Harcourt had expected to be tortured, or at least roughed up. Stripped to the waist, perhaps, and forced to labor in intense heat splitting rocks or digging ditches. He had also suspected that a summary execution was at the end of it all, too. He envisioned himself kneeling in front of a shallow grave he'd dug himself with his bare hands, a Tau firing squad at his back.
Much to Harcourt's surprise, when he and his remaining squad had been picked up by the Tau patrol, they had given them food. Not just C-rations, either, but real, honest fruits, breads, and cheeses they had stashed in a large bin aboard their Devilfish. Two of the Firewarriors had taken the bin around and passed the stuff out to them without saying anything. Another had circulated a canteen of water.
He couldn't tell if the Tau hated doing this or not, as they wore their unsettling cyclopean helmets throughout the whole process, but the individual soldiers' feelings seemed somewhat irrelevant. Somebody up there in the Tau command structure had ordered their troops to feed their human prisoners better stuff than they had eaten for months. The mere fact of this had shocked him so much that he started to think that they were going to fatten them up to be fed to their pet Kroot, or something. He became perversely satisfied by the idea as he sat, cuffed, in the back of the alien skimmer tank, and ate as much as he could. He was going to be fed to the Kroot - it made sense, and was totally in line with everything he had been told about the Tau since he had arrived on this Emperor-forsaken rock on the edge of the galaxy. That first night, when he had fallen asleep aboard the Devilfish, he had slept well in the knowledge that the galaxy did, indeed, make a kind of sense.
All of that was more than a year ago, and as Harcourt woke up on his straw sleeping mat with the morning sun poking him in his eyes through the chimney of his cement hut, he reflected that the night aboard the Devilfish had been his last good night's sleep. Much to his bizarre disappointment, Harcourt had never been fed to the Kroot. There had been no beatings or torture routines, and he hadn't ended up in some alien gulag mining salt. There hadn't even been much of an interrogation. A lone Tau functionary with the aid of some kind of translator drone had asked for his name, rank, and serial number, and if he had anything to say for himself. Not knowing how to reply, he had come up with a very clever "I think you all should go to hell!" The functionary had made a note of this - a fact that Harcourt still found hilarious - and that had been the last time he had spoken with one of his captors.
Harcourt heard footsteps outside his hut, and the deep bellow of Private Roxman echoed through his ears. "Wake up, Sarge! You're late!"
Harcourt rolled off of his straw mat, grabbed the tattered and patched remnants of his service jacket, and crawled through the small door into the daylight. Roxman gave him a hand up, and Harcourt squinted up at him. "The Colonel bitching again?"
"C'mon, Sarge - roll call's pretty important, ya know?" Roxman had grown a pretty impressive beard since their ‘incarceration', and had kept it even when the Tau finally agreed to drop them some razor blades, so Harcourt couldn't tell if he was smiling or not.
Harcourt pulled on his jacket and ran a hand through his shaggy mane of hair. "Throne, I hate this place!"
Roxman slapped him on the back. "Let's move, Sarge, or it'll be both of our hides!"
Harcourt scowled. "You go on ahead. I gotta hit the latrine."
Roxman's shaggy eyebrows raised an inch. "You sure? The Colonel will be..."
"Tell him to report me to the nearest Commissar." Harcourt spat, and set off.
The prison camp was large, comprising over fifty acres of cleared land in the midst of a primeval, trackless forest. Aside from the circular, igloo-like cement huts scattered about and the smooth, alien design of the well, there was nothing to indicate that the Tau had anything to do with the place. The assembly hall had been built by the ‘inmates' from trees they had felled at the edge of the forest, as had the latrine. All of the various gardens were wrought of human hands (though the seeds had been provided by the Tau), and even the flagpole had been erected by order of the Colonel after being designed by one of the engineers they had in their midst. All told, Harcourt imagined that an aerial reconnaissance pict of the place would reveal a quaint human retreat, home to some two-hundred men who lived along quiet lanes in small, simple huts. There were no walls, no guns, and almost no guards.
At the well, Harcourt took a long drink while looking up at the sky. It took him a second, but he eventually spotted them - six small, disc-like objects floating about a hundred feet above the camp, utterly still. They were Tau drones set to observe them, and that was really all they did. Much talk had been circulated about how to bring them down and, possibly, use them to escape, but that talk had stopped once everybody, even the Colonel, realized that those drones weren't coming down for nobody. Even when they staged a riot that had burned down their first assembly hall and had resulted in numerous injuries, the drones just watched. Then, the next day, an airdrop of medical supplies landed in the parade field.
