The fishing line soared through the still air, arcing gracefully. It plunged into a lake of water, so still it could have been a mirror. Snow-capped mountains were reflected in exacting detail, every crag and snowy slope picked out. The sun was low enough in the sky not to dazzle, and its slow journey into night set the evening sky ablaze with pinks and reds.
The image shattered as the line disturbed the water, sending ripples outwards. The fisherman smiled at the sight as he leaned back in his cushioned chair, resting a rod in one hand and a warm beer in the other. He was old, long past his fighting years, face lined with age. A gentle breeze brushed his hair, greying now with streaks of silver, like the stubble on his chin. He wore faded blue overalls and a thick shirt, to fend off the chill of the mountain air. At a glance he would seem some lonely mountain hermit, eking out his last days in solitude, but several things about him belied that impression.
Yet his boots were military-grade, thick and rubberised with patterned grips on the soles. His arms bore the scars of a lifetime of fighting. Around his neck hung simple metal tags on a chain, bearing the stars and bars of the nation-state of Nordlund. Propped up against one arm of his chair was a standard Imperial lasrifle, and from the other hung a faintly glowing auspex. Even his position was carefully selected, sitting on a small pier sticking out of the lake, where no one could approach him unobserved. His name was Franc Renhardt, former Marshall of a once independent nation, now merely another subject of the all-conquering Imperium.
Renhardt sipped his beer. Around him the trees were noisy with the sounds of birds singing their evening chorus. The air was fresh and clean, quite unlike the dirty urban stench of concrete and smoke-belching engines, a smell that had only gotten worse since the Imperium’s occupation of his homeland began. He preferred the quiet life, now that he’d seen more than his fair share of wars; it was time to enjoy his retirement in peace. The fact that he was persona non-grata in the cities and towns of Nordlund also helped.
The former Marhsall sighed as old sorrows bubbled up in his mind. Never far from his thoughts at the best of times, but when the night drew in he would sink into his regrets and brood. His life had been spent poorly, his choices all wrong and his service wasted. Only at the very end of his career had he done anything of note – everyone hated him for it. No, night was not a good time.
Renhardt glanced further down the shore, towards a small cabin. It was his home and if he had his way, it would one day be his grave. He considered reeling in his line and packing up for the day. It didn’t look like he would catch anything today; so it would be tinned rations for dinner again.
Yet before he could move the auspex chimed. Renhardt frowned as he picked up the device and squinted at the small screen. It was technology beyond the understanding of Nordlund, crafted by secret arts brought from the stars. But he knew how to work it, and recognised three blips moving into range – approaching on foot, judging by their speed.
Renhardt’s jaw tightened as he reached for his lasrifle and stood up. With surprising haste for a man his age he jogged off the pier, making his way up the short slope of the bank. After a moment he stopped on a nondescript patch of earth and knelt to dig his fingers into the loam. Under his grip a buried tarpaulin came away, revealing the small hidey-hole underneath. Renhardt slipped into it and pulled the sheet over him, leaving only a narrow gap to watch through. To any passing observer he had almost vanished, indistinguishable from the dull slope. Then he settled in to wait.
Minutes crept by. The sun sank low behind the mountains and evening darkened into night. The birds finished their chorus as the first stars became visible in the sky.
Still Renhardt waited. He knew better than to relax his guard, and it seemed so too did the intruders. Whoever was trying to sneak up on him was waiting for nightfall, doubtless expecting an old man like him to be settling down for a meal.
Just as the last of the red sky began to fade, Renhardt spied three figures on the shore of the lake. They were moving swiftly, taking a direct route to his cabin with confident strides. They seemed to be clad in military-issue uniforms shorn of insignia, and in their hands were lasrifles. Their intent was plain, but Renhardt frowned at what else he saw.
No attempts at scouting the edges, bunching together, standing so close to each other that a singleburst of machine-gun fire would take them all out. He spied their faces and was struck by how young they looked; scarcely older than his grandchildren. Boys playing at being soldats. Yet there was nothing wrong with the lasrifles they carried , an increasingly common sight since the Imperial occupation began. No one carried those without meaning to use them.
