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Book 1: Homecoming

Chapter 1

“There’s food in there.”

Amelia stretched forward in the pilot’s chair, leaning her weight on one of the wooden planks bolted to the control console as she reached for the monitor controls. The primary monitor, which filled half the wall in front of her, was currently being fed by the forward camera, while the sixteen smaller monitors surrounding it on all sides showed other views, mostly of empty space. Or remained grimly blank. Amelia had learned not to look at those, not to think about what they meant.

Instead, Amelia zoomed in on the massive thing floating–impossibly–in deep orbit. Sunlight glittered off the lumpy, dark green orb, and off the few bits of metal and glass that hadn’t yet been completely enveloped in the all-encompassing green.

Real food,” she said. “Not this recycled crap we’ve been living on.”

Vines like tendrils stretched out from the orb, as if the thing was reaching out for more to pull into itself. Or more to grow out toward. Like a Spanish moss beard, many of the vines extended from the Earthward side of the orb, brushing the soft glow of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Amelia zoomed in even closer, until they could make out wide leaves–dark green and metallic black–and purple flowers. She sat back in her chair and rubbed her paws together. A smile tugged at her lips, and her striped tail curled around her haunches.

“I can taste it from here.”

“Jesus.” Dr. Eric Tharp, standing beside Amelia with one hand on the back of her chair, breathed the words low in his throat. “What the hell is it?”

“I don’t care,” Amelia said, “as long as I can eat it.”

“What if it eats us, instead?”

Amelia didn’t respond. Instead, she hopped up onto the other wooden plank and reached down to manipulate another control. Information scrolled across one of the small screens on her console.

“It’s alive, but it doesn’t seem particularly mobile. There’s no more metal in there than you’d expect to find in a satellite graveyard, so it’s not like it’s been flying around snatching up all the spaceships.”

Tharp scratched his beard. “Satellite graveyard?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. The man had a Ph.D., which theoretically meant that he knew a lot about something. But it sure wasn’t physics, or space, or how to run a spaceship. “A gravitationally neutral point between multiple gravity wells. If you throw something into space, it’ll do one of three things: fall down, keep going, or settle into orbit. Once it’s in orbit, it’ll tend to drift toward one of a few nodes. This is one of those nodes. There’s a bunch of space junk in there, but most of it predated this… thing. And it doesn’t explain why we’re the only ship in space.”

Amelia stared at the slowly spinning orb.

“I wish the agro computers weren’t destroyed in the accident. I’m sure there’d have been something in there that would tell us what this is.”

Tharp–Amelia couldn’t bring herself to call him Captain; he might be the most senior member of the mission still alive, but his authority was tenuous at best–Tharp shook his head.

“The agro computers wouldn’t have anything about alien plants.”

Amelia centered the monitor on the nearest vine and set the camera to track mode–the orb seemed to be spinning slowly, but that was misleading; as far as the vine was from the orb’s axis, its velocity was non-insignificant. She zoomed in as close as she could.

“That’s a leaf,” she said, pointing with one claw. “A terrestrial-style leaf. Whatever it is, it didn’t come to Earth. It came from Earth.” She sniffed the stale air pointedly. “And that means we’ve got a source of oxygen, too.”

“How can you tell?”

Amelia wondered if the humans had a saint or a god for patience. “It’s green.”

Tharp nodded–Oh, yes, of course–but his eyes betrayed his body’s lie. Amelia bit back the first words that came to mind. Instead:

“Green plants from Earth means photosynthesis. Photosynthesis requires carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Even if it isn’t edible itself, that thing there contains everything we need to make our own food, water and air.” She tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice, but knew she hadn’t been very successful at it. Tharp didn’t seem to notice.

“Huh. Can we get close enough to get a sample?”

“Are you serious?” Amelia crossed her arms and looked down her snout at him. “I pilot a spaceship from Triton to Earth. On booster rockets. With almost no fuel. With the engines and half the instruments blown out. In my sleep. And you want to know if I can get us close to a giant weed in space?”

“Um. Something like that.”

“Yes.”

“Good. I just wish… are you sure that there’s no-one else up here? I mean, how could everyone just disappear?”

Amelia played with the controls some more, until the monitor returned to normal magnification. She cycled all the undamaged cameras to the main monitor in turn. The systems detected and indicated a few lonely satellites, all unmanned, of course, but there was nothing active, nothing alive. Unless one counted the big weed.

“Nothing there,” she said. “Whatever happened, it happened in the last sixty-five years. Everything Earth-ward was normal before the accident.”

“God.” Tharp turned away from the monitor. He slammed his fist against the wall, close enough to the door sensor that the door slid open with a soft hiss. Tharp paced, then sank into the captain’s chair and buried his head in his hands. “Sixty-five years,” he said.

Amelia had never liked Dr. Tharp, but the enormity of what he was going through hit her suddenly. As the pilot, she’d been woken every five years–more often while negotiating the asteroid belt–to make any needed adjustments, spending several long, lonely days in the empty, near-dead ship each time. Those sixty-five years had passed in tiny increments for her. For Tharp, it was just one massive, dreamless gap.

And it was more than that, of course. She’d been bred for this mission; the only people she knew back on Earth were her Breeder and her Teachers, and she had little enough attachment to them. Everyone she knew well–the other raccoons and the humans–were on the OPEV Beagle. And most of them were dead before the long voyage home. For Tharp, the same was true, but he had also had a full life back on Earth.

The Triton expedition was supposed to have been just over five years–a year and a half out, three years on Triton, and nine months back. And then the engines blew, taking out the fuel stores, the greenhouse rings, and most of the living quarters. Of a hundred and two crew members, only nineteen had survived. And of those, eleven had been trapped on the frozen moon’s surface.

For Tharp and the other humans, after half a century in deep sleep limping back to Earth, most of the people they knew there would be dead as well.

Amelia studied the monitor. “Still, there might be food. And there might be enough equipment in the various satellites to cobble together a working radio transmitter.”

Tharp studied the image on the monitor. “I think that’s a piece of the Brazilian space station. Remember the talk about how they were scrapping it when we were getting shuttled to the Beagle?”

“Yeah?”

“So let’s dock with it. That’s the most likely place to find something of value.”

“No.” Amelia shook her head.

“What? You just said–”

“At the speed that thing’s spinning? We’d have to get in weed-synchronous orbit, matching the thing’s velocity, or those vines will cut us to shreds before we can get close to the space station. We don’t have the fuel for that. And even if we did, it would be stupid risky.”

Amelia adjusted the monitor controls, zooming in on the top of the green orb.

“No,” she continued. “We’ll have to come in from… I’ll call it the North Pole, for lack of a better term. Then all we need to do is match the rotation at the axis.”

“Piece of cake, then,” Tharp said.

“Mmmm. Cake.”

Tharp shook his head. “Weed cake. I suppose it can’t be worse than recycled protein blobs and carb sticks. All right, get us in position, but don’t go in until we’re all ready. I’ll go wake the others.”

"I can taste it from here."

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