Kudzu, Chapter 37

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 37

 

Michael fretted. He paced. What if Colleen wasn’t coming? What if he’d blown it? What if…?

He tried raising her on the radio, but there was only silence.

Maybe he should go back and look for her.

Or maybe he should just continue on.

Static crackled in his ear.

“Colleen?” he said, too quickly. “Colleen, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I …”

The voice that replied wasn’t Colleen’s. It was higher pitched than hers, gruff and familiar, and not human.

“Michael! Fuck me, it’s good to hear your voice. I was worried I’d be trapped here with just fucking Ash to keep me company.”

“Slim?”

“In the fur. Damn. Ash and I tried to raise you guys for days. I was worried you might have… Well, it doesn’t matter. You’re alive, we’re alive, it’s like a fuckin’ reunion.”

“Wait,” Michael said. “What about the rest of the crew?”

Slim laughed. “Nice and comfy on the Beagle, I guess. I never made it there. Got lost in space and sucked back into the kudzu. Tried calling the ship, but that was a bust. Something about the electromagnetic fields inside the kudzu leaves. Faraday cage, she calls it. Says it’s a design flaw. Ash says that makes sense. He started talking equations and I tuned him out.”

Michael took a breath, trying to make sense of what Slim was saying.

“Ash was on the ship. If you never got to the ship, how are you with Ash?”

“Oh, yeah, remember how I was lost in space? Ash tried to rescue me.” Slim laughed. “We’re both here, so you can guess how well that worked out.”

“I… What? Ash? Rescued you?” Michael waved his hands pointlessly. The idea was patently absurd.

“Yeah, risked his life for a fucking raccoon. Don’t tell his parents or they’ll disown him. Probably would, too, if they were still alive.” Slim sneezed his contempt: a purely raccoon gesture. “We’ve been talking a lot, me and Ash. Anyway, where are you, so we can come find you?”

“Um. Lost in the middle of a giant kudzu ball? Near a spaceship or station or something. Does that help?”

“Yeah, not really. We’ve only been here a couple days, and haven’t had a lot of chance to go exploring. Maybe it’d be easier if you come to us. I could meet you at the ossuary—”

“How’m I supposed to find a, a what? Ossuary? I don’t even know what an ossuary is, much less how to find it.”

“Maybe if you can tell me a little more about where you are, I can get you directions. Is there anything about the spaceship that seems unique?”

Michael looked at the portal into the station. “I don’t know, I haven’t gone in. I was waiting for Colleen so we could go in together.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet.”

“Fuck you. I’ll look now.”

Michael squeezed through the narrow opening where the kudzu had cracked the shell of the station. It was pretty standard mid-21st century construction — too much crammed too close, a thousand compartments protruding from oppressively thick walls into a cramped, narrow space. The station was too small to have managed any reasonable artificial gravity, so it wasn’t designed with a floor. Which meant Michael had to pick his way over an uneven surface.

Michael relayed this to Slim, but didn’t hold out much hope. There were dozens of space stations like this that had been abandoned, and it was a good guess that many of them had been nudged into the satellite graveyard.

He worked his way to one of the bulky hatches. The wheel turned much more easily than he’d expected, and the door opened smoothly on well-oiled hinges.

Inside was another world.

It had been an observation room, a large, glass sphere about ten meters across. Michael stepped through the hatch and let himself slide down to the bottom of the sphere. Other than some scattered handholds built into the glass, the view was unobstructed.

And what a view!

Michael looked up and saw the kudzu vines and tunnels twisting over him, merging with other spacecraft, eventually converging on a thick, central hub from which all things emanated. In the middle of that was a large spaceship.

That, Michael was sure, was where the kudzu originated, and that’s what supplied the initial spin that allowed them to experience gravity, and kept the fish from flying off into the air.

Below his feet: the Earth in all its blue and green glory.

“Wow,” he said.

“What?” Slim said into his ear.

“There’s a giant glass observatory. That’s where we are.”

“That sounds pretty unique. The cat lady’ll know where that is, for sure. Be back soon.”

The connection dropped.

“Slim? Hello?”

Cat lady?

~

Colleen stopped running as soon as she saw the top of Michael’s head, as he climbed out of a crevice in the kudzu wall, and she pressed herself into the soft leaves, trying to catch her breath. She didn’t want to seem too panicked. Too desperate.

Had he seen her? It didn’t seem so.

Her heart hammered longer than it should. What the hell was wrong with her? She didn’t want to feel relief in seeing him, and she didn’t want him to know what she felt. She took deep breaths, when what she probably needed was a psychiatrist. Or at least the drugs.

When she felt she could move without risking passing out, she stepped away from the wall.

Michael was sitting next to the gap he’d crawled out of, leaning back against the wall. He hadn’t seen her.

Colleen approached, trying to keep her gait casual.

“So you decided to wait, after all,” she said. It wasn’t what she’d meant to say.

Michael looked up, a pained expression on his face.

God, I’m such an asshole.

“I talked to Slim,” Michael said, climbing to his feet. “He’s alive, and he’s somewhere inside the plant.”

A wave of relief washed through Colleen. “Good, I’m glad he’s safe.”

“Yeah, he and Ash are here. They’re going to try to get us directions. So we can meet up.”

Ash. It couldn’t have been Susan or Amelia. Or even Tharp.

“And the others?”

Michael shrugged. Feigning nonchalance, Colleen thought.

“Don’t know. On the Beagle, I guess. Anyway, there’s something I wanted to show you.” He glanced at the opening in the wall. “In here.”

He stood aside and let her crawl through, then followed. The inside was a cramped horror of an early model space station. In the old days, people actually lived in these things for months, even years. Colleen shuddered.

“Good thing I’m not claustrophobic,” she said. Though she was, a little.

“Keep going. There’s a hatch up ahead.”

“An airlock?”

Even with her back to him, Colleen could feel Michael’s jaw clench.

“Just joking,” she said. “I’m sorry, I’m just… I’m not good at this.” Whatever this was. Colleen wasn’t sure that even she knew what she meant.

Michael didn’t reply. She got to the hatch. The wheel turned in her hands, and the door came open.

Colleen crawled through…

…into space.

