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A short story by

Alex Irvine

Patient: Sergeant Norwood Doakes, of Torch Seven. That's the 7th platoon, 4th Marine Division. We are on the battlecruiser Scion, in parking orbit around the planet Vygoire. This is a debriefing and medical report. The short version: He's in bad shape.

How bad?

Bad enough that we might have to kill him to get what we need.

Let's try to avoid that. But if it's necessary...

Right. On with the debriefing. I'm going to give him a shot. It'll snap him out of it long enough that we should be able to find out what happened. There we go. That ought to do it. For now.

* * *

We hit Vygoire like we knew it was going to hit us back, straight down out of the dropships by the book, boots on the ground two at a time and one second apart, the way Torch Seven does it. Terrain was jungle, jungle, and more jungle, with the occasional clearing or river bend mudflat. We formed up on one of those mudflats and got the latest weather and maps pinged down from the Scion. Right on the money. The lab complex was half a klick through the jungle away from the river. "Give us the lesson, Sarge," one of my wise guys said.

I think I'm the only man in the platoon who hasn't been brain-panned. The guys let me hear about it all the time, like I joined the marines to slum with lowlifes. One time, we were on Mar Sara, and I started talking about the history, just to kill time. The unit decided I was a professor because I read something other than a weapons manual once. Now they're like a bunch of kids sometimes. Tell us this, tell us that, what's this, where does this come from.

I don't mind. Long as they still listen when I give them orders. And they do. There's twenty-seven of them and one of me, but every man in Torch Seven knows who's in charge. Sergeant Doakes is fekking in charge: that's who.

I didn't have a lesson about Vygoire. All I knew was the briefing all of us had gotten. Remote, recently discovered, overrun by the Swarm three years ago. Cleared two years after that. Currently home to a single science installation, personnel numbering approximately one hundred. Location of interest because said science lab had failed to answer routine communications for nearly six months.

We had orbital images of the planet that showed no trace of creep. Also the sky-eyes had closer shots of the lab complex that showed some damage, but it looked like natural phenomena had caused it. The lab was set at the base of a hill, and the hillside near the damaged buildings had a big scar in the vegetation. Looked like a landslide, and that was the theory we went on.

Up close, we didn't have any reason to think different. Rocks and mud from the hillside, along with tree trunks, were all churned together with the ruined walls of the damaged buildings. It was raining like hell, and it wasn't too hard to guess that landslides were pretty common in the jungle parts of Vygoire.

The lab complex was six buildings, with at least two subterranean levels we knew about from the schematics we had from the mission briefing. The building closest to the hill was a total loss. Two others were partially wrecked, but their roofs had held. The other three were undamaged. The whole area was fenced in, with a gate for vehicle traffic to the southwest. A two-track road led away from it into the jungle. Aggregate area was maybe two acres. Near the gate there was a functional missile and radar installation, with an attached comm tower.

We went in on standard urban-recon protocols, clearing the lab complex building by building and room by room. I had Milner and Jouvert leading fire teams up front, hopscotching while the rest of us advanced in a support formation. We stayed tight because we didn't know what we were looking for. Pretty soon we were sure the lab was deserted, but it hadn't been for long. The power was on, and some of the automated processes were still chugging away. In the parts of it that weren't wrecked, anyway. I don't know what they were doing. We glanced through the central terminals and found something about a research project. It was focused on a common plant that produced a certain kind of psychoactive spore.

The other thing we saw all over the lab was weird graffiti: two curved lines that intersected about two-thirds of the way to the top of both. Like parentheses that had fallen into each other. It was drawn on desktops, scratched into the walls... a couple of places we saw it painted in what looked like blood, but on that first sweep we didn't stop to analyze it.

Human remains were present in two of the buildings, both near the hillside. We counted four sets of remains, but it was tough to tell because they were scattered around.

* * *

Listen to him. The shot turned him into a robot.

Better than the way he was raving before, wasn't it?

You're the doctor, Langridge. Keep him alive and talking. There are a lot of interested parties waiting on the results of this mission.

* * *

There was a trail leading from the north side of the lab complex into the jungle. We followed it and found some evidence of Vygoire's recent zerg-infested past. A battle had taken place here. Pieces of armor and a crashed diamondback were still visible in the regrown jungle. It looked like our guys had been cutting a trail through the jungle—the trail we were walking on—and the zerg came out of the green from all sides. I had a little flashback to what that must have been like.

Jouvert scouted ahead and reported that the trail went down a ravine about a hundred meters ahead of the battle site. We pulled back to the perimeter of the lab complex, near the gate, and I made a quick status call to Scion. Also I figured that if the lab personnel were hiding out somewhere, they would be using their own frequency to communicate, so I had Hamzi patch us into the comm tower. While we waited for him to finish the patch and test it, we all popped our faceplates. Our Pigs—that's HPIGNUs, Handheld Personal Information-Gathering and Navigation Units to you non-marines—were reading good air and no dangerous compounds or airborne microorganisms. Vygoire was starting to look pretty good. Breathable atmosphere, no zerg. Must have been tons of resources if this kind of jungle could grow there. In a hundred years, I remember thinking, it'll be capital of this sector once the big industrials get prospectors out here and see what they've been missing.

"Attention, personnel of the Vygoire scientific installation: this is Sergeant Norwood Doakes of the Dominion Marine Corps," I said. "If you receive this message, please respond."

Nothing. I repeated the message and waited.

"They're dead," Milner said.

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