Kudzu, Chapter 45

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 45

 

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.”

“An ossuary—”

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.

“What?”

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.

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Kudzu, Chapter 44

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 44

 

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?”

No response.

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.”

Ossuary?

“Oh man,” Slim said into Michael’s ear, “that’s just not right.”

Kudzu, Chapter 43

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 43

 

Hunting crabs

 

“I wish Jaworsky was awake,” Susan said.

Amelia bared her teeth. Jaworsky wasn’t awake, and wouldn’t be until they could get him some medical attention. Which meant he might never wake up. In the meantime, Susan was losing her shit, flailing ineffectively against the airlock door with a length of PVC piping.

In the meantime, the things in the shadows had come out of hiding. They crawled from behind crates, out of ventilation grills. They broke open access panels and crawled out of coon-holes. They gathered on the edge of visibility, creeping closer as their numbers grew.

They all looked like Jaworsky’s hand.

As they got closer, Amelia could make out more details. For the most part, they weren’t as slick or elegant as Jaworsky’s hand. They were constructed of all sorts of materials, pipes and springs and wires, metal plates and bits of fiber optic cable. No two the same, but all bearing a horrific similarity to Jaworsky’s mutinous appendage.

There were too many to count.

One of the hands sailed past, floating through the air right in front of them. Susan swung at it with the pipe. She missed. The thing followed them with fiber optic eyes as it went past and disappeared into the darkness.

“You tried the manual override?” Amelia said.

“For the thousandth time, yes.” Susan slammed her fist against the door. The sound rang dully. “Tharp must have gotten out before the power died, and left the other side open. We’re completely fucked.”

Amelia looked out at the sea of hands. Fiber optic eyestalks waved, fingers gestured. They crawled over each other like crabs.

Which were even tastier than cockroaches.

“Mmm, butter sauce,” she said.

“What?”

“They’re like crabs,” Amelia said. “Looks like they’ve magnetized the tips of their fingers. I wonder…”

“What?” Susan said, again.

“Shut up,” Amelia said. “I’m thinking.” She closed her eyes and envisioned wiring diagrams. Her fingers traced imaginary circuits in the air.

She grinned at Susan. “Yes, this might actually work.”

Amelia pulled a screwdriver and a Torx set from her belt pack and handed them to Susan.

“Here. Get this panel open for me. There are two sub-panels inside. Pull the top one out so the wires are exposed. Try not to break anything. I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

Amelia’s grin was feral. “Hunting crabs.”

~

Eric Tharp was beginning to regret his actions.

He’d gotten to the docking bay without difficulty, getting as far away as fast as possible from the horror that was Jaworsky’s hand. Odds were, by now the others were all dead, and him the only survivor.

Problem was, he wasn’t a survivor quite yet.

He’d opened the docking bay door without thinking. Without strapping himself down to anything.

The door had opened to the interior of a vast kudzu cavern. Air from inside the kudzu had rushed into the evacuated docking bay. Rushed in and swirled around, catching up everything that wasn’t strapped down. And then flinging it all out into the cavern.

Tharp had floated across the cavern for hours, watching the Beagle’s loading dock slowly diminish in the distance. Not getting appreciably closer to any of the other walls. It might be days at the rate he was going before he reached the other side.

Still, he was away from that thing.

He tried his radio again, just in case. Before, all he’d gotten was static. Nobody on the other side.

That didn’t mean anything. They could still be alive. The kudzu did strange things to radio signals. They’d seen that when Michael and Colleen had gone in earlier. For all he knew, they could still be alive, too. Alive and abandoned.

How do you apologize for abandoning someone?

How many people can you leave behind to die, and still be able to live with yourself?

Once again, all he got was static.

He exhaled in relief.

About an hour later, he drifted into an air current.

~

Colleen held two fingers up in front of Michael’s face.

“How many—”

“Two. How many times are you going to ask? My vision’s fine. I’m fine.” Michael slapped her hands away. The movement made him dizzy.

“You’re a bloody mess. Stop fighting and let me take care of you.”

Colleen tore a piece of her t-shirt off and wet it from her waterskin, the one without the fish. She dabbed at Michael’s face.

“You’re not going to stop, no matter what I say.”

“Nope. We’re going to be rescued soon. You want to look your best, don’t you?

“All right, fine.”

Colleen peeled his shirt off, got his legs untangled from his pants. She helped him lie back against the glass sphere. It looked like he was resting on infinity.

She washed the blood from his face and chest, and rinsed as much as she could from his dreaded locks.

