THE SURVEY: P.E.R.N. It’s the third planet we want in this pernicious system,” Castor said in a totally jaundiced tone, his eyes fixed on the viewscreen. “How’s the hairpin calc going, Shavva?” Looking up from her terminal, Shavva screwed up her face for a moment before she spoke. “I’m happy to report that that’ll work out fine. Pity we can’t have a look at the edge of the system,” she added. “I’d love to have a look at those heavy-weight planets and the Oort cloud, but that can’t be done when we’ve got to do an entry normal to the ecliptic. As it is, the slingshot will only give us ten days on the surface.” She cast him an expectant, wry look. He groaned. “We’ll have to double up again.” At her half-stern, half-sardonic glare, he added, “Fardles, Shavva, after so long together we all know enough of each other’s specialties to do a fair report.” “Fair?” Ben Turnien repeated, his quirky eyebrows raised in amazement. “Fair to whom?” “Damn it, Ben, fair enough to know when a planet’s habitable by humanoids. None of us needs a zoologist anymore to tell us which beasties are apt to be predatory. And each of us has certainly seen enough strange life-forms and inimical atmospheres and surface conditions to know when to slap an interdict on a planet.” There was a taut silence as the four remaining team members each vividly recalled the all-too-recent deaths: Sevvie Asturias, the paleontologist-medic, and Flora Neveshan, the zoologist-botanist, both lost on the last planet the Exploration and Evaluation team had visited. Castor had inscribed, in bold letters on the top of that report, D.E. Dead end. Terbo, the zoologist-chemist, had been felled in a landslide on the first planet of their present survey tour, but as that world had clearly supported some intelligent life, the initials I.L.F. ended that report. They’d lost Beldona, the second pilot and archeologist, on the third world in the same accident that had injured Castor: a planet initialed G.O.L.D.I.--good only for large diversified interests. And they’d orbited one that probes had given them all the information they needed to label it L.A.--lethal, avoid! To a team that had been together for five missions, the casualties were deeply felt. And this mission had yet to be completed. The system they had just reached, five planets orbiting the primary Rukbat, was the fifth of the seven to be investigated on their latest swing through this sector of space. “We can handle the geology, the biology, and the chemistry,” Castor went on, frowning at the gelicast on his leg. The compound fractures had not quite healed. “Well, I can do the analysis when you’ve brought appropriate samples back. We might not be able to do the usual in-depth analysis of all the biota, but we can find the requisite five possible landing sites, regular or serious meteoric impacts, any gross geological changes, and if there’s a dominant major life-form.” “Hospitable planets are few enough, but Numero Tres does look very interesting,” Mo Tan Liu remarked in his gentle voice. “I get good readings on atmosphere and gravity. I think probes are in order.” “Send ‘em,” Castor said. “Probes we got to spare.” “We’re in a good trajectory to send off a homer, too, Liu added. “Federated Sentient Planets ought to know about the D.E. condition of Flora Asturias.” Following the bizarre and perhaps macabre practice of the Exploration and Evaluation Corps, they had named the last planet after the team personnel lost during that surface survey. “We are obliged to report those and that L.A. immediately.” “All right, all right,” Castor said irritably. “Shall I do the report?” Shawa asked. “I did it,” Castor replied in a tone that ended discussion. He called up the program, and when the copy was ready, he rolled it up into a tube to be inserted in the homing capsule. It would reach their mother ship some weeks before their projected return. “They will want to know we’ve discovered another Oort cloud, too. Is it five or six?” “Six, with this one. I still don’t buy that space-virus theory,” Ben remarked, relieved to switch to a less depressing topic. “Number Four System was dead,” Shavva said unequivocally. “Can’t prove the Oort cloud affected it in any way. Besides,” Ben went on, “the planet was bombarded by meteors and meteorites, to judge by the craters and the craterites. Shattered the surface and boiled off a good deal of the major oceans. Just like Shaula Three. That system had an Oort cloud, too.” “But it had once supported life. We all saw the fossil remains in the cliff faces,” Castor said. “Like a road sign: Life was here, it has gone hence.” Shavva had been depressed by the landing. Ten days on a dead world had been nine and a half too many. The atmosphere was barely adequate; to be on the safe side they’d used support systems. A rough estimate suggested that the damage had been done close to a millennium earlier. “At the beginning of Earth’s Dark Age, this planet had found the final one.” “Pity, too. It must have once been a nice world. Great balance of land and water masses,” Castor said. “I don’t know what could have stripped it so completely,” Ben said. “You never did like the Hoyle Wickramansingh theory, did you?” “Has anyone ever