It was dark. I had a headache.
This sounds pretty simplistic, I know, but there's no other way of putting it. I've never been one for the whole, 'it was blacker than a witch's cat, a night bereft of moon or stars and my skull felt like tiny gnomes were digging into it with pickaxes in search of gems' spiel.
I was also being shaken by the shoulder, which, now I thought about it, was probably what had woken me up in the first place.
There's an unwritten rule in the Army about shaking sleeping officers (which, coincidentally, is exactly the same as the one about interfering with my cigars). It goes something like this: don't do it if you want to live.
This person, however, didn't seem to have heard of this. The shaking continued and I growled something unprintable under my breath and forced my eyes open.
Well, that solved the problem of it being dark. Now I just had to deal with the headache. On the plus side, I wasn't nauseous or dizzy, and I was still thinking fairly clearly, which meant I wasn't concussed.
On the minus side, it still hurt like a bitch and I was still being pawed by someone.
"What?" I didn't bother softening my voice and the shaker backed off.
"Uh…sir? Are you awake?"
I sat up, rubbing my throbbing head tenderly. "I am now. What d'you want?"
"Sir? Uh. Colonel Sanders says he wants to see you right now, sir. Something about a chicken."
It was at this point that I began to rethink my concussion diagnosis.
"Look – who are you?"
"Sorry, sir. Allen, sir. Corporal Allen, sir."
I rubbed the back of my head. "Yeah…one sir per answer'll do, Corporal. Where am I?"
Allen licked his lips. "You're, uh, in one of Charlie's death camps, sir."
That was not what I wanted to hear.
"Where's BA?" I found it hard to believe that he'd have gone far, but he clearly wasn't in this small room and I hadn't heard his voice yet.
"The sergeant I was with. Big black guy, mohawk, about two tons of gold hanging off him in various places."
Now Allen looked as if he thought I were about to punch his lights out. "Uh…well…he, uh, he hit the colonel, sir, and threw a piece of chicken at him, so…" He let the sentence trail off and I groaned. I'd been awake five minutes and already my day was shot to hell.
"Alright, alright. Where is he?"
"Well…he's with Charlie, sir." There was a definite undercurrent of surely you don't need to ask in his voice.
"What?" I frowned, rubbing my head again. The pain there seemed to be getting worse. "We've both been interrogated already. They only send you to a POW camp when they don't think they can get any more out of you."
"Yes sir." I recognised that tone as well; it meant whatever you say and I cursed inwardly. Of course they wouldn't give up on us that easy, how could I be so naïve?
At the moment, though, I felt sorrier for Charlie than I did BA. The sergeant's not one of those guys who believes in cooperating with enemy soldiers (or many friendly ones, come to that), and he was large enough for that to pose a serious problem to the poor saps who have to interrogate him.
"Alright, tell Colonel Sanders—is that really his name?"
Allen swallowed. "Yes sir, it is, and, uh, he doesn't like people laughing at it, sir. Uh. I was supposed to get your name as well, sir."
"Hannibal Smith. Lieutenant-Colonel. Tell Sanders I'll be right out."
When he didn't immediately scuttle away, I raised my eyebrows. "Problem, soldier?"
He swallowed again and I wondered at him, at what was making him so nervous. I could tell he was an experienced soldier, and therefore he must know that if I hadn't exploded at him yet, I wasn't going to.
"Sir, with respect, sir, I was ordered to bring you myself, sir. Colonel Sanders' exact words: bring him back with you. Sir," he added, just in case I didn't think he was being obsequious enough.
Something wasn't right here. I'd had people suck up to me before. Unless there was a damn good reason for it – and so far I haven't been able to come up with one – I usually detailed them onto the heavy work. Even though the slimy ones are easy to manage, I prefer the rebels and the ones with an attitude any day of the week. At least they're not afraid to tell me if I'm about to royally screw something up.
Allen struck me as being too intelligent for a yes-man. Maybe he'd just had a nasty session with Charlie. Torture can do strange things to people.
Well, there was only one way I was going to find out, and so I got to my feet. The room wobbled crazily around me and I put a hand on the wall, which also wobbled. As my other hand brushed against my leg, I found a welcome surprise in my pocket; a packet of cigars and a lighter. I had no idea where they'd come from (although I thought BA might have had something to do with it) but at that moment I was too relieved to care and I pulled one out.