“You’re going to need a proper bath,” she said.

“I’ll get right on that,” Michael said.

“Maybe stitches, too, if we can find a needle or something. There’s got to be some old stuff left behind in some of these satellites.”

Her hand lingered in the coarse hairs on his chest. Then she slipped it down his belly to wrap around his cock. It swelled at her touch.

“What are you doing?”

“You can’t tell? Maybe you do have a concussion.”

“No, I mean, I thought…”

Colleen leaned forward to take one of his nipples between her teeth, and he groaned.

“The way I remember it,” she said, her hand working the supple flesh over its rigid core, “we were rudely interrupted, just before you were about to come. We’ll be reunited with Ash and Slim pretty soon, so who knows when we’ll have any privacy.”

“Colleen,” Michael said. His hand cupped her ass. Slid to her hip. His fingers dug into her flesh.

“Shush,” Colleen said. She kissed his chest and throat, sank teeth into his shoulder.

Michael’s cock jerked in her hand, spilled across his belly and coated her fingers.

“Oh, fuck,” Michael said. “Colleen, there’s some—”

Colleen touched a finger gently to his lips.

“Shush.”

“Yeah,” a voice said, coarse as used sandpaper. “You just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t mind little old me.”

Kudzu, Chapter 42

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 42

 

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.

Fucking Tharp.

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.

Kudzu, Chapter 41

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 41

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.

~

Agony.

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.

He wanted…

~

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.

Ohgod.

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.

Kudzu, Book VI, Chapter 40

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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.

Bingo

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Bingo

by Bernie Mojzes

There was a farmer.

He had this dog that tended to drink to excess. They named him Binge-O.

It was all good fun at the start. You know, social drinking, at parties and such. People noticed that Binge-O liked beer and started feeding him drinks. After a while he’d start nosing around, finishing off the dregs of lost or abandoned drinks. It was all downhill from there.

For a long time Binge-O was the life of the party. He’d help around the farm during the day, and in the evenings he’d trot down into town and hang out at the bar, where people kept him well supplied with drinks and beer-nuts all night. Sometimes he’d stagger home ‘round three in the morning. Sometimes we’d find him sleeping it off under a car or tractor, or in someone’s sheep pen.

He had a thing for sheep.

But then, he was a sheepdog, after all.

He started drinking at home. None of us really knew the extent of it, back then. He was good at hiding things. He’d stashed bottles of vodka all over the farm, buried like bones. He turned mean. He was still well-liked in town, and a lot of fun to drink with, but after a certain point something inside him would shift, something would turn ugly, and he’d get angry. People knew to keep away from him when he got like that. He’d snarl and they’d back off.

Time came when Binge-O wasn’t welcome at the bar anymore. He’d bitten a patron the night before, and when he trotted up just before nightfall they wouldn’t let him in. He barked and scratched at the door. He tried to slip in when he thought nobody was looking. He whined. It was sad, but old Tony said, “I ain’t having that damned mutt chewin’ on my customers.” He swatted at Binge-O with a broom.

I don’t think any of us realized how far gone he was. I don’t know if anyone could have helped him, in the long run, but maybe if we’d tried, things wouldn’t have ended the way they did.

They found him the next morning in the hen house. He’d killed them all, snapping their necks and mangling their bodies, before taking his own life. He lay on his side, shotgun still held between all four legs, covered in blood and feathers.

The town is still in shock.

And none of us can look his puppies in the eye. We were all complicit in this thing.

We’re all guilty.

The Path That Few Have Trod

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We’re taking a between-chapter break in the Kudzu story this week. Instead, I’d like to share a different tale. An earlier version of this story appeared in 2010 in Trail of Indiscretion magazine.

The Path That Few Have Trod

by Bernie Mojzes

My name is Sweeney Todd. Horatio Sweeney Todd, my birth certificate reads; my parents, aficionados of ancient musical productions, thought the name choice funny. They called it Intellectual Humor.

I call it Irony.

For the Sweeney Todd of legend and I have very little in common. I have never been to prison. Nor have I been to Australia. I am not haunted by the apparent death of my wife (I’ve never even had a wife, nor much use for one), nor am I consumed with a need for revenge. Really, I’m quite jovial, if a bit arrogant. I do, perhaps, eat a bit too enthusiastically, and some have said that I exercise far too rarely. However, I have no patience for such things, and wear my prodigious belly with pride. Also, I do not pull teeth. Messy business, that, and best left to others.

Apart from the name, I have only one thing in common with the Sweeney Todd of legend: I am a barber.