The observation sphere made up for any claustrophobia she had felt. Above her, the kudzu curled and twisted off into space. Below her… Earth, glowing softly in the moonlight.

It was so beautiful, so alive! Even with whatever had happened, even if humanity had been wiped out, after the desolation of Triton and the emptiness of space, the sight of it warmed her.

She slid down the curved glass until the Earth was under her feet. Michael scrabbled down behind her.

“Thank you,” Colleen said. “Thank you for this.”

Still looking out at the gentle curve of the Earth, she reached out, touched his fingers.

He flinched away from her, and she let her hand drop. Her chin quivered, but she wouldn’t, couldn’t look at him.

Then his fingers found hers.

Kudzu, Chapter 36

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 36

 

“Michael?”

Colleen was in the right place. She was sure of it. But Michael was gone, and his gear with him. All that was left was Colleen’s pack and water skins.

“Michael!” She called his name more loudly. Then she screamed it.

The kudzu sucked up the sound.

She hadn’t noticed just how different the acoustics of kudzu tunnels were from the Beagle’s hard metal and plastic corridors. Not until she needed her voice to carry.

She screamed louder.

There was no response.

She dropped the fish and ran.

~

Colleen’s pack was propped up against the wall. Michael had left some junk on top of it: a jumble of wires. He’d written something on side of the pack, big, messy letters smeared in purple berry-juice.

CALL ME SOME TIME

The wires… Colleen examined them more closely. It was, as far as she could tell, about three quarters of a communications set. It was ugly, haphazard work: one earphone rather than two, a microphone spliced to a bit of wire running to a small box. Two more wires ran from the box to the wall. They were jammed into a stem. It should work, she thought, though wiring was really not her strong suit. Now Susan, she’d have the radio working and preparing tea and crumpets at the same time. Still, Michael had taken something she’d noticed and done something with it, and she missed him with a sudden desperation.

The stem glowed softly, the same glow as the stems that fed the lamp-leaves. There were three holes: positive, negative, and ground, Colleen thought.

The thought that had gone into designing this plant had been prodigious. Unimaginable complexity, far in advance of anything they could have accomplished when the Beagle left Earth. It would have taken a genius, because a committee would never have been imaginative enough to come up with something like this. Colleen had been on enough committees to know.

She repressed a sudden stab of envy, and fit the ad hoc radio to her ear.

Static.

“Hello? Michael?”

More static.

“Michael? Are you there?”

“Yeah.” His voice was gruff in her ear.

Colleen let loose the breath she’d been holding. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said.

There was a long pause, like he was considering his response. Colleen bit her lip and waited.

“I went on ahead,” he said. “Took a left at the last fork we

doubled back to, and then left markers from there.”

“Okay. I’m on my way. I’ll see you soon, and—”

—and I caught some fish for lunch, she was going to say, but…

“Do whatever you want,” he said.

Colleen yanked the wires out of the wall, and if there was anything else he was going to say, she didn’t hear it. She didn’t want — was not going to let — him hear her cry.

Half the fish were still flopping and gasping feebly when she retrieved her shirt. She dumped those into one of her waterskins. The others, she knew, wouldn’t keep.

She didn’t have anything to cut and clean the fish. She tried rubbing one of them on the wall, but that just made a mess, and attracted cats. Eventually she just bit into it, tearing through the tough, clammy skin with teeth. Her mouth filled with broken scales and foul juices. Something stringy slithered across her tongue: the fish’s intestines, or worse. Could there be anything worse?

She spit it out, retching.

The cats feasted.

~

The problem was that Michael knew he was being irrational and unfair. Colleen was not Adam, and she’d hit him in fear and panic, not anger, or malice, or to show just how complete her control of him really was.

That was a long time ago, and Adam was long dead. Michael had buried that memory, had buried it all where he’d never have to see it again.

But when Colleen’s fist slammed into his face, all the heart-stopping, paralyzing fear had come back like it had never left, like it had been coiled within him, waiting for a trigger to set it free. And with it, the shame…

Intellectually, he knew it wasn’t really her fault, that she hadn’t meant it. But he could never forgive her.

At least, not now.

He waited for her in the kudzu tunnel that lead into an old space station, or space ship — he wasn’t sure which. The kudzu had torn through the metal skin to create a hatchway down into the vehicle, and even extended viney tendrils that looked suspiciously ladder-like down to the floor.

Michael had poked his head through, but though it looked safe enough, he didn’t want to go on alone.

So he waited, and wondered if Colleen would follow after his stupid, angry outburst.

~

For all his well-justified anger, Michael had left a clear and unambiguous path. As Colleen followed, she gathered up the bits of his gear that he’d left to mark the road.

The kudzu tunnels leveled out as she moved further into it. Now the floors were a flat carpet of leaves. When she lifted them to see what lay beneath, she found a thick thatch of small vines, so tightly bound together as to make a solid surface. The resulting surface would have been a little rough to skate on, but a bicycle, or really anything with reasonably sized wheels, would have no problems.

The tunnel itself had become more regular in general — the walls and ceiling formed a roughly rectangular shape, though the edges were a bit rounded, and the lamp-leaves were evenly spaced.

Increasingly, there were iris doors on either side of the corridor, and Colleen couldn’t resist exploring. She touched the surface of one, and it slid open for her.

As she stepped through the doorway, the lamp-lights within brightened. It was a room, large by space-station standards. Roughly square — again, with rounded edges — with a raised platform against one of the walls. The platform was bed-shaped, and when she pressed on it with her hands, it gave softly and firmly like a mattress.

She sat on it, and bounced. And laughed.

She lay back on the bed, and sank into it, just slightly. Leaves curled against her body.

She wished Michael was there.

Sitting up abruptly, she left the room behind, and followed Michael’s bread-crumb trail, wherever it might lead.

Kudzu, Chapter 35

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 35

 

Fish!

 

Following the right hand path led, eventually, to another iris-door, and another lake, complete with fish and cats and bees. Or maybe it was the same lake. It was hard to know. The tunnels wound and twisted around so much that it was impossible to keep one’s sense of direction, and the tunnels and chambers had no obvious landmarks. Everything had the same organic lumpiness.

