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In the 'Green Zone'

The only sound Harcourt could hear was the rib-rattling vibrato hum of the dropship's hull as it battered its way through the turbulent upper atmosphere. Strapped into a seat built for a creature with a frame far smaller than his own, the veteran guardsman did his to keep his hands from shaking. It wasn't easy.

Across from him, sitting placidly as a contemplative monk, the Tau who had been introduced to him as Shas'el Bork'an Ashar, had his lone, real eye closed. The compact augmetic eye in the alien's right socket, however, continued to glare straight ahead. Unlike the effete Tar'lia who had, until several hours ago, been Harcourt's chaperone through Tau territory, Ashar was more in line with what Harcourt had associated with the Tau species. He was short by human standards, with a compact, terrier-like frame corded with dense muscle. Though possibly not as strong as Harcourt himself, he knew from experience that Tau soldiers were disproportionally strong for their height and weight, and Ashar looked to be no exception. His blue-grey skin was weathered and creased with scars and calluses- the result of numerous military campaigns, no doubt- and he wore his body armor with the ease of a creature who rarely worked without it.

The most exceptional feature of Ashar, though, had to be his eyes. Harcourt had always found the black, bottomless eyes of the Tau race disconcerting, but Ashar's were a whole order of magnitude worse. Between the glaring red augmetic eye that never blinked and the deep black pit of an eye that never seemed to leave his face, Harcourt could scarcely concentrate with the strange alien nearby. The fact that Ashar's hand never strayed far from the butt of his pulse pistol and that his face never registered any sign of emotion didn't help things, either. Harcourt couldn't wait for his opportunity to get away from him- and every other Tau in the galaxy.

The dropship stopped shuddering as it broke through the worst of the turbulence, and the interior of the passenger compartment suddenly grew very quiet and peaceful. In the ceiling, a green light lit up and a Tau voice chattered something in their abrupt, atonal language to Ashar. The Tau soldier responded in kind, and then addressed Harcourt. "Release yourself. Drop zone soon."

Harcourt detached his restraints. "How soon?"

"Point-one decs."

"I don't know xeno-time, pal. How long is that?"

Ashar shrugged. "Soon."

Harcourt grimaced and stood up, inspecting the matte-black body-suit he had been equipped with. Checking his wrist, a computer readout comprised of alien symbols glowed to life. He pecked at it, unsure of what to expect. "How do I know this thing will work?"

"It will."

"And I'll be totally invisible?"

Ashar shook his head. "Not said that. It make you hard to see. Not impossible."

Harcourt smiled. "You speak Gothic pretty well."

"You lie pretty well."

Harcourt found himself chuckling. "Funny. Didn't pick you for having a sense of humor."

"Wasn't joking." Ashar was staring directly at him, hand on his pistol.

The smile melted from Harcourt's face. "What?"

"Vre'Tar'lia is stupid to take your word, Gue'la Titus Harcourt. I am not stupid. You do not wish help us, not mattering what is given in exchange."

Harcourt swallowed. He knew if he was going to get out of here, now would have to be the time. He played it cool, relaxing himself and put his hands up. If he could just put Ashar at ease long enough to...

Ashar drew his pistol. "Face the wall."

Harcourt pursed his lips. With a full two paced between them, he wouldn't be able to close the gap without being vaporized by Ashar's sidearm. He turned around. "So, now what? You just shoot me?"

"You continue mission. Just no betraying before it starts."

Harcourt sighed. "Must think you're pretty smart, eh?"

"Cornered animal always fights; you are cornered animal. Not big leap of thought. Just needed to determine when you would attack. Now seemed best time. We are far away from held territory, there are few of us here to guard you- your best chances for escape are now."

Harcourt tried to think of a way out of his predicament. The passenger compartment was completely devoid of weapons or even much that could be used as such. He, himself, was completely unarmed except for a small communications device that projected a pair of completely harmless laser lights. Also, he was facing the wall, which meant he couldn't see exactly where Ashar was standing. Any sudden move and he'd get shot- he needed a distraction, or something to get Ashar to miss him. If that happened, he could close the gap and even the score quickly against the lightweight Tau.

The stealthsuit! If the generator strapped to his back worked like Ashar said, all he'd need to do was switch it on. Slowly moving his left hand towards the readout on his right wrist, he tried to stall. "You can't shoot me, Ashar. Who will perform your suicide mission, your- what do you call it? Mee Yen something... "

"M'yen'ral. You are stalling."

"Know everything, do you?"

Ashar grunted. "Caged animal always fights. You probably are trying to activate stealth field to distract me. Won't work."

Harcourt swore. "Why the hell not?"

