Kudzu, a Novel
“All right,” Ash said, “when I said ‘you can say that again’? That didn’t mean you could say it again.”
Slim looked up at him with that stupid raccoon smile. “Then why’d you say it?”
“Say what?” a voice said from the other side the chamber.
Slim bounded across the ossuary, heedless of the braided bones that clattered underfoot.
Ash followed more hesitantly. The room was a maze of alabaster structures, and the floor itself was series of bone foot-bridges raised a bit above the natural floor of kudzu vines. The bones were too small to be human. Ash guessed they were cat legs or something, woven into a sort of carpet with kudzu creepers, and then suspended over the natural floor with what he hoped were thicker vines.
Someone clearly had too much time on her hands.
Colleen knelt down to hug Slim as he dashed toward her, but seemed to get distracted, glancing up just as Slim reached her. The two of them went down in a tumble of fur and limbs.
She’d just seen the centerpiece of the ossuary, Ash figured. The display of human skulls was a grim reminder that they were all skating just ahead of death, and had been for the past sixty-five years. And death didn’t care who you were, or how old you were. With Ash’s luck, lately, old fart Jaworsky’d outlive the lot of them.
Ash stepped out onto the macabre footbridge. The bones shifted under his feet and Ash froze. His stomach lurched. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose, and when his gut calmed, he tried again.
And tasted acid.
He stepped back quickly, off the bone bridge and onto solid kudzu.
“I’ll, uh, I’ll wait over here.”
Michael’s voice. Ash could see his head visible over the elaborate bone structures, standing in the doorway on the other side of the chamber. Asshole. Didn’t see him rushing out into the middle of the ossuary, either.
Still, it was a bad way to start a reunion. He bit back the retort half-formed on his lips. It tasted like venom as he swallowed it.
“Guilty as charged,” he said.
“There’s a surprise,” Michael said.
“Fuck you,” Slim snapped, finally untangled from Colleen’s limbs. “That chickenshit went space-walking without a tether to save my life, so you got something to say to him? You say it to my face first.”
Slim was turned toward Michael, and Ash couldn’t see his face. But he could imagine it. Stupidly, he felt tears fill his eyes. He turned away and brushed them away with his sleeve.
He heard movement behind him, the clatter of bone against bone under a tentative tread. He flinched at Michael’s hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Michael said.
Ash searched his face for any hint of sarcasm. He found none. He nodded.
Michael squeezed his shoulder and let go.
“Yeah, so I seriously hope they’re all coming this way,” he said with a shudder, “because I sure as hell don’t want walk back out into that shit.”
Amelia left her space suit out in the hallway.
Without power, the interior of Beagle, shielded from the Sun’s rays by the bulk of the kudzu plant and the shadow of the Earth, was getting a bit chilly. But she’d been in contact with the hand-things while wearing it, and there were enough metals and polymers in the suit that she had to assume it was infected.
Because that’s what it was. She was sure of it. Some sort of non-organic infection, or colonization, that had gotten into the ship somehow. They’d probably picked it up around Triton, or maybe even on the way out. And now they’d brought it back with them.
“So, what do you see?” Susan’s voice came from the other side of the med-lab door, from the radio in her suit.
“It looks okay,” Amelia shouted. “No sign of infestation up here.”
“Good. Grab what we need and get your ass back here.”
But it wasn’t that easy. The medical equipment they needed to treat Jaworsky, and possibly any other survivors for as long as they were stuck up here, was prime feeding material for the creatures that had taken over the ship. From what she could see, the more intricate and delicate the instrumentation, the more easily it was subsumed into the creatures’ internal structures. And medical devices were the very definition of intricate and delicate.
And of course, she was working in the dark.
She was wearing her goggles, of course. She prayed they weren’t infected. Or if they were, that she could keep from transferring the infection to the equipment.
Some of it, of course, was already packaged and sterile. The equipment that wasn’t, she wrapped first in gauze, then plastic. It all went into two large plastic bags, which Amelia then wrapped in several layers of cotton sheets. Enough, she hoped, to create a physical barrier against both macro and microscopic versions of the Jaworsky-hand things.
“I’m leaving my suit behind,” she told Susan, who protested. “Too great a chance of infection,” she continued. “We need the meds more than we need my suit. I hope.”
Climbing with the two large packs presented a more significant problem than she’d expected. Together, they were more than twice her mass. She ended up going back for another bedsheet, which she tore into strips to weave into improvised ropes. Then, with the bags attached to loops that went over her shoulders and chest, and strapped to her hips, she started to climb.
Thankfully, it became easier as she progressed. She was able to launch herself up past spots of obvious Jaworsky-hand infection, catching herself on rungs like an acrobat in the low gravity. By the time she got back to Susan and Jaworsky, she was mostly recovered from the exertion at the beginning of her climb.
“Ditch the suit,” she said to Susan. “Jaworsky’s, too. I don’t want anything infecting this stuff. It may be the only medical gear we have for a long time.”
“Gotcha,” Susan said. She stripped off her suit and began pulling off Jaworsky’s.
Amelia frowned at Susan. “Get rid of anything metal. Belt buckles. Zippers. Buttons.”
“What? You mean, take my pants off?”
“What about your hat?”
Amelia pulled off her hat. She sighed, then threw it deep into the depths of the Beagle.
“That’s my favorite hat,” she said.
Once they had created as close to a sterile environment as they could, they unpacked what they needed.
“The I.V. won’t work without gravity,” Susan said. “We need either gravity or power for the pump, or it won’t work.”
“Let’s get the stump cauterized first, so we can get the tourniquet off him. Afterwards, maybe I can rewire things so we can get the pump working.”
Susan examined the cautery tool and took a deep breath. She looked pale. “Okay,” she said.
The end of the tool heated until it glowed red. Susan lined it up with one of the torn arteries in Jaworsky’s stump. She closed her eyes as she pressed the heated metal to the wound. The stench of cooking meat filled the air.
“Oh, God,” Susan said. She swallowed bile.
“No puking,” Amelia said. “Remember, puke and zero-G don’t mix.”
“Fucking hell, I missed the vein. I…”
“Give me that,” Amelia said.
Susan nodded faintly. “I think I need to sit down.”
You do that, Amelia thought. She cupped Jaworsky’s elbow under her foreleg to hold the stump still, and pressed the metal to the vein.
“Mmmm, bacon,” she said.
“Fuck,” Susan said, her voice weak. Then she was scrambling away from the improvised surgery, rustling through the foliage beyond the air lock door. Amelia could hear her heaving.
“That was for you, ya big lunk,” Amelia said to Jaworsky. “Now you got no choice but to wake up, so I can tell you all about it.”
Eric Tharp was rotating slowly in the air. It was a slow rotation, maybe a couple hours for a complete rotation. He’d turned enough now that he could see the massive dent the Beagle had made in the giant chamber, and the wide open docking bay.
There was a sudden spew from the docking bay of what looked to Tharp to be small particles — gravel, or rocks, or something. Like there had been an explosion inside that expelled shrapnel through the air lock.
The chamber was so big it was hard to get a sense of scale. It probably wasn’t gravel. It was probably a lot bigger, but he was too far to see what it was.
Whatever had just happened, it was now more certain than ever that Susan and Jaworsky and Amelia were dead, and he was drifting alone with his guilt. At least until Michael and the others rescued him.
An hour later, he was facing the other direction, and drifted into a more humid pocket of air. Moisture beaded up on his suit, and on the glass of his helmet.
He licked off what had accumulated, quenching a thirst he’d been unaware of.
Hopefully there would be more humidity. There was no telling how long he’d be floating there.
End of Book VI