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The body was in a state of advanced decomposition. Time, and the various insect analogues of Marduk, had worked their way with it, and what was left was mostly skeleton with a few bits of clinging tendon and skin. Temu Jin would have liked to say it was the worst thing he'd ever seen, but that would have been a lie.

He turned over one of the skeletal hands and ran a sensor wand across it. The catacomblike tomb was hot and close, especially with three more team members and one of the gigantic Mardukans packed into it with him. The heat on Marduk was always bad—the "temperate" regions were a fairly constant thirty-five degrees—but in the tomb, with the remnant stink of decomposition (not to mention the smell of the unwashed assholes he'd arrived with), it was like an antechamber to Hell.

One that was already inhabited.

There was no question that its occupants had been Imperial Marines. Or, at least, people with Marine nano packs. The trace materials and surviving nanites were coded, and the sensor practically screamed "Imperials." But the questions were how they had gotten here . . . and why they were here. He could think of several reasons, and he liked the stink of all of them even less than he did the stench in this room.

"Ask them again, geek," Dara said in a tight voice. The survey team leader choked for a second—again—then hawked, spat, and finished by blowing out his nose on the floor. Marduk was hell on his sinuses. "Talk gook. Make sure this is all there was."

Jin looked up at the towering Mardukan and ran the translation through his "toot." The tutorial implant, lodged just inside his mastoid bone, took his chosen words, translated them into the local Mardukan dialect, and adjusted his speaking voice to compensate.

"My illustrious leader wishes to ensure, once again, that there were no survivors."

Mardukan expressions were not the same as those of humans. Among other things, their faces had fewer muscles, and much of their expressiveness came from eloquent gestures of their four arms. But the body language of this Mardukan was closed, as well. Part of that might be from the fact that he was missing one arm from the elbow down. Currently, there was a rather nice prosthetic hook in its place, razor-sharp on both sides. So Dara had to be either stupid, arrogant, or both to ask, for the fifth time, if the Voitan representative was lying.

"Alas," T'Leen Targ said with a sorrowful but cautious sweep of his arms (and hook), "there were no survivors. A few lasted a pair of days, but then they, too, succumbed. We did all we could for them. That we had been only a day sooner! The battle was great; your friends warred upon more Kranolta than the stars in the sky! They stacked them against the walls of the city and cut them down with their powerful fire-lances! Had our relief force but been sooner, some might have survived! Woe! But we were too late, alas. However, they did break the power of the Kranolta, and for that Voitan was and is eternally thankful. It was because of that gratitude that we interred them here, with our own honored dead, in hopes that someday others of their kind might come for them. And . . . here you are!"

"Same story," Jin said, turning back to the team leader.

"Where's the weapons? Where's the gear?" Dara demanded. Unlike the commo-puke's, his toot was an off-the-shelf civilian model and couldn't handle the only translation program available. It was loaded with the local patois used around the distant starport, but handling multiple dialects was beyond its capability, and Jin's system couldn't cross load the translation files.

"Some of that stuff should have survived," the team leader continued. "And there were supposed to be more of them at the last city. Where'd the rest of 'em go?"

"My illustrious leader asks about our dear friends' weapons and equipment," Jin said. The communications technician had had fairly extensive dealings with the natives, both back at the distant starport and on the hellish odyssey to this final resting place of the human castaways. And of them all, this one made him the most nervous. He'd almost rather be in the jungles again. Which was saying a lot.

Marduk was an incredibly hot, wet, and stable planet. The result was a nearly worldwide jungle, filled with the most vicious predators in the known worlds. And it seemed that the search team—or assassination team, depending on how one viewed it—had run into all of them on its journey here.

The starport's atmospheric puddle-jumpers had flown them to the dry lakebed where the four combat shuttles had landed. There was no indication, anywhere, of what unit had flown those shuttles, or where they had come from. All of them had been stripped of any information, and their computers purged. Just four Imperial assault shuttles, totally out of fuel, in the middle of five thousand square kilometers of salt.

There had, however, been a clear trail off the lakebed, leading up into the mountains. The search team had followed it, flying low, until it reached the lowland jungles. After that it had just . . . disappeared into the green hell.

Dara's request to return to base at that point had been denied. It was unlikely, to say the very least, that the shuttle crews might survive to reach civilization. Even taking the local flora and fauna out of the equation, the landing site was on the far side of the planet from the starport, and unless they had brought along enough dietary supplements, they would starve to death long before they could make the trip. But unlikely or not, their fate had to be known. Not so much because anyone would ever ask, or care, about them. Because if there was any shred of a possibility that they could reach the base, or worse, get off planet, they had to be eliminated.

That consideration had been unstated, and it was also one of the reasons that the tech wasn't sure he would survive the mission. The "official" reason for the search was simply to rescue the survivors. But the composition of the team made it much more likely that the real reason was to eliminate a threat. Dara was the governor's official bully-boy. Any minor "problem" that could be fixed with a little muscle or a discreetly disappearing body tended to get handed to the team leader. Otherwise, he was pretty useless. As demonstrated by his inability to see what was right in front of his eyes.