Michael and Colleen replenished their supply of berries, and then backtracked.

They walked until they were exhausted, finding multiple routes back to the lake — or lakes — and then they slept, back to back, wrapped in their silvery blanket for warmth. Touching, but not acknowledging it.

The lamp-leaves dimmed around them.

Colleen woke first. She slipped out from under the covers and tucked them around Michael. As she started moving around, the lights brightened; the plant was clearly responding not only to their presence, but making decisions based on some sort of pattern matching.

She walked down the tunnel a ways to see what the kudzu would do. Around her, the lights remained relatively bright, but they dimmed around Michael’s sleeping form.

“Aren’t you clever?” she said. “What else can you do?”

She had to climb a few feet up a wall to reach one of the lamp-leaves. It was slightly warm to the touch, not hot like an incandescent bulb, but like a florescent tube, and vibrated very lightly, as if it were humming.

She put her ear to it.

Was it? Yes. It hummed softly with a familiar sound — the sound that she’d known all her life, that had been so much a part of the world that she never really heard it. More that she heard its absence on the rare occasions power failed during a storm. Here it was, singing from the depths of the foliage: the infamous 60 cycle hum that plagued musicians since they first learned how to feed electricity into a guitar.

It made sense. The kind of luminescence they’d been seeing needed some sort of power source; simple bioluminescence just wasn’t bright enough, and really couldn’t be, without becoming quickly exhausted. Unless all the leaves within the kudzu were bioluminescent. It would work, but it would be tremendously disconcerting, like living in a film negative.

The silver leaves on the exterior of the kudzu, then, were solar cells, collecting sunlight and converting it to electricity.

Which meant that there was — had to be — some mechanism by which the power was transmitted through the plant and made available to the lamp-leaves. A power grid, of some sort.

Colleen lifted the wide leaf to examine the base. The stem glowed, and it was warm where it connected to the vine. She shifted her weight to get a better look.

There was a soft snap.

There was a flash of light.

Colleen lay on her back on the tunnel floor, gasping for breath. Her fingers tingled, but not bad. Mostly she had knocked the wind out of herself by inhaling just as she hit the uneven floor.

She forced herself onto her hands and knees, and then up onto her heels, as she tried to catch her breath. Michael was sitting up under his silver blanket, watching her.

“I’m fine,” she said, when she could. “Don’t bother getting up.”

She brushed a hand through her short hair, stood, dusted herself off. “Yeah,” she said. “Don’t worry about me. I’m just fucking fine.”

She felt Michael’s eyes on her as she walked away, and she kept walking until she couldn’t feel them anymore.

And then kept walking.

~

It was calm here by the lake, calming, and Colleen sat in the moss and watched the cats fish. The placid waters rippled gently, and the bees buzzed from flower to flower. The loamy scent of the moss mingled with the sweetness of ripe berries.

But really, she’d had her fill of berries.

She had no idea how long they’d wandered, lost within the kudzu, and other than a few handfuls of tough, tasteless kudzu peas, all she’d eaten were berries. How long before she turned purple herself?

One of the cats strolled proudly past her, a fish wriggling in its mouth.

Colleen’s mouth watered, remembering sushi.

She reached toward the cat, slowly, but it bolted. Wrestling a cat for a fish didn’t seem wise, anyway.

She had left her pack back with Michael, but she didn’t think there was much in it that would be of use in catching a fish. She needed a net, or something.

She lay back on the soft moss and looked at the roof of the chamber, and thought.

And then, she got to work.

~

There was something oddly liberating about standing naked in a lake, trawling for fish with one’s shirt. A break from, well, from everything. From civilization. From shame. From inadequacy. From the past.

From everything society ground into a person from the day she was born.

The cats and the fish didn’t care that her tits were too small, or her nose too big, or that she had horrible scars melted into her body. Right here, right now, nobody cared.

Clothes were to protect from the elements. Right now, it was warm. She shoved her panties and bra into her pants pocket, and draped them over her shoulder.

She pulled her shirt, flapping and dripping, out of the lake. It was tied off at the neck and sleeves with kudzu vine twine to make the net, and then again at the other end to keep her catch in. Water streamed through the fabric, until it was just fish.

She headed back to where she had left Michael, who had made something akin to a blade from his space suit’s belt buckle. They’d have a proper meal, and if the fish lived long enough for her to get back to camp, she could put some of them in one of her water skins, to save for later.

And maybe, just maybe, she and Michael could talk. Not about the past, for once. About the future.

~

When she got back to camp, Michael was gone.

Kudzu, Chapter 34

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 34

They followed the cats.

The cats spread out across the shoreline, perching on any outcropping branch that gave them access to water deep enough to support the small fish. But when they left, they all headed the same direction.

A Siamese with loose skin on her belly and enlarged teats caught Colleen’s eye. The cat held a fish — relatively large for the shallow pools the cats trolled — still gasping and flapping in its mouth, and walked purposefully down the shoreline.

Colleen nudged Michael, ignoring the way he flinched at her touch, and pointed.

“That one,” she said. “She’s got kittens, so she’ll head straight back to them. No aimless detours.”

“Fine,” Michael said.

It pissed her off. Yes, he was talking now, but it was all fine and sure and if you want.

She tied her waterskins to her belt and stomped off after the cat. Michael followed.

The cat led them to a convoluted section of wall with a narrow opening, easily big enough for a cat to pass through without difficulty, less so for a human. Without her pack, Colleen could have wriggled through, but Michael would have a difficult time. The cat slipped through the opening and disappeared into the foliage.

Colleen poked her head through. The tunnel itself was much wider than the opening. The kudzu obstructing the opening was more of an espalier than a hedge, and she was pretty sure they could break it open easily enough.

“We can widen this,” she said, “enough to get through.” She pulled at the kudzu, which gave, but didn’t break. “A little help would be good.”

She heard the rustling of foliage moving, and looked over her shoulder at Michael to see what he was doing.

He wasn’t doing anything, just standing back with his arms crossed.

“I don’t think you’ll need it,” Michael said.

Colleen felt something moving under her hands, like a snake. She let go and jumped away, tripping over her feet and landing on her ass.