"I set activation code to not expire until you are in green zone."

Leaning against the wall, Harcourt sighed. "Clever little xeno bastard... I ought to... "

"Will give you advice now, take if you please: Do as the Por caste asks of you. Survive. Go home. If you try and cheat us- even a little- they will not send you back. Don't be foolish."

"Buddy, 'foolish' is my middle name."

"I sorry to hear that. It was cruel of fellows to assign you such name."

Harcourt snorted. "You really don't have a sense of humor, do you?"

The green light illuminating the compartment began to flash, and, with a loud 'whoosh', the rear hatch opened. Harcourt looked at it, checking out of the corner of his eye to see if Ashar had looked as well- no such luck. The Tau had the sights of his pistol pointed squarely at Harcourt's back.

Ashar jerked the pistol towards the open hatch. "Out you go."

Hands raised, Harcourt turned to face the empty night sky behind the Tau dropship. They were high in the atmosphere, far above the thick cloud-cover that spread out like a downy carpet beneath them. Above, the stars twinkled in witness. Looking at them, Harcourt thought of Pigeon again, left in a nameless grave on some nameless plain. He'd only known the Praetorian for a few minutes, but he still felt enormous sadness when he thought of him. It was a bad end for an Emperor's man.

"Of course," he thought, "this end isn't going to be any better."

Looking over his shoulder at the grim-faced Ashar, Harcourt winked. "See you in Hell!"

Even as he stuffed the respirator in his mouth and jumped, Harcourt heard the Tau shout back. "No such place exists!"

Then the dropship pulled up and away and there was nothing but the freezing air whipping past his face, the darkness of the night, and the grey-white clouds below.

* * * * * * * *

Harcourt had done HALO jumps before, just not with a xeno-made gravchute on his back. It turned out to be pretty much the same thing, except he couldn't read a damn thing that was scrolling across the wrist display. He hoped it decided to beep or something when it was time to activate the chute, otherwise it was going to be a very short mission.

"Dammit all to goddamned hell!" Harcourt yelled at the empty sky. He wasn't even supposed to be doing this. His plan, as Ashar had so easily deduced, had been to commandeer the dropship and get its pilots to take him where he wanted to go before ever jumping out of the damned thing. Just when did he get so damned predictable?

A few minutes later, his wrist began to buzz, and he sighed. "Well, too late now. Time to go to plan B." He slapped the big red button on the display, and the grav chute hummed to life.

While Harcourt was being briefed, he had wondered aloud why the Tau needed him for this mission at all. "You've got those big freaking missile skimmers, or those flying suits with the plasma, or those little skimmers with their meltaguns," He'd said, "Why don't you just use one of them?"

The answer had been 'cloud cover.' The whole 'green zone,' as they called it, was covered by a thick, soupy bank of clouds that never, ever shifted. Fly a skimmer into that, Tar'lia had assured him, and it would either never see the target, or have to drop beneath it and be shot down as it made a strafing run less than a hundred meters above the deck. No, the only was to infiltrate the green zone was a commando, and that commando, as it turned out, was named Titus Harcourt.

As he began to fall through the clouds, his decent slowing by the second due to the ministrations of the near-silent grav chute, Harcourt discovered first hand why they were always present above the green zone. It was something that the Tau had to have known, but just didn't bother telling him. As it turned out, they weren't clouds at all- they were giant banks of black smog. Harcourt found himself falling through it for several minutes, and thanked the Emperor that he had a respirator. The acrid vapor was actually warm, and stung his eyes and burned his tongue even through his protective gear.

When he finally descended out of the vile smoke, Harcourt was much closer to the ground than he expected. Wiping his goggles clear of soot, he could see a crater-pocked landscape dotted with unevenly-sized fires that only served to illuminate the ramshackle ruins of bent steel and crumbled masonry that surrounded them. Straight below him was nothing but black, and he hoped that meant there was just open ground and not anything long and pointy waiting to greet him.

There wasn't, but he hit sooner than he expected and, judging from the clang, was atop some kind of crude tin roof. He rolled smoothly upon impact, and lay still for a moment to see if his arrival had warned any sentries. It was dead silent. Lifting his head, he flipped on the night-vision function he had been told was integrated into his goggles...

... and had to restrain himself from gasping in surprise. Instead of the fuzzy green lowlight enhancement he had grown accustomed to in the Guard, the night-shrouded world around Harcourt was now bathed in a crystal clear light that seemed to emanate from nowhere. The Tau tech allowed him see perfectly out to twice the distance he could have with its Imperial counterpart. He whistled under his breath. "No wonder the little creeps were so good at night ambushes."