Harcourt had known it wouldn't work. He had said so often, and publicly. This was, he thought, the first time he really got on the Colonel's bad side. Sure, he'd rubbed the old man the wrong way before then, but this was the first time he had actually called him an idiot to his face. As Harcourt meandered towards the parade field, he smiled as he recalled the exchange.
"You are out of line, Sergeant!" The Colonel had shouted, his wilted moustache quivering.
Harcourt had answered, "No, YOU are out of line! Don't you get it? The Tau don't care what we do to ourselves! They put us here to forget about us!"
"Need I remind you that we are over two-hundred enemy combatants behind their lines that could..."
"That could WHAT?" Harcourt remembered yelling, and remembered all the guardsmen who looked his way, mouths agape. "We aren't two-hundred enemy combatants. We are two-hundred suckers that the Imperial brass didn't see fit to pick up as they took off for home. We are two-hundred unarmed, unarmored, lost, abandoned schmucks on an alien planet without an ally within a hundred billion kilometers. Face it, Peters, they've got all the cards, and they've called out bluff."
The colonel's mouth opened and closed for a few moments, trying to find words for his rage. Finally, he growled. "I should have you shot for insubordination!"
Harcourt had laughed. "Let me know when you find a pistol."
That had been that. A mutual hatred had grown up between Harcourt and Colonel Peters, and it had only ripened with age. So, when Harcourt wandered onto the parade field to find everybody there, standing at attention, and the Colonel staring at him with undisguised malice, he only smiled. "Sorry," he confessed, "My alarm clock was broken."
The Colonel didn't move. "Sergeant Titus Harcourt, of the Arkanian 5th Mechanized Company, rejoin your squad."
"Of course, sir." Harcourt saluted half-heartedly and went to stand next to Roxman, Wiggins, and Marco.
Marco whispered to him. "You're in for it now."
Harcourt rolled his eyes as Captain Taddick, from the 34th Cadian Engineers, came to stand before him. Taddick was in command of Alpha Company, which was comprised of the first one-hundred guardsmen in the prison, including Harcourt himself and his squadmates. He, like the Colonel, still believed in the beneficial properties of continued military discipline. He also seemed incapable of communicating at any volume other than ‘yell.' "SERGEANT HARCOURT! YOU ARE A DISGRACE TO YOUR UNIT!"
"Sir, yes sir." Harcourt yawned.
"YOU ARE HEREBY DEMOTED TO PRIVATE!"
Taddick scowled. "YOU WILL ALSO BE PUT ON LATRINE DUTY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE! IS THAT UNDERSTOOD!"
Taddick leaned in close, so Harcourt could smell his breath as it blew up his nostrils. "YOU HAVE A MAJOR ATTITUDE PROBLEM, PRIVATE!"
Harcourt sighed. He considered just standing there and taking it, as usual, but enough was enough. He stepped past Taddick and out of line. "I ‘m outta here."
The Colonel, in mid-inspection, shouted after him. "Private! Where do you think you are going."
Harcourt didn't answer; he just kept walking.
The Colonel pointed at him. "Captain Taddick, get your man back into line!"
Taddick raced after the retreating Harcourt, screaming in his ear. "GET YOUR SORRY ASS BACK IN LINE, PRIVATE, OR I'LL..."
Harcourt dropped his shoulder and slammed it into Taddick's solar-plexus with all of his weight. The big Cadian folded in half and fell to the ground, gasping for breath. Harcourt didn't skip a step, and didn't look back. Of course, there was a rule about not looking back. This was a rule Harcourt had learned well when he was a ganger in the Western Hives on Arkania, and it had two halves. The first half was that you never, ever turned your back on an opponent that wasn't dead. The second half was that if somebody had their back turned on you, they were either suicidal, or planning to pull something dirty.
Captain Taddick hadn't heard about the second half of that rule, apparently, since Harcourt heard him get up and charge. Listening as Taddick's roars and steps got closer, Harcourt delayed his attack until the last possible moment. Then, when stopping was no longer an option for the Captain, Harcourt pulled up his right leg and thrust it directly backwards. His heel caught Taddick in the groin, and the entire assembly gasped in empathy as the big Cadian crumpled to the ground in a ball, weeping.
Harcourt whirled around, and pointed at the Colonel, "Look, you stuffed jackass, if you and your cronies want to play army and stand in lines in the hot sun so you can look at the rags their wearing and pretend they're in uniform, then fine! But leave me the hell out of it!" With that, he stormed away, too furious to notice how quiet the parade field had become.