The vines moved across each other, twisting more tightly together. The gap widened like a slow-motion shutter, an iris sliding open to create an aperture through which they could pass.

“Okay,” Michael said. “Now that’s just creepy. Like it’s watching us.”

“Plants respond to their environments,” Colleen said. “Typically what we consider a significant event passes too quickly to be more than a blip to the plant, and a plant’s movement is too slow for us to notice. We’ve already seen this plant exhibit directed growth in response to an external stimulus, when it acted to seal an atmospheric breach. It’s genetically programmed to grow in certain ways under certain circumstances. Why should this be different?”

“It’s still creepy.”

“The bigger question is, why bother putting a door here? We didn’t see door-like structures in any of the other tunnels we’ve been through, so it’s not a default state.”

“I think I can answer that,” Michael said. He pointed at the wall of the chamber. There were faint lines on the leaves and the bark of the vines.

“It’s sediment, not soil, but fish poo and leaf bits, or whatever passes for sediment here. Looks like the lake floods every once in a while, and the door keeps the floodwaters out.”

Michael stepped through the open iris and examined the wall on the other side.

“No sedimentation here,” he said.

Colleen ran her hand over the tightly bound vines that made up the open door.

“Whoever designed this is a genius,” she said.

“Whoever designed this destroyed the world,” Michael said.

“Yeah. But still.”

~

The tunnel wound around enough that, if they hadn’t already been lost, they would have been by the time they found the Siamese with her litter. She sprawled on her side in a small alcove in the tunnel wall, licking her paws. Five kittens fought blindly for their positions at her belly. The fish lay in front of her, half-eaten.

“Well, hello, you,” Colleen said, crouching down in front of the cats. “Aren’t you adorable?”

The Siamese eyed her warily.

“Don’t disturb the feral cats,” Michael said. “Remember, we don’t have any antibiotics to treat an infected scratch. If we end up having to amputate your hand, how will you punch me in the face?”

Colleen spun to face him.

“Look, I’m sorry about that, all right? But you can’t do that to me. You need to respect my boundaries.”

Michael stared at her, then turned away and walked further down the tunnel.

“Jesus.” Colleen chased after him. “Don’t fucking start this again.”

Michael stopped abruptly enough that Colleen collided with his back. He didn’t look at her.

“I was asleep. I woke up because of what you were doing to me. Where the fuck do you get off accusing me of crossing boundaries?”

“I…” Colleen let out her breath. “Fuck.”

She watched Michael as he walked away, until he disappeared around a bend in the tunnel. She sank to the floor and buried her head in her knees.

“Fuck.”

~

He came back for her.

She didn’t know how long it had been, or how far he had gone before he realized she wasn’t following. Or whether he’d stopped and waited, or had kept going.

She didn’t even know he was back until he spoke.

“The tunnel forks up ahead,” he said.

Colleen stopped rocking and looked up at him, framed against the tunnel’s lights.

“I didn’t mean for any of that to happen,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I’m going to take the right fork.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

“If it forks again, I’ll keep going right.”

“I was sleeping with Bill Williams.”

There was a pause. “If a tunnel ends up being a dead end, I’ll backtrack and take the left fork. If I do that, I’ll leave something as a marker so you know.”

“I didn’t even fucking like Bill. I don’t know why I was sleeping with him. I don’t know why I was cheating on Henry. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t dissatisfied. I wasn’t mistreated, or ignored, or, or anything. I didn’t even like him.”

Michael didn’t say anything. He didn’t move.

“It lasted over three months. We tried to be discrete. I thought we were discrete.”

“You were,” Michael said. “I worked closely with Bill. If anyone would have noticed anything, it would have been me.”

Colleen realized she was rocking again. She tried to stop, but it didn’t work. She couldn’t bring herself to tell the most terrible part. Couldn’t make the words form, couldn’t push them out of her lungs.

“I never kissed Bill,” she said, instead. “It’s the only way I didn’t betray Henry. It’s the only thing left that’s just ours. I can’t kiss you. I can’t kiss anyone, not now. Please tell me you understand.”

Michael was quiet for a long time.

“I understand,” he finally said. He looked away from her, then back, catching her eye and holding it.

“My first husband put me in the hospital,” he said. “Twice. And there were always reasons, and excuses, and apologies. Please tell me you understand.”

“Oh, God.”

“I’m going to take the right fork up ahead. You’re welcome to come with me, if you want, or follow later. Or whatever.”

Colleen watched him walk away and vanish around the bend. Then she grabbed her waterskins and ran to catch up.

Kudzu – Book V – Chapter 33

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Kudzu, a Novel

Book V: Hearts and Bones

Chapter 33

 

Mmmm... Pollen....

Their clothes were still damp when the lights went out.

“Interesting,” Michael said.

“Mmm?” Colleen murmured into his chest. She’d been half-asleep, drowsing in the comforting carpet of his hair. She uncurled from him; the air was cool on her belly and thighs, where she’d been pressed against Michael’s body. “Where’d everything go?”

“Give your eyes a second to adjust,” he said. “There’s still some luminescence from the lamp-leaves.”

It was true; the lamp-leaves were pale ghosts of themselves, a thousand tiny moons scattered like stars around them. They shimmered, reflected in the still, black waters of the lake. The moss was a soft, dark gray against the twisted forest of the walls, and, draped over the vines to dry, their clothes were wraiths, specters hovering in the air.

“Where are the cats?” Colleen asked. The damn things had been adorable at first, gathering around Michael and her, investigating, following them around. Watching as they fucked with something akin to amusement, and disdain. There were plenty of hiding places for them, of course, but they’d shown no inclination to hide before now.

“I don’t know.” Michael rolled to his feet. He checked their clothes. “They’re still wet.”

Colleen rubbed the goose-flesh from her arms. “I’m cold,” she said. “And I’m still wet, too. Get back here and warm me up.”

“We should figure out what happened to the cats.”

“You want to go stumbling around in the cold and dark? Naked? Come here.”

~

It got cold in the night.

Or what passed for night here. Even without any way to tell time, Michael was sure that the darkness had lasted significantly longer than half a rotation of the kudzu ball. It clearly wasn’t influenced by external events, which meant there was no telling how long it might really last.

Colleen shivered in her sleep.