"Ah...sir? Colonel Sanders' orders, sir. This camp is, uh, non-smoking."
I paused, the cigar halfway to my lips. I'd been in the army for almost twenty years, and in all that time I'd never heard of a POW camp with a No Smoking policy.
"You have got to be kidding me!"
Allen swallowed. "He's, uh, very strict about it, sir."
I stared at him for a few minutes, then sighed and pocketed the cigar. It wasn't worth upsetting the senior officer this early on. Maybe in a half hour or so.
"Alright. Lead the way."
The camp was in a huge clearing, surrounded on all sides by thick jungle forty feet away. The only nearby sign of life was a giant tree I recognised as a rambutan, fifteen feet outside the fence. Far too far away for us to sneak any of the fruits or pull a cutie like climbing the fence and leaping to the branches, but just close and large enough to offer a little shade. A few ramshackle looking billets had been erected at one end, a smart building at the other. That could only be the camp commander's HQ. Guards surrounded it and both sides of the camp entrance.
Soldiers were scattered around, some standing and talking, some sitting. Some were staring into space. Some were lying down. I'm not a medic, but even I could tell that most of those were never going to get up again.
Allen led me towards one of the billets, stopping outside the door.
"In here, sir."
I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable, and the closed door did nothing for my nerves...or did everything for them, I guess, depending on how you look at it.
There was an atmosphere in this camp. That in itself wasn't unusual; nobody likes being in a place like this. They don't call them death camps for nothing, and there's always the chance that you could be next. But I could also sense a certain resentment in the air as more and more eyes came to rest on me. A few of them were curious. Most were looking at me like I was the last straw.
One guy in his early or mid-twenties who wore a navy blue baseball cap like a badge of rank watched me with an expression of wary interest, like I was a dog who might bite. His entire demeanour seemed to say, Hmm... I looked away to ask Allen who he was, only to find he'd strolled off to some men on the other side of the camp. When I looked back, Baseball Cap had vanished so completely I wondered if I'd imagined him.
Well, standing there wasn't going to do anything except piss off this Colonel Sanders, and so I opened the door and walked in.
Sanders was easy to spot. He was the one standing in the middle of the billet chewing out a soldier with violently red hair about the state of the place.
I glanced around. Dirty looking cots had been arranged around the walls, a couple occupied, some not. As far as tidiness went, it wouldn't pass any billet inspections, but this wasn't exactly a parade ground.
The atmosphere was thicker in here, the men feeling – justifiably enough – that they had enough to deal with without having to worry about keeping an immaculate billet as well.
I let Sanders go on until he started to repeat himself, then stepped up.
"Colonel Sanders?" I managed not to grin at the name, but it was a close thing.
The resentment changed a little, became surprised. There's an unwritten rule in the army that you don't interrupt a chewing out unless it's literally a matter of life and death.
Well, nobody could accuse me of being conventional.
He turned to glare at me, and then wilted a little. I wasn't sure if he was younger than I was – I went grey very early on in life, which makes people mentally add about ten years onto my actual age (fifteen on a good day) – but I could tell he wasn't as experienced. He was also nursing a nasty looking shiner on one cheek.
"Who are you?" He tried to inject a note of authority into his voice and almost made it.
"Hannibal Smith, sir. Lieutenant-Colonel. You sent Allen for me." I only just managed to stop myself adding, remember? Now that I thought about it, it was a little strange that Allen hadn't introduced me, having made such a point of asking for my name.
A small smile appeared on Sanders' face. It was gone almost as soon as it appeared, but it was there and the meaning was clear enough. I ranked below him, therefore I was no threat to his authority. I would fall in meekly with his authority and, of course, obey any order he gave me without question.
Boy, was he in for a shock.
"Oh yes. I thought it best for you to meet the rest of the men, Smith."
This was what he'd woken me up for? Introductions? I stared at him, not quite believing what I'd heard and, being me, said the first thing that came into my head.
"Corporal Allen said you wanted to see me about a chicken, sir."
The temperature dropped a few degrees and I wondered if Allen had been setting me up. If he had, the VC weren't likely to be in it by the time I got through with him.
"Yes. An incident involving the sergeant who was with you. Not to worry though; I've dealt with it, as I'm sure he'll tell you once Charlie's finished with him. Now, on to more important matters."
I wanted to ask him what could be more important than one of my men being tortured as we stood around doing nothing, even though in the back of my mind I knew there was nothing we could do, but Sanders didn't give me a chance.