Until last week, of course. Hence the Irony.

I should like it to be known that none of this was my idea. I feel that it is important to stress this point. It was Jennifer Cappaccio (who no doubt is at this very moment crafting a similar exposition) that began the process of making the suggestion, late on a Wednesday night, well into our third bottle of wine, a 2012 De Loach Pinot Noir, if I remember correctly.

“He’s going to provoke a war,” she told me.

He was Harvey Smith, as anyone who is bothering to read this sordid little tale already knows.

Harvey is an astounding man. Quiet and unassuming, but with an infectious grin and a persistent good humor, he has won the admiration and even friendship of both his political allies and enemies, of the American people as a whole, and even of a-political elitists — such as myself — who typically look down with contempt at those who seek their fortunes in the political arena. Unlike those with the audacity to call themselves his colleagues, he is an artistic master of the soft science of politics, and a master scientist of the art of politics. With a few statements here, a few demonstrations of intent there, Harvey Smith could manipulate the politicians into manipulating the masses into approving just about anything he wanted. It was quite elegant, really, a beautifully choreographed ballet danced upon the political landscape.

All this, and he’s just a heck of a nice guy, too.

Regardless, politics bores me. Talk to me rather of an exquisite wine, or of the fabulous new chef at Bistro Bis, or, well, just about anything else. Politics is a sure-fire cure for insomnia. Subtle as a brick, nay, as a cinder block, these political hackeries and devices. I have no patience for such clumsiness, and yet even I begrudgingly concede Harvey’s talents.

This does not mean I have any interest in discussing them.

For example, America was shocked last year when President Teller abruptly fired his closest advisor — this being the aforementioned Harvey Smith — on a trumped up ethics charge. Shocked!

Yawn.

I only mention this because it bears directly upon this tale: barely a week before his ignoble sacking, a Time Magazine poll showed that Americans would have voted Harvey into office that very evening if there had been a handy election. President Teller’s unwarranted jealousy came as a surprise to everyone, even Harvey, who, when interviewed about the results of the poll, said, “I’m not the sort of person who would do well as President. I’ll leave that to the people who want it, and just stick to doing what I do best.”

Eight months later Teller’s presidency was in ruins and, tail between his legs, Teller was begging Harvey Smith back from Tennessee to try to salvage what could be salvaged. I say all this in demonstration of the theory that one can, in fact, learn whilst asleep and/or extremely drunk, which is invariably my state when Jennifer begins these dialogues, in which I am forced to act as Interlocutor to her Socrates.

“He’s a politician,” I responded, waving my arm magnanimously. “They all start wars. That’s what they do.” Jennifer started to say something, but I spoke over her. “Find some pathetic strip of land and save it from some pathetic little dictator that we were perfectly fine with last month. That’s the way it works. It’s a rather effective and time-proven solution, I believe. There’s even a phrase about it. Something about wagging one’s dog.”

“Not start. Provoke.”

“Attack? Us? What pathetic little country would dare attack us? And if they did, would we even notice?” I refilled her glass and mine, then lifted it in toast. “To the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.”

She just stared at her wine. “No,” she said softly. “Not Grand Fenwick. China.”

“That’s absurd,” I declared. “You must have misheard.”

But I knew she hadn’t. Jennifer Cappaccio is the proprietor of the fine eatery that sits adjacent to my humble shop. She also caters gala events, and whenever politicians are involved, she makes it a point to put on a uniform and get out there to serve the guests herself. She’s not above getting her hands dirty when the situation calls for it. “People talk when they feel no one is around,” she says, “and catering staff don’t exist.”

The lovely Ms. Cappaccio shook her head. “This presidency is so damaged that there’s no way to salvage it. It’s so damaged that the whole party is losing. They already lost the House. In the next election, they’ll lose the White House and the Senate both. It’s accepted wisdom that we don’t come out too well in a war with China. So the plan is to goad China into an attack, to manipulate things to time the attack after the next election, and leave the opposition to fail in the face of the Chinese assault. Then, when all looks lost, they retake the government overwhelmingly with a promise of a successful resolution to the conflict.”

Please note that I am paraphrasing with wild abandon in the name of brevity, and because three bottles of exquisite wine do little to promote conversations of a succinct or scintillating nature.

“What is the point of promises that have no hope of fulfillment?” I asked.

“Ah, see, that’s the thing. They believe they can win.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. “How do they propose to achieve this magnificent feat?”

“Nukes.” She drained her glass. I believe I blinked at her, then waved off her attempt to continue.

