Chapter 1

From 600 miles up, corporate Executive Officer Collenz was close enough to eyeball the entire eastern seaboard through a viewing port. Without aid, she could see all along the coast as well as the entire wooded mountain range running north and south. To the west, a high desert plain stretched to the horizon, the only change in the running smoothness coming from cracks here and there, cracks that, Collenz knew, were actually great canyons and faults in the planet's surface. There wasn't anything of much interest to the west. It was the wooded coast that drew her attention.

She glanced at the instrument readouts; all the long-range sensors functioned normally. As the spacecraft floated eastward, its antennas automatically adjusted themselves for optimal performance and the data poured in. Collenz smiled to herself. Everything was going perfectly.

Passing over the land mass, telemetry revealed vast coniferous forests, lush green valleys, and the occasional river snaking its path to the sea. It was blue and green and red and brown, and all the other Earth colors that made her believe -- that made her know -- they'd hit a big strike, a hospitable planet. The company would pay huge bonuses for finding a stable planet capable of being colonized.

A buzzer sounded and Collenz jerked around to face her navigations display. Leaning closer to the panel, she studied the video images of the passing terrain, eyes searching for the flash of sunlight off metal that would reveal the shuttle's landing site. As an afterthought, she checked the time and realized the exploratory party was now ten minutes late for their check-in call. She waited an instant longer before turning her chair ninety degrees to the left so that she sat before the laserscope. Leaning forward into the binocular eyepiece, she could see fine details of the forest as if she were flying a hundred feet over the treetops. The shuttle required an area large enough to accommodate its size, like a meadow, or maybe just a small area between the trees. Ah yes, she drew in her breath, there it was. Simultaneously, she pressed a key at her console and a preset navigational program began to cycle though it's routine. As a result, the spacecraft parked itself in stationary orbit above the landing site.
Hundreds of miles below, the pined forest spread itself over the land and up the jagged slopes of the mountains. The massive trees were similar to those on Earth: old, primitive conifers that grew to be as thick as houses and taller than acceleration ramps. That was the first thing Fagen noted about the planet -- the towering trees.

Glad to be out of the can, Fagen took a deep breath and surveyed their position. The shuttle sat in a small meadow, nestled between the giant pines. It was a balmy day with a light breeze blowing in from the coast.

For a moment, intoxicated by the success of the mission, Fagen stood in the shade of the airfoil and allowed himself to stare out at the magnificent trees of the beautiful planet he'd just discovered.

An electronic pop issued from his earpiece, quickly followed by Mission Specialist Carter's voice. "Uh, commander?"

Fagen spoke into his headset mike. "Yes, Carter?"

"Can you see Povich?"

"Negative, Carter. She's not with you?"

"Well, she was."

"Where is she?" Fagen asked in rising excitement.

The radio cracked with Carter's voice. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. She walked into the forest and I lost sight of her. Two minutes passed, I swear to God, that's all, before I called to her again. There's no answer."

Fagen looked up and across the clearing. He could plainly see Carter at the edge of the trees.

Again, Fagen spoke into his mike, "Povich! If you hear me, get back to the shuttle, on the double!" He waited but no answer was forthcoming. Finally, he waved at Carter. "All right, hold it right there, we'll go look for her together."

Glancing from side to side, Fagen crossed the sunlit field and passed into the shadows of the trees where Carter waited. Carter pointed to a giant tree that looked as though it had been there since the last millennium. "That's the last place I saw her." Fagen started towards the tree, motioning for Carter to follow.

"She couldn't have gotten far," Carter said.

Fagen didn't answer. He hated incompetence. No matter how pleasant the planet seemed to be, it was still unexplored and light-years away from Earth. They had to be careful, not wander off on some euphoric high, lulled into assuming ease when... A sensation passed through him. "Did you feel something?"

"No, like what?"

"I don't know, something like..." Fagen glanced at the readings on his portable console and noted the static buildup. "...something like an electric charge in the air."

"I didn't feel anything."

"Hey," a third voice said, startling the two men.