found those space-formed viruses? Even a trace in any Oort cloud?” Ben stuck his chin out with a touch of belligerence. “I won’t buy that space-virus theory, not when a planet is covered with city-sized craters. To have both would be overkill, and the universe is conservative. One gets you just as dead as the other.” “I searched the library for data on other stripped planets. Asturias matches up on every particular,” Liu said, his eyes on the screen. “What particulars there can be, that is!” He rose, stretched, and yawned broadly. “What we really need is one in the process of being stripped.” Shavva gave a bark of laughter. “Fat chance of that.” Liu shrugged. “Something does it. Anyway, I feel that the virus theory would be the rarest probability, while meteors are common, common, common. Look at what happened in our Earth’s Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. We were just lucky! Probes away, Captain,” he said formally to Castor. “Now, I’m for something to eat, then I’ll pack the shuttle for the shot.” “I’ll give you a hand,” Shawa said. “I want to be sure we got what we need this time,” she added in a low, angry voice, bitterly aware that it had been Flora’s own negligence that had cost those two lives. Shavva was now the default leader of this understaffed team, and she was determined not to repeat previous mistakes. As a young biologist with latent qualities as a nexialist, she had joined the Exploration and Evaluation Corps for the diversity of duty and the thrill of being the first human to walk on unexplored planets and catalog new life-forms, but she hadn’t counted on losing friends in the process. EEC teams developed very close bonds, having to rely on each other’s strengths and weaknesses in dangerous, stimulating, and testing circumstances no textbook, indeed often no other team reports, could imagine. This was her fourth tour of duty but the first one punctuated by disasters. Now all the fieldwork would have to be accomplished by three people--herself, Liu, and Ben--while Castor, still handicapped by his leg injuries, remained on board as the exploratory vessel did its hairpin turn about the third planet. Shavva would have to double as botanist on this trip. Fortunately she had learned enough from Flora to be able to determine a fair amount about the ecology of the plant life--if there were sufficient pollinators, what sort of competition there was for the food crops, as well as the nutritional possibilities of the native forms, and quite likely what disease agents and possible vectors existed within the ecology. Ben, as a geologist with some secondary background in chemistry, could cope with the planet’s basic pulse--its air and landmasses, magnetic fields, mass-cons, continental plate structure, tidal patterns, temperatures, the general topography, and, especially, any seismic activity--and evaluate the history of the planetary surface for at least the past million years. If the survey proceeded without glitches, he’d have a go at the longer-term history, attempting to detect signs of magnetic reversals and to determine if--and when--there had been any large extinctions. Liu, as nexialist, would investigate whatever remaining aspects of this planet they had time to consider. That is, if the probes brought back reports that would make a visit worthwhile. Numero Tres did look promising, but Shavva had discovered that looks could be very deceiving in this business. The probe sent back reports that were skeptically regarded as being too good to be true. “Good balance of land and water masses,” Liu said. “Usual ice caps, mountains, good plains areas Parallels Earth in many respects. Initial P.E. for starters, Castor.” “Atmosphere is breathable, slightly above normal in oxygen content: gravity slightly lower at zero-point-nine on the scale,” Ben contributed. “Considerable volcanism in that chain of islands extending from the southern hemisphere, nothing major at the moment. Rather a nice little planet, actually.” “Plenty of green stuff down there,” Shavva said. “What the hell?” she added in puzzlement as the computer began decoding topography. “Have a gawk at these crazy circles!” The probe was now on a low-altitude vector, sending back more-detailed sections of the terrain of the southern continent. Clearly visible were groups of circular patches, like ripples overlapping each other but held frozen on the planet’s surface. “Ever see anything like this before, Ben?” she asked, fervently regretting the missing Flora Neveshan, with her years of experience as a xenobotanist. “Can’t say as I have. Looks like some sort of local fungus on a huge scale. Seems to hit all vegetated areas, not just what appear to be grasslands.” “Fairy rings?” Shawa suggested very brightly. “Ha! What esoteric stuff you been reading recently?” Ben gave her a jaundiced stare. “Whatever it is, be bloody careful, will you?” Castor demanded bitterly. “We’ve got two more systems to work, and I’m running out of initials.” “Thin red line of ‘eroes?” Ben asked, trying to inject some lightness into Castor’s mood. He knew that Castor would forever fault himself for the deaths of Asturias and Neveshan. He was the most experienced climber of the group and