Acts of Defiance
We burned the spaceport last night.
I watched the fires blaze in the darkness; from this high up they’re still visible as the slow trickle of dawn begins to glow beyond the horizon.
Morning arrives with quiet foreboding. Every day I look for signs of hope in the dawn, for the light would be what would tell us that glimmer of optimism isn’t in vain. I look for the daylight we used to know, and every day the colour that wasn’t there before persists for the full arc of the sun’s transit across the sky. It is some malign shade between grey and purple that defies easy description, as if a perpetual rainstorm hangs overhead without ever breaking, growing deeper with every step of our retreat.
Not that we call it retreating, even as we huddle together against the cold in these caves, staring at the last possibility of escape going up in smoke. The commissars wouldn’t allow it. The commanders, those few that remain, won’t permit it. Platitudes are used instead, empty words and phrases like “realignment,” and “consolidation of forces,” though we know the truth of it regardless.
I raise the Long-Las, sighting down the mountainside through the scope. Jumbles of dark rock and cliff faces. Below, mist obscures the forests, the view hazy with bad light and wisps of smoke brought by shifting winds.
“See anything, sergeant?”
I keep panning across the valley below, one eye against the scope, the other squeezed shut. I’d heard his footsteps echoing up the passageway behind me, but I finish my observance before lowering the rifle.
“Nothing, Commissar Chekeise. All quiet.”
He nods and lifts the peck of his cap so it settles further back on his head. The leather is scratched, there and across his greatcoat. His epaulettes have long since been torn away, and his breastplate is cracked where stubber rounds nearly sent him to the side of the Emperor during the battle at Kastor’s Gorge. He is filthy as the rest of us, bone-tired and red-eyed as only hunted men can be, fatigue etched into the pores of his skin. But he’ll break before he bends, and the men respect him for it, even after he put a bolt round into young Lawton when the Marauders started their bombing runs.
“We might get a few days respite,” he says.
I murmur agreement. “They’ll send scouts, first. Tanks and artillery will take time to move up.”
“That will delay them,” he says, pointing in the direction of the burning spaceport.
I shrug. “For a while. It’s not as if we have anywhere left to go.”
He gives me the eye, but he knows well enough there’s no cowardice or thoughts of surrender in my words. Half a lifetime in the Guard will do that to you, and like him, I’ll die defiant.
But that’s the truth of it. We knew it even before that desperate act yesterday. We’ve delayed the inevitable as long as it’s possible for normal men and women to do so, eked out as many precious hours and minutes of life as we can through resolve and discipline and faith, but we’re all going to die here. And beneath it all, there’s a silent doubt that haunts every one of us. How will it end? A clean death, shot through, not even realizing it? Or perhaps slow suffocation under a rockfall brought on by explosions? Or worse still, dragged out, alive but powerless by sadistic creatures scarred by unholy eight-pointed symbols, halfway devolved from humanity? The men think about it. Rarer still, they speak of it, and I do my part in maintaining the fallacy of it all by denying the obvious, to them and to myself. It’s easier that way.
I pause before answering him, because there’s truth that needs to be told, and truth that doesn’t. So when I speak, I won’t mention Stefano and Blyne, who wanted to take knives to him in his sleep after what he did to that poor, half-mad boy Lawton, and how I had to wheedle and cajole and threaten to prevent it from happening. I won’t speak of the haunted, fitful sleep we all endure night after night, and how we drag ourselves awake through baying hordes of skittering, half-formed things that mirror the creatures we’ve fought these weeks and months. I won’t ask the questions the men ask me about why the light is different than it used to be.
“They’re Guard, Sir. They’ll stand for the Emperor until the end.”
He nods, because that’s what he wants to hear, and he rises with a grimace. Those wounds in his chest won’t have time to heal, and he knows it.
He’ll still make his rounds, the same as he does every day since we consolidated our dwindling regiments here in the mountains, but he’ll do so with one eye looking behind him because denial and stupidity aren’t always the same thing. And when he leaves, I’ll sit here for a while longer, because I saw a glint of lilac light off metal down there in the forest, and I’ll do what I can to keep the end at bay for a while longer.
But before he leaves, I’ll ask him the same question I ask every day, just to see which variation of non-answer he’ll give in return. We both know it’s a dance of lies, but it’s become something akin to a ritual between us.
“Any news on reinforcements?”
He hesitates, and when he looks at me, there’s a strange sort of half-smile twisting across his lips, as if it’s some else’s skin he’s using. For a moment, it looks like he’s going to speak, perhaps a version of something he’s said before, perhaps some new platitude or lie. But in the end, he says nothing, just straightens and walks away down the passage.
I turn back to the mountains and shuffle about a little, getting comfortable before I put the scope to my eye again. If they’re down there, I’ll find them and add another to the tally no-one but I will ever know about. And all through the hunt and the day and the duty to come, until dawn comes again and the ritual gets repeated, the commissar’s expression will stay with me.