“Absurd,” I declared. “Absolute hogwash. I love you dearly, but you have gone completely off your rocker. No, I’ll not listen to another word.” And with that, I kissed her hand and bid her adieu.

~

The elections went as Jennifer predicted.

The following day, President Teller, in a televised speech, gave the first of his insults to the Chinese people. It was clever and subtle, designed to be highly insulting to Chinese culture, but appear innocuous to those who scarcely had enough culture to know how to spell the word. I recognized Harvey’s hand in it immediately, but chose to ignore it.

The next insult came three days later, and when the Chinese demanded an apology, President Teller instead ordered some manner of boat or ship to the area, ostensibly to provide support for people trying to do research on the Giant Sea Ferret, or some sort of creature that surely belongs more properly on a coat or lining my mittens. Whatever the excuse, it apparently irritated the Chinese government, who claimed that this put both Hong Kong and Shanghai within short-range missile range.

That evening, Jennifer invited me to dinner.

~

I fear I would be a terrible bore if I spent this time speaking merely of politics and intrigue. Instead, I should like to speak of something infinitely more interesting: art, and economics.

We are a dying breed, we hair stylists and barbers, we artisans of the blade. Who needs a barber when a coating of Fizz-Z will keep your face smooth all day? Who needs an artist’s sure hand when Do-Bots have become a household appliance? Simply enter your favorite celebrity’s image, and the Do-Bot emulates their hair on your head, with mathematical precision. Regardless of the consequences.

I fear and loathe award ceremonies.

Last year, over seventy percent of women in this country wore Nita LaCour’s hair the day after the Golden Globes. I was, of course, honored. Honored and appalled.

But I digress.

We artists have no use-value in society at large, and thus our services have become invaluable. We are a luxury. A means by which the rich and powerful express their wealth and power, and through that expression, reinforce their position.

My clients seek me out not because they need a haircut and a shave.

They seek me out because they need my haircut and shave.

 This is a responsibility I take with utmost seriousness, and bring to each client the very best I can offer, with the finest tools available. Unlike much of my competition, I do not use computer-enhanced razors or other hair-styling tools. My tools are simple: a comb, a sharp pair of scissors, a well-honed straight-razor, and a steady hand.

These tools have never failed me.

~

“I’m bringing the wine tonight,” I informed Jennifer.

The wine was, first, an exquisite Montello e Colli Asolani Rosso, followed by a rather delightful Clos du Chêne Vert. I also brought a bottle of Château de Jacques and a Chianti that I can’t remember, but we didn’t drink those. Jennifer’s contribution was a number of hors d’oeuvres, most spectacularly a dish of Kobe beef, sparingly seared, then thinly sliced and wrapped around a bit of asparagus.

I waited until we’d successfully consumed the Rosso and the food before I got down to business. It is never good to allow business to interfere with the consumption of great food.

“So,” I said, “how do they plan on winning a war with China?”

“Harvey is friends with the president of a company that has developed a prototype anti-missile device. The plan — which is already underway — is to deploy them in secret. Not by the government, but by friends of Harvey’s. The government wouldn’t even know.”

“If the government doesn’t know, how are they to use them?”

“That’s the point — they wouldn’t, not until Teller is reinstalled as president. Then the command would go out to all the devices to neutralize the enemy’s nuclear arsenal.”

“I see.” I refilled her glass. Mine sat, half-full. I refilled it as well, then reached for the next bottle, the fantastic Clos du Chêne Vert, which I opened and set aside to breathe.

“So,” she continued, “as soon as the Chinese nukes were useless, we’d launch ours. Of course, the devices would be easily captured and reverse engineered. So our attack would have to be devastating. It would need to leave no opportunity for reprisal.”

“So they’re talking about destroying all of China?”

Jennifer nodded. “Two billion dead, in East Asia alone. But that’s not all of it.” Her glass was empty again. I filled it for her, and she tasted it. “Very nice,” she approved. “Since this is a trick that can only be used once, they plan on hitting all the nuclear powers at the same time. Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, North Korea. I’m not sure whether they’re planning on including France and Britain. There was some debate. Teller has never been fond of the French.”

“That is… inelegant.”

I looked at the bottle of wine, whose grapes are grown exclusively in Loire Valley of western France. I wondered whether the wine would taste the same if it glowed. I highly doubted it.

“So what do we do?” I asked.

