In the dim light of a distant alien sun, a daughter of Earth labored with the pangs of childbirth. The enormous starship began the birth with jets of flame to slow her end-over-end rotation. It took an hour to gradually slow the rotation of the ship to about a tenth of the normal rate. When this task was done, the ship paused for a time as though resting.
Suddenly a crack appeared in the hull. Brilliant light spilled out. The crack widened slowly as the enormous bay door opened, majestic and silent in the void. Soon there was a deep cavity in the side of the starship, an opening into the docking bay. The ship again rested from her labors.
Two parallel rails began to extend from the opening, gradually telescoping outward until they reached a length of fifty meters. Again the ship paused.
Like a ghost, a smaller spacecraft slid out of the bay, accelerating down the rails, to be hurled into space by the rotation of the mother ship. The daughter ship rested in silence for a moment and then cried out on the 2 meter band to reassure her mother that she was healthy: "Starship Santa Maria, this is Interplanetary Lander Enterprise. Launch is complete. All systems are go. Repeat, all systems are functioning within normal parameters."
The mother ship responded with a 2 meter bleat of encouragement: "Roger, Enterprise. We confirm: situation normal. You may proceed with your mission. Good bye and good luck."
When she had fallen to a kilometer away from her mother, the daughter ship spurt tiny jets to bring herself to the correct heading. Without warning the interplanetary lander flared with the white-hot plasma flame of atomic engines. She began to accelerate away from her silent mother.
After a few moments, the mother ship again fired her own attitude jets to bring the rate of spin back up. The child was on her own now.
Although Daniel was on the daughter ship, he had watched the entire birth from a camera on another starship. Better view that way. He watched until the white light that was his own ship reduced to a pinpoint and then vanished among the stars.
With a deep breath that was somewhere between a sigh and a shudder, Daniel switched off the video feed to go back to the database. He knew he was being compulsive, suspicious to the point of paranoia, but he couldn't help himself. There was something wrong about this entire mission. Something that he hadn't been told. So he was going back to review the situation once more.
Moon 3 had three different kinds of organism. One of them was Earth-like to the point of implausibility, down to the DNA. There were alien-looking organisms, but also many organisms that looked like Earth life, including specimens from different geological strata. There were dinosaurs and tigers. The only plausible explanations were (1) that Earth-like DNA was the only way to make organic life or (2) a space-traveling civilization.
Then there were the metaloids. Arguably another kind of life. The metaloids were creatures based on metals and ceramics that looked very much like small robots. There were metaloids that were analogous to plants; they used semiconductors to reap energy from the sun and generator coils to reap energy from the powerful magnetic fields of the planet. They apparently used the energy to build up structures from raw materials like factories. There were consumer analogs that stole power from the plant analogs and apparently, in some way, incorporated the structures of the plant analogs into their own bodies. These creatures emitted radio-frequency signals that were no more complex than the sounds produced by Earth animals. It was these signals that had first been detected by the starships. The only two plausible explanations of the metaloid ecology were (1) that metallic/electronic organisms could evolve or (2) a nano-technology civilization.
The third kind of life was the polymoids. Only a few of these had been seen, and only one analyzed. The polymoids were based on enormous fluorocarbon polymers. The material of their bodies was enormously complex, flexible, tough and temperature tolerant. If the sample hadn't come from a living organism, the natural assumption would have been that it was an advanced synthetic material. Again, there were two explanations: (1) it was possible for this kind of life to evolve or (2) a civilization with advanced chemistry.
And don't forget the "artifacts", the seven evenly space craters that were somehow interconnected beneath the surface. There were two explanations for those: (1) some unknown geological or orbital mechanism or (2) a civilization with very advanced engineering.
In each case, the most plausible explanation seemed to be an advanced civilization. Except that there was no other sign of civilization beside those four striking things. There were no other large-scale structures, no cities, no roads. Not even ruins. There was no sign of industrial pollution besides what the metaloids would put out. There was no sign of intelligent broadcasting. There was no sign of space travel. And most significantly, although the starships had arrived from Earth more than three years ago, there had been no attempt to communicate with them or to attack them.
The debates were hot and furious over how to explain these mysteries. So far the naturalists were dominant. They were working very hard to make the implausible explanations that didn't involve an alien civilization more plausible. A smaller, but just a dedicated camp, was constantly searching for more evidence of an alien civilization.
And that's where Daniel and his team came in. Their job was to investigate the planet and try to, at the very least solve the question of whether there was an alien civilization, past or present, on Moon 3. That was the reason for the odd collection of talents that they had.
But that didn't explain what the rush was. The starships had been in orbit around the sun for three years. Why did they suddenly need to wake up a set of completely new people and send them out with only a few days of preparation? Had something happened that Daniel didn't know about? Some sign of civilization? Some threat? And why was the data so sparse? Dozens of probes had been sent out, and there was very little to show for it. Only six remote samplings and dissections and all of those seemed incomplete. Only a few hundred hours of film and instrument readings. There should be an order of magnitude more data available. Where was it?
"You're just a suspicious kind of guy, aren't you?" Daniel looked up to see Jackie grinning at him from her acceleration couch to his left. "You just keep worrying at that data like a dog at a rawhide strip. You're not going to rest till it's all shredded."
Daniel grinned back. "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me. But I know. I haven't been able to convince anyone else to be concerned."
"Zareda didn't say much, but I could tell that he was taking your worries seriously."
"Well he's a cop," Harold said from his own couch across the room. "Paranoia comes with the badge, I guess."
"Seriously, Daniel," said Jackie, "You don't really believe that there is some kind of grand conspiracy directed against little 'ol us. If you did, you never would have come along. Or if you did, you never would have let Sarah come; you're too protective of her. This is just your mind trying to come up with explanations for the inexplicable."
"How was he going to stop me?" Sarah asked from Daniel's right.
"Sarah has a point," Daniel said. "But so do you. So let's say that I'm only paranoid in the abstract sense."
Suddenly a voice spoke from the loudspeakers, "OK, the gyros have spun up and all systems are normal. You can get up and move about the ship now."
"I get dibs on the porthole!" shouted Sarah as she bounced up in the low gravity. The other three got up more carefully.
Jackie said in a low voice to Daniel, "So how many plans did you come up with that would have kept Sarah on the Santa Maria?"
"Four." said Daniel with a grin. "If you count one that would have gotten her sent to another starship. But I couldn't do anything underhanded like that."
"Not to Sarah, anyway."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I believe you are the kind of man who would have no problem doing underhanded things, Dr. Greaves, you just couldn't do it to Sarah."
"You wound me, Dr. Walenski."
"You'll heal, Dr. Greaves." Jackie patted him on the forearm and wandered over to the porthole.