He rose silently and checked their clothes again. Still wet. They wouldn’t dry until tomorrow, whatever that meant.

He rubbed warmth into his arms. It just made the rest of him feel colder. It would be stupid to have survived this long, only to freeze to death.

If they only had a blanket.

~

A soft green light filtered through the covers, playing against Colleen’s eyelids. Henry was curled around her, hand on her breast, semi-hard against the small of her back. She pressed against him, felt him swell.

She reached behind her and guided him in.

He kissed her shoulder, her neck. Her ear. Eyes still closed, she twisted to meet his lips, opened her mouth to his tongue—

No. Wrong.

Not Henry’s lips.

Someone else’s.

She screamed. Kicked and thrashed, fighting her way from the man’s clutches, from the confining blanket, which fell apart around her.

Michael.

Fuck.

He sat, draped in moss, shock and hurt on his face. In her panic, she had struck his face, reopening his wound, but he didn’t seem to notice the blood.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she said.

He had made a blanket of moss, somehow, in the middle of the night. It had been warm in there. Her breath misted in the cold, morning light. There was frost on the moss, under her toes. She shivered, crossed her arms over her breasts.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

He covered his lap with a pillow of moss.

Their clothes were still damp, and Colleen couldn’t imagine putting them on. But she also couldn’t imagine standing naked in front of Michael. Or curling up with him for warmth. Not now. She couldn’t even look at him.

An orange tabby strolled past her, brushing briefly against her leg, to the water’s edge. It stared into the water, then slashed down with claws unsheathed. A small fish flopped on the mossy bank. The cat batted at it.

Colleen dipped her fingers into the water. It was warm, at least compared to the air.

“I’m going to wash up,” she said.

She felt Michael’s eyes on her as she waded into the water.

“Water’s perfect,” she said. “Come on in.”

~

It heated up as quickly as it had cooled off, frost turning to dew and dew to a brief fog that condensed and dripped from the ceiling. And then that, too, faded.

Cats fished on the shoreline. Pudgy bees, which Michael hadn’t seen in the room yesterday (yesterday? what did that mean, here? before it got dark, then) lumbered their way through clusters of kudzu flowers.

Michael climbed out of the water. He dried himself with his shirt, then tossed it to Colleen, who had followed.

“Thanks,” she said.

He didn’t answer, just reached for his pants.

“How long are you going to not talk to me?”

He didn’t answer that, either.

~

Michael toyed with the idea of finding a sturdy piece of kudzu to fashion into a rudimentary spear, but quickly abandoned the idea; even if they had something to cut and sharpen it with, they didn’t have a fire on which to cook a fish, or any cooking utensils. That was assuming that he could actually spear one of the things.

And the idea of making a living thing dead made his stomach roil. He didn’t have a problem with meat, per se. It was just the idea of converting something that was alive and moving around into just meat. He’d seen enough bodies after the accident that he didn’t feel he could be part of that process.

Instead, he turned his efforts to their damaged space suits. Useless now for their intended purpose, they still had all sorts of electronics that were worth salvaging. After stripping them, he tore two large swatches out of Colleen’s suit and, using thin kudzu creepers as thread, turned them into packs that they could hang from their belts. He cut the arms of her suit off, and then again at the elbows. Tied off at either end, they became waterskins. His own suit, he cut apart and, adding remnants of Colleen’s suit, converted into a blanket.

“Looks like an astronaut-skin rug,” Colleen said, when she returned with her arms full of berries and seed pods.

“You don’t have to use it if you don’t want,” he said.

Colleen dumped the food on the moss between them, sat.

“At least you’re talking to me again.”

Michael tossed her one of the packs, started filling his own: electronics first, then blanket, then seed pods. Not the berries; they’d crush too easily, releasing their juices over everything.

“Yeah,” he said, popping a handful of berries into his mouth, “at least there’s that.”

Welcome To My Greenhouse

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"I can taste it from here."

Returning to Earth after sixty-five years lost in space, Amelia and the other survivors of a disastrously failed expedition come out of suspended animation to discover that the world has changed in their absence. Only a handful of lights flicker on the unusually green surface of the Earth, and a massive ball of vegetation orbits the planet like a second moon. But the struggle for survival has just begun, as the crew battles against not only the Earth’s homegrown invasive species, but another that they have inadvertently brought home with them.

Kudzu updates on Sundays.

Browse the Table of Contents, or jump directly to Chapter 1.

The Triple-Pierced Ear: A Cautionary Tale

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On this Kudzu-free day, I’d like to give you a little bonus story. One with entirely no kudzu, just a little tale about the unending and inexplicable battle between Good and Evil.

The Triple-Pierced Ear: A Cautionary Tale

When the devil first appeared on my right shoulder, he whispered suggestions into my ear that were, well, almost entirely unconscionable.

I tried to give him the old brush-off, but he was too nimble, dodging my hand and clinging to me with a good fistful of hair. He leaned on his pitchfork and leered at my girlfriend and her best friend, who were sipping pomegranate martinis and giggling to each other at the bar. It’s not that I hadn’t fantasized about the two of them in my bed, but I worried about the aftermath, that it might strain their friendship.

That first night, I told the devil to piss off. I was good. I treated Laura with affection and respect, and at the end of the night she and her best friend went home with another man to realize their unspoken fantasy.

The second time the devil perched on my shoulder, I told him I’d take his suggestions under advisement.

That’s when the angel showed up. She sat on my left shoulder, all glowy and beautiful with her translucent robes fluttering around her bare feet. Her toenails glittered a deep purply-red: the color’s called Sangria Sparkle, I later learned. She glared at the devil.

And really, I don’t know what I expected. Conflicting advice? An epic battle for my soul? Literature and cartoons are full of examples. Instead…

“Anyone ever tell you you’re beautiful when you’re angry?” asked the devil.

“Goshdarnit, Sam.” The angel leapt to her feet and gestured with her harp, which rang faintly under the sounds of Van Morrison’s Moondance blasting inexorably from the jukebox speakers. She frowned at the harp, then popped her halo off and impatiently stuffed the harp through the hoop. The harp vanished.