"This is Major Davis."
A harried looking man with electrical burns on both cheeks gave me a rather strange looking salute, mostly due to the fact that someone – probably Charlie – had stamped on his hand and crushed his fingers. Two of them were bending in the wrong direction.
I returned it and he lowered his hand again, looking relieved.
"And these are privates Tennon, Marsters and Jones, corporals Alvarez and Barrett."
I nodded a little curtly. It's not often that I'm awkward, but this really wasn't the way I liked to do things.
"And over here are Young, Gabney and Ferguson." I could tell that Sanders was showing off now, trying to impress me with his knowledge of the men. Each one saluted as he named them, which meant I had to return the courtesy. It was alright for them; they only had to do it once. In the last ten minutes, I'd saluted eleven times, I was feeling like a trained dog and my arm was starting to ache. "And..." Sanders paused, frowning at a soldier who was asleep and who couldn't have passed his nineteenth birthday yet. "Private Haines!"
The kid didn't respond. Sanders reached down, seized Haines' shoulder and rolled him onto his back, and I saw right away that he wasn't sleeping; he was sick. Sweat stood out on his forehead, trickling down his face and there was a pallor to his skin that I didn't like the look of.
Either Sanders was exceptionally arrogant or exceptionally stupid. Or both. Over the years, I've found that the two tend to go hand in hand. Whichever it was, he turned up the shaking until I caught hold of his arm.
"That's really not necessary, Colonel."
I felt the atmosphere change again, as if everyone had taken an imaginary step back from me.
"I say it is, Smith, and since I'm the senior officer in this camp..." Sanders reached down again. This time I inserted myself between him and Haines, who still didn't give any sign of awareness.
"Are you blind? The kid's sick! Leave him alone; he needs to rest." Turning away, I reached down and placed a hand on Haines' forehead, frowning. He was burning up, so much he was painful to the touch.
I straightened up and turned back. "Does anyone have any—" I started to say water, but was cut off by a punch from Sanders that not only connected but spun me around and sent me sprawling over Haines' unconscious form.
Had I known it was coming, I would have hit back. This took me so much by surprise, however, that I could only stare at him, stunned.
"Let's get one thing straight, Smith! I'm in command here! I control all the men in this camp and that includes you!"
I got to my feet. Sanders' punch, while not hard, had made my headache worse and I could feel my temper starting to fray.
"Control me? You can't even control yourself. With respect, sir, this isn't a damn dinner party! Kid needs to sleep, and right now I'm saluted out anyway."
A look that was half fear, half frustration flickered across his face. I guess he had no idea how to handle someone who just brushed off a punch from another soldier as nothing.
He should try talking to BA some time, I thought, but that idea was driven out by another, unwelcome one: according to Allen, he already had.
And now BA had been dragged off by Charlie.
"He's faking, Smith."
I was starting to understand why the atmosphere in this camp was so bad. I was also starting to get angry.
"Goddamnit, look at him! Isn't there a medic somewhere in this camp?"
Private Tennon cleared his throat. "Uh...there was, sir."
"Hannibal." Don't ask me why I said that. Usually I try to maintain the officer-subordinate relationship no matter what situation I'm in (with a couple of rare exceptions). Maybe I was subconsciously trying to establish a definite divide between myself and Sanders...or more likely, I was pissed and on the jazz, and so regulations could go hang. "What happened to him?"
Tennon glanced from me to Sanders and back to me again. "He, uh...made a couple mistakes, and...uh..."
Young, who was the redhead I'd seen being chewed out by Sanders, rolled his eyes. "Charlie came down and grabbed him, Hannibal, and when he got out he was badly beat up. It got infected, he died." There was an air of wary defiance when he said my name, like he was daring me to call him on it even after I'd invited Tennon to use it.
"Private Young, you will show a little respect to your superior officers!" That was Sanders, not me, and I stepped in.
"If I want respect, Sanders, I'll earn it myself. The soldier was just answering my question, since you didn't seem able to."
He stared at me, then I could actually see him letting it go, deciding to give me the benefit of the doubt. I was clearly scared, disorientated and that was driving me out of my mind, otherwise I'd never dare to speak to him like that.
"Yes, well, if anyone gives you any trouble, I'm sure Charlie will sort them out."