Jennifer’s face darkened. “I don’t know what you’re planning on doing, but I’m going to host a dinner honoring Mr. Harvey Smith. I’ve already begun lining up guests and speakers. I’m hoping that you’d be willing to help make the Guest of Honor presentable for the occasion.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“A haircut,” she said, with a bitter smile. “And a shave.”

~

I cannot praise Jennifer Cappaccio’s efforts more highly. She spared no expense. Every course was exquisite, and she served only the very best wines from her cellar. “Tonight,” she told me, “will be nothing but the very best. No point in saving it for later, after all.” I thought she seemed a bit pale.

There were speeches, of course, even in the absence of the Guest of Honor, who had left a message that he was running late, but would be joining us in time for the main course. Speeches and entertainment. A string quartet played Shubert during the meal, and between courses a bluegrass band flown in from Tennessee fingerpicked their way through some of the more abominable music I’ve had to sit through since I last had a Gilbert and Sullivan show inflicted on me.

There was a fish course, served with a respectable white wine of a vintage that I must admit, to my shame, I do not remember. I really am not a fan of white wines, you see. President Teller himself gave a speech, praising the man that not so long ago he’d banished from the kingdom. The President spoke in grandiose terms, and the reporters dutifully recorded it all, cameras flashing. I believe that the speech was broadcast live.

Busboys cleared our dishes and the emptied glasses of white wine, set out new wine glasses. The wine waiter brought out carafes of a deep red wine, poured a bit for our Hostess, who tasted and approved, and then the wine was poured for all.

Our esteemed Hostess raised her glass as the main course was served.

“To Harvey Smith,” she said, “who has served our country well. It is our hope that we may serve him with the respect he deserves.”

The Guest of Honor was well received. My complements to the chef.

Kudzu, Chapter 39

Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 39

Fuck censorship!

It was early afternoon, and Calin was cleaning up after the last of the lunch crowd had wandered away. He looked up from washing dishes as Sir Reginald and his entourage walked into the dimly lit pub.

“Reggie,” he said, by way of greeting, wiping his hands on a towel before reaching for Sir Reginald’s favored whiskey. “Kevyn. Murphy. And, Ho! Albert, is that you hiding behind fair Kevyn’s legs? I didn’t think I’d be seeing much of you ’round here.”

“I didn’t think so either. Wasn’t my choice.”

“You know him?” Sir Reginald asked.

“You know me?” Murphy said. “What kind of sick…” She trailed off, pressed her thumbs against her mouth.

Calin sighed. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep track of when one of you I’m talking to?”

Which one,” Kevyn corrected.

Calin shook his head.

“There’s a change of clothes for you in the back, Murph,” he said. “Bottom left desk drawer. And a note.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Come on.” Kevyn put an arm around Murphy’s shoulders. “It’s back this way. So are the bathrooms.”

Albert hovered by the door, foot tapping nervously. He looked ready to bolt.

Calin came around the bar and crouched to something closer to raccoon height.

“Albie, lad, it was a war. People take gambles, and there’s no guarantees. I don’t blame you for what happened. Whatever I said at the time, it wasn’t your fault.”

Albert opened his mouth; Sir Reginald interrupted.

“Okay,” Sir Reginald said, “now I’m confused. You were in the war?”

Calin narrowed his eyes. He rapped his knuckles against his shin. It sounded like hard plastic. “How’d you think I got this?”

Sir Reginald looked away, and muttered something under his breath that Calin couldn’t hear. That worried him.

And Calin rarely worried.

“C’mon, Albert,” he said. “You still a Hendricks man? A nice, dry martini’s just what you need.”

Calin dragged a BeastBench™ barstool out of a storage closet and pulled it up to the bar. Albert climbed onto it and manipulated the controls to raise the seat to bar level.

“You keep them locked away,” Albert said.

“I keep them,” Calin said. He poured Albert’s drink and set it in front of the grizzled raccoon. He tapped his own glass of whiskey against Albert’s martini. “To old friends.”

Albert wiped a tear from his eye. “To old friends.”

Calin set out appropriate drinks for Kevyn and Murphy — beer and white wine, respectively — then brought Sir Reginald his customary rye whiskey.

“What’s the problem, Reg,” he asked, keeping his voice low so Albert wouldn’t be able to hear over the jukebox.

Sir Reginald hesitated. “That leg of yours,” he said. “When I last saw you, what, three days ago? Four? Whenever it was, you had both your own legs.”

Calin raised his eyebrows. “Twelve years now I’ve had this. Twelve normal years. It’s not something I hid from you. You should know me well enough to know that.”