The rest of the team was cut from the same cloth. All fourteen of them—there'd been seventeen . . . before the local fauna got a shot at them on the trek here—were from the locally hired "guard" force, and all were wanted on one planet or another. Aware that maintaining forces on Class Three planets was difficult, at best, the distant Imperial capital allowed local governors wide latitude in the choice of personnel. Governor Brown had, by and large, hired what were still known as "Schultzes," guards who could be trusted to see, do, and hear nothing. Still, there were those special occasions when a real problem cropped up. And to deal with those problems, he had secured a "special reaction force" composed of what could graciously be called "scum." If, of course, one wanted to insult scum.

Jin was well aware that he was not an "official" member of the Special Force. As such, this mission might be a test for entry, and in many ways, that could be a good thing. Unfortunately, even if it was an entry test, there was still one huge issue associated with the mission: It might involve fighting the Marines. He had several reasons, not the least of which was the likelihood of being blasted into plasma, to not want to fight Marines, but the mission had been angling steadily that way.

Now, however, it seemed all his worry had been for naught. The last of the Marines had died here, in this lonely outpost, overrun by barbarians before their friendly "civilized" supporters could arrive to save them!

Sure they did, he thought, and snorted mentally. Either they wandered off and these guys are covering for them . . . or else the locals finished them off themselves and are graciously willing to give these "Kranolta" the credit. The only problem at this point is figuring out which. 

"Alas," the local said yet again. He seemed remarkably fond of that word, Jin thought cynically as Targ gestured in the direction of the distant jungle somewhere outside the tomb. "The Kranolta took all their equipment with them. There was nothing left for us to give to their friends. That is, to you."

And you can believe as much or as little of that as you like, Jin thought. But the answer left a glaring hole he had to plug. And hope his efforts never came to light.

"The scummy says the barbs threw all the gear into the river," he mistranslated.

"Poth!" Dara snarled. "That means it's all trashed. And we can't trace the power packs! Even trashed, we could've gotten something for them."

What an imbecile, Jin thought. Dara must have been hiding behind the door when brains were given out.

When a body is looted, the looters very rarely take every scrap of clothing. Nor was that the only peculiarity. There was one clinging bit of skin on the corpse before him which had clearly been cut away in an oval, as if to remove a tattoo after the person was dead . . . and there were no weapons or even bits of weapons anywhere in sight. For that matter, the entire battle site had been meticulously picked over to remove every trace of evidence. Some of the scars from plasma gun fire had even been covered up. The barbarians, according to the locals' time line, could not possibly have swept the battlefield that well, no matter how addicted to trophy-taking they might be, before the "civilized" locals arrived to finish driving them off.

The last city they'd passed through had also been remarkably reticent about the actions the objects of the search team's curiosity had taken on their way through. The crews of the downed shuttles had apparently swept into town, destroyed and looted a selected few of the local "Great Houses," and then swept out again, just as rapidly. According to the local king and the very few nobles they'd been permitted to question, at least. And in that town, the search team had been followed everywhere by a large enough contingent of guards to make attempts to question anyone else contraindicated.

All of that proved one thing to Jin, and it took a sadistic, snot-filled idiot like Dara not to see it.

The bodies had been sterilized.

Somebody wanted to make damn sure no one could determine who these Marines had been without a DNA database. The dead Marines' toots were already a dead issue, of course. Their built-in nanites had obediently reduced them to half-crumbled wreckage once their owners were dead. That was a routine security measure, but the rest of this definitely went far beyond "routine." Which meant these particular people were something other than standard Marines. Either Raiders or . . . something else. And since the locals were covering for them so assiduously, it was glaringly obvious that all of them hadn't died.

All of which meant that there was a short company—from the number of shuttles, Jin had put their initial force at a company—of an Imperial special operations unit out there wandering in the jungle. And the only reasonable target for their wandering was a certain starport.


He pushed aside a bit of the current corpse's hair, looking for any clue. The Marine had been female, with longish, dishwater blond hair. That was the only thing about the skeletal remains which would have been recognizable to anyone but a forensic pathologist, which Jin was not. He had some basic training in forensics, but all he could tell about this corpse was that a blade had half-severed the left arm. However, under the cover of the hair, there was a tiny earring. Just a scrap of bronze, with one ten-letter word on it.

Jin was unable to keep his eyes from widening, but he didn't freeze. He was far too well trained to do something so obvious. He simply moved his hand in a smooth motion, and the tiny earring was ripped from the decaying ear, a scrap of skin still dangling from it.

"I'm not finding anything," he said, getting to his feet as he willed his face to total immobility.

He looked at the native, who returned his regard impassively. The local "king" was named T'Kal Vlan. He'd greeted the search team as long-lost cousins, all the time giving the impression that he wanted to sell them a rug. For T'Leen Targ, though, it always seemed to be a toss-up between selling them a rug and burying them in one. Now the local scratched his horn with his hook and nodded . . . in a distinctly human fashion.

"I take it that you did not find anything," Targ said. "I'm so sorry. Will you be taking the bodies with you?"

"I think not," Jin replied. Standing as they were, the team leader was behind the local. Jin reached out with his left hand, and the Mardukan took it automatically, another example of acculturation to Terrans. Jin wondered if the Marines had realized how many clues they were unavoidably leaving behind. Given who they apparently were, it was probable, for all the proof of how hard they'd worked to avoid it. As he shook the Mardukan's slime-covered hand, a tiny drop of bronze was left behind, stuck in the mucus.

"I don't think we'll be back," the commo tech said. "But you might want to melt this down so nobody else finds it."

In the palm of the native's hand, the word "BARBARIANS" was briefly impressed into the mucus.

Then it disappeared.



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