Hey look! It’s Sunday. And I’m posting the next chapter! Who knew I could actually pull it off? Anyway, enough about me – let’s get back to the slowly unfurling disaster.
Kudzu, A Novel
Michael curled himself into a ball. Braced for impact. Prayed the flailing torch would miss him. Slim still screaming through the helmet speaker in his ear, drowning out Amelia’s voice. Amelia shouting, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”
The jet of gas slammed Michael against the wall. He bounced a few times at the end of his tether before the force of the escaping gas pressed him flat.
Colleen pulled herself tight against the gentle curve of the outer wall, legs bunched beneath her, and launched herself into the middle of the room. She was too late to catch Slim, but she wasn’t aiming for him. That was suicide, and there was always time for that later. Instead, she aimed roughly for the midpoint of the docking bay.
The jet of gas hit her at the same time that her hand wrapped around Slim’s tether, diverting her course and sending her tumbling. The rope jerked taut, shifting her again, but her mass exceeded Slim’s, even with the cutting torch and the acetylene tanks he was wearing. Inertia was on her side; she kept tumbling toward the far wall.
Slim struck the back wall hip first, a good three meters from Michael. He spun, rolling against the wall, and felt something in his tail pop. He ignored it, scrabbling to get control of the cutting torch. His fingers wrapped around the hose, and he tugged it to keep the flaming end pointed away from him. It buried itself in the wall.
“Ow,” he said.
The hiss of the gas softened as the pressure equalized. Tharp’s voice cut across the noise.
“Michael! Status report. Now!”
“Damn trigger is jammed,” Slim said. He found the shutoff valve on the fuel tank, twisted it until the flame died. “It should have shut off as soon as I let go.”
“Michael?” Colleen said. She had let go of Slim’s rope and was floating slowly around the perimeter of the room.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m here. I’m okay. Just a little….” He took a deep breath. “I’m fine.”
“Slim?” Amelia’s voice shook.
“What is it with shit on this ship?” Slim asked. “I mean, really, what the fuck? Can’t we have even one thing just work properly?”
“I don’t care about the stuff. What about you? Are you–”
“I’m fine. I’m gonna have a giant bruise on my ass, but I’m fine.”
“Full body bruise,” Jaworsky said. “Now that’ll be a sight. How ’bout you, Lady C?”
“What the hell happened down there?” Tharp demanded.
“What I said earlier?” Amelia said. “This is the sort of thing I was talking about.”
“Thank you, Amelia,” Susan said. “Tharp, you need to learn how to not be an asshole. Colleen could be hurt or dying down there, and you’re safe on the bridge getting pissy because people aren’t updating their reports at your whim.”
“You tell him, sister.”
“Shut the fuck up, Jaworsky.”
Amelia snarled into the microphone, ears back, lips curled back to reveal long canines. Tharp took a step backward. Amelia suppressed a smile, imagining everyone else doing the same.
“Colleen?” she said, into the sudden silence.
“I’m unhurt, thanks. But I could use a little assistance. I’m caught in some sort of air current, I guess coming from the plant. It’s just moving me around in a big circle in the middle of the room. I could use a hand getting to something solid.”
“I’ll be right there, Colleen,” Michael said. “Just let me swap out to a longer tether.”
Amelia examined the readings on one of her monitors. “Pressure in there is starting to stabilize, which is good. Too much and we’d just pop off the surface of the plant. Michael, you ever figure out what kind of gas it is?”
“No, sorry. I’ve been a little distracted.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll want to figure out what’s in it. Make sure it isn’t corrosive or explosive or anything.”
“I think if it was explosive, we’d have known by now. Or at least, you’d know. Anyway, I lost the sensor. It came off its strap, and it’s probably floating out there like Colleen.” Michael uncoiled his long tether and clipped it to the wall. “Okay, Colleen, I’m on my way.”