“I know, Calin. But I don’t remember it. Something’s gone weird. Or weirder. It worries me.”

~

This is what you call information gathering?” Kevyn asked.

Sir Reginald raised his glass to the old flatscreen mounted on the wall. “To the six o’clock news, the font of all knowledge.” He was slurring his speech.

A commercial for… Kevyn wasn’t sure what. It was one of those weirdly nonsensical ads, the one with the hypochondriac penguin. The ad played out silently on the screen; Calin had turned down the sound.

“For a species that’s afraid of talking animals,” Albert grumbled, “you all sure do like to pretend you’re not afraid of us.”

Albert was well into his third martini, and his grumble carried more loudly than he’d wanted. Kevyn saw him tense, anticipating backlash.

There had been some second glances at Albert as the bar started to fill, but nobody had made an issue of his raccoonness. Didn’t mean he could rub it in their faces, right?But Calin’s Pub had always been a mixed bar, in every way, with a very regular clientele. Just because the war made it impractical for non-human people to patronize didn’t mean people forgot who they were, and subsequently the next generations of patrons — people like Kevyn — were those who shared that sentiment.

Still, it was enough to attract attention. One man gestured with his beer mug.

“Hey,” he said. Kevyn tried to call his name up from memory, and failed.

“Hey, raccoon. What the fuck’s your name?”

Albert turned his BeastBench to face the man, and rose up to his full height. His lips curled, not quite a snarl. Not yet. “Albert,” he said, through clenched teeth.

“Albert, you a man who speaks the fucking truth.” He raised his mug, and his voice. “To Albert, who speaks the fucking truth!”

The cheer reverberated through the pub, and Calin was so busy refilling glasses that he almost failed to turn up the sound when the commercials ended.

~

“Welcome back to UBC News, with Kathleen Nin and Roberto Manning. Now, as you probably know, after a daring burglary attempt on an abandoned Gastenbourg University building revealed a functional telescope, UBC News has been working with University officials to arrange for exclusive access. In just a few minutes, we will be bringing you the first live feed of images from space in fifteen years.”

“As you know, Bob, the only high-resolution images we have had from space for the past fifteen years have been those released by the government. In the chaotic months after the Kudzupocalypse, the government assumed possession of all known surviving observatories. Exactly how the Gastenbourg observatory escaped notice is still under investigation, but University lawyers have rejected claims that the McAdams-Caine Emergency Protocols extend beyond the emergency.”

“Only makes sense, Kathy. So what should we expect to see?”

“Well, Bob, right now scientists have confirmed government reports that the mystery spacecraft has disappeared.”

“Now how does something that big just up and disappear, Kathy?”

“It’s not magic, at least according to the scientists. Dr. Michelle Smith will be with us later tonight to talk about the spacecraft, and where it is. Right now she’s working with our film crew to get the live feed going, which seems to have run into some snags.”

“While we wait for the feed, let’s give our viewers a sneak preview of what to expect.”

“Well, it’s very exciting. After five years of radio silence from the Greenmoon, the kudzu ball orbiting the Earth, our reporters have confirmed the presence of at least two new residents. We’ll be trying to get a good look at them, while they are still visible.”

“And we have our feed, Kathy. Let’s see what’s going on.”

~

The bar quieted as the image of the Greenmoon filled the screen. In the center of the image was the old ORBISTAT station, still visible on the fringe of the kudzu. ORBISTAT was notable for its excessively large observation sphere — an unnecessary luxury, apparently, for all but the French.

As they watched, the screen shifted, jagged movements, triangulating on the sphere, and when the image settled, it was larger, but out of focus.

I could do a better job of driving that thing,” Kevyn said.

“Indubitably,” said Sir Reginald.

Something could be seen in the middle. Possibly people. The focus improved. A little.

From the speakers: “Let’s see if we can get a closer look, Bob.”

The screen went black, and then ORBISTAT’s glass sphere filled the screen.

Definitely people. There were two of them. And…

“Now that’s not something you see on network T.V. every day, Kathy.”

The bar broke out into a cheer.

~

When the broadcast resumed, there were bars of brown cardboard, ragged and hastily cut, being held over parts of the image. There was no mistaking what was going on. A naked woman with short/shorn hair was lying face down, pressed against the glass. She wore the scars of some serious burns on the left side of her body. A man with dreadlocks moved on top of her. One piece of cardboard blocked the view of the woman’s breasts. The other covered the thatch of her pubic hair, and the long rod that thrust between her splayed legs.

There were boos from the bar.