would very likely have prevented the disaster if he’d been downside. The fact that no one blamed Castor did not assuage his feelings of guilt. Shavva set the shuttle down on the great plain of the eastern part of the southern hemisphere, several hundred meters from one cluster of the rippling circles they had observed. She, Ben, and Liu went through the routine landing procedures, confirming atmosphere, temperature, and wind velocity before exiting, garbed in their cumbersome protective suits. At least they needn’t resort to face masks and the back-wrenching burden of oxygen canisters. They all drew in deep lungfuls of the fresh air that a stiff breeze flung at them. “Good stuff,” Shawa said with a pleased grin. “No L.A., this one.” Suddenly, she felt an obsession for this planet to check out as habitable. From outer space it had had the look of the old Earth pictured in historical tapes. Such reassurance could be bloody, and bloodily, deceptive, she reminded herself, but that didn’t keep her from wishing! The grassy plain was springy underfoot, and their heavy boots released sweet, pungent odors from the bruised vegetation. Silently they walked over to the first of the ripples, and Ben and Liu hunkered down to eyeball it. Shavva took out a sampling probe and inserted it deftly into the soil closing the lid as soon as she had retracted it. Liu poked a plasgloved finger into the hole, fiddled with the dirt that adhered, and dropped the grains carefully back into the hole. “Funny. Feels like dirt. Common everyday dirt. Grainy. Rough, uneven.” “The empirical test!” Ben chuckled. “Let’s get started, guys,” Shawa said. “We’ve only got ten days to do eight people’s work and clear a planet.” “A snap!” Ben replied, grinning impudently. “I’ll start by switching on my geologist’s brain.” He moved off to the next arc of the ripple and collected more samples of the discolored ground. “Hey, we’ve got ecological succession here,” he added suddenly, pointing to portions now speckled with new growth. Shavva and Liu came to his side to see the promising green tufts. “Great wind systems on this planet. They’d be strong enough to carry seed as well as dirt,” Shawa remarked, facing into the stiff breeze. “’Nother few decades and this’ll all be grass, or whatever, again. Well, we’ll see what the samples say. Take some right by that new growth, will you, Ben? See what, if anything, is aiding the regeneration.” That first day they concentrated on dirt and vegetation samplings from the plain, moving on to other sites throughout the day, working from east to west to utilize as much daylight as possible. They took several deep cores in the rich soils of the southern plains and grasslands and, with more effort, drove rock-sampling cores. Inland and south they went, to points that had shown possible ore sites, though the initial metallurgy probe readings did not suggest that the planet had any easily accessible ore or mineral wealth. They made their first nightfall on a vast headland, on the sands of a great cove. Marine life seemed to be diverse, with enough interesting variations of exoskeletons and sea vegetation alone to give a marine biologist a lifetime employment. Liu scooped up samples of the red and green algae and found some interesting fungi on the shoreline, some with visible movement. Larger marine forms were occasionally visible in the deeper waters of the cove at dusk, a common feeding time. The explorers spent a pleasant evening taking samples and specimens along the seashore Liu had found enough dead fronds and branches to build a fire on the sands. Shedding their protective suits, they ate their evening rations around the fire--occasionally managing to capture various types of insectoids drawn to the bright flames. “Possibly the pollinators we need,” Liu mused as he peered into the tube of captured insectoids. One had paused in its frantic flight so that its double wings were visible. “Little buggers. I’d feel a lot better, though, if there were bigger things than these to contend with. The probe pictures should have shown us some sort of ruminants or grazers on these grasslands.” “What about those large flying things we saw awhile back?” Ben asked, and then snorted. “They looked like airborne barges, squat and fat, and full.” “Yeah, but what do they eat? And what eats them?” Liu asked morosely. “Maybe we’re between ice ages?” Shawa offered hopefully. She really didn’t want to find fault with the planet, though she knew that was a totally unprofessional attitude to take-and dangerous, as well. But she couldn’t suppress the feeling of “coming home” that was beginning to color all her perceptions of this world. Liu snorted, unconvinced. “Ecology is right for ‘em. They should be here.” “If they are, we’ll find ‘em. If we don’t. . .” Shavva shrugged philosophically. The next day they ventured as far as the ice cap in the southern hemisphere, taking samples of the frozen crust and as many layers of soil as the deep corer could manage to reach. Then they turned to the winter-held north. By then, Liu had become a bit paranoid about the lack of larger life-forms. So far, all they had seen were some reptiloids, scaled and basking. “Quite large enough, thank