You know, even after serving in one war and here in Vietnam, I was still naïve enough to think he was making a joke; a joke in bad taste, admittedly, but a joke nevertheless.
Then I saw the way the other men seemed suddenly interested in the floor, the ceiling...anything, in fact, except me and Sanders.
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
Sanders raised his eyebrows. "You seem like an intelligent man, Lieutenant-Colonel Smith. I'm sure you can work it out." He stressed the lieutenant ever so slightly. This was a guy who enjoyed lording it over his subordinates, and I suddenly had a very good idea why Allen had been so nervous. Either he was going to get chewed out by me for waking me, or booted into Charlie for interrogation for screwing it up...or maybe both. If I'd known that, I'd have gone a little easier on the poor guy.
Just so there was absolutely no misunderstanding, I said to Sanders, "So if someone screws up or doesn't salute every time they lay eyes on you—"
"Or you," Sanders interrupted with an indulgent, no-hard-feelings smile.
I didn't acknowledge this; instead I said, "You get Charlie to sort them out?"
"Well, Smith, let's just say that the camp commandant's always happy to receive names. Like that gorilla who was brought in with you. He refused to salute me, threw a piece of chicken at me. Half an hour later, he's with Charlie and I doubt we'll have any more trouble from him. In fact, I could say the same for a lot of people."
Off to one side, Private Tennon muttered something that sounded like, "Except Murdock."
Sanders whirled so fast I thought he was going to fall. "Who said that?"
The fact that he didn't know said more about his capabilities as a leader than anything I'd seen so far.
Surprisingly, nobody seemed tempted to own up and Sanders glanced at me. "Smith?"
I raised my eyebrows, a slight grin on my face. "Me? Sorry, Colonel. Not guilty."
I had the measure of him now. Not necessarily a bad man – if he survived the war, I thought he'd have several guilt-ridden, sleepless nights about the men he'd sent to Charlie – but a lousy officer. Kind of a mirror image of Decker, really. I didn't think he was a traitor either, just a very weak guy who was in over his head and had no idea how to keep order except through fear. I had no idea how the hell he'd even made it to captain, much less colonel, but then, promotion's damn fast in wartime.
Sanders didn't so much as crack a smile. "Smith."
"Oh. Right. Sorry, I was dazed by your punch. I didn't see." I deliberately left off the word sir in an effort to divert some of his fury to me. "And...for future reference, Sanders, I don't like you sending my men to Charlie just because they didn't salute you."
He froze for a tense few seconds, then unfroze again. "As you so aptly put it, Smith, this is not a dinner party."
"It's not a parade ground either! We've got enough to cope with as it is, without having to worry about feeding your ego!"
Now everyone was staring at me, and I knew I'd hit it on the head; Sanders wanted everyone to know that he was in charge and that as senior officer, his word was law. If that meant waking some poor kid with a fever to make him salute me just to prove his point, then he and I had a problem.
"May I remind you, Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, that I am the senior officer in this camp! Your men come under my command now. And that includes that so-called sergeant of yours!"
Was it really possible that anyone in this situation could be so pompous? I wondered. Pulling out a cigar, I lit it, inhaled and blew out smoke before speaking.
"Well, you're gonna have a hard time convincing him of that," I remarked pleasantly.
Sanders stared at me. "I don't like smoking, Smith."
I grinned. "Oh, I know. Allen told me. I just think better when I'm smoking."
"It's not your job to think, soldier; just to follow orders."
Now, I can't deny that line sums up the tenets of Army life – I've used it myself once or twice – but something about the way he said it pissed me off and I gripped his wrist hard.
"Funny. I was about to say the same thing to you, Sanders."
You know, I hadn't set out to cause trouble, much less usurp him. Hell, if he'd been a good officer, I'd have been happy to serve under him. I had enough problems handling BA; the last thing I wanted to do was take on a POW camp as well. Sanders, however, didn't seem to see it that way.
"You are dismissed, Lieutenant-Colonel."
Maybe it was his arrogance that got me, although usually I don't have a problem with arrogant officers...so long as they're good at their job. Maybe it was the fact that he looked set to go back in on Haines, who hadn't stirred even when I'd fallen on top of him. Maybe it was the fact that something about Sanders made my teeth hurt. Maybe it was because he'd just snatched away my cigar, or maybe it was all of the above.
Whatever it was, something inside me snapped and I punched him, grabbing my cigar back from him as he went down.
"So are you," I informed him.