense. They’re not built, not motorized, per se. They’re mobile and self-propelling and all that, but there’s nothing I can think of that allows for fiber optics to move independently. Fiber is just a thin strip of glass in a plastic sheath. No moving parts.”
“Tell that to these fuckers,” Susan said. “I can’t get them to stop staring at me.”
“Yeah, so something else is going on there, and I haven’t got a clue what it is. But. They’re able to generate a magnetic field that lets them stick to metal surfaces. Which means—”
“An electricity source. Brilliant. So there’s a battery in there.”
“Or a tiny generator. Either one works for our purposes.”
Susan looked at the creatures she was holding. They were… hand sized. “Not to rain on your parade,” she said, “but there’s no way these things have enough power to open that door.”
Amelia extracted herself from the wall.
“Don’t need it to open the door. That’s what you’re for.”
She returned several tools to her belt pouch and rummaged for something else.
“This will do,” she said, extracting a heavy wrench. “All I need is enough power to reset the locking codes. Then we can manually override the door. Give me a hand, here.”
“Um. My hands are kinda full right now.”
Amelia’s laughter was halfway between a bark and a chitter. “No, I mean give me one of those hands.”
The Jaworsky-hand struggled as Amelia braced it on its side against the wall. She swung the wrench hard against the base of the thumb. Susan winced at the sharp crack. Her own thumb ached in sympathetic pain.
Amelia shucked the hand quickly, leveraging it open with a screwdriver and popping the back of the hand off. The hand went into spasms. Amelia poked at its innards.
The other one, the one Susan was still holding, started struggling frantically, eyestalks thrashing. It clicked its fingers together, until Susan used her free hand to hold them still.
“Yeah, this should work,” Amelia said.
She extracted some pre-stripped wires from her pack, jabbing them one by one into the guts of the hand, and then twisting them tight.
She repeated the process with the second hand, though it struggled more strenuously than the first. Its fiber-stalk eyes searched wildly into the darkness behind them, as if it was waiting — hoping — for something. For rescue? Susan shined her light out into the darkness, but the other hands were all keeping well away from them. It took Amelia three strikes with the wrench this time, with all the squirming the hand was doing, to crack it open.
Once the two hands were gutted and wired together, Amelia crawled back into the access panel with two of the wires.
“Moment of truth,” she said.
There was a spark, and a sizzle. Both hands jerked, and then became immobile. Something inside the wall clicked.
“Holy shit,” Amelia said. “That actually worked. I can’t believe that actually fucking worked!”
“So now what?” Susan asked.
“What are the hands doing?” Amelia asked, as she extracted herself from the wall.
“Nothing. I think they’re dead.”
“No, I mean the others.”
“Just…” Susan frowned. “Nothing. They’re just watching us.”
“Eh. It could be worse. Let’s get this door open.” Amelia handed Susan a massive flathead screwdriver. “This is probably more useful than plastic piping.”
Susan fit the head into the seam of the door and tried to twist. Nothing. She couldn’t get it deep enough to get it to catch. Amelia handed her the wrench, which she used as a hammer. Was it…? Yes, it was open, just a crack. A soft, green glow shone through it.
There was a sound, coming from all around them. The click of thousands of little fingers on metal. Susan swung her light in a wide arc, but no, the hands were still keeping their distance.
She pushed the screwdriver deeper and levered the door open further. Amelia jammed the PVC tubing in the gap and pulled at it. Susan gripped the edge of the door, got her foot into the gap, and strained against it.
Slowly, it slid open, until the gap was wide enough to fit Jaworsky through. Susan’s muscles screamed at her, and she let her body sag in relief.
It was done. They were free. On the other side of the door was a vast, green forest that had once been the Beagle’s docking bay. Beyond that, the kudzu opened into a wide cavern. Luminous leaves were scattered throughout the darker foliage, creating the eerie, pulsing glow that streamed through the open door.
Fascinating, Susan thought.
“Oh, fuck,” Amelia said.
Susan followed the cone of Amelia’s headlamp. Back into the depths of the ship.
Dark shapes moved toward them. Hundreds. Thousands. They flowed like a sea, scuttling across the walls and launching themselves through the air, converging from all sides until the sheer mass of them obscured all vision.