Harcourt had landed atop a shack constructed of rusty corrugated steel and mangled wooden beams. Standing alone in front of its crude doorway was a single iron pole decorated with a variety of barbaric alien glyphs and bleached humanoid skulls hanging from greasy tassels. If any doubt had remained as to Harcourt's approximate location, it was gone now- he was definitely in Ork country.

He considered turning on the stealth field right then and there, but restrained himself. Ashar had said the suit could maintain the field for days, but he didn't exactly trust the Tau commander, and didn't want to risk it if nothing were at stake. As far as he could tell, there was nothing in the immediate area to raise any kind of alarm nor, for that matter, were there any guards to raise an alarm to. It looked as though this place had only recently been witness to a pretty extensive melee, judging from bloated, dismembered corpses scattered about at random, as well as a number of discarded weapons, various brass shell casings, and congealed pools of green-black blood.

Harcourt didn't know what to make of all this, so he didn't try. He tried, instead, to plot out his next move. If he were to follow the mission prescribed to him by the Tau, he would head due southeast of his present position. That would lead him towards the center of the aptly named 'Green Zone' and, he had to assume, his eventual death. If he didn't do what the Tau told him, he could go any number of directions. Unfortunately, judging from the maps he was allowed to peruse during his briefing, all of those directions led to precisely nowhere.

The Green Zone was an isolated enclave on the planet's southern continent which had been overrun by and infested with orks for a few years. The Tau had managed to cordon them off from the rest of the world via a heavily mined and drone-patrolled perimeter that was designed to kill anything and everything that attempted to pass through. This, coupled with routine surveillance by the Tau navy, had kept the orks bottled up in a desolate wasteland. Unfortunately, every attempt to dislodge the orks entirely had been met with disaster as the disparate warbands constantly at odds with one another united against the common Tau foe. Short of bombarding them into a nuclear winter (which, Ashar assured him, had been tried with only limited success), the Tau had no way to remove the greenskins and had decided that there was no purpose to reclaiming their territory anyway. If the orks wanted to hold on to a couple hundred thousand square kilometers of desert, they were welcome to it.

The long and the short of all this was that there was no real way out of the Green Zone that didn't involve either crossing an automated death frontier manned with pulse-weapon toting drones, or doing what the Tau wanted him to and journeying into the heart of ork country. A third option, he was forced to admit, was to move into the shack beneath him and declare it the capital of his own Imperial colony. It was tempting, he supposed, but then again...

He checked his small pack of supplies: a liter of water, one day's dry rations, a folding knife/multi-tool, binoculars, and the laser-pointer/communicator thing. He sighed, "So, I can go somewhere and die, or stay here and starve."

Picking up the pack, he slid down off the roof and headed due southeast. He chuckled morbidly to himself. "Never was much for long waits... "

* * * * * * * *

The further Harcourt traveled, the more and more bonfires began to appear on the horizon. It was difficult to say what was burning there, precisely, but whatever it was produced thick columns of ink-black smoke that blocked out the sky. Though he had been walking for hours, little sign of sunlight managed to permeate the gloomy cloud cover; everything was a hue of grey from falling ash, lit only by the bloody glow of the fires.

He had no idea if the fires had been set intentionally for this purpose, but it occurred to him that, if one wanted to limit the effectiveness of aerial bombardment, blackening the sky with ash wasn't such a bad way to do it. He kept his eyes open for anyone manning the fires, but saw none. That, he was forced to remind himself, was no indication that they wasn't anyone. Though Harcourt had little first hand experience with orks, he knew enough to know that the little ones- grots- were quite good at hiding in plain sight. It was possible, he realized, that he had already been spotted.

This thought blazing in his mind, he activated the stealth field on his suit immediately. He felt a sudden vibration through the fabric, but otherwise heard and felt nothing. Looking down, he saw that his body was somewhat... fuzzy. The suit had taken on an active camouflaging effect, similar to cameleoline, but went further than that. As he moved, the shadows that played across the landscape didn't seem to take his body into account, as though the suit were somehow blurring his outlines and bending the very light around his person. Waving his hand in front of his face, he was mildly alarmed to see that he had to focus on it to see it at all, detecting only a blurry silhouette of his fingers. Close up there could be little doubt that he would be spotted eventually, but at a distance he would be virtually invisible. Smiling to himself, he kept going.

The first signs of ork 'civilization' sounded like a steady and intense riot of gunfire and heavy machinery. When he first heard it, he thought he might be misinterpreting the sounds- that it was actually some kind of industrial plant that happened to make noises like firearms- but the closer he got, the more he realized that this was the real McCoy. Low crawling his way behind the wreck of an unidentifiable vehicle, Harcourt peered out upon a scene of utter mayhem.