you,” Shavva had remarked, narrowly escaping the attentions of a ten-centimeter-thick, seven-meter-long example. They also saw a great many more of Liu’s flying barges. “Wherries, that’s what they were called,” he said suddenly that afternoon. “Vessels that were used to ferry stuff between the English isle and the European continent. Wherries, and call ‘em the biggest life-forms seen in the report. Maybe the term’ll stick.” Liu rarely exercised that EEC team prerogative. There were two identifiable types of the large avians, with raucous calls and the aggressive manners of predators; brilliantly plumed smaller fliers, a thousand types of what Shawa called “creepy-crawlies,” both inland and littoral. They had also found eggshells on southern beaches, shards littering what were apparently sand-buried nests. Of the egg layers, or the previous occupants, there were no signs. They did discover interesting fossil remains, a good fifty thousand years dead and gone, in an extensive tar pit; one specimen was intact enough to expose the ground-down dental machinery for grazing, suggesting that these fossils could have been the ruminants Liu wished to see. While the short, greenish spiky vegetation looked somewhat like grass, it wasn’t, for it had no silicates, was visibly triangular in form, and was more blue than green. “I want to see those grazers now, too,” Liu said firmly. But he was somewhat relieved to find the necessary variety of life-forms at a different epoch on the planet. They also located a diamond pipe just below the surface in the major rift valley fault. Rough stones, one as large as Shavva’s fist, were pried out of the soil. The team kept several as souvenirs; they were not particularly valuable otherwise, for the galaxy had produced many gemstones more exotic than these, though diamonds remained useful in technology for their durability and strength. “I find it rather a relief not to have to be constantly on guard,” Ben said on their third night, when Liu began again on the disappearance theme. “Remember Closto, the L.A. in our last tour? I kept holding my breath, waiting for something else to latch on to me.” Liu snorted. “Absence is as ominous as presence, in my tapes.” “Could have been an axial tilt, you know, and what’s now the ice caps were their homegrounds,” Shawa suggested. “They got caught in the blizzards and froze. We do have ice cores, which could very well produce tissue and bone fragments.” “Well, this P.E. has only a fifteen-degree axial tilt; the probes set the magnetic poles very near the ecliptic north and south, maybe fifteen degrees away from tilt.” “We’ll know when we get back to the ship and have a chance to study things. Are today’s samples ready to go back to Castor?” “Yeah, but I wish the fardles he’d sent us back his conclusions. He’s had time.” Liu scowled as he handed his latest containers to Ben to pack in the case to be launched back to the spacecraft. “Maybe they all moved north,” Ben said in a spirit of helpfulness. “To winter?” “This continent’s not in full summer yet.” “Well, it’d never get hot enough to fry things, not with the prevailing winds this continent’s got.” Liu refused to be mollified. On their way north they paused on the largest of a group of islands: basaltic, riddled with caves, bearing the profusion and lush growth common to tropical climes. They noted several unusual reptilian forms, more properly large herpetoids of truly revolting appearance. “I’ve seen uglier ones,” Ben remarked, examining at a safe distance one horny monster, seven centimeters broad and five high, which waved tentacles and claws in an aggressive manner. They could discern neither mouth nor eyes. The olfactor gave a stench reading; and the creature’s back was covered with insectoid forms. “External digestive system?” Shawa suggested, peering at the thing. “And--wow!” The creature had sped forward suddenly, its nether end now covered with tiny barbs. At the same time, the olfactor reading went off the scale, and a repellent stench filled the little clearing. “Look, it backed into that spiny plant,” Ben said, pointing to the little bush. “And got shot in the ass.” Standing well back and using a long stick, Shavva nudged one of the remaining spines and was rewarded with a second launching. “Well, a clever plant. Didn’t just let loose in all directions. I wonder what would deactivate it?” “Cold?” Liu suggested. “There’s a small one here,” Shavva observed. She sprayed it with the cryo and gave it an exploratory prod. When it did not respond she packed it in a specimen box. That evening, as they were readying the day’s tube for Castor, Liu let out a whoop, holding up a glowing specimen tube for the others to see. “That growth I found in the big cave. Some sort of luminous variety of mycelium.” He covered it with his hand. “Indeed. Now you see it--” He opened his hand to let the tube glow again. “Now you don’t.” He closed his hand again, peering through thin cracks he permitted between two fingers. “Does oxygen trigger the luminosity?” “You are not going back into the cave tonight, Liu,” Shavva said sternly. “We don’t have the spelunking equipment necessary to keep you from breaking your damned fool neck.” He