“Fuck censorship!” someone shouted.

The woman was saying something. It was unclear whether the man was replying; his face was buried in the curve of her neck, obscured from view.

“Welcome back to UBC news, and thanks to Jill Uberth, whose quick thinking got us back on the air. Well, Bob, so much for the idea that this broadcast would answer all our questions. It seems like it’s only creating new ones.”

“Like, ‘What do you think she’s saying, Kathy?'”

There was a hitch in Kathy Nin’s voice, as if she was distracted, and hadn’t immediately heard the question. She recovered well.

“Probably something that’s never been said to you, Bob. But we don’t have to guess. Jimea Gonzalez is here to help us out. Jimea close captions our regular broadcasts, and she’ll be giving us a transcript of what’s being said.”

~

Michael.

Michael, look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?

There are still people down there. Lights. Civilization. We really did it. We made it home.

~

“Our research team just sent a note that the Beagle, the spacecraft seen near the Greenmoon this week, disappeared sixty-five years ago. Looks like they made it back alive.”

“That… That’s heartbreaking, Bob. To come so far, for so long, only to end up on a satellite that’s going crash to the Earth in less than a year. Wait. She’s saying something else.”

~

Michael. Michael, don’t cum inside me.

~

Kathy Nin’s voice laughed nervously from the television’s speakers, before turning to alarm.

“Jesus Fuck!”

The image on the screen shook violently and disappeared, replaced by a twisting roil of kudzu. In the instant before they were thrust out of view, the bodies of the two Beagle survivors were visible being tossed around the room.

The image began zooming out.

“Someone tell us what happened. Someone fucking get Gastenbourg on the line—”

“We’ve got Dr. Michelle Smith of Gastenbourg University on the phone. Can you hear us, Dr. Smith? Can you tell us what happened?”

“Yes, yes I’m here.” The scientist’s voice sounded ragged. “It appears that something has struck the kudzu satellite, the Greenmoon. Something with significant mass.”

“Can you tell us what it was, Doctor?”

“Of course not,” the voice snapped. “You’ve seen everything we saw.” A little calmer: “We can’t say anything for sure at this time, but my first guess would be the ship, the OPEV Beagle. Which is bad news for everybody trapped up there.”

“Why is that, doctor?”

The exhalation coming across the phone line made it clear what Dr. Smith thought of anyone who needed to ask that question.

“The Greenmoon is crashing into the Earth. Anything that pushes it, even slightly, further into Earth’s gravity well accelerates the timeframe dramatically.”

“How dramatically?”

“I don’t think we’ll know for a week or two, but… well, it could be six months, or as little as one. Either way, it’s not long enough to mobilize a rescue. All these people are as good as dead.”

End of Book V

Kudzu, Chapter 38

Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 38

“Pretend,” Sir Reginald F. Grump XXIII said, gesturing at the old raccoon with his pipe, “just for a moment, of course — pretend that the wholly unjustified and entirely false rumors of my temporal wanderings are true. Not that they are, but it’s certainly a more pleasant thought than the alternate reality in which my memory has become so addled that I have entirely forgotten my old chum.”

The raccoon glanced at him, and then down at Murphy, upon whom he still stood. She regarded him with some concern, and with confusion. She wiped a hand across her face.

“Is this the part of the story where I’m supposed to wake up and realize that my alarm didn’t go off this morning?” she asked.

“Alas, no,” said Sir Reginald.

“Oh, heck!” The raccoon jumped off Murphy’s chest. “I’ve gotten mud all over your shirt. I’m so sorry, I was just so glad…”

He looked back and forth between Sir Reginald and Murphy.

“Do you really mean…?”

“I’m Kevyn,” Kevyn said, crouching by the old raccoon and extending a hand. The raccoon wiped his paw on his fur and shook her hand.

“Albert,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Yeah, you too. So how do you know…?” she gestured at Sir Reginald.

The raccoon grinned. He took off his spectacles, brushed them on his fur. Put them back on. “Ah, now there’s a story. Comrades in arms, we were, back in the war. Daring daytime raids! Disappearing into the kudzu like ghosts!”

Albert settled back on his haunches.

“There were seven of us, like samurai, or cowboys. Us three. Kelly and Fenrir. Milo. And Mileva.”

The last name was spoken softly, with an ancient sadness.

“What do you mean?” Kevyn said. “There hasn’t been a war since, I dunno, since before the kudzu came.”

Albert’s eyes narrowed. “There was a war.”

