The Rhino ran all night and through most of the next day. Harcourt found the road Pigeon had talked about easily enough and, even though its pavement was cracked and overgrown, there were no large trees to slow down his progress. Even though running in low gear the whole way (the transmission had jammed in first sometime over the night), he estimated he had covered over two hundred kilometers, and he still hadn't found any 'airbase'.
The long, sleepless night had been punctuated by the intermittent crack of small-arms fire as the Kroot took pot-shots at the armored vehicle. Harcourt was not so much unnerved by the attacks as he was thankful- there was no way he would have managed to keep awake without them. Today, with the sun high in the sky and the forest breaking up into broken clumps of small trees and hardy bushes, there hadn't been any attacks for hours, and Harcourt pulled the limping Rhino to a halt.
He got out, Kroot rifle in his hands, and gave the terrain a good look. Visibility was around three-hundred meters, but there were plenty of small hills and brush-clogged gullies to support an ambush, if necessary. He weighed the idea of not risking a walk around, but his legs ached, his eyes burned, and there was a good man who needed a decent burial. "If there's anybody out there and they want to shoot me," he reasoned to himself, "there's not a hell of a lot I can do about it."
It took much of Harcourt's remaining strength to drag Pigeon's body out of the Rhino, and the rest of it to dig the shallow grave with an old entrenching tool he found in a rusty survival kit. By the time he piled the dirt on top of the Praetorian, it was nightfall. With a gasp, he rolled onto his back.
"I should say a few words." He said. He meant to drag himself to his feet, but his arms and legs refused to move.
The loose, sandy soil was soft on his back, and the air was crisp with the smell of vegetation. Harcourt found himself staring up at the stars, just as he had in his hut back in the prison camp every night for the past year. On those nights, he had spent his time wondering what the Imperium was doing out there, in that vast span of cosmos. He had asked himself a thousand times the question: "Do they even notice we're gone?"
On this night, though, Harcourt lay, exhausted and free, and didn't think too much about the Imperium or what it was doing or whether his comrades back in the camp were all right or not. Tonight, he looked up and he said, sleep weighing heavily on his voice, "Take care of Pigeon, will ya, everybody?"
* * * * * * * *
Harcourt woke up while sailing through the air and, before he had even time to scream, he hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs. Lying flat and gasping for air, he tried to get his bearings...
... and failed utterly. He wasn't even sure where he had fallen asleep, not to mention where some explosion had thrown him. Wait- explosion? What had exploded?
"The Rhino... " he wheezed, and pawed around for his Kroot rifle. It was nowhere to be found.
"Okay," Harcourt whispered to himself, "keep it cool, Titus. Second question- what blew up the Rhino?" Scanning his surroundings, he saw nothing but low brush, rolling hills, and gullies. This answered his question for him- the Tau were somewhere nearby, since only they were so adept and destroying armor at range without leaving any sign.
Of course, 'nearby' in Tau terms was a very wide area of possibility. Stealths could be sitting in a gully ten meters away and he would never know; just as easily, one of their heavier power armored suits could be squatting on a ridge ten kilometers away, and he still would never know. Either of them could have killed the Rhino with little trouble, and either of them was quite beyond his capability to engage and destroy. The only things he knew for certain were that the longer he was without a weapon the shorter his life would probably be, and that getting up and looking around for one would probably get his head blown off.
Tau snipers had killed a friend of his shortly after planetfall, and he never forgot what their xeno technology had done to the man. One second he was hugging the ground next to Harcourt in a shallow gully, and the next he was nothing more than a red stain stretching twenty meters down range. The medics hadn't even managed to collect enough of him to put in an empty C-ration tin. So, with that image in mind, and using the broken terrain to his advantage, Harcourt crawled towards the burning ruins of the Rhino, hoping to spot his stolen Kroot weapon along the way. This wasn't just any crawl, though- this was the kind that had him so low to the ground that his face was dragging through the dirt.
A tense, frighteningly quiet few minutes followed as Harcourt squirmed like an invertebrate through the dust. The smoke from the burning Rhino gave the air an acrid odor, and the crackle of the flames was the only sound. After what seemed like a very long time, he spied the Kroot rifle just where he had left it, and made his way over to it, inch by inch.
When at last he reached it, he was next to a small bump in the ground- not even half a meter high- that was generously covered by tough, scraggly bushes. Hugging close to it, he poked his rifle up under the bush and peeked down its barrel to scope out the surrounding territory. At first there was nothing to see- the same, unremarkable brush as had dominated the landscape the day before. It was as Harcourt had expected. The Tau had the initiative, and they were likely to keep it. He had to wait on their move. He watched in as many directions as he could without moving too much, and kept his finger on the trigger of the heavy rifle.