shrugged. “Luminous lichens or organisms are not my forte.” He carefully wrapped the tube in opaque plasfilm. “Don’t want it to wear itself out before Castor sees it.” Later that night they were all enticed from their camp by the sound of cheeping and chittering. Parting the lush foliage that surrounded them, they peered out at an astonishing scene. Graceful creatures, totally different from the awkward avians seen in the southern hemisphere, were performing aerial acrobatics of astonishing complexity. The setting sun sparkled off green, blue, brown, bronze, and golden backs, and translucent wings glistened like airborne jewels. “The seaside egg layers?” Shawa asked Liu in a whisper. “Quite possibly,” Liu replied softly. “Gorgeous. Look, they’re playing a discernible game. Catch-me-if-you-can!” For a long time, the three explorers watched the spectacle with delight until the creatures broke off their play as the swift tropical night darkened the skies. “Sentient?” Shawa asked, wanting and yet not wanting those beautiful creatures to be the dominant sentient life form of this planet. “Marginally,” Liu murmured approvingly. “If they’re leaving eggs on a shoreline where storm waters could wash them away, they’re not possessed of very great intelligence.” “Just beauty,” Ben said. “Perhaps we’ll find large and related types of the same evolutionary ancestors for you, Liu.” Liu shrugged diffidently as he turned back to their campfire. “If we do, we do.” They made notes of what they had witnessed and then turned in for the night. The next day had them examining the reef systems jutting out from the island, and its smaller companions. A trip to the more tropical eastern peninsula showed them a complicated system, similar to coral, with fossils of the same thing going right back, Ben estimated, some five hundred million years. At least this was a viable ecology, not a stalemated tropical-rain-forest dense ecology, with the various elements, so to speak, taking in each other’s washing. Such transitory ecologies did reinforce Ben’s theory of a recent meteorite storm rather than an ice-age hiatus in evolution. The bare circles were planetwide, except at the caps and one small band of the southern hemisphere, and though the survey team had thoroughly investigated, they could not find the meteorites that might have been the cause. Nor, Ben fretted, were any of the circles either deep enough or overlapping in the pattern caused by a multiple meteorite impact. The northern hemisphere, though in part blanketed by thick snows, was duly cored for soil and rock samplings. Mud flats, emitting the usual dense sulfurous fumes all over the central plain’s vast river delta, produced more regularities than differences, and certainly a plethora of promising bacteria over which Shavva crowed. Farther inland, up the broad navigable riverway, they found adequate lodes, of iron, copper, nickel, tin, vanadium, bauxite, and even some germanium, but none of the generous quantities of metals and minerals that would interest a mining consortium. On the next-to-last morning of their survey, Ben found gold nuggets in a brash mountain stream. “A real old-fashioned world,” he remarked, tossing and catching the heavy nuggets in his hand. “Old Earth once had free gold in streams, too. Another parallel.” Shavva leaned over and took one that was an almost perfect drop, holding it between thumb and forefinger. “My loot,” she said, dropping it into her belt pouch. She found one extremely interesting plant on the upper section of the eastern peninsula: a vigorous tree whose bark when bruised in the fingers, gave off a pungent smell. That evening, she made an infusion of the bark, sniffing appreciatively of its aroma. Empiric tests showed that it was not toxic, and her judicious sip of the infusion made her sigh with pleasure. “Try it, Liu, tastes great!” Liu regarded the thin dark liquid with suspicion, but he, too, found the odor stimulating to his salivary glands and wet his lips, smacking to spread the taste. “Hmmm, not bad. Bit watery. Infuse it a bit longer, or reduce the liquid. You might have something here.” Ben joined in the sampling, and when Shavva experimented with grinding the bark and filtering hot water through it, he approved the result. “A sort of combination of coffee and chocolate, I think, with a spicy aftertaste. Not bad.” So Shawa harvested a quantity of the bark, and they used it as a beverage for the remaining two days. She even saved enough to bring back to Castor as a treat. Though none of the three made mention of the fact, they were all sorry to leave the planet and yet relieved that there had been no further accidents or untoward circumstances. Barring some unforeseen factor, discovered in the analyses of soil, vegetation, and biological samples, they were all three quite willing to let Castor initial it P.E.R.N.--parallel Earth, resources negligible. He added a C in the top corner of the report, indicating that the planet was suitable for colonization. That is, if any colonial group wanted to settle on a pastoral planet, far off the established trade routes, and about as far from the center of the Federated Sentient headquarters as one could go in the known galaxy.