Renhardt let the trio walk past his hide, moving on without noticing him. They were focused entirely on his cabin, not watching their footsteps for traps and snares. Either they thought him an incompetent old fool or they were half-trained boys. He waited until their backs were to him then silently lifted his sheet and stood up, pointing his lasrifle at them. ‘Stop right there!’
The trio froze. ‘What do we do?’ the one on the right said.
‘Be quiet,’ the middle one hissed.
‘Drop the guns, then turn around and step back,’ Renhardt growled.
Reluctantly, the three complied, laying down their weapons and moving back. As they did so Renhardt got a good look at their faces. They were all solid local lads, their features distinct to Nordlund’s stock. The one on the left looked afraid, roped into a cause before he understood what it meant. The one on the right looked angry, little more than a thug in a uniform by Renhardt’s estimation, the kindborn to make trouble – all he needed was a flag to stand under. The middle one however was different, his gaze unwavering and filled with hate. A fanatic, Renhardt judged, committed to the cause and willing to spill blood for it. Anyone’s blood.
Renhardt knew, he’d seen enough of those types in his career.
‘That’s far enough,’ the old man growled as he kept his rifle steady, ‘Names… now!’
‘Harns,’ the middle one admitted, ‘This is Bans and Guthet.’
‘No rank pins, I see,’ Renhardt commented. ‘No serial numbers either. You’ve been briefed not to reveal anything, but I know who you are. You’re with Moger’s lot.’
‘You know?’ Bans let out.
Renhardt scoffed. ‘I’m retired, not dead. I have ears and a vox-set – I heard all about the attacks against the Imperials. I knew sooner or later Moger would order someone to end me.’
Harns’ eyes hardened as he growled. ‘No point denying it then. Yes, by the authority of the Freedom League and Chancellor Moger you have been convicted of treason against the sovereign state of Nordlund and sentenced to death.’
Renhardt snorted, ‘Freedom League, is that what you call yourselves? You’re no true soldats.’
Guthet’s eyes reddened as he snapped. ‘You don’t know anything! We’re liberating Nordlund from the Imperium. We shall free ourselves and then the whole world. All nations will unite with us to free our planet.’
‘Is that what Moger told you?’ Renhardt asked with a raised eyebrow. ‘He’s sold you a shiny fantasy, but it’s really a pile of stinking manure.’
‘Better to die for freedom than live on our knees!’ Harns barked. ‘Better death than submission to Terra. You sold us out, you surrendered to the Imperium!’
Renhardt could not help but sigh forlornly. ‘Yes I did. I saw Imperial armies rampaging over our defences, shattering our mightiest panzer divisions and raining down fire from orbit. I saw Space Marines, the Astartes themselves, and I knew we had no chance of beating them. So I did what I had to, to save whatever and whoever I could from the senseless slaughter. I signed the surrender and so saved millions of boys like you from being impaled on a chainsword.’
‘You committed treason,’ Harns growled. ‘We weren’t done fighting. Had we held on we could have won, we could have beaten them back!’
Renhardt stared incredulously at the boy. ‘Oh, you poor fools. Moger’s gone and got you thinking you have a chance. He’s got you believing you can win.’
‘Chancellor Moger has proclaimed that Nordlund’s victory is at hand!’ Guthet spat.
The old man’s eyes narrowed. ‘There it is: Chancellor, not Marshall, not even Kommandant. Moger is no soldat, he’s a politician.’ He spat on the ground. ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard his speeches on the vox and it’s stirring stuff, but I note he’s never turned up in person to a fight. Always safe behind the lines somewhere, while boys like you die in the dirt. I bet he’s never even picked up a rifle and risked being shot at. I’ve seen a hundred like him in my career and they’re always eager for someone else to die for the cause, but always conveniently absent when the bullets start flying.’
‘You coward,’ Harns said, glaring at him..
‘My own family disowned me, my name is reviled and spat upon. You’ll have to make better insults than that.’
‘Pride, dignity and courage! As if you’d know what they are!’ hissed Harns.