After a morning like that, Harcourt didn't want to see anybody. Partly, it was because he was too angry to talk to anyone, but it was also because of guilt. Sure, he thought the Colonel was an idiot, but he understood what the man was trying to do. The military regimen was meant to keep people busy, enhance morale, give the men hope, and, most importantly, keep the men from remembering their situation. Their hopeless, hopeless situation.
The best place to be alone in the camp was on the outskirts, near the edge of the forest that hemmed them in on all sides. Here, the undergrowth was stubborn and the soil was rocky, so farming wasn't a practical option. A few trees had been cut down for timber, but it was an arduous task to perform manually, so the area was largely abandoned. Harcourt couldn't help but think the Tau had planned it this way, precisely.
He was sitting on a large rock in the shade of an orphaned tree, chin resting on one hand, his back to the camp. His eyes, and thoughts, were fixed on the forest. It was incredibly dense, the trees standing almost trunk-to-trunk, and the spaces between filled in with all kinds of alien brush and tall grass. A man like Harcourt would probably have to wriggle between the vegetation like a mud-covered eel just to move. He imagined that the forest probably wasn't all like that, but, then again, he had no way of knowing. For the umpteenth time, he considered taking his chances in the woods.
"Hey, Sarge!" Harcourt turned from the darkness of the forest to see his whole squad - Wiggins, Marco, and Roxman - coming his way.
"It's private!" He called back.
They came and sat down around him. Their faces were serious. "We've been looking all over for you." Wiggins said, scratching at his sunburned face.
"Everybody's looking all over for you." Marco added.
Harcourt grunted and smiled. "I'm in that much trouble, am I?"
Roxman shook his head. "This is serious, Sarge."
Harcourt blinked, fully recognizing how grave they all were. He also noted that Wiggins kept casting looks over his shoulder. "What? What's wrong?"
Marco had his eyes fixed on the dirt. "Taddick didn't get up."
"The doc said that kick of yours ruptured something." Marco went on, "He's bleeding internally."
Harcourt let out a long breath. The Tau had provided them with some simple medical supplies - antibiotics, clean bandages, mosquito repellent, pain-killers - but nothing more than that. Without any real surgical equipment, an injury like Taddicks was probably a death sentence - a long, slow, painful death sentence.
Roxman looked Harcourt in the eye. "The Colonel's called for a court-martial. Insubordination, assaulting a senior officer, and if he, you know, dies..."
"Murder." Harcourt finished. "How's the Colonel plan the execution?"
Marco grimaced. "They're talking about that now, Sarge."
"And looking for you." Wiggins added.
"Come to turn me in?" Harcourt asked, knowing the answer.
Roxman and the others exchanged glances. "Look, Sarge, me and the guys have been talking about that. The way we see it, if it weren't for you we woulda all died in the desert that day. We owe you, right? So..."
Marco picked up the thought. "We want you to get outta here. Take the forest. We've brought some food, and some water, and Wiggins said he'd give you his knife."
The produced the supplies. Wiggins pulled a survival knife out of his belt. Nobody in the whole camp know how the hell the guy had smuggled that thing past the Tau, but he had. He also walked funny for the first week they were stuck here, and Harcourt was pretty sure the two were related. He took the knife reverently. "Thanks, Wiggs. I know how much this thing means to you."
Wiggins looked like he was fighting tears. "I'm sorry, Sarge."
Harcourt grinned. "For what? You guys just saved my life!"
Wiggins pointed at the woods. "There's Kroot in them woods, Sarge."
"What is with you and Kroot, anyway?" Harcourt shook his head, chuckling.
The sunburned private looked hurt. "Going in those woods is a death sentence, Sarge. Everybody says so! Remember those Kasrkins what where with us at the beginning?"
Marco rolled his eyes. "Everybody remembers the Kasrkins, Wiggs."
Wiggins nodded. "Well, they never come out again, did they?"
Harcourt laughed. "Wiggs, they were trying to escape - not coming out again was part of their plan."
Roxman, who was keeping watch, dropped lower to the ground. "Somebody's coming."
Harcourt gathered up his supplies. "I'd better be going."
Marco shook Harcourt's hand, his eyes welling up with tears. "Good luck, Sergeant."
Harcourt nodded, and slapped the private on the shoulder. "If I find help, I'll bring it back here."
Wiggins was actually crying. "That's exactly what the Kasrkin's said!"
Roxman, for a change, smiled at him. "I know you can do it, Sarge. You won the Big Medal, after all."
Harcourt grinned. "Thanks for that, Rox."
Shouting was faintly heard in the direction of the camp. Harcourt took a last second to slap each of his friends on the shoulder, gave a final nod, and dove into the forest.
To Be Continued...