Carter and Fagen looked up and observed Povich standing not sixty yards away. She waved them over.

Fagen started in before she had the chance to speak. "You know the rules, Povich. What the hell do you think you're doing? Why didn't you answer our calls?"

She held up her hands to stop his tirade. "All right, all right, hold on for a minute. I snagged my antenna and it broke off at the base, see?" She turned around to let Fagen inspect her small equipment pack. "I couldn't call."

"Well, why didn't you just come back?"

"Look at this, then you'll understand." She pointed at a small circle of carefully aligned rocks on the forest floor. Ashes were contained within the circle. All around the small circle of rocks, pine needles were brushed back to reveal the bare Earthen floor. "It's a campsite. Somebody, or something, built a fire here. I'd say this is pretty strong proof of intelligent life."

Fagen looked hard at Povich. "I don't see that it proves anything."

"You must be joking."

"I don't joke, Povich. Wandering from the specified area is a serious breach of protocol."

"What are we here for?" Povich interrupted. "I'm doing the job I was hired to do!"

"Then you will conduct yourself as you have been briefed. Is that clear?"

"Right," she replied curtly. "Now may I continue to investigate the area?"

"You may."

Povich abruptly turned away and, now with Carter's help, continued searching the surrounding ground. In moments, Carter spotted something at the edge of the campsite.

"What does that look like to you?" he asked, pointing to the ground.

Fagen studied the spot and said nothing.

"Looks like a footprint to me," declared Povich.

Reluctantly, Fagen replied, "Maybe."

Povich put her hands on her hips and jutted her chin out. "Maybe? What's it going to take to convince you, Fagen?" An uncomfortable sensation again passed through the air, this time accompanied by a high whining sound as if air under high pressure was being expelled through a tiny nozzle.

"What is that?" Carter asked.

Fagen, still listening, shrugged and walked away from the campsite looking for the source of the sound. Povich and Carter stood where they were. Fagen stepped around a great tree and, assuring himself that any primitive intelligence would offer a minimal threat, he took a look. Some distance away, a flash of metal revealed something moving slowly and steadily toward their position. At random intervals, it emitted the high-pitched sound.

Fagen held his breath and waited until it again passed into sight. It moved in an odd way; mechanical, robotlike, but with uncanny smooth precision. The closer it got, the more the static charge in the air seemed to build. Fagen gradually withdrew and stood with his back to the tree. He motioned to Povich and Carter.

Povich spread her hands questioningly. "What?"

"Something's coming," Fagen said, "Let's get back to the shuttle!"

Neither Povich nor Carter moved. Instead, they exchanged quizzed looks.

Fagen took another look around the tree but this time he saw not one, but two of the things. The second was much closer than the first and was headed straight for them. There was little doubt in Fagen's mind about what to do: get back to the shuttle. These creatures didn't look any too friendly and the landing party wasn't armed.

"Come on," Fagen ordered, "let's get back to the shuttle! Now!"

Povich spread her hands. "This is ridiculous, why don't you tell us what's going on?"

"No time. Just come on."

"What about..." started Carter.

"Go now!" Fagen pushed Carter and the mission specialist finally broke into a run toward the shuttle.

Povich grabbed Fagen by the arm. "What did you see? What is it?"

"Hell, I don't know, aliens, I guess."

"Why didn't you say so? I'm going to stick around and take some pictures."

"This isn't some picnic! I'm ordering you back to the shuttle! Now!"

"You can't tell me what to do -- my father has more invested in this little trip than any of the other shareholders, including you. So, I'll do what I want."

"Don't be a fool."

"Me? You're pretty foolish yourself, running away from opportunity like this." The young woman wedged herself between two over-sized, exposed roots and checked her video camera.

"Go on," she waved Fagen away. "I'll lay the groundwork."

"Don't be stupid," said Fagen as he looked toward the direction of the growing noise. "I don't have time for this."

Povich hunkered down in her little niche.

"Stubborn," murmured Fagen as he turned away.

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