The Tau's 'move' was unexpected, to say the least. Harcourt spotted movement some thirty meters away, and immediately trained his sights on it. Whoever or whatever it was, it moved slowly and awkwardly over the uneven ground. It had the silhouette of a lone Tau, but he didn't get a good look until it was very close- so close that he was worried that it might have heard his grunt of surprise.
It was a single, lone Tau, as he had thought. It wasn't, however, the kind of Tau he expected to see. It wasn't wearing the typical heavy carapace armor with the bizarre cyclopean helmet. It wasn't carrying a long, boxy pulse rifle. In point of fact, the Tau wasn't armed at all. It was wearing a long, ankle-length robe of a soft cream color, its hands resting calmly at its side. It wore a wide, conical hat made of straw, and its blue-grey face was smoother and less weathered than those of the Tau he had fought in the war. Its eyes, however, were still of the deepest black, and shone like chips of onyx underneath its hat's wide brim.
"That's either a trap, or I'm an ork." Harcourt hissed, and pulled the rifle to his shoulder. It was an easy head shot- the Tau wasn't even moving.
Before he squeezed the trigger, the strange, unarmed Tau yelled in perfectly understandable Low Gothic. "You can kill me, if you want, but I'd rather you didn't!"
Harcourt hesitated, mouth suddenly dry. Did it know where he was? How could it? It wasn't even looking in the right direction.
"I would like to speak with you. Please come out!" The Tau said again, turning slowly in a circle. "Surely, you must realize your situation! If we wanted you dead, we would have shot you while you slept! I only wish to talk with you."
Harcourt didn't move. What in the Emperor's Name would these xenos want to say to him?
The Tau kept talking. "If you think I'm lying, you must assume that I am trying to get you to reveal your position. What purpose would that serve? You are alone, on a world unfamiliar to you, and your only method of transport is destroyed. We don't have to kill you, Private Harcourt- you are already a dead man. If you come out and talk to me, though, I can promise you won't be harmed."
Harcourt considered this. He really couldn't deny the Tau's logic- he was, effectively, a dead man. He'd known this for a while, though, and the thought hadn't stopped him yet. To be honest, he'd known he was a dead man ever since he was drafted into the Imperial Guard, and that had been ages ago. Just because this alien was reiterating it wasn't really the strongest point of his argument. Heck, it almost made him plug the xeno out of spite. No, the thing that gave Harcourt pause was this: They knew who he was, and they wanted to talk to him.
Not a single Tau, since he and the rest of his fellows had been captured, had seemed to exhibit even the slightest interest in any their prisoners. They hadn't interrogated them, they hadn't supervised them beyond the barest minimum, and they hadn't even made an effort to communicate with their prisoners in the year they had all been 'incarcerated'. Never, at least, until this very moment.
Harcourt knew, in his heart of hearts, that this was a trap. It was some kind of xeno trick designed to bring him to some unknowable and nefarious end. Still, shooting the lone, unarmed Tau would result in a clear and obvious end- he would be killed by some bizarre xeno weapon an instant after he fired. Not shooting the Tau, however, was an end that was in doubt. Yes, he conceded, he would probably still meet his fate via the business-end of a pulse rifle, but there was the chance that he wouldn't. They might, after all, kill him in some other strange way which was, in and of itself, just perversely fascinating enough to get Harcourt to stand up.
He had the Tau square in his sights, even as he revealed himself. "Don't move, fishy. Hands on your head."
The Tau did as he was told, but asked. "May I speak?"
"Please do, and be quick about it."
"I am Por'vre Bork'an Tar'lia. I have been authorized by the noble Aun'el Bork'an Iza'a to extend her apologies on behalf of the benevolent Tau Empire for the ordeal you have endured thus far."
Harcourt smirked. "Which part? The one where I was nearly eaten alive by your pets, or the one where you blew up my Rhino?"
"All of it, actually." The Tau attempted a smile- a gesture which didn't quite mesh with his facial musculature and, on the whole, looked quite painful for him.
Snorting, Harcourt made a point of re-centering the Kroot rifle on the Tau's head. "You didn't walk all the way out here in your evening gown just to apologize. Cut to the chase."
"The weapon really isn't necessary, I assure you. I am unarmed."
"Your friends aren't, wherever they are. You're insurance."
It shrugged. "If you think holding me hostage ensures your safety, you will find you are sorely mistaken. They- or, rather, he- is not here to protect me; he is here to ensure you don't escape, should you attempt to."
"And where is 'he'?" Tar'lia jerked it's head to indicate somewhere behind Harcourt. This made the veteran guardsman laugh. "You really must think I'm stupid, don't you?"