Catching Colleen as she spun around the vastness of the loading dock was easier said than done. The kudzu plant quite literally grew before their eyes, even as it continued to spew a jet of gas into the room; the perpetually changing surface of the plant redirected the current, altering Colleen’s trajectory in unpredictable ways. In the end, they had to wait until pressure in the loading bay equalized with the inside of the plant.
As Michael set out to catch Colleen on her next pass, Slim approached the plant’s surface. He lit the cutting torch and began widening the existing hole.
The outer surface of the plant was thicker than expected. Slim widened the hole enough to crawl into, so he could cut through the deeper layers.
“What if it’s all like this?” he said. “All the way through.”
“It doesn’t have enough mass, according to our scanners.” Amelia’s voice sounded distant, hollow and staticky, like Slim was tuning in to a far-off radio. “At least part of it has to be hollow.”
“That doesn’t necessarily follow,” Michael said. More static. “It could just be a less dense jungle. Hold on.” A moment of silence, and then: “Got her.”
“Thanks,” Colleen said.
“I’m through,” Slim announced. He turned off the torch and peeked through the opening.
Beyond the dense tangle of vines and leaves that formed the outer surface of the kudzu, the plant opened into what seemed to be a tunnel, lush and thick with leaves and berries. The outer surface was dotted with silver-black leaves amongst the verdant green; the interior walls were similarly punctuated with not-quite-natural foliage. These broad leaves glowed softly, filling the tunnel with a gentle, but adequate, light.
“This,” Slim said, “is weird.”
“No shit.” Ash Hendricksson’s voice, sarcastic.
Susan cursed. “Jesus, here we go again.”
“All I’m saying is, maybe he should tell us what he sees.”
“No, what you were saying…”
Amelia rumbled a warning.
“Yeah, sorry,” Susan said.
“You tell her, sister,” Jaworsky said.
Amelia bit her tail, not to snicker out loud.
“Okay,” Slim said. “I’m pretty sure this thing is not natural.”
“A fucking genius,” Ash muttered to himself, not bothering to mute his microphone.
“I’m getting so much interference,” Slim said, “it almost sounds like you’re all getting along. I’m going to widen this hole up enough that someone smart and human can take a look.”
The cutting torch began to sputter as he worked, and died completely with only centimeters left to cut away.
“Damn it,” Slim said. “This thing is fucking cursed. There’s plenty of fuel left. It just won’t work. I’m getting a pry bar.”
Michael and Colleen peered through the hole as Slim launched himself across the docking bay to a storage locker on the far wall.
“I bet I could fit through that,” Colleen said.
“Not without me, you’re not,” Michael said.
“The inside is hollow,” Colleen reported. “Big enough around for three or four people to get around comfortably. And it’s lit.”
“Some kind of bioluminescence,” Michael said, “but only from select leaves. It’s bright enough in there to get around. I’m going to hazard a guess that the silver leaves we saw on the outside of the plant function as a sort of biological solar cell, generating power for use elsewhere in the plant.”
“It’s a power plant,” Slim said. He pulled a crow bar from the locker, and a hack saw. With sharp and pointy objects that might puncture a suit, he was more circumspect: a long, slow leap across the room.
“Heh, yeah.” Michael assessed Slim’s trajectory and moved to be close enough to help, if it was needed. “Anyway, it looks like some serious genetic engineering here. Not only is this plant able to withstand a complete vacuum, it seems to be generating power and atmosphere, and creating human-navigable passages.”
“All right,” said Tharp, “I think that’s enough. Let’s all meet up in the conference room at, uh, twenty-one hundred… no, shit.” Amelia rolled her eyes watching Tharp counting off on his fingers. “In, uh, about forty-five minutes. And we’ll figure out where to go from here.”
“Sorry, Captain,” Michael said.
“There’s only one place to go from here, at least for me. And that’s following Colleen.”
“No. No, that won’t do. We need a plan. Get back here, both of you. All three of you.” Tharp shot a nervous glance at Amelia.
“Don’t worry, Cap,” Slim said. “I’ll keep ’em out of trouble.”