“I said I was sorry,” she said. “I was drunk. And he was… well, he was Gabriel. I mean, how do you say no to Gabriel? I mean, have you seen him? I know you’re hurt, but I never said we were exclusive. And it sure as heck doesn’t give you the right to ruin this poor schmuck’s life.”

She jammed the halo back on her head. It slid down over her eyes, and she pushed it back into place.

“Yeah,” I said to the devil, but I kept my eyes on the angel. I liked the way her robes draped. Aesthetically speaking, that is.

The devil nudged me with his pitchfork. “Hey, man, I’m just looking out for you. Give you a chance to learn from my mistakes.” He glared at the angel.

“Whatever.” She shrugged.

“You gotta be mercenary, my friend,” said the devil. “Otherwise people will tramp all over you, and your feelings be damned. Even the best people in the world, this one and the next. Ain’t that right, Deirdre?” He waved his pitchfork at the angel for emphasis. “Nothing like having an angel stomp all over your soul. They’ll hurt you and humiliate you without a second thought. But hell, after last night you already know that.”

I looked at the angel and thought long and hard about what the devil had said. She cocked her head in annoyance and crossed her arms under her breasts. She really was beautiful when she was angry. I wondered what she looked like when she wasn’t.

And really, wasn’t this what the devil had suggested? Figuring out what I wanted, and going for it?

“Hey, Deirdre,” I said. “Can I buy you a drink?”

A wicked grin slowly played across her face. She grew heavy and stepped off my shoulder to stand next to me at the bar. Her wings fluttered as she grew until her feet touched the ground. She took a moment to flash an impassioned finger at someone who called out across the room, “Nice wings!”

“Screw you!” she screamed across the room. Then she turned her attention to me, winking at the enraged devil as her lips brushed my neck. “Yeah. I’d think I’d like that.”

I’m lucky it was a small pitchfork.

Of course, Sam was right. Angels are willful and capricious things, and when they fly off where you can’t follow, if they look back at all it isn’t to see if you’re okay.

So here I sit, pacing myself with the martinis. Laura and her girlfriend were here earlier. We get along okay, I guess, all things considered. But I don’t really think about her all that much. I play with the three niobium hoops in my right ear, turning them in the holes the devil left me, and I remember Dierdre’s lingering kiss, the one she gave me as she sat in my lap, right before she grinned happily and showed me the engagement ring that Sam, that poor devil, had just given her.

Was it worth the pain? Absolutely not. And I wouldn’t trade those brief months for the world.

Talk to me after another martini, and I might give you a different answer.

Kudzu, Chapter 32

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 32

 

Just a little farther...

 

Susan was glad there were no video feeds. She was still angry, and embarrassed — and a host of other things that she didn’t want to think about — after Amelia’s dressing down, and she sure as hell didn’t need anyone looking at her. Not when she couldn’t control what her face might do.

It was frustrating. Maddening. Susan knew herself well enough to understand why. She was a multitasking genius, able to juggle complex tasks without dropping a stitch, to mix a metaphor. Unfortunately, her mental acuity didn’t extend to the emotional realm, and situations that called for simultaneous contradictory emotions left her feeling like she was flailing stupidly in a failed attempt to be a real human.

The problem, of course, was that Amelia was right. Right now, the past didn’t matter. They’d all made mistakes, they’d all been stupid, and selfish, and a dozen other things besides. All that mattered now was the task at hand, and each of them had to get over themselves enough to work with the others. There was no space for error, and that meant there was no space for personal feelings or enmities.

They had a plan. If they could pull it off, they might survive. That’s what mattered, and each of them had their role, even if hers was mind-numbingly boring.

And yet, it felt like something was missing.

On the speaker on the control panel, Tharp’s voice. Nothing coherent, just the sound of a man straining to lift above his weight.

“Lift with your knees,” Jaworsky said, “not your back.”

A red light blinked on the console, and a message warning that Spoke 2:2 had been uncoupled flashed on the monitor.

Susan hesitated, wondering if anyone wanted to hear her voice, after… but she was supposed to put everything aside, so they should… Fuck it. She could second-guess herself all day. “Good job, everyone,” she said. “The system says you successfully detached the spoke.”

Jaworsky grunted something neanderthal and incoherent, and Susan cringed.

But, “Thanks,” Tharp said, and Susan let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“Let’s do four next,” Jaworsky said. “That’s the one on the opposite side, Tharp. After that, come back in so we can refill your tanks.”

“Yeah, alright. On my way.”

“I got a question,” Susan said. “When we detach all the rings from the hub, how’re we gonna fly this thing?”

“You know the airlock behind the docking bay?”

“Yeah.”

“It only takes up half the space. The other half is the cockpit from the original launch. None of the luxuries of yer fancy bridge, but it’s got everything we need.”

“Huh,” Susan said. “I never heard of it.”

“That’s ’cause they mothballed it once the ship was finished. Same reason it’s so hard to detach the rings — you don’t want some lone lunatic to be able to fuck up the ship and kill everyone.”

“When you say ‘mothballed’…”

“Locked up and disabled— Fuck.”

Jaworsky took a deep breath, let it out.

“Susan,” he said, “meet me at the airlock. Amelia, you too. Tharp, you keep on to the next spoke. Give a shout when you’re near. Fuck. No, there’s not enough time.”

“There’s a file on the server,” Amelia said. “Emergency Control System Procedures or something like that. I wasn’t able to get into it, but maybe you can.”

“Yeah, good,” Susan said. “I’m on it.”

Finally. Something useful to do. Susan jacked her mobile into the pilot’s console and took control, slaved her more powerful personal server to it, and started a multithreaded crack on the file system.

She grinned. This was a numbers game. No messy politics, or hurt feelings, or moral gray spaces. Just numbers, fingers on a keyboard, and a dance of lights. No ambiguity.

This she could do.

~

Michael and Colleen helped each other out of their space suits — or what was left of them.

It only took a pinhole to compromise the integrity of the suits. They had been built to withstand a certain amount of abuse, and to be able to provide at least some limited regional isolation in case of punctures. As long as the helmet remained intact, the unfortunate spacefarer who suffered such damage had a reasonable chance of getting to the safe side of an airlock before total decompression.