At that moment, he heard a faint whine from behind him which grew into the ear-splitting scream of some kind of jet-thrusters. A rush of hot air and clouds of dust kicked up and blew against Harcourt's back, causing him at last to spin around. There, setting down atop the smoking ruins of the Rhino, was a massive battlesuit of almost three meters in height. On its shoulder was a rack of missiles and a rotary-barreled pulse cannon was mounted on its right arm. The mechanical, rectangular head had its singular, glowing red eye fixed on him like an owl might watch a field mouse.
Harcourt looked down at his Kroot rifle. He'd seen Crisis Suits in action before, and knew that it would take firepower far in excess of his own to bring one down. Sighing, he tossed it to the ground and threw up his hands. "Fine. You guys win."
Tar'lia shook his head. "While I am relieved that you have chosen to relinquish your weapon and your threat upon my life, I can assure you that we are not engaging in some kind of contest. We have not won anymore than you have lost. We are here to negotiate."
"Negotiate what? I don't know anything, so no amount of tort... "
Tar'lia held up his four fingered hand. His voice was actually stern, for once. "We do not torture our prisoners, Private."
Harcourt snorted, tearing his eyes away from the crisis suit. "Oh, and I suppose feeding them to the Kroot is what you might call 'humane?'"
"How bizarre that your language uses the word 'humane' to refer to fair treatment. It has been our experience that humans behave 'humanely' quite rarely." The Tau sighed, and then continued, "To answer your sarcastic question, no, I do not consider what the Kroot do to be pleasant, appealing, or even agreeable. However it was you, not we, who decided to stray into their territory."
Harcourt scowled. "You didn't exactly put up a sign that said 'beware of carnivorous aliens.'"
"You were attempting to escape from a prison- what did you think would happen? I know very well that your people shoot escaping prisoners, in the rare instances you deign to take them at all."
"Does this argument have a point?" Harcourt folded his arms. "I haven't got all day."
Tar'lia nodded. "Of course- you no doubt have many plans to cause some kind of bloody mischief on the surface of our planet. That propensity of your is, actually, what we wanted to speak to you about. We have observed your behavior in the prison camp, he have reviewed your military records, and, what's more, we have followed your movements quite closely since you escaped. I or, more appropriately, El'Ashar over there, have been very impressed with your resourcefulness."
Harcourt rolled his eyes. "Thanks. Do I win a prize or something?"
Tar'lia executed its painful smile again. "Not quite. We would like to offer you a job."
"Sorry, I don't work for filthy xenos."
"Not even if, by doing so, we arrange for your passage home?"
Harcourt stopped mid-quip. "How could you do that?"
"We have been known to maintain contact with certain fringe elements of your Imperium- free traders, pirates, smugglers, and so on. We would be willing to secure passage for you aboard one of those vessels to wherever you'd like to go."
"And what would I have to do for you? I'm telling you right now that there is no way I'm betraying the Emperor."
"Of course not," Tar'lia said, "The mission we have in mind has nothing to do with that."
"It is extremely dangerous, and involves your being dropped into ork-infested territory to destroy a target of interest. Shas'el Ashar will brief you on the details."
Harcourt watched Tar'lia's face for some sign of deception. Not being familiar with Tau mannerisms, though, he had not idea. It could be that the Tau was just a fine liar. "Sounds like a suicide mission."
Tar'lia nodded. "That's because it probably is. Of course, you are full of surprises- it is our hope that you don't die."
"How sweet of you. Suppose I say no."
"Then you have two choices, Private. You can go back to the prison camp and be executed by your fellows, or you can try to escape El'Ashar."
Harcourt looked over his shoulder at the hulking battlesuit. "So I either join you or die?"
Tar'lia shrugged. "I'm very sorry, Private, but you are simply too dangerous to just let go."
Harcourt put his hands on his hips and turned his back to Tar'lia to examine El'Ashar. He knew that somewhere inside the massive Crisis Suit was a short, lightweight Tau with his stubbly fingers on a trigger assembly. If Harcourt met that little Tau in an alley somewhere, he knew the little alien would be dead in seconds. Here, though, in open terrain with no weapon, the Tau would kill him before he got three paces. He didn't think he could even manage to kill the unarmed xeno behind him before he was vaporized. So, there was his choice: go with them on this little suicide mission, or die right here.
Or maybe there was a third option...
He spun and faced Tar'lia, "Okay, here's the deal. I do this mission, but under one condition."
"You secure passage out of here not just for me, but for all of us. All of your prisoners get to go home."
The Tau cocked its head to the side and considered this, and then put a hand to its ear- probably listening to some kind of internal comlink. Finally, Tar'lia split his face into the smile again. "We have a deal."
Harcourt nodded and smiled back. He knew the xeno was lying to him- the fact that it had given in so lightly to his demands confirmed this- but he also knew something the rest of them didn't know:
He had been lying, too.
To Be Continued...