There were, he estimated, somewhere between fifty and seventy orks, all of which were armed with a variety of heavy automatic weapons. They were shooting them seemingly at random as the ran around in loosely arranged mobs about a pair of tall, poorly supported towers. From these towers were suspended a variety of glyph-stamped banners. As Harcourt watched, he could see more banners being erected by teams of tiny green humanoids- grots, he supposed- who were cheering (or jeering) at the melee below. Occasionally, these little ones would rip off a piece of concrete or metal from a tower and throw it at some ork or another below while, at the same time, the orks (who were firing up in the air as often as they were at each other) would occasionally rake the towers with gunfire and send a half dozen or so grots tumbling to their deaths.

Harcourt wondered if he were watching some kind of ultra-violent team sport, and if the grots were scorekeepers of some kind, but if this were the case it was the most poorly organized sport he had ever witnessed. The 'teams' were not of any particular arrangement, since he witnessed various orks switching sides depending upon which crowd was losing or winning. The carnage was incredible- almost every ork in the are was wounded to one degree or another. Some were missing arms, others legs, and at least one ork was completely headless, yet still running around firing off its weapon on full automatic in random directions. Grenades and other, less stable explosives were used liberally, blowing pieces of ork into the air and showering the area with their hot, green-black blood. Orks that ran out of ammunition took to clubbing each other with their heavy weapons, or picking up jagged, rusty lengths of metal and hacking at random to their left and right. The dead bodies piled up, and yet the 'game' continued. The craziest thing about it, though, was that they all seemed to be having fun.

Harcourt considered sneaking around the edge of this melee, but thought better of it. Too many stray slugs were hitting everything in the area, and he didn't want to risk being wounded. He waited the conflict out, instead, keeping in cover behind the wrecked vehicle. After a time, the smaller mobs of orks were slaughtered or joined the larger one, until all of them had either been killed or subsumed into the winning group. Once this was done, the mob set off at a run in a direction that, again, seemed almost random with the biggest of the orks at their head, bellowing orders in a guttural, inhuman baritone. The grots, seeing this, leapt off of the tower and followed, after, picking up whatever weapons were left over from the battle that they could effectively carry. Five minutes later, Harcourt was all alone.

Proceeding carefully across the battlefield, Harcourt fished an ork handgun from the wreckage. It was half the length of a lasgun, but weighed three times as much. It fired shells the size of Harcourt's thumbs and had a snub barrel and no aiming sights whatsoever. Sighing, he dropped the gun where he had found it. He seriously doubted he'd get two shots off with the thing before the recoil either broke his arm or it blew up in his hands- unarmed, he figured, was better than maimed. In any case, there was no way he was going to shoot his way out of this place. Gunfire seemed only to encourage them.

Gingerly testing each rung on the rusty ladder leading to the top, Harcourt climbed one of the banner-laden towers recently abandoned by the grots. He wanted to get a good view of the upcoming terrain, in the hopes of avoiding future ork brawls or, hopefully, any orks at all.

At the top, he put his binoculars to his eyes and looked ahead. As far as the eye could see, the signs of ork habitation were crowded together in what amounted to the most chaotic and violent settlement he had ever seen. In addition to the regular bonfires, actual wildfires consumed whole blocks of crudely made buildings. These fires illuminated winding alleys and broad, crater-pocked avenues that were literally nothing more than the sites of running gun battles between ork and ork. Massive vehicles, decorated in garish colors and festooned with heavy weapons, rolled indiscriminately through neighborhoods, crushing buildings and squashing anything that got in the way. Hordes of orks on motorcycles and in open-topped buggies roared past these behemoths, leaving little but destruction in their wake. Behind these, and throughout the whole of the city, bands of grots and other strange, smaller creatures looted the ruins of whatever was most recently destroyed, either carrying the raw materials elsewhere, or beginning to rebuild whatever it was that had been obliterated.

In short, Harcourt was looking upon raw violence on a scale not even his war-weary eyes could comprehend. It was so loud, so frightening, and so senseless that it paralyzed him where he stood. Yet there, at the center of the madness and mayhem, he could barely see a hulking, egg-shaped structure that dwarfed everything around it. Attached to this thing, he could see the silhouettes of cranes and other heavy industrial equipment, and all of it was hard at work adding to it and building it up. Though he couldn't quite make it all out, he knew that it- that huge, mammoth structure- was his target. Somehow, some way, he had to cross the ork city and get within range of that thing, and destroy it.

The Tau had asked him to blow up a gargant.