Of course, they had lost both their helmets and their gloves, and in Colleen’s case, her boots as well, so the fact that their suits were compromised enough to fill entirely with water was really beside the point.

Colleen kicked the sopping heap that had been her space suit. It spilled across the moss-covered kudzu, glittering silver in the green luminescence of the lamp leaves, and three cats rushed to investigate. They circled it suspiciously. One batted at a sleeve with one paw, then hissed and arched its back as the sleeve flopped over.

Colleen laughed, and when Michael turned his attention away from the cats’ antics to look at her, he found himself staring as she pulled her t-shirt up over her head.

“What?” she said. “Our clothes are wet. I don’t want to survive a waterfall just to catch my death.” She unbuttoned her pants, stopped to press her fingers between her breasts. The area was red, and just starting to bruise. “This is going to be ugly.”

“I don’t know if ugly is the right word,” Michael said.

“Tomorrow I’ll be purple, from head to foot.” She peeled her pants off, then turned slowly. “Do you see any other bruises?”

Michael found himself suddenly very warm. “Your ribs, under your left breast,” he said. “Your hip, and thigh. There’s a really nasty one on your right shoulder. And, uh, your…”

Still facing away from him, Colleen stepped out of her panties.

“My what?”

“Left buttock.”

“Ass.” She turned to face him, and she was beautiful, in her damaged, crazy way. “Sometimes surviving certain death leaves you cold. Empty. Like Death made a mistake. Like you’d died, but they forgot to turn out the lights. Other times, there’s nothing like cheating Death to make you live again.”

Colleen looked down at herself. There was a bruise on her inner thigh, just above her knee. She touched it. “Kiss it,” she said. “Make it better. Make everything better.”

“I don’t think…” it would be a good idea. But she lay back in the soft green moss and spread her legs, and then, Michael reflected, as he kissed his way up her thighs, he wasn’t thinking much at all.

Colleen twined her fingers into his dreads and pulled him against her, mouth hard against her cunt, so close that every breath tasted of her. His hands cupped her ass, lifting her toward him, opening her, and she came, silently, faster than any woman he’d ever been with (though not, he mused, faster than several men).

When the tremors that shook her belly subsided, she released her grip, and Michael pulled his clothes off as fast as he could.

Colleen reached for his cock — which needed no coaxing, really — as he lowered himself over her, but when he tried to kiss her, she turned her head and pushed him away. One hand against his chest, her foot against his hip, rolling him off her.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She looked at him with an unreadable expression, then rolled over onto her stomach and spread her legs.

“Shut up,” she suggested, “and fuck me, already.”

~

The new bridge was a problem. Or old bridge. Whatever. It was a problem. Amelia’s tail curled as she considered it.

It wasn’t just how cramped everything was. Space for six, suited, and the equipment. Six humans, that was. None of it was built to raccoon scale, so not only didn’t she have a seat that fit her securely, but she had no way get around the control panel without risking floating off — and then getting thrown around the room, and probably killed, on impact.

They had finished detaching the rings — or at least, the first three. That should be enough to survive a crash landing, as long as they didn’t strike a satellite or something, hidden under the foliage.

And with time to spare, in theory. They had a three hour window before they had to get the ship moving back toward the kudzu. The problem was, with their limited fuel, they had to get the ship’s trajectory perfect from the outset, or they were screwed. Every second of burn counted, because there were no second chances. If she lost her grip, if she slipped, the ship wouldn’t hit dead-on the kudzu ball’s axis.

And if they aimed wrong — if she aimed wrong — they’d hit the fast-spinning side, and after a quick mangling, what was left of the OPEV Beagle would be thrown off into space.

Jaworsky touched the tip of her snout.

“Why the long face?” he asked.

Ordinarily she’d have snapped at his finger, but the realization of what she had to say was crushing.

“I can’t do this.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“I mean, I need to be able to reach this keypad and that joystick at pretty much the same time. On the bridge, I just ran fast. We’ve got no gravity here. If I do what I was doing there, I’ll just fly off and bounce off the ceiling.”

“Maybe Susan could do it?” Tharp suggested. “She’s smart and quick.”

“I can give it a try,” Susan said.

“No. This is too precise, and too critical. We screw up and we die.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Susan snapped.

“No. Just… It’s not that I don’t think you can learn this, but I had hundreds of hours on a simulator before I ever touched the controls, and even then, if I didn’t have the experience of getting us through the asteroid belt, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

“Ah, hell,” Jaworsky said.

Amelia felt his big hand grip the scruff of her neck as he swung himself into the pilot’s chair. He shifted his hold, grasping her around the torso behind her shoulders, and held her over the controls.

“Right. So what’s first?”

“This isn’t going to work.”

“I wish I had a camera,” Susan said.

“You give the orders,” Jaworsky said. “Left, right, top, back, middle. Something like that.”

“You’re not going to react fast enough,” Amelia said.

“We got three hours to practice,” Jaworsky said.

“And how are you going to keep me from flying out of your hands on impact?”

Jaworsky chuckled. “Think about it,” he said.

“I…”

“Oh,” Susan said.

Of course. She didn’t need to be at the controls when they hit the kudzu; all the fuel would be spent hours before. There would be ten minutes of intense piloting, followed by twelve hours of waiting. And praying.

“Okay,” Amelia said, “let’s get started.”

End of Book IV

Kudzu, Chapter 31

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Kudzu, a Novel

Chapter 31

Eric Tharp supposed there wasn’t much point mentioning that none of this was in his job description. Tromping around the exterior of a spaceship was about as far from analyzing core samples as you could get.

One of the four spokes that connected the second ring to the hull rose up in front of him, as massive and imposing as the Washington Monument. And the task before him seemed impossible.

It all made sense when Jaworsky explained it. The Beagle had been constructed on Earth, and then launched into space. It hadn’t looked anything like it currently did now, not even counting the damage from the explosion. In space, aerodynamics don’t matter. But getting it into space was a different story.

The Beagle had started out with all its rings connected to each other, collected toward the rear of the ship. Several layers of thin material covered the rings, extending on an angle to about midway up the hull. This protected the rings during takeoff, keeping them from breaking off or being otherwise damaged. Once in orbit, the protective covering unfurled into the vast solar collectors, and the rings were moved to their proper positions.

