"What killed them, then? We ain't seen anything bigger'n my glove," Jouvert said. "And the zerg have been cleared out for a year now."
I broke off the call and said, "That's what we're here to find out."
Nothing in our briefing had suggested that the native fauna on Vygoire were anything to worry about. It was a Permian-level ecosystem, all ferns and insects. But something had happened to the scientists. I pinged the Scion with an update on what we had found.
"Battlecruiser Scion. Report, Sergeant Doakes."
"Not much to report, Scion. The lab complex is deserted. Vygoire has no advanced life-forms, correct?"
"And the zerg were eradicated."
"You sure you got no signs of creep anywhere?"
"Negative. Vygoire's clean."
"We are continuing recon, then," I said. "Will update when we have located the lab personnel and we need extraction."
"Don't rush, Torch Seven. We are pulling out of this system on an emergency redeploy for escort duty."
"How long are we talking about, Scion? We're only carrying supplies for initial recon and return."
"Short duration. We will notify you when we are back in-system and extraction is available. Enjoy your vacation, Torch Seven. Scion out."
"'Short duration,'" Jouvert said when I had signed off. "Guess we better start building houses. Sarge, you can be the schoolteacher."
* * *
I piped up a slightly more formal version of the field report, attaching the research notes about the spores. Our Pigs weren't picking up anything dangerous, but my policy is when you don't know what's important, include everything.
Since we weren't getting any response from the science staff, we went back into recon mode. There was a clear footpath leading down the ravine. We followed it. Down at the bottom was a cleared space. In the middle of it was a tree trunk with the curved-line symbol carved all over it. It was one of the biggest trees I'd ever seen, even with its lower branches all snapped off and huge gouges taken out of its trunk. Surrounding it were ruts and furrows that looked like something real big had been doing acrobatics. Also there were little bits of unmistakably human remains.
"I told you: they're dead," Milner said.
"Some of them." The full lab staff had numbered a hundred or so. I couldn't make any precise estimate of how many sets of remains we'd found, but it wasn't anywhere near that. Even so, something was killing them.
The tactical part of my brain had been processing the terrain all the way from the edge of the lab compound to where we now stood. I took a look around to get a more complete picture. Just past a line of trees on the southern edge of the clearing, I could see water, what looked like a sizable lake. The stream that ran down the ravine drained into it. The north and east sides of the clearing ended in thickly forested and steep slopes. Back up the ravine, the lab compound was half a klick or so to the west-northwest.
On the side of the clearing across from the bottom of the ravine, another trail disappeared into the jungle gloom. This one looked like it followed around the edge of the lake, and judging from the way the trees rose up on the other side, it was the only way to get to the clearing from wherever the trail led. The trail itself was big enough for about six marines in full CMC armor to walk down side by side, and the trees on either side of it were scarred. Some of the smaller ones were uprooted or snapped off two or three meters from the ground. Freshly broken branches still dangled and oozed sap. I sent Chen over for a closer look, and he came back saying that there were tracks. Huge tracks. Quadruped, he said. I remember that word because he'd just gotten it out of his mouth when we heard the roar.
"What the hell is that?" Jouvert said. Torch Seven went to combat footing, weapons leveled, five-meter spacing, the whole routine.
Then something else happened that didn't make sense until later. One of my men went into full-on freakout. Started screaming out coordinates that didn't make any sense, racked his gauss, and went tear-assing across the clearing in the direction of the sound. He was saying something about gods, but I don't know which gods he meant.
I also think he said the words Great One, but at the time I didn't know why.
And I didn't have time to think about it because of the ultralisk that came tearing out of the jungle, right into the middle of our formation.