“You’re too young to remember,” Sir Reginald said. “Humans never acknowledged it as a war, and have yet to acknowledge their crimes. I’m quite pleased to discover that I was active in the conflict, and on the right side.”

“She really doesn’t know?”

“Humans are particularly good at avoiding inconvenient truths.”

“I don’t understand,” Kevyn said.

“Henry McAdams,” Albert said, spitting.

“Senate Sub-committee of Genetic Integrity,” Sir Reginald said. “He’s the one who laid the groundwork for the so-called ‘shelter’ system.”

Both Kevyn and Murphy looked confused now.

“About six months after the kudzu hit, McAdams decided that none of us could be trusted. Raccoons, dogs, parrots. The Modifieds. Started sending us to ‘shelters’ for processing.”

“You won’t ever see anyone talking about it,” Sir Reginald said. “Not in the human world. But look up the Genetics Research Deauthorization Act of 2256 sometime, and the Genetic Biohazard Disposal Act. There’s a reason why people like Albert don’t mingle with humans.”

“McAdams called us terrorists.”

“Until he and the entire sub-committee were found dead in one of their own gas chambers.”

Gas chambers? Oh, God,” Kevyn said. “That’s horrible! I can’t believe…” She trailed off.

Albert tilted his head, slightly. “That humans would do something like that?”

“No,” Kevyn said. She shook her head. “Nothing humans do surprises me anymore. I’m just surprised that the assholes aren’t still boasting about it.”

~

“I don’t like this idea,” Albert said, looking over his shoulder at the humans who followed behind. They crawled single-file through a narrow tunnel that wound through the dense foliage. A ‘coon-hole,’ Albert had called it. Sir Reginald didn’t need to tell him how speciesist that was: apparently they had a long history of fighting injustice together.

Or would have. Time is a long river, flowing from the past into the future. Except when it’s a geyser, spraying bits of itself into the past. Or an ocean, mixing everything together in its briny depths. Metaphors only go so far before they become silly.

“We need information,” Sir Reginald said. He ducked under a drooping coil of kudzu and crawled after the others.

They had been crawling like this for half an hour. Half an hour where his view consisted primarily of Murphy’s buttocks under the thin cotton of the orange prison uniform, lit by the soft bioluminesence of the kudzu lamp-leaves. They would appear in a story, Murphy’s buttocks. He just wasn’t sure yet which one, but he was certain he’d enjoy thinking about them until their story came clear.

“We have avenues for gathering information,” Albert said. “We have our own networks.”

“Stop for a minute, Albert,” Sir Reginald said. He pressed his face against the side of the coon-hole, until he could see Albert’s battle-scarred face around Murphy’s curves. “What we’re talking about is the potential end of human civilization on Earth. Human civilization. The non-human people learned how to live in the kudzu — out of necessity, yes, but they know how to survive.”

“You keep talking about this threat,” Murphy said. “But you won’t tell us what it is. Why should we be crawling around through the fucking jungle on your say so? Do you have any idea how crazy this is?”

“Yes,” Sir Reginald said. “Nevertheless. Albert, these avenues you speak of, these networks–how many people involved in them would cry if humans disappeared? Can you guarantee that none of them would actually work to ensure that our efforts fail?”

“That would be genocide,” Albert said. “That would go against every principle we fought for.”

“How many people went into McAdams’ death camps, Albert? How many came out? How many people lost brothers, sisters, parents, children? How many lost lovers and spouses?”

Albert was silent.

“Ms. Murphy, I know you have no reason to believe me, but I trust my information, what little of it I have, for the same reason I trust Albert. I trust my source implicitly.”

“This is the same source that didn’t bother telling you to kidnap me until it was too late to turn back?”

Sir Reginald bit his lip. That had been underhanded of him, and he still wasn’t sure why. Perhaps he’d have balked, ignoring his future self’s advice? Perhaps he’d told her early on, while she still had a chance to escape, or betrayed himself subconsciously. Perhaps…

Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

It didn’t do to start second-guessing oneself. Especially one’s future self. That way lay madness.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Fuck you.”

“Actually,” Kevyn said, “he’s celibate. Or impotent. Or something.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” Murphy said. “If we’re going somewhere, let’s go already. I’m going to go fucking crazy if I can’t stand up soon.”

“I forget sometimes how big you humans are,” Albert said. “And how claustrophobic this must feel. Come on, it’s only a little further, and it opens into a wider passage. The pub’s not far after that.”

“Hear, hear,” Kevyn said.

“Jesus,” Murphy said. “Just shut up and crawl.”