In preparation for ramming the kudzu, they needed to reverse this process. Standing at the base of the second ring, Tharp was struck by the immensity of the project.

“This is hopeless,” he said. “It’s like trying to move the Sphinx with a pair of tweezers.”

“Piece of cake,” Jaworsky said. “All you need is to put the tweezers on the end of a big enough lever.”

“We don’t have a big lever.”

“Yeah? So we’ll use a pulley.”

Tharp could imagine Jaworsky on the other side of the radio–a shrug and a wise-ass grin preceding the words. It wasn’t helpful.

“Look, Tharp,” Jaworsky continued, “we don’t actually need to move the rings. All we need to do is loosen them. When we hit the plant, the rings’ll slide down the hull like they’re supposed to. If we don’t get them loose, they’ll do that anyway, but they’ll peel the hull apart in the process. It’s really not that big a job. It just looks big.”

It was really a twelve person job: someone in each coon-hole dealt with detaching all the systems that constituted the interface between the main ship and the ring. Four more people on each spoke–two to detach the spoke internally, and two to detach the spoke externally. The clamps were paired, interlocking, so there had to be one person on each side of the hull to detach any clamp pair.

Jaworsky had spoken in small words, like he was talking to a child. Tharp had bit back a knee-jerk response and listened; after all, two doctorates or not, he really didn’t know this stuff.

In a perfect world, Jaworsky explained, the four raccoons would get their work done first, and then monitor the systems, and then the eight humans would synchronize their actions. The ring would detach from the hull, and then robot drones would move the ring to its new location.

In the real world, they would be doing the job in half-spoke intervals. Which made the last spoke particularly dangerous.

“I’m ready,” Amelia said.

“‘Kay,” Jaworsky said. “I will be in about… now. What about you, Tharp?”

“Almost there.”

Tharp edged around the curve of the spoke. He saw an indentation in the spoke, big enough for two of Jaworsky to fit, or three of himself. It was painted red.

“You said starboard, right?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“Which side is that?”

“Very funny. You’ll see a lever. You’re going to pull it until you feel a click, and then twist counterclockwise.”

“Widdershins,” Amelia said.

“Fuck are you talking about, ‘Melia? No, don’t answer. I don’t want to know. Tharp, got that? Lift until it clicks, then twist it. You’ll feel it snap into a locked open position. At that point, we go to the other side.”

“Yeah, all right.”

At Jaworsky’s word, he started to pull. Damn, this thing was heavy. Well, not heavy, but might as well be. He grunted with the effort of it.

“Hold on,” Jaworsky said. “You got yourself tethered to the hull? You want to do that, in case you lose your grip. You don’t wanna go throwing yourself out into space, do you?”

“Oh, right. Thanks.” Tharp said. “Give me a minute.”

~

Stupid. Jaworsky fumed at himself. Of course Tharp wouldn’t know basic spacewalking safety procedures. As long as he was pretending to be in charge, he needed to remember not just people’s strengths, but also their weaknesses. Any forgotten detail could mean someone’s life.

“You had to go and tell him.” Susan’s voice interrupted Jaworsky’s thoughts, and Jaworsky didn’t need to see Tharp to feel him wince.

“Susan—” Shut the fuck up, he was going to say, but Amelia cut him off.

“Susan, you and me, private channel.”

“Hey, I was just—”

Now.”

Just as well. Much as Jaworsky hated to admit it, he and Susan were assholes cut from the same cloth, and he was just as likely to set off a shitstorm as calm a situation, butting heads with her.

Susan and Amelia came back online with an “I’m sorry,” and Tharp’s “No offense taken” was ungrudging, if not entirely convincing.

“We all ready to get back to work?” Jaworsky asked. “Good. Then, on my count…”

~

Colleen stared at the thing as it watched the water, perfectly motionless but for the tip of its tail, which twitched from side to side.

“Kuh,” she said, because that’s all that would come out.

Michael sat up beside her, shrugged.

“Well, why the hell not?” he said. “We’re inside a giant plant. In space. With waterfalls, and giant goldfish, and bees.”

“Bees? What bees?”

Michael showed her his hand; three red welts marked his palm, and another decorated the underside of his index finger. One of them still sported a stinger.

“Yeah, bees. That’s why I fell. I think I used a beehive as a handhold. So, yeah, why not this, too? Makes about as much sense as everything else.”

“But, cats?”

“Hey, don’t look at me. I’m allergic to the things. They must be part of your subconscious. I certainly didn’t dream them up.”

“Do they have subconsciouses in the afterlife?”

Colleen lifted herself up on her elbows. Water poured down her suit and seeped into the moss. The rip was about two centimeters long, right over her sternum.

“I don’t remember going through a long tunnel,” Michael said. “Or, well, okay: there was a long tunnel. But no bright light or dead parents or any of that stuff. Besides, aren’t all our earthly pains and worries supposed to ease?”

“I don’t think you can call this ‘earthly.'”

Michael wiped his face, wincing. His hand came away bloody. He wiped it on the moss. The cat came to investigate.

No, it was a different cat. The other was entirely black; this one had a spot of white on its chest. It licked at the smeared blood.

“I’m pretty sure if we were in Heaven, there wouldn’t be any blood. And my fingers wouldn’t be all pruned. And there wouldn’t be any damned cats.”

“Who said anything about Heaven?” Colleen said.

“Well, I’m going to Heaven, so we can’t be dead. It’s more likely we’re all still in cryo, and this is some sort of shared dream.”

“That’s not possible. None of the studies have shown any correlation of dream-states between people in stasis. Even if they were physically touching.” Colleen winced as she twisted to reach the sealing seam of her suit. “Fuck. I think I broke a rib. Can you help me with this thing?”

Michael rolled over onto his hands and knees, and pushed himself to his feet. He extended a hand.

“Yeah, sure. None of the subjects were under for as long as we were. Or are.”

“I remember some of my cryo-dreams,” Colleen said. “None of them were like this.”

In her dreams, Henry was dying. Always dying, but never quite dead. “I forgive you,” he said. He always said, caught in a hideous loop, over and over, his lips forming words that his eyes didn’t mean.