‘Words…’ Renhardt sighed. ‘Words old men parrot to get young fools like you to go out and die for them. You have no idea how many boys I saw Kongress send to their deaths, how many young lives they fed into their pointless wars without a qualm. You think Moger will mourn you? He doesn’t even know your names – and when you die he won’t shed a single tear. Pretty words won’t stop the Imperium. I’ve seen their spaceships, I’ve seen their armies and monsters first hand. Have you seen a Space Marine?You won’t stand a chance when they bother to put down this rebellion.’
Bans whimpered as the old man spoke. ‘This was a bad idea, maybe we should…’ he managed to start saying before Harns cut him off.
‘Nordlund shall be free, no matter how much blood it costs! The cities are already ours, the Imperial garrisons driven out, and the banner of the Freedom League flies high over Konningsberg. We’ve seen off the Imperium’s so-called soldiers once and we can beat them again!’
Renhardt’s reply was cut short as a terrific scream rent the sky. All eyes rose as a blazing meteor plunged out of the darkening night, hurtling earthward at stupendous velocity. It disappeared behind a mountain and long seconds later the sky blazed a fierce red, lit by the fires of hell. Moments later thunder rolled and the ground shook, sending clouds of birds into the air with shrieks of terror as the waters of the lake danced in sympathetic pain.
‘What was that?!’ Bans yelled.
‘That… was an orbital barrage,’ Renhardt grimly stated. ‘Judging by the angle, I’d say it just obliterated Konningsberg.’
‘Obliterated?’ Bans gasped. ‘But… but there were two million people living there…’
‘Not anymore,’ the old man replied. ‘If Moger was anywhere near that, he’s dead, along with your Freedom League.’
‘But why?’ Bans whimpered.
‘To make an example of us,’ Renhardt stated simply. ‘The first time the Imperium came they wanted to conquer us. To take our resources and industries intact. This time… they will want to grind us into dust. They will make an example of Nordlund, to show the other nationswhat happens to rebels. First will come the orbital bombardments, then the drop-pods. Space Marines will march forth and slaughter all they find; men, women, children… they won’t stay their hands for anything.’
The sky split again, and again, each one signalling the death of a city. Bans stared upwards, tears in his eyes. ‘My parents live in Konningsberg!’
‘I’m sorry,’ Renhardt said softly.
Guthet tore his gaze away from the backlit mountains. ‘My family are farmers. They live leagues from anywhere…’
Renhardt nodded. ‘You came here in a truck? Good – then get in it and drive. Drive straight to your family and throw them in the back, then head for the border. Stop for nothing and no one. With luck you might get out of the country before the Imperium notices you.’
Guthet immediately turned and fled, running for the vehicle. Bans waited for a second then followed, seemingly having nowhere else to go and no other ideas. Harns however held still, eyes raging with anger. His fists tightened and his jaw clenched. ‘You did this.’
Renhardt sighed. ‘No, you and Moger did this. Your revolution never stood a chance; the Imperium has the means and will to erase this nation. You should have recognised that truth and made the best you could of your life, as I did. My family hates me but at least I got them out of the country before they stopped speaking to me.’
‘Cowardice,’ Harns growled. ‘You’ll never understand why we fought.’
‘To make one group of old men richer than some other group of old men,’ Renhardt said. ‘That’s what all revolutions boil down to in the end. I’ve seen more than my fair share of wars and behind the scenes someone is always getting rich off it. Your revolution, how many innocents has it killed? How many ordinary people did you shove up against a wall and shoot? To me the only difference between you and the Imperium is the scale of your firepower.’
Harns’ eyes dropped to the lasrifles on the ground as Renhardt growled. ‘Don’t, I’ve got you in my sights.’
‘I’ve got nothing left to live for and you’re a slow old man…’
‘Then I suppose it all depends on how lucky you feel.’
Night fell over the mountains as the horizon burned. Fiery reds painted the slopes the colour of flames, like a vision of a heathen hell. As the tiny black motes of drop-pods appeared in the sky, the sound of a single las-shot rang over the mountains.
Then all was silence.
About the Author
Matthew is an aspiring author living and working in Oxford. When not writing, his hobbies include reading everything within reach, cycling, shovelling enough food to feed a platoon into his three kids, fielding questions as to what his third favourite dinosaur is and wondering why adults never discuss their favourite dinosaurs.