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     Bove Sandle watched from the observation deck as the Starship Mars slid into a standard orbit around the Delta planet of Phoenix-Gamma. The trip had been quick—just under three weeks. Too damn quick, Bove thought. He had just finished a First Encounter assignment at Bellatrix-Pi Gamma, his fourth in a row, and was scheduled for a little R&R. Thinking of a break from the constant alertness, the constant awareness, the readiness; even in his sleep he had to identify every little noise, every movement, every presence. The thought of a break from that is what kept him going.
     Phoenix-Gamma was a magnitude three star sixty degrees south of the solar equator, and twenty-four light-years from Earth. The Delta planet was considered an ideal site for the next colony and this assignment was a last-minute decision that needed immediate attention. Bove had been assigned to the team on his last day on Pi-3. He complained but was told that leave time was up to the discretion of the task controller, and if he didn't agree with the department's policy, he could file a complaint and proceed through proper channels. He complained again but to no avail.
     He had joined the Galactic Peacekeeper Force, the GPF, five years ago when a global Manifest Destiny had been announced. Man was now ready to move to the stars, and Bove had wanted to be part of it. His standard training was two years of intensive instruction covering piloting of every known starship made, from small private pleasure craft to large warships of battle class. Every hand-held weapon available was covered in the smallest detail so Bove was able to assemble and disassemble each one in the dark. In addition to learning weapons, they were trained in fighting techniques—formal combat to hand-to-hand encounters covering techniques of karate, tae-kwon-do, jujitsu, and street fighting. Survival was covered in three months and included the harshest environments starting in the desert, moving to mountains, then jungles and forests, and culminating in the arctic snow where winter temperatures dropped to sixty degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
     They were prepared for almost any situation they could find themselves in. Able to protect themselves with any weapon available or with only their bare hands, and escape in any available ship. They were the best. Once their training was complete, they had earned a two-week break, after which Bove received his first assignment--the excitement ran high--the adventure had begun.
     Now, as then, his assignment read, Possible intelligent life has been identified..., and went on in more detail to explain; but, as usual, it came down to checking out possible colony sites. Most intelligent life they had found was on such a low level that future development was unlikely--or so the Peacekeepers deemed.
     The great adventure had developed into a job. Seldom was there any adventure, it had become a routine. Once the First Encounter Teams reached their designated sites, they checked for intelligent life, did their tests--soil, water, plants, animals, weather, seasons, etc.--then wrote it up. The report was considered along with various other tabulations of data in selecting the next colonization move in the great plan. Once the data was assembled it would take a majority of negative reports to change the decision whether it was to colonize or not. The Peacekeepers made sure the desired recommendation was clearly understood before any teams were dispatched—just to avoid any disagreement in the filed reports. No one wanted to explain to their superiors why an expectation was not meant. Particularly if the planet had been flagged as an ideal site for a colony, which was the case with the Delta planet of Phoenix-Gamma.
     Bove did not know why he stayed with the Peacekeepers, but right now he only wanted a break. For the first time in eighteen months, he had thought of letting the tension slip away only to have that hope dashed when this assignment came through. He took a deep breath and studied the blue orb of the Delta planet arcing across the observation window--a peaceful welcoming haven. The Mars was heading to the night side of the planet where a dark line divided day from night. It seemed to pull at him, to bring him down onto its surface and into the forest of trees towering above him, great brown giants brooding over him. Then he was there among the tree-tops and with him were others like him. They lived here in the trees in a village built high in the branches hidden from the ground below and the sky above. And he knew this was their world. They were there for him, to support him, to guide him in his decisions--to help him make the right decision. He could feel their love and their confidence in him, sure he would be there for them. Then they were gone, and he was back on the observation deck looking at the calm blue planet. Strange, he thought blinking his eyes. What just happened? Did I pass out? Fall asleep? I felt like I